habits · mindfulness · motivation · new year's resolutions

I’m Struggling, Can You Help Me Figure Out My Challenge for 2021?

Welcome 2021. We begin the year of how-the-fuck-do-I-make-a-plan? And I’m not even talking about grand plans; regular old-style plans and small wishes and intentions feel hard. For me, it’s six days into the year and I’m still trying to figure out both my Word of the Year and my challenge. I usually have both well in hand by now. This year I struggled mightily to find a word. As for the challenge, I’d love your help.

A bit of background. My cousin introduced me to this Word of the Year practice more than a decade ago. As I wrote last year in my January post, “The idea is to distill your hopes, dreams, ambitions and challenges for the coming year into a word. What’s the one word you choose today to describe the year you are aiming for? A word that aspires to something greater, but doesn’t set you up for disappointment. A personal word that captures both who you are already (and you are just dandy the way you are!) and how you can refine that existing excellence. A word that will inspire you for the 364 days to come.”  

Past WOTY’s have included presence, grace, renewal and attention. Last year’s WOTY was becoming. I was feeling open, excited and daunted by the challenges ahead. I almost cried when I read how optimistic I was feeling at the beginning of the year. Even though, I also mentioned that I didn’t know what my big project was for the year. I was sure the project would emerge and be so energizing.

Oof.

In the end, there was no big project last year. There were lots of medium and small projects—1) figuring out how to fluidly adjust to the virtual world, when my collaborator, Julia, and I had to cancel the very first weekend retreat we had planned for our new venture, ImagiNation Playshops (embodied emotional intelligence workshops, facilitations and coaching); 2) almost moving to Montreal from New York City and then having that whole plan dissolve at the 11th hour (with significant financial loss); and 3) just plain figuring out how to navigate pandemic normal and the constant low level (sometimes high level) fear that I (or worse, someone I loved) would get sick and …

Plus, there was my sprained ankle in September, followed by agonizing shoulder pain that came out of nowhere, and which I now think may have been generated by all the internal stress and angst of the decision to move to Montreal. A move I’d longed for in my dreams, but which turned out to be way less straightforward logistically and emotionally than I’d expected. As if the pandemic and the US election weren’t enough turbulence and stress, I’d added tearing my life up by the roots. My shoulder is healing. Slowly. I can put on my coat now without feeling like my whole shoulder has dislocated and needing to sit down and recover. And, I am still wondering what my big project will be this year; except now it’s next year and that was supposed to be last year’s wondering.

Aargh.

Wise old elephant. This image came up on Unsplash when I searched “tears” and it just struck me as appropriate, even though I don’t think the elephant is crying. Captured my feeling of pleading with the universe for an answer. Probably the elephant is feeling joyful and I (and the photographer) are totally projecting. Photo by Amy Elting on Unsplash

So, what’s the WOTY that captures this state of ongoing not-quite-sureness? Here’s last year’s list of possible words: “[I]lluminate … grow … strong … steady … being …  belonging … becoming … run … light … recharge … strong … vitality … engaged … present … discerning … happy … incandescent … yes … flow … curiosity … change … renewal … reliability … radiance … spontaneity … pleasure … simplicity

I like the potential these words embrace. This is a year about expanding and making space. I want to get to the end of 2020 and feel like I’ve tapped into new personal resources.”

Oh man. Again, I read those bright, shiny words and I want to cry (okay, I did). I had such plenitude in my spirit. Except this … I do feel like I tapped into new personal resources last year. We all discovered reserves of strength and resilience we didn’t know we had. There is one word that jumps out at me off that old list: recharge. But that’s not my word for this year. The word feels premature. After reading Nicole’s post on January 4, a word started to percolate that felt right: enough.  The “I am” before that word is implicit. I want to practice feeling enough-ness, practice being grateful for the enough-itude in my life and practice relaxing into the gentle comfort of enough. At the same time, I want to use enough as an engine to get motivated around a writing project that’s been percolating in my brain for the last many years, to stay energized around the workshops we are creating at ImagiNation Playshops and to be curious and open to what other projects arise.

Yesterday I was playing with all the permutations that capture the fullness and nuance of my WOTY:

  • Enough-ness
  • Enough-itude
  • Enough-ing
  • Enough-ed
  • Enough-ment
  • Enough-y
  • Enough-es
  • Enough-ly
  • Enough-ful
  • Enough-ist

Yay. I have my word.

How about the challenge mentioned in this post’s title? Challenges are my version of resolutions (but not): “There’s something about resolutions that always feels like someone/something is chastising me to do better. And I was never very good at sticking to resolutions. But I have developed a habit of setting myself a challenge for the year. And, weirdly, I generally manage to stick to my challenges. Could just be that the word is more motivating. My challenges are usually ways of being that I want to try on for size, with no commitment to extend after the year is over.”

A friend calls these challenges my annual devotional tasks. Last year’s challenge was not buying anything from amazon (except books/tv/film). That proved to be more pointed this year, but I stuck to it. Though, full disclosure, there were a few household items that my partner bought on amazon, that I used. Like the hot plate, because the gas is shut off in our New York apartment, so our stove top is out of commission. I may keep up that new habit, my ongoing protest against the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer companies (and therefore individuals’ pockets). My other challenge was not to shop for clothes/shoes in the alternate (even) months. The no-shopping task was a bust—not because I didn’t stick to it. I did. But because it brought me no peace of mind. In 2018, I challenged myself not to shop for clothes/shoes for a whole year. I felt clean and clear by the end of the year (actually by about 3 months in.). While I never intended to extend the challenge beyond the year, I hoped it would make me more mindful. It did, but then that mindfulness started to fade. I thought I’d re-up my attention with the alternate month idea. Nope. Instead, I spent the last week of every even month obsessing about what I might buy during the upcoming odd month. I can’t tell how much of that was also COVID driven. In the midst of a general sense of deprivation, the added denial of not allowing myself to buy something fresh to wear (at home) felt like an extra layer of no-you-can’t. Yes, I recognize that I’m privileged to even be able to contemplate buying something new. So, there’s that, too.

