advice · death · disability · Fear · health · self care

8 Lessons for Living with Uncertainty From a Perennially Vulnerable Adult

I get it. You’re facing down the barrel of your mortality right now, and the mortalities of your parents, grandparents, children and other people you care for. It sucks. Random, horrible things can happen and change your life forever. Or end it. But this isn’t news. Life can change in an instant, and it can be completely out of your control, and that has always been true. The only difference is now you are being forced to face the reality you could comfortably deny as long as your life was banally humming along. Welcome to my world.

At the age of 24 I went from a healthy, active person to someone with a disabling, life-threatening immune condition. Random chance, totally bad luck, threw me a curve ball that kept me in the hospital for a month, left me missing a big chunk of one lung and unable to walk up a flight of stairs without assistance. I spent 8 months on high-dose Prednisone and three years after that on weekly chemotherapy drugs to keep my body from attacking itself and killing me. I hate stories about how some horrible cancer diagnosis “was the best thing that ever happened to her” or how some terrifying ordeal “helped him have gratitude for the important things in life.” I don’t think my immune conditions (I’ve developed more over the years) have made me a wiser, better person. But I have learned from the experience, and I’d like to offer you these potentially comforting observations I’ve noted along the way.

The hardest part is the not knowing. It took about half a year before I had a diagnosis. Even with a diagnosis, the prognosis was up in the air. At one point I was told that I had only a 50% chance of living past 5 years. Later on, I was told they really didn’t know, there was just too little data to base any predictions upon. I believe that knowing is always easier than not knowing. How do you live your life day to day when you can’t plan for the future? You will make very different decisions when you know that something is temporary than when it may be indefinite. Coming to a place of accepting that you don’t know, living in the moment while planning for the future is the best balance I can suggest. For me, I have had to learn over the years to consider my barriers and limitations as flexible unknowns–I have to push against the boundaries to test them–is this a real limitation or simply something I feared would limit me? It’s a constantly moving target, and I’ve learned to be flexible as situations have changed.

Your life is at increased risk. You can get used to it. In fact, if you are going to get on with your life, you have to get used to it. We can only hit the pause button for so long, and then we need to get back into the swing of things. You will need groceries, a paycheck, a new pack of underwear. I live my life every day with the awareness that my condition can come back. Every time I have a cough, I have to consider, “Does this feel more serious than just a cold? Am I being irresponsible if I wait it out before going to the doctor?” Every little aberration in how my body moves and feels carries a heightened awareness to it, and yet, I don’t go around constantly anxious about my future. I notice it, I pay attention, and then I move on. Most of the answers to my questions come with time and patience. If you can avoid insisting on instant reassurance, you will find that you fare better.

Most people facing their own mortality don’t have the benefit of a social circle that understands. Don’t take it for granted. When I got sick, I was alone. Only about 6000 people in the entire United States have been diagnosed with the condition I’m facing. Not to mention, my peers at the time of 20-somethings could not even kind of relate to my ordeal. Lucky for you, pretty much everyone around you is dealing with some version of the same fear right now. You can support each other because you understand your shared uncertainties. On the other hand, you are at higher risk than I was for “social contagion.” The downside of collective awareness is that your anxieties can compound upon each other, fear can beget more fear, and as social animals, we are built to mirror each other’s emotions. Compassion and empathy are important, but I encourage you to temper them with calm and mindful acts of support.

It isn’t helpful to let the current situation dominate your thoughts. Practice the discipline of reframing your thinking, and you will experience less stress. This would be an excellent time to limit your exposure to social media, too. You don’t need other people’s fear speaking voices in your head. For those of you who like that woo-woo shit, feel free to increase your focus on your “gratitude practice” right now. Me, I’m going to limit my exposure to the news and increase work on some neglected projects around the house. This seems like an excellent time to begin planning my basement remodel. This sort of intentional shift of focus gives me something productive to put my energies towards rather than stirring up fears of the unknown.

On a related note, don’t let fear be your guiding principal. Consider making important decisions when your mind is feeling more calm–like right after a good meal with some satisfying, slow-digesting carbohydrates in it. Your fear-based decision might be making people like me less safe, if it means you switch to antibacterial soap, for example, and increase the likelihood of superbugs. The panic that has led to emptying store shelves isn’t doing the community any good, either. Consider finding other ways to take care of yourself than giving in to the hedonic needs of your fear.

