Sunday, February 28, 2010

The World Needs More Cheerleaders

On Saturday, I skipped a weekend training walk. Instead, I sat on the bleachers in a local gym for about 6 hours watching cheerleaders cheer. Seriously. My daughter is a cheerleader and her team was participating in the Western Mass Invitational Tournament. It was held in a high school gym that was packed with more shades of school spirit than I have ever experienced.

Let me be perfectly clear about something: I was never a cheerleader. I actually avoided being present at events at which there were cheerleaders. And when my daughter announced that she wanted to become a cheerleader, I was startled. I’m a bit of a feminist. I didn’t shave my legs in high school and I was politically active before I could even vote. And I didn’t have any friends who were cheerleaders. They were too cool and I was too…not. Based on my experience of cheerleaders in high school and my perception of who/what they are culturally, I was shaken that my daughter wanted to be “one of them”. My perception was that cheerleaders were ditzy, mean-girls, who walked through their lives worrying about how to be popular, and not about much else. This didn’t jive with my understanding of my very bright, academically elite, sweet and friendly daughter. It worried me that this was what she wanted to become. But when your child wants to do something in her life, you support her. At least that’s the way I live my life. And she wanted to be a cheerleader, so I put my heart into supporting her as a cheerleader.

I have now sat through more school events in the past 4 years than I had in my entire life leading up to this point. Over time, I have learned a great deal about cheerleaders. Some of them are ditzy, but more of them are really smart and care a lot about their grades. Some of them are mean girls, but more of them are very sweet and thoughtful. Some of them care a lot about being popular, but more of them are just average kids with some very good friends.

And each of them, every cheerleader I have seen, is a true athlete, who works very hard, and is dedicated to cheering on and up the people she (or he) interacts with.

I had a real revelation yesterday watching the cheerleaders at the Regional Competition. I was sitting in the bleachers, experiencing a sense of pride reflecting on how hard our school’s team had worked to get ready for this. I was watching all the teams of girls (and a few boys) cheering their loudest for one another, and I was thinking about how far I had come in my own understanding of what it means to be a cheerleader. And then it dawned on me that I actually had come to love and understand cheerleaders years before my daughter had ever decided to become one.

I really started to love cheerleaders on my first 3Day Walk for Breast Cancer. Cheering is a crucial aspect to The3Day Walk. On every corner is another smiling face waiting to cheer the walkers forward. There are groups of families who spend the whole weekend stalking the walkers, seeking opportunities to thank them (us) for walking. Cheerleaders on the walk come in all genders, all shapes, and all sizes. There are loud cheerleaders chasing the walkers with shouts of praise and heartwarming chants. There are quiet cheerleaders who silently stand their ground and let the sign they hold say it all with words like “Thank you for walking with love from a 10-year survivor.” There are friendly cheerleaders who engage walkers in chat to help pass a difficult hill. There are old cheerleaders and young ones. The important thing is that every step of those 3 Days, there are people poised to cheer the walkers on.

Even though I had trained very hard for my first walk, I had a difficult time with knee pain. On the second day, I walked through miles of excruciating pain on an intensely swollen knee. Each time that I thought I might be close to giving up, there would be another cheerleader with kind words expressing their faith in me. Those cheerleaders gave me strength and kept me going.

Here’s the important thing I have realized about cheerleaders:
When you are in pain or fearful that you are not going to do something as well as you hope, you really deserve to have someone cheering for you. We all do, whether we are walking 60 miles, playing basketball or just trying to do our best at school or jobs. A little “woo-hoo” really goes a long way.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lessons of the Snow Day

Today we had a snow day.

As a kid snow days had a magic all their own. In the New Jersey town I grew up in, there was a town-wide alert for snow days. When there was questionable weather, we would listen at 7:05 to hear whether the alert whistle would blow to inform us that a snow day had been declared. For kids poised between their PJs and getting dressed for the day, that sound was a signal to offer up our own whistle of glee. Mother Nature had dumped a gift of a day into our laps. At that age, there really was no connection to the long-term issue of having to give back that day in June. All that mattered was that suddenly our vision of the day had changed. Instead of dressing for school and flustering out the door into our regimented day, we could lazily stretch into an unexplored day. We could bundle into jackets and layers, find sleds and friends and create a winter wonderland. Or we could watch cartoons all day. There might be a play-date with friends or baking cookies with grandmothers. The magic of a snow day was the big promising stretch of the unknown. The magic was the opportunity to not know what was next and to enjoy whatever it turned out to be.

Snow days now are still magical. My partner is a teacher and I have a flexible work place so a snow day usually means a bonus day off together that we hadn’t expected. Although there are always chores to do and usually mountains of ice or snow to move around, the day is still a special treat. And even though a day off in February will mean an extra day of work in June, the day we get to have is a chance to be very present in life, and remind ourselves to just be here now.

