Mourning the loss of a favorite professor

This afternoon, I received the most unpleasant news e-mail message from my college’s alumni list. Kathy Feather, one of my favorite professors and my academic advisor for two and a half years, died of brain cancer. According to one of her colleagues who happens to attend my church, I learned that she was diagnosed as having malignant brain tumor in April after she saw a doctor for what she thought was a stroke. This occurred not long after she was appointed dean of the college, a job for which I thought she was perfect when I heard the news earlier this year. A college dean can be the least popular person on campus; however, you just couldn’t hate Kathy Feather. She always seemed to glow with a likable smile and she had boundless energy (befitting of her field of Education).

Kathy was the type of professor you attend a college like Hiram to find. I had her for my First Year Seminar course. At Hiram, First Year Seminar is one of a series of courses freshmen must take to become acquainted with all aspects of life in college — the social, the homework, the self-discovery, the discipline of writing. Not quite as much of a bonding experience as our Colloquium course, which is taken during the first semester, First Year Seminar was still a place of growth because it is the only class in which you are with only other freshmen. Later, as an upperclassman, my friend, Diane, and I served as teaching assistants for Kathy’s First Year Seminar — the same First Year Seminar we both attended.

Throughout my experience as a student in her course, Kathy was very encouraging. After each paper we wrote in class, Kathy took the time to meet with us individually to explain the strengths and weaknesses of our work. I once wrote a very tongue-in-cheek paper that was supposed to be about where I derived my “cultural knowledge” in which I postulated (and successfully proved) that all I learned about how to behave in my culture I learned from watching Star Trek. I knew that this paper was a stretch of the topic, but here I was — a white-bred mid-western girl from the outskirts of Cleveland. I may be mostly Slovak and German, but I was certainly not raised in that culture nor with any knowledge of it. Pop culture was the only awareness of culture I had.

I was nervous to turn that paper in. Surely, I couldn’t get away with this kind of humorous sarcasm in the serious world of the big Academia. I usually don’t pat myself on the back about my own writing, but I mention it here because I was so zealously proud that in the end Kathy understood that paper in the way I wanted her to. She slapped a big shiny “A” on it, praised my wit, and then asked if she keep the paper as an example to future students. She was supposed to make a copy of it, but I never saw that paper again (sadly because throughout the years I’ve wished I had a copy).

One of the memorable moments of that First Year Seminar course was the “whine and cheese” party. Of course, she and the co-professor brought in cheese and let us all whine, or voice complaints, about whatever it was we were talking about at the time. (My memory fails as to what exactly we were talking about, unfortunately — I just remember the teaching method. Maybe it was about our field experiences?)

As my academic adviser, Kathy was completely helpful when it came to helping me wade my way through my elementary education course requirements. She didn’t bat an eye when I asked her to be my adviser, even though she normally handled students who were pursuing secondary education certification. She was like a college mother — she was there when you needed to talk to someone who wasn’t really your mother.

Diane remembers in an e-mail to me:

…She probably was my favorite out of all of them. I remember sitting on the couch in her office crying while student teaching, and she was so understanding and just let me sit there and cry about how hard it was, saying how many others had sat in that spot and cried to her, too. I also remember another class I took with her – I don’t remember the name off the top of my head, but it was a small group of us, and it was right after lunch, and she always caught me yawning in class and would tease me about it, because she wasn’t boring, it was just the hour of the day. And she always had that smile on her face!

I won’t profess to know Kathy as well as her colleagues, friends, and family. In my relatively short presence in her life, however, she impressed me as one of those people who emanate a warmness, a friendliness, a trust from the very first meeting. Whenever you passed her on campus, she would smile and wave no matter what was going on or who she was talking to. She was very active in the life of the campus both during class and out. She was the professor who always seemed to participate during special campus events, such as serving students breakfast on Campus Day and joining us on soup nights in Dix Dining Hall.

Kathy is one of the professors whose name always pops in my mind when I reflect on my years at Hiram. As I was driving home from work tonight, it occurred to me that my three and a half years as a Elementary Education major were not a waste because, had I not rashly decided to be an elementary school teacher as a freshman, I would never have taken Kathy’s First Year Seminar (since the topic was education and it was generally taken by students wishing to major or get certification in education). If I had never taken this course, I would never have known Kathy.

Not that the whole course of my life should revolve around meeting one person. But I spend a lot of time damning myself with twenty-twenty vision about all the ways I could have used the time better if I’d listened to my heart about majoring in English. I have to give myself a little bit of a break — at 18, I didn’t really know what I wanted. I was still trying to figure out who I was and to become comfortable with who I was. Because I’d been such a social reject in high school, college for me was more about coming out of my nerdy, awkward closet than it was about my education.

Perhaps I needed to run this course, try the teaching thing, to learn that it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. Kathy Feather was the perfect, most understanding person to help me through this transition. The day I came to her — like Diane, crying from a field experience gone wrong — and told her I’d decided to drop the major, she just flashed me one of her smiles and asked me to tell her what happened. At the end of it, she didn’t ridicule me or try to give me a pep talk into not giving up. She told me that she understood and that she was sorry to see me go. I wished that I could keep her as my adviser even as an English major.

The people with whom we cross paths in life help to continuously shape us at certain points in our lives and we never forget them. For me, Kathy Feather one of those really great people at Hiram who helped coax me out of my shell. I know that my experience at Hiram would not have been so vividly colorful if I had never witnessed the energy and enthusiasm with which she taught her courses and mentored her eager students. The loss of her contribution to Hiram College will be painfully felt.

Check out this link from the Record Courier about one of my favorite Hiram College professors. I love the picture they chose for this article because it’s quintessential Kathy Feather!

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend…?

This is the time of year when you become inundated with commercials, backed by a popular Christmas carol (it’s particularly ironic when it’s a religious one), suggesting that the only way to your [insert: significant other/spouse/child/friend/cousin/dog]’s heart is through the wise purchase of a specific product. As if your unconditional love is actually conditionally attributed to the types — and price, especially if it’s expensive — of your material gift.

In a particularly irritating ad running locally, a jewelry company tries to convince you that expensive jewelry will earn you the “husband of the year” award not only with your wife, but also all her jealous and gold-digging friends. The plot of this Christmas gift-giving unfolds as you listen in on the conversations between a wife and her female friend and a husband and his male friend. This commercial hits all the stereotypical comments about male and female relations:

1. Men are clueless when Christmas shopping and especially inept when it comes to their wives (who are supposed to be the person on the planet to whom they are closest!).

2. Women love diamonds or expensive jewelry so you must get some for her so that she can be the envy of all her friends.

3. A man’s worth as a husband is based on his financial status and ability to decorate his woman in sparkly jewelry.

4. Women talk a lot and gossip and it’s annoying.

In the first bit of dialog, we hear a man talking to another man, the sound of bowling balls crashing in the background to let you know that these men are talking amidst their man’s night out together because obviously bowling is a man’s activity (forget that I bowled every Sunday for an entire year with my best friend when she lived in Cleveland and played on a bowling league… and it was our girl’s night out activity). I can almost hear Tim Allen grunting in the background as the guy in the commercial brags about how he presented his gift to his wife and she was “speechless.”

“Laura? Speechless?” remarks the man in exaggerated disbelief.

Both men chuckle. Yes, Laura was speechless. A woman, speechless, of all things. Remarkable. Ha, ha, we get it. Because, you know, all women yack endlessly and must be tuned out when they do so.

