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Going the Extra Mile, Day after Day

As a distance runner since high school, I am partial to the individual sports where each person competes and whose performance may or may not contribute to a team score like wrestling, cross-country, and swimming. There is a lot to be said for the individual, the work ethics, the drive to face challenges alone, uncelebrated victories, and public defeats. I wanted to cover this topic after a day spent at my sons’ high school wrestling tournament. Both of my boys wrestle. One a freshman. One a senior. Both in their fourth year in the sport.

The senior loves wrestling, breathes the one-on-one nature of the match, the mesh of endurance, strength and technique required on the mat. He has realized what his body can accomplish. His confidence is impressive, his technique equates to an art. The way he can leg ride as wrestler, read his opponent’s position and shifts in body weight, and take control in a fluid manner. There were moments yesterday where he derived such momentous feats of turnover, dominating of the match in an instant and pinning his opponent seconds later. His growth as an athlete inspires. Yesterday he got as many wins as he did his entire first season of the sport. But he has put in the time, the extra practices, the extra runs, the sweat, the losses. Whether or not a win, each match has been a lesson. Some lessons he celebrated, some he took humbly, others upset the balance of his young psyche for an hour or two. He has earned his year of victories and based on yesterday, he will have many wins this season.

The freshmen will learn about defeat this year. Not that he doesn’t have the abilities; he is a natural athlete and a two-time district champion in junior high school wrestling. It’s tough to combat some older wrestlers, both their physical prowess and experience. Those young men with maturity have learned what my freshman has not yet realized. It’s the same lesson my senior embodies. The time, perspiration, and extra miles must be invested. The end game isn’t about a single match.

As a runner at forty-one years of age, I can do what 95% of the population can’t. And to be honest, I love that feeling. I know how to cover the distance, pace myself, and take down opponents. But I was never a speedster. I am not graced with natural athletic abilities. Everything that I am, I built. I logged the hours, the miles, the workouts, pushing my body beyond its comfort zone.

Running teaches self-discipline, perseverance, and pacing not just on the trail but in life. Few successes come quick and easy. Accomplishing goals is about the long game, the determination, the work ethic, driving toward becoming better, whether it is toward a degree, a career, a book or two, or three. It’s not just one mile or two or ten or twenty that will enable betterment. It’s the sequence of workouts, the dedication, returning day after day to the plan. Individuals who can run three, ten, thirty miles without stopping learn how to overcome mental and physical discomfort, the suck of the mundane, to realize they can go places most people can’t. The hardest part about running is putting on your shoes. The hardest part about improvement is the resolve to continue, especially when the improvements are not yet there to celebrate.

Those lessons are not so apparent in team sports like football, basketball, and volleyball. I am sure other lessons are plentiful in those settings, but I am partial to the individual lessons. So often in life, we can rely only on ourselves, our skills, our dedication. Other people will ultimately disappoint.

Back to my freshman with the same years of experience as my senior but who will experience a different season. To be honest, it should be that way. The freshman needs to formulate the understanding himself. He needs to realize that it is his work that will make or break him, both on the mat and in life. He relies on the team setting to push his abilities, his competitive nature to make him run faster, jump higher, lift more when at practice. Unlike the senior, the freshman has not learned or is not yet ready to learn that it is the individual work and dedication that will make him better than 95% of the population. It is the workouts he undergoes when nobody is looking that will accelerate him into a winning year. Sure, he has already celebrated victories this season against younger wrestlers like himself. But it will be bouts against the junior and seniors where he learns how much more he will need to work beyond the scheduled grind. Everything comes easy to my freshman, the academics, athletics, and friends. Once he embodies the lesson about going the extra mile not once but day after day, he will accomplish goals both on the mat and in life.

The challenges, they surround us. We are a complex and splintered society with a constantly shifting paradigm. Navigating the requirements to develop as an individual and succeed in life is difficult. So many rules seem written in a foreign language or not documented at all. It takes dedication to research, comprehend, and then navigate the arena. And the playing field is thick and growing more competitive. With the increasing population, it will be even more challenging for my sons to succeed than it was for the previous generations. They must be a disciple to the lesson plan they formulate for wrestling. To accomplish goals, they must go the extra mile, day after day. To be successful, like the senior’s ability to read and utilize his opponent’s body weight, they should never miss an opportunity to shift a struggle to their advantage. The opportunities are few, the competitors many.

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Standing on the Outside

For the last year, I have been frustrated, spilling tears between periods of indifference. Over three years ago, my sons and I moved to a small town in southern Oregon. My husband transitioned twenty months later after returning from a duty assignment in the Congo and retiring from the military. In those years, I invited neighbors into my home, volunteered at the boys’ school, patronized local businesses, attended community events, joined a sports group, made gestures of friendship and invitations looking for connections but always found myself on the outside.

