Reset the Pieces

queen_of_katwe_official_trailer_1

I recently watched a great movie: Queen of Katwe. The protagonist is a young woman raised in a Ugandan slum with few prospects for a bright future apart from her passionate and newly discovered adeptness for Chess. At a memorable stage we find her utterly defeated and ready to give up after a blindsiding loss at a promising Chess Tournament. She entered with great confidence, and fled with her ego crushed, ready to lay to rest her dreams of a better life.

Her coach shared his own personal story of defeat – of being alone with life’s odds stacked against him. He then encourages her that even though she can’t see a way through, to never give up but instead…

“Reset the pieces and play again.” You can always play again.

This, I thought, is exactly what I’m doing.

I’m clearing the field, resetting the pieces and starting again.

This pilgrimage is many things. It’s scary as hell. It’s liberating. It’s challenging my attachments, as well as indulging the parts of me that sometimes want to just drop everything and disappear.

Why am I doing this? Why have I closed my humblingly successful business, rehomed my dearest companion, Taco,

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Taco

…and prepared to set out with virtually no plan and nothing more than a backpack and limited savings?

I don’t know. I only know that I must. I feel my life depends on it.

I cannot continue to live this life as is. My soul aches for more. Aches for discovery and richness of experience. 2014 was the Year of Devastating Loss. 2015 was the Year of Survival. 2016 perhaps the Year of Unfettering. 2017? We shall see.

I have no delusions of this being easy and painless. I fully anticipate being confronted with my unhealed wounds, my blind spots, my ignorances and vulnerabilities. And as happens when you are striped bare of your comforts and perceived security, I know that I will also have a chance to see my strengths revealed as they rise up to meet my challenges. I know that my path will cross with many others who will inspire and teach me, who will reveal themselves to me and reveal me to me. Those whose shared destiny will be unlocked after we’ve both said ‘yes’. Beyond that I cannot predict the path. All I know is that I must go. I must let go. I must trust.

I have worked hard to develop my heart, my hands, and my head. They serve me and others well, but I will admit I am embarrassed at times with how much I still have to learn, how foolish and ignorant I sometimes catch myself being.

I want to do good. I want to be good. But sometimes I mess up and don’t do things well. I lack skill. I lack wisdom. Those who know me well know that I tend to be quite hard on myself. Part of my work is to remember that it’s ok for me to not always get it right – for me to try and “fail”. That’s what life is: imperfect, impermanent, trial and error, actions and their consequence. An experiment. Many, many experiments in fact. We pick an approach, go for it, see what happens, and (hopefully) learn from it.

We can always reset the pieces and try again.

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Freedom ’14: Setting Myself & My Monkeys Free

Spring Landscape


I’m writing to you from the bush, from the deck over-looking the Olifants river at the Mountain Lodge that I used to call home. And I am complete. A huge chapter in my life that I just couldn’t close for these many years, at last has satisfying resolution. And I am at peace. I actually still have another 24 hours and to be quite honest, I’m ready now (…but my clothes aren’t… they actually do need this extra time to try to achieve a workable level of dryness out on the line). I’ve tied up all my loose ends here and I feel free.


Warm-Morning


While I did raise 9 orphans, the troop (KC) and single baboon (Gabriel) that are dearest to my heart and that I’ve most ached to see set free have now been released. Dream realised. It was a process begun 10 years ago – early in their fractionated lives – with the promise that one day they’d return to the wild – that we could be entrusted to set right what had been made wrong. And with the enthusiastic idealism that comes so naturally to burgeoning adults with unwavering passion in their hearts, there was no question that this day would come… that the necessary release permits that the government had no interest in issuing would be there, that the laws discriminating against these animals would be resolved by the time they were ready, that the general public distaste for these misunderstood and under-appreciated beings would be neutralized, that the perfect piece of land on which to release them would materialize, and that the maze of a flowchart ‘Can We Release Them?’ that had over and over lead to Not Possible for too many troops before them… would open up for KC Troop to slide right through to that elusive YES! Let’s Do It! at the perfect age and not a day later. It would work out… somehow. It had to.


As the years passed, and the naiveté of youth was tempered with time, I’ll admit, in dark, still moments that I couldn’t bear to look at head on, I’d catch a glimpse of fear that maybe our promise to them might not be fulfilled… That they’d live out their lives in captivity in too-small enclosures, growing stereotypic and frustrated as the years passed, their once bursting vibrancy dulling like an old coin one would rather not pick up. That possibility – even the whisper of it – was too heartbreaking for me handle. So I looked away.


Thankfully others did not. Stephen, my Scottish heart-brother and work partner with whom I discovering the baboons, the bush and early adulthood, never gave up through all the unbelievable hardships and innumerable moments when finding a way through seemed impossible. We both came to CARE at the tender age of 19 and discovered a passion in ourselves (under the tutelage of Founder and Director, Rita Miljo) that we would not abandon for anything imaginable.


At the age of 23, heart surgery was most certainly outside the realm of my imagination. I understand now that my destiny was not to stay there and it took a message of that magnitude to lead (or force) me onward toward my path of greatest service and realization. But I fought it like hell and I carried a great deal of guilt and shame for not fighting even harder when I finally realized that returning to CARE (four weeks after heart surgery as I was determined to do) was actually not an option. This journey back has finally enabled me to cut loose those last strings of guilt and shame that have weighed me down. I embrace the levity.


Stephen, now Director of CARE (and truly the best person for the job), has been at CARE this whole time. Fortunately for all the baboons at CARE, staying was his destiny. And through his hard work and dedication (and that of so many others), this release that we so fervently dreamed of has been born into reality.


Old Friends picking up where we Left Off

Old Friends Picking up Where we Left Off


It was with Stephen that I experienced the precious, precious gift of nearly two weeks in the bush amongst our KC Troop… witnessing their troop cohesiveness, experiencing their peace, and savouring truly every moment that I simply got to watch Gabriel BE. Thirteen hours in the field every day flew by like a warm, gentle breeze. I was so at peace, so content. Wanting nothing more than everything I had in those moments. Well… I guess that’s not completely true. I deeply wanted to talk to Gabriel, to groom him and be groomed by him in his most unique way which I will soon describe.  The image of which continuously charms my heart and makes me laugh.