The second bit of dialog takes Laura’s perspective as she — yes, of course — yacks to her friend. Because, hell, that’s what women do, you know. They get in groups and talk to their female friends about their relationships. It’s just like Sex and the City. We enjoy long conversations in which we emasculate our men and giggle about it.

“I was speechless,” seconds Laura, confirming her own inability to talk when usually words just flow from her flapping, yacking mouth.

Both dialogs go on to explain that husband Brian was told to shop at this particular jewelry store by his father who — ha, ha — was told by his mother where he should shop for his wife’s gift. Because all women want the same thing, of course, and the mother-in-law knows best. I have to hold myself back here because I could see my own gold digging mother-in-law making such a request for jewelry, but for herself and not me. (She did once ask us for money, but I digress.)

Anyway, the irking suggestion here is that husband Brian does not know his wife enough to buy her a suitable gift. Diamond or no diamond, Brian should know what his wife wants for Christmas without the help of his mom. Man, when I used to Christmas shop for Mike, there was no end to the number of things I ran into that I thought, “Wow, that’s perfect!” The more you know someone, the easier they are to shop for. Geesh, I’ve dated guys I’ve known less well and I still knew what to buy them for Christmas or their birthday. You kind of get to know someone the more time you spend with them. This bit of dialog perpetuates the myth that men and women are totally incapable of understanding and knowing each other even when they’re living with each other.

The best, most romantic present I ever got from my husband was a Swiss Army pocket knife. Seriously. I wanted a Swiss Army knife so badly because they come in handy in just about any situation. Back in those pre-911 days, I could still carry one in my purse without getting frisked at the airport, so it was ideal. In addition to the standard knife, mine had folding scissors, a can opener, a screw driver (this has been oh-so handy), tooth pick, and tweezers. Yes, tweezers! My husband knew this to be the perfect gift for our first Christmas we spent together because he knew me. Much cheaper than some piece of jewelry I’m likely to lose.

Okay, I’m not saying it’s bad if you enjoy the glitz of expensive jewelry. Personally, I’d rather just continue to buy my costume jewelry because when I lose an earring, as I’m wont to do, I don’t feel as though I’ve just thrown away some perfectly good money. The last expensive piece of jewelry I owned was a pair of opal earrings in gold mountings that my grandma H gave me for Christmas one year. She had taken my great grandmother’s necklace and had all the opals mounted in earrings for her daughters and older granddaughters. I had them for several years, but lost them sometime in early 2000. I must have left them in when I went to bed or something because I haven’t a clue where they went. Because they also meant as an heirloom, I felt especially bad that I lost them. I guess I just shouldn’t wear expensive jewelry — just keep it in my jewelry box like my engagement ring so that it never gets lost.

These commercials also suggest the process of buying someone a nice gift is tedious. I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas shopping. I can barely contain my glee when I’ve managed to find what I think is the perfect gift for someone I care about. I look forward to my friends and family opening their gifts more than I look forward to receiving gifts myself. That’s the true spirit of Christmas. “It’s better to give than to receive” makes more sense as an adult than it does when you’re a selfish child. Maybe with all my philanthropic donations to charity have helped cultivate an appreciation of the positivity you get back when you selflessly give without the expectation of return.

I’m afraid these commercials tell men all women want jewelry. I know that the objective of the ad is to target men into buying expensive jewelry from the particular jeweler… but, still, couldn’t they do it in a less patronizing way? I think it’s insulting to suggest, as these commercials do, that men are stupid and oblivious to their wives’ desires; and it’s equally as insulting to insert any other 1950’s stereotype about women. Some of us would find skis or a bike seat a more suitable — not to mention useful — gift than jewelry.

When I was married, I always tried to break these stereotypes because they’re just dumb. When I found myself stuck in a gaggle of women complaining about their husbands, I would just smile and say, “You know, my husband’s great to live with.” Of course, that caused a bunch of smirks and comments about “the honeymoon stage.” Still, you have to ask yourself when we’re going to get beyond these ideas of how we think we should act around everyone else in regards to our marriages/relationships. If you’re expecting your partner to be unresponsive and completely inept at understanding you, then when you’re in an unsatisfactory relationship, you’ll just think it’s par for the course. Instead of looking for the person who fulfills your needs as you would like, you’ll settle for a sub par person who only partially meets them. This may eventually lead to a divorce when you realize you don’t want to spend the rest of your life with a person who is not attentive to you. It takes the communication, trust, commitment, and selfless love and sharing of both people in the marriage to make it work.

This may be a simplistic way of looking at a larger social problem. I just get tired of commercials — and television shows, too — that perpetuate antiquated stereotypical ideas about relationships. I think feeding into the stereotype without trying to change it is half the problem. Couldn’t we suggest instead a loving relationship? Here would be my commercial:

Laura: Oh my God, Brian! It’s just what I didn’t know I wanted!
Brian: But I knew because you’re my wife, my best friend, the one person on the planet I know best. I didn’t even need to ask my mom what I should get you.

Okay, you can see why I don’t write marketing copy…

A communion of cornbread and cranberry juice

As a self-proclaimed atheist since sixth grade, I never expected to receive communion in a church again. In fact, it was my decision not to partake in communion so many years ago that represented my separation from the Catholic faith in which I was raised. In the Catholic mass, the ritual of communion is enacted each week (whereas, in most Protestant practices of Christianity, it is only offered sporadically, once a month, or only for special occasions). In the hazy memories of my earliest catechisms, it seems to me that communion was the single most important event in a Catholic practicer’s spiritual existence. It’s one of the only strong messages I remember about my former faith.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition, communion taunts you as a rite of passage because you are not allowed to partake in it until you have taken your second grade catechisms. First Communion is a big deal — it is its own ceremony that requires dressing up (ironically, like little brides and grooms, which I never understood, unless it was symbolic of your “marriage” to Jesus? Someone Roman Catholic help me out here!) and involves a big party where you get lots of religious paraphernalia, or money, from your relatives. I still have the little order of service booklet (I can’t spell the name I know it by — “misselette”? — and too many years have gone by for me to determine whether or not my ears were clogged when my mom called it that). In other words, First Communion is a big deal. And you’re left with important choices (taken quite seriously), such as, “Should I have the priest put the host in my hand? Or directly in my mouth?” (for thy hands are too dirty to touch the host!)

Additionally, communion is such a huge deal in the Catholic faith that if you are a not Catholic and you attend a Catholic service, even though you are a fellow Christian, it is considered disrespectful (maybe even a sin?) to take communion. Likewise, a Catholic attending the service of another Christian faith — even Lutheran, which is always joked about as being “Catholic Lite” — you are not to take communion. This is so ingrained in the Catholic psyche that people have been known to become insulted when another person breaks one of these rules of etiquette in their church.

With this religious upbringing still engraved in my brain, communion to me represents everything about acceptance of the faith. So it was absolutely a huge deal the day that I consciously chose not take communion in front of all my extended family — almost as big of a deal as the day that I, as second grader, chose to take my First Communion. I don’t remember when or for what occasion that day occurred, but I do remember the fear and nervousness that had preceded the moment. I knew it would be an outward sign about an internal decision I’d made, and perhaps the scariest moment in my life because I knew I was rebelling against the principles under which I was raised. My mom, of course, already knew of my decision and we’d stopped going to church probably long before I reached that day; however, this was my first public declaration of that decision.

