Solitude and Connection

bikecourse1

Two friends (younger than me by more than two decades) are training for the Ironman and I decided to join them for their first of two 40-mile loops. I had already decided to defer my own race entry to next year due to a combination of aches and pains, along with maintaining life-balance, which led to my bike lying dormant in the basement. About four weeks ago, I finally brushed off two years of dust. The few rides done between then and now felt like brief tentative coffee dates after a prolonged break up. So, I impulsively jumped at the chance to join these guys and recapture a bit of pride and youth.

Currently I feel neither proud nor youthful. But I am definitely feeling my age and rather stupid.

First, I spent all of last week barely able to move with a locked-up neck and back. Last weekend’s combination of ICU call and a Midwest water polo tournament did not treat me well. High doses of Motrin and a session with a chiropractor got me the go-ahead to start exercising again. But I might have neglected to mention I had the hills of Madison in mind for this weekend.

Second, I have been on my bike only three times this summer. The longest ride was two hours and covered thirty-two FLAT Illinois miles. Not hilly Wisconsin ones. This was like going from a lazy six-mile run on level ground to a hilly half marathon.

Third, if I was going to do this, I should have ridden at my currently slow own pace. These guys have been training all summer. Their youth, combined with the handicap of my age, makes their current speed out of my league.

Nevertheless, after waking up at four AM and driving to Madison under the backdrop of the morning sunrise, I am now in a world of hurt. Having been dropped relatively quickly by my faster friends, I find myself alone with my thoughts. My wheels spin over the rolling hills; mid-summer length corn lies adjacent to the road on either side. Soon, the corn soon gives way to an open field and a gentle breeze, a nice relief to the morning’s rapidly rising temps. I feel sweat from my brow trickle down symmetrical tracks on the sides of my face, reuniting at the tip of my chin before gravity finally pulls the salty drops from my skin. The wind drones in my ears as it flows through my helmet’s vents. The drive train of the bike generates a soft and subtle background noise with a pattern and cadence matched by my pedaling. Discomfort and stupidity no longer my focus, I am freed to look inward and reflect; an infrequent opportunity these past two years in the absence of long runs and rides.

Thoughts have been fluttering around in my head for a while. Why do I continue to create pain and discomfort through bikes rides and long runs? Why put my body and face between a water polo ball and the goal? Why am I going back to school? What do I want to achieve? In the relative solitude on my bike in the middle of Wisconsin farmland, I can stay and linger with these thoughts for a bit and connect some dots.

My daughter moves like me. She has never been able to sit still. She has learned over the years to channel that boundless energy into dance. Finding within the movements her passion and focus. My own need to swim, bike and run parallels her need for constant motion; my comfort in the pool surrounded by teammates mirrors her happy place in the dance studio. Her desire to make dance part of her life in college reminds me of myself at seventeen using water polo to connect and help find my way as a freshman.

My son is struggling with his future like me. He is in the process of figuring out what he wants to do moving forward in his life. What does he want that to look like and how will he actually make that happen? He reminds me not only of myself at the age of twenty-one, lost and scared about an uncertain future. But also myself now, at the age of forty-eight, asking similar questions all over again. I am probably not the only family member lying awake at night wrestling with the vast openness of the unknown. We both have our own paths of growth and discovery that we are navigating and working through.

The landscape keeps changing. There is a dairy farm now on my right and a field of alfalfa to my left. The bike route this time of year is usually quite busy and for most of the ride there was no shortage of riders around me. But currently I am alone, except for some Holstein cows huddled together, relatively motionless but for their tales whipping through the air. My bicycle and I start to battle a mild but increasingly uphill grade. My breathing turns more forceful and labored, moving the late morning humid air into and out of my lungs. The grade again increases, forcing me to grab the brake hoods, increasing my leverage on the pedals. I have some rough miles ahead of me, both on my bike and off. But instead of feeling stupid, I am filled with gratefulness and connection. To an observer, I am riding slowly up a hill in relative solitude. But in reality, I am not alone. Madison and Maya are right by my side.

Crater Lake and the Weight of Snow

Minutes into my early morning run, the howl of a lone coyote broke the silence in the basin. A second one responded, and then two quickly became three. Other coyotes joined in, their howling echoing all around. On previous trips to Oregon, I’d found comfort and hope while running on this path. I had also walked here with my family, under a brilliant rainbow that offered a well-timed distraction from the tension building between us. This weekend, I had travelled here to celebrate my son’s birthday. Although excited to see him, I was still nervous about how the next few days would go. I was not inherently superstitious, but I could not help but wonder what type of omen howling coyotes on a brisk March morning might portend.