This year … what? I’m struggling to come up with something. After the 2020 we all had, I’m not inclined toward a you-can’t-do-this-thing challenge. And I’d like my challenge to have a generative or contributive element. I’ve thought about creative/artistic writing projects. Write a new poem a month and offer it up to friends in written and audio form? But then, as much as I think other people’s artistic efforts are generative and contribute to our collective fullness, the idea that my own work might do the same appalls me. Egotistical. Delusional.  I know. I only just chose my WOTY and already there’s not a whole lot of enough-ful-ness in my feelings around my work. Sigh.

I wanted to write something cheery and intentional, to inspire myself and you. Instead, I wrote this, a mess of confusion and unknowns.  

Where are you at? I’m in need of your wisdom and insight.

aging · feminism · inclusiveness · stereotypes

I Chose Not to Have Children and I Belong Here, Too

Today, I hit 2 years straight in my daily meditation streak. When I started, I set myself the goal of 30 days. As time passed, I kept moving the goalposts. I feel good about my accomplishment (and I’ve written elsewhere about what I’ve learned). And yet, as soon as I sense those first inklings of pride, I hear the voice: “Well, you don’t have children, so it’s easy for you to meditate every day.” That’s the collective voice of women I’ve known, friends even. It’s also the voice of our society, which has insinuated itself into my psyche, passing itself off as my own judgments of myself. Every accomplishment I might celebrate is diminished by this subtext, “You don’t have children, so it’s easy for you to …” Write a book. Run an ultra-marathon. Start a new venture offering emotional intelligence workshops and one-on-one facilitations.

Not only do I not have children, I am one of the extreme few women who are childfree by choice. 6-10% by some estimates, but that number sounds high to me; especially given that the total percent of women without children is 15.4%, which includes women who tried without medical success or would have had children, if partnered. In other words, I neither tried, nor was I circumscribed by circumstance. Oh, and my decision is irreversible at this biological point in my life. That’s right, I’m also over fifty. What a disgrace! I’ve allowed myself to age and I did not contribute to society’s diktat of the highest and best use of my female body—having children. Not that our overburdened, beleaguered planet is in need of more carbon footprints. But it turns out that I’m the carbon footprint the world can do without. I am surplus. Not even worthy of pity, because I chose my condition.

How many times have I heard variations on the phrase, “you can do that because you don’t have children”? How many times have I watched a mother’s face cloud over when she asked me if I had children and I answered? How many times have I been told that children keep you young? How many times have I endured pronouncements and opinions prefaced with “as a mother”? How many times have I been told that one has to be unselfish to have children? How many times have I heard that a woman can only truly know love once she has children? How many times have I heard during COVID that it’s the grandparents who can’t see their grandchildren who are suffering most?

The subtexts of each of these statements are demeaning and hurtful.

How about this? –A friend once said that I could (and should) make the effort to buy a fuel-efficient car, but that she could not, because she had children. Not only is it my responsibility to pay school taxes (which I absolutely 100% want to do!), but apparently it would also be helpful if I reduced my consumption, to allow for more by people with children. 

This is the moment when I make the disclaimer: No, I don’t hate children. In fact, there are children I love a whole lot. Same as most people, regardless of their procreative status. More, I enjoy cooking for people and engaging in other standard nurturing activities. And, it distresses me to have to have to clarify these points; in case people think I’m the Wicked Witch for not having children.

Playful sign on homey porch that reads: “Beware the Wicked Witch Lives Here”.
Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash

This is a caveat to my disclaimer: Children’s parents can be self-important and insensitive.

I was moved to write this after reading this interview with Jody Day, psychotherapist, author and founder of Gateway Women—I’m losing my shame. Day talks about the pernicious pronatalism of our society, which tells a woman without children, “You’ve failed, you’ve got nothing to offer, you don’t fit in.” This message crashes up against what Day points out is our all too “human desire to be generative.” After all, aren’t children the ultimate generativity? Of course, that standard only applies to women.

I have been struggling lately with feeling generative. Because Day is right. I want to contribute to our society. I want to have a positive impact during my time here on earth. My last book came out in July 2019. I don’t have another one underway … yet. Early this year I founded a new venture offering emotional intelligence workshops and individual facilitations. We launched right as COVID hit, so we’ve been pushing uphill against all those obstacles. I don’t have a regular pay cheque, so I suffer the psychic degradations of an uncertain income. On occasion, in desperate fallow-feeling moments, like now, I think, “If I’d had children, this would be okay; because I could point to them as my raison d’être.” My children would be my accomplishment, my meaning. Instead, I have to stand in my own shoes. Live my own purpose. Find my own meaning. Offer my own grace.     

