Tomorrow we head to South Carolina to spend two weeks on the beach.  I assume it will take me less than a day fall into South Carolina time–the way the minutes just drip into hours with relentless and heavy slowness.

My family needs to slow down for a bit.  We are going to sit on the porch and let sweet tea slide down our throats as we watch dragonflies marionette through the air.  I am going to teach my daughter how to rest on the shoreline to let the waves offer a foamy baptism over and over while we take deep, salty breaths.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, Mary Oliver says, but I know how to be idle and be blessed.

[Image from here]

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At  4 Am on Saturday morning, I stood by my friend Michelle’s bed in our hotel room and watched her crawl out.  When she straightened up, our eyes met and we laughed.  We had never really spoken about the true circumstances we were in.  There we were, two almost-middle-aged women, each a little more fleshy than we want to be, with less than a dozen triathlons behind us, about to find our selves at the starting line of a half-Ironman.

Neither of us were surprised–Michelle and I have a long list of craziness behind us–but it was still funny.  I wonder if we had the appropriate amount of ESP when we were younger, we could have used it each time we got in trouble for acting up or talking in class.  Perhaps Michelle could have told our thin and serious 9th grade English teacher, “Look, make me sit in the hallway for talking to Amy again if you want, but someday we are going to do a Half-Ironman together, so we still have a lot to talk about, dude.”  Perhaps we would have been granted the time to talk ourselves out of it.

Michelle and Amy

But no, it was race morning and we had to put all of our sacrifice of training to the test.  We had to put our fleshy parts to the test.  We had to put our minds to the test.  Our last task was to ask all of those parts of ourselves to be iron on that day.  We were looking for pure alchemy:  flesh to iron.

Speaking of training, guess which part of the training was my favorite?  The swimming.  I was amazed at the times I could pull off swimming, 2000, then 2500, then 3000 yards.  Every time I got out of the pool after a training session, someone would stop me and ask me where I learned how to swim like that.  I would shrug and say that I had no formal swim training.  That I once could not swim 25 yards.  But somehow I trained my body to do 3000 yards, and by the end of the training I could do it in a pool and I could do it in the open water.

Do you know which part of the half-Ironman almost killed me?  The swim.

I cannot explain what happened.  The water conditions were beautiful.  My mind knew that nothing was wrong and that I could easily do the distance, but my body refused to agree.  I had an actual physiological panic attack.  My chest was constricted and my throat was almost closed.  I stopped to tread water with more than a mile to go, I could not even see the end of the course, and I thought, there is no way.  I started fighting for every stroke, every breath.  Lifeguards in nearby kayaks watched me with alarm because I was clearly in distress.  One even said, “I am going to follow you for a while, okay?”  I gave him a grateful, watery nod.

Somehow I panicked and sputtered and gasped through 1.2 miles of water.  Somehow I got out at the end of the swim course, physically exhausted.  Today, as I write this, I still have a strain in my chest when I take a full breath which tells me that I may have pushed that panic attack too far.  May have.  That was my true Alchemy of Flesh.

The faint pier in the distance was the swim start.

When my feet hit land, I knew gratitude alone could carry me through the 56-mile bike and the 13.1 mile run.  And it did.  This was my Alchemy of Spirit, which always proves to be way more powerful than flesh and mind.

On the bike course around mile 20, I caught up to Michelle.  I was surprised because she is a super swimmer and as fast on the bike as I am.  From two bike lengths behind her, I called, “Are you okay, Michelle?”  As I moved passed her she quickly told me that she had wiped out on the bike near mile 10 and that her handlebars were broken.  And then she said something that still brings tears to my eyes,  “How are you?”  What a question from someone who was obviously physically hurt, riding in the middle of nowhere on a broken bike, unsure of what the rest of the day would bring.  How are you? At this moment I knew my friend already had the Alchemy of Spirit needed to reach the finish line.

When I began the half-marathon portion of the race, I felt physically fantastic.  There can be no scientific reason for this.  None.  Something even bigger than the rules of physiology was feeding me.

I broke the half-marathon up into miles of gratitude.  I dedicated mile 1 to being thankful for my feet touching the ground.  Mile 2 was dedicated to Michelle who is solely responsible for urging me to test my limits.  I thanked her for always looking for what was beyond every circumstance in her life. How are you? I spent mile 3 missing my daughter, and thanking her for being such a trooper during the months of training.  Mile 4 through 10 were dedicated to my husband who gave me time and encouragement to take on such a challenge.  For always making sure my equipment was safe.  For making me laugh when I was scared and nervous. For rubbing my legs every night while telling me I was insane.  For proudly loving my insanity without question. Mile 11 was dedicated to everyone who wants to do something big and thinks they cannot.  I wished them the experience of their own alchemy of flesh and spirit.  I thought about the man with no legs who swam in the lane next to me almost every morning.  I thought about a friend with breast cancer, my mother-in-law with lymphoma, and everyone else who teaches me every day what it is takes to be iron.  I gave Mile 12 to the what seemed like 2000 volunteers out on the race course.   Mile 13 was spent thanking myself, because I do not do that enough.  The final tenth of a mile I gave to the huge, goofy grin on my face.

I think I will go back to being flesh for a while, in the comfortable skin of wife and mother and friend.  The truth is when you act like iron for a day, you never forget that you are.

Finisher

This past Sunday I had a particularly bad training day.  Not because anything went wrong, but it simply scared the pants off of me.  I had to do a 3000 yard open water swim and a 2.5 hour bike ride.  It just seemed like too much–I felt odd and claustrophobic in my wet suit and 3000 yards felt like it was so  long.  I spent the 2.5 hours on the bike analyzing what what was going wrong and what could go wrong.  Since that training session, I have been gripped, no paralyzed, with fear.