Normally, baboons lipsmack when they groom; basically they quickly open and close their lips with their tongue darting in and out, making a friendly and reassuring sound. Most males don’t do much grooming and aren’t the best at it, though Gabriel’s troop actually has a really high frequency of male grooming (with females, children and each other), an indicator (as I see it) of what a lovely troop they are.


Gabriel has this thing about his lips and his mouth. Ever since he was a baby, you’d often find him with his lower lip just hanging open.
Young Gabriel with his Relaxed Mouth

Young Gabriel with his Relaxed Mouth


I’ve seen no other baboon do this. And out on the release now, whenever he’d be sleeping, you could be sure his lip was just hanging out, exposing his gums and mandibular chompers.  Sometimes you’d catch him having a really good snooze with his big, pink tongue starting to ooze out from between his teeth. Hilarious. So dignified.


Gabriel Having a Snooze

Adult Gabriel Having a Snooze


But getting back to the grooming… as he embarked on his juvenile years (around 2yrs), he started trying to groom his mama from time to time. He’d sit alongside Cricket, the alpha female and pro-groomer, intently watching her grooming technique as she expertly sorted through my hair and skin, looking for little scabs or dry flakes of skin or dirt to kindly remove. Then he’d try. He’d climb up to bat with some lipsmacks and proceeded to mimic Cricket’s technique as best he could. This involved frequent pauses to look over at Cricket to refresh his memory. Then he’d turn back to my leg or foot or whatever body part he’d selected and proceed clumsily through the exercise.


Juvenile Gabriel, ~2 years old

Juvenile Gabriel, ~2 years old

I obviously adored these practice sessions, though they sometimes left me with painfully removed scabs and still-attached hairs, as well as the occasional bloody nose. When he would over-zealously shove a grooming finger up my nose and see the warm, red stream of blood that followed, he would look instantly stricken with remorse, hold one or both hands to my face and stare at me, both uncertain of what to do next and mesmerized by what was happening.


Possibly my favorite aspect of Gabriel’s grooming was what happened to his mouth while he did it. When it comes to intelligence, Gabriel has top marks; when it comes to coordination… not so much. As I mentioned, normally baboons lipsmack nearly continuously while grooming. But Gabriel would concentrate with such determination while he groomed, that he invariably couldn’t keep up both grooming and lipsmacking, and the lipsmacking would unravel. His tongue would keep going but his lips would get out of sink and fail to close completely at their due intervals. In short order, the lip action would be abandoned entirely and his lips would retreat to a pulled back position revealing his big teeth. Then the tongue would miss a beat, grow intermittent, and succumb to the simple pleasure of curling over in the side of his mouth. Every so often his mind would check back in with his mouth and he’d throw in 2.5 proper lipsmacks before devolving back into the gaping mouth, wriggling tongue mode.


Gabe-tongue

That’s just his Style.


Out on the release, I knew I could have interacted with him directly: talked and chatted with one another (me with words, him with baboon chatter and excited grunts), sat together and groomed. But with the exception of some excited hellos my first couple days, I didn’t do any of that. On my second day, I rested under the prime real estate of some small, shady trees watching Gabriel forage a few meters away. Satisfied with his yield of grasshoppers and grasses within his radius and sleepy from the sun, he stood up, walked right up to me and sat beside me, sharing the umbrella of shade. He pinned his ears back and chattered to me in the full belly- and shoulder-bouncing unmistakably friendly way of baboons.

Admittedly, I was both gleeful to have my boy sitting with me, his feet propped up against my thighs with precious familiarity, and I was intimidated as hell (not to mention utterly vulnerable) having this huge male baboon with razor-sharp 2+ inch canines two feet from my face – something I’d never experienced. The more friendly and enthused the chattering from Gabriel, the more his huge and very real canines were openly displayed before me. Yes, he was my son, but he is also a wild animal with instincts, politics, and differences that must always be respected. And I’d been removed from his life for the last 6 years, so making behavioural assumptions wasn’t something I was keen to do.


He's totally being friendly right now. Puts you right at ease, no?

He’s totally being friendly right now. Puts you right at ease, no?


He soon closed his eyes and started to doze, lower lip peeling away, mouth creeping open, tongue peering out. I sat there, still, and waited out his cat nap. It was clear then that I couldn’t allow myself to directly engage him any further, tempting as it was. No more saying his name which he responds so readily to. No more lipsmacks. A baboon who is comfortable approaching people, even if he is the friendliest baboon in all of Africa, is a danger to himself. He would easily terrify the average person; they would not see his friendly, goofy sweetness. They would see his size, his power, his teeth, his proximity and his potential. And scared humans are dangerous humans.


At this point of their very long rehabilitation process, to continue to engage or encourage interaction with him would have only satisfied my selfish urges for touch and connection, and held him back from the critical reverse-habituation process he and his troop are now in. It was hard – my urge to be near him was strong – but there was no way it could trump what I knew was ultimately in his best interest. When he woke up, and casually walked across my legs to resume foraging, I knew it would be irresponsible of me to allow that to happen again. So as hard as it was, from then on, whenever he walked towards me, I walked away. When he’d look at me and pin his ears back, I’d bite my lip and try to explain with my eyes.


Laser Beams of Love

Laser Beams of Love


I channeled all my desires to grunt, lipsmack, and groom him through my binoculars and distanced gaze in fierce laser beams of love that shot through my eyes. And I groomed him vicariously through the other females and juveniles… finding deep satisfaction when he’d have a grooming bout with a really thorough partner who’d remove the dirt from the corners of his eyes, attend to the scratch on his nose, clean out his nasal nuggets, check his teeth and ears, and rake through his hair from head to tail. And I felt such pride every time I’d see him groom anyone (which he did quite a lot). My heart and smile would feel like bursting when I’d see that now at 10 years old, fully grown man of a baboon, he still can’t lipsmack and groom at the same time. Mouth agape, lips pulled back, tongue wiggling on its side between huge canines… this being I love like no other!


The tremendous journey Gabriel is stepping into is just beginning, and our journey together is at last complete. I don’t believe I will see him again – a thought which considered on its own is quite sad, but when looked at within the context of the bigger picture is far surpassed by pride, joy and gratitude.