To do so, I need to overcome the explicit and implicit negative messaging that assaults me from all sides. Women should not be shamed or feel shame for choosing not to have children. One last quote from Day’s interview: “… [J]ust being a childless woman living shamelessly as you age is already radical enough.” Radical? I feel more generative already. I embrace that label. I don the cloak of radicality with insouciant pleasure. I slip it on over the cloak of invisibility assigned to me by society when I reached a certain age without children. My shoulders could feel crushed beneath the weight of the double cloaks. Instead, they feel lighter, looser and easier. The lens through which I’m looking at my life shifts. Free of society’s shoulds and musts, I feel the vitality of energies that want to flow. I remember that I made a conscious choice to be who I am. That choice was a generative act. A decision to share my energies beyond the borders of home and family.

Women without children are abundant; a radiant, radical power source. Let’s plug into our own energy shamelessly, so we can fulfill our highest and best purpose.  

nature · running

Inching My Way Back to Canada On A Spin Bike

I finally made the big decision. Put the Bowflex C6 in my shopping cart. Cate’s given raves how this spin bike is her new best friend. And even though it won’t arrive for 3 months, I’m ready to commit. Montreal winter won’t be over three months from now, nor will pandemic restrictions (or in any event, I don’t see myself going to an indoor spin class for quite some time. 2022?). I put in my new Montreal shipping address and ticked the box confirming that it was not the same as my billing address.  Which, it turned out a moment later, I could not even enter. Only Canadian billing addresses allowed. I only have US credit cards. It turns out the much-vaunted global economy does not include the Bowflex.

So, my partner and I dipped our toes another inch into the Montreal waters and applied for a credit card. We’ve been baby stepping our way toward making this city our new home. We started with the Bixi membership (Montreal’s shared bike system). Moved onto membership in the loyalty program at the pet store. There was an Opus card for the metro system on a rainy day I couldn’t Bixi. Some serious winter running gear, for the more northerly clime. Then a new Canadian bank account, so we could use Interac. I was tired of having to sign credit card receipts for my two-dollar, half-baguette purchase at the boulangerie. The first time I tapped my Canadian debit card was a moment of outsized excitement. I belong!    

New York City has been my much-loved home for the last 27 years. I’ve lived in the same apartment for 25 of those years. Yet, I’ve been feeling itchy for Canada and specifically Montreal. I’m a London, Ontario girl by upbringing. But Montreal stole my heart while I was here doing my undergraduate degree at McGill. Ever since, the city has occupied a corner of my spirit, waving at me from time to time. In September, my partner and I decided to come for a few months, which is looking like it will turn out to be a lot more than that.

Suddenly, the Bowflex C6 isn’t just a spin bike. It will be another little root we are putting down in Montreal. My next rootlet will be a plug-in kettle, because my kettle in NYC is for a gas cooktop and our new stove will be induction. Did I mention that we are also in the process of buying a place to live?

Massive tree roots
NIharika Bandaru on Unsplash

Nothing feels final. Yet. My head and heart are a perfect storm of seemingly contradictory emotions. Grief at leaving friends, my home, my city. Excitement, even exuberance at the prospect of moving to Montreal. Also, there’s a feeling of coming home that has taken me by surprise. One day I was trying to describe it to someone and started crying. I keep thinking of the robot in one of Douglas Adams’ books (not The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, maybe the Dirk Gently, can someone tell me??). The poor robot’s circuits melt down, trying to hold contradictory thoughts in its head—a characteristic that Adams’ points out is so very human.

At first, I wanted to rationalize the grief away. Diminish NYC’s allure and charms, as a way to justify my decision and ease the pain. As if loving the city, my longtime home and my absolutely wonderful friends (!) could not coexist with my desire for a new horizon. I am learning to hold the seemingly contradictory emotions of grief and joy separate and together. There is no contradiction, just coexistence.

What keeps me from spiraling out of control in the midst of the emotional swirl (never mind all the logistics) is moving my body. No matter how turbulent I feel when I set out for a run (or one of my Bixi Queen workouts that I wrote about last month), by the time I’m home, I feel the glow of adventure; a grounded lightness, a shimmer of yes-ness. Sweat is so clarifying. While I never experience quite the same effect from indoor workouts, I’m quite sure that I’ll be super glad for the Bowflex when it finally arrives. And if it turns out that the pandemic is totally eradicated by March or next winter, well I’ll still be happy for the workout flexibility and for the Canadian credit card I needed to buy the spin bike. Each little rootlet supports my new life.

I’m not tearing up roots. I’m extending my roots. With every run on Mont Royal, I feel the tendrils of my nervous system absorbing the new nutrients, feeding my spirit and smoothing my circuits.  

cycling · injury · running

BIXI Queen of Mont Royal

A month ago, my partner and I decamped from New York City to Montreal for the rest of the year (and maybe longer). I’m a McGill alum (and Canadian). Ever since I left Montreal, I’ve had a hankering to come back. Pre-pandemic, we’d started talking about coming for a month to see how we liked being here. Then the turbulent spring paused our plans. When we poked our heads above the parapet again to think about the future, Montreal sent up smoke signals.

Despite the fact that we were quarantined for the first two weeks, and now we’re subject to red zone restrictions, I love being here.

I didn’t arrive in my best-self mental state. Four days before we came, I sprained my ankle. I’d been so looking forward to running on Mont Royal. Keeping up my spirits was hard. I felt like I was holding myself together with string and duct tape. Yes, I’m too dependent on running. Especially when I’m going somewhere new (or old-and-new, as Montreal is). Running is such a great way to explore and get grounded.

So, the first thing I did was sign up for BIXI—Montreal’s shared bike system. The day after we arrived, I headed out on a BIXI to ride up Mont Royal. I quickly found where the real cyclists were (as if I was a fake, because I wasn’t in lycra or on a proper bike and I was wearing an air cast). I joined them up the nice long hill on Camillien-Houde, continued up the wide gravel path for the loop around the cross, returning the way I came. A sweet, challenging, mood-altering ride that took me just under an hour on the BIXI. While it wasn’t the run I’d been hoping for, the ride was grand. What a profound relief, to find a way I could be outside, on Mont Royal, get my heart rate up and protect my ankle.

