A day at a time, a derailleur at a time

For 15 years I’ve swore & cried & sweated to overcome the ever-present urge to numb myself. As one of my Bitches told me, “Reed, you feel BIG.”

My emotions have been (& probably always will be) of the Herculean variety. My joy is usually brighter than rainbow-farting leprechauns while my darkness can be the most blinding, frightening black. It’s scary for me to feel . . . but scarier not to.

March 3rd 2001 was a warm, sunny day I spent riding Frankenbike by myself. I was hung over, ashamed of who I’d become & scared shitless. The unpredictability that ruled my life had shifted from carefree & footloose to dangerous & foreboding. When my unpredictability changed from fun-loving to WTF, I knew I was out of time & choices: I had to change.

Over the course of 5,479 days that necessary change would involve so much more than not drinking. It would require only that I change how I saw everything. That’s it, just everything. And if everything would just stay how I see it at exactly that moment, it’d be easy peasy, but it changes, constantly, & it’s very easy for me to fall back on the old familiar: scary, big feelings that leaving me cowering in corners, hiding, or zipping up the gorilla suit & kicking ass. Neither option is all that great.

For example, today’s March 3rd? It was the end of my second week working as a NEWBIE bike mechanic & I had to build a Salsa El Mariachi. Um, ok? As I unpacked it, the only thing I had going for me was knowing I had to attach the rear derailleur to the hanger. It was a struggle. A head-down, sweaty, brain-scrambling schooling in hydraulic disc brakes, front shock airing & the further nuances of limit screws. It was a scary fucking day. Turns out clutches aren’t just for old tractors & farm trucks. I felt dumb, inept, out of place, inadequate, old & just plain awful. This is the stuff the thirsty little fucker who lies deep down inside me starts excitedly rubbing its hands over.

After the thousandth time of pulling Bobby, Bruce & Adam away from their own projects & even Dan away from his birthday day off, I caught myself thinking, “The jig is up, Homes, you don’t belong here.” That’s when I thought it might happen, when I felt a little tingle behind the eyes. (Big feelings, folks, I still don’t handle them well.) Of course my brain went ape shit: “You’re crying?! You’re the only chick in this bike shop and you’re gonnawpid-0617_ov_baseball_tom_hanks_no_crying_in_baseball cry?!!!” I didn’t. I wanted to. But I didn’t.

Thank gawd I’m not newly sober. Thank gawd I have coaches and cheerleaders who continually remind me how to take my life “a day at a time.” Thank gawd I didn’t start crying until after I’d left the bike shop, when I could talk with another sober person who understood exactly this kind of crazy & how to cut through the thick emotion & remind me, “Dude! It’s all good! You’re learning! You’re new! They didn’t fire you!” Um, yay?

I still want to run, take the easy way out & just hide. But I’ve done that. And it sucks. And every time I do it, it sucks worse! And I’m 45 & I simply lack the constitution for that level of suckage! So I’ll keep at it, just as I’ve been taught, a day at a time, a mile at a time, a derailleur at a time.

Battling consumerism with gratitude

I think there was a time when the holidays excited me. I assume I used to want to break out the decorations and crank up the Bing Crosby.

Today? I’m just tired. It feels like a sham.

Could I be struck with a bit of Grinchitude to quote wordsmith Steven Colbert? Possibly. I can only speak to my own observation of our country and that observation is “depressed.”

I’ve got a good life. A GREAT LIFE! But when I consider the lives of other Americans, those who haven’t had my opportunities and good fortune? I find it difficult to be merry and bright.

There is so much suffering, right here! I don’t have to reminisce about old Sally Struthers commercials for starving Ethiopians, I need only turn on public radio for soundbites on the increasing level of poverty right here in the United States.

That social class I grew up in, the Middle Class? It’s disappearing, folks. Profit margins for big companies are larger than ever, and yet the minions (you and me) are making less and less in jobs that require more work and effort than ever before.