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The Ties that Bind and the Weight of Connection

Traevelling 30,000 feet above the ground on my way back to Chicago, it’s hard not to think about distance and space. How people in the same room can still feel worlds apart while others can be physically separated by hundreds of miles and still be intimately connected. Traditional modes of measurement fail when it comes to matters of the heart. I feel the push and pull of these forces currently at play within me as I sit on a plane, wanting to distract myself with some mindless movie or loud music or just close my eyes and sleep. The plane, at its current altitude, disconnects my phone from the pages, texts and alerts waiting on the ground, freeing me for a short while from their intrusion.

To be intertwined with someone else. To belong to something greater than yourself. A family or community? To have purpose beyond ourselves. To give and receive. To be connected. These thoughts lead my brain back to chemistry and physics and learning of forces and attraction between molecules. I recall the weaker ionic bonds, able to be disrupted by water alone.  I remember organic chemistry and the tight sharing of electrons between carbon atoms, and its strong covalent connection. I think of the ultimate overwhelming gravitational force of a black hole from which nothing can escape.

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Hiatus

Time passed. One day became two. Weeks became months. What began as a temporary absence evolved into a void.

No writing. No journaling. No attempt at an opening paragraph. On occasion, I hastily blurted a random thought or two into a voice memo on my phone. But the recorded words stayed in coded form. Bits and bytes waiting to be transcribed and brought to life as words on a page.

For the better part of a year, I have worked on at least one piece of writing at a time. An idea or story. An outline for a book. Always some small part of my brain processing and playing with an idea, while racing through the craziness of my day.

But the last few months have been a bit of a hiatus.

The intensity of my work life and family life converged for a while, with quite a bit of travel mixed in. San Francisco for a conference. Klamath Falls, Oregon for a brief family Thanksgiving. Preparing for my son’s long-awaited homecoming for winter break back in Chicago. Christmas spent covering the hospital and ICU. Ringing in the New Year while working in an ICU in Elkhart, Indiana.

And somewhere between the West Coast and the rural Midwest, I got lost.

That little part of my brain stopped sorting new thoughts and ideas. Instead, I fed it a steady diet of Netflix, cryptocurrency and progressive politics. Comfort food for my cerebral cortex. And as the writer inside me took a leave of absence, I found other parts of myself taking a time-out as well. My running shoes sat untouched most days. My swim bag remained buried in the corner of the mudroom, as I went AWOL from my water polo team. Whatever exercise I managed was mindless and without purpose. As my writing and journaling stopped, so did my desire to physically push and challenge myself.

But I did not close my eyes.

I watched my daughter continue to face the challenges of being a sixteen-year-old junior in high school, navigating the ever-shifting landscape of friends, school and life. Juggling final exams and ACT tests, hours of dance and Poms, injuries, babysitting and a boyfriend. Like her dancing, She stumbles at times. But like she does when dancing, she pops right back up and continues moving forward, becoming more adept and able every time.

I watched my son face the challenges of being nineteen, while working on the universal yet uniquely personal battle between autonomy and dependence. Between freedom and restriction. More often than not, that process now takes place out of my sight, as he currently lives two thousand miles away. I am still coping with this. But each time our orbits align (and hopefully not collide), I see a little bit more of the man he is becoming.

I watched my wife challenge herself to tap into her mathematics and education degrees, putting herself out there to help neighbors, family and friends with the mysteries of high school geometry and pre-calculus. I saw this amazing cycle of confidence build. Not only in her students as they became better prepared for their quizzes and tests, but also in herself as she applied a unique approach to help each student fill in his or her specific knowledge gaps.

I watched. More passive than active. Letting events play out and unfold before me, often while stretched out on the family room couch. My sweatshirt and a comforter worked overtime, protecting me from both the falling temperatures outside and having to actively engage in the world around me.

But it is time. Time to leave passivity behind, along with the comforter and the couch.

Despite the cold, I went for a run outside the other day. A few years ago, running in sub-freezing temps was a no-brainer. Just put on the right clothes and go! Now it’s a bit of chore. It took more thought and effort to push through the inertia of inactivity.

It started with shivering. Time felt slow. Movement felt forced. But ten minutes into the run, my body heat began to build, and with it, the familiar warmth comforted me. The sound of air moving in and out of my mouth layered on the rhythmic sound of my shoes disturbing loose gravel and stone under my feet, brought me back to an old familiar space.

For the next forty minutes my joints ached. My calves and hamstrings burned. I sweat. It was snowing, and the falling flakes were cool on my flushed face as I ran through their vertical descent. And sometime during that relatively routine run that I had done countless times in the past, a small dormant part of my brain came back to life.

It’s time again to write.