Reflections on BAK 2016

Two weeks have already passed since Biking Across Kansas (BAK) 2016 concluded at the Missouri border, in Elwood, Kansas. I have learned so much on and through this annual ride. My experiences with BAK epitomize my major goal for this blog: celebrating my passion for cycling and the lessons and insight I glean through it. No doubt, more formidable crucibles exist, but I have found BAK to be a reliable forge for my evolving self. From my first BAK in 1999, when I was a runner-turned-novice-cyclist, accompanying my then-boyfriend (now husband), to my 18th BAK, as a seasoned veteran and BAK Board Member, I have moved through many phases of life; gained and lost animal and human companions, jobs and life directions; encountered physical and environmental challenges and felt my way through parenthood. Every BAK is different and special in its own way. These are my reflections on BAK 2016.

  • We are almost always tougher than we think—if we give ourselves the chance to find out. I think my first real inkling of this occurred when I trained for, and completed, my first marathon, the 1996 New York City Marathon. After my introductory BAK three years later, my mom asked, “How did you know you could do it?” I realized that my experience in the NYC Marathon, as well as the encouragement and example that my husband and his friends provided, allowed me to have the sense of self-efficacy necessary to attempt to ride across the state. This year, I was privileged to help my son Logan discover that he, too, is tougher than he realized. Logan has grown up around cycling and has participated in BAK every year since I hauled him into the wind and up the Blue Hills in my belly. He has accumulated some road miles for each of the last four years, but this year, on a new road bike, he smashed his previous record and greatly surpassed his goals. At one point, while he and I were riding late in the week after leaving a SAG (support stop) where he had been complimented, I said, “People are really impressed with you, and they are amazed by how well you are riding.” He giggled and said, “Yeah, me too.” The 309 miles he rode boosted his confidence and helped him to realize that he is capable of taking on challenges that some may find unreasonable or impossible. I hope that this awareness carries over into other arenas in his life as he prepares to enter middle school this fall and beyond. The confidence that I have built by accomplishing challenging cycling goals continues to be invaluable for me.
  • I felt stronger than ever. Last year, my as-yet-undiagnosed B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy were at their peak on BAK. While I enjoyed the ride, I knew something was not right, and I had thermoregulation issues that caused me a lot of discomfort and concern. I did not really tell anyone how much I was suffering at times. Once I was diagnosed and eliminated the supplements that led to the B6 toxicity, I began in earnest to make a conscious effort to minimize the negative stress in my life, manage unavoidable stress more effectively and optimize my nutrition. I was delighted to find this year that I felt strong and healthy on BAK. At one SAG in Highland, KS, a man told me, “It is just fun to watch you go up the hills. It is like your legs are just carrying you up like a little water bug.” While I appreciated the compliment, he might have retracted it if he had seen me in the hot, hilly headwind stretch that followed that SAG. However, I truly did feel strong and in control over the course of the week, perhaps stronger than on any previous BAK. It was a nice testament to the efficacy of the changes I have made in my life.
  • The wind is just wind, and the hills are just hills. As I mentioned in my introductory post about my blog’s namesake quote, there was a time when I allowed myself to become stressed and frazzled by wind. There was also a time when seeing upcoming hills could psych me out. Since my son rode with me for 309 miles on a very hilly route, I had a lot of opportunity to observe his reactions to hills and wind. When we had a cornering tailwind, he enjoyed the hills and did not worry over them. Later in the week, though, when we faced some challenging hills in strong headwind, his enthusiasm for the hills waned. I tried to share my hard-earned wisdom with him. I have learned that I will get up the hill, albeit a slow, effortful slog at times. I will also reach my destination in the headwind. That, too, can be slow and painful, but I have learned to stay calm in both those conditions, as well as to remain unruffled in crosswind. Those can be unnerving, especially in hills, because the wind currents can become unpredictable and scary. I have learned how to talk to myself to stay calm and collected and peaceful. I tried to help Logan do this, too. I think my words helped occasionally, but I realized that experience is often the most convincing coach. He will probably have to learn these lessons on his own, in order to truly internalize them. Watching him allowed me to reflect on my gratitude for these cycling lessons and to recognize how much I have used them over the past year, as I have worked to manage my stress in healthier ways and to be happier in my daily life.
  • Life is more fun if I am flexible and adaptable. There will be wind, and there will be hills, and I just need to flow with them. Biking Across Kansas provides abundant surprises and unpredictability. Will showers be warm, ice cold, a weak trickle or a needle-like spray? Where will we sleep tonight? What vegan dinner options will be available? On BAK and, I have found, in life, approaching the unknown with a sense of adventure, rather than dread, makes the ride and life much more enjoyable. If I remember the underlying truth—that there is nowhere I would rather be than BAK—I can weather minor inconveniences and irritations without allowing them to spoil the fun. The same is true when navigating the mundane realities of life.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have been called “rigid” more than once. I prefer the terms “disciplined” and “driven.” I do acknowledge that I can sometimes benefit from relaxing. My nutritional plan on BAK is a perfect example. I never waver in my veganism, but it is not always easy or even possible to meet every one of my daily nutritional objectives while cycling through rural Kansas. This year, I did not always get as many servings of beans or greens as I would have preferred. It is tough to eat exclusively whole-grain pasta or bread, like I do at home. I promised myself this year that I would relax, do the best I could and not allow myself to become stressed if my nutrition was not perfect. I controlled what I could and let go of the rest, and I was very happy and got plenty to eat.
  • Friendships formed and strengthened amidst shared challenge are unique and special. BAK provides an extraordinary medium for growing friendships. Longtime BAKers have shared memories of battling the elements together for many miles over many years. I enjoyed riding quite a few miles this year with my friend David, whose long-ago, matter-of-fact statement about the wind inspired the name of my blog. We share a special bond because of the road battles we have fought together and because of our common love of cycling. We have suffered and survived an 80-mile day with cold, torrential rain, small hail and 45-mph wind. He has stuck by me (twice) when I was slower than slow because of terrible heat cramps. He has worked on my bike roadside when I had mechanical problems. A few years ago, my friend Denise and I rode for a day with two young cross-country runners from Wamego, teaching them how to draft. Even my marriage is a result of cycling. My husband was literally on his bike when we met, and almost all of our dating and early-marriage entertainment was cycling. There is just something special about persevering together when it would be easier to quit.
  • Sometimes easier is better. Before Kenny and I got together, he was a confirmed tenter on BAK. There was no sleeping inside the schools for him. I love sleeping in a tent, so I joined him in his conviction that the tent was the place to be. Once Logan came along, managing the tent and getting on the road in the mornings became more complicated. Over the past few years, and especially now that Logan is riding, rather than sleeping in, we have both realized that sometimes it is just easier and more fun to have one less thing to handle in the mornings (or even in the evenings). There used to be a sort of pride around sleeping in the tent, no matter what. Not anymore. This matches the question that I try to use to make decisions in the rest of life these days: “Will it bring more stress or more peace to my life?” Sometimes easier is better. Kenny and I both owned that truth more fully this year than in the past. We slept inside six of the eight nights. It was easier, and that allowed us both to enjoy BAK more.