And here’s the bonus—cyclists cheer for you when they see you toiling up the hill on a 40lb BIXI. I’m sure I’m far from the only person who has ridden Camillien-Houde on a BIXI. When my partner tried to make that claim on my behalf, one of my brothers immediately recounted tales of guys he knew in Europe who took Velibs—Paris BIXIs—up Mont Ventoux, one of the legendary climbs in the Tour de France. Still, I haven’t seen anyone else doing the workout on a BIXI, so I feel like the BIXI Queen of Mont Royal when I get to the top. This past Sunday, I pushed myself by staying in second gear (of seven). When I crested, I was high-fiving the low hanging tree branches on the side of the road. A couple of guys swooshed up behind me, offering bravos as they passed, too. I allowed myself to feel special for a couple of minutes.

Mina on Mont Royal with a BIXI. Unlike so many others on this blog, lifting heavy things is not my forte. I couldn’t quite manage the awkward 40lbs above my head., as I’d planned for this photo.

Even better, my ankle is healing faster than expected. I’m also able to run again—cautiously and not for too long. I started with a stair climbing workout and a super short run, but twice now I’ve done full on runs. I have to remind myself to pay attention to my footing, because the fall colours are eye-popping, starbursts of energy and solace.

When I run, I’m ready to buy real estate and move. On days I BIXI, I’m happy and satisfied by my workout, but I don’t feel quite so impulsive about leaving my home of the last 27 years. Considering the possibility of a move challenges my self-image. I like to think of myself as adventurous and adaptable. Yet, I’m discovering that my roots run deep in New York and to contemplate moving keeps me awake at night. I love my friends and community. I love the apartment we live in. A couple of weeks ago we celebrated 25 years since we moved into our apartment. When we bought the place, our relationship was only 18 months old. The decision seemed precipitous and premature, a leap of faith. Now it’s been our home for the last quarter century. We got married in the apartment. What a comfort. On the other hand, on our move-in anniversary, I suddenly started to worry that I was getting staid; that metaphorical yellowing newspapers are piling up in the corners of my life.

I don’t know what we will end up doing. I’m trying to take life 24 hours at a time. My partner and I check in with each other multiple times a day to see how we are feeling about the possibility of making a change. We know for sure what we will do if Trump wins. But even if he doesn’t, it just might be time for a new leap of faith. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my BIXI crown and the runs my ankle allows.    

fitness

Meditation Hands

Reading Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness for our book club, has gotten me thinking more about the specifics of my meditation practice. Posture, for example, is one of those things I hadn’t been paying close attention to anymore. I don’t mean that I was meditating in slumped over disarray. More that, after some years of practice, I have established my posture. Cross-legged. Seated on a cushion. Back straight. Neck long. Pelvic energy rooting down and my upper body’s energy rising, as if a string were pulling me gently up by the crown of my head. As for my hands, most often, they rest on my thighs, palms down, close enough to my body so that my shoulders and heart can open. Somewhere back in the mists of time I learned that palms down was grounding and palms up was for lightness and a more ethereal experience. But my reason for palms down is prosaic—I find it the most comfortable hand position.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to try meditating with my hands in a mudra—palms up, thumb and forefinger lightly touching, the other fingers extended. Even though I mostly meditate alone and no one is watching, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the idea of using a mudra. Too many magazine-y images of yoginis in pristine white outfits, their faces a study in serenity, their perfectly manicured hands holding thumb to finger lightly. Mudras seemed twee, fake, over-earnest, precious, pretentious and just plain why?-ish.

Gyan mudra (I was going to try to find one of those pristine, white-clad images, but why perpetuate that glossy surreality? Also, many of the available images were women meditating in string bikinis. Sigh.)
Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

At first, I felt nothing different, except the slight hitch as my body-mind adjusted to the different hand position. Then, about 30 seconds later, it was as if I’d been plugged in to a gentle, calming yet zesty energy feed. I felt … collected. Gathered.

Not that my mind didn’t wander. It did. Not that I didn’t lose my way. I did. But overall, I felt more invigorated, deeper inside the meditation. The union within and outside myself was more robust. At first, I thought, “Oh, it was just that day.” I was already in a union-y mood, a tuned in to the universe frame of mind. So, I tried the mudra again the next day. And the day after next. Each time, after 15-30 seconds, a similar sensation of plugged-in-ness. It’s been more than two weeks now. I’m continuing the experiment. There has been the inevitable feeling of growing accustomed to the plug-in. The energy doesn’t feel quite as special. At the same time, it is discernible, distinct and interesting. I’m not going to stop.

I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s something to this whole mudra business; those yoga practitioners with their thousands of years of wisdom. In preparation for writing this, I searched out the mudra I’ve been using. It’s called the Gyan mudra and is to improve concentration and sharpen memory. It’s the mudra for seeking knowledge. I like that. I also learned about other mudras, which I think I’d better try now. Who knows what new sensations I’ll encounter with my new meditation hands?

