Monday, July 30, 2012

Free Will

The sun rose behind mist as we coasted down the big hill at the start of the Ride Across Indiana. Indiana was uncharted territory for me, but I was here to remember someone, a friend who had died three months before of melanoma. 

Will Streeter was a big, humble, thoughtful guy. One time I asked him what kind of mountain bike rides he liked. He replied, deadpan, "Gnarly," followed by his disarming "heh, heh." Serious and funny at the same time.

He liked this long, rolling Indiana ride and had two sons who were scheduled to ride it with him this summer. I flew in from the desert Southwest to join this ride honoring a man I admired. My job was to help them finish the long ride and maybe to learn something along the way.

One hundred sixty miles waited for us ahead of this fun, adrenaline-laced beginning. I wondered how it would go today. Would I embarrass myself? Run out of energy? Get lost? Fail to do what I had come to do?
The thoughts ran across my mind as the matching jerseys with “Remembering Will” printed on the side joined a rolling serpent of color and excitement – cyclists on the course. This I could relate to. The freedom of motion, of effort, of surrender to whatever the day had in store. It was time to show up and to let go, let the day be what it would be. This was my life and with gratitude and openness I would remember Will in a way that might do him some justice.

I was riding his bike and it flew. The wheels danced over the cracks in the pavement, the debris in the road, the railroad tracks. I was infused with peace and energy. The fear and anxiety of the day going bad slid into the background. It was time to be here and to feel the breeze. I settled in and rode alongside Steve Parker. His easy smooth cadence spoke long hours on the bike. We talked about the day. He had reminded us that we were here for Will and Will’s family. We were reaching for contact with something Will loved: long days of effort, physical challenge, breaking out of limits, finding the peace that can be found on the other side of pain. We would all be challenged and would be given the opportunity to push past perceived limits.

Will knew pain. He had lost an eye to melanoma a year before. His father had left him early in life. But he had found a way to cope. Richard Rohr, a friend and mentor, had taught Will that pain can be transformed, can be transmuted. It does not have to ruin a life. It is not something to fear, but something to meet and embrace. Will told me that Rohr felt that if one's spiritual teacher did not speak often of death, it was time to fire your spiritual teacher. 

Will did not run away from hard questions. He had met his death head-on. And he loved to ride, and had spoken of this ride often as we rolled over the roads and trails around Tucson. 

The ride was a vehicle, a metaphor for living. In itself it would not give an answer to questions that seekers ask. This was not about winning or just about speed, or results, though all of those figure into the experience. The ride was providing grist to mull over. What do I want? Where am I going? 

Terre Haute unrolled as we cruised through downtown. People cheered us on. We were on a path, pursuing a goal. Will’s sons Mark and Eric, his wife Kathe, along with friends Kathy, Toby, Tim, Miriam, Brian, Karen, and many others. SAG drivers would leapfrog us through the day, providing material and moral support. 

Rural Indiana lined highway 40 as miles began to accumulate. Rolling hills and a breeze passed by as we formed groups and chatted quietly as we settled in. Sun and heat rose together and I began to sweat. Eat. Drink. Draft. I reminded myself. It was going to be a long day.

About twenty miles in, Kathe, Will's wife, hit some sand and went down. In spite of a nasty bruise, she hopped back up to examine her bike. "Is my bike OK?" she asked before examining her injury. Bike first, then body. What a statement of how important this ride was to her. Strong woman I thought. Like Will. 

The ride progressed as all rides do and priorities took the shape of speed and distance.

Toby, Tim, and I formed a pace-line on the flats and opened up a gap on the group. I started to calculate time and speed and results. This was a habit and had become a trap for me in past rides. Average speed became a kind of god, and my state of mind depended on whether or not I met a goal. Those old habits, Will had shown me, were not the real gold of doing a ride like this. 

I had deified many things and become a prisoner to them, thinking they might redeem me, ease my pain. I thought that things might do it – a new bike, a better car – or that being faster, skinnier, wealthier. The list is long. The only way out was into and through the pain, but I am a slow learner. Will helped me to remember. He had come to Tucson to ride El Tour and we had talked – a lot. He became part of my family, part of the brotherhood of rolling through the desert on epic mountain bike rides. 

He thought hard and liked dark beer. What’s not to like about such a combination of traits?

