Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On My Way

My bags are packed and sitting next to the door- a backpack and two duffles are filled with gear, goods and my passport. I've been planning for nearly two years and yet I'm still in disbelief that the trip is going forward. Back in March, I lost my job and hoped to launch a writing career. While I've written a lot (and am expecting publication in Rider magazine sometime next year), I've come to realize that writing regularly requires the safety of a steady income. My dream of freelancing is tempered with the reality of supporting myself; maintaing my home and world travel on a motorcycle take an income that writing alone doesn't yet provide. As a result, I've returned to working as a nurse- most recently as an instructor for a nurse aid program. They agreed to my vacation upon hiring me and the supplemental income that provided made the trip feasible after all.

Tomorrow Joe, Lars and I fly out of Grand Rapids to Arequipa, Peru (via Chicago, Miami and Lima). We'll arrive Wednesday and have a few days to adjust to the altitude while taking in the local scene. The rest of the group will be here by Friday and we'll begin riding on Saturday. We plan to  cover about 1800 miles over 15 days through Peru, Bolivia and Chile. One of my favorite things about riding is the new landscapes that I get to explore and this trip promises that with views of the Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, the Andes, the desert salt flats and active volcanos. With all the cameras and Go-Pro video recorders between us this will be a well-documented trip!

 Despite all the preparation, I can hardly believe I'm going.

This trip is special because unlike other goals, I've put so much time, effort and money into making it happen.  I set up a savings account, listened to Spanish language tapes, and researched health information related to travel. I've visited the Health Department for my immunizations, AAA for my International driving permit, and Walgreens for more over-the-counter medication than I'll probably need. I've purchased merino wool shirts and socks to help regulate my body temperature while travel pants keep my load light and versatile. I researched gear options for months before deciding on rugged waterproof riding jacket, pants and boots. I'm bringing along my heated jacket and gloves to help deal with low temperatures we'll see as a result of early morning rides and high mountain passes. A backpack with a hydration pouch will function as my tank bag loaded with essentials such as earplugs, gloves and aerosol-free faceshield cleaner because cans won't like the altitude fluctuations built into our trip. Guidebooks and Google images have detailed the places we'll be traveling.  Despite all this planning, I've found myself fearing that the trip would get derailed. I think it's because there's so much about this trip I can't really imagine- the lodging, the food, the riding conditions- and what's more, there's nothing else I can plan for. It seems that all my efforts have brought me to this point but now I must let go of all expectation and just see what happens. There's always an element of being out of control on a bike- the road conditions, weather, fatigue- but in this case, being immersed in differing cultures, amid peoples speaking a different language and along routes that often have poor roads (or none) make for a level of uncertainty I've never encountered on the bike.

The seed for the trip was planted when a group of RIDE members went to South America 5 years ago with the same tour company we're using- Peru Motors. I told myself then that if the trip was ever repeated, I would go. I vowed to improve my skills and life circumstances so I could go. When I think of what's come to pass since I made that promise, it's hard to take it all in. So much is different that I hardly recognize my life. I've divorced, had several fascinating jobs, bought a Triumph Bonneville, found new friends, started a blog and ridden- a lot. Despite the uncertainty of so many factors related to this trip, I know that I've already done the unimaginable and come through it with vivid memories, great stories and more confidence in myself. This challenging tour is possible because of what I learned riding my Bonnie. At 32, 584, both the odometer and my life are a clear indicator of just how many miles I've traveled in the last 5 years.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Perspective on the Way Home

On the morning I was to leave Georgia after a week-long visit with my cousin, I awoke to the sound of rain on my tent. I was besieged with the same feelings I usually have when awaking to a rainy motorcycle trip. My mood was as heavy and dark as the storm clouds above. This was in contrast to the previous few days where I had gained a sense of harmony while camping in the woods.  As I turned off the land and rode toward the highway, I was afraid that I’d get so tired by my ride home that I’d lose the peaceful feelings from the weekend. 

I decided to take a direct route home via I-75 with an overnight stop in Cincinnati. I reviewed my maps to determine some intermediate stops and give myself smaller goals to work toward.  I set my sights on Knoxville where I’d enjoy a hot meal and refuel. Despite the rain coming down at a steady drizzle, I rode on.

The same tactic I use in riding is useful for writing; I go toward one goal at a time. In my efforts toward freelance writing I’ve explored what magazines I want to write for and reviewed their editorial guidelines. I’ve researched how to write query letters and come up with a few ideas for articles for motorcycle magazines. One of my stories was published for their blog so I thought I’d try my hand at their print publication. I write and rewrite, sending samples to my writer’s group for suggestions and then I revise. I’ve gotten discouraged by the work but I’m also heartened; I’m doing what I want to do, I’m writing what I want to write.

After a few hours in the rain, and a stop for breakfast, I continued north on the expressway bound for Cincinnati.  My ride-break-ride strategy gave me the freedom to take a step back from my feelings to examine them. This is the second long-distance trip in which I’d found myself riding in the rain. While I wanted to hole myself up in a motel bed and watch movies, my tight schedule demanded I continue. I normally don’t mind the rain, but this time I felt as though I was being punished. Even while I was having these thoughts, I was surprised by them.  It felt like I was gripped by a false sense of reality.