Oh, and one other tidbit I recently learned about my meditation posture. I had noticed over the last year or more that during my sits my head was often turning to the left. As if I were trying to listen to or look at someone or something over my left shoulder. Often, I wasn’t even conscious of the drift until I finished my meditation. A wise guide I encountered recently helped me piece the impulse together—I am listening for my female ancestors, my feminine (feminist!) lineage. I love that idea. But I also want to keep my head pointing forward and use my meditation to listen for all the wisdom. That might be something the Shuni mudra can help me with. I’ll keep you posted.      

cycling · meditation · mindfulness · motivation

Mountain Bike Meditation

I love mountain biking. In these COVID-times, with all the additional stresses, the sport is a meditative source of grounding, focus and joy.

This was not always so. It took me a lot of years to arrive at the relationship I have with the sport (and my bike). I dabbled in mountain biking for many years; i.e. a couple of decades. The first time I tried out mountain biking was more than 30 years ago. I bought a mountain bike to replace the city cruiser I had, figuring that it could do double duty—replace my dilapidated cruiser and be a source of off-road fun exercise too. I couldn’t quite achieve the off-road fun bit. I didn’t trust myself or my bike. I was so frustrated by my lack of skill, that I could never relax enough to develop the skills. I spent a lot of time walking my bike, while simultaneously cursing my ineptitude.

Then about eleven years ago, we bought this place I’m at in the California mountains that’s a stone’s throw from a huge network of fabulous trails. I ride out the driveway and I’m on single track trails within 2 minutes. I started riding once a week, as an off-day from trail running (another love). I still walked my bike a lot, but I improved. Very. Slowly. Then, when various running injuries forced me to reduce my mileage, I started to ramp up my time on the mountain bike. Well, hello, turns out when I ride more than once a week, I actually improve. Noticeably. And that’s a pleasant virtuous cycle—the more I improve, the more I enjoy the sport. I’ll come back to what I mean by improve in a moment. Then 5 years ago, as solace after my father died, I bought a new mountain bike. And holy cow, was I shocked to discover that all the new bike tech really did notch up my potential. For the first time I really felt like I was riding with a partner and friend—my bike, that is. I painted a flower on her crossbar with green nail polish, in thanks.

This year I’ve been riding a lot. Not because I can’t run, but because I want to ride. In a period of such pervasive anxiety (societal anxiety fuels personal anxiety and around the merry-go-round the anxiety goes), mountain biking demands my complete presence and attention. When my mind strays, I get knocked off my bike. When my mind focuses, I make it over, through and around obstacles I thought were impossible. Over and over again on my bike, I get an up close and personal look at how my mind either obstructs my progress or harmonizes fluidly with the world. In the best moments, I feel like I’m dancing on my bike. Pure woohoo joy (yes, I shout out loud, the happiness is too much to resist). In the less harmonious moments, I can usually see exactly how my own thoughts interfered.

There are, for example, certain obstacles I only “make” on some days—a steep sandy uphill, a hairpin over rock clusters, a pincer gap between two boulders. The days I don’t make them, it’s most often because I’ve started talking myself out of it before I get there. I’m thinking too much about whether I’ll achieve. The days I stay on the bike, I find the flow between going for it and not worrying about the outcome. So, when I mentioned above that I have improved my bike skill, that’s the skill I mean. Not whether I can ride over, around or through an obstacle, but whether I can find the right mindset.  In other words, my mountain bike rides feel like an object lesson in learning to find that harmony between effort and no effort that allows us to feel in flow with the world. I liken this harmony or flow to what Taoism calls wu wei, or effortless action.  

Being in flow on my mountain bike certainly doesn’t mean that everything is possible. There are still obstacles that are objectively not within my skill set. Yet. Or maybe ever. Staying open to the flow and noticing its ebbs, enables me to see more readily where I can do more and where I should stay humble, get off my bike and leave that steep rock drop off for another day.

One more reason why mountain biking works as a meditation—because, even as my skill evolves, every previous challenge has stayed fresh in my mind. Even if the last time an obstacle stumped me was a decade ago, I am grateful each time I meet it with ease. There’s no complacence in my developing skill. Going around rocks, whooshing through gulleys or popping over fat tree roots, I remember that they used to stop me in my tracks and I take an extra breath of thanks. Gratitude fortifies my ongoing curiosity and seasons each new skill I acquire with humility. Inside this sport, I am present with the delicate balance between acquiring and acknowledging my own expertise, while simultaneously staying curious (without judgment) to what’s new or changed.  

The more I can learn to notice these subtleties in my rides, the more I can see how the same patterns play out in my life off-the-bike. How can I foster the harmonious coexistence of expertise and curiosity? Where can I find more flow? When am I giving up too soon? What can I let go of?

In meditation practice, being in the flow is what teachers describe as finding the calm below the turbulence of the waves in an ocean, or letting the silt settle to reveal the clear water in a glass. These are the metaphors for a clear, uncluttered, unobstructed mind. More than any other activity in my life (including my longstanding meditation practice), when I’m on my mountain bike, I get robust glimpses of the power of my clear mind. Again, meditation teachers tell us that the more familiar we are with that space and its possibilities, the more readily we can access our clear mind again.

I have found that to be true, on my mountain bike (and in life). The difficult part is that it takes constant curiosity. I was going to say hard work or vigilance, but those are such effortful terms. Just like peace is not achieved through violence, finding the flow of effortless action is not achieved by forced labour. What’s needed is expansive, open-hearted curiosity. Over and over. Staying alive to possibility is challenging. I want to do better. My mountain bike meditations help, but I’ve got a long road ahead. But then again, if the journey is the destination, to bowdlerize Ralph Waldo Emerson, well then, I’m doing okay.