A concentrated week spent focused on the bike really illuminates the lessons I learn from cycling. I made a conscious effort this year to enjoy every moment and to avoid dreading my return to real life. Although I would head back out to the Colorado border right now to ride BAK again, I have been fairly successful at cherishing the experiences I had on BAK 2016 and allowing them to enrich my daily life, rather than to look back only with sad nostalgia, wishing my real life were different, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

My goal now is to carry what I have learned from BAK 2016 with me on my training rides at home and in my daily activities as a mom, a wife, an academic advisor, a vegan advocate, a blogger and my assorted other roles. Doing so is evidence that I have truly internalized and incorporated into my being the gifts of the ride.

LoganFirstFullDayBAK2016

Lives and Lifelines

As it often does when I am moving in some way, my mind wandered when I was walking home from my son’s basketball game a couple weeks ago. I don’t recall the specific stream of consciousness that led me to the thought that it often seems like I have lived several different lives. As that thought occurred to me, I wondered if I was the only one who often feels that way and if most people experience life as one coherent path.

I find that it is often easier not to allow my thoughts to linger too long on past phases of life. Pain, disappointment, shame and regret stain some of those memories. There is happiness, too, but when I think about life this way—in compartmentalized lives—the negative emotions are the ones that push my thoughts quickly from one to the next.

Anatole France explained this phenomenon well. “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Reading his words, I realized that at least some other people must feel the same way.

For me, the melancholy is not nostalgia or wanting to “go back” to some previous stage of life, although there may be certain individuals or feelings that I miss.

It is more that I have needed to let go of a phase—to die to one life—in order to move into the next.  Frequently, the past lives that I tend to push out of my mind are those that ended with at least some degree of involuntariness—deaths of animals and humans I loved, disappointments in jobs, hard decisions that had to be made because of life circumstances.

Sometimes I have died so completely to a life that, as far as I know, people who have more recently come into my life have no knowledge of something that once may have been a huge aspect of my identity or fact of my life. Often, that is because I want it that way. It is easier than getting into details of the past and less painful than bringing up a topic that still has a lot of heartache around it.

I wonder—does this make me less than honest? Or does it mean that I am living in the present? Is it healthy to die to the past lives, or is it just a way of repressing pain and other negative feelings? Maybe it is a little bit of all these things, and the fact is that we are so overloaded with information in the present that there is rarely room for ventures back in time.

There is a ritual in the Unitarian Universalist tradition (and some others) called the Burning Bowl Ceremony. It is usually done at the beginning of a new year, but my son and I performed our own ceremony at the 2015 winter solstice. In a Burning Bowl ceremony, people write down things they would like to leave behind, place them in a bowl and burn them as a symbolic release of habits, relationships, ideas, problems, worries and other things that may be dragging them down. I certainly haven’t done that for every phase in my life, but in our 2015 ceremony, I included generic categories of shame and regret because I had felt myself too often dwelling there in the past year. It felt cleansing and has been largely effective.

Maybe that is why I am noticing the phenomenon described by Anatole France more acutely than I have in the past. Maybe the release of certain “lives” is more complete and conscious than it has been in the past.

I think it is sometimes necessary to shed some excess baggage in order to move forward to the next phase. Maybe this is intrapersonal evolution, although not all changes feel that way in the moment. Perhaps they are all part of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth that is part of gaining wisdom, although it sometimes feels more like cynicism, I notice.

In any case, France’s words resonated with me and validated the ideas that had been going through my head.

