Categories
biking Memoir Writing

Beetle Murder & Bipolar Disorder

Japanese beetles are iridescent green, shiny–and beautiful. I admire the engineering genius in the strong grip of their tiny claws and the protective shell of their winged backs. I murder them because they feast on all my favorite garden plants: Virginia Creeper vines become laced skeletons; rose and hibiscus blooms are hollowed out before they can unfurl. Day after day for three summers running, I killed the destructive fliers by the hundreds–shaking them into drowning bowls of soapy water.

This summer was bountiful, disorienting, and full of noxious invaders. Covid 19 seemed to be exiting stage left while we adjusted to socializing and the smiles of strangers, then—well, you know that story. Between visits from long-missed friends and during breaks from clouds of wildfire smoke, I was on the couch or on a bicycle. My write-ride-repeat summer plan quickly became a ride, read-a-little, ride-some-more reality. Then all of a sudden, there was snow on the deck, and I hadn’t written in what seemed like forever.

I had fought a losing battle with hungry beetles in the city, and with noxious knapweed in Fairplay.  Knapweed is a thistle that sprouts in soft green tufts in the spring only to morph into two-foot high shrubs holding hundreds of needle-sharp seed heads. It has been my enemy roughly since the time that my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was around the same time that my mother was dying. My therapist then heard a lot about knapweed. And she once asked me to say out loud the names of each person I loved who had died over the previous eighteen months. I only made it to four, about half way, before losing track and crying. But I pulled a lot of knapweed that year, grateful for one thing that I could destroy back.

This August, while I was obsessing about beetles and knapweed instead of writing, Sunlight Press published an essay of mine that included more about bipolar disorder in our family than I’d written before. Encouraged by the journal’s editor, and with the full blessing of my son, I connected the dots between my mother’s illnesses, my own first major depression, and my son’s bipolar diagnosis. (Have a look if you missed my post about it on Facebook: https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2021/08/22/colfax-and-monroe/).

The more I write, the more I learn to write about (if not publish about) the hardest things. I step into those memories and experiences not out of self-pity, but because they are the truest stories I have. They help anchor me to my current happiness, providing contrast, expanding my gratitude. Maybe those stories also have the most potential to help others.

I chose to become a therapist many years ago because I wanted to be part of transformational conversations, and to be genuinely helpful. Maybe I was most helpful on days that I felt like a failure in my own life, when I was blind to the generational patterns that look so obvious in retrospect. Maybe the counseling I offered on days when I showed up to work confident and energized were my least helpful days in the profession. Possibly, the days I needed to cry in the parking lot for an hour before I could walk into my office were my days of most lasting service to clients.

No shining cosmic memo will tell me that something I did as a therapist or wrote since that time made a real difference to another person. But, like the genuine practice of psychotherapy, a genuine writing practice shifts me away from my petty, narcissistic side and toward a vision of a better world. Beetles and knapweed and bipolar and all. Looking deeply inside ourselves and telling the truth about what we find there, is, I believe, inherently healing. And the more I write, the more of that I want.

View from an evening ride.
Looking toward Kenosha Pass
Late summer sparkle.

Categories
biking humor Writing

Shame List

So what are you working on today? My writing friend asks over zoom the other morning.  Oh, I’m working on my shame list. You know, things I’ve been hating on myself about, just a couple of small things that I can get done. The list had two items: re-post the Dunes memoir essay that had gone out via email but not “stuck” to the blog site, and write for ten minutes about the weather. Notebook weather reports are a “way in” when I’ve not been writing, my word boat becalmed. The currents of a reopening world pulled me into travel and bike rides; the weeds in my garden begged to be pulled before the heat of the days set in.

That recent morning, though, I managed to repost the essay and write these sentences in my notebook (lightly revised—I’m compulsive that way):

The weather is so hot! The sun beats down from an ozone sky, orange sunrise bakes the back yard by 7:30. Hot light seeps in through the edges of the kitchen blinds and bounces off the shine of the counter top. Weather is what happens outside but it feels personal. It feels like an assault, this heat, like a pummel. Like someone is holding a magnifying glass between the city and the sun. And soon the dot of magnified heat will move to a dry stick west of here and the conflagration of parched forests will begin.

End of writing day. Two things are marked off the shame list, but self-loathing remains.

The next day, after not writing at all, I text my friend, I’ve been feeling mildly brain dead on couches. Maybe it’s a mood thing or ozone pollution or not having a job? Or just something to wait out? Blech.  And then, Maybe it’s Covid. Maybe it’s menopause. Maybe it’s Maybelline! I hug a blue couch pillow and say to the husband, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. He laughs, familiar with my dark side. We both know that his patient laugh is medicine.

I start to text that same sentence to my same friend, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. Suddenly, I’m afraid of how depressed, even suicidal it sounds. I’m not depressed, I add to my text, or suicidal, but I appreciate that you would ask me if you thought I might be. I delete the text—it feels like too much. I wrap my arms around the pillow and roll over on my left. I think about failure. If I hug this pillow long enough, I ask the husband, will I start to feel like a person again? His response, so admirably calm:  Probably.