***


The other dream that I sustained for all these many years is that of studying the release process to scientifically demonstrate the validity of CARE’s rehabilitation process to both increase support and to add to the scientific literature and primate conservation on a larger scale. The whole reason I spent two years of my life schlepping around the forest in Costa Rica chasing cat-sized monkeys through trees, up and down cliffs, was to gain the skills, experience and connections I’d need to return to the baboons to study the rehabilitation and release process at CARE. At the end of my contract in CR I was too burnt out to jump into the grad school position I had lined up and thus returned to Chico and my business in its latest iteration.


Out on the release with Stephen I was able to apply the skills I had acquired to implement a data collection system for the releases that will allow them to be analyzed in a scientifically meaningful way. And I don’t need to be the one to do it (as much as I completely love data collection in the field). Stephen can do it now. And he can train others. Others still who have the energy and enthusiasm to analyze the data, write papers and get them published. I don’t need to be the one to do all of that. I made my offering. Mission complete. Heart at ease.


And finally… I’ve seen the center. I’ve seen all the magnificent changes that have been made. I’ve seen the vision for the future and met the TEAM of dedicated people loving every moment of their journey and offering here, doing great work, taking their turn. I’ve knelt in the ruins of Rita’s home and at her grave, shed my tears and honored both her and the fire that took her life two and a half years ago.


There is peace in my heart. Completion. Freedom. No need to linger in the past. I’m ready to step forward. There is a new space in my heart ready to embrace what comes next on this epic journey of mine. I thank you all who helped me witness this dream come true: the liberation of this troop, and unexpectedly, that of myself.


Thank you Thank you Thank you
Love Love Love.
Goodbye my Loves

Goodbye, My Loves. You will live forever in my Heart.

¡Ay, Carumba!

Shane and I set out from my Dad’s house Saturday morning at 8am, agreeing to obey all traffic laws while in the city.

All fresh and excited!

Heading down 19th Ave and then weaving our way towards and around Lake Merced was a good ego boost to get us started – it was all downhill.  Then in Daly City we hit our first climbs and for a moment I wondered just what I’d got myself in to, not knowing how much climbing I was in store for or how I’d fare.  But I climbed, climbed, climbed and when I reached the apex of that first long hill and Shane remarked “Wow, you’ve gotten so much stronger, Maria!” I beamed with renewed confidence and made a mental note to thank Whitney Wolff (the owner and trainer of Adrenaline CrossFit Chico) for getting me into the best shape of my life.

Before we knew it we enjoying that sweet smell of salty decay as we rode oceanside.

Pacifica

We picked up a lovely trail that allowed us to continue away from the main road near the ocean.  Then we picked up a path that was like the bicycle version of San Francisco’s Lombard street.  Far from being miserable, it was delightful to climb!

Looking down from the top of our “Lombard St.”

At the southern end of Pacifica our alternative to the highway ended; we were now on Hwy 1 (Cabrillo Hwy) for the rest of our journey.

Almost immediately we hit 3 miles of narrow, twisty roads.

First we climbed.

Just keep moving.  Just keep moving.  Just keep moving.

Climb, climb, climb.

There was no shoulder, but fortunately all the drivers seemed to accept our need to ‘Share the Road’ and no one honked at us as we pretty much rode on the white line.

About half-way through those three miles, we reached the top and then began to descend.

That’s when I quickly developed a new appreciation for the climb: it’s slow and much easier to control.

Downhill speeds freak me out a bit, especially going down windy, narrow roads that I’d never been on before.  Thus, I rode my brakes down almost all the hills, alternating methodically between front and rear brakes, and trying to sit upright to increase my drag.

The only noticeable setback I felt from my crash two days prior was a weakness in my left grip, and a limitation in comfortable hand-position options.  With my hands on top of my handlebars, fingers wrapping around the top of the brake levers, my wrists felt most comfortable, yet my leverage on my brakes was limited, especially with my weakened left grip.

This bike belongs to the internet, not to me.

And going downhill at fast speeds with my weak grip on top meant that going over some sort of  bump could have easily popped my hands right off the bars.  At least that was my fear.

For a more solid grip on the handlebars and the brakes, I needed to drop my hands and torso down.  This meant greater security in that it was unlikely that I would lose my grip, but unfortunately it put me in a more aerodynamic position and put much more strain on my wrists, fatiguing them quickly.

I was playing a balance for control. I tried to keep my downhill speeds in the 20’s (though I did get as high as 35mph), while crazy Shane topped out at 41mph.

I found that after going down a long hill I was more exhausted from focus and tension than I’d been from the physical labor of going up it.

At 25miles we arrived at our first destination: Half Moon Bay!

We found a fantastic little cafe called the Garden Deli Cafe which was as perfect as could be.  We ate delicious vegetarian sandwiches on freshly made bread (Olive Walnut, yum) while sitting outside on colorful benches while a wrinkly man played guitar and sang in the perfectly breezy sunshine.

Perfect!

Back on the road, things seemed to smooth out; the hills were much more gradual, and our bodies were both warmed up and refreshed.

We had a nice wind that kindly pushed us along at times, and we’d stop here and there to enjoy the scenery…

… and to stretch!

Yoga for Cyclists 🙂

I definitely had a couple conversations going with some body parts while riding: namely, my right rhomboid.  She’d act up, throwing a little tantrum because she was having to bear more weight to compensate for my left, and I’d have to calm her down by helping her breathe, expand, relax, and go with the flow.

***On a side note, I was in a spin class at the gym a couple months ago when the no-nonsense instructor attempted to inspire us by saying “This isn’t Zumba!  This isn’t Pilates!  This isn’t Yoga!” to which I internally protested “But… yoga is in everything.”***

After my spill two days ago, I was riding is Super Vigilant mode: going at what I felt was a safe, moderate speed, only allowing myself to go fast when I could see the entire stretch of a downhill clearly, scanning the road and shadows for debris, watching cars with a healthy dose of suspicion.  My intuition helped me avoid what could have easily been a few scary moments with cars had I not anticipated that people weren’t paying attention.

There was one line of cars parked along the side of the highway that I marked with particular suspicion.  My inner voice said “Sooooooomething smells fishy over there.”  I slowed down even more than normal and gave a particularly wide berth as I approached them.

I was not at all surprised when a truck suddenly pulled out into the highway without giving any indication.  Nor was I surprised when the driver-side door swung wide open two more cars down.