My palms sweat as row by row, the parishioners exited their pews to stand in the communion line. As the ushers came to my pew to grant permission to enter the line, I stayed where I was as members of my family jostled to move around me. What would they think of me? I wondered. Would my mother be blamed for allowing her child to “go astray”? I know my dad was not too happy with my mother allowing me to quit my catechism and stop attending church. At that moment — though I know it was far from true — I felt as if every eye in the church were focused on me, and I thought I could hear their voices saying disappointingly, “Oh, another heathen.” Of course, most people probably just thought I was Lutheran.

For years, it seemed to be an unspoken agreement in my family that I was “of the fallen.” No one brought it up, though I know there were probably many prayers directed towards me and my “heathen” mother. There are probably still prayers directed at me from family and friends desiring me to return to the fold. For that, I thank everyone involved in this act. No one is hurt by the positive energy of a prayer. I went through a phase where I cared deeply that anyone prayed for me. I even wrote an angry retaliation poem in high school called “Don’t Pray for Me” and it was printed in the high school literary magazine. I used a pseudonym, but my very Christian classmate, Renee, who was on the review committee for the magazine, came to me later and informed me that she knew I’d written it. I’m sure she then began to pray for me, despite my vehement demand that she didn’t. For as much praying that’s been directed my way in my life, you’d think things would have turned out a little better. Maybe it would have been worse if no one had prayed…? I will never complain about someone asking their deity to bless me.

The quiet in my family broke, inevitably, at a family gathering I attended the year I graduated from college. I (stupidly, I realize now) chose to stand up for a cousin who wasn’t present that day. One of my aunts was telling another aunt about how my younger cousin, Jenny, had told her mother that she did not want to go through confirmation because she didn’t think she believed in God. Her mother said she was thinking of forcing her to do so anyway “for her own good.”

Sirens went off in my head. I barked, “Isn’t the point of confirmation to state, as an adult, that you accept the religion and all for which it stands? How can you force someone to do that? You force them into baptism [Catholicism performs infant baptism] but confirmation is supposed to represent your choice. Free will.

“Heidi, you kids don’t know what they want,” one of my uncles piped in. “We know what’s good for you.”

And, thus, a spiral of arguing broke out in which my entire family — all those who felt they were strongly Catholic — attacked me. The few members of my grandmother’s large family who were not devout Catholics anymore did not argue on the side of faith, but they were not quick to jump to my defense; rather, they kept themselves decidedly neutral. My mom was not there to defend my position or my right to speak up. I was attacked and told that even I — as a college educated person — did not know what I was talking about and I was assured that some day I would return to God when I faced death.

I left the party crying. I never felt more alone in my entire life. They made me feel as though I was the only person in the universe who felt the way I did. It was the same way the kids who picked on me in school always made me feel… I was the odd-ball, the different thinker, the outcast. It seemed like things would never change. All I saw ahead of me was a life of loneliness and seclusion. That day, I drove to the local MetroPark and cried as I sat on a bench along one of the trails.

“Why?” I implored to the mute emptiness around me. “Why am I so alone in my thoughts?”

I have always looked on that event as the example — not the exception — of how people of faith (particularly Christians) behave when faced with a non-believer. Because I’ve always felt attacked for my beliefs (or lack thereof), I spent a lot of years completely avoiding the topic of religion all together. I was an atheist “in the closet.” When people around me admitted to being Christian (which is the most predominate faith in the United States, at least in the white-bred Midwest where I’ve spent 80% of my life), I would just nod and bite my tongue. My silence neither admitted to or denied my religious leanings.

The thing is, I don’t believe that I ever lost my faith in the divine. I’ve always had a vague notion or feeling of being a part of a larger system of something more powerful than myself. Perhaps this system is simply nature or the cycle of life. Standing atop a mountain and viewing the world beneath your feet gives you a feeling of infinite smallness, leaving you helplessly confounded in the magnificent beauty of it all. I’ve had moments where I could almost feel the Earth itself breathing in the wind. My arms outstretched, I felt the wind caress my body and I imagined it going through me, changing just as little as it passed through my atoms so that some small part of my essence was carried onto the wind and passed through the trees, the rocks, the little scurrying critters. My love of nature has always yielded a sense and understanding that we humans were a part of a living, breathing system — not outside of it or above it, but woven within it.

Most recently, I found myself invoking the divine while viewing the night sky through my telescope. One night, after finding and viewing several objects from the Messier catalog, and gasping at each sight (which most people would find unimpressive because these objects do not appear in colorful detail shown in magazines), I found myself composing a poem that began with the following line:

I see God through my eyepiece

These words fell so naturally out of my thoughts and onto the paper. I stared these lone words on the page, embarrassed by the thought, yet dying to extrapolate the thought further. What would people — particularly, my mom — think if I ever shared this poem with them? I wondered. Why was “god” the only word I could find to express my reverent awe of the mysterious, exotic beauty I saw with the super-powered eyes of my telescope? These were not the thoughts of an atheist!

Shuddering with disgust at myself, I crumpled up the paper and threw it away beneath a pile of smelly trash to ensure no one I knew would happen upon it. It was too big of a revelation about myself to acknowledge at the time. But the words had already formed in my brain, and in my brain they were tattooed. Each time I turn my eyes to the night sky, the words surface again in my consciousness, begging for me to elaborate on their meaning, and I feel the powerful truth of the emotion I felt when I initially thought them.

As my aunt predicted (and it is to my disdain that I admit this particular aunt was right about anything she said to me that day), I would return to religion when faced with death. Not right away, but somewhere towards the end of a very prolonged journey through grief. I sought religion because I couldn’t find my way out of the “valley of the shadow of death.” As an atheist, I was stuck there, unsettled, without a staff or rod. All I could see was death around me. I feared death at every turn — would I get in a car accident and die? did I too have a ticking time-bomb inside my body of which I was not yet aware? Focused so ardently on death and the fear of death, I was missing out on being alive.

During the first year of Mike’s death, I started attending pagan rituals with a friend who was a practicer of this faith. I knew I needed something and I wasn’t about to step back into the church of my youth. In fact, I was pretty much running scared from all Christian churches because I’d always felt a little affronted by the people who practiced it. I needed something, but something so obtusely different from the faith of my youth that I wouldn’t even associate the two. For awhile, it was a lot of fun because pagan rites — despite the general false assumption that their rites involve dancing around a campfire naked — are highly meditational. I did get a lot of comfort from them on the surface. However, I always had trouble with the dogma of the faith itself. If I had trouble conceptualizing the existence of one god, imagine how much harder it was for me to envision a pantheon of very human gods running the universe.

I remember sitting in a pagan affirmation ceremony once, watching new participants declare their faith and old participants restating their faith, all the while thinking, “I just can’t buy this. I don’t think I can buy anything.” Because I’d been to a lot of rites that year, many of the grove members were surprised that I did not use this moment to officially join their ranks. But I knew that I couldn’t even pretend. If I were to ever join a religion, I would have to really mean it. I just wasn’t feeling it. My attendance at these rites became sporadic.