Trying to learn to embrace the moment is something I have struggled with for years. I am one of those people who would prefer to be in control of every moment. I don’t exactly overplan but I do like to plan very thoroughly. But I have tried to change that about myself. After losing Mary Kay to breast cancer, I recognized that I needed to learn to appreciate the moments I was having rather than planning for the moments I was going to have. Life really is too short to be thinking about the next moment instead of living in the current one. What if something comes along and takes away your next moment? Maybe it’ll be breast cancer that steals away your next moment. Or maybe it’ll be a bus. Or maybe you’ll miss a bus and simply miss the next thing on your schedule. Missing the next big moment or the next small one is frustrating if you are dedicated to the plan instead of the moments. I want to try to fully embrace the moments as they happen.

One of the things that I appreciate most about The3Day Walks is the way that the event forces me to live in the moment. I confess that, even 9 years into it, I do spend weeks planning what to pack, how to pack, how we’ll get there and so on. And that is after months of planning our fundraisers and letter-writing. And that is after totally planning which city to walk in and which city to crew in. After all, I didn’t say that I have totally conquered the “In The Moment” concept, just that I am working on it!
But on the walk itself, there I really can Be Here Now. Walking 20 miles a day, I really don’t have time or energy for anything other than the path directly in front of me. I have the time to focus on and really talk to the person walking next to me. Hopefully, I will talk to her or him for hours because they have a story to tell and something to teach me. When the day gets long and my feet are worn out, I am simply there in that moment. And when I walk into camp at the end of that long day and am greeted by enthusiastic cheering crew and fellow walkers, I am right there, in that one moment. Where else could I possibly want to be?

This morning, when the cyber snow day whistle sounded its alarm announcing a bonus day off, I could have startled into a planning frenzy. I could have worried about whether the laundry would get done and what this winter day off was going to do to our summer plans. Instead, I rolled over and lazily stretched into an unknown day of being with and celebrating my family. Right here, in this moment. Thank you, 3Day, for that lesson.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What It Means to Not Walk

Two days in a row of not walking due to weather, work and a sore back has produced a serious frustration within me when I sit down to write. The bottom line is that I don’t want to write about not walking. Are there thoughts that I can share and express about what it means to NOT walk?

I have not walked before. I learned a lot from the experience of not walking.

In October 2009, Matt and I drove to Philadelphia for The3Day Walk, and didn’t walk.

It was our 15th 3Day Walk (it was actually his 16th). We had trained plenty and raised over $6000. We know our way around The3Day experience, and it is a vital and central part of our lives. Although we had already crewed in Chicago in August, walking each year is very important to us.

WELL! What a roller coaster of a weekend it was. Not at all what we expected. I returned home to Massachusetts late Wednesday night from a business trip. We spent hours trying to get repacked for the Walk, knowing that the weather geeks were predicting wet and cold all weekend. We drove to Philly Thursday evening. The driving was awful, starting with sleety snow in Massachusetts. A drive that usually takes us 4 1/2 hours took almost 8! We arrived at our friends’ home in Philly at almost 10, visited and reviewed our plans for them to drop us at opening ceremonies the next morning. Just before bed, we checked online to discuss with them the exact timing for the 3Days only to discover that major announcements had been made. Due to the weather conditions, the organizers of the event had determined that the event would be held on Sunday only as a 1Day event. Our hearts crashed into our stomachs and we tried to decide what this meant for us. After a sleepless night, we got in touch with a fellow walker local to the area and decided to join her (and about 300 other clad-in-pink walkers) at a local mall for an indoors Day One Walk. We decided that we would walk at the mall for Day One/Friday and then drive home and recapture the gift of a free weekend. I was scheduled to be out town for most of the coming month and we decided that a weekend at home would do us some good after all. It was a lot of fun walking in the King of Prussia Mall, although it certainly didn't compare to a regular 3Day walk. We spent the day walking the mall, cheered with and for all the other mall-walkers. Then we hugged our friend Jane and headed home.

The drive home that evening was uneventful, although we took turns lamenting our sadness at the loss of the walk. It felt surreal to be driving home without having had our walk.

And then, we woke up Saturday and I felt simply bereft at the loss. Homesick is the only way to describe it. After some discussion, we decided that as crazy as it was, we would drive back so that we could walk the organized 1Day event on Sunday. Back in the car we went. Crazy? Yes. But the minute we were back in the car headed back towards the 3Day, I felt better. We drove to the home of our friend and fellow-walker, had a late dinner with her and her husband, cemented that growing friendship, got up on Sunday and walked our 15-mile 1Day event. That 1Day was just like a 3Day in terms of people cheering and a sense of community gathered around a vital cause, but it wasn't the same as a "real" 3Day.

But in many ways, there was lot more for me to learn from living through that kind of disappointment and reconciliation. In the end, I think I grew more from the walk that I did have than I would have from the walk I was planning on taking that weekend.