If someone near you gets sick, when it is safe to do so, literally embrace them and return them back into your life. I developed mysterious lung symptoms and a persistent, low grade fever just about the same time SARS was in all the news. When I was released from the hospital, we didn’t know why I had nearly died, but we did know it wasn’t an infectious process. Despite this, I was treated like a pariah. No one would hug me, hold my hand, pat my shoulder. People would literally take a step back when I told them what had happened to me. It was like they were afraid that my near-death would rub off on them. It was exceptionally isolating in an experience that already left me alone in so many ways. So I ask that you please, please, welcome back the folks who become sick. Love and support them, touch their hands, kiss them on the cheek, and help to reintegrate them back into your world.

You don’t know what’s going to get you. That’s always been true, you’re just now having to face it. I used to feel like I knew better than most people what was likely to kill me. However, even when my condition was quite severe, I still could get hit by the proverbial bus. That hasn’t changed, and it’s true for all of us. None of us know what is going to get us in the end. We can’t live our lives dancing around the edges, hoping nothing will ever take us down. We have to live the best life we can with the life we’ve been given. Uncertainty will always be a part of the equation. Part of making the best of it is keeping that in mind and keeping it in perspective. That’s how I live my life every day, and I encourage you to do the same.

Photo description: Two wrinkled hands, one bare and one with a black and white checkered sleeve, holding each other over a leather background.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again, and wondering when the gym will be closed, in Portland, Oregon.

Fear · gear · yoga

First Time Ever Surfing

I’ve never boogie boarded. I’ve never really body surfed. I’ve never skateboarded. So, when friends convinced me to take a surf lesson a couple of weeks ago in Costa Rica, I was flat out scared. Surfing felt like going straight to the big time, without any warm up in small venues. It was no help that my friends were proudly showing me scrapes, cuts and bruises on their legs and lips. Yes, they were all big smiles and it’s-so-fun and you-should-try-it. But was it really fun? (If you’re a Bojack Horseman fan, you can read that last sentence with Mr. PB’s voice.)

I wasn’t scared of the inevitable humiliation of being a beginner. I am more proud of being a beginner at my age (53) than I am embarrassed by my total lack of skill trying something I’ve never done. I was scared of injury and in my worst pre-lesson moments a vision of being conked out by a surf board and drowning presented itself as a possibility, alongside all the other theoretically lesser bodily harms. Pain was a factor, yes. But more than that, I didn’t want to be out of commission for all the sports I love (and consider to be my mental health support). Especially, as I’d be getting back from Costa Rica in time for my last weeks of cross-country skiing, likely until 2021.

But … I like to think of myself as a gamely person. Also as someone who doesn’t run away from every fear she has (I’ll sit with my fears in meditation sometimes). I said yes, to prop up that particular aspect of my self-image.

That’s how I found myself prone on a surfboard on the beach, pretending to paddle with my arms and then push up quickly to a standing position. So easy on the beach. Kind of like a quick-quick transition from yoga’s chataranga pose to warrior one, with cupid-like arms.

Oh, and if you’re a surfer, I will also mention that I’m goofy. Yes, my goofiness pre-dates surfing, but now it’s been certified.  For non-surfers, that means that my back foot on the board is my left foot. To determine which foot is your back one in surfing, launch yourself into a sock-slide on a smooth floor and notice the position of your feet. Right foot back is regular. Left foot is goofy.

All this beach practice was one thing. You will not be shocked to learn that it’s a whole different story in the water.

Since there are no pictures of me surfing and I didn’t want a random woman from Unsplash (also–what’s with all the giant breasts and tiny bikinis when one searches “woman surfing” on Unsplash??), this is a picture of Tamara surfing bigger waves than I did (by Cat Slatsinsky). I interviewed Tamara for my book and this picture is in it.

Nosara is supposed to be one of the easiest places to learn how to surf. From my vantage point of absolutely no expertise, that sounds plausible. Over the course of my first hour on the surf board, I stood up and surfed to shore four or five times. When I say “surf”, I’m using that term loosely, to describe what might not be immediately identifiable to the outsider as surfing. Picture everything in frame-by-frame slo-mo on tiny waves and you’ll have an idea of my version of surfing. An exhilarating challenge, yet also just playing. Plus, ocean. Plus, deliciously physically tiring.  

Yes, I fell off the board more than I stood on the board. Yes, I seem to still be discovering bruises I hadn’t noticed and can’t remember exactly which mishap caused them. Not to mention the carpal tunnel syndrome ache in my left wrist from guiding the board through the waves walking out to where I was going to theoretically catch a wave. And yes, I was scared each of the two more days I surfed. But not scared enough not to do it.