Eventually we reached a particularly satisfying personal milestone:

50 miles. Officially.

At 60 miles we took a break, ate some trailmix and glowed in our triumph.  We were ahead of schedule, feeling fantastic, and almost there!  We’d arrive at Shane’s sister’s house in an hour.

After a satisfying stretch, we were eager to continue, so we saddled up and set off.

Two miles down the road, we came cruising around a bend and were suddenly presented with a situation I was not prepared for and had little time to react to:

Railroad tracks

Now, when going over railroad tracks on a bike, you want to hit them perpendicularly.  The threat is that your tire can either get locked into the track groove, or that your tire loses traction and slides out from under you.

From this picture it would appear that there would be room to go wide to the right and cut over them safely at a relatively perpendicular angle.  But take a look at this aerial view from Google:

We were headed from left to right.

The path leading right up to the tracks was very narrow (about as wide as the lettering on the picture).  So to cut across the tracks at a safe angle would mean cutting a sharp turn left into traffic, which I rejected in my moment of decision making.

We were going 20 mph, Shane about 10 ft behind me.  I realise that seems pretty slow in car-terms, but in bicycle (aka TOTAL LACK OF ARMOR) terms it’s not so slow.

I thought that hitting my brakes was a futile and possibly more risky move, so in my moment of choice-making I decided my best option was to hit it at as much of an angle as I could safely do without going in to traffic, and to hold on to my handlebars in my top position (there was no time to move my hands down) as firmly as I could to try to prevent them from going any direction I didn’t want them to go.

I braced myself.

I hit the first track and experienced a moment of immense relief as I safely maneuvered over it.

I hit the second track and flew.

The track stole my tire with the rest of my bike faithfully following as I followed my own path of momentum, hitting the ground hard on my left side (AGAIN!) and rolling into the street.  As soon as I hit the ground Shane crashed into my back, throwing him and his bike over me, also into the highway.

We are insanely lucky that no one hit us.  Several cars had to swerve out of the way to avoid us and three cars pulled over and stopped just ahead of us after they passed.  Oddly, no one in any of those cars got out to see if we were okay.  They all drove away before I even began to try to get up.

Shane popped up immediately, simultaneously pulling our bikes out of the road and making sure I was okay. He luckily survived with just a scrape on his thumb and a bruise on his back from where he landed on his cell phone.

I knew immediately that nothing was broken, and again was humbled with gratitude.

I was banged up pretty bad and needed help getting up.  By the time Shane helped me up, a car that had seen what had happened (and were shocked to see all the cars that had stopped drive away) made a U-turn to come back and make sure we were okay.  We realized pretty quickly that both our bicycles and myself were not capable of riding the last 11 miles to Santa Cruz.  Since our nice helpers were not equipped with a bike rack, they were not able to give us a ride into SC as I’m sure they would have been happy to do.

Shane called his sister to come rescue us. As soon as he told her we crashed, she guessed that it’d been on the tracks.

The following day we spoke with her neighbor and mentioned that we’d been riding from SF to SC but that we’d crashed.

“WA-WA-WAIT!  Let me guess!  The railroad tracks in Davenport!  Dude, I see people go down there ALL THE TIME!”

You’d think they’d put a sign up.

Sitting there waiting, I was afraid to look at my wounds.

Each finger had some blood on it, and the tips felt numb.

My left elbow was bloody and my expensive, super-lightweight Patagonia jacket that I’ve had less than a year was shredded up.  I realised, again with gratitude, that had I not pulled the sleeves up minutes earlier, bunching the material around my forearms, my elbow wounds would probably have been much more extensive.

My hip burned.  BURNED.  After much avoidance, I lifted my shirt and saw a big bloody patch above my hip.  I also felt  burning lower on my hip in the same place I’d just abraded myself.

I didn’t hit my head this time, but I did hit my hip hard.  I could feel my back beginning to seize up, which is what concerned me most.

By the time we arrived at Amber and Alex’s house and I could finally peel my clothes off to assess and clean my wounds, my clothes had glued themselves down on my open wounds.  Peeling them off brought me to tears.

Double Ouchie.

Amber was so kind, cleaning and dressing my wounds for me.

Right after the crash, Shane kept asking me over and over if my mid-back was okay.  I kept telling him it was fine, that he just hit my backpack, not me.  He just couldn’t believe me and kept asking me over and over.  I kept insisting that it was just my lower left back that was received the trauma from the fall.

Well… it turned out Shane was right.

The tire marks are there to prove it!

Once my wounds were all cleaned and bandaged and my heavy dose of Ibuprofen was kicking in and my shock was abating, Shane and I looked at each other and all we could do was shake our heads and laugh.  A bittersweet laugh.  A complex laugh.  A laugh appreciating what a glorious day it had been, how close we had come, how proud we still were of our achievement and our knowledge that we are capable of realizing this dream; a laugh acknowledging how insanely lucky we were to be able to walk away from something that could easily have been so much more serious.  A humble, uncomfortable laugh of gratitude that this ended up lighthearted rather than tragic.

Much as my last post touched on, the most vivid way to appreciate life and health is to be faced with its sudden departure.

So even though I didn’t complete my objective as I’d laid it out, it seems I did achieve my ultimate goal of remembering to appreciate my life and health afterall.

***

The next day, we enjoyed the morning as best as we could hobbling around.  We went out for some tasty, unique ice cream at The Penny Ice Creamery where I got a scoop of Rose Petal and a scoop of Cherry Balsamic.

Alex, Amber, Shane, and the Ice Creamery Menu

Bellies full with treats, we loaded in to the car and Alex drove us back along Hwy1 towards San Francisco.  Shane and I both scanned the scenery, waiting to come upon our fateful location.  As we approached, we saw a cyclist heading that way.  Shane felt compelled to yell through the (closed) window “Be careful!  Railroad tracks!”  The cyclist missed his warning and urgent finger pointing, but as we drew closer, Alex pointed out a limey green railroad track sign underneath which was posted another limey green sign saying “WALK BICYCLES ACROSS TRACKS”.

“Where the hell was that sign on THAT side?!”

“Oh.”

There it is.

It turns out there WAS a sign.  We just missed it entirely.

Now THIS is a great sign. They should have this sign up, bigger, and FLASHING. Maybe a few of them in each direction.