My writing life has been like this, too.  There is incredible freedom in having the time to write, in exploring new themes and finding publications I feel good about supporting. Yet I’m also worried- there is a lot of pressure to write well, to get published and to earn a living. It’s the ideas around writing that have come to the forefront.  The question of “when can I write” has been replaced with a new question: “how do I write?” The worry about writing gripped me just as my feelings about being stuck in the rain did.

My feelings of overwhelm increased as the drizzle turned into such a forceful downpour that cars were pulling to the side of the road. I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. Semi’s became weapons as their tires shot walls of water that completely covered me when I passed them. And thus my feelings from earlier in the day were confirmed - I was stuck in a blinding downpour so fierce that I couldn’t see a safe way through it. I rode on, though, marching through the wet, determined to break free.

After many miles and a stop to refuel, I found myself looking up to clear skies, with the warm sun driving me to daydream. The worry I’d known in the rain was replaced with a reassuring calm. I recognized the dreaming as fatigue and turned off at the next exit, a remote road, for a nap. A sparse row of houses lined one side and an abandoned development lay on the other.  I pulled my bike into the short dirt entrance, removed my rain gear and settled down on a small hill in the field.  A few minutes later I was fast asleep.

I woke up to repeated cries from a police woman who’d been called to investigate. It was an alarming way to wake up but she treated the situation as a routine stop and I was soon on my way again riding toward the Ohio River basin.

A view of Cincinnati with the Brent Spence Bridge in the foreground
 The city of Cincinnati greeted me with the biggest welcome possible- the Brent Spence Bridge- a double-decker cantilever truss structure that spans 830 feet and affords a spectacular view of the city and the Ohio River.  I turned onto 50 East which follows along the edge of the river before it meanders further north.  I met my friend Chris who lives there. After the 430 mile trip, I was glad to share dinner and conversation with him. Back at his place, I borrowed a bed and settled in for the night.

In the morning I made my final push north to Grand Rapids by continuing along I-75 accompanied by music from my iphone. I let the music lead my thoughts as I considered this leg of the journey. The day before had begun with some fierce emotions as I braved the clouds and battled the rain. But that mood lifted without effort as the clouds cleared.  If I keep moving, the difficulty passes and the path ahead is visible. 

The following day, I was slated to meet with RIDE Motorcycle founders Dick and Jerry to interview them for an article I planned to write for Rider Magazine. The meeting was a milestone. When I joined RIDE, I had just purchased my first bike and was a novice. Nearly eight years later, I was returning from an 1,800 mile solo trip on my second bike, looking for a second career. With the club I’ve learned about the freedom that both riding and writing give me. One informs the other.  I wanted to write an article that would describe RIDE, all the things I’ve come to love about it, and all I’ve learned because of it. I wanted my words to show Dick and Jerry how thankful I am they started the club. It seemed like a big scope for one article though, and I didn’t know where to begin.

I found myself riding amid a sea of wind turbines on Ohio’s 30 near Van Wert . The turbines reached upward, their blades spinning against a blue sky filled with clouds. I’ve heard it said that we can only see what our minds can comprehend. Looking up at these enormous structures that idea was brought to life. I had no concept for understanding these giants- their size, the shape, the way they moved. I was mesmerized. I stopped at a rest area that sits among the turbines so I could get a closer look. 

The base of one turbine with a house and truck nearby for perspective

Standing at the foot of the nearest, I had to crane my neck to look up into its whirling blades. The miniature house and even tinier truck at its base hinted at its true size. It was like the RIDE article ahead of me – the scope of it seemed so big, I couldn’t find a starting place.  But with some perspective I could see it.  It was then I knew I’d talk with Dick and Jerry about what lead them to start the club. I wanted to hear about how they decided to focus the club on safety, education and camaraderie. I knew once I heard them talk, I'd be able to funnel their enthusiasm and nostalgia into a story. As I climbed back on the bike toward home, I felt buoyed up as though the windmills had lifted me into the heavens.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back to Nature

The second part of my ten-day trip to Georgia involved spending time with my cousin in Atlanta as well as attending a camping festival with him in northwest Georgia. We’d never spent more than an evening together before this so I was a little nervous but also excited. And because we were camping, I looked forward to the time I’d have to reconnect with nature. 

Wednesday afternoon Joseph and I made cakes for the festival with his friend Kate. That night, Joseph and I went to dinner at the “W”, where he works. We rode over on my bike and pulled in front; they have valet only parking but gladly made an exception in our case. I rarely eat at fine dining restaurants and was unnerved by all the attention: staff filled our wine and water glasses after only a few sips, replaced napkins several times and brought new silverware between courses. After a long dinner filled with sumptuous food, we rode around the city. 