I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s words from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”

Maybe that is what it is all about—having the resilience to move with some grace from one phase of life to the next, and the only way to do that is to die to one life, to put down the baggage that adds unnecessary weight.

Maybe those lives have already done their work to shape us. I believe we retain the growth. Even if our minds don’t go back, the changes that those lives and even the loss of those lives effected in us are part of us now and forever, part of that journey that Maya Angelou recognized as an indelible aspect of her identity.

Writing about this does induce—or maybe arise from—a sense of melancholy. Again, it is not nostalgia, not a desire to return, but a recognition of having come through an important leg of the lifelong journey—like turning out of a long stretch of headwind on the bike. It may have worn us out in the short term, but in the long run, we will grow from it.

Just as important as moving forward on our journeys without carrying undue burdens from the past are the people, activities and values that have seen us through many or all of the phases of our lives. Those are the threads that connect all the different lives—the ones that have died, the one we are currently living and the ones that we will live in the future. They are the constants, integral to our identities.

Cycling has been a constant for me. Although I didn’t start cycling seriously and passionately until I was 28, the avocation became so much more and attached itself to my personal value system. The attachment has grown tighter—indeed has been a lifeline—as I have lost dogs, people, career paths, identities, dreams. I am grateful that, while I can let go of what weighs me down, I have aspects of my life that allow me to continue to find my way and remember who I am at my core as I push forward.

I think France and Angelou understood that the journey is all about learning what we need to learn in a phase of life, dying to it when circumstances dictate and holding tightly to the threads that form the lifeline to connect one life to the next. Recognizing that the lifeline is there even alleviates some of the melancholy associated with the serial dying that we must do in order to keep on living.

My 3 R’s

According to Wikipedia, the concept of the “3 R’s” as the foundation of a solid education probably originated in a 1795 speech by Sir William Curtis. The 3 R’s generally refer to “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic,” although arithmetic may have been “reckoning” in the past, as that was the term commonly used for math during the era when the catchphrase was popularized. The mnemonic has been borrowed by a number of other sectors outside of education, such as the environmental movement’s familiar 3 R’s of solid waste: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

While on a bike ride a while back, it occurred to me that I have my own personal 3 R’s: Reading, ‘riting and Riding (or I could call them my 3 B’s: Bikes, Books and Blogging—with “Blogging” standing in for writing, in general). I think all of us need to determine those things that are foundational for us, those things that are central to our identities and to how we navigate the world. There may be more or fewer than three, and they may not lend themselves to such neat alliteration, but we all have activities without which we would be very different people. I think these are passions, but also habits—those things we regularly do that shape our days and our thoughts.

It takes time to determine what these key activities are, and they may change over time as we grow with life experience. Recognizing the importance of our 3R equivalents is valuable because doing so allows us the opportunity to emphasize them in our lives, enabling them to anchor us and advance our evolution.

I have loved to read since I was very young, and I have always read a lot. After years of reading primarily textbooks, journal articles and other assigned works, I can still remember the amazing feeling, after completing my first Master’s degree, when I realized suddenly, “I can read whatever I want!” Once I adjusted to that freedom, I happily undertook a fervent and intentional lifelong learning journey, fueled primarily through reading nonfiction books across a wide range of genres.

When my brother gave me a Kindle for Christmas several years ago, I wasn’t sure if it would appeal to me because I was an avid user of the public library. Now, Kindle has become my primary reading medium. The downside is that I spend more money on books because I have generally found library Kindle offerings to differ from my preferences. The convenience offered by Kindle has made the cost worthwhile for me. Instead of struggling to find time in my full schedule to get to the library, now, when I learn about a book I want to read, I can have it on my electronic book shelf within a minute. When I travel, I can easily take multiple books with me. I always have my Kindle in my bag when I leave the house. Reading calms me and prevents my mind from going places I don’t want it to go. It allows me to learn about virtually any subject. It helps me grow personally and develop professionally. Reading generates ideas within me that I can then process through my other two R’s.

I have loved to write since my time in Catholic schools. Sr. Boniface introduced me to diagramming sentences in the fourth grade, spawning an enduring passion for grammar and language and a recognition of the power in understanding how to structure sentences and arrange them in compelling ways. I started college as an English major because I loved English in high school and felt relatively competent in my use of language. Although my major changed, my love for writing didn’t. I have always been grateful for my strong early foundation in writing skills.

My relationship with writing has fluctuated throughout adulthood. Sometimes, I have written only for myself, in my journal. Writing was one of the aspects of my undergraduate and graduate programs that I most enjoyed. I have often felt that I am able to articulate my ideas more capably in writing than in conversation. The urge to do something more with writing has nagged me sporadically, sometimes strongly. For years, despite bursts of ambition, I tucked away my desire to expose my writing to scrutiny from a broader audience than the academic, professional and voluntary settings in which I had written. Finally, late last summer, the pull became strong enough that I was moved to start this blog. It felt like a risk to put my writing out there and make it public, but it also felt like something I needed to do. Taking steps to expand my writing gives me hope beyond feelings of constraint and pushes me to pursue a larger vision.