I am actually comforted greatly knowing that there were posted warning signs.  Before I knew this I felt at a loss for how to continue this desire of mine to travel long-distances on my bike, not knowing how I could have done anything differently had I been in the same situation again.  But now that I’m aware of these blessed signs, I’m spotting them like a hawk!  Turns out there are a few of them near my mom’s house that I’d never noticed before.

I have renewed confidence that given a similar situation I would SEE the sign.  Additionally, next time I’ll use Google maps to scan my route for railroad crossings.

All in all, my adventure was quite a success.  I had a fantastic 62 mile ride, I felt great, spent time with a dear friend, enjoyed my beautiful state, benefited from the kindness of others, and remembered just how precious and impermanent life is.

There is so much to be grateful for.

To be continued.

Two Scars I Wouldn’t Mind Having

10 October, 2006

“Is it supposed to—“  That’s all I can get out before my ability to speak is gone.

A burning.  Not the kind you feel when you touch the stove, when you chop an onion or eat a pepper beyond your threshold.  This is a burning in my core.  It comes from within and spreads like fire beginning with that arm.  That arm penetrated by metal.  Neatly injected.

My man of the hour stands beside me, saying nothing, watching what he’s done.

The fire spreads.  Up my arm.  Across my chest. Waves flood me.  My entire body clenched in searing heat.

All I can do is cry.  And struggle.  To breathe.  Rapid.  Shallow.  Breathing.

I have no choice.  All control lost.  I Wonder.  What is happening?  Is it supposed to feel like this?  Has something gone wrong?  Am I dying? 

He looks at me.  Says nothing.  Turns.  Leaves.

The burning reaches a new intensity between my legs.  I must be peeing.  I try to stop it.  But all I can do is cry.  Humiliation.  Tears.  Struggle.  Seemingly every muscle contracted.  I can’t move.

Alone.  Terrified.  No one to hold my hand.  That’s all I want.  Someone to hold my hand.

Alone.  So very alone.

He returns a few terrifying minutes later.  Won’t look me in the eye.  Pries open my clenched fist.  It snaps shut.

His first words: “If you would stop hyperventilating yourself, this wouldn’t be so bad.”  Right, because this is my choice.  

Through tears and clenched jaw I try to speak.  Guttural sounds emerge.

Slowly, the burning begins to fade in its intensity.

Focus.  Deep… breaths.  Good.  Deeper.  Get control. 

Less burning.  I can put choppy words together now.

What happened?  Was that supposed to happen?  Is everything alright?  Am I ok?

I don’t know what came out.  Probably a disoriented combination of those questions.

Barely audible, averting his eyes, “The reaction caused your heart to stop beating.  It was only for a few milliseconds, though.  You’re fine”.

Before I can get over my incredulity and coordinate my mouth with my brain to speak, he is gone.

So that’s why it felt like dying.

Alone.

I overcome my shock and think to look up over my shoulder.  Heartrate: 178… 176… 174

Momentarily I forget what just happened as all my attention is focused hopefully on those numbers which over the last several hours have become the sun around which my world revolves, for which sirens blared, modesty was forgotten and parents dropped everything.

…174… 172,,, 174… 172…

Come on…  Keep dropping!

…174… 176… 174…

 

Fuck.

It didn’t work this time.  What does that mean?  What happens now?  All I know is that I will NOT let them do what they just did ever again.

An hour later my mother arrives.  Relief.  For a while, I subconsciously revert to the childhood belief that mommy will make everything better.  I’m safe now, I tell myself.

Reality is not far away.  The comfort and love of my mother is powerless to slow down my heart.  Kissing my boo-boo will not cease the electrical storm raging in my heart that is forcing it to beat three times faster than it should.

But she does hold my hand.

We wait hours until the doctor arrives.  He says there is nothing that can be done until the specialist arrives the next morning.  “Try to get some sleep.”

Around 9pm my mother leaves to go sleep in my apartment.  11:30pm my best friend arrives.  Again, I am awash with relief.  Not only will she do anything for me, but she will insist on it.  She won’t leave my side.  She climbs up on the narrow bed with me and helps me to sleep as best I can.

Early the next morning, my specialist arrives to lay out my options: wait and hope my tachycardia stops by itself, or defibrillate.  I know there really is only one option: my heart must be stopped and restarted.

When the time comes, machines are wheeled into my room.  I’m surrounded by medical staff of all sorts.

The last thing I remember is suddenly feeling very goofy and relaxed as the drugs shoot straight into my bloodstream.  “I feel stoned!  Huh.”  Then I am out.

The next thing I know, I am waking up, through a drugged fog.  Sticky pads are peeled from my chest.  My mother is there.  She is crying.  I hear my friend’s voice.  She’s beside her.  They are speaking.  And crying.  I’m trying to figure out why.

“What happened?”  I ask.  I don’t remember what’s going on.

My mother is holding my face and kissing me, through her tears.  “It worked!  Your heart is beating normally again.”

The effects of the drugs wear off quickly and I become aware of my breathing.  Oh, sweet forgotten pleasure!  To breathe: deeply and fully!  The storm has ended.  The seas are calm.

I look down at my chest to see two large red welts, where my skin has been burned from the current sent through me.  I regret that they will eventually fade.  I want to save them as a reminder to never take my beating heart for granted.

Adventure Time

I just looked up the definition of adventure and I like it.

1      : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks

2     : an exciting or remarkable experience

Yup.  Sign me up!

My most imminent adventure is one that I am very pleased to announce: a 4-day bicycle tour from San Francisco to Santa Cruz then Monterey/Carmel and back!

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YEAH!!!

It’ll be about 260 miles round-trip:

Roughly 77 miles on days 1 and 4.

Definitely my longest ride yet.  I’ve never actually, officially even ridden 50 miles in a day, though I’ve been so close that it’s good enough for me.

Additionally, I confess that I’ve likely ridden my road bike  <10 times in the last year – and 0 times in the last month other than a few miles each way to CrossFit Chico.

Hence the adventure.

I’ll be riding with my buddy Shane.

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Me and said buddy.

It might not be pretty, but I’ll make it happen.  And Shane is patient and gentle so I know that no matter how much I lag, he’ll be supportive and just keep smiling.