Because my friends were right; I reveled in the total liberation of the novice. With no expectations of how things should be, the experience of right now is super charged. Every victory is epic.

I will surf again. Some extra items I’ll acquire before then: a water-worthy hat with a 360 brim and a chin strap; ultra-zinc-y sunscreen for my face and the backs of my hands; water shoes to alleviate fear of sharp shell cuts; maybe even a surf shirt that isn’t too big.

Because I found the surf shirt I wore at my apartment a while back, after so many guests had come through that I claimed it as my own, instead of contacting every different person to see if they’d mislaid a surf shirt (why had they even brought it on an NYC trip? Surf shirt owner—if you are reading this and it’s yours, happy to send it back. I only wore it three times for extremely light surfing).

To offset total novelty, I also did a lot of mat yoga in Costa Rica (I say “mat” because these days I usually I do aerial yoga, easier on my hamstrings). How could I not? Nosara is overflowing with yogis. I took my first class at The Gilded Iguana, where I was staying. The studio was small and gorgeous, reminiscent of a glass-enclosed tree house. Disconcertingly, the class ended up being private, because I was the only person to show up. In this land of yoga, the studio was so new that it hasn’t caught on yet (check it out if you go!). That was an intense class. Then, on the instructor Violeta’s recommendation, I went to two other classes at different places, with teachers she loved. At the first class, packed with 20 and 30-somethings, in full yoga retreat mode, I was initially daunted. They would all be so much better than me. They were all so young. Then I thought, wait, I’ve been doing yoga since before they knew how to walk. The classes were excellent—one with Emily at Bodhi Tree and the other with Zack at Harmony. The studios were beautiful, shaded, open-air, wood-floored oases. The wind was up during one class and we practiced to the soothing clicks of bamboo trees knocking against one another.  

By the time I boarded the plane home, every muscle in my body was exhausted. That’s a good vacation, for me. 

Yesterday, I was out cross-country skiing, one of my absolute faves (no offense surfing). When I got to the top of my most-loved climb, I paused to take in the view and breathe, and once I’d caught my breath, breathe in some gratitude for the gift of the ski.

Fear · racing · running · training

Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 1: imperfect training and disappointment

All of this summer, I’ve been so excited about my new bike and getting into cycling, I’ve only mentioned half marathon training in passing. I’ve done a bunch of shorter races by now, mostly 10k. After the last one, a 10k in the sweltering heat in July, I decided that maybe it was finally time to tackle the half. If I could run 10k in 30C and survive (though just barely), perhaps there was a chance I could run twice as far?

To be honest, I was super intimidated by the sheer distance. I could do 10k, but I’d end up exhausted, and at races that included a half marathon option, I always wondered how the hell it was possible to double my distance. But plenty of people were doing it, and some of my running mates were egging me on: “if you can run 10k, you can do a half marathon, no problem!” and “anyone who runs a bit regularly can do a half!”. They meant well, I know, but this sort of encouragement made my anxiety worse. What if I was the sort of person who could run 10k, but not 21? Or who could run more or less regularly, just not very far? I was really quite scared of the idea of trying to run 21k.

Photo of an unsurmountable-looking, ice-covered mountain face. This is how Bettina felt about the half-marathon distance when she first started training.
Photo by Stas Aki on Unsplash

I’ve always been one to avoid a challenge rather than risking failure, but it’s something I’m trying to work on: getting out of my comfort zone and push myself to take on things that are a bit of a stretch. Learning to maybe fail.

And so I scoured the web for an autumn half marathon with a flat course that was close enough so I could get myself there on the morning of the race. There was no way I was starting out with a hilly half. I settled on a small race around a former US Army base called the Franklin Mile Run. The US Army left a lot of its German bases in the 2000s and these areas are being redeveloped now, and the event website promised an entertaining and – I noted with relief – almost completely flat course. 29 September, I was on!

I started training “in earnest” following the aforementioned 10k race in early July, so I had ample time to prepare. I didn’t draw up a particularly sophisticated training plan: the idea was to run two to three times per week (ideally three), with one long run on the weekends, gradually increasing the distance up to 18k a few weeks before the race, repeat that a couple of times, and then taper the week before race day. I mapped out the long runs on the calendar, knowing I would hit my first 18k at the end of August. Then we’d go on holiday, during which I would do a couple of shorter runs and one more long run before tapering.