And then there is riding, my third (but certainly not tertiary) R. Before there was cycling, there was running and other exercise for me, but cycling has been my true athletic passion for many years now. I am still awed by the distance that can be covered on a bike. My bike is the place where what I read is often masticated, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, and digested into what I write. My time on the bike clarifies my ideas about the things I am reading, the stressors I am facing or the puzzles I am pondering. Several of my blog posts have been written largely in my head, while on my bike. The same is true for previous presentations and strategic plans.

Of course, I love the physical challenge and benefits of cycling, but the mental and emotional boosts are what make it so foundational for me. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. . . .  The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I have certainly found this to be true. My thinking is so much clearer, and I feel energized for hours after a ride where I have pushed hard.

Other people, things, projects and work are important to me, but these 3 R’s center and focus me, help me regain equilibrium when I am thrown off balance by life and help me remember who I am.

As I have worked on this blog over the last four months, I have realized that, while cycling was and remains, the primary inspiration for this blog, there are other aspects of my life that intersect with my time on the bike to round out the bigger picture of the story I want to convey. So, for 2016, I have updated my blog purpose to: celebrate my passion for cycling and books, while sharing the lessons I learn and the insight I glean through the intersection of cycling, reading and writing in my life. My 3 R’s.

What are those things that are foundational for you? Central to who you are and how you process life? While yours are likely different than mine, I believe we all have them, and they are vital keys to a rich life. Paying attention to the things that make us feel most alive and allow us to find Csikszentmihalyi’s flow enables us to reap rich rewards and further our personal evolution.

My Favorite Books in 2015

Along with cycling, reading is one of my lifelines. It is an escape, a friend and means to lifelong learning. I read a lot, mostly while doing other things—folding laundry, washing dishes, brushing my teeth, etc.—and before I go to sleep. For several years, I have kept a log in Evernote of the books I have read during a given year, and I have also rated them on Goodreads. I thought it would be fun to post a list of the books I found most enjoyable, meaningful or informative in 2015. I present them here, roughly categorized by genre, mostly in the chronological order in which I read them within the genres. These are the books that I gave four or five stars in Goodreads.
Health
Talking Back to OCD: The Program That Helps Kids and Teens Say “No Way”—and Parents Say “Way to Go,” by John S. March—March explains practical, accessible advice for helping children help themselves cope with and conquer Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande—Atul Gawande is one of my favorite authors. His latest book provides useful, provocative questions to assist loved ones facing end-of-life decisions or to make well-considered decisions about our own mortality.
Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain and Move With Confidence, by Eric Goodman—This book led to a life-enhancing daily practice for me. It has helped me significantly reduce hip and lower back pain, increase my cycling speed and efficiency and engage my hamstrings more effectively. I purchased the DVD set after several weeks of daily practice and have given the book/DVD package as gifts. I strongly recommend this book and this practice.
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, by David Adam—Adam elucidates the suffering caused by OCD, using scientific information, anecdotal accounts and personal experience.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh—Henry Marsh writes an admirably candid account of his career—and especially his mistakes—as a neurosurgeon. I was in awe of his courageous honesty, which he asserts is critical to practicing good medicine.
The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate, by Harriet Lerner—Lerner provides practical guidance for having tough conversations that can be critical to healthy relationships of all kind.
Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, by Joe Palca—As someone whose sensitivities have increased with age, I found this study of sensory irritation to be fascinating.
Memoir
The Road Less Taken: Lessons From a Life Spent Cycling, by Kathryn Bertine—Bertine’s memoir of women’s professional cycling life demonstrates the differences between men’s and women’s professional cycling, as well as the particular challenge of breaking into professional cycling past age 30.
The Wild Truth: The Untold Story of Sibling Rivalry, by Carine McCandless—In this story behind Into the Wild, by John Krakauer, Carine McCandless details the horrific and complex childhood that led to her brother’s disappearance.
The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year, by Matt McCarthy—This candid memoir was both entertaining and informative, as well a little scary.
It Was Me All Along, by Andie Mitchell—Mitchell’s courageous account of her battle with weight would be inspirational to anyone who has struggled with weight or body image.
Hiding From Myself, by Bryan Christopher—In this powerful memoir, Christopher openly shares his painful journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, as someone who fiercely fought the realization that he was gay, while growing up and coming of age in an evangelical Christian environment.