Atlanta is large but riding around the streets it didn’t feel like it. It has a relaxed easeful vibe about it. I was taken in by the unique buildings. One of my friends who loves cinema, has a knack for identifying cities in movies. She’d say, “see that building right there? That’s in Seattle!” At the time I was awed by her ability to do this. Now, with all the traveling I’ve done by bike, it seems natural. Each city has its own feel and it’s own shape against the sky. Generally, I’m not a fan of riding on the expressway but on a bike it's different.  I welcome a ride around and then into a city because it provides a distinct vantage point. Riding then, has made me more aware and appreciative of not only mountain views, but city views.

The next day we packed our gear in a friend’s car and took my motorcycle to the farm where the festival was taking place. We jumped on the expressway to get out of the city then slipped off to ride among hills and fields. I rarely ride two-up so it took some getting used to. I don’t adjust my position as readily when there’s another rider on the bike so I got sore more quickly. One thing I’ve never become accustomed to, is how every movement of a passenger makes inputs into the bike that I have to counter.  At each stop sign, I’d look back and give him another instruction: “hug your knees around me when we’re at slow speeds” or “wait to reposition yourself until we’ve stopped and my feet are on the ground.” It felt foreign having another rider along, but also fun to share the experience.

Although the land where the festival was held was at a farm, it had no crops, no livestock and no barn.  The owners rent out the property for various events throughout the year. It’s a perfect location because it’s set off the road and situated between hilly meadows and forested areas. It has a stage, a pond, and a pavilion that are all connected by a winding dirt road that runs through it. Alongside the road, are group camping lots and trails that lead back into the trees for wooded campsites.

I’ve been to a few music festival camping weekends but nothing quite like this one. This gathering was organized to celebrate Beltane- a pagan festival centered around the May pole. In the interest of preserving the sanctity of the week, I won’t discuss details of the celebration.  

Approximately 200 people came out to celebrate with music, dancing, a pot-luck and bonfires. Many knew each other from previous festivals. As people arrived, they introduced themselves. Even as our numbers grew, and it was impossible to meet everyone, people made eye contact when passing each other and extended a greeting, treating each other as though they’d met somewhere before.

My tent sat some distance from the pavilion, off a long trail that lead into the forest. It was in a small clearing surrounded by a ring of trees. I collected large branches from the surrounding woods and hung them between the trees. They formed a fence-like structure that encircled my camp. A stump became a chair and several rocks topped with a board, became a ledge for my canteen and knife. I hung my hammock made from orange nylon between two sturdy trees. 

Joseph introduced me as “my cousin Lisa who drove all the way from Michigan on her motorcycle." In his simple introduction, he helped people connect to me. He told them what they were doing was so important that people would come far to experience it.  And he gave them, as one woman described it, “a whole different picture” of me.  Indeed, as the weekend unfolded, I heard again and again, “oh, you’re the one who drove down on your motorcycle!” 

Friday night, I gathered in a circle of women in a pasture lit only by stars. For hours we danced and sang accompanied by drumbeat. Afterward, I felt tired, but also renewed and purposeful.

Saturday afternoon while the women cleaned up camp and prepared food for the evening potluck the men took part in their own gathering. They sang while they worked. Their words reverberated through the camp, lending its potent energy to all we did.

That night we all gathered around the Maypole and sang and danced together to the rhythms of a celtic band. Tea and the cakes Joseph, Kate and I made were passed around to the crowd. Afterward, we shared the potluck meal while another band played for us. The evening wrapped up with a bonfire.  Masterful drummers sat nearby while women danced in small groups at the edge of the fire.

Every day was different but a similar thread ran through each. After some time with others, I returned to my camp. I climbed into the hammock and stared at the canopy of trees above. I reflected on our interactions and the rituals we engaged in. After a time, answers came to questions I didn’t know I’d asked.  They came to me as if carried on the trees that swayed back and forth above me, shaking their leaves at me. 

After this long weekend, of camping, dancing and celebrating I felt renewed and more connected with myself and nature- exactly what I was hoping for. I also felt connected in some mysterious, primal way, to many of the other campers. That was completely unexpected.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Georgia Bound

In early May I took a ten-day motorcycle trip down to Georgia and back.  While there, I met up with my cousin and we went camping.  This was one of 3 overnight solo trips on the bike.  Each time out I feel more comfortable about how to manage the details.  A motorcycle camping trip to Northern Michigan taught me how to sort and pack essential gear.   My trip to West Virginia taught me to devise a route around ideal roads and spots of interest. Still, each ride has its own story, each area it’s own feel.  This trip feels like three different ones: the ride down, camping and the ride back.

I left a day early because rain was expected all night long and into the next day.  I took 69 south into Indiana before the storm arrived.  Just as with the West Virginia trip, I started out on highway.  I planned to ride expressways until Tennessee and northern Georgia, where I’d ride the sweeping back roads in the mountains. I wanted to break up the monotony of the freeway, by stopping at motorcycle gear stores on the way down. 

After a few hours of riding, I spent the first night at a cheap motel just outside of Fort Wayne.  I woke up early and headed south. The scenery in that part of Indiana is much like Michigan; the road was lined on either side with fields and dotted with barns and farmhouses.  Irrigation equipment stretched across the fields like giant robotic insects, spraying water high into the air.  My bike droned on, a kind of metronome to my thoughts on the ride. 