Initially, the long runs were tough. I had this mental block caused by my Fear Of The Distance (FOTD): I wasn’t going to be able to do it, it would be too hard – essentially all the negative self-talk that was trying to protect me from failure by sabotaging me, as Cate recently pointed out. It was also really, really hot. And so I would go out, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to complete my run, and any difficulty I’d run into – it still being too warm, being slightly uncomfortable in my gear, etc., would compound that feeling and leave me starting out jittery and nervous. There was one particular run, my second 14k, during which I hit a wall at 10k and spent the final 4k shuffling along in suffering, convinced I would never be able to run a half marathon. In hindsight, it was really just too warm that day. I should have taken something to drink and taken it easy. But at the time, it was quite discouraging.

And then one day, I ran 16k and was fine. I’d taken a water bottle and decided not to sweat it (haha!), and it really helped. A friend of mine, who has done several half marathons, had also given me an amazing pep talk the day before. Not the “anyone can do this” kind, but the “you, Bettina, can do this, I know how much you train, you’re clearly in great shape”, kind. After this successful run, I was much more confident. I even knocked my first 18k out of the park. By early September, I was ready. I was feeling strong, doing great for speed, the temperatures were finally coming down, and my FOTD had subsided. Then, we went on holiday, and I got sick. Not ideal, but at this point, two weeks out from the race, I still thought I’d be able to do it.

I got back, went to work almost recovered from my cold, and immediately picked up a stomach bug that was going around. A week and a half out from the race, it was getting seriously worrying. The week before – I hadn’t run in almost three weeks at this point – I was still not feeling 100%. The race was going to be on the Sunday. On the Tuesday, I had planned to do a trial 10k but didn’t manage to get out of work on time – it was also one of the busiest weeks of the year, of course. I finally got myself out for a run on Thursday. I did 10k, which went alright, but it was abundantly clear I wouldn’t be able to do the half marathon. I was gutted. I had been ready! And now, I clearly wasn’t.

It was especially disappointing because I knew I couldn’t just sign up for another half a few weeks later once I was fully recovered. Just two days after the race I was going to have a hyperactive parathyroid removed, which would keep me from exercising for several weeks. By this time, the season would be essentially over and I would likely have to wait until next spring for another go at the half-marathon distance. (There are of course winter races, but none of them meet my criteria of ‘no overnight stay required’ and ‘mostly flat course’.) But there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had just been unlucky. I now know that I can do it, so training myself up for another go will be much easier. Still tough, ARGH. Double-, nay, triple-ARGH!!!

Luckily, the race had a shorter option and it was possible to downgrade on the day, so I decided that at least I was going to run something, even if it wasn’t a half marathon. Read on this upcoming Wednesday for the race report…

Have you ever had to bow out of a race (or another challenge you had worked hard for)? How did you deal with the disappointment? I’m curious to hear your experiences.

cycling · Fear · sailing

Sam thinks about doing scary things

Is there a thing you do that you always find scary but you do it anyway?

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years of this blog and I confess it’s mostly been in the context of trying to problem solve for Tracy and road biking way back when. She loves triathlon so much, I thought. Surely there ought to have been a way to get over the fear of road cycling? In the end there wasn’t, she gave it up. And that was the right choice for Tracy.

Since then I’ve often thought about fear and the role it plays in our lives, in particular in the role it plays in what physical activities we do. Downhill skiing anyone? Fat biking on ridge trails? Camping in areas of high bear activity? Paddling in wind and waves?

Back to cycling, for a minute: While I’m road cycling I don’t find cycling scary. I can zoom down big hills, ride fast in a group, and ride in city traffic without fear. The only cycling related fear I have is sometimes after a ride. Sometimes I play over the ride in my head and think about the ways things might have gone differently. Sometimes I get scared then but the activity itself is done. And next ride, I’m happy and relaxed and ready to ride again.

Here’s a thing that I find scary when I do it: small boat sailing, like Snipe racing.

There I’ve said it. I haven’t talked about this before. But here’s the thing. Although it’s present every time I get in a small sailboat it goes away after the first race or the first half hour or so that I’m out. I’m puzzled by it. I know it will go away. I no longer want to go in and get off the boat when it happens. I can’t figure out what it’s about. I get shaky. It’s very much a physical sensation. I kind of freeze in place and I feel like everything could go wrong.

What exactly am I worried about? You name it really. Capsizing, hurting my knee, hitting other boats. And these are all things that could actually happen. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I know that but still, I’m nervous and shaky.

It goes away when I start to focus on the tasks at hand: making sure the sail is trimmed properly, making sure I’m in a good position on the boat, making sure that we have all of our lines untangled and running freely, making sure we’re in a good position comparatively speaking.