I had a similar experience several times in the last year while trying to reconnect with the religion I originally walked away from all those years ago. I explored a few Christian churches of other denominations and attended a Christian 101 — “alpha”– class at a large local church. Twice in one week, I found myself urged to “give my life to Jesus” at that moment if I felt so inclined. Again, racing through my head were the doubts and the knowledge that I just didn’t buy into the dogma, as much as I might have wanted to. And, believe me, I wanted to. I want answers, I want to believe in something that would give me all the answers I sought. It could have been easy to just give myself over in the spirit and heat of the moment — to catch the fever of those around me who were excited and enlightened by their faith — but for me, the pledge would only be half-hearted because I do not truly believe what the religion describes.

In the end, I’ve always felt that pledging myself to one belief or another excludes the beliefs of someone else and asks me to sacrifice too much of the person I am in order to be a “follower.” For example, I love the essential messages of Christianity which urge you to be a good person, to live a sanctified life, and to avoid doing harm to others. There are some great essential messages about overcoming the human urges towards the brutality and savageness that seem to run rampant in our carnal veins. However, with Christianity comes a certain confidence in one’s own salvation at the exclusion of all those who do not believe — all the Buddhist, Hindu, Judaic, Islamic people whose religions offer just as valid perspectives, in my eyes, on our place in the universe. Each of these belief systems hold kernels of truth and wisdom from which we can all gain an understanding of not only ourselves but the cultures who practice these beliefs. Additionally, aspects of Christianity exclude people whose lives do not fall along the path of the majority and many of these people are my friends. I do not see these friends as anything less whole or sanctified than me. And I can never be so confident as to say that I know the key to salvation, or, that we need “salvation” at all. I have no idea what lies beyond this life, if anything at all. I need the space to both believe and doubt at the same time.

In the background of my recent spiritual journey was Unitarian Universalism. The first time I had entered a UU church was in Boulder, Colorado. One of my pagan friends had suggested I look one up when I moved and it took me about a year before I actually set foot in one. I went with my ex-boyfriend who used to regularly attend a UU church. I don’t remember particular details about the service, for I was really nervous the whole time and slightly uncomfortable with my desire to find religion. Because this faith occurred inside four walls (unlike the pagan rites I’d been attending), it was too familiar, even with all of the specific mentions of God or Jesus removed and the lack of an obvious ritual format. Still, I left intrigued and may have returned again had my ex been interested. But by that time, he’d decided he had no need for religion in his life, which only increased my feeling of unease with myself and my search for meaning. After I left that service, I pretty much dropped out on religion for the next several years of my life. It was only recently, during my awakening — the conscious rejection of the throes of grief — that I found myself with the thirst to explore my spirituality again.

I attended the Unitarian Univeralist Church of Kent for the first time in the middle of this past summer. I was nervous and quickly found a seat in the back and tried to make myself invisible to the entering congregants. However, a little old lady seated next to me immediately extended her hand and introduced herself. I responded in kind.

“Have you been here before?” she asked me.

“No,” I said, nervously.

She smiled. “I just started coming here. It’s nice. Different. But nice.”

The service generally opens with a tradition I’ve seen in a lot of Christian churches: a greeting and handshake to your neighbors. At first, this always made me kind of nervous. I’ve become more used to it now and find it a touching way to take yourself out of the little weary cocoon we build around ourselves to keep each other out (which is the opposite of community). As I’ve become more comfortable in the congregation, I’ve noticed how people often go out of their way to walk across the church to greet new people or old friends seated in different areas. I think our music director purposely seeks to shake the hands of a few people he doesn’t know just to provide that welcoming atmosphere that was immediately characteristic of this church to me.

That particular day, the music director performed one of the songs he wrote. I don’t remember specifically what it was about, only that it made goosebumps form on my arms and described perfectly the way I was feeling at that moment — wondering, confused, looking for something more but not knowing completely what it was. I pictured myself in the woods, arms outstretched, trying to embrace the immaterial wind. The thing about air is that you can feel it touching your skin and moving your hair, but when you try to express love back to it in a human way, all you get is empty space for it cannot be touched. That is what God is like to me.

I left the service that day feeling serene and comforted. No one had demanded anything of me other than offer me an opportunity to learn more. In the coffee hour after the service, I’d learned a little about the congregation and had been impressed by the fact that they had a “social justice committee.” I got the overwhelming sense that I’d met my people — others who were concerned about the same things spiritually and ethically as I am. I’d been moved in a way during that service — not just with the music, but also with the message — that no other church or ritual had managed to accomplish within me before.

I’m not so sure that Unitarian Universalism is quite what those in my extended family had in mind when they desired my return to God. As it turns out, when you are faced with your own mortality, quandaries about hope and salvation do enter your mind when you realize just how stark the truth of our proven reality is. You find yourself wanting to believe in something — no matter how ridiculous or illogical it sounds — because you don’t want to face the alternative. I didn’t want to believe that the very vivid and real person that I knew in Mike no longer exists. How could that be? I knew him so well. How could he be there one day and not the next? The desired conclusion is that he’s not gone, that the essence of who he was still exists in some other plane, somewhere else, enlightening the faces of gods and angels and saints with his inquisitive and intelligent mind. His unique character. His sweetness. And sometimes I like to imagine that he peeks in to check up on me, make sure I’m doing okay. I don’t know if this is true — I cannot profess to it being true. But it’s sure nice to believe.

On Sunday, I stood before the congregation of the UUC Kent with about fifteen of my fellow new members and publicly proclaimed my membership to not only the church but my quest to spirituality through UU-ism. As part of the ceremony, I was invited to light a candle from the ceremonial chalice — the flaming chalice that signifies the UU tradition — and then add my candle to a sand garden on a pedestal before all the congregation. As each new member added his or her candle, the bright light of all the individual candles cast a glow across the altar that even eclipsed the light of the chalice itself. To me, this ritual represented a very UU idea that each individual brings value to the congregation — to the community — as a whole. Receiving energy from the flame, each one of us promises through this ritual to return to the church, the community, the world, and the universe the fire of our own individual flames, our talents. Take, but give back. The individual alone is one small flame; the community together can bring daylight in the dark. (The concept of bringing light to the darkness dominates mythologies and religions throughout the world. I often wonder what religion would be like in a world that is not so dependent on the sun and the light of day!)

I was very moved by this ceremony. After adding my candle to the pedestal, I walked across the altar to receive a yellow rose and a pocket guide to Unitarian Universalism, which I might find handy as a discussion piece for people when they ask me my church. Joining a church is huge step for me and, admittedly, a very scary one. Years ago, I renounced all religion as illogical and I systematically cast it out of my life, refusing to hear anything about it. To even admit a desire to live on beyond the physical body was, to me, a sign of weakness and an inability to deal with my own mortality. If that is the case, then I am weak.

Unitarian Universalism is not a religion, really, except in concept. It’s a conglomeration of several world beliefs; a welcoming community for all people who enter regardless of race and sexual orientation; a place for people like me — those who can’t particularly swallow whole any particular dogma — to feel free to worship and celebrate life according to the ideas that make the most sense to each one of us. Unitarian Universalism lets me express God as I have seen, felt, experienced It; at the same time, UUism lets me admit that I don’t know for sure if there is a god or life-giving energy. UUism allows me to believe in something more than this world, but also celebrate the joys and weather the pains of this known life. As I will undoubtedly have to explain to everyone as I become more comfortable revealing my beliefs, Unitarian Universalism is like Humanism with a religion.

Given the dictates about communion of the faith in which I was raised, it seems fitting that the service welcoming new members involved a communion ritual. But this communion was not the symbol of a last supper or a man who died on a cross; no, this communion was of the type we humans have been practicing among each other for as long as we’ve gathered ourselves into clans: the sharing of bread and drink with our fellow man. Food is more than the energy that sustains us; it is how we express community among each other.