A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise: 9 Steps to Giving Up Everything So You Too Can: Move to a South Pacific Island, Wear a Loincloth, Read a Hundred Books, Diaper a Baby Monkey, Build a Bungalow, by Alex Sheshunoff—This book was mostly just funny, but with an inspirational, wistful edge.
Nutrition/Cooking
The Campbell Plan: The Simple Way to Lose Weight and Reverse Illness, Using The China Study’s Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet, by Thomas M. Campbell II—A follow-up to The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, this book provides incredibly important information that is not always readily available through mainstream media. Whether or not you care about justice for non-human animals, there is critical health information here.
The 22-Day Revolution: The Plant-Based Program That Will Transform Your Body, Reset Your Habits, and Change Your Life, by Marco Borges—More great ideas for implementing the vegan lifestyle are presented in this book.
The PlantPure Nation Cookbook: The Official Companion Cookbook to the Breakthrough Film . . . With over 150 Plant-Based Recipes, by Kim Campbell—This has become my favorite cookbook! I have made many recipes from it and love them all.
Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, by Ginny Messina—This is the woman-specific companion to Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, which is also great. Here, Messina addresses different life stages and details nutrition and supplementation (minimal) for vegan women.
Cooked Raw, by Matthew Kenney—Although this is more memoir than nutritional guide, it made me want to incorporate even more raw food into my diet. I was also awed and encouraged by Kenney’s persistence in the face of struggle.
Personal/Professional Development
Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, by Tom Rath—I have been a fan of Tom Rath’s writing for several years. Here, he draws on incredible personal challenges to share what he has learned about living more fully right now.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin—I have enjoyed Gretchen Rubin in the past, but I became an even bigger admirer after reading this smart memoir/how-to about instituting positive habits.
Start Something That Matters, by Blake Mycoskie—This book really lit a spark for me and was the beginning of the inspiration that led to this blog.
Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You From Ordinary to Extraordinary, by Linda Kaplan Thaler & Robin Koval—Thaler and Koval share what they have learned about the value of perseverance to success in all aspects of life.
Rising Strong, by Brene Brown—Brown left me feeling encouraged and more confident in owning my whole story shamelessly.
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, by Shawn Achor—Achor provided a new (for me) take on positive psychology, one that posits that happiness may be the key to success, and not vice versa.
Before Happiness: How Creating a Positive Reality First Amplifies Your Levels of Happiness and Success, by Shawn Achor—I enjoyed Achor’s previous book so much that I read this one to gain a better understanding of the importance of emphasizing happiness before all else.
Happier at Home: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Cram My Day with What I Love, Hold More Tightly, Embrace Here, and Remember Now, by Gretchen Rubin—For some reason, I had resisted reading this book for quite a while, but reading Rubin’s latest book changed my mind. All of her books provide useful suggestions, presented in the context of engaging memoir.
SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games, by Jane McGonigal—Totally out of character for me, the concept of living gamefully was presented in such a way that I was inspired to try several challenges and techniques. I just used one yesterday to divert my brain from a direction I didn’t want to go. I came away with useful strategies that I will continue to use, even if I am not playful by nature.
True Crime & Justice
The Innocent Killer: The True Story of a Wrongful Conviction and Its Astonishing Aftermath, by Michael Griesbach—A haunting true crime tale that illustrates how wrongful convictions can happen and how complicated the legal system can be.
2015 Serial Killers True Crime Anthology: Volume 2, by Peter Vronsky (Ed.)—A collection of recent true crime writing about fascinating, terrifying serial killers.
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore—A young man recognizes how different his life could have been when he reads a news report about a man with his same name, who grew up very close to where he did, but who ended up in prison, instead of in college. Here, the author shares their dual histories and the story of the relationship he forged with the incarcerated Moore.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson—Stevenson tells the stories of his career in social justice and the tragedy that can occur when innocent, indigent people are wrongly convicted.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy Leagues, by Jeff Hobbs—Hobbs does an outstanding job of telling the story of his friend who seemed to beat the odds, but ended up succumbing to his environment. It is a powerful story of the challenges so many people face in trying to carve a successful, meaningful life for themselves.
Writing
The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr—Karr’s discussion of her love for nonfiction really resonated with me, and I came away from her memoir-writing guide with a strong appreciation for the critical importance of accuracy and clarity in writing memoir.