It’s different than the fear that led Tracy to stop cycling in three ways: I love sailing and in particular, sailboat racing. It goes away each time and I know that. The worst case scenario I imagine is not that bad in the scheme of things.

I keep waiting for it to go away. Instead, it persisted all summer and yet I kept sailing.

I’m curious to see if next summer feels different.

Small sailboats racing. Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash
Fear · feminism · meditation

Mina’s Still Streaking—300 Days of Meditation and Counting …

After a meditation workshop on December 2 last year, I set an intention to meditate for ten days straight. Ten became thirty became 150, which brings me to 300. Every day since 100 has been my longest meditation streak ever. I’ve described it before as the wild ride on which nothing much happens. That’s still true.

Orange-yellow flower streaked with bands of light.
photo by Moritz Schumacher on Unsplash

Have I made progress? Am I cured? 

Progress from where to where? Cured of what? If the answers are supposed to be: Progress from too much stress, anxiety and disappointment-in-self to divine understanding and unassailable self-worth, not to mention cured of all doubt; nope. 

But (!), I’m not stopping. Because despite the fact that the heavens have not opened and granted me a supernova of universal insight and salvation, I feel moments of profound peace, joy, love, connection, daring, courage, vulnerability, gratitude and strength, which I can only credit to my commitment to the cushion. I feel both as if my nerves are rawer, my emotions closer to the surface, and that I am less subject to the vagaries of those nerves and emotions. I can notice, even accept, without allowing them to dictate the terms of my day. Not every day. But a lot more days than before. 

That’s the biggest noticing of these last 300 days. And since meditation is about nothing more than noticing (the practice is the outcome), here are some noticings that have cropped up since last I wrote about my practice:    

  • When I meditate right before a workout, I give more to the effort. But, when my run (or other activity) is first thing in the morning, slotting something in before first thing robs me of sleep. Both sleep and being active improve my mood and energy throughout the day. If I’m not training for something in particular, I will generally choose the benefits of sleep over the benefits of the meditation enhanced workout. Weighing the benefits of sleep vs. workout effort is part of my ongoing dance with balance.
  • Music is another of my dances with balance. I like meditation music, especially The Bahktas, who create electronic remixes of Sanskrit texts. Some days, the music makes the meditation seem too easy. Other days, the music agitates me and I resist the meditation. Then again, the same can be true with a meditation in silence. Depends on the day. The experiment is the result.
  • As some of you know, I also experiment with meditations on fear. Turns out that once you open the conversation with fear, fear keeps the conversation going. Even when I’m not specifically meditating on fear, she always has a lot to say. A few recent examples include:
    • My upper arms are too old and baggy (despite my strength) to wear sleeveless tops anymore. Plus, this might be the last summer I’ll wear shorts. 
    • My needs take up too much space and are unreasonable. Plus, I am indulgent with my needs. 
    • My anxiety is a weakness. And then, the act of judging my anxiety is a failure of personal mastery. (Wow. I can’t win coming or going.)
  • Here’s another confounding logic loop: Overly positive meditations have the opposite effect. Here’s an experience I had recently. I chose a new meditation on opening up space in our minds. Within the first minutes of the 10-minute meditation, the guide asked me to imagine I was floating in space. Then she immediately told me that I had left all my preoccupations behind. I was now happy, according to the guide. The thing is—I had most certainly not left all my preoccupations behind. My mind was awash with thoughts vying for my attention. I was trying to let the thoughts pass through and away, like clouds; they were not. Also, I wasn’t instantly happier than before I sat down on my cushion to meditate. In fact, I felt frustrated, because I had not achieved what the overly optimistic meditation guide told me I should have. Sigh. 

Meditation gets super tricky around this idea of optimism. Our task is to truly sit without judgment or expectation. To be curious for its own sake; not in pursuit of some optimistic result, such as perfect inner peace and bliss. Sooner or later, curiosity yields insight. Maybe not the insight we want or expect. If we allow it to work on us, meditation delivers what we need. As I write that, I wonder if I am blinded by my faith in meditation; if the effects I observe are caused by the observation; if curiosity is its own reward; if patience and practice create their own self-nourishing cycle. And, if so, are these cyclical effects the whole point or distracting churn? My head starts to spin. I think about Tara Brach’s RAIN—recognize, allow, investigate, nurture. The next day I sit back down on the cushion and let it rain. 

p.s. Since this is a feminist blog, you may be wondering, “what does meditation have to do with feminism?” The answer is—the act of women taking time for ourselves is feminist. The act of pausing to gather together the threads of our strength is feminist. The desire to live fully, to unbind ourselves from societal pressures and simultaneously nurture our individuality and our connection to community is feminist. Taking time to meditate is saying, “I am worth this period of self-reflection.” 