At this service, the communion of cornbread and cranberry juice was a celebration of thanksgiving to coincide with the upcoming holiday. We celebrated the fruit of the earth and the human labor that turns the fruit into our daily food. Not completely unlike the symbolism behind the Catholic faith in which I was raised, but not quite the same either. Communing. Admiring and accepting our very different paths and how they have come to intertwine with each other. That’s the universal “God is love” message I’ve been hearing in the back of my mind all these years.

Turns out that I can buy something. It’s just that my something is more vague and a little less dogmatic than everyone else’s. But that’s what works for me and I’ve finally found a community that shares a similar vision of the world as me. I’ve signed onto a faith that sees the world inclusively — no one faith is wrong and no one faith is right. We’re just here to make the world around us a little more just and a little more pleasant for all to live in. I hope to use the seven principles of UUism as my guide as I move to make positive changes in my life that may include a return to college and new career. As we newbies recited in our responsive reading, I have entered this new phase of my life “with a deep feeling that I have come home this day.”

Winter Blues

It’s not even winter yet, but I feel it… The winter blues. All it takes is two to three days of miserable, cold weather without the sun, and I’m gone. Darkness at 5:30 that feels like midnight, oppressing my heart and making me tired. So it begins. The endless spiral of days into spring again. How we Ohioans must suffer. I wish I had my Colorado hideaway — my dream of having a house there in which to retreat from November until June. I dream of the skiing I enjoyed all winter there, the conditions of which were so wonderful, it’s made skiing out east absolutely miserable (I’ve only gone about once a year since moving back here in 2004).

Well, I bought a new pair of skis on the internet — last year’s model of Rossignol Bandits. I fell in love with a pair of Bandits at the Boston Mills ski equipment fair a month ago, but they were 2008 models and cost $600. I refused to pay that much for skis. This week while bored at work, I found a shop on Ebay that sells last season’s skis wholesale, and picked up a pair of the comparable model of skis for — *gasp* — $280!! They didn’t come with the bindings, though, so I’ll still have to schlep up to Buckeye Sports, but this shouldn’t be more than another $150 (hopefully less).

So with a new pair of parabolic skis (my old pair are really long straight skis and I was getting fed up with tripping over them — they are a lot harder to maneuver in the snow conditions of the east than they were out west), I suppose I will give skiing out here a more honest try this year. Since I’m stuck here for the time being (my winter home not yet procured), I mine as well teach myself to find enjoyment out of it so that I am not stuck in the house feeling somber like this all winter and spring. I keep hoping I’ll get some opportunity to fly out west for a weekend, but I know that I probably can’t realistically do that this year because I’m flying out to Clearwater (Florida) to visit my best friend over New Year’s and I have to go to California in May for my cousin Angy’s wedding. I also promised to take my dad to Colorado in August to climb Mt. Elbert.

People ask me why I don’t cross-country ski. Too much work! Not that down-hill skiing is easy, but you also never have to climb a hill with these two cumbersome boards on your feet! I’d rather snow-shoe than cross-country ski. Downhill skiing is my thing. I like speed. And the feeling that I’m going to pee my pants when I stupidly throw myself down a slope above my ability level because I have this need to feel like a bad-ass. There’s nothing like a good dose of fear to make you realize you’re alive.

The downhill skiing culture is more my thing. These people are generally social and somewhat partying. I guess people who enjoy flinging themselves down mountainsides at high speeds have somewhat of a lust for adventure in them. As I feel a kinship with my fellow cyclists, downhills skiers are my people.

I used to say, “All summer I climb up the mountains and all winter I ski down them.” I guess you could apply the same for cycling, for the best roads of cycling are the challenges of climbing up hill. With cycling, you get a little of both, though — the challenge of up and the sheer enjoyment of the ride downhill.

I made a pact with myself yesterday that on the days I don’t get to the gym, I’m going to go for a walk around my neighborhood. I read a sign in the gym as I was doing leg crunches that said you can maintain a healthy lifestyle and help reduce weight by simply walking 10-20 minutes each day. I figure it would be good to go out and smell the air, even on the cold days that I dread, if I just took the time to walk in the evenings after work. Especially since my job has me pretty much chained to a desk all day. It can’t hurt and it might help my mental state. Despite my enlightened viewpoint these days, I still have trouble fighting the moodiness of depression that comes with the season.

I can tell my cycling legs are already losing their power. They don’t feel as muscular as they did midsummer. I haven’t been on a bike since the ABC ride leader appreciation ride on November 2. Too cold. I reach a point where I can’t bundle myself up enough.

Well… time to stop procrastinating. I’ve been up for two hours. I’ve had my coffee, ate my breakfast, read a little — now it’s time to head to the gym. There are baseboards propped up between saw horses in my basement that my dad has indicated I must stain this weekend… The gym is my last chance to procrastinate before getting to work. I guess winter causes me to pay attention to my house again. That makes me even more depressed than the weather. I hate housework.

Let’s talk about death

Tonight, I attended a Death and Dying seminar at my church (the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent). Besides all the reminders of financial information (will, trust, power of attorney, living will) that I should know I need to take care of at this stage in my life from my own experiences but shamelessly haven’t, I went for insight into my possible profession. The speakers at the seminar included a life insurance specialist, a lawyer, our minister, and a funeral director whose wife is also a grief therapist (but his wife could not be there tonight — darn!). The most interesting aspects of this seminar actually came from the funeral director, who reminded me once again of the words my husband said to me when I vehemently declared in one of our only discussions about death that I did NOT want a religious service for my funeral under any circumstances, “The service is not about you. It’s about those you left behind and what brings them comfort.”

Until he’d said that, it had never occurred to me that the service wasn’t about me. I always thought that what was done to honor my life was my choice. Of course, as the funeral director, echoing my husband’s rebuttal, “You are dead. What does it matter to you?” (Though, not according to Mary Ann Winkowski, seer of “earthbound spirits,” whose book on “ghost busting” I’m reading. She claims that the dead often attend their own funeral before departing into the Light. Which freaked me out for a bit and made me ponder if Mike had stuck around… What if he thought that my appearance of strength and my inability to cry during the proceedings was a sign of not missing him?)

No matter what you believe, the fact is that when you die, you are no longer capable of controlling what is done to honor your life in the “earthly plane.” And, as the funeral director reminded me, why should you completely control it? This is not about what you want. You are not the one who needs the closure.

He seemed so rational about death, which fascinated me. He was in complete acceptance of the stages of life, but yet still quite empathetic because as he made a few references to his father’s death, I caught the glimmer of tears in his eyes. Here is a guy who works with death as his profession who can talk about it rationally with an audience, but still does hold a little bit of emotion in his voice. I decided I wanted to be like that. Some part of me thinks I already am like that, no longer ashamed of dropping the bomb shell on people that informs them I’m a widow. I did it several times tonight: once during a conversation with our minister (to whom I was only formally introduced this past Sunday) and a really nice older lady, and then a second time when talking to the funeral director myself at the end of the presentation.