The most recent jobs report noted a smidgeon of wage growth, but today a $10 an hour job (if you’re lucky) brings a lot less into the home than the same wage 10 years ago.

I know I’m not the only one who sees fatigue plaguing us at every turn.

I refuse to shop at that big, blue-bannered box store with the yellow smiley face. We try to shop local and though most employees of local stores appear cheerful, I know they’re struggling. How do I know? Because we all are. Our dollar, at least here, appears to be weakening.

This isn’t new news. This is reality for 99 percent of us. Day in and day out, we fill our fuel tanks, our cupboards, our refrigerators. We work to replenish the bank accounts to once again fill the tanks, cupboards and fridges. It’s the hamster wheel . . . and I want off.

So how do I do this? How do I confront this soul-sucking reality, not to mention the social issues that plague our nation?

A beloved mentor once told me, “When all else fails, count your gratefuls, Jen.”

So here goes:

I’m grateful to be an American. This isn’t necessarily easy for me to say. I hate the tarnish that’s dulled our reputation. I cringe at the behavior of our leaders. And yet I must stay mindful that I live in a country that affords me crazy-good freedoms.

I’m grateful I don’t live with fear for mine or my family’s lives. I don’t worry that my children will be taken from their school and killed. I don’t worry about us being taken by terrorists and tortured. I don’t worry about being murdered for my gender or skin color. I’m grateful to live where these gratefuls are seldom even recognized as such.

I’m grateful I have shelter. Our cupboards are full, our roof doesn’t leak and our furnace keeps us warm. What’s more wonderful than all of this? Knowing that if my world collapsed tomorrow and we were suddenly without such comforts, Marty and I have an incredible family and community that would lovingly shelter us.

I’m grateful to live in rural Iowa. While I totally enjoyed being a “townie” those years Marty and I lived in DeWitt, I adore living in the wilds where, if I need to, I can run out to the clothes line in a towel and not care (though not in December).

I’m grateful for humility and forgiveness. Anyone who knows me well is aware that when I lose my moral focus, I become a massive, oversized jerk. These episodes are often painful and end with me making amends for what I’ve done. I’ve never enjoyed this. Ever . . but when I’ve found the humility to recognize my wrongdoing, the forgiveness that’s been offered me leaves me speechless and often in a puddle.

I’m grateful for family and friends. This may sound a bit too obvious, but my family and I haven’t always been so glad to know each other (see prior grateful). The relationships I have with my family today—my parents, my sisters, my brother, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my nieces, my nephews, the Reeds, the Kroymanns, the Olsons, the Murrells—are the stuff of miracles! And friendships?! My cup of egg nog runneth over.

So there you have it, once again that beloved mentor of mine was right. Nothing turns my gray skies blue like remembering the things that truly matter. I may not be able to effect change on the big picture, but if I can keep these gratefuls in mind, I open myself to small opportunities for little changes. And just thinking about the possibilities drives my Grinchitude away.

Originally published 13 December 2014 in The Observer.

Surgery enables ‘pay it forward’ ops

When last I wrote, my 14-year-old daughter was heading into surgery for a third attempt at a bone graft into her hard palate. Having been born with a unilateral cleft lip and palate, surgery is a common occurrence.

While we can talk and act as if this type of corrective surgery is “no big deal,” when you stop the foods and fluids at midnight, gown her up the following day in a pre-op room, the chin will inevitably quiver.

To help bolster our spirits, I intended to put out the typical Facebook plea for prayer, but as we headed west, I was hit with the following idea surely hatched in the heavens:

“We know there’s oodles of positive vibes being rocketed into the Universe for her, but what if those thoughts, vibes and prayers were put into action? If interested, do one nice thing for someone today to show you believe in humanity! While Mo is totally healthy . . . we’d all fee better knowing good deeds are on the rise today.”

As we waited for Moira to be taken for surgery, her operation was delayed from 1:30 to eventually 4 p.m. During those hours, I read Moira Facebook updates from friends and family who were doing good work in her honor.

A friend of my husband’s told us that she and her coworkers were volunteering to serve a community meal.