I don’t want to be a mood ball. I look at my ups and downs and wish I were different, wish I were steadier, more reliable and responsible. When I can see my moods dispassionately, I appreciate their relative mildness. I wrote here a while back about how I never “qualified” for a bipolar diagnosis, which is true. But over the years, I qualified for plenty: General Anxiety Disorder (my therapist at the time found this diagnosis less stigmatizing than PTSD), and my two post-partum depressions were officially Major Depressions. All this before the genetically-driven family pattern of bipolarity became clear.

When I’m down, every small thing feels effortful. Not doing my laundry makes me sad, makes me ashamed. But I can’t put my whole neurology on the shame list. Because, really, there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a human with a messy and beautiful brain. Almost everyone has felt this way at some point. If you feel this way today, I salute your ability to feel, to be exactly as you are, right now.

Still, I hear my mother’s critical voice telling me I am spoiled and lazy, lazy and spoiled. And I may be spoiled and lazy, but I’m not bad or wrong or morally flawed for losing time to moods. I say this today. Two days ago, I felt unworthy of personhood.

Whatever shame said to me that afternoon, I was able to kiss the couch goodbye for an hour and ride my bike under trees clothed in baby-leaf green. I was able to feel sweat gather at the ends of my hair, and to stop for breath while looking at clear sky. I came home feeling better, tired in a different way. This morning that sky is indeed smudged with smoky haze from distant wildfires. And this morning, I’m writing again. Shame be damned.

Before

After

Categories
biking Memoir

Blazes

A week before Election Day, the husband and I drove six hours west on I-70 to the town of Fruita, on the sun-warmed Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. Our campsite was a short walk from the banks of the Colorado river. Gold-topped cottonwoods offered shade, and renegade fall mosquitos flew in clouds around our heads. I could almost forget about the pandemic, about the anger and fear swirling in its wake.

In a burst of forgetful optimism, we went to a Chinese restaurant, deciding that if it got crowded, we could leave.  But soon after we dug in to our steaming entrees, a short woman with light brown hair and no mask stomped past the Masks Required sign that was posted by the door. Her bare-faced family trailing behind, she paused only to tell a carefully masked and gloved server, We’ll go to our favorite table. And there she strode, with a look on her face that said nobody was going to stop her. Certainly not the staff, all of whom, I think, were immigrants and who know much better than I how much casual racism has been give free rein when the sitting US president uses terms like Wuhan Flu and Chinese Plague.

Was I angry first or scared first as we took a few more bites and rose to leave? And was it the fright or the outrage that roiled more powerfully in my belly? Almost immediately, it felt good to resent this woman, to know that she was wrong, wrong, wrong. Us-versus-them thinking, in which we are always the better people, might be built into human DNA. But that doesn’t mean I want to play along, to taste the sourness of self-righteous anger like bad whiskey on the tongue.

As we drove to Moab the next morning, I sang along to Alanis Morissette’s song “Ablaze,” in which she cautions her young children about Some separation from each other, yes it’s a lie we’ve been believing through time immemorial. But I struggled with how satisfying my resentment toward that smug woman felt.  Anger is one thing–a natural and often clarifying emotion. But a grudge is something else; resentment morphs into a heavy and barbed burden. The trick is reminding myself, over and over, that I can put that weight down. And yes, the fact that contemplative biking is part of my package of privilege is not lost on me. Easier to feel the oneness of all life with a full belly and secure housing, not to mention the presumed acceptance that my whiteness still too-often conjures. I’m spoiled and I’m forgetful, losing my way every single day.

Amid the shales and sandstones of Moab’s trails, where shrubs grow in low gaps between rock slabs and root in crevices along cliff walls, few options exist for way-finding. Blazes painted directly on slick-rock hummocks dot the route like lane markers. But a rider must trust the blazes, must believe that the dashes do, in fact, reveal the optimal route. Trusting the blazes, even when they seem at first glance to offer a more difficult path, could save you mashing your body between a bike and a very hard place.

As I pedal up and down under blue sky, still ruminating about the maskless woman, I trust the blaze that tells me I can’t hate just one person. I look for the loving blaze that tells me to be less afraid and more generous. I swoop and swerve and am reminded that gravity will be gravity. The world will be the world. And a more loving perception is always an option.

Post-election, we are home in Denver where Covid 19 marches relentlessly on its own destructive path. Close friends get sick. Two of my nephews test positive. A week later, after a few unmasked minutes with a loved one who soon got sick, we isolate. We wait for our own test results. Thanks in part to sheer dumb luck, they come back negative. Our loved ones were also lucky, recovering well from non-severe cases. And this week, the election results are sticking, like yesterday’s soothing blanket of snow.

Today, gratitude hunkers down with us, mingling with memories of that restaurant and those blazes of light. I see the yellow-crowned cottonwood framing our view from camp under a blue dusk sky, how the perfect black commas of starlings flew and circled, then fell like rain to their evening roost. A perfect trip, really, one to draw joy from over a long winter.

Contemplating blazes on the Big Lonely trail.
Off blaze.
Categories
biking Writing

Publication Number Two!