The funeral director owns a funeral home in Kent that has apparently been a family business in the city for quite some time (he mentioned pictures in his business of his grandfather and father who were both the previous business owners). He has been working in the business since 1976 (just one year after I was born!). You can’t help but wonder about people who embalm cadavers. Some part of me always wants to interpret them as freakish — who would want to do that to a living body? Yet, I think, from conversations I had with the funeral director who worked on Mike, these people feel they are doing an important service for grieving families in presenting the dead one last time — as much lifelike as possible — so that everyone can say “goodbye” properly.

Still, death is often not pretty. My husband spent a weekend in a morgue having an autopsy (since he was so young and the reason for his death at the time was unknown). I don’t even want to imagine how he must have looked when brought into the funeral home. Yet, on Wednesday evening during the wake, he looked like the man I’d fallen in love with. For real. And it was frakking eerie how alive he looked — he could have just been sleeping. If you didn’t look too closely and see the stitching holding his lips closed. (I spent a lot of time next to the casket. I had a lot of trouble letting go.)

So I guess this is one of those jobs where you have to be thankful that someone out there does perform these tasks for us. How easy would it be to let go if we couldn’t look at the body? Closed casket funerals and unrecovered bodies (such as some of those victims of 9-11) leaves us feeling a little open-ended. I missed my paternal grandmother’s funeral in 2001 because Mike and I were on a ski trip and unreachable, and I can tell you that some part of me always feels as though I’ve not given her a formal goodbye and a proper send-off into the afterlife (if there is one). Sadly, I still have not taken the time to visit her grave. I’m not sure that’s closure, though. It’s just a stone bearing her name. How do I know she is really down there? We humans are so visual! If we don’t see it, it didn’t happen. I hope she’s not disappointed in me.

It very comforting to attend the death and dying seminar and sit with people who were all talking about death so openly. Even attendees’ questions were filled with the implied prefix, “When I die…” For someone who spent a significant amount of time — and going to unbelievably great lengths — to hide my widowhood for the comfort of others, it was so refreshing. There were only ten or so people in attendance, all of whom were significantly older than me, and I kept thinking, “Why aren’t more people here?”

I look at my own younger life and I realize how badly we fail to communicate the importance of this sort of discussion with each other. I can only remember one conversation with Mike about funerals and death and what we wanted done. He never gave me more guidance than the off-handed comment, “When I become too old and a burden on my family, just send me out in a wilderness forest somewhere and let me wander to my death.”

He never specified what to do if he died young. We were supposed to grow old together. He assumed I’d be around to carry out his wishes. What if I’d gone first? I always pictured wandering in the wilderness with him.

I told him what I wanted. I am sure he would have obeyed my wishes for cremation and a “burial” somewhere out in nature. I have to admit that when he died, my only recourse was to chose the same for him. I don’t know for certain that he wanted to be cremated or his ashes spread atop of Mt. Elbert in Colorado. I took a long shot guess. I figured what I did was symbolic of the life he chose to lead, of the our goals, of the things I knew he loved.

We were both members of the US Highpointers‘ Club — a group of people whose goal is to climb (or in some cases, walk or drive to) the highest point of every US state. Mike was born in Colorado and we were determined to move there at some point in the future. I chose to leave his ashes atop Mt. Elbert — the state’s highest point at 14,433′ — because it seemed like beautiful poetry to me. I returned his body to its place of origin and I carried my love to his final highpoint. It’s also kind of spiritual in a way — many world religions, Christianity among them, when a person needs to talk to God, he/she goes to the top of a mountain.

Mt. Elbert is not just any mountain… It’s located in an astonishing beautiful area near Leadville, Colorado (the highest incorporated city in the US). I’ve hiked that mountain three times and each climb was singularly its own journey — spiritually and emotionally. Never on any of these climbs did my mind understate the awesome beauty of that place. If heaven looks like any place on earth, this place, to me, would be it. I can easily imagine Mike’s spirit drifting among the mountain tops, smiling happily at the place where I left his body to roam eternally. He had a keen eye for Mother Nature’s glory.

This act undoubtedly brought me comfort. Remembering Mike’s words to me, my only reassurance is that he did not specify what he wanted in his death because he was true to his belief that it is the mourner’s choice to find the comfort they need, not his. If, as Mary Ann Winkowski claims, he did attend his own wake and funeral service, I have to think he would have been pleased because of the comfort it brought those who loved him. My dad’s friend, Rocky, a Christian minister, performed the service and he did a wonderful job incorporating the things we — his family — had said about him.

The main point the funeral director punctuated in his presentation is how crucially important it is to talk to your family and friends about what you would wish to have done upon your death. Realizing it’s often a morbid conversation to bring up, he stressed that you must ask the question to others, “What do you want? What would you be inclined to do?”

For someone like me who seeks absolute control over everything in my life, this question would actually be a rough one for me to ask. Does anyone really know me enough to accurately represent my life? The person I am before my parents is different than the person I am before my friends; the person I am alone is nothing like either of these two people. Would these two versions of me collide in some obscene way? What would my friends and family need for comfort? Would it collide with my ideals?

Once again, though, I’ve been asked to consider things from a different angle, which is a metamorphosis of the statement Mike originally made to me. It’s not about me.

I encourage people — especially young couples — to talk about these issues. I should not attend a death and dying seminar only to see older people, those who feel they are closer to death, in audience. Why is it only the old who are prepared, finally, to talk about death? Why do people my age run circles to avoid talking about it? It’s a fact of life that we’ve been consciously aware of since an early age. If we weren’t conscious of it, there would be no religion and no one would attend church. Within a ten mile radius of my house, I can count a couple dozen churches off the top of my head. It still seems to me that a large portion of our population is religious in some sense of the word (as an atheist, I felt I was minority). Why can we talk openly about the philosophy of death in a church, but not about the realities in secular discussion with the people we love?

Having the “widow” bomb shell in my arsenal, I’ve seen so many examples of the irrational shut-down of a person’s mind when the subject comes up. For this reason, I spent so much time treading water around who I was to make other people comfortable. As part of my “awakening” in April, I decided that — as I do with every other aspect of my personality — I was no longer going to hide this piece of information about myself. I don’t go out of my way to state my marital status, but if it comes up in conversation, I no longer restructure my sentences to exclude myself from them (which, believe me, is incredibly hard work to begin with). I state plainly that I am a widow and I remain calm through the puttering and struggle for words that follows. People’s responses no longer anger me, either, because I let go of that anger with my decision to no longer dwell in my grief.

I know it’s hard to think about the end of your life, the end of everything, or losing the other people you love. But if we don’t talk about these end-of-life issues with each other, we’ll be stuttering and lost when the time comes, which is sometimes sooner than we expect. My husband’s death was the last thing I ever expected at the time when it happened. We were both so young. I didn’t know anything about funerals or services or death certificates — how was all this stuff handled? I was suddenly thrust into a whirlwind of decisions from every corner, from donating organs to selecting a funeral home (both of which were demanded of me, right away, at the hospital where Mike died… in fact, in the same breath in which they told me he was dead.)

My decisions were made on pure gut instinct. And even though I have no regrets (or maybe a few), I still don’t know if I selected properly. For example, Mike never told me if he wanted his organs donated, but when asked, I did allow his eyes and some muscle to be donated for transplant (these were the only things that could be salvaged). A few days later, his father offhandedly said to me, “I wouldn’t have done that. Donation is creepy to me. But maybe Mike would have wanted it.”