So we rode across Indiana. The first forty miles was gravy. At the rest stop we grouped. The day was getting warmer and some of the honeymoon glow of novelty was wearing off. Our little group got organized and we began to share the effort again, but somehow lost Mark.. I decided to wait and meet the group at the lunch stop. I had time to think as I waited. Why was I here? What was I doing? I remembered that it was not just about the bike.

When Mark did not show up after half an hour, I rode again, but this time alone. It was fine, but I realized I did not want to ride alone and would find out what had happened at the lunch stop. I would ride with Mark or Kathe or Eric for the rest of the ride. This was about Will and about what he was learning. It was about heart and sharing and doing something together. 

The heat was adding to the likelihood of cramps and dehydration. They had hit Mark and he needed to refuel at the lunch stop. It happens. He was fit, but something was a bit off and he would have to respond if he wanted to complete the ride. He rose to the challenge and ate, drank, and drafted. 

We hit the road and made good time for the next sixty miles or so. It was time to go deep, to push through, to eat up the distance. Mark settled in and took breaks when he needed to. 

Shadows lengthened as we closed the gap on Richmond. Tom, Tim Stoner, Kathy Parker-Streeter, Karen, Seth, and others charged us up with cold Cokes and encouragement with twenty miles to go. Mark and I then began the detour onto quiet, narrow roads through cropland. Between rows of corn, we pedaled easily and I told Mark what I thought of Will, why he had been important to me. This was the reward, the soul of the ride, the real dirt, the taste of freedom and heart. I hid my tears as I spoke of Mark’s father. 

Of course, good and true stories don’t end at the easy moments. We had the longest hill of the day still to climb and the pain of the effort returned. We both leaned into the hill like horses straining against their traces and pushed again through the limits. Richmond rose on the horizon and then closed in as the miles surrendered to our efforts.

The group was there, cheering. Mark and I crossed the finish with more than an hour to spare. Kathe, Eric, and the family circled around us, hugs and tears and smiles all around. Then they took the bike, Will’s bike. It had crossed the line. It had made it to the finish, the real and imagined. 

The effort had paid off, but by itself was not the point. We got a good result, a tangible reward for a good day of straining against limitation.  But the result was not the end, would not ease the pain of missing Will. 

Will would know. Will was free of such easy answers. He would understand why my heart was so full.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Promise of Rain (fiction excerpt)

They drive in silence up the mountain. They rise out of the valley and onto the slopes, through saguaro forests, where ocotillo branches etch the sky like upside down spiders, spindly legs reaching for something solid in the air. The road etches a rising angle onto the naked fingers that spread out at the base of the range. It cleaves the contours of the front slope before turning into the watershed of Molino Canyon.

As the lights of city fade behind the shadow of the ridge, the road tilts up, now between sheer granite walls. Cacti surrender to dwellers of higher country. Scrub oaks replace the saguaro along the murmuring stream down in the defile. They pass a sign saying they have climbed a thousand feet. Water plunges over a ledge of banded gneiss into a pool where tiny frogs have gathered to mate and feed on the abundant bloom of fireflies.

Still the road climbs. It is the fruit of  blood, the labor of prisoners who wielded hand tools to carve this arterial lifeline between the heat of the valley and the heights of the mountains; it is the gateway to alpine forests, islands of shade and cool air surrounded by the ocean of desert below.

Thoughts fail to find words as they pass through Molino Basin. The road and the towering slopes speak instead. A fire scoured this valley and left scars of ash, bony skeletons of Manzanita. The moon lights a bleak and haunted landscape, harsh reminders of the decade-long drought. She clutches his arm as the little car surges up the slope, straining against the grade. They cross a saddle and enter Bear Canyon, the first taste of the high mountain. The road levels briefly as they pass through a portal of towering granite spires and enter the sheer walls of the narrow canyon. The stream whispers as it cascades over boulders and down spillways. Water runs onto the roads off the walls of the canyon and showers the pavement. A curtain of mist chills them, rinsing the heat of the low desert off their foreheads. They enter the tall Ponderosa pines. They drive now through a tunnel of them, deep in the defile.

He is tempted to stop, but proceeds upward. His pulse rises as he takes the tight hairpin that leads up again, out of the canyon onto the contour up to Windy Point. Hoodoos stand like sentinels against the sky. They block the light of moon and stars and silhouette profiles of stone standing on either side of the highway.

