Friday, December 31, 2010

...In with the New

I celebrate the end of the year on a few different days.  Christmas feels like the end of a year because it marks the last days I spent with my father and so I revisit that time and all the years before it that we shared together as a family.  There is a Winter solstice gathering with a small group of friends where we gather to extinguish old patterns and bring light to new parts of ourselves.  This gathering is with soul friends most of whom I see only twice a year (Summer and Winter solstice).  We gather to connect and remember and renew.  The last day of the calendar year marks the end of another year of traveling to new places in myself and the world.  I reflect on what I did in the year and what I want the next year to bring.  My birthday, in mid-January, marks the end of one year of choices and the beginning of another.  On this day, I often celebrate with old friends who have become my family here in Grand Rapids.  It seems fitting somehow that this time of year, which by its very nature lends itself to introspection, affords me so many opportunities to review where I’ve been and set upon a new direction for the coming year.

I’m not sure what this next year has in store for me but I know it will bring big changes.  I start my new job in just a few days and am very excited about the new life that will come with it.  I’ll be working for a multi-physician practice in northeast Grand Rapids.  There is a large staff there and I’m hoping to make some new friends with this group of coworkers.  My position there is a new one as the office transitions into a new way of managing patient care.  They are incorporating electronic medical records and plan to begin construction on a new office, too.   This last year I met lots of fellow motorcyclists and I’m looking forward to the trips we will take together- whether for a few hours or a weekend getaway.  This last year I also committed to writing consistently and began meeting with 2 other writers; we challenge, nurture and support each other and because of this we are growing as writers and women.  This next year we plan to offer our writing to others both in print and through performance.  What a year awaits me!

It was raining this morning when I woke up.  That’s not a sound I expected to hear outside my window on December 31st.  It comes with a little excitement because that means it’s warm enough to take the bike out for a ride.  I wonder if I’ll see any bikes out on the road today.  I wonder how many other rider friends think of mid-Winter rain in terms of a chance to ride.

I’ve been reading fiction again and am enjoying it.  I don’t mean to say I’m enjoying all the books I picked up from the library- that isn’t true.  Half of them go back with just a chapter or two read.  I’ve got less patience for things that don’t interest me.  One book about Mary Magdalen took me back to biblical times for a rewriting of Jesus life from her perspective.  I thought it would be empowering to see a retelling of this story but so much of the story was the same just with her voice to capture it.  I wanted a new story, a new mythology.  Another book wore me down after only two chapters.  Back to the library they went.  And this is good.  I’m glad I know what I want and what I don’t.  This year brought me that kind of clarity.  I’ve got no room in my life for a book that doesn’t hold my attention.  There are so many others that will.  So I picked up a few other books when I dropped off the unread ones.  My current read is written with such style that I am literally laughing out loud.  Few writers reach me that way and certainly not as often or with such verve.  I have laughed so much I can’t see for the tears rolling down my face.  What a writer he is!  This book sits next to me as I type and is taunting me now.   I’m excited to return to the book, to the story, to the laughing.

Motorcycling is like this, too.  My bike sits and waits for me like Christmas morning each day- the promise of a new ride, a new journey, a new story.  As this new year begins, I am looking forward to a few trips on the bike.  I know I’ll be making another trip to Deal’s Gap with a group of riders who’ve become friends outside of the rides.  I know I’ll be taking a camping trip on my motorcycle and I hope to take at least one other long ride to a different part of the country than I’ve ridden before.  I’m also continuing to invest more of myself in the motorcycle club that helped me the most – RIDE Motorcycle.  I spent a lot of time this past year working with a group of club members to sort out details on the structure of the club and in developing a website that allows members more interaction by encouraging communication in new tech-savvy ways.  I know these changes will result in new membership as well as new friendships.  And I’m looking forward to the rides we’ll take together.

The end of one year butts up against the beginning of another.  I say goodbye to some friendships, a job that didn’t suit me and some habits that just don’t work anymore.  And I welcome in new friends, a new job and a new way of being in the world and with myself.  It’s time to welcome in all the parts of myself that need expression and all that ways that will happen- with writing, with performing what I write, with new respect and compassion for myself and with lots of laughter, good writing and abiding friendships.  Last year, a friend gave me a beautiful quotation from Neil Gaiman that has accompanied me this whole year through.  It was a companion to me this year both because of the open-hearted woman it came from and because of the power it invoked. Today, I offer to you the blessing Amy bestowed upon me:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness.  I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful and don’t forget to make some art- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can.  And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How do you do it?