Once I got into Kentucky, I left the expressway to find the store in Louisville.  I was surrounded by homes that blended into the landscape.  The roads weren’t in a grid pattern but rather wove around linking one section of town with another. Businesses had discreet signs.  Once at the gear store, I didn’t find the 3-season touring gear I was looking for so I jumped back on the bike. I continued east on 64 into the heart of Kentucky under expansive blue skies.  As I neared Lexington, the land around me changed.  Instead of crops, there were grassy fields lined with mile after mile of 3-rail horse fencing.  Stately houses stared out over the land.  There was an aristocratic feel to the place.  Even my mind chatter took on a southern drawl.  One horse nibbled at grasses while another galloped across a field.

I settled that night in London, Kentucky - a few drops of rain on my face shield while unloading my bike promised a wet night. I grabbed a sit-down dinner at the restaurant next door before bed.  The next morning I headed out again to get some miles in before breakfast- a trick I learned from Michael, while preparing for my West Virginia trip.  I took 75 South with plans to stop in Knoxville at another motorcycle gear store. I made quick work of the miles- riding fast toward my destination. This Cycle Gear location had some gloves and boots I tried on for size. I wanted to order them via mail instead of making room on the bike.  I still had a full day of riding on mountain roads so I pushed on, taking 129 South out of the city.    

The tone of my trip changed here- from rushing ahead, to easing into the ride.  I rode through town, which felt familiar.  I passed the airport where Joe and I had stayed in a hotel on my first trip down in the Spring of 2009.  I recognized a few stores and the Princess Motel, where previous Gap riders had stayed.  Finally, I approached the turn-off for Deal’s Gap and took it.  This road begins the curves that won’t stop until I’m well into Georgia. 

I felt the anticipation building in my body- I hunched forward, my legs hugging the tank, toes up on the pegs.  I used my upper body to help me lean the bike into the corners, angling my chest toward the side mirrors.  The bike was responsive and adjusted with light pressure to the inside peg. Oncoming motorcyclists waved their welcome after my long journey.

I passed a lake surrounded by mountains and crossed a bridge.  I climbed up and around, anticipating the mountain look-off.  Before long, the road twisted around then opened up and I pulled off at the unofficial start of the Gap. I’ve taken pictures here each year I’ve visited with friends.  I stop for another anyway, marking my first solo trip there.

The "unofficial start" of Deal's Gap
The Gap is famous in motorcycle circles for its many curves in a short distance.  People often ride through on sport bikes in full leather, as though they are on a track trying to beat their best time.  I’ve ridden it aggressively but this time I couldn’t muster up the will.  In fact, I had the opposite happen: I felt compelled to ride it slowly, and I became fearful of what lay around each blind corner.  Just a few miles in, a van came around a bend half way in my lane.  It had just enough room to correct its course before I reached the exact spot it had overreached its lane.  My relaxed approached seemed to be divined.  I continued on, watching the road twist back on itself again and again.  I passed two photographers perched at a corner taking photos of vehicles riding by. 

Riding the Gap- thanks to Xtreme Sports Photography
Three mini-coopers raced past me, going in the opposite direction.  Still, my pace was easy.  My mind returned to past trips as I rode through particular curves:  here, where a full dresser rolled off the road into the forest below, and there, were I’d overshot and crossed the center line- a life threatening error in the worse circumstances. I pulled off to grab a picture of these curves, so unlike any I’ve ever traveled.  After two quick shots, I returned the camera to my tank bag.  Just then, a car came around the corner completely occupying my lane- the lane I would have been in, had I not pulled over.  This second miss in just a few miles, seemed to insist that I travel only at posted speeds the rest of the way through the Gap.  

Deal's Gap: notice the blind curves and changing camber of the road 
I passed a sign saying I’d entered North Carolina just before the Deal’s Gap Resort.  I continued on, following signs to the Cherohala.  In years past, I’d taken these sweeping curves at speed, testing myself and my skill.  This time, after riding so furiously on the expressway and the close calls just minutes before, I eased through the curves, enjoying the gentle side-to- side motion as I navigated the roads. 

The landscape is so foreign compared to Michigan with its rocky outcroppings, lush forests and valley views.  I am a traveler in a foreign land there.  The forest when seen from above, becomes a verdant sea of green.  I searched for a break in the trees while riding along, hoping to catch a glimpse. Finally, I pulled off at a roadside stop, and headed for a bench with a promising view. 

The bench is a constructed of a stone so large it is the backrest while a wooden platform wraps around it, serving as the seat.  Brush had been cleared in this corner of the roadside park, affording a view of the valley below. I sat with my back against the cool rock and looked into outward.  Directly in front on me I found a dip in the mountain range.  Staring into this cleft, I felt myself open up inside and become more expansive.  I breathed more deeply and slowly.  I felt myself loosening up and softening.  This is why I ride- to connect with myself and the land around me.