His head surges with his pulse and he is flush with a desire that is almost more than he can stand. Best to warm his hands at the fire than to quell the stirring urge. She sits quietly beside him, following his lead, expectant, silent, full herself with a hunger to receive him.

They round the curve at Windy Point and pull up to a parking spot. They grab a small pack that contains sleeping pads, some water, and a blanket. They head away from the road under the moon down a path he knows to an overlook. Her eyes widen in wonder at the sight below; the city shines a million tiny lights beneath them like a bed of diamonds. There is a stream beneath them and a pool. It catches the moonlight and is completely still, a perfect mirror. He lays down the pads while she admires the light. She joins him. He touches her arm and she lies down. He reaches for her as distant lightning illuminates a thunderhead a hundred miles away, in Mexico.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Anybody Seen My Glasses?

Clawing My Way to the Bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy* or Life After the Wallet

I’ve been down lately, not depressed, but down in the ground, as in building a pit toilet. My lovely bride wanted one for the “casita,” our tiny hideaway next to a sandstone bluff near El Morro, New Mexico.

I had the hole – a six-foot-deep beauty – so had only to build the platform** above it as well as the throne that would afford a view of the rocks and stars. 

The platform came out fine. It has 2x8 joists with hangers and braces and plywood that make it strong enough for a herd (if herd is the right word) of square dancing hippos to have a hoe down.

The plywood chute was tight, very tight, tighter than a duck’s butt, as they say, and had to be hammered in.

So all was good, even if the all was simply dealing with basic, foundational needs. 

I like that. I can handle that, more or less. After years teaching college I am ready for a break from all the quibbling over abstraction and self-actualization. All that stuff can be a bit over-rated.

I thought I had it all down, chapter on basics closed. My bride was going to ride our outhouse into the sunset, coasting on the satisfaction that comes with successfully dealing with square one.


Then we went to Gallup this morning for supplies, big stuff like food, a toilet seat, and gas as well as little stuff like finger nail clippers and aspirin . My mountain bike computer battery had gone bad after only five years or so of faithful service, so I was browsing the battery rack of a real store (not many of those where we are in El Morro) and I saw the battery – a flat disk with the designation 2032, the right one. I reached for my back pocket to grab my wallet and it was not there. Hmmm.

Mr. Wallet was last seen paying for gas about five minutes before. It was not like him to go off on his own like this. I began to worry.

I’ll save you the frantic search that followed. The upshot was that my wallet, ID, money, receipts, and all that implies vanished, dissolved, disintegrated, went MIA into the New Mexico ethers between the gas pumps at Giant and the aisles of Safeway.

When entering this level of crisis, the world has a way of jumping into sharp focus. Even the melting tar in the parking lot takes on a karmic importance. The distance and padding between me and “out there” is ripped open and away to reveal  contact and vulnerability. I became one with the panhandlers, day laborers, and derelicts who haunt this particular crossroads.  

I sit here writing this without even two copper pennies to rub together. 

Of course, what this kind of situation brings into focus is what is really valuable. I did have a phone, a laptop, and the keys to my truck,  but that is not what I am talking about.

 I also needed ID to fly to the Midwest in three days. That’s not what I am talking about either.

What I am talking about is my friend Tom. I called him from the bottom of the heap of needs that had to be met before I could continue this crazy adventure called civilized living and summer travel plans.
“Hello Mr. Toso,” he said with his amused formality into the receiver. “How are things?”
“Well, I am here clawing my way to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. I lost my wallet. I am frantic.  No money, no driver’s license, no credit cards. Just a laptop, phone, truck, and a full tank of gas.”
“So, what do you need?” he asked. I knew he was busy with a life of his own: work, family, things to do. I said it anyway.
“My passport.”

 Tom went to my home in Tucson and found my passport. He then Fed Exed it to Albuquerque, where I will catch my flight to Madison, Wisconsin. 

That is what I am talking about. I am near the bottom in terms of needs and am seeing things from the pit beneath my wonderful new outhouse, from the clear perspective of no cash, and what I see is Tom: radiant, light evanescence of Tom. He is my hero. I will never again utter the words pit toilet, abject poverty in a strip mall in Gallup, or online cellular rescue without thinking of Tom, Maslow, and the fragile web that holds us all above a scramble to survive.

* Phrase courtesy of Phyllis Siken
** Design work by Tom "The Man" Brightman