Transitions, monkey bars and CYOA

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I’ll sometimes sit outside in the early morning drinking coffee, thinking and watching the sky.

There’s this space between the night and day that I love. It’s dark, still night time. The birds aren’t yet awake, the wind hasn’t started to stir the trees. But in the east, there’s a change. Not light, but a different shade of black, one that begins to push the darkness from the edges of the earth, yet leaves it hanging overhead.

I’ve watched it happen every day this week. Today it came at 5:20 a.m.

My mind lately has been weighted with the thought of transitions. It seems we live in an endless string of transitions, from one thing to the next. Yet we crave, instinctively, the comfort of those times we’re not in transition. We don’t want to search for shelter every day so we live in homes. We don’t want to hunt and gather our food, so we stock refrigerators and pantries. Even parts of our day that seem somewhat normal are really a string of transitions – from sleeping to waking, from home to work, from work to the end of work, to home, to bed. Repeat. But we find comfort in those daily transitions because they are part of a routine, and thus, keep bigger transitions at bay.

These sort of transitions are like that space between night and day: They will happen mostly on their own, with little effort or thought.  The big transitions, however, like changes in relationships, jobs, deaths, major illnesses, aren’t like the peaceful space before a sunrise. They often feel pretty terrible, uncontrollable, damaging, or even potentially fatal.

And that’s how I ended up thinking about monkey bars.

When I was young, the monkey bars were among my peers’ favorite playground equipment. Some kids were really skilled at making their way across, hanging by their arms, their legs dangling, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they might fall. That kid wasn’t me, though. Monkey bars made me nervous. I would play on them, because that’s what you do when you are 7 years old. But I didn’t like them very much, and I was acutely aware that I wasn’t as carefree and reckless as my counterparts. I could make it across, but it wasn’t graceful and it probably didn’t look like I was having much fun. I was more of the tree climbing sort.

The mechanics of navigating the monkey bars is simple – move one arm ahead of the other, grabbing the bar ahead. Repeat. Eventually, you’re on the other side where you can turn around and do it all over again. But there’s more to it than that, I think.

There’s this moment, where one hand is reaching out to the future, stretched to reach the next bar. The other hand remains, gripping the bar behind. If this hand behind doesn’t loosen, there’s no progress. If the hand ahead doesn’t commit, there’s no progress. So for a moment, there’s this tiny space where nothing – NOTHING – is certain. It’s the place where one hand has decided where it will go, and the other must trust and let go of the safety of where it has been. It’s the place where you have no mooring. It’s the place where you have no grasp, where you float, and where you could very well fall.

And that’s why I’ve not always been good at monkey bars, or transitions. I tend to do some weird awkward thing that looks something like this:

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(Note: Those lines around the legs and body represent nervousness, and maybe some shakiness, because this guy can’t decide whether to move forward or go back from whence he came. There should also be a group of people on the other side laughing at him, which is super f**king helpful and awesome.)

But here’s the truth of all that: It’s all that shakiness that really creates the falls. Those assholes who just swing from bar to bar without a thought in the world? They don’t fall. At least not often. And they don’t seem to care when they do. They use the momentum of each advance to swing even fuller to the next bar. The people who fall are like this guy up there. People who get partway into something, and then freak out because they aren’t where they were and aren’t yet where they want to be. Or maybe they listen to the voice in their head that says they can’t make it across. That they don’t have the strength, coordination, nerve, whatever, to do it. Or maybe the thought of falling is stronger than the thought of getting to the other side. People like me. And a good number of the people I know.

This seems to be a pretty common affliction, based on the 100,000 books/blogs/articles on the matter. Anxiety and fear. Not monkey bars. No one writes books about monkey bars, and that’s a shame. And it comes up in conversations all the time. Yesterday a friend talked about how she’ll start things, get half way through them and then just abandon them, always planning to get back but not really. Another friend and I talked about all the ideas we’ve had, some pretty good ones, too, that we just sat on and never had the nerve or momentum to carry out. And we talked about how different our lives might have looked had we acted on some of them.

But here’s the deal – I’ve taken these big leaps in life before. I’ve fallen before, and I’ve moved across the monkey bars. The falls – while quite painful – didn’t kill me. It’s quite likely the same thing could be said for just about anyone else, if you stop and think on things a bit. Any considerable examination of a life likely produces some distinguishable successes, and failures. It’s just our brains are wired to remember fear and danger more. (Seriously, that’s the second time I’ve linked to this article. Go read it. It’s good). And then it’s like we live a life designed to minimize danger and risk rather than living a life that’s one of active choice and decision.

And that’s when I started thinking about Choose Your Own Adventure books.