The view from a roadside park along the Cherohala

I got back on the bike and continued on these sweeping curves that wrap themselves around the mountain.  The roads were nearly empty.  Single motorcyclists slipped past me intermittently.  I was a lone wolf.  I continued on 19 heading south into Georgia, toward my cousin’s home in Atlanta.  Mountain views fell away and I found myself riding between large hills, up then down, again and again, past little towns bordered by gas stations and fast food stops.  As I neared Atlanta, I jumped on the expressway.  Six lanes wrap around the city and then turn South into it. 

This trip came about because my cousin Joseph invited me for a visit.  He and I are part of a large extended family and because we grew up in different states, we rarely saw each other and don’t know each other well.  After connecting at our family reunion held last July, we’ve been talking regularly by phone.  It seems strange to be finding the time for a friendship now, with both of us in our forties, but it also feels like a gift.

Before long, I found my cousin’s exit and rode along tentatively, searching for his street.  I turned onto a narrow road, hidden from the city by mature trees that lined the street.  I slip slowly along, the scent of honeysuckle hanging in the air.  After two full days of riding, I finally arrive - a charming bungalow with a purple front door greets me.  The first leg of my trip was complete.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spring Cleaning

Although we’ve experienced a few weeks of rain, the ride season began in earnest in March, giving me over a month of riding that I normally wouldn’t have.  It has allowed me to meet up with other friends who ride sooner than usual.  I’ve gone from being secluded in my home watching movies, to RIDE club dual-sport rides and bike church Sundays.   This has been the third season I’ve gone to bike church - the local coffee shop around the corner from my house where other riders meet for 
conversation and coffee.  I like seeing the same people again year after year.  It makes me feel like I have a lot of friends on the road.  When I wave at a passing rider it might be someone I’ve met at bike church; it makes the world seem smaller and more friendly.  Along with these riding opportunities, early warm weather has brought other gifts with it.  I’m walking, doing home repairs and taking stock of my work life.

Pia met me at bike church. We talked until everyone else was gone.  We sat so long, a few people I had visited with earlier in the morning rode by again and we exchanged waves.  We decided to spend the afternoon riding and then stop for lunch in Richland, which is about an hour away as the crow flies.  We took the long way around, though, with me leading her there via favorite roads.  Once we left Grand Rapids, I found myself committed to the happenings on the ride.  The sights and sounds of the trip flitted past me, registering not only in my mind, but in my body.  True to the spirit of riding, I was no longer thinking about our destination, but instead, was taking in the details of the areas we passed through.

We took Fulton into Ada where we drove through town and past the softball field and the covered bridge, under the railroad tracks and around the edge of the lake.  From there we turned onto Buttrick, a road that links one subdivision to another. It is edged by a paved path and we passed runners and bicyclists and young couples pushing strollers.  We came to Whitneyville road and headed south.  Here, houses are set far back from the road – we passed a man on a riding lawn mower tracing neat lines in his front yard and sending the scent of freshly cut grass into the air.  We turned east and hit winding roads past a man who had pulled off to fish in a near-by stream.  He wore gators and was sorting through a tackle box with his pole perched against his car.  We turned south again and passed a road-side park.  I saw two pair of flip-flops sitting on a picnic table before spotting their owners peering into the creek.  We picked up speed as the houses spread out.  Dirt side roads appeared as tributaries on our route.  With another turn, we were in farm country.  We rolled up and down hills and wound around curves nestled among fields, riding from one barn to the next.  The sky was robin’s egg blue with clouds floating so low over the land, we passed through cold spots as we rode underneath them, the sun’s warming rays just out of reach.  Fields were freshly plowed into neat rows and the smell of rich loamy soil rose up around us.

Every ride is an opportunity to practice, but early season rides remind me why- some of my actions felt stilted after so much time off during winter.  So I refreshed my cornering skills amid the freshly-tilled countryside: slowing to a safe entry speed then rolling on the throttle as I reached the apex of the curve.  I loosened my grip, dropped my right shoulder and shifted my upper body toward the right mirror, preparing my body for the sweeping right-hand curve. 

This week I have awakened each morning and walked for an hour.  I take a different route each time.  I walk to the end of each street then turn, walk and turn, letting my feet guide me.  Sometimes while walking, I get a picture of a part of the city in my mind’s eye and I start heading in that direction.  This is a microcosm of my motorcycle rides.  I let the route unfold.  I watch my body loosen up as it wakes up.  While walking, I practice different strides- first short quick steps then longer while lifting my knees higher.  I move my arms like windmills or hug myself or stretch both arms behind me and clasp hands.  Walking like this is a meditation for me.  I am not timing my miles, not aiming for distance travelled.  I only want to feel my body and discover what it’s capable of. I am preparing my body for the day.

Pia and I continue our ride into Middleville and turn on to M-37 for a short stretch until we find M-43.  This road takes us past a Goodwill and a turn-off for Yankee Springs, toward tiny towns. We ride through Cloverdale and into Delton past two cruisers parked outside a bar.  We follow behind a small red car going much too slow, past a fun trio of curves between Gull Lake and Little Long Lake.  Finally, we arrive in Richland at the Blackhawk Inn where we stop to talk and lunch.  This is the ideal way to spend an afternoon- riding with a friend whose company I enjoy off the bike as much as on it.