I am worth … what could be more feminist?

body image · cycling · Fear

Kim asks herself: why do I ride?

Content note: there is some mention of body image issues and struggles with weight loss in this post.

A couple of weekends ago, my cycling club held its annual feature ride to Rattlesnake Point, a conservation area on the Niagara Escarpment that road cyclists reach by climbing an absolute corker of a hill. (At just a kilometre, and with grades well above 10% along the way, it’s basically a wall of pain with a twist in the middle.) I did the ride last year and made it up the hill, but barely. My memory of it was, “did that, don’t need to do it again.”

This lot makes it look easy. It ain’t easy! A group of female riders racing up Rattlesnake Point in Halton region, Ontario. Image from Pedal Magazine.

When this year’s ride rolled around, though, I started to get a familiar feeling. I should do the hill again, I heard my brain whispering to my quads. After all, it wasn’t THAT bad. Right? Besides, said evil Kim brain to vulnerable Kim quads, if you don’t do it again you’ll always think you barely can and it will haunt you.

I decided to take to the internet for help. I wrote a message in our regular FFI bloggers message group asking the gang to “tell me I should do” the ride. I’m not actually sure what I was hoping for. A chorus of you go, girl! ? Maybe. Or maybe a good reason not to go?

Cate weighed in straight away, and in her inimitable Cate way drove to the heart of my problem. There’s no should here, she said. Why do you want to do this? What will it do for you?

KABOOM.

Why do I ride? This is a question I’d actually already been thinking a lot about, before Cate hit the nail on the head. It’s been following me and my bike across the ocean for a couple of years now. It dogs me on club touring days, when I have to decide if I stay or if I go. And it’s there when I’m tired, but something inside says to me, get up! Don’t be lazy. You said you were going to ride today, so ride already.

There are a lot of answers to the question, why do I ride? Some are frankly awful. Some are amazing. And some of them are different now to what they once were, and different to what I ever expected they might be.

Here they are.

First, I ride because I love to ride.

(Images above, from top left: Kim in green helmet, riding glasses in her teeth, snaps a selfie at the top of Box Hill in Surrey, England, with green rolling hills in the background; Kim in the same helmet and blue, black and white kit walks her bike up a very steep lane, autumn leaves on the ground, and she’s walking because she couldn’t get up the hill but she’s smiling anyway; Kim in pink helmet and black Castelli kit stands in front of her bike proudly, hands on hips, in Richmond Park, South London, England. All these images are from 2014-15.)

This is objectively true and always has been. Road cycling is my sport; I’m massively strong and fast and awesome at it; I handle my bike with skill and have surprising amounts of chutzpah on the road that I don’t always have elsewhere in my life. I heart my bike, full stop. This is my best, and favourite, reason for riding. But it’s not always, or even often, the main reason I head out on the bike.

I also ride because I worry that if I don’t ride I’ll gain a bunch of weight. In other words, I ride because somewhere in my brain I’m convinced I have to or else bad shit is going down. This is my least favourite reason for riding, but it’s often the quickest motivator for me.

I have always struggled with body image; I was raised in a household where nobody was thin but thinness was the ideal. My mom and her sisters policed each other’s bodies like crazy, and mine too. I was overweight as a kid and lived with a terrible, irrational fear of gaining more weight. Passive aggressive comments followed many of my food choices, and someone was always watching and commenting on the contours of my body. I felt followed, all the time, and I felt horrible about myself.

I’m much better now, but that’s because I’ve been fit and strong for a while and as I’ve gotten to my fitness goals I’ve learned to appreciate the complexities of a strong and fit body. I’m still by no means thin – who wants to be thin when you can be strong? – but I have a great deal more body confidence. Still, the nagging fears with which we are raised do not just disappear. They transmogrify; sometimes they are countered by new practices and hard-won beliefs, but sometimes – often – they lurk. So one of the reasons I ride is to outrun this lurking worry about my weight. I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s real for me.

Third, I ride because I can, because not all of us can and therefore I am really proud of what I am able to accomplish, and dammit do I feel strong and amazing when I do. (I also love this reason.)