Had Mike been in some coma-like or brain dead state where his body was still alive, what would he have wanted me to do? I haven’t a clue! I only know what I would want done to me (please pull the plug if my brain is gone, thanks), but I don’t know for certain what Mike would want. And with the way his family was, I can foresee the mounds of arguments that would have ensued. Thank God it didn’t go down that road.

People, you need to make Living Wills and assign Power of Attorney to someone you trust. You need to make a Will and/or a Trust. You need to make these things clear because families have been known to fight these things out until the bitter end. Even though I’m dead (and may or may not be able to witness these events), I hate to think as a person alive right now that my family would taint my life with arguments over who inherits my meager possessions and money. The arguments that ensued between Mike’s family and myself have taken something vital away from the loving, giving, and wonderful man that my husband was. Instead of celebrating the life of this truly beautiful human being, we got distracted by the small material things that do not make the man. Because of this, the thought that my own family and friends would do the same burns me up inside. I want to be remembered as “Mars Girl” — the silly, fun-loving, energetic person that I am in my earthly existence. I don’t want my immediate family and friends to gain financially or materially in my death. My life is about me and those I’ve touched — not what I own.

As you can tell, I’m highly emotional on this issue. It hits pretty close to home me every time I hear people arguing over material possessions in light of a person. My grandmother is still alive, with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and one of my uncles persists in fighting his siblings for my grandmother’s home. This is the woman who gave birth to him, who raised him, who took him in when he was no longer capable of working because he had a heart condition, and now he has reduced her to a source of additional income for his lazy life on disability. It drives me so mad when my family discusses it that I can’t even listen to it any more. It’s so hard to believe that family members will stab each other in the back for a pittance of money. Are we animals or are we human beings?

If you think about it too long — which I try not to — it can really cast a dirty yellow light on your relations with people. You start to wonder if people really love you, or they’re just using you for whatever things they think they can get from you, whether material or emotional. Are we truly just really out for ourselves? I want to have more faith in humanity than that. But it’s hard with all these bad examples…

To avoid this sort of greediness, it’s probably best to ensure all your money is used up and you live in a cardboard box by the time you die. No, I’m just kidding! But seriously, there are a lot of issues you need to handle — even at a young age — to ensure your legal, financial, and emotional matters are taken care of when you die. I was only 26 when my 32-year old husband died. Though I desperately hope that no one has to deal with these things for years and years to come, the fact is that sometimes death calls when you’re not expecting it at all and you’re caught like a deer in the headlights with millions of decisions you never even anticipated. Like that auto insurance company’s commercial slogan states, “Life comes at you fast.”

We need to be able to discuss these issues openly and maturely with family and friends, at least as far as those life decisions such as when you should “pull the plug,” how the memorial services should be handled, and what you want done with your body. You need to listen to the input from your family and friends because these are the people who will be left to mourn for you and maybe you need to ease up a little on your demands in favor of those small things that may bring comfort to those who love you and want to remember you. I guess we tend to be a little pendantic about our wishes, forgetting the all important fact: you won’t be there to object. If there is life after death, perhaps you can go into the Light disgruntled at your ignorant family; if there isn’t life after death, then you won’t be there to know or care what happened anyway. I guess we humans have a real problem envisioning the absence of being, and that’s why we get all caught up in these details.

Of course, I’m preaching out one side of my mouth. To this date, I don’t have a Will, Living Will, Power of Attorney, or any legal document that would dictate the terms of the distribution of my material items. I know that certain people know what I want because I’ve verbally expressed my desire to be cremated and placed with my husband on the summit of Mt. Elbert. However, I’ve not written anything down (except just now!) or even asked my own family these questions about what they would find comforting. I have ranted over and over again about how pissed I would be, for example, if someone decided to keep some of my ashes. But after I listened to the funeral director’s discussion at the seminar, I began to actually revise my original conviction that anyone keeping ashes for themselves was a sign of a dysfunctional inability to let go of the dead. Perhaps, having some symbolic piece of my earthly body to hold onto would bring someone comfort. Maybe some day I will be married again, and my newer husband will wish to have me buried or released with him as well. Could I maybe ease up and let that man have a part of me to take with him too, since he also shared a part of my heart in life?

These questions and decisions are so complicated and emotional. We need to have open discourse with our families and friends in order to make things run more smoothly when the time comes to make these decisions. Sometimes I think that the haste in which I was forced to make my decisions led me to make rash decisions about my husband’s burial. What would it have hurt for me to give his mother some of the ashes that she asked for? Should I have given his father some to bury at the gravestone memorial he had erected at the family plot? Ironically, my own superstitious belief — from someone who was then an ardent atheist — that somehow those ashes still contained his soul led me to make some of the decisions I did. Did Mike want to spend eternity around his mother’s neck? was the question I often asked myself. Which is stupid because no matter how you view life and death, he was no longer in that body, now ashes.

I’m starting to think I was an unrelenting dictator of his earthly body and perhaps I should have shared a little. The result of my firm resolve caused a needless schism between me and the rest of his family that maybe didn’t need to happen. I am not sure I still need to have a relationship with them, but I could have broken it off in a much cleaner fashion. What can I say, though? I was only 26. I didn’t anticipate having to face death so soon.

I can’t take back what has already occurred, nor can I ask Mike if what I did was okay by him. I can only hope that if his spirit/soul still wanders somewhere in the universe that he knows I did things as I thought he would want them. Hopefully, that is enough for him. He didn’t leave me any instructions… and I never asked. The foolishness of youth.

Flip the switch for the REAL autumn

Well, I went to the gym for the first time since April, according to the lady working the desk at the Twinsburg Rec Center as she kindly gave me my pass code for entry. I wasn’t surprised, especially since I had forgotten my pass code. I kept thinking of my “Code 1” user ID for work. Both numbers are an inanely random series of five numbers and I’m always bad at remembering numbers. The only reason I remember my user ID at work is because it has a “69” in it. I’m such a perv. Unfortunately, my pass code for the TRC does not contain a 69, or any other number I can easily use to jog my memory. I had to write it down as I walked into the locker room (almost wrote it on my hand, in fact, but I knew that would wash off in the shower later).

So here it is… The cold weather I kept denying existed has arrived. Reluctantly, I have to hang up the cycling shoes… My cycling is now relegated to that occasional break of warmish weather Mother Nature occasionally grants we Ohioans . Last year, we had a warm spell that occurred on Christmas Eve, allowing me to engage in a whopping 15 mile ride around Stow and Kent. The “warm spell” was probably really somewhere in the 50s, sunny and no snow. The ride was generally flat (I didn’t go into the Valley), but it knocked me out enough that I didn’t feel guilty about the eating binge in which I partook at my parents’ house later in the evening (my mom’s side of the family has gone to my parents’ house for the last several years since my grandma is no longer independent and living in her house).

The ride was so hard because I didn’t ride my bike past mid-October last year. This year — with this past weekend being my most recent ride — is probably the longest season I’ve ever had. I started riding the day before my birthday in March (the 21st). There was another spell of cold weather after that week, which is probably what led me to use the gym for a few extra weeks in April.

People keep asking me if I’m aiming to get 3,000 miles in before the end of the year. Frankly, I was just aiming for 2,000 miles; the 840 I’ve gotten in beyond that is just the bonus round. I can’t complain about my mileage and I’ll feel fulfilled if I end the season where I’m at. Perhaps next year I could aim for 3,000. It would be entirely possible if I started earlier and maybe tossed in a few more centuries. I do plan to do TOSRV (two days, 210 miles) so you just can’t tell. Right now, I’m happy to have achieved what I’ve achieved. And you better appreciate me saying that, for I rarely feel satisfaction when there’s only more goals to achieve. I guess there’s always more goals to achieve. Next year, next year — a chant I know well from my years as a Tribe fan.