Our conversation at lunch was just as varied as the roads we’d traveled.  We talked about our careers up until that point and what direction they’re taking.  We talked about relationships we’ve had and how disappointed we’d been.  We talked about new people in our lives and the possibilities that exist with them.  We shared fears of loss and sought answers to questions we didn’t know were there until we started talking.  This is the way of women- discussing, divulging, discovering.  The ride down was a chance to escape our histories, the lunch a chance to review it and the ride home was a new beginning.  She is deepening in relationship with another and I am deepening in relationship with myself.  I am preparing myself for a new life as a writer.

I’ve been following the urges to move everyday through my morning walks.  I’ve also been doing some work around the house.  I feel driven to do this.  It’s had me sorting and discarding, raking and sweeping, digging and planting.  It’s made me find tools I haven’t touched in many months- a hammer, drill, screwdriver, wire brush.  I’ve pulled out gallons of paint and bottles of spackle.  I hear the faint sound of my father’s table saw and see his pencil caught behind his ear.  I see parts of him in me as I work.  I am engaged in other work here- inner work, it finally occurs to me, as I move my desk into position in a new room.  I am setting up shop.  I am rearranging and repairing- all in preparation for a new beginning.  I am preparing my home for my new life.

Some roads have become as familiar as old friends.  I return to them year after year to reset.  I gauge my riding skills since the last time on that route, make adjustments to my body position and break habits to find newer, safer ones.  The riding season is another way I tell time.  Another way I take stock of my life.  I return to the ritual of Spring cleaning to sort through old belongings, repair what is broken and discard what isn’t worth saving.  I look at friendships that have worn thin and new ones that offer support and guidance. In all I do- whether on a ride, in a relationship, in my home or in my body- I am finding a new way. A way that enlivens, enriches and encourages me.  This year holds much promise- I look outside at the daffodils and see this promise reflected in the bright faces of their Spring blooms nodding in the breeze.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Heat Wave

This has been a record setting month for high temperatures in Grand Rapids.  Outdoor enthusiasts of all types have put away their scarves and winter boots and pulled out their warm-weather adventure gear.  Tennis players volley, basketball stars fill the urban courts and kids are lining sidewalks with chalked art and lemonade stands.  And motorcyclists have bypassed their heated gear and gone straight to vented jackets.

Today, mid-March, it’s 85 degrees out.  I am planning yet another local tour of West Michigan on two-wheels.  And by planning, I mean I’m getting on the bike to follow the roads, not a map.  I seem to like these adventures the most.  As soon as I start to consider which destination will offer the best views or ice cream stop or meal, I become stuck, as though I’ve gotten turned around and can’t find my way.  This signals that my destination is not the important thing, but that simply getting out for the ride is.

I’ve been taking the bike out every day since my last day of work.  It’s the best treatment for “what-do-I-do-now” fever.  My mind keeps urging me toward the job search while my heart keeps guiding me back to the tasks of the day- walking, doing dishes, paying bills.  Even as my mind wanders to what I “should do,” I work to remember that there is enough on the “to-do list” already and I silently grant myself permission to hang out with friends, visit with my sister, take a nap. 

I am falling out of the habit of a work-laden life.  As Sunday afternoon approached, I shoved aside the normal routine- making lunch for work on Monday, washing my uniforms, tidying up the house.  I dismissed myself from these normal chores of the day only to be confronted with seasonal chores- cleaning out the garage or tackling yard work.  These chores, too, I pushed aside.   I will do them when I want to.  I finally itched the “should” scratch by paying bills and scheduling some appointments.  There’s so much I can do yet I am making a new practice of doing what I want to do. 

I’ve decided that on my Sabbatical (as my down-sized job release is now fondly being called) I will do things I want to do more often than things I have to do.  I will resist repainting the house, repairing plaster and landscaping my yard.  Instead, I plan to do some form of physical activity and write every day.  These are my new daily habits.  This is the new life I am committed to.

I ran into a former supervisor while out on a walk yesterday.  She is a free-spirit herself who was given the gift of some time off a few years back between jobs.  She asked me if I was getting restless yet with all my free time as she recalled feeling unsettled and purposeless while unemployed.  Because I’ve been off less than a week, I haven’t yet started to feel that.  And I am determined that I won’t.  I don’t mean to say that I won’t be nervous or a little afraid of how I will support myself financially, but I also realize that I am perfectly equipped to commit to my writing life and see where those efforts lead me.

In the last few weeks at work I was asked to fill out a self-evaluation that listed tasks I had completed in the previous year.  My list was over 2 pages long and I even impressed myself with what I’d been able to accomplish in that one year.  I helped reorganize the physical space for better use, transitioned the clinical staff to electronic medical records, updated policies and procedures for greater safety and efficiency, for example.