When I start writing, I never know exactly where it’s going to go.  I don’t know where my thoughts will take me or what pattern will arise from the sentences that flow from the pen.  The best motorcycle rides have also been like this.  No map, no plan, no expectations.  Just me and the bike and a decision at each intersection: right or left?  One night after a crazy day at work, Ashley and I went out for a ride around Grand Rapids.  We each lead for a time and then we decided to play a game.   We decided we’d ride past the first three roads and then go right.  Three more roads then turn left.  We wanted to know where we’d end up.  We wanted to see something new.  It was quite fun- deciding to be lead by the randomness.  Before long we were riding with silly grins and our laughter could be heard above our engines.  We ended up winding our way through neighborhoods across the city.  Eventually, rain won out and we eased our way back home.
The best time to ride is at night along the Grand River with lights from the city marking my path.  I wind through Downtown passing over one bridge after another- west on Fulton over the river far below then on to the 6th street bridge and crossing east back over to Monroe.   The night air is cool and soft, with the rushing river water whooshing underfoot.  I like an early morning ride, too, commuting via the sweeping arcs of highway, tall buildings rising up around me, slipping between other vehicles, until I find my place amid the pack headed into work.   The best time to ride is with the first signs of Spring with the swallows swooping and swinging amid the treetops and my tires swishing though shallow pavement puddles.   Sometimes my favorite ride is on mid-summer mornings when mist rises off the fields while the dank and loamy air surrounds me.   I like riding through downtown on Wednesday nights when hundreds of bikes line the city streets and cruise through town in groups of three or five.  There is an energizing bustle to blues and bikers and brick streets.
Really, there isn’t a best ride or a best time to ride.  They’re all “don’t-miss-it” attractions.  The best ride is the one I’m on (or in the case of Michigan Winters, the one I’m thinking about being on.)  Riding is about the present moment- finding myself steeped in sights, sounds and smells so that somehow a moment stretches on into timelessness.  Those are the best moments.  Those moments, those rides are the “why” of my ride.   This is the one time I don’t mind answering why.
In the rest of my life, I shun this question.  I don’t like sitting amid the “why” when it’s asking things like: “why did this happen” or “why do you feel this way” or “why did it take you so long to figure that out” or “why does it matter?”  When I was in nursing school, I was taught to never ask “why” of a patient.  It breeds defensiveness.  It implies stupidity- as in “why did you do that?  What in the hell were you thinking?”
The same is true of my life when I am asked to explain myself to someone.  The question precedes a set of foundational beliefs that I don’t subscribe to.  “Why don’t you have a tv?” comes from the person who unwinds watching Bones or episodes of Glee.  “Why don’t you have a car?” comes from the person who can’t imagine how to get around without one.   “Why do you care so much?” comes from someone who is always saying, “I don’t really care.”  I don’t know how to answer the question why without also addressing the underlying presumption.   Sometimes I give a partial answer: tv was too much of a distraction for me.  Sometimes I answer my own pure truth: because I wanted a motorcycle more than a car.  Sometimes my retort is a bite:  how can you care about so little?
Asking “why” is a dangerous question.  It precludes a set of beliefs not shared by the one asking.  It assumes a shared reality that isn’t.  It distances us from one another.   The “why” I most hate to answer is “why do you feel that way?”  Feelings spring up out of some hidden musty place in response to all manner of things without reason or logic or thought.  To that question I can only say “because that is the feeling that arose.”  The work is in finding out what that response is rooted in, what fear or doubt or worry is anchored so firmly to it that it reaches my consciousness only when yanked on.   The second “why question” that I despise is “why did this happen?”