How about you? Where do you find flow most easily in your life?    

fitness · motivation · strength training

Mashing Up A New Workout Routine to Replace the Spin and Aerial Studios

Like most everyone here at Fit Is A Feminist Issue, I’ve modified my workouts in response to COVID. On the curve, I’d place myself on the low end of creativity in this regard. For the first several months, I was in California and had access to mountain trails, so my only modification was switching from yoga in a studio to live virtual. And even then, when I’m in California I only do yoga once every 10 days or so. So that wasn’t a big adjustment. I did buy a $7 jump rope, to fill in for some incidental movement that I wasn’t getting (thank you, Cate Creede, a fellow blogger here, for the idea).

But now I’m back in New York City and there’s more to replace. Here, I usually do aerial yoga classes, instead of regular mat yoga. And I can’t replicate it at home in my apartment. The Anti-Gravity studio is not offering any virtual classes and, if they did, I’d have to figure out how to install a hammock at home, which requires either access to a major structural beam or quite a bit of space for a hammock stand. In pre-COVID times, I did aerial yoga at least once a week, and very often twice (riding a Citibike back and forth to the class).

Then there’s indoor cycling classes, or studio cycling or spin classes, whatever I’m supposed to call them, at Soul Cycle. That’s currently impossible and I can’t even imagine when next I’ll feel comfortable enough to spin furiously, sweat profusely and breathe heavily in an enclosed space with a group of people. So that’s off the table. I don’t have a peloton or Zwift or anything at home that gives me a biking option. Oh, except for my actual road bike in the closet, which I somehow cannot get up the energy to freshen up for the season. Road cycling, unlike running, is one of those sports that I need to do with a friend. And I’m short on cycling company at the moment.  

So running and live virtual yoga are my go-tos. But as time has gone on, I’ve gotten inspired by all the home gym initiatives that others (particularly on this blog) have taken. I’ve been experimenting with building one new routine (baby steps). Early on, I added in Trail Runner’s eight-minute speed legs. Then, when I got back to NYC, I decided to upgrade my jump rope to a Crossrope. Theoretically, I can now clip on and off different weights of rope up to 2 lbs. I haven’t actually purchased anything other than the ¼ pound rope so far. I liked the green colour. And I wasn’t sure how much I’d actually want to use it. It turns out that a good jump rope is actually pretty fab. I liked the rope so much, that I decided to mash up the eight-minute legs and the rope together, plus throw in the pushups I do randomly at the end of runs.

The routine takes about 20 minutes (including some what-I-feel-like-in-the-moment stretching in between activities while I’m catching my breath). I’ve been using an 8 lb weight for the speed legs exercises, but I may add the other 8 lb weight I happened to have around and see how it goes.

Green jump rope and the 8lb weight I’m currently using; plus the other 8lb weight I might add in this week.

Here’s the workout (in case you are looking for new ideas):

120 skips (60 two feet and 60 alternating feet)/25 pushups/50 alternating back lunges/120 skips (2x 30 two feet and 30 alternating feet)/25 pushups/20x each leg Bulgarian split squats/120 skips (3x 20 two feet and 20 alternating feet)/25 pushups/20x each leg Romanian deadlifts/120 skips (4x 15 two feet and 15 alternating feet)/25 pushups/20 squats/100 fast skips, crossover arms every 10th/25x each leg step ups

For the first couple of weeks, I did this as an add-on after running. But I was also increasing my mileage and my body was overtired on running days and not-quite-satisfied on yoga days. Now I’ve switched to doing the routine first thing in the morning on yoga days. The yoga may happen at any time later in the day, depending on when there’s a class I can fit in.

View from my apartment building roof, aka my home gym

At first, I did the routine in my apartment, but then I took it to the roof deck of my apartment building. Which is lovely. I’m super lucky to have a view of Riverside Park and the Hudson River up to the George Washington Bridge from the roof. The only tiny downside is this—I’m self-conscious. There’s a camera feed from the roof that shows up on a monitor in my superintendent’s apartment. Carlos has a screen inside his front door that shows live feeds from all the security cameras in our building. I keep imagining him or his wife, Debbie, or his son, Matt, catching a glimpse of me doing my routine. And while I feel strong inside myself when I’m doing it (and I think I’ve noticed a few more muscles on my body), I realize that part of that feeling comes from being alone, outdoors, away from anyone else’s judgment. To add to my self-consciousness, Matt is a personal trainer. He has a serious home gym set up in their apartment now, so he can do online sessions with his clients. I imagine him thinking, “her form is all wrong” or “she should be working harder” or “she calls that a pushup?” 

I persist. Because I’m starting to love my new workout and the location (despite the camera). Fresh air. A view. Some burning muscles. And the comfort, that it’s just not interesting enough to watch me skip and lunge. I’ve even had the fleeting thought that maybe I should do a few sessions with Matt on the roof and get some tips.  Not yet. For the same reason I haven’t sought out any other online trainer. I’m enjoying the freedom of mashing up my own routine.

What are your homemade routines? I’d love more ideas for things to change up in my mix.

fitness

Returning to Life (and Running) in New York City

For the last three months, I’ve been exploring new mountain trails, practically out my door, in the Sierras. I’ve been sheltering in Truckee, a California mountain town, where my partner and I were when the governors started issuing stay-at-home orders. In other words, I’ve been lucky. The outdoors has been a blessing, a balm, a solace, even a joy (as I wrote about last month).

Then the pull of New York City got too strong. I missed my home for the last 27 years, even and maybe especially because it was under siege. The last three months were the longest I’d been away. I missed seeing other humans I shared history with in person. Even if I would be at a distance and masked, I needed more than live virtual. And I missed the gift of Central Park runs. The spring trees bloomed vicariously for me this year, in photos sent by friends.