A bike tour is something that I’ve wanted to do for the last 5-6 years, ever since I randomly got a Terry Precision Cycling Catalog in the mail and was introduced to the concept (and promptly purchased super-stylish vestments [such as the one you see above] for my journey that I was determined to make happen).

My big goal is to ride the whole length of CA, or the whole West Coast of the US, perhaps.  To do that kind of fully-loaded tour (where I’m carrying all my food and camping gear on my bike) requires a bicycle that I do not yet own.

Something like this, to which I can attach panniers.

So rather than delay my adventure any longer waiting for the right bike to enter my life or waiting until I’m in ideal shape, I’m just going to make a tour to fit my current circumstances: a mini Tour de Maria sans camping.

We’ll stay with Shane’s sister in Santa Cruz, get a hotel in Monterey, eat along the way, and proudly put on stinky clothes a few days in a row.

Shane and I had originally planned to do this tour in November over my “Celebration of Life” day commemorating the anniversary of my heart surgery. Each year I make a point of doing something that I would not be able to do were I not alive and healthy to remind myself of how much I have to be grateful for.

We decided to postpone our tour as Shane’s sweet grandmother was making her final preparations to move on.

Our adventure begins Saturday morning from my dad’s house.  I intend to document our travels, though I don’t imagine I’ll be posting any updates from the road.  I may post a piece of writing from my heart experience to offer some insight into what this adventure represents for me.

***UPDATE***

So….

I decided it would be a good idea to take my bike into the shop (The Bicycle Wheel owned by a great guy, Mark Wade) just to have Mark check it out before my ride.  I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but I thought it’d be a good idea just in case.

I brought it in Tues morning and went in to pick it up at the end of the day.

“I have been working on YOUR bike ALL day!  Yours is the ONLY bike I’ve been working on.  Pretty much everything that could have needed work, needed work on this thing.”

Heh heh.

Who knew?

Part of my bike’s makeover involved a new chain.  Mark’s suggestion was that I give it 20 miles or so BEFORE my big ride to help the chain settle in.  I thought that’d be a good idea anyway, so I (well, Russ did actually) planned a ride today in between my appointments.  20-30 miles.

IT. FELT. FANTASTIC!

Man, I was sailing, making good speed, feeling strong, having fun!

We noticed a bike path neither of us had been on and decided to take it.  It was beautiful.  It went behind a row of houses with an open field extending out on the other side.  Riding down the path we gathered an ever-greater flock of birds that flew just ahead, trying to get away from us.  Then there were these two little quail hurrying along next to the path.  They were so cute as hurrying little quail are and then I was falling.

I was slowly, inevitably falling forward to my left as my handlebars bounce maniacally over to my right – my hands completely disengaged from the handlebars.

shit.

There were a few things that went wrong here.

Firstly, I was probably going too fast on a trail I’d never been on before.

Secondly, I was distracted on a trail I’d never been on before.

Thirdly, there was a brutal network of roots that were busting up the asphalt, hidden in the shade of the tree they belonged to.

Fourthly, I believe I was shifting my hand position at the critical moment of jarring impact.

Fifthly, I’m used to riding my mountain bike (which has tenderly forgiving shocks).  There is a difference between how you ride a road bike and how you ride a mtn bike and riding one like the other is a recipe for Ouch.  I’ve now experienced that first-hand in both directions.  One of the first times I went out mtn biking, I concussed myself because of my road bike riding habits.

So the great news is that nothing is broken!

My hip took the biggest impact. Deep bruising which will probably blossom in a few days.

Shoulder and elbow forearm got a bit scratched up. Fortunately I had a (now shredded) jersey with sleeves on.

Ouchie. Had to cancel some appointments on account of this one. Sadly I went out without my gloves on. This could have been avoided. But I didn’t not break my wrist so I am extremely grateful!

Hard to tell but it’s swollen and purple-y.

Also difficult to see. Left noggin is lumpy and sore from impact. (THANK YOU, HELMET!) Left brow is scraped. And bridge of nose is swollen and bruised. from sunglasses being slammed into my face. Head is also not excited about rotating.

All in all, I am extremely lucky and grateful.  This could have been so much worse.  I could have broken something.  I could have seriously injured an ankle rather than just shred off some skin like I did.  I can still peddle!  I’m not sure how it’s going to feel having the pressure on my wrist while I ride, but I’m willing to see how it goes.  I am still alive and healthy!

And I’m grateful that I had Russ there with me to help me home, clean my wounds, and run to the store to get me ice and first-aid goodies.

My once-beautifully tuned-up bike is feeling a bit like I am.  She’s battered and banged up, twisted a bit out of shape.  Mark is trying to re-fix her for me before he goes out of town today for his own adventure.  He’s only got a few hours, but he’s doing what he can to help me.  She probably won’t be riding as sweetly as she was, but that’s okay.  As long as I can ride her.

So what’s the point of all this?

As someone who believes that everything happens for a reason, I’ve asked myself why this happened.  I think the answer was that this happened so that I would ride with  much more caution and attention, remembering the differences between road riding and mtn biking before I embark on my bike adventure.

There is inherent risk involved in the pursuit and realization of any goal or dream.  Denying that setbacks and pain are a part of any path of a worthy pursuit is naive and can lead to giving up altogether.  The reality doesn’t need to match the ideal picture in our minds.  It’s important to recognize that we are not immune to setbacks and that we have the ability to carry on in spite of them, and often with greater wisdom because of them.

We’ll see how my big bicycle adventure unfolds!

Cerro Chirripó for the Overconfident & Underprepared

3 May 2010

Last month on the Monkey Project was insanely busy.  On top of my MASSIVE load of data (and emails) that just kept piling up needing attention I was blind-sighted by an eruption of human drama en el campo.  Fortunately I think things have settled for the time being.

The last day of work is usually a half day where we finish up data collection on a group and usually do trail maintenance.  Then everyone comes home, finishes the last of their data editing and proceeds to participate in the End of the Month Party.  I had to take two extra days out of the field at the end of the month just to try to get on top of all my data.  For reasons I won’t get into, I essentially had about 90% of the data collected last month.  That meant full monero-days (i.e. long, 12+ hr days) of editing, dictaphone transcription, and poring over shadow follows of the trainees.  My last day of work was at least 13 hours of data editing, trying to tie up all the most immediate loose ends before I took off for vacation.  At 9:30pm I finally closed up shop and joined the now-drunk and sleepy hoard of people out at the BBQ in town.