I always love suggestions for great nonfiction reads and hope you enjoy mine. If you have read a great book this year, please share it in Comments.

My Happiness Strategies

I am excited to share some of the strategies I am using to boost my happiness and manage stress in a healthier, more life-affirming way, but I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone because I feel the need to collect my strategies in one place. My progress on this journey feels a bit tenuous—like a setback could make me forget everything I am learning about living a more mentally healthy life. If you read my last post, you know that I had been internalizing stress to the point that I felt desperate enough to overdo B6 supplementation, resulting in self-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy.

I see these happiness strategies as dynamic lifelines. Their comparative value may fluctuate as I move through life. They are presented in no hard and fast order. All have value to me, and all are making a difference.

  1. Mantras: I have mentioned previously my love of quotes. My mantras derive from my quote collection in most cases. Usually, a quote inspires me to personalize the words into an affirmation or reminder for myself. Some mantras remain constant for years. Others are more fleeting, serving me well for a time, until I seem to outgrow them or to move into a different phase in my life. I repeat these to myself, usually in my head, sometimes aloud, often many times a day. Here are the mantras that are currently serving me most effectively:
    1. I do what I can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then I let it go. Derived from an Elizabeth Gilbert quote, this mantra is arguably my most important mental lifeline right now. I am in an intensely busy phase at work. There is really no way to get everything done that I would like to get done “within a reasonable time frame.” In order to sustain myself through this intensity, avoid burning out and resist a spiral back into unmanaged stress, I had to redefine what constituted a reasonable time frame and adjust my expectations. This is difficult for me because excellence is one of my core values. But, I cannot sustain excellence if I am so stressed that I am damaging my health. So, I have Gilbert’s quote posted above my computer at work, and I repeat the personalized mantra countless times throughout the day to calm myself and to remember that I am only one person, trying hard to do good work, in a limited amount of time, with multiple responsibilities pulling me various directions.
    2. I am deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that I do. This mantra is a balm to counter resentment at the bureaucracy, the mundaneness and the minutiae of life that can wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. Louise Hay deserves credit for this mantra, because it was inspired by her words, “Find a way to be deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that you do.” (Also posted above my work computer.) “Finding a way” is a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of this mantra. When I repeat this mantra to myself, I challenge myself to identify meaning in my activities of the day or even the moment. How does what I am doing right now (or what I did today) fulfill me? What meaning have I created? What value have I added? It is a useful mental exercise that helps me to keep or regain perspective, when I feel the threat or reality of being swept up in the tide of constant appointments and/or obligations. When I challenge myself to identify and acknowledge the meaning in what I do, I feel calmer and, truly, more fulfilled.
    3. My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behavior and create the world I envision. This mantra has been part of my daily self-talk for years, and I often use it to ward off fear and to remind myself how powerfully I shape my own reality by the way I approach life. Although I don’t fully subscribe to the Law of Attraction, I do believe that how I choose to define myself and my circumstances influences how I experience life. I find myself repeating this quote while cycling as I approach an area where I have had problems with a dog. It gives me strength and feels a bit like a talisman. Whether or not it actually wards off chasing canines, I can’t say for sure, but it allows me to feel more powerful and more capable and it reminds me to expect the best and to do as much as I can to help myself.
    4. I am happy. I am healthy. I am peaceful. I am free. This is an adaptation of the Loving-Kindness Meditation. These words calm me and induce gratitude. I enhance the benefits when I extend the meditation to friends and family, those who don’t understand me and all beings. (e.g., May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be peaceful. May they be free.) My heart expands when I take the time and make the mental effort to extend these wishes to others. I feel more generous, more peaceful and happier.
    5. I choose happiness. I use this to shove unproductive thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I couple this with an emphatic, often audible, “This is my time!” I do this especially on my bike. Processing emotions and issues is one thing; allowing myself to haul the baggage someone else (or a situation) creates is another. I shed the baggage by remembering that I choose happiness, not the weight of victimhood.
  2. Three things that went well today: I mentioned this practice in a previous post. Each night before I go to bed, I write in my journal three things that went well during the day and why. I have done this practice, recommended by Martin Seligman, for several years, and I treasure it as a way to center, reflect on the day and focus on the positive. Even on very difficult days, I challenge myself to find three good things to record. Sometimes they are profound; sometimes they are mundane, but the practice makes a big difference to my overall outlook. I practice on a miniature, mental scale throughout the day. If I leave work feeling stressed, I recall three good things from the day as I walk to my car or drive home. Sometimes, I use a variation of this in the morning. If I feel draggy and reluctant as my alarm sounds, I find three things to which I can look forward that day.
  3. Does it/will it bring me more peace or more stress? This question is a very important strategy for me. I ask myself variations of it many times throughout the day, particularly when I am at a decision point. Will eating this chocolate bring me more stress or more peace? Which item on my task list is causing me the most stress? Once I identify it, completing it becomes top priority. If I attend this function, will it bring me more stress or more peace? To the extent that it is possible, the choice that adds peace and/or minimizes stress is what I select.
  4. “I have three criteria to apply to any item trying to make its way onto my to-do list: Is the activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary?” – Amy Tiemann: When I read this in Amy Tiemann’s Mojo Mom, several years ago, I was struck by its wisdom. There are so many obligations and options competing for our time; it made sense to have some criteria with which to choose those most worthy of my precious minutes. I try to ask myself these questions before accepting a responsibility, taking on a task or attending a function. Of course, these are subjective criteria, but they promote awareness and conscious decision making. They minimize the risk that I will agree to do something solely out of guilt, thus lessening the chance of resentment.
  5. Year-round cycling: Cycling is such an important part of my life. Its value cannot be overstated. I am unquestionably a nicer, healthier, higher-functioning person because I have cycling in my life. I am a proponent of exercise, in general, and I look for ways to add movement to my day. But, cycling is special. I cherish the time I am on my bike, even on rides like yesterday morning’s, when I was battered by a raw north wind for most of my 50 miles. I have typically declared the end of daylight savings time in November until it begins again in March to be my off-season. This year, acknowledging how hard fall and winter are for me, I have decided that I will maintain some level of cycling throughout the year. I will still have an off-season, in that my rides will be relegated mostly to short (15-20 miles) weekend rides. I will need to invest in more cold-weather cycling gear, but I think it will make the winter months easier to bear and will allow me small doses of the mood boost I get from cycling throughout the year.