 

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This was the most awesome thing in the world to 5th grade Jason!

Man, I loved those books when I was a kid. Not only were they exciting stories, they were exciting stories in which I got to choose the outcome. And what was even better was that if I didn’t like the ending I chose, I could go back, make different decisions and get a different ending. I would read these books over and over again, for days, choosing different decisions at different points to see if I could change the ending in some minor or major way.

And that’s when I thought I should treat life like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.

I get to chose the outcome of this thing. I can decide on page 52 whether to enter the mortician’s lab or leave to get help. And if I stay and find that the mortician is an evil villain who wants to do horrible things to me, I’ll have a chance later on to make another decision that might take things in a different, hopefully better, direction. There are no wrong decisions in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. All of the decisions lead you to one place – the end of the book. The ending might be different than you expected, different than you hoped for maybe, but you will get to the end of the book one way or the other.

Unless you just stop reading. And who would do that – it’s Choose Your Own Adventure!?

The people I know who have approached life this way seem to have a little more zest in them, they get more done. It doesn’t mean they aren’t afraid at times. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have doubts or fears. It just means that they know there’s a beginning, and there’s an end. And everything in between is decided by someone – so it had damned well better be you.

 

Beating back the cycle of doubt and fear

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It’s sort of funny when I think about it.

I’ve done this before, last year, when I rode my bike across the entire state of Kansas.  But still there is doubt, the voice inside that says:  “It can’t be done, at least not by someone like you.”

“I’ve done this before, I can do it again,” I fight back in my mind. But doubt doesn’t loosen its grip quite so easily. Sure, I did it last year. Maybe that was a fluke. Maybe the weather won’t be as kind. There will be more hills. And this year hasn’t been the easiest, or one that has provided much opportunity for training. There was a shoulder surgery in November that required months of rehabilitation before I could even think of getting back on a bike. By the time I could, my motivation was hard to find. Then the month of May struck – and with it near constant allergies and a particularly nasty illness that left me worthless for the better part of 2 weeks.

And to be quite honest, my head hasn’t been in it. I’ve been churning pieces of my life around in my skull, dwelling on the past, on those decisions that set a different course and that have forced me to if not embrace, at least accept, change. Those things that bring your weaknesses and failures to the fore and make your successes seem like fleeting, or even just lucky, events that aren’t really central to who you are.

But at this point, none of that matters. On Friday morning, I will load my gear and my bike and I will head out to Saint Francis, Kansas, which sits near the Kansas/Colorado border. From there I’ll traverse the state – nearly 500 miles – to the Missouri border town of Elwood. Along the way, I’ll stop – along with the nearly 1,000 other riders, volunteers and staff – in Oberlin, Phillipsburg, Mankato, Belleville, Marysville, Sabetha, and Troy. I’ve been told to expect a lot of hills, for which I’ve done embarrassingly little training.

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Last year I had no idea what to expect. I was determined to achieve a dream I had held since childhood. Yet I was certain that I’d arrive at the first town – Johnson City – where I’d quickly be ignored and ostracized by much more experienced riders. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I made new friends – friends who listened to my sad and sappy stories. Friends who gave me advice on how to better manage a long day of cycling. Friends who encouraged me to go ahead and ride 100 miles in a day, so I could get my Century patch – friends who did the ride with me and celebrated the achievement. I found people who, despite my internal dialogue, accepted me and enjoyed my company. And I enjoyed their company, and the stories they shared with me. From there, and with the help of so many generous, friendly and encouraging people, I found a strength I didn’t know I had. By the end of the week I was standing at the Missouri state line, holding my bike triumphantly.

This year’s trip seems different to me. Where last year was a physical feat, this year seems like it will be more of a mental challenge for me. I have my lackluster training in the back of my mind. I’m concerned about the hills of Northern Kansas. I know that I could’ve done more to prepare. And in many areas of my life, I have to acknowledge the parts where circumstances just sort of knocked me on my ass, and the parts where my decisions are the reason I’m sitting in the dirt.

So today there is a horizon in front of me. And I have choices to make. I can let my doubt stand in the way of what I want to accomplish. I can let fear – fear that I didn’t train enough, or of the hills, or that voice in my head that says I’m not quite ready – control how this goes.

Or I can look forward to this horizon and consider what lies beyond where I can see right now. And I can consider that it might not be bad at all. Like last year, I might find more than I imagined. I might find a new connection with people, or a renewed appreciation for the spirit of Kansas. I might find something in myself I didn’t know I had.

A friend of mine, wanting to send me off with good wishes and positive thoughts, gave me a card that said it perfectly.

 

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I think I will.

 

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