Down in the Dirt Magazine liked my piece “Nothing Bad Happens” well enough publish it in their May 2020 issue: http://scars.tv/cgi-bin/works_e.pl?/home/users/web/b929/us.scars/perl/text-writings/g8964.txt

Thanks to them, and thanks to all of you for your kindness as I slowly build my writing skills, which I couldn’t do without the blog’s self-imposed, twice monthly deadlines (loosely enforced as they are). More important, the rewarding jolt of attention from you, dear reader, makes my inner four-year-old very happy.

My adult self, meanwhile, has been drawing inspiration from my biking life. Several years ago, I stood in a friend’s driveway as he chatted with his neighbor about the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, a grueling hundred-mile, high altitude suffer fest. Registered for the race, he told us With two little kids and a job, I have no time to really train. But I’m not worried. I have a deep base. He’d raced in Leadville before, and spent years grinding out impressive mileage. I heard from my friend that his neighbor finished the Leadville 100 in only nine hours. For weeks we riffed about the deep base. I could ride that again, no problem. I’ve got a deep base. Writing muscles, like leg muscles, must be worked, then worked again, each repetition contributing to that under-girding structure.

The more I write, the more I realize that my writing base has only begun to be built. I wish it weren’t so. I wish the habit of writing was as ingrained as the pressure of my feet on bike pedals and the instinctive turn of my eye to the top of the rise. It took me years to learn the simple truth that the trick to riding all the way up a steep hill is to not get off the bike. The secret to writing, in the inimitable words of Annie Lamott, is to simply stop not writing. Get and keep your butt in chair. But I’ve been mountain biking—with a few lulls—for over twenty years. And I’ve been writing for only a few.

Well before the pandemic reared its ugly head, I struggled to keep consistent writing hours. And I agonize over finishing pieces.  Self-criticism screams at me to stop, but I am learning to roll my eyes at myself and just keep going. I only learned to stay on my bike on those climbs after I realized how hard it is to get back on it, to re-gain purchase on a gravelly incline is more work than slogging slowly along. I made a commitment to write because the satisfaction of making something beautiful has no equal.

I’ll have my deep base as a writer, eventually. The only way to fail at this is to stop and not start again. I may not be the most ambitious or self-disciplined person in the world, but I don’t know anyone more stubborn. My impatience and dis-tractability mask a mean resolve. I’ll keep pedaling. I’ll blog imperfectly, submit relentlessly, and take class after class. Every hour in the chair will be another mite of progress building that elusive base.

Downhill is differently wonderful. Last summer, near Keystone.

Categories
biking Writing

Death by Butterfly

In Staunton State Park, a haven of hiking and biking trails near Conifer, Colorado, Elk Creek becomes Elk Falls in one precipitous cliff dive. Smooth dirt trail winds through majestic evergreens, then transitions to connected squares of hewn rock swirled through with reds and grays, as if from an artist’s brush. Expertly etched into the hillside, the trail is wide as a sidewalk and rides like a dream. On a recent Sunday, I gripped my handlebars and pushed hard into my pedals, then relaxed to coast a gentle downhill with stunning views.

Suddenly, my mountain panorama was bisected by the dazzled flight of a butterfly. It floated upward and to my left, shimmering with the bright yellow of fleeting summer. My inner five-year-old sang out, Butterfly! Look! Ooh! Beautiful!  My front tire was instantly way too close to the edge, but a surge of adrenalin powered my handlebars up and my left foot down, preventing a gritty shoulder grind into the trail. A no-fall wake-up call.

Oh, the perils of daydreaming—that creative drift so essential to a writing life, and so perilous to life on the trail. The more I write, the more awake I am; conversely, the less I write, the less connected I seem to be to the world and what I am doing in it. If I’m not working making things, all the biking in the world won’t bring me focus or peace of mind. This has been my lesson of mid-summer.

In my notebook and on my bike saddle, I ask, Am I here yet? Trying to gauge whether I’ve dumped my distractions and self-criticisms sufficiently to have a date with creativity. On the bike, I instruct myself aloud: Right here, Right now!

On downhill rocks or in writing slumps an uncluttered mind offers the body a chance to do what the busy mind can’t conceive.

A few days after my near-death by lepidoptera, I get another, gentler, wake up call. Near our cabin is a short, steep forest road that I use as a timed fitness test, challenging myself—obsessively this year–to shave five or ten seconds off the quad-burning climb.  Today, the husband asks me, Are we busting your personal record today? And I tell him, Nope. Today, I’m going to see how slowly I can ride it.

img_1118
Another day, another trail

I switch gears and steer a wide arc to avoid smushing a caterpillar that lumbers blindly across the dirt road. Last year, with drought everywhere and wildfires not far off, I don’t remember seeing a single caterpillar. But now, a small white butterfly ambles from right to left in front of my tire and slips through the spokes of my slowly turning wheel. I keep this insect-friendly pace and look left and right as I make the steep climb. I see for the first time how a flower-filled meadow is shaped like an arrow, pointing down toward the light-layered hills of South Park. My slowed breath scents wild rose mixed with pine, as if a mountain-sized flower has just opened all around me. Life after death by butterfly.