  6. Reading: Like cycling, reading is invaluable to me. I am always reading a book (99.9% nonfiction), and I always have books waiting for me on my Kindle and in a stack. Having a book with me wherever I go serves as a security blanket. I grow so much through reading and through processing many of the ideas I encounter in books while I am on the bike. I have been focusing heavily on positive psychology and happiness literature recently (currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home), but I read many other types of books, too. I read whenever and wherever I can. While an undergraduate, working full time during the day and going to school at night, I got into the habit of reading while brushing my teeth, getting dressed, folding laundry, etc. I still do that. I can read while washing dishes by using my elbow to change the pages of my Kindle. I love to learn, and reading is one way I can take control of my lifelong education and personal development. As I drive home from work, a joy often pops into my mind: “I will have opportunities to read!”
  7. Quotes: Beyond personalizing quotes into mantras, I refer to my five volumes of collected quotes multiple times throughout the day while at home, randomly selecting words of wisdom through a ritual I have used for years. One change in recent months is that I give myself permission to select another random quote if the first (or subsequent) one doesn’t speak to me in the moment. I then ponder these quotes, especially in situations where I won’t have the opportunity to read or will have the opportunity to think (before turning off my book light to go to sleep, before leaving in the car, before getting on my bike, before getting into the shower, etc.). This practice calms me or sometimes excites and inspires me. Even quotes I recorded years ago suddenly may be particularly resonant.
  8. Blog: This blog arose out of my personal quest for happiness. Writing is one of the ways I center and process, plus, I have found myself with an urge to share the lessons I learn through cycling and reflection. I have a loose vision for the future of this blog, but, for now, it is a creative outlet that I hope others find helpful. However, its value to me is not dependent on whether or not it benefits others. Writing it is an end in itself. Taking the time to do so feels like a luxury. It would be easy to say that I can’t afford the time, but I think the truth is that I can’t afford not to take it.
  9. #100HAPPYDAYS: When I saw a post about this project on Facebook, I knew that I was ripe to participate. Having recently learned the cause of my neurological symptoms and being struck by the reality that stress, anxiety and depression contributed to them, I was committed to enhancing my own happiness. #100HAPPYDAYS extends beyond “three things that went well today” because it forces a more active pursuit of happy moments. Since I have to take a photo to post some symbol of happiness that occurred during the day, it is not enough to retrospectively reflect and choose good things; I have to look for them actively and capture them with my camera. This turns my focus more often to the positive.
  10. Push myself: For me, this mostly involves cycling. I find that I am more energized if I ride on the other side of comfortable several times a week. I feel good about my gains, and my body benefits from the endorphins released by the vigorous exercise.
  11. Vocation: I owe my renewed appreciation for the word and the concept of vocation to Elizabeth Gilbert. In Big Magic, her discussion of vocation helped me to recognize an often-missed coherence to my daily life and to my lifelong personal and professional journey. At this point in my life, “vocation” is a more useful construct than “mission” or “purpose.” My vocation encompasses both the way I live my life and the work I do. I see the value that each leg of my journey has brought to the whole of my vocation. I find peace and comfort in this view. My blog, my paid work, my veganism, my cycling—all are components of my vocation.
  12. Devaluing “busyness”: I recognize that, for several years, busyness has been my signature state. When people asked how I was, I often responded, “Busy.” I equated commitment to busyness, excellence to busyness and responsibility to busyness. Now, I can see where that got me, and I want to put busyness in its appropriate place. Yes, my calendar is still full—very often fuller than I would like or fuller than my introversion would choose—but I have pushed busyness off its pedestal and recognize that whatever benefits wearing that label may have given me, the costs were greater. I have changed my language so that I try to refer to my schedule as “full,” rather than busy. The difference may be semantic, but “full” connotes abundance to me, while “busy” connotes stress.
  13. Redefining success: As someone who has always pursued straight A’s and high academic achievement, I have too often felt shame at my nonlinear career and income trajectories. It is easy to say to myself that someone with two master’s degrees should be making more money than I do. But, have I ever really chosen my work for the salary? That has always been a secondary or even tertiary or lower criterion, probably to my fiscal detriment, but integrity and, yes, vocation, have always been more important. I can acknowledge that the financial return on my academic investment is probably lower than I would have hoped or than most people would expect, but I do feel like the work I have chosen to do throughout my career has generally made positive differences in people’s lives and to the world, albeit in incremental ways. A quote I found in UU World magazine several years ago (I believe this is a paraphrase of a quote by Mother Teresa.) said, “Every action makes a ripple. The ripples change the world.” I hope that I will make enough positive ripples that there will be more compassion and less suffering, more excellence and less complacency, more integrity and less insincerity and more fitness and less squandering of potential in the world. If I accomplish those things, then I will have been successful.
  14. Limiting exposure: Sometimes the world can feel so heavy. As an ethical vegan, the suffering experienced by nonhumans and humans alike can be seriously depressing. I have found that I simply must limit my exposure to the sad stuff. Compassion fatigue is real, and I have a strong tendency toward it. I am aware that there is a line between burying my head in the sand and overdosing on vicarious suffering, sadness and bad news, and I try to stay reasonably balanced between the two. My veganism provides an example. I have been vegetarian for over 33 years and became vegan over seven years ago. For the intervening 26 years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough. Finally, I knew that, in order to live my values with integrity, I needed to educate myself more thoroughly about the suffering of animals in the dairy or egg industries. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. I continued to learn more, but reached a saturation point, especially after the heartbreaking loss of my special dog Andy in 2011. I realize that, in so many ways, Andy’s death was a crucial turning point in my life, representing far more than the pain of that loss. I am a committed vegan. There is no turning back for me, so there is no point in continuing to torture myself by reading or watching animal suffering. It is more productive to focus on what I can do to contribute positively to the world, rather than to become unbearably weighted down with the sadness of the world.
  15. Adjusting my expectations: This is related to the first mantra I discussed in this post. Living this mantra means that I have to adjust my expectations, but I am careful to distinguish between that and lowering my standards. Instead of demanding that I address every email before I leave work, I use my “more peace or more stress?” strategy to determine my highest priorities for the following day, and I move on “in a reasonable time frame.” It makes a difference. Another area where I have adjusted my expectations is this blog. Initially, I committed to posting at least once a week. I have found that life doesn’t always allow that without undue stress. Since Just Wind is one of my happiness strategies, pushing myself to produce substandard work, just for the sake of staying on an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule, makes no sense. I will emphasize quality over frequency.
  16. Strengths: Related to being fulfilled by what I do and finding meaning in my daily life, I focus on identifying the ways that I am using my strengths—those character traits and talents that most empower me to make a difference—to contribute to the greater good in the world. I know that life feels more rewarding when I am putting my strengths to good use.
  17. Adding movement: A practice I started several years ago (and resurrected after a brief hiatus when I changed jobs) is to add a little movement to my work day by taking the long way to or from the restroom every time I get up for a bathroom break. This takes only a minute or so, but it helps me to get a tiny burst of physical activity and clears my head for a moment.