So, on Sunday, I left a quiet, lightly populated, outdoor mecca, to return to the COVID, and now protest, epicenter.

Going to an airport and getting on a plane was teeth-clenching (not that anyone could see that I was clenched behind my mask). At least my mask (handmade by my mother) was pretty. I’m not sure that I took a single easy, deep breath the whole way back. And it was a totally smooth journey, from a logistical point of view. On time. Tight connections, no problem. The guy across the aisle from me on my first flight coughed a few times, mostly with his mask on, but a couple times as he was eating his snack box, too. I was surprised by the lightning zing of anger that blasted through me. I had to unclench my fist.

Silly black cat pen that has levers that cause the hands to punch and lights up the eyes–how I felt about aisle mate.

I changed masks from my first to second flight, to give the tender back of my ears a little break with a different behind-the-head elastic configuration, plus I figured the first mask had enough of a workout from my aisle-mate.  From Newark the uber driver was wearing a mask and had taped up thick plastic sheeting between the front seat and back, which felt reassuring. The car spun along the highway and across the river was the skyline that never fails to give me the safe-happy feeling of being almost home.

No surprise, the homecoming wasn’t quite as comforting as usual. Every stitch of clothing came off just inside the front door of the apartment. Sanitized hands. Carted all discarded clothes to the washing machine. Re-sanitized hands. Took a few things out of bags. Sanitized items. Re-sanitized hands. One of my fears coming home was that the apartment would be overrun with cockroaches and maybe mice too, which was not the case. Well, except that the first time I went to the bathroom, as I touched the toilet paper roll, a giant (3-inch) waterbug, who had apparently been snoozing inside the hollow of the roll, jumped out on my foot. I leapt up and shot out of the bathroom screaming. I have dealt with those insect monsters on my own, I probably encounter them once or twice a year, but I was quite happy that my partner allowed me a moment of squeamishness and stepped in to rid our bathroom of its presence.

Yesterday I spent some time just walking around our apartment, looking and touching. I opened kitchen cupboards and just stared at everything on the shelves. I discovered that the peanut butter we had in the fridge was the peanut butter we’d designated as our new fave in Truckee. [Sidenote—pre-COVID we ate out a lot, especially in the city. I rarely ate peanut butter. With the pandemic we went cold turkey to 100% home cooking, no takeout. My partner makes delicious muffins, which we have with peanut butter, tahini and jam. So good!]

I didn’t run our first day back. Instead, I did live virtual yoga. At the end of the day my partner and I ventured outside for the first time for a walk, which turned into a limited grocery run for things Fresh Direct hadn’t supplied. We also went for COVID tests and threw in an antibody test. After all, we were already at the clinic? If I really believed that other countries were managing better with more testing, then I figured I ought to apply the standard to myself. The whole experience of being out and about, even in such a circumscribed way, was unsettling. Never mind the masks and repeated hand sanitizing, the City felt a bit less friendly and not just because we can’t smile at each other so easily anymore. I felt like people’s eyes were jumpier, as if the virus might transmit in a glance. 

After Monday’s psychological prep, I thought I was ready for a run Tuesday morning. I headed out the door at 7 a.m. in brand new running shoes I bought months ago. I decided that I was not going to wear a mask while running, unless I saw that most other people were. So newly back to the City, I’m still finding the balance between what I feel comfortable with and my obligations to be communitarian and ensure others feel safe. It turned out that 75% of runners were not wearing masks and at 7 a.m. it was easy to stay more than 6 feet distant (though I might try to go a little earlier from now on). By the time I’d run the few blocks to the West 81st Street entrance (Hunters’ Gate) I was starting to look forward to the Park, which been such a friend for so many years and miles. Within two minutes, I saw a cyclist lying on the Park ring road, surrounded by people. I was quite far away, on the bridle path.

Suddenly I was crying. I’ve seen cycling accidents in the Park many times. But in that moment, the scale of violence in the world felt overwhelming—the violence of a person getting injured on a simple bike ride, the violence of the pandemic, the violence of the protests, the violence of racism, the violence of capitalism (how can the humans inside corporations ask for legislative protection from workers’ compensation claims for workplace COVID?), the violence of righteousness. The too-muchness and my own feelings of helplessness in the face of such monumental problems, with no solutions in sight, shattered my fragile hope for a near-normal run. I collected myself and forged ahead with my run, but the usual joy I get from being outside and moving was muffled. Being helplessly overwhelmed is a sticky feeling. I carried the residue around the park with me.

Did I make the right decision coming home? I don’t know. But I’m here now. I know that I feel closer to my community, just knowing they are a few blocks away, instead of thousands of miles. I look forward to “seeing” friends later in the week from a safe distance. But my run this morning definitely crash landed the new reality into my psyche. And one of my most reliable cleanses for difficult emotions can’t be counted on anymore.

Of course, there are way bigger problems than my outdoor safety blanket getting taken away. A friend says, these are evolutionary times. I sure hope so. We could use some evolution. In the meantime, uncertainty upon uncertainty clouds my senses.

covid19 · running

I Don’t Want to Let COVID Take Spring Away

I almost didn’t write this post, because I feel guilty about not being as cooped up and resource drained as so many people are by this pandemic.