The Half-Ironman is this Saturday and it does not help that all participants are checking water and weather conditions every second, planning the logistics of the next 3 days and chatting about it online.  This is why triathlon is so much more of a mental and emotional feat than a running race could ever be.  There are so many variables.  A triathlete could face unsafe water conditions and a multitude of bike problems on race day.  If the athlete makes it to the run portion, there is no guarantee that his legs will cooperate after not touching the ground for 5 hours.  It is as if you were a newborn baby who has been floating for 9 months and someone puts you on the ground and says, “Ok.  Run.  A half-marathon. Go.”

And this is where the triathlon becomes one of the clearest spiritual metaphors.

Because the athlete has to let it go.

Eventually we freak ourselves out into a place where we have to say okay, I have trained and prepared without fail.  I have thought through everything possible.  The rest is out of my hands.

Then we are forced to call upon what we really learned during our training:  the mind must move out of the driver’s seat.  Because if we let the mind decide what the body can do, then we would have never made it past day one of training.  If we let the mind give weight to any issue then it gives our eyes permission to see it as a problem.  No, we must not allow the mind to direct our seeing.  We must allow, ALLOW, our will and spirit to tell the mind what is happening.  Not the other way around.

This is also how we, as spiritual beings, are called to live out our human existence.  We show up, most of us put in a lot of effort, and we often watch that effort fail or take us down an unexpected path.  We fight and fight until we are forced to realize that we are not driving our souls through this existence.  Our minds and intention may have set forth some very clear plans, but it does not matter.  We are forced to surrender, to be attentive, to be joyful in every step and even every fall.

If I never make it to the finish line on Saturday, it will not be because my mind told me I could not.  My body is prepared.  My intention and will are set to complete the race.  And the rest I have let go.

I suspect I will still be scared out of my mind every minute of the 8-hour race on Saturday.  I have set the intention to find joy in every swim stroke and pedal of my bike and step of the run.

If I fall, I will uncover the hidden joy there too.

Photo: Triathlete Julie Swail-Ertel after a training run in Irvine on July 15. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

No matter what happens during the race, this photo makes the whole process worth it.  Short-stuff always has the best way of expressing how proud she is of me.

This week marks the middle of my 12 week training for a Half-Ironman distance triathlon.  Notice I say I am doing the training, as I am unsure I will make it to the race.  The physical work required for this race is so far beyond anything I have ever asked of my body.  But it is time.  Why?  Because it is nothing.  Physical work.  Nothing.  Any person could train their body to do anything.  I have seen people without legs complete a full Ironman distance.  I have seen men and women in their 80’s (I know this because race directors mark our ages on our legs) breeze past me on the final run leg of all races that I have entered.

The physical work is nothing.  All it takes is a little creativity to fit the long training workouts into an average Jane life.  Oh, the physical work is still work…my body screams and I have done a lot of crying during this peak phase of the training.

But I have an able body, and this is how I am going to use it for now. I have been asked over and over if I am crazy, if I am on some sort of ego trip and I have been accused of trying to cover up some underlying, unresolved issue in my life.  Maybe all of those things are true, but they are not in my mind during this time.  The only thing that pushes me through, hopefully to the finish line, is this:  I can.

Happy 4th Birthday.

In the last year I discovered that you are not just my daughter.  You are a partner in a common vision.  All delight in the world gathers at your feet and you place it in my arms.  

Love,

Mama

This very moment is the perfect teacher.

Girl Before A Mirror--Pablo Picasso

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
— Pema Chödrön

Meet Lucy, the chimpanzee in the above photo.  My sister-in-law pointed me in the direction of this podcast of Lucy’s story.  I encourage you to listen:  http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2010/04/09.

However, I provide a warning.  If you are the least bit misanthropic, this story will put you over the edge.  A crime was committed against Lucy.  An American couple took her from her mother when she was born and decided to try to raise her as a human.  Of course, this did not work out for them, and they had to return Lucy to the wild where she met a tragic end to her life.  The woman in the photo is not one of those people, she is Janis Carter, an aid who committed her life to making sure Lucy made a safe transition into her final home, Gambia.  Even though Lucy is gone, Janis is still there.

This photo forces us to see something that cannot be learned from any animal experiment or textbook.  It was taken a year before Lucy’s death, right before Lucy was to leave Janis and join a group of chimpanzees.  I have never seen two humans engage in a moment like this.  The photo captures a moment between animal and human, a moment that whispers devotion, forgiveness and surrender.   This is the first time I have seen a photo of God.

I write letters to my daughter and post them in this blog with the hope that she will someday read them when she is old enough to understand their content.  Yesterday I discovered that she may be the one that needs to take over that job.

Sophia handed me two blank pieces of paper and told me that they were letters for me.

“Read them,” she demanded

I held up the first blank piece of paper and began, “Dear Mommy, thank you for being the best mommy in the world.  Thank you for getting me dressed and thank you for brushing my hair.  Thank you for all of the wonderful food you give me too.”

When I looked up, she was smiling.  “Read the other one.”

I squinted my eyes at the second blank page and read, “Dear Mommy, thank you for being the best mommy in the world.  I promise to always say please and thank you and excuse me.  Oh, and I promise to never wake you up in the middle of the night again.”

I was so proud of working this situation out to my advantage until Sophia said, “Mommy, you forgot to read something on both pages.”

I gave her my best pouty face. “I did?  What did I forget to read?”

She smiled even bigger.  “They said ‘I will always, always forgive you.'”

[images from here]

In some places in the world, all human noise gets sucked into a vortex of rushing and movement and expanding.  The result is a silence that is beyond all silence.  A silence that speaks volumes beyond words.

What I did not know is that my daughter already possesses the skill of listening in this space.  It is no wonder she makes me feel like the student most of the time.