I hate this question because it assumes there was another thing that should have happened.  It assumes a wrong was done when right should have prevailed.  It assumes that good triumphs over evil and that good things happen to those who wait and that if only I’d been paying attention that other thing wouldn’t have happened.  I don’t know how to answer some of the most important ‘why’ questions of my life:  Why did I meet this particular person at this time in my life?  Why did this happen when I was a child?  Why did my dad die by the hand of a surgeon who was supposed to save him?  Why did I become a nurse only to struggle to find the right nursing job?
I don’t like being asked ‘why?’  I don’t like it at all.  I would rather imagine all the places I can go from here, all the ways I can answer the why, find all the ways to live through the ‘why’ despite the barriers in front of me.  Most often the answer really is something akin to “I don’t know but I’m going to keep marching ahead and see what happens anyway.”  And I want to march on with pride and self-respect and dignity.  I want to march on despite my tears while holding the hand of a friend.  I want to march on while laughing and skipping and snowboarding.  Why just isn’t the right question, but rather ‘how?’  How do I respond from here and where do I want to end up once I’ve lived my way through this?   Asking ‘why’ leaves me mired in doubt and insecurity while asking how is the bridge to tomorrow.  Asking ‘why’ keeps me stuck in what-ifs and how-comes and life’s-not-fair when what I really want to be living is what’s-next, when’s-the-train-leaving and who’s-up-for-a-ride?
This Christmas marks the 3rd since my dad entered the hospital for his heart surgery.  I am amazed at how much life has changed for me in these three years.  Amazed that I’ve found a life that has some spark again.  Amazed that life has brought me back around to myself, to the full rounded measure of how-I-go- forward instead of the stark metallic clank of why?  My mom and sister and I will be joined by a friend for Christmas Eve dinner out at a local restaurant rather than eating a home cooked meal in.  We will walk amid the Christmas lights of Meijer Gardens.  There might be some tears and there will be stories.  We will talk of the life we thought we’d have and the life we find ourselves in.  We will laugh as we remember him and his quirky ways.  We will marvel at a life that still seems so filled with someone we can no longer hug or have dinner with.  But we will see his hands joining ours around the table when we speak of him, we will hear him laughing with us as we pretend a stumble walking through the park, just as he did.   Later, we will come home to watch a movie together, my mom, sister and I.   While Laurie loads up the movie, my dad and I will make popcorn together like when I was a kid.
He will stand beside me as I read the imaginary directions posted inside the cupboard door above the stove: ½ c. oil, ½ c. popcorn.   We will use the same Club aluminum pan he used- avocado green singed black over the years.  We’ll add the oil, turn on the heat and throw in one kernel. Once it pops we’ll add the remainder.  We will listen until the pops tumble over one another and then slowly peater off, shaking the pan over the flames, scraping the pot over the burner to keep the popped kernels from burning.  We will distribute the popcorn to the bowls waiting on the counter next to the stove then wipe out the pan with a wad of paper towel.  We’ll add ¼ stick of butter in thin slices to the pan – it will sizzle and snap, bubble and froth.  We’ll slowly pour it over the popcorn in each bowl and then add salt, keeping the shaker at eye level, carefully metering it out- not too much, not too little.  We will take the popcorn into the living room along with a Hershey bar from the fridge.  Then we will all watch a movie together.
We will have a beautiful Christmas.  Not quite like the one I’d thought we have but still together.  He will be with us, some how.  He is still with us.  I don’t really understand it, this ability to carry someone along when you need them.  I don’t understand all the memories that flood me sometimes while at other times he feels so elusive.  I don’t know why I talk about him so much to people who didn’t even know him.  I don’t know why I see him in so many places and in so many people- driving an extended cab truck, pounding a nail, scratching his head.  Some questions don’t have answers though and some questions shouldn’t be answered.  Sometimes there is just the steady plodding along that comes as we live and we love and we learn how.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Promise of Winter