This past Saturday the Akron Bicycle Club had their annual fall picnic/”awards” ceremony for volunteers. With the dropping temperatures last week, I was having trouble motivating myself to ride, which was evidenced by the fact that I did NOT ride at all last week. I kept hoping we’d have another heat wave of sorts. So when Michael suggested we ride the tandem, I agreed. It’s like the whole concept of a workout buddy in a gym; you can’t bail when you’ve got a partner involved. The guilt alone will eat you alive.

When I woke up on Saturday, it was a frigid 32 degrees out. Yikes! It felt 30 degrees in my house because I’d had my thermostat programmed goofy. Rule #1 when programming a thermostat: Make sure to set it to begin heating the house to your preferred temperature before the time at which you usually wake up. That way, when you have to climb out of bed (or, in my case, the living room couch), your environment is already warm. It’s certainly de-motivating to get up for a bike ride when you’re freezing already.

I woke up at 9:00. The ride was set to start at 11am. I grumpily hoped that it would be warmer later in the day. I dressed myself in layers: long johns beneath my bike shorts and a wicking long sleeve bike jersey beneath a flannel. This time of the year, most “bike attire” is laid aside for trusty cotton that we probably shouldn’t wear but do anyway. I always figure that as long as my under layer is breathable and easy drying, whatever I wear on top is okay. And because I wasn’t sure about the stability of the cloudy sky, I threw on the wind-breaking shell of my Columbia jacket. To test the warmth of my outfit, I stood on my back deck. Since the cold wasn’t penetrating, I figured I was safe.

To my good fortune, it did warm up a little by the time I got to the Ledges Shelter at the CVNP. As I was prepping for the ride, I was sweating a little so I decided to tempt fate and I took off the jacket.

It really turned into a lovely fall day’s ride. The trees have passed their peak in brilliance and half the leaves are fallen, but there was still enough color to enjoy. The sun was out between the puffy steel gray clouds of fall. And there was no wind! Our route took us up Truxell Road to the Summit County Bike and Hike Trail. From there, we followed what is part of my traditional 35 mile route through the valley — up the bike/hike trail to Highland Road, down Highland (which turns into Vaughn), and then onto Riverview to Peninsula.

I will say, though, that when I ride down Highland Road, which has some pretty steep parts, I take the road quite gingerly, breaking in the worst parts of the road. I knew Michael, the captain on the tandem, was not going to be as cautious. We screamed down Highland without so much as a touch of the clamp breaks… I literally closed my eyes and held my breath (which is actually the stoker’s luxury).

“I thought you liked speed!” laughed Michael when we were safely down and I admitted to my act of cowardice.

I think my enjoyment of speed is limited to 1) my control of it, and 2) less scary hills. But then, the memory of waking up confused in an ambulance after hitting a dog at 25mph, though it happened over four years ago, is still quite vivid. I’m lucky I’ll take any speed at all. I have to admit that as we were speeding down Highland, I imagined deer or unseen cars appearing in the middle of the road whenever we turned a bend. Just call me Nervous Nelly, I know.

Turns out, we maxed out at 48mph. Ironically, I was slightly disappointed. Michael had boasted earlier that he’d once gotten to 52 on the tandem down that hill. Maybe I need to gain more weight?

Well, 48 or 52 — it still scared the crap out of me. In the back of my mind, I’m envisioning a new onslaught of warnings from my mom about the dangers of going high speeds on vehicles in which you are not encased. Fortunately, she hasn’t had many fatal cycling accidents show up at Metro or I’d hear about it. And now I’m also thinking that I shouldn’t admit to these speeds publicly.

Mom, I swear cycling is safe! The Tour de France riders break these speeds and (most of them) are fine! =) It’s safer than football! Or that motorcycle I still dream of riding!

We rode on Riverview to Everett and toured the highlights of the valley that we — the Thursday 6:30pm fast group that always climbs out the valley — rarely go through during the summer. We passed the Everett Road Covered Bridge and that old barn on Oak Hill that looks like something out of another era and Hale Farm and the quaint little Church in the Valley. (I’ve always wondered what that church is like, but it looks like its congregation is too small for me to drop in on without being noticed, so I’ve never fed the curiosity. I always notice these old-style type churches — they seem so cozy. Maybe it’s because the church I went to as a kid was a boring piece of modern architecture. Whatever happened to building churches with style?)

During the last stretch of the ride, it actually started to sprinkle lightly on us. I wasn’t really worried, though, as the sky just looked like it was in transition. This is typical of the manic-depressive Ohio autumn.

Of course, no ABC ride is complete without food. When we returned to the Ledge’s Shelter, we immediately indulged in the spread of potluck dishes and desserts. As evidenced from the cleaned plate in front of me in the side picture, I partook quite heartily. Though, I tried to be light on desserts. After all, we’d only done 32 miles. I’ll admit, however, that my legs were a little burned. I’m already getting out of shape!

It turned out to be a great day so I’m glad that I didn’t bail like a wuss. As I stood by the fireplace in the shelter, though, I realized that this would probably be one of my last bike rides of the season (unless said warm spell occurs). It was a fine cycling season. I’m so glad that I gave the ABC another chance. I’ve met some great people in this club and I’ve enjoyed sharing the love of cycling with them. It’s nice to be with a group of people who don’t seem thoroughly shocked when you say you’ve done over 2,000 miles this year, as I get among the “civilians.” It’s not such a shocking goal when it’s just about the only exercise you actually enjoy. I’ll come to miss that joy even more as I struggle to keep myself running on the treadmill at the gym for the next several months.

I didn’t lose any weight this year, but I didn’t gain any either. So I guess I’m doing okay. (Though, okay, I kind of wish I had more buffness to show for all my work…)

One last note: Some of my comrades seemed a little surprised when I revealed that I counted tandem mileage in my mileage total… I’ve done approximately 275 tandem miles this year and of course it counts! Here are some of the comments I heard tossed about:

– It’s like cheating. You have two horsepower. (This came from my friend, Mr. Two Ring Bruce, who feels that having a granny ring is cheating too.)

– If you count it, then Michael can’t count it. (Suggesting that I can only count half of the mileage.)

To all of you who think that riding a tandem is easier, a big wet, sloppy :P :P :P :P!!! And an invitation to try it sometime… As the stoker, my job is to be in a perpetual session of spinning without any hope of distraction because I have no gears to change or road hazards ahead to watch for. When climbing hills, I can’t see the top because the person in front of me is blocking the view so I have nothing to motivate me to keep going (in fact, my method in this situation is to just look down and watch my feet spinning the pedals). I have to trust that the person in front won’t drop me (it took a long time to get over that one) and you have to work together when stopping and starting. It’s physically and psychologically harder (especially when you’re a control freak like me).

There was a Wednesday night ride we did tandem in August where I was so physically exhausted after the ride, it was like we’d done double the mileage. So, hey, I say it counts. If you have a problem with that, come argue it with me in person and I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich.

Just kidding, of course. But after my 5:30am wake-up call and run to the gym, I’m feeling a little punchy so my humor and writing ability are no longer constrained by my better judgment! =)