After an exhausting month, the thought of spending 5 days in a hammock on the beach drifting seamlessly between napping and reading sounded far more appealing to me than maintaining my commitment to climb Costa Rica’s highest peak, Mt. Chirripo.

Yup. THAT’s what I wanted. But those snuggle-muffin kitties would have to wait 8 more months for me.

But I couldn’t back out, tempting though it was.  I realized that if I didn’t do it then, it wasn’t going to happen.  So after zero minutes of sleep I headed out early on the 26th with Isabel and Whitney.  After a full day of travel we arrived in the small mountainous town of San Gerrardo at the base of the mountain which seemed to be perched in a bowl of high peaks.

San Gerrardo, Costa Rica

We rose the next morning to hike down to the permit office to be there by 5am.  The sky was just starting to lighten as we walked out onto the road from our hospedaje and all three of us were struck with awe as our chins pointed skyward.  Above us the black profile of the surrounding mountains rose up to support a thick dome of cobalt cathedral glass in the richest shade of cobalt imaginable.  I desperately tried to lock into memory the deep blue tone, but my efforts were futile as with every focus of my eyes the tint detectibly evolved and escaped me.  Oh the heartbreaking beauty of impermanence!

The park office opens at 6 but only issues 10 permits a day to stay at the camp up on the mountain, so we needed to make sure we had three of those 10.  We camped out in the dark at the gate enjoying unmemorable conversation.

Fortunately we had no problems getting our permits and headed back to our hostel for what was one of the most delightful days I’d had in a loooong time.  After a glorious hot shower (all my hot showers in the last year have been highly memorable events) we all collapsed back into bed where we spent nearly the entire day sleeping and reading.  It was glorious.  Absurd and delicious.  Isabel didn’t even read.  She just laid there when she wasn’t actually sleeping.  You’d think our room had been exposed to some sort of neurotoxin the way we just laid there like worms.

We DID manage to get up a couple times, though if I’d had it my way I would have played no part in it.  At one point we went for a walk and found this beautiful boulder that I immediately fell in love with: smooth, warm, atop a hill overlooking a valley lined with purple flowers and surrounded by lush mountains.  If I lived there, that would be my reading/napping/lunching/writing rock.  >sigh<  I long for it already.

Begrudgingly breathing fresh air.

We had a predictable but no less enjoyable lunch of Gallo Pinto across from the elementary school where we watched the children carom around the soccer field with their teacher while a smaller subset tirelessly rolled down a hill like little caterpillars spilling off a leaf.

Our marathon mattress-loving time ended in the four o’clock hour of the next morning when we hefted our packs, clicked our buckles and headed out.  It’s never a good idea to underestimate a mountain or overestimate one’s preparedness.  Being that I’ve never climbed a mountain and that I spend the majority of my days backpacking anyway, I made the erroneous assumption that conquering this mountain would be no big deal.  Good lord, was I wrong.

Look at that smug confidence. She has no idea.

Cerro Chirripo’s peak rises 12,530 ft above sea level and is one of Costa Rica’s seven wonders.  Granted, in terms of peaks this is a baby peak (or maybe a grade-school peak), but it was my first one and it kicked my ass.  As you make your way to the top, you pass through rainforest…

cloud forest…

and finally tundra ecosystems…

At the top on a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  But the top was still a long way away at this point.

Starting out, my glutes were immediately (and mysteriously) sore.  I must have been running through someone’s thoughts all night!  But seriously, I didn’t think much of it and for the first 3-4 km it did not affect my stride and I powered on ahead of Isabel and Whitney.

Then things changed.

One of these is not like the other. It’s me… snarling.

The burning of my glutes grew steadily more present in my mind until eventually every ascending step was an agonizing force of will and I trailed behind my compañeras.  I did a mental inventory of everything in my pack and censured myself for each unnecessary item I’d foolishly flung into my bag.  Why did I pack that?! I should know better!

On the two reprieving stretches of level ground and the cursed relief of descending slopes that came at kilometers 12 and 13, I was able to resume my usual clip and console my ego.  I realized that it’s just the steep ascents that I was not in shape for and poignantly that was all this was – the essence of what I was doing.  There was no escape.  No way around it.  Only one direction: UP.

After eight hours we finally dragged ourselves in to base camp at 14.5 km.  The refugio is this large stone building that hugs one of the mountainsides.  It has no heating and has solar panels that allow for electricity for an hour after dark, not that we needed it.  We peeled off our rain gear (half our hike was in the rain) and sweat-soaked clothes and Whitney and I braved the icy-cold showers.  We bundled up, ate some cold food, and went to our bunks.  I massaged Isabel’s glutes and thighs and then she blessedly returned the favor.  A lot of people don’t realize the true pleasure and reward of a fist or elbow sinking into your glutes.  It’s glorious.

Dark descended upon us and we bundled up further in all the clothes we had, crawled into our sleeping bags and zonked out.

My alarm went off at 3:15.  Within 20 minutes we were ready to go and headed out to make our summit.  Six more kilometers in the dark.

The break-a, break-a dawn.

We all felt wonderfully refreshed on the trail.  That lasted about 10 minutes.

Fortunately a significant portion of the 6km was through a valley, but every flat plane was balanced out by an even steeper ascent later on.  After two hours we were nearly to the top.

The last leg was just rock and very steep – hands and feet required.  Fortunately, for that last portion the sun was rising so we could climb without flashlights.  It would have been much trickier to climb up in the dark (as many people do) in order to catch the sunrise from the top.

When I finally dragged myself up and over the last rock-face completing my nearly 10,000ft climb I was so exhausted I just collapsed on the nearest rock and let my lungs massage the thinner air.

Finalmente!

Finalmente!

There were three others atop the peak with us, signing the book, chatting, enjoying the view.  After a few minutes I livened sufficiently and began to look around.  The sky was still clear at that point and the view of the glacial lakes and the layers of mountains in successively lighter shades of blue spanning out into the distance in all directions was simply put: beautiful.

We took pictures, ate some food, signed the book, bundled up in sleeping bags and more layers to fight off the frigid air and basically killed time waiting for the other parties to leave before we could enact our brilliant plan. After a few minutes buffer of the last person leaving Isabel and I sprang into action.