A glamour shot of my road bike, Freddie, with grey cross bar and orange bar tape, with a traditional stone wall and gorgeous rolling dales in the background. I took this photo after getting to the top of yet another stunning climb in West Yorkshire, 2017.

This is what I replied to Cate when she answered my message about the Rattlesnake ride, and then I thought a lot more about it – more carefully about it. I did not end up going on the feature ride that weekend (my partner turned up at my house on the Sunday morning and I very joyfully spent the day with him instead) but the next day I realized that I’d actually wanted to do the ride, because I knew I could get up that hill stronger than I was last year, and I wanted to show myself how strong I am today. I wanted to feel my strong body haul myself up that stupid-ass hill. So on the Monday morning I went out and did it, alone – and got a personal record, too. (It felt amazing.)

Fourth, I ride to go places and make new discoveries about the world. This is a new reason for me, and I’m excited about embracing it more often in future.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that Sam, Susan, Cate, and blog friends Sarah and David were recently on a seriously grit-laden (literally and figuratively!) cycling trip to Newfoundland. Early in the planning for this journey they asked me to come and I decided not to join them. I knew I would not enjoy it: I dislike camping; I knew it would be freezing; I suspected we would be tired and possibly wet pretty much all the time. For me, this sounds like a world of pain, not a holiday.

There was a time I would have said yes anyway, though. I would have decided it was a challenge, I would have told myself that I never shirk from a challenge, and that therefore I would have to go. For quite a while in the early planning stages of the trip I was actually worried that I was going to say yes for this reason; I have a history of saying yes to things that I think will be good for me in some horrible you-can-rest-when-you’re-dead way, and I almost never enjoy them (though I do get a feeling of satisfaction from the endorphin rush and the adrenaline of succeeding in the end). It actually took a lot of work and a lot of courage for me to tell myself definitively, you will not enjoy this. Say no. Not going to Newfoundland was a growth moment for me, then, as a cyclist and as a person.

While the gang were in Newfoundland, however, I was riding too – in Anglesey, an island in northern Wales. This trip was like many I’ve taken, where the bike and I get on a plane and then on a train and head for a cottage where we stay for a while, riding every day or every other day to neat new places we’ve never been before, racking up the miles and the Strava segments. This is my preferred way of bike touring: no camping, no schlepping in panniers. Stay in one place; return there to eat and sleep and shower each evening. Over the years I’ve learned that I don’t just prefer it this way, but love it.

(Images above, from left: I’m in my green helmet and riding glasses, taking a selfie with green pastures and blue sky in the background; Freddie and her orange bar tape chill out against a barrier with soft sand and blue water in the background, at Trearddur Bay, Anglesey; another selfie, this time with grey frog statue from a random Anglesey front yard. Half of my face is visible, glasses on my nose, and I’m looking quite serious, on behalf of the frog.)

On this trip to Wales, though, something new happened: I had to use the bike for errands, not just for touring and challenge rides. My friend and I had no car, and the nearest shop was 1.5 miles away up a hillside; the nearest proper shop was 6 miles away. So some days I rode the bike 50, 60, 90km, visiting beaches and outcroppings and a very cool salt factory; on other days I rode the bike 10km, 25km, 30km, to buy cheese and meat pies and veggies and swim in the ocean.

The pop-up caf at the amazing Halen Mons salt stop. An Airstream is kitted out with typical coffee shop accoutrements, and there’s a posh looking picnic table in the foreground. The sky above is azure-blue, and the shop’s name – TIDE – sits proudly on block letters above the Airstream.

I hadn’t done this before – on previous cottage-style bike holidays I’ve either had a car or been based in a town centre – and it was actually really joyful. Using the bike for all sorts made me feel like I was connected to a community, not just passing through it on the way to yet another Strava prize. And it reminded me that my love for my road bike is about freedom and independence, joy in the outdoors, a love of movement, as well as strength and speed and skill, all blended together.

There’s one more reason I ride: to get stronger. I do this by riding with faster people in my cycling club and struggling to keep up with them. It’s not fun a lot of the time, but it works.

This reason I’m still struggling with.

As recently as last summer, I thought – as with my initial reasoning about the Newfoundland trip – that it was my duty to myself to always ride with the fast folks, and suffer and endure, because if you can, you should, and if you don’t you’re being lazy and will never improve. (Again, I’m aware these intrusive thoughts are not helpful, but they are real for me.)