Reviewing this last year of my employment helped me realize that I have all the skills I need to make my writing the center of my life instead of something I try to make time for.  There is much I don’t yet know about how to publish my writing but I have the resources to find those things out.  Just as I learned which person to call for IT issues, or OSHA related questions in my former position, I also have a list of “specialists” in the writing world that I can call on for support.  In addition, I have friends who are already helping.  Aaron told me about a contact of his with Rider Magazine and Amanda introduced me to her mom who is also a freelance writer. 

I keep hearing myself generate all kinds of ideas of making money- through repurposing furniture, making cards and jewelry, working for friends- and then I gently remind myself that I can do any of those things I want to do but I will not resort to them because I feel like I have to.  There is a balance, of course, and I will have to see how the finances work out.  But I know that I have to stay focused on what I can do rather than acting out of fear about money. 

Today I started brainstorming ideas for articles and projects and sorting out journals who may be interested in my work.  I’m in my “gathering ideas” phase of this new role where I’m investigating all the possible routes of travel before determining what to focus on.  It’s an exciting time for me.  During dinner the other night with Aaron, he remarked, “I didn’t realize you were going through all that!  You don’t look like you’re stressed.”  I continue to hear those words echo in my mind because they reflect a clear truth of the experience of losing my job:  I am not as stressed out by it as I am excited to have this time for myself. 

I will be settling in here at home to see what writing comes forth.  It’s easy to get on the bike and ride to a destination writing spot, with fancy ideas of what I can produce while surrounded by books, magazines and cups of liquid inspiration.   But all my writing thus far has come while camped out on my couch or propped up in bed. And I’ve got a hunch that the next year in those same places will bring as much life to my writing as writing to my life.  In the meantime, it’s time to get out on the bike and see the city on two wheels- that view continues to be my best inspiration of all.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Unexpected Trip

I’m feeling restless these days.  We keep getting teased with warmer temperatures only to wake up with blustery winds and a dusting of snow.  The icy roads tell the truth: that Winter is still upon us.  Weather reports have taunted us this season- and with typical accuracy for West Michigan, have often been wrong. 

Sundays are my favorite day to write because it’s the day that feels like both the last and the first day of the week.  It’s the day I reflect on the previous week and plan for the week to come.  This past week I got word that my position at work was eliminated.  Because of this, I will be taking a severance package.  Once again, I am faced with the decision to continue on my current career path or take another direction altogether.  This time I have the benefit of many months of paid time off to decide.

I spent yesterday afternoon with Anita- we had lunch and drinks.  She summarized my current situation like this: “you’re on sabbatical for the next few months.”  I love that way of looking at it so much that I am deciding from this point forward I will refer to this situation not as “being downsized” but as “going on sabbatical.”  She’s heard me talk about writing and offering workshops for long enough that she knows I can use this time to put those dreams into action.  My friends certainly help me keep a healthy perspective. 

My bike is sturffed in the corner of my garage, the seat off, with the battery on a trickle charge in the basement.  Yesterday I daydreamed about putting her back together and riding her down to Lifecycle in Kalamazoo to get some brake work done.  When I pictured myself riding down, there was no snow on the ground and I wasn’t wearing long johns and my heated gear.  There was no helmet or sunglasses and there was plenty of money in my bank account to cover whatever repairs and upgrades were needed.  In other words, it was an absolute fantasy my imagination had concocted because I have been feeling hemmed in, constricted and limited.  At this time of the season, I’m no longer comforted by sleeping in while the snow piles up- I feel frustrated that I can’t just throw on some shoes and go for a walk without first layering and donning and bundling.  I want to roll in the grass and jump in puddles, not shovel snow and slip on ice. 

During the Spring and Summer, when I use only my bike to get around, I rarely speak about the weather.  With rain, I put on rain gear; cool, I put on the heated gear; hot, I put on the ventilated gear.  Unlike some of my riding friends, I’m not a fair weather rider and I don’t check weather reports all day long to see if I’ll be able to head out for a ride after work.   I check the weather the old fashion way- by stepping outside.  While I pull the bike out of the garage, I’m looking at the sky and taking in the feel and smell of the air.   Nevertheless, riding daily is a commitment.  It takes planning and, as you may have noted, lots of gear or at least proper gear to cover the variety of riding conditions we encounter here in West Michigan.

In my daydream, there were no preparations, no consideration of the weather, no gear at all, even- just me and the bike and the promise of future riding.   When I contrast this with how I live each day- factoring in so many different things: the temperature, the destination, finances, food – I am always, at some level attempting to prepare myself for whatever lies ahead.  The irony is, that after all these years, I still can’t predict what’s coming. 

Nearly three years ago, I was working for the Grand Rapids Dominicans and struggling with the job.  Just as in my current position, I was being asked to take on more duties – the scope of my practice was so large and had become so stressful, the things I enjoyed the most were “not a priority” to the organization.  Back then, I  daydreamed regularly of losing my job so I could write.  Fast forward to today and I am finally getting the chance.  I wasn’t planning to leave my present employer and it never occurred to me that my current position would dissolve.  That said, my frustration and disappointment are mitigated by the fact that I have several months of paid time off to explore the things I was daydreaming about just a few years ago.