A previous co-worker of mine said she sent “cute cards to two elderly friends who don’t have much family” and added she was working on a gift quilt for a person preparing for a bone marrow transplant.

Then one of her doctors came in to discuss the previous week’s pre-surgery appointment in which x-rays taken showed Moira’s wisdom teeth had come in.

After getting our consent to remove those teeth the doctor proceeded to explain a possible change to the graft plan: rather than open her hip and shave bone from the pelvis, doctors would attempt to harvest bone from her lower jaw.

Not only would that alleviate the need for a second surgical site, but the doctor added jaw bone was more dense then hip bone.

All three of us were pretty excited at the idea of no hip surgery, but nothing was for certain until she went in, and the waiting to do so dragged on so we regaled Moira with more Facebook well-wishes.

There was the friend who treated his co-workers to an afternoon snack of hot wings; n aunt, who herself has suffered much more than most of us, shared she’d seen a friend of hers that day.

This friend was upset so my aunt told her about Moira. “Her problems seemed little compared to precious Moira and her journey endured so bravely,” my aunt wrote. “It certainly helped cheer up my very sad friend.”

Then the nurses came to take her back to surgery. Now that she’s older, I no longer get to accompany her into the O.R. so we gave hugs, kisses and Hi-5’s and kept smiling and laughing with her until she was out of sight.

Both Marty and I felt very confident in the University of Iowa’s dental team, but admittedly it doesn’t get any easier watching our daughter be wheeled away. In typical Moira fashion, however, we could hear her continuous chitter-chatter with the nurses awhile after the gurney disappeared around a corner.

The surgery was estimated to take up to four hours so we headed off for food and enjoyed reading a few more Facebook messages, one from a teacher friend of mine who wrote of giving a picture book to a student. Given Moira’s book-worm nature, she thought Moira would appreciate a book-sharing act of kindness.

This student who received the book has a younger sibling living in another state who has no books at home. My friend helped her student read the picture book aloud to their sibling via the wonders of technology and a little thing like video chat.

Then a message from a running buddy popped up. She wrote of the “very nice man who sometimes panhandles for bus money.” The morning of Moira’s surgery, this friend found herself at a Davenport Walgreen’s near where this gentleman was “so I grabbed him some fruit, protein, some cash and a note of caring.”

Finally, another friend wrote of having books to return to a local library and was inspired to ask the librarian to choose someone who owed a fine they couldn’t pay.

“She immediately chose a young woman who recently lost her mother, got kicked out of the place they had been living (and) lost her car,” my friend shared. The young woman also tried to go back to school, but couldn’t maintain her studies. She’s also been unable to find a job.

The mammoth fine she was unable to pay? $3.70. The librarian asked my friend to write a note to the young woman: “Good luck and God bless you! In honor of Mo.”

She then added, “Of course, I cried the entire way to my next stop. It’s so sad that $3.70 is insurmountable to someone out there AND I’m grateful you asked us to do this today because it’s easy to forget the value of ‘little’ kindnesses.”

After about three and a half hours, Moira’s surgeon met with us and appeared relaxed and pleased with how events played out. He told us her jaw provided enough bone that he could place pieces into the hard palate, but also mill additional bone into a sort of cement he packed around the graft.

But the even better surprise was learning part of her second bone graft five years ago was not a painful waste of time. Enough bone had “taken” that it saved a few teeth from falling out and actually created a bridge between the edges of the cleft, requiring less bone for this graft!

Even as I sit and write, I’m amazed at how different this bone graft has gone compared to the previous two! Moira feels so good that we have to remind her not to run, not to wrestle, not to pester her brother.

The change is so drastic that I have to believe these wonderful, random acts of kindness played a part. That we are blessed to know such caring people who refuse to harden their hearts.

I don’t know how the idea came to me or from where it originated, but one thing’s for certain, it inspired beautiful people to shine their lights into the lives of others.

May we all live so inspired . . .

Originally published 7 June 2014 in The Observer.