But earlier this season something weird and unexpected happened: I decided not to care anymore. I arrived at a club ride in April and made the decision to ride with the second-fastest group, not the super fast kids. I told myself, sure you can ride with the fast gang, but it wasn’t that much fun, was it? Maybe you could prioritize joy over speed this time. Maybe there’s an important component of getting stronger in that choice, too. Through the season, I’ve been riding with social group two more often than speedy group one. And I’m OK with it, for now.

I still ride from time to time out of an obligation to my demons. But the great news is that, more and more, I’m riding just for the pure delight of it, knowing that I’m growing as a person, not just as a rider, when I do. I posted in our message group with my demons in tow, asking the gang please to validate them; instead, Cate reminded me that I do not need to pay attention to those dudes so much. There are lots of absolutely wonderful reasons to ride my bike – more than enough to keep me happily rolling.

Why do you ride? Do you struggle with demons around exercise? Can you tap into the joy of movement unencumbered? Let me know.

accessibility · body image · cycling · Fear · fitness

Sam gets told “Get off the road fat bitch” and mostly feels sad and confused

It had been one of those days.

My university age son, home for the summer, has a summer job that has his alarm go off at 5 am. I get up with him and mostly that’s great for my summer schedule.

He rides his bike to work and packs his lunch. It’s a physically demanding job and there’s no food there.

Except this day he got part way to work and remembered that his lunch was on the kitchen counter. Return home, retrieve lunch. Then he got back on his bike but his chain fell off and it wouldn’t go back on. This time I just drove him.

I got to work later on my bike and remembered that I was almost out of Synthroid. I had thyroid cancer a few years back and take Synthroid everyday now. That’s okay, I think, the pharmacy is open until 6 and the last thing on my calendar ends at 4 and I can bike there.

Except it was one of those days. I checked the pharmacy hours. They close at 5 on Fridays and they’re not open all weekend. I checked my calendar and the last thing ended at 430. Yikes.

Needless to say it was a speedy bike ride through traffic. But I made it. Whee! Zoom! Yay! I left the pharmacist feeling fit and powerful.

But leaving the pharmacy there’s a four way stop. I’m great at four way stops. I don’t go straight through. I stop and wait and take my turn. I make eye contact with drivers. That’s easier at four way stops than it is at intersections with lights, less time for phone checking.

So two cars go and it’s my turn and the driver next up at the sign on the other corner signals for me to go. Nice. Clear communication! Except the guy in the oversized pick up truck behind him (why is it an oversized pick up truck every time?) starts honking. “Don’t wait for her! Go! Go!”

Nice guy waits anyway and I proceed through the four way stop. Next through is angry pick up man who continues honking, roars out of the intersection and yells some variant of”Get off the road fat bitch” at me. It’s always “fat bitch.” Okay, you can tell I’m fat but how do you know I’m a bitch, I wonder. I’m on a bike. Even though I’m smiling, I guess that’s enough to merit the bitch badge.

I’ve written about this before, this abuse hurled at cyclists, especially women, maybe especially larger women. I’m genuinely sad and puzzled.

I’m sad and puzzled a lot these days as I struggle to understand the world around me and our collective political choices. Things seem so mean and small minded. I understand wanting less government and a balanced budget. I don’t understand the right wing populist politics that’s around these days with its not so thinly veiled racism and transphobia. The anti-immigration stuff makes zero sense to me.

I try to get inside his head, the guy who bought the large pick up truck and is now driving through a neighbourhood full of speed bumps and four way stops. What’s his world like?

I also want to defend myself. I’m exercising. Surely that counts? Surely even if you think I’m awful to look at because fat, I’m out there exercising and that’s better than sitting at home or driving a car?

But I stop myself. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I deserve respect as a person. I don’t need to be a person exercising to merit non-abusive treatment.

Friends joke about making the small penis hand sign at him.

But the thing is I’ve always thought that was unfair and body shaming to men with small penises. I’ve got a thing about treating men’s bodies with respect too.

May 27 was Bike to Work Day here in Guelph and June is Bike Month. I’m pretty immune to drivers hurling abuse at me but I tried imagining if the insult did get beneath my skin what that would feel like. What would it feel like to be new to bike commuting? When the angry aggressor is driving a large heavy metal box that can go fast and hit hard, and you’re a woman who has been hit hard and yelled at by men before (that would be most of us) it’s especially frightening.

In the end I land on the usual line of “some people are just jerks”and move on. I’m angry though that male jerks in particular feel free to comment on women’s bodies and yell at us from their vehicles. Mostly though in sad and puzzled. And I think we need a signal for toxic masculinity that doesn’t rely on body shaming.