I hadn’t planned on driving more hours than walking that weekend. I hadn’t planned on training for months to take a walk that didn’t challenge my body. I hadn’t planned on making choices that weekend about what to eat. I hadn’t planned for any of what happened.

But the walk that I didn’t take can remind me how important it was for all of us to experience that sort of adrift, unfettered, unplanned moment. When my friend Mary Kay was diagnosed with breast cancer 9 months after losing her husband, it definitely was not what she had planned. When my friend Diane was told that her cancer had come back after 10 years, it wasn’t what she had planned. When my friend T’s 26 year-old daughter was diagnosed, it wasn’t what she had planned.

Who plans on leaving their teenagers orphaned? Who plans on shifting from planning her retirement to planning chemo treatment schedules? Who plans on helping her daughter recover from a bilateral mastectomy two weeks after her wedding? Really now, who plans on getting breast cancer?

You really can’t plan everything in life. I didn’t plan a weekend of not walking, but I can be grateful for the weekend I did have.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vacation's End

It is the end of vacation in our home. With a high-school student and a middle school teacher comprising two-thirds of our home, school vacations define the ebb and flow of our lives. I am fortunate enough to have the flexibility in my job to take my vacations when they have vacations. Although I did have some hours of work to finish up during the week, it was still vacation. I still slept late every day, and we went for a walk in the middle of the afternoon every day. And it was relaxing.

And then yesterday, it suddenly dawned on all three of us at the same moment that our vacation was about to end. Isn’t it strange how Saturday morning can be the most amazing stretch of glorious possibilities when it signals the start of your weekend; and yet can feel like the abysmal end of the world when it dawns your vacation is almost over?

Saturday dawned with a backache for me, and a vacation-is-almost-over hole in the heart of my partner. We were feeling all kinds of self-pity, stuck-in-the-house blahs, when I read the Tweet of a friend:

If misery loves company, it also responds to an inspiring kick-in-the-butt. And so we picked our sorry selves up from our sad sack palace of wallowing and headed out into the daylight. A walk in the woods was definitely called for. We headed to a part of the bike path that we had first explored last spring and trekked through six miles of brilliant winter sunshine! We walked through the local park and alongside a river, stopping to admire crests of ice caked around a waterfall. It was a magnificent day for a walk.

It would have been so easy to stay on the couch, buried in the anger and sadness that our vacation was over. But it turned out to be just as easy – and a whole lot more rewarding – to celebrate what a great vacation it has been by continuing the vacation feeling for as long as possible. It is easy to feel sorry for yourself when life gets difficult or sad or scary. But it is important to remember that we are in control of how we feel about our lives. We can be sad and scared; or we can get out, find the sunshine and look for something special in our days.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Oh My Aching Back

We had a great 5-mile walk yesterday evening, squeezing it in just before sunset. The air was crisp, the wind was a bit too cold, but even that just made the walk more satisfying. We walked on our bike path and reveled in the fact that it is clear of snow and ice already. Walking across the bike path bridge, we could see that the river was flowing completely ice-free, just as if Spring were already here. We capped the walk with a quick stop at Esselon Café to grab coffees to go and enjoyed our last mile as a coffee stroll. All in all, it was a perfect walk.

After the walk, we gathered up my daughter and her boyfriend. The 4 of us went bowling, a sport I enjoy but don’t have much practice or skill at. It was a great fun evening. However, today, my back hurts so much that I cannot stand up straight and simply moving from the couch to the floor takes my breath away.

So here I am, on the couch, angry with my body. How quickly it turned on me! Just hours ago, I was walking through a perfect dusk into a fun family evening. Just hours ago, my legs were carrying me exactly as I asked them to. Just hours ago, my back was bending and twisting so that I could toss the bowling ball down the lane, although not well, I must admit! And now, my body has rebelled against me.

And so I lay here on the couch, thinking angry thoughts directed at my weak back. The rest of my family moves freely around me, stopping to check on me and take care of me. I am glad that they are willing to help me this way, but even that makes me angry.

I don’t want to need their help. I don’t want to be that weak.

With that thought echoing in my head, I am unexpectedly hit in the mental solar plexus with a memory. Suddenly, it is the early spring months before my first 3Day Walk. I am in NJ, taking care of my friend Mary Kay as she recovers from one of her earliest rounds of chemotherapy. She was lying on the couch, resting from hours of trying not to vomit. I was sweeping her kitchen floor. She stopped me and tearfully asked me to come sit with her. Holding my hand, she thanked me for driving 4 hours just to sweep her floor. And in that moment, two friends sitting together, I was struck with a powerful realization. She needed me and I was so grateful to be able to show her my love by taking care of her. She gave me a great gift that day. She gave me a way to help. She gave me the chance to show her my love.