It snowed again last night.  Wind buffets the trees so they scrape against the house and rattles the windows in their frames.   The sky feels gloomy and gray and a little melancholy as we approach Winter.  I did some Christmas shopping yesterday- purchased yarn to make scarves.  Knitting is something I’ve wanted to learn how to do for many years.  My grandma taught me how to crochet when I was 10 or so.  I created one long red chain of stitches before the bag of yarn was lost somewhere in my adolescence.  I associate knitting with an ancient craft and am pleased to have finally learned how.  I’m proud of the two scarves I have knitted and marvel at how simple it is.  While shopping yesterday, I noticed scarves and hats and mittens in dozens of storefronts and several times I paused to look more closely, to count the rows of stitches, to imagine what size needles were used.

Learning some new skill always has this affect on me.  It changes the way I perceive the most simple objects.  After spending a Summer day with friends weaving baskets from reeds soaking in buckets, I now appreciate the skill, the patience, the devotion it takes.  When I see a basket sitting under the tree at Christmas or piled high with magazines next to the couch for pleasure reading I marvel at it and not just the contents it holds; a basket is no longer just a container or a decoration.  New eyes.  I have new eyes for woven baskets and knitted mittens.  

Motorcycling has given me new eyes, too.  Because a motorcycle is a vehicle without doors, a floor and a roof, a motorcyclist remains connected with his environment rather than secreted from it, as in a car.  A rider sits within the scene rather than viewing it from behind glass as an observer of it.  There is an immediacy to life when riding.  I feel part of what is happening around me rather than removed from it.  One evening riding home from work, I was stopped in traffic directly in front of someone’s home which sat just a few yards from the curb front.  I struck up a conversation with the homeowner while sitting on my bike.  This sort of interaction just doesn’t happen in a car, or when it does the nature of it is entirely different.  I’m asking directions rather than just engaging someone who is nearby.  There’s a barrier to the outside when traveling by car.  There’s a barrier between me and life. 

Winter sometimes feels like a barrier, too.  I’m stuck inside the house, trying to stay warm.  Winter can feel like punishment- each snowstorm brings one more sidewalk shoveling spree.  It brings out boots and jackets and layers of clothes to insulate me from the cold.   It brings sadness that many weeks of this will follow before I can ride again.  I am facing and feeling the furtive aspects of Winter.  Snow is falling again now as I type and the furnace is blowing - obscuring the sounds of the outside world, the world outside my windows, outside the house.  We have short days and long dark nights.  I miss my motorcycle.  I miss feeling part of the action around me, part of the city I drive through, part of the lives of the people I encounter on the road.  It will be April before I can ride again, before I can connect again.

There are beauties and bounties to Winter and it is tempting to write about them, to offset the depression hovering near, but this would be an attempt to feel my way out of the darkened room in which I find myself.   Perhaps Winter in Michigan brings me gifts with this introspection.  Perhaps there is something I can gleen from the quiet days secreted in my room with books, journal and pen, needles and yarn.  Perhaps there is some good that happens when I draw inward and hunker down for the Winter.   Am I like the trees, this way- shedding my showy leaves and burrowing roots deeper into the ground?  Perhaps this reflection is a way of preparing for the next Spring’s growth.

What Winter does for me each year is to bring questions.  It brings questions I’m not ready to face that feel uncomfortable with their weightiness.  What am I here for?  Why do things happen as they do?  What is the meaning in all this?

I will start my new job on January 3rd.  My current job is ending after a tumultuous year.  A year in which I had to fight for autonomy, fight to be heard both in my local clinic site and as a member of the organization.  I am glad to be leaving this job.  The leaving is filled with questions though- why was I in the post for such a short time?  What lead me here and what was the purpose of the position?  What was it supposed to teach me about myself?  I want to learn what I can from it and move on without repeating mistakes.  I want to know what parts of me made the job intolerable, not just rail against the people I worked with or the organization.  

Part of what hampered me in my current role is the expectations I had of the organization.  It has as its mission to protect and serve the reproductive rights of women.  It has, until recently, provided those services at costs that allowed everyone who needed reproductive health care to get it.  I believed in the mission and the power of an organization whose dedication to women is renowned.   I idealized it, I martyred it.  In some ways then, it could do nothing but fail me and I it.   I am glad to be leaving it behind and with it, the frustrations and criticisms.   But as I leave, I recognize the questions sitting here with me.  Am I giving up by leaving?  Am I quitting before I’ve done the work of trying? 

Even as I write out the questions, I know the truth for me.  I know the work of the job was in trusting me and my judgments, not in trying to manage how to live within  that system.  But I know where these questions are coming from.  They are coming from ideals that I was ingrained with.  Ideals instilled by my family and culture to be loyal and committed. To sacrifice, to serve others, to be selfless.  To make it work.   These are external ideals and the events of the last few years has provided me with opportunities to see if I want them to be mine, too.  At some point I have to choose what kind of rules I want to govern my life, what philosophy supports me and my living.

I’m raising far more questions today than I am answering and this makes me uncomfortable, antsy and anxious.  My house is calling out to me to care for it- dishes and dusting, organizing and arranging.  Perhaps I will pull out some Christmas decorations, fill the house with mirth and merry.   But I know I will need to leave room for these questions, to sift through them, let them simmer.  I am committed to myself this Winter.  To knitting and writing and dreaming about riding.  I will honor myself and my moods, gray or merry, and the questions that arise from them.  I will hibernate with all these questions and plan to treat them as Rilke directed in his Letters to a Young Poet:

“have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…Don't search for the answers…because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps… you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Worth the Wait

I’m in denial.  Snow covers the rooftops, coats the lawns and cradles on tree limbs and I’m still thinking about the motorcycle sitting in the garage and how good it’d be to take her out.  Thing is, it’s not in my garage.  It’s an hour south in a locked garage and my afternoon plans make a trip down today unlikely.  Some folks from the Detroit Chapter of the RIDE club are going after a Chilly Burger patch- they’re making a run for St. Ignace and back today.  I considered going – it’s finally sounding like a challenge I’m willing to undertake (what with the heated gloves and jacket it’d be a warmer venture) but then I remembered my afternoon appointment and realized I couldn’t make it this time.   Spring is a long way off.  A long wait.  

