Saturday, November 24, 2012

Finding Will

He was down here somewhere, but ahead of us, probably already in line. It was still dark at 5:00 AM, and we were on our way to meet with Team Colleen and then ride together over to the start of the El Tour de Tucson. 

We were already late, and barricades blocked our going west, toward our first destination of the day. We were directed by traffic police into an alley from which there was no turning around and we were going in the wrong direction. One might say we were off to a blurry and half-baked beginning.

When we got there, there being Chad and Emily McGlamery’s home where we were assembling, we transformed into cyclists -- funny, tight clothes, shoes that are no good for walking -- but this is how we need to be to do what we have to do. Then we set off through the darkness to the start line.  

A year ago, I and a small group of bike buddies, including a wild man from Indiana, had gotten in line toward the front of the sub six-hour group. Today we were back in the six hour and more group.  No problem; we were going to hammer today, to find that man from Indiana.

We, not the royal one, are Mark and Eric Streeter, Team Colleen, and myself. We are riding to remember that wild man, Will Streeter, Mark and Eric’s dad, my friend. It is going to be a long day, one hundred eleven miles, around the city of Tucson.

But we are in good hands. Team Colleen has been doing this kind of ride since 2008. They are going to help us find Will. As the day goes on, we will tire, we will work, we will run into the wall that says “Quit!” and we will be fed by the generosity, the selfless help offered by the expert cyclists of the Team Colleen. 

Colleen, an avid bike racer, died of cancer. Her husband, George, took his grief and turned it into a legacy of helping patients and family affected by cancer. He took Colleen’s passion for cycling and created a team of domestiques to help these patients and family deal with the cancers by setting goals and working toward them. “The fight is the victory,” is one of the mottoes of the group. 

Will understood that and was waiting for us learn it. 

With blinking lights on our bikes we rode through the quiet city over to the start line. Once there, raucous music, bright lights, and a small army of cyclists came together to create a festival atmosphere. I thought I might have caught a glimpse of Will of my way to the porta potties. 

We lined up in the dark. Some things have to be done while it is dark, and this was one of them. This was not a routine day of work and school;  it was a soul day, a day to drill down past complacency, comfort, familiarity. We were going deep to see and feel  life at its most intense.

Patty, Tom, Kathe, and Megan, bless them, brought coffee, warm clothes, and enthusiasm, en theo, with God. We began the wait as butterflies began to circle in the lower regions. Both Mark and Eric looked nervous. We knew Will had gotten here earlier than we had and was somewhere ahead of us in line. We would not see him until we were ready, until we were purified, depleted, scrubbed clean of doubt and distraction.

As the sun lit the sky, we got on the bikes, heard the National Anthem, and began the long roll-out after the gun. The stops and accordion starts of a 6,000 rider mass start gave way to speed and the whistling of wind through wheels, the turning of chains, the positive clicks and thunks of gears finding the right ratio. Our little peloton was a tightly knit, well oiled, speed machine. Chad, Pat, John, Kathryn, Mimi, Emily, Karina, Brian, and others took pulls on the front. We sliced out way forward, closing the gap on Will.

Eric and Mark’s buddies coached them on the finer points of eating, drinking, and relaxing while your front tire followed the wheel in front with only inches of separation. The boys listened and learned, went past old limitations, harnessed channeled their fears into forward motion. We were gaining.

Then we hit the river crossings, the hills, the long rollers that sap legs of snap and strength. It was starting to hurt. Shannon, John, and Ben stepped up to provide a helping hand on the back to get up the longer grades. We all need friends in times like these, and we will never catch Will without accepting help, support, giving in to being carried sometimes. 

Forty, fifty, sixty, seventy miles roll by beneath our wheels. Somewhere the muscles start to tire, to cramp. Eric drinks more than he wants following the advice of the group. Water needs to fall on bushes, porta potties, convenience stores. We listen to the body as it gives us more than it wants to. We push past the easy efforts and enter the zones of pain, of the body begging for relief, but push on. 

The peloton eats up Rattlesnake Pass, where a year before, Will and I had wept from the pain of the effort. We became brothers of shared vision, of pushing past what was easy , of sacrificing for a vision, a goal.

The rough patches of Silverbell led us to a view of the Tucson skyline. We were closing the gap. Will had wanted to finish this ride under six hours. We were going to catch him if we kept this pace. 

As we made the final turn onto Sixth Avenue, the finish line rose ahead of us. The peloton fell behind and Mark, Eric, and I led the charge. We went as deep as we could, and, somewhere in there, caught Will and he caught our wheels. We pulled him in to give him the gift of gold. His sons had come to remember and to give back. They had succeeded. The memory of Will swirled around us as we crossed the line. I felt infused, surrendered, depleted, full, rich in joy and grief. We had made contact.

While the pain of losing does not go away, it can transform into action and service. Will was about learning, teaching, and giving. In order to be strong enough to do that, he pushed himself past perceived limits. I connect with him when I follow his lead, his noble example. 

I will continue to chase him and, once in a while, if I really commit and push myself hard enough, I will catch him. In doing so, I feel peace and joy, the support of a brother of soul, his two sons, and beloved bride.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

All Souls

Tucson, while a surly city on the one hand, has some seriously redeeming attributes. One of them is the All Souls Procession that winds through city streets the first Sunday in November. Do not make the mistake of thinking Halloween here. The ASP is sacred, a tribute to the dead, more Tim Burton than M. Night Shyamalan.