While I hope this (admittedly long) post will add value for my readers, my primary objective is to create a collection of my most useful happiness strategies, as a reference for myself.

Please share your happiness strategies in the “Comments” section. (If you tried to comment on previous posts and couldn’t, I think I have fixed the problem.) I would love to learn from fresh perspectives. We can all contribute to the happiness in the world by pooling our accumulating and evolving wisdom. It is one of the ways we make ripples.

Biking in the Radiant Light

I recently finished three months of telephone coaching with Tejashree Chawla (11Tejashree@gmail.com), a co-active coach and workshop facilitator, whom I met several years ago when she lived in Wichita for a short time. We have stayed connected since she moved back to California, and I recently accepted her invitation for coaching. I tend to be very introspective, have kept journals for years, read nonfiction—including a lot of personal development books—voraciously and maintain several reflective practices. When Tejashree invited me to participate in coaching, I did not have a specific goal or need in mind, but decided to focus on finding more tools for managing stress because I feel like I struggle with that more than ever.

Having completed the coaching, I am still not consistently managing stress effectively, but I did experience several benefits and insights, which I want to share here.

A major tool that Tejashree uses is shifting perspectives. This reminds me of the concept of reframing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_reframing), which I have used both personally and professionally for many years. I struggle with sustaining my perspective shifts when I feel bogged down with worry or overwhelmed with responsibilities. However, if I can remind myself of my desired perspective frequently enough, it does help. When I spoke with Tejashree last Thursday, I had been carrying around a great deal of anxiety and was constantly feeling the nervousness in my stomach. We explored several ways to alleviate the heaviness of that feeling, but the one that was most helpful was her invitation to adopt a “Biking-in-the-Radiant-Light” perspective. I generally feel free, strong, powerful and happy when I am on my bike. When Tejashree asked me to describe a visual or visceral association with assuming the biking perspective, I described it as one of rising power, in the form of light, from my stomach. It then radiated into my limbs and throughout my body. I felt energized, confident and capable. When I stop to imagine myself on my bike, I feel the anxiety lightening, and I feel happier and freer. Although I struggle to maintain the perspective constantly, it does serve as an effective mental stop sign when the anxiety starts to take over.

In mid-August Tejashree and I discussed the sense of foreboding that comes upon me around the time school starts every year. Swimming pools close, and I know that cold, dark weather is coming and will linger for months and months. I don’t want to let the coming winter usurp my remaining weeks of summer weather. Yet, I struggle. I had already decided that I really must maintain some level of winter cycling this year, and not have all bike training relegated to the indoor trainer. Tejashree encouraged me to consider more ways to ward off the cold-weather doldrums. One of the ways I did this was to attach meaning to living in Kansas. For example, I acknowledged that one of the prices I pay for living in a place with so many wonderful, open, quiet roads for cycling is dealing with winter.

I think the most helpful contribution Tejashree made to my personal exploration during our work together was her ability to listen to what I was saying and then articulate her interpretation of it. On one occasion, her expression captured a concept that I had been trying to form fully in my mind. I knew the feeling, but hadn’t been able to find the right words to express it. Tejashree said something that felt just right. I don’t think she realized at the time how significant that single sentence was for me, but it began to percolate in my mind and, within several days, had morphed into a personal mantra that brings me hope and encouragement, peace and empowerment.

The phone is my least favorite mode of communication. I usually cringe when any phone for which I am responsible for answering rings, and I try to use any other medium first. So, I was not at all sure that thirty minutes twice a month for three months on the phone was going to appeal to me. While my feelings toward the phone have not changed, I did find our phone conversations to be useful and meaningful. On our last call, I told Tejashree that it has been nice to have a place, other than my journal, in which to explore ideas and thoughts around personal development. I have been feeling rather constrained because of a very tight schedule. The temporal constraints create mental constraints, and then I create social constraints, trying to protect precious minutes to myself. My coaching calls were short breaks in a busy life where I could bounce ideas off someone who genuinely listened and who posed challenges and inquiries designed to nurture my personal growth.

I feel that I have grown through our calls, and my decision to launch this blog at the time that I did was influenced by a challenge that Tejashree posed. So, I will work to maintain, or at least consistently revisit, the “Biking-in-the-Radiant-Light” perspective—a gift both of my cycling life and of my work with Tejashree. If you are intrigued by my coaching experience, I encourage you to contact Tejashree and find out if you too might benefit from some time dedicated to yourself and your growth.

Here is her contact information:

Tejashree Chawla, MA, MS

Listening for your brilliance & championing forward action!

Co-Active Coach; Workshop Facilitator

PH: 310-514-7137, Email: 11Tejashree@gmail.com