Priorities.  This morning’s got me reflecting on them.  I’ve got an interview today for a new job that will earn me more than I’m currently making.  Just thinking of what I could do with a little more money makes me get all wiggly and squirmy with excitement.  I could get a dual-sport and do some trail riding next season.  I could get a new blender to replace the one that broke last Spring.  I could take two trips to Deal’s Gap next year.  Or maybe just one trip there but another out west.  I could buy a Jeep.

As soon as I start thinking of the freedom those few extra dollars can give me, I remember what they cost, too.  The job will be full-time instead of part-time.  I’ll lose my Friday morning writing time which I’ve come to cherish.  I’ll lose that extra day that makes life more like play than work.   I’ll lose that extra day that boosts my weekend getaway time when I need a vacation. 

I’m reminded of my friend Dick as I ponder the pro’s and con’s of job postings.  I need only talk to him for a few minutes about a work related problem to get some clarity.  He listens calmly and patiently and then asks, “who are you working for?”  He and I haven’t talked much of work in several months but still I hear his voice in my head urging me, reminding me, “who are you working for?” 

A manager in my current post asked me this same question recently and then answered it for me.  Not surprisingly, her answer was not my own.  Her answer served to put me in my place.  I was offering suggestions about improving a redundant system and rather than listen to the merits of those ideas, she asked, “who do you work for anyway?  Aren’t you here for the clinicians?  Aren’t you here to help them do their job?”  I told her I work for the women who need our services.  I told her I work for women’s right to choose.  I told her with fire in my gut and a sharp tongue that I determine who I work for, she does not.  I don’t think she heard me.  I am not sure what to make of these kinds of power plays in the workplace.   

Who do I work for?  Thanks to Dick, I know I don’t just work for women’s health or for women’s rights or for a women-run organization.  I work for me.  I love that I have someone in my life who reminds me that the only person I have to please is me.  I have a history of acting like it’s my job to be sure everyone is taken care of:  that her feelings aren’t hurt, that he gets a second set of hands to carry the load.  The thing is, I enjoy helping people.  Sometimes it’s because helping people is the “right thing to do” though and that puts a different spin on the help.  Or it just feels good to do something for someone else.  That isn’t right, either.  That makes helping about power.  If I get to feel powerful in the helping, then I’m really helping so I can feel that power, not so that another gets what they need.

Dick didn’t tell me who I work for.  He asked me.  And he didn’t answer.  He let me find the answer in hearing my thoughts and frustrations, in listening to my desire to be happier and feel freer; he let me come to the answer that serves my life.  The satisfaction he received was in watching me find my own way.  In watching me find my own power, in regaining my footing.  I felt supported by my friend.  I felt understood. 

Many of the people I currently work with have been employed by the agency for years.  Issues around power come up daily.   Coworkers are so immersed in the culture, they don’t see it.  Or they are caught in the cycle of it and can’t see a way out of it.  I keep thinking “if I wait it out, things will get better.”  They can only get better.”  The thing is, things aren’t getting better.  I’m just getting used to them.  I’m getting used to the craziness, the unpredictability, the power plays.   In our staff meetings this is almost a mantra: “things are going to get better, just wait.”  After nearly a year with the organization and so many issues still creating barriers to patients and staff, this seems like a diversionary tactic.  Patient wait times are increasing, new technology is implemented to improve one area of the business without regard to how it impacts other areas.   Technology like voicemail and email have yet to be implemented organization-wide.  

I’m done waiting.  I’m excited to find out more about this other job I’m interviewing for.  I’m tired of taking the long way around in my work life.  I want to get equipped with the tools to do the job and then be empowered to do it.   This other organization has its priorities in order.  It has a plan.  And it recognizes the value and expertise of all the people in the organization.  This new position is exciting. 

The new office is located on the northeast side of town.  I won’t have to ride through the city to get there and back- I can ride a little further east into the country and enjoy the winding roads in Ada and north on into Belmont.  I suspect I’ll be taking the long way home on the bike quite often.  I like the direction this other company is moving in.  And I like the thought of riding along with them.  More than that, I like that I know what things are worth waiting for and what things aren’t.