I was in bad emotional shape a few years ago and joined my friends David and Chris in honoring their son of sixteen years who committed suicide in their back yard. 

At the beginning of the procession I wondered just what it was I was doing here with all the monstrous skulls, skeletons, flowers, drummers, dancers, freaks, and fellow mortals. There was an urn, a ten-foot tall caldron that would be burned at the end of the procession, in front of where I stood waiting for the long walk to begin. A priestess of the urn approached me and asked “ Would you like to remember someone by writing their name on this paper and placing it in the urn? It’s a way to let go while connecting to your grief.” 

More out of conformity than real intention, I wrote down my mother’s name, and immediately felt stricken with sadness.  

Within minutes the procession began.

I walked and surrendered to the chaos. 

Then David passed me a drum that his son used to play. I like to drum, but had an injured hand, a deep laceration from a stupid mountain bike stunt. I had it bandaged with a glove over it. 

I pointed to my hand and David just said, “use the sticks. You won’t need to play it with your hand.”

So I took the drum and began to feel the pulse of the crowd. Buhm ba buhm buhm. I picked it up, played with a little ganas and started to feel the blood pump through my chest. Some very lithe and slinky young women painted as skeletons with exposed and curvaceous midriffs began to belly dance to the beat.

The are times when carnality and spirit mingle to create something that has elements of both, but is something else entirely. These dancers embodied Earthly delights, but celebrated letting those go while embracing that which endures. Paradox again. Love this life knowing that it will not last.

I laid into the beat and got lost, or got found, depending on how you look at things. 

The parade, my stride, the flying hands on the sticks, adrenaline, oxytocin all came together to define a “zone” of experience that transcended the sum of the circumstantial parts. I covered miles in that state.

I did not notice the blood pouring out of my glove until we crossed the stage at the end of the procession. It had overflowed the bandages, soaked through my glove, and spilled onto the drumsticks and drum head.

David noticed and said, “Don’t worry about it. I like it. I reminds me of my son. He used to drum so hard he left nothing out.” 

No amount of contrition on my part could sway him, and no amount of scrubbing could clean the head of the stain. 

One of the images associated with Day of the Dead is a heart wrapped in thorns with blood dripping off the beating heart, the corazon espinado. It is a kind of Southwest stigmata.

I can’t claim supernatural influence on my hand, but the bleeding stopped immediately after the procession, and the wound healed abnormally fast.

I don’t know where she is or even if she is, but somewhere I think my mother would not be surprised by that or by much of anything that blends this world with the next.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Alchemy (a parable -- sort of)

Head down, angry, he worries the light switch. It only dims the room he is in, failing to complete the circuit for the dark room he needs to enter. He has to pee and finds the placement of switches irritating.

"Where is the ... switch for the other room, the bathroom?" He leaves what he really wants to say, which is "f--king" switch, unsaid. He swallows the curse and deposits it in the muscle of his neck and shoulder. There the profane poison tightens the sinews, twists the brain.

I stand up and step ahead of him into the dark room, reach around a corner, locate the illogically placed switch, and turn on the lights.

"There you go. Sorry for the lack of rhyme or reason to the electrical around here. This place was built in the 50s and has been remodeled a few times. The switches (plumbing, flat roofs, crumbling adobe, and bizarre architecture, I could add) don't match modern expectations (or code)."

He is not satisfied with this explanation and heads off in a huff to the bathroom.

The architecture is just one more thing that sets him off.

He is me, or rather part of me, and he finds what he is looking for: reasons to be pissed off. All the time.

Tonight it is a headache, a hollow tunnel of echoes, of mental cotton, that is goading on the discontent. He feels beset by this annoyance, this wall standing between him and getting where he wants to be.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to be pissed. Drivers on the way here for one. Does anybody actually watch the road anymore? Or have phones supplanted driving as the primary purpose of sitting in a car? Then there is the cash flow. Always more out than in. And, he wonders, why do I have to work so damned hard?

I follow along like a balloon tethered to a tricycle. This trike has squeaky wheels that wobble, and rusty, loose steering. It takes the power of hydraulic pistons to turn the pedals. But we move along.

Some people would call him impatient. Others just ornery. I see him as a prisoner. He is locked in to seeing things only one way, the way he learned a long time ago. The injuries and angers of childhood can be such a heavy load to tote around.

After finishing in the bathroom he heads back to the gathering. Others are waiting for him, in more ways than one. They stand on tip-toe, hoping that it will happen, that the cords will be severed and that he will join them in the big joke.

Once, not so long ago, under blue a moon, he almost cut it. His heart felt it would burst from the river of energy running through it, like he used to feel, somewhere in memory, all the time. Back then, play was easy and even the smallest of moments a drop of magic.

"Why can't he remember?" I ask. The mystery is waiting just on the other side of a veil, waiting to be called home.

I whisper something. "Go into the dark. Don't worry about the lights. You will find me there."

He listens, sort of. But the other voices are still too familiar, too loud, and rude. They have a monopoly on his fear and attention.

I bide my time. He is starting to wonder just who I am.