Patrick called last night with an extra ticket to the Grand Rapids Symphony- his wife is a violinist and suggested he invite me to watch the performance with him.  He picked me up 30 minutes later and off we went to the “Soul” themed evening.   The event opened with a piece that sounded like a movie score- its energy and tension peaking and receding throughout.  Other pieces followed including a jazz singer who pulled out a Bobby McFerrin song backed by a choir.  The evening ended with several performances by Dianne Reeves, in tribute to Sarah Vaughan.   I felt like I was taken on both a musical and emotional journey.  Her voice is so rich and full, and comes from deep within that I was willing to follow wherever she led.  Short stories she shared like vignettes before each song had the audience laughing or rejoicing with her.  Then she would pause and as the first few bars of music began, the audience caught the story that continued through the feeling and lyrics of the song.    The musicians pulled the audience into the performance so completely, that the subject/object relationship between them and the audience dissolved.  In listening to her, I felt part of her show and she in turn, expressed the same when she said, “I’m leaving home with many gifts tonight.”

Life takes so many twists and turns, and I’m as grateful for the fork in the road that led me to last night’s performance  as I am for the writing sabbatical.  I know the daydream of riding unencumbered by weather or gear choices is not just a desire to for Summer riding but is born of a deeper desire to let myself be led by the road in front of me, and not just by the path I have marked on the map.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Far Off Travels

 Our first heavy snowfall of the year happened late in the season.  Winter is here.  It’s in the stillness of the early morning, the crunch of snow underfoot, in branches and tree crooks accented with white.  A few days ago, I saw shades of brown everywhere but when there’s this much snow the world is white, punctuated with black accents.  Things are simple and straightforward, easy to discern.  I saw several bikes out this month as weather crept into the 50’s.  I take the insurance off the bike (and thus the bike off the street) during the Winter to save a little money.  This year I wish I hadn’t. 

On the way to visit Lisa in Muskegon for lunch I found myself enveloped by a sea of snow-coated trees rising out of the earth.   For just a moment I was part of the scene, swimming in it- much like when I’m on the bike.  I wished for my bike so the feeling could continue.  So I could be part of the world around me instead of just watching it.  When everything around me is buried, I often bury myself in books or movies or writing.  Once I’m outside, tromping in it, I welcome the season, but it takes a few hours to pull me from my bed, from word-making as pictures swirl in my mind.

I’ve been pre-occupied with trip planning over the last few weeks.  I’m going to Peru, Bolivia and Chile in November on a motorcycle adventure tour with others from RIDE motorcycle club.  I’ve got a plan to help the months in between go by.  I’m checking out travel books from the library, designing t-shirts and completing my passport paperwork.  I have a calendar on my fridge and I’m marking off the days until it’s time to go. With each paycheck, I tally the vacation I’m saving - now at 57 hours. I need 102 so I’m more than halfway there.  I'm also shopping for gear.  This year I hope to purchase a new set of 3 season waterproof gear- no more stopping to put on the rain suit.  No more frustration that I left the warm gloves at home.

There are 10 of us going on this trip so there’s about 10 different ideas of what we should do.  In our early discussions, we were doing a 17 day trip starting in Arequipa, Peru going east into Bolivia down across the Andes then west into Chile and north again back into Peru.  This route didn’t include Machu Picchu however.  As one of the great cultural sites of that region, there’s a big push to incorporate it into the trip.  There are enough of us who want to do it and do it right, that we are willing to tack on a few extra days to make it happen.  I’m looking forward to getting the route firmed up so we can purchase our tickets and get the travel dates locked in. 

I look at pictures of the country-side we’ll be traveling and it’s such a lush green I can barely fathom it, especially when held against the gray brown Winter peeking in at me from the window near where I write.  It seems such a long way off both in time and in territory.  I am looking forward to the travel for so many reasons.  I enjoy experiences that get me out of my current view of the world- I think I like foreign films for this reason- so being in another country, with a different landscape, culture and customs  is exciting.  Every now and again I look at this life I’ve carved out for myself and I wonder how much longer I will participate in life in this way.  I still spend more hours working a job that takes more from me than it gives only to come home to a house and responsibilities that require more time and energy than I want to put into them.  Travel out of the country is also a symbol for me of traveling out of this life I have known, in search of another life.  The drive to take this trip has been so powerful, and the fear that something will interrupt it so palpable, that I know it is something I must do.  The reasons why aren’t quite clear to me.  I don’t know what will be introduced into my life as a result of these travels but I know I must find out.  Over the past several months I hear myself say over and over, “I’m going to Peru!”  And like an oft repeated line in a play, the effect of the statement continues to change and expand.  It’s a promise of adventure, of exploring new territory and discovering new worlds.

Winter skies this season have been more blue than grey and the ground more brown than white so I’ve been tricked by the landscape.  I expect to see the crocus peaking up in the front yard.  But then I step outside and see my breath in the air and the crystals that have formed on my windshield overnight.  I run inside and grab my gloves and a scarf.  Peru is still many months away.