Normally this time of year I would be home in New York City. But when COVID hit, I was in California’s Sierra mountains, where my partner and I spend 5-6 weeks in the winter and then again in the summer. We’ve never spent spring in the mountains. The new season felt slow in coming. Back in early April, friends in NYC were sending pictures of cherry blossoms and we were still cross-country skiing. The ski area was officially closed, but we could still beat around on the cruddy snow, safely distanced from other people. But I was sick of skiing (I never thought it was possible) and I missed the flowering trees. Actually, I missed everything about the city—friends, theatre, movies, restaurants, wearing fun shoes and so on. I knew that what I longed for was on a giant PAUSE for who knows how long, still I wrestled against the restrictions.

I spent weeks resenting the lingering snow, the leaf-budless trees and my solitude that was supposed to be over. To compound things, I knew that I was in a very lucky spot compared to many. I could go outside without worrying I’d be shamed or run afoul of all the conflicting information about whether exercising outside was safe or not. (Thank you, Cate, for giving us some medical insight into the dangers of outdoor exercise yesterday.) So I piled judgment and guilt about my lack of gratitude on top of my resentment. Like many women, I’m an expert at self-criticism, that great pleasure destroyer.

Then the daffodils popped up (they seem to be the only perennial around here, other than the wildflowers, which are still mostly under snow). The bare tree branches started to bud and now the leaves are emerging, in all their dazzling early spring green. The birds came back in droves, singing all day long. On Saturday morning we were lying in bed listening to the birdsong when we heard a familiar rustle below our window. The deer were back, looking scruffy and winter shaggy, browsing in the wild shrubbery on the slope below us.

The snow withdrew enough from the mountain trails to make running possible. On my first run in the woods, I spent a third of my time picking my way through the snow piles searching for the continuation of the trail. Every time my foot broke through the surface crust, spikes of old snow stabbed my winter-white ankles. But something else happened too, my resentment started to leak away. I adore trail running. The smell of the cold, damp pine needles went straight to my head. The blast of joy started to clean out the cobwebs of frustration.

I realized that my psyche could keep on fighting against all the restrictions that COVID had imposed on my life. And I could then dump judgment on top, because those restrictions are fewer than many are enduring. I can feel guilty that about running without a mask, about the privilege of running period (no stealth required, as Nicole described in her piece about being a devious runner). And I can feel guilty that what I’m doing outside feels joyful, in a moment when joy feels unseemly.

But why should we diminish the pleasures life continues to offer, despite the pandemic? COVID takes and takes and takes things away from us. I don’t want to let the virus take away spring, in all its hopeful glory. Guilt and self-condemnation don’t serve anybody. So, even as I continue to miss the city, my gratitude is blooming again alongside that sadness.

This morning I ran for an hour on the trails, through dirty old snow and mud, over a fat log across a spring swollen stream and through tall pine forest on a soft carpet of needles. I wore too-light gloves and my hands felt like little fists of ice, my arms sheathed in frost. But with every breath, the heat of my pounding heart met the crisp air with a thank you, thank you, thank you.  

fitness

COVID MoodCoaster

Not that my moods didn’t swing from time to time before, but now they are subject to the shelter-in-place amplification factor.

On any given day the non-stop voice in my head drags me along on her wild ass rollercoaster ride, hands flung up in the air, hair a streaming tangle in the wind …

You’re so ridiculously lucky to be able to play out here in the snow on these beautiful mountains. Look at that view. Breathe that air. Oh *&%@, who could possibly keep their balance on this ungroomed mess. You’re the biggest loser on skis. Don’t ever ski again. You are so Zen after that new breath meditation. You’re cruising right down the middle of The Middle Way. Is it seriously snowing again? Will spring never come? If you have to shovel one more load of snow, you should just give up forever. That was the most delicious bruschetta on homemade sourdough bread ever. That ricotta couldn’t be creamier. You are such a glutton. It’s so fun Zoom-ing with friends & family. You could cry from how much you want to hug them. All that Zoom yoga, Zoom meditation, Zoom Laughing Club (that’s a clown class) and Zoom dance parties is so innovative and fun. How can you stand looking at yourself as a small, horribly self-conscious little square on your computer screen? What overly-contorted and wrinkly facial expression will you make next? That was the best Zoom planning meeting ever. You’re super jazzed about the workshop idea. So exciting. You are so not maximizing this stretch of solitude. Your life has no meaning. Just give up. If only you’d become a doctor, then you might at least have been useful. Yay, you get to take Pete’s virtual yoga class (your favourite San Francisco teacher whose class you never get to take, because you haven’t been in SF in ages). Happy body, happy body. Those unpolished toenails on your yoga mat are disgusting, never mind your sad old feet. Don’t ever wear sandals again. Well it doesn’t matter anyway, because you’re never going to wear sandals or proper shoes again, because you’re never going to be able to go anywhere except the grocery store ever again. That was the most delicious salad ever. Could those roasted veggies you made last night have been any better? Are you really washing dishes again? Don’t you want to just throw all the dishes off the back deck? 9:20 p.m. time, your deliciously cozy bed awaits. You can cuddle up with your partner and listen to your cat purr on your pillow. Are you seriously tired already? Get a life. Oh, that’s right, there’s no life to be. Those new superhero name that you and your partner riffed up for yourselves are hilarious. Your stomach is going to hurt from laughing so hard about The Snowbank Buster and The Avocado Mangler. You’re so lucky to be sheltered with him. Could your cat be any cuter? Be grateful, you ingrate. Be grateful. You’re not being grateful enough. Grateful. Resentful. Happy. Depressed. On top of the world. Sinking into a morass of anxiety. Grateful. Self-hating. Filled with vitality. Don’t want to get out of bed. Grateful. And then…

Is anyone else at the amusement park, too? Please say I’m not alone.