Letting people help you is a generous gift. I want to always be the one helping others, but if I am, then I never give other people the opportunity to be the helping ones.

Letting people help me is not weakness. I keep forgetting this. I guess the Universe sent me this backache today to remind me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One Foot in Front of the Other

I am determined that we are going to train at least 10 miles every week in February. Given that self-made promise, our only walking time option in a busy vacation-week schedule today was to walk first thing in the morning.

In the summer we often start our walk at dawn. In the warm months, walking early in the day means that we will be walking at the “bunny time of day” when we are sure to see critters enjoying the world before things heat up too much.

But walking first thing in the morning this time of year means intentionally deciding to walk while the temps are guaranteed to be below freezing. And yet, that was the decision we made. There was no snow in the forecast, no reason not to walk.

Waking up to a sunny day that looked a whole lot colder outside than it was under our blankets shook my resolve. But a promise is a promise. And so we dragged ourselves out from beneath our cozy comfort; dressed in layers and headed out the door. It turned out that the sun was bright and we were dressed in just the right layers. The sunshine felt great and my legs were strong. It was a rewarding walk.

I wanted to stay in bed. I wanted to wallow in the warm laziness of vacation-brain. It would have been so easy to just roll over and stay in bed, but where is the reward in that? Whose memory would that have honored?

Every time I walk, I am walking for somebody currently in treatment who wishes she could walk. Every time I get out there, I am choosing life. Every time I face something I don’t want to do, I am walking for my friend Mary Kay, who wanted to have years more walking with her kids. Every time I walk, I am remembering the lesson I learned on my very first 3Day walk. The walk can get hard, the blisters can ache, my knees can burn from the inside out; but through it all, it really is just a walk. It’s just getting out of bed and believing that I can do whatever has to come next. Isn’t that all life really is? It’s just one foot in front of the other, and I can keep on doing that. We all can.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thinking on my feet

Thinking on my feet

It's February in New England, which means it has been wintery for months and the ground is covered in cold, wet, white stuff and has been for what feels like eons. By now, the frozen mud is peeking up just a bit between the rivulets of icy paths that try to pass themselves off as sidewalks. And worse than the wintry ground cover has been the darkness. This time of year, I have almost reached my wit's end waiting for the sun to return.

But at last, just when I honestly thought I was going to break from the sadness of winter, the sun is finally beginning to come back into my life. This is the time of year when I really begin to understand why our prehistoric ancestors danced their caveman jigs when they realized that the days were finally getting longer. "The sun is not leaving us!" they surely grunted in their cave-speak.

And so I can begin my own dance of celebration. After months of allowing my sneakers to hibernate, I can dig them out from behind the winter boots and invite them outside with me. My sneakers have missed me and I have most certainly missed them. At long last, there are dry paths to walk on and there is just enough light at the end of the workday to squeeze in a few miles. At last, I am restarting the most significant habit in my life.

In the warm light months, I walk at least 20 hours every week. Seriously. At.Least. For 9 years, training for The3Day Walk has been a central focus of my life. I have learned that training for The3Day means walking, walking, walking. If you want to have a happy healthy walk, you must practice walking. Of course, I already know how to walk. I've been doing it for more than 4 decades now. But The3Day Walk is 60 miles of walking. Even at 4 miles an hour, that is 15 hours of walking; and even when I start a day at 4 miles an hour, I can't usually finish it at that pace. So figure on at least 20 hours of being in my sneakers and asking my feet and legs to do me the biggest favor they have ever done. Well, if you are going to ask your feet and legs for that favor in the summertime, you had better do them the favor of helping them get ready for it!

And so I walk lots of training walks. But it really is more than just training. It is more than just getting my body ready for the event. It is more than breaking in 3 pairs of sneakers every year. Just as The3Day Walk is a whole lot more than just a walk, my training walks are more than just training. They are a gift to my heart, my head, and my definition of who I am. They are the moments in my week when I get to listen to my thoughts.
When I am walking, I get to think. I get to do more than just watch the world go by; I am really in it. I get to take my time and remember who I am. I get to know myself all over again. Walking slows you down. Suddenly I am in the scene that I usually drive past at 40 mph. I am noticing plants and critters. As I walk, I get to think about all the walks that have come before. I spend quiet reflection on that day or on a day years ago. I have hours to reflect on the reasons that I walk. I have time to spend catching up with my partner, instead of rushed conversational snippets we try to sneak into our week. Hours of training walks: it is time that I must commit to The3Day, but really it is time that I am spending on myself.

Every walk is a new adventure. There are new sights along the way, there are new memories to be made. There are conversations to be had and silences to reflect upon and within. Each walk is a chance to rejoice that I am here to walk. To rejoice that my body carries me so well.

No wonder I ache for my walks in the winter. And no wonder I am dancing the caveman dance that it is finally time to get back into my sneakers and onto my feet.