What was our brilliant plan, you ask?  Only the most sensible thing in the world: we got naked.

Whitney was having none of this “foolishness” and did not participate herself but was certainly amused by our antics.  It was exhilarating!  And so much fun!  Standing on top of Costa Rica in nothing but my boots and a hat: awesome.  I think any peak I summit from now on (if I decide to torture myself again (which I most likely will at some point)) will have to be punctuated with my bare ass.

After a couple of hours on top of Costa Rica, we began our invigored descent.  We paused to enjoy the beautiful tundra landscape when I half-jokingly suggested Whitney reconsider the nakedness and offered to join her so as not to feel awkward as the lonely divested monera on a mountaintop.  She adamantly refused the suggestion.  Isabel turned to me and asked in a cheeky voice “want to get naked again?”  Definitely.  So, fully amused with ourselves we stripped down and did a little naked-tundra backpacking.

Because we can.

We made great time going back down the mountain – only took half the time.  We made it half way before it started pouring.  Going down in the rain presented a far greater challenge than going up.  The trail was extremely slippery and the last two kilometers saw me falling again and again.  I was well ahead of my amigas on the way down, what with my healthy knees.  We had planned to take pictures at the bottom for a Before & After but at each waypoint I had no desire to stop.  I wanted to get the hell off the mountain.  Every time I stopped I could feel my legs pulsing with the heartbeat of a hummingbird.  I just kept going until I was done with the 27+ km of the day.  By the time I was done I had lost all euphoric sentiments and was exhausted and grumpy as hell.  Eventually food, a hot shower, warm clothes, a bed and my book restored my contentedness.  We spent the rest of the day supine, reading and playing my new word game (this is where I list all the words I don’t know the definitions of out of my T.C. Boyle book (I am in love with this man’s vocabulary) and other people try to see how many, if any, they know.  Yes, we play vocabulary-building games for fun.)

The next day was the first day of vacation in which we actually got to wake up naturally after the sun had risen.  I think we were all awake by 5:30am and luxuriated in “sleeping in”.  We returned home to Bagaces that day, all having quite a bit of difficulty moving.  Sore all over.  Every time I had to step off of that last extra-high step on the buses without a rail was dicey to say the least.  I never knew if I’d be able to catch myself or if I was just going to crumple to the ground accordion-style.  Fortunately all went well and though I’m still sore the threat of collapse is no more.

Liberation of One Sort

Today is a special day.  I’ve experienced this day once before.  Today, I am debt-free!  (Except, of course, for the incalculable debts to my parents throughout the years!)

It’s a strange mix of triumph and delayed satisfaction as I wait a couple days for my payment to be processed to show me that satisfying $0.00 balance on my account that I long to see.

The last time I stood here, I’d ended my loving partnership with Joe, sold 90% of my belongings including our “family” car which would never fulfill its intended purpose, and used the money to pay off my loans before moving indefinitely to South Africa.

Hmph.

Something about this feels familiar…

End a significant relationship: Check.
Get rid of all my stuff: Check.
Clear out my debts: Check.
Leave the country indefinitely: Check.
 

Hey, whatever works!

I won’t be selling my car, though.  She’ll wait patiently for my inevitable return.  And I’m not selling my furniture because it’s Grandma’s furniture.  But a massive purging is upon me.

I’ll only be taking with me what will fit in my backpack.  And that will be plenty.

I realized something on my bike yesterday about this business of being happy.

I realized that I’d never actually asked myself that question before, which is perhaps why, when I did, I had no freaking idea what real happiness looks like to me.  That has never really factored into any of my major life decisions.  At best it seemed irrelevant, and for a certain chapter of my life seeking happiness for oneself was something to be ashamed of.  I remember being asked by friends when I was in Costa Rica if I was happy and thinking ‘what an odd question.  Happiness has nothing to do with this. I didn’t come here to be happy.

Reflecting on the major decisions of my life and my guiding questions has been an interesting exercise:

                Q: How can I be of the greatest service to others?

                A: 1) Dedicate my life to saving baboons.  2) Go back to school and finish my degree.

                Q: How can I best challenge myself to stimulate growth and to understand my actual limits as opposed to my perceived ones?

                A:  Go to Costa Rica to study monkeys at the most grueling field site in primatology.  Then agree to manage it.

                Q: What will bring me into balance and allow me to more effectively help others?

                A:  Go to India and study yoga.

                Q:  Where can I best be supported and actually enjoy life after all this hell I’ve been putting myself through? (India excluded).

                A:  Move back to Chico.

For a long time I believed that serving others and seeking happiness for oneself were mutually exclusive.  I realized the hard way (because I tend to stubbornly adhere to the path that I’m on) that an ascetic life is not only unsustainable and unhealthy, but it is also unnecessary.

From the beginning, I’d been driven by the desire to leave a better world than the one I was born in to.  That was the stated purpose of my life.  I created a tremendous amount of pressure for myself to work tirelessly and selflessly toward this goal at the near-total sacrifice of myself.  It was when I found myself in the aftermath of a broken heart (literally and figuratively), coming to terms with big, existential questions and my suffocating fear of dying before I could really make a difference that I allowed myself to see that I already accomplished my goal.  I already had made a difference.  I wouldn’t be written about in history books, but I’d made a positive impact in the lives of others.

Conceding that success five years ago felt like taking 200lbs of pressure off my chest.

Today I stand with the same exterior but a very different interior landscape.

The fact that I am even asking myself that simple question shows me how far I’ve evolved.   I’ve realized that seeking happiness for myself (again, not to be confused with pleasure) not only doesn’t contradict benefiting others, but it could be the best route.

How can I have compassion for others and hold love in my heart if I’m plagued with suffering?  Frustrations, disappointments, irritations… when they exist in our minds they only create suffering for ourselves and those around us.  If we can replace those feelings with loving-kindness, compassion, and gratitude it feels a hell of a lot better for us and enables us to interact with the rest of the world in a positive way.

That’s what I’m working on.  I have a long way to go, but life is all about practice, right?  At least I feel I’ve cleared out a lot of the brush and I’m finally on the right track that I think will lead me home.  Wherever that is.

I wonder, what are your guiding questions and how have they changed through time?