As newcomers to this small town, we answered lots of questions about where we came from. “Southern Oregon but my husband is in (or retired from) the military so we have lived all over.” “What branch?” they ask. And after I respond, they spin into an anecdote about a family member who is or was serving. Some acknowledge the challenges the military family faces – the deployments, moves, separations, injuries, etc. A few thank me for my husband’s service. But here is what wounds me: during my twenty months as a geographically single mom with a husband half a world away, no one, not a neighbor or acquaintance from school bothered to invite me over, invite me to dinner, or simply check on me.

There’s nothing bad about our town, except its wonky four-way stop intersection. It’s a spirited country community with three banks, two Mexican restaurants, a coffee shop, hardware store, and a bridge across its namesake river. The setting is beautiful, and it’s an easy thirty-minute commute for me to the office. The town has some tight bonds, cliquish parse, typical of small communities. Lots of old families, people who grew up together, whose kids have known each other since before kindergarten.

Having attended many new schools, my boys had no problem integrating, finding friends and activities they enjoy, standing out as scholars and athletes. And I followed, volunteering with the school, helping with team activities. I met other parents along the way. They learned my name, tell me they enjoyed my boys. And I came to know their kids, appreciating each one, following them through elementary, middle, and high school, the teen relationships and sports injuries. I love community storytelling, not the gossip, but growth of individuals that propels the whole. Following the multitude of stories, I learn of the relationships around me – families that share time beyond the typical after-school venue, moms who look out for each other, share time together. If I asked, some of those moms would help me out. But I am on the outside of the glazing, always looking in, hearing stories reverberate through the glass. It’s a hollow sound lacking warmth. As I press my cheek to the glass, so desperate to be part of the story, the storytellers wave to acknowledge me because otherwise it would be rude, but never opened the door. And this so contrasts my experiences in other new communities.

Military communities are so open and welcoming. We, as in military members and their families, know that we are all on the move. We will spend one, two, maybe three years in each other’s lives before one of us will undergo a permanent change of duty station. Sometimes our paths cross again. Most times not. The older families always invite in the newbies. And the cycle repeats. But there is no qualm about making connections and keeping the connections beyond moves and even retirement. We need that friendship and community because what we do as families is overwhelming and stressful. We need each other. As spouses, there are baby showers, bunko groups, and childcare sharing. We exercise together, help each other with employment, through deployments, and never does a spouse spend a holiday alone. Don’t let me fool you; military communities have their own cliques but they always bring the newcomers inside to touch the community’s heart.

Is my town so set in its cliquish ways that it could not open its heart to me? If I had spoken aloud that I needed a friend, would it have heard? Or cared? I am left doubtful. As an author, I posted in community forums, notifying residents that I was an award-winning, local author in need of honest reviews, giving away copies of my books, encouraging them to support all local artists. Nothing. No likes. No sharing, echoing the chirps of crickets in the background. I am on the outside. Silence tells me I do not belong.

Besides the conversations with my husband about this topic, this blog is about the closest I come to complaining. As an introvert, I don’t cry for help. I shoulder my burden and muscle through the days, the weeks, the years, bandaging my wounds when they weep. So I was excited to be invited to a Friendsgiving gathering by a work associate who also lives in my town. Last Saturday was my first social outing in the three years and four months since I moved to here. Who’s counting, right? I spent an evening around a campfire with some lovely and unique ladies who have known each other for years. They told stories, shared worries and health issues. I listened and shared a few of my own. But you know what originally brought them together? Their kids playing the same sports to a degree, but that they also saw our town as cliquish. And unable to break through that same glass pane I gaze through, they built a house of their own.

Will they invite me again? Hopefully. That would boost my moral and smother self-doubt that I am weird or lacking of social etiquette. But the point of this post is not to disparage the town; my experience could have occurred in any town, big or small. It is a great little community with amazing individuals, but collectively, they broke my heart. Perhaps I expected too much of the town, of my neighbors, my community. But isn’t that what community is for? Otherwise, the town is just a collection of commerce and homes. The theme I wish to convey is to be on the lookout for loneliness. The smile a person may share with you does not necessarily indicate happiness but their excitement that you just might open the glass door.

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Pleasure and Pain

I just finished Brian Staveley’s third and final installment of CHRONICLES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE. I’ve been reading about a book a year, and with my hectic schedule, it took me a few months to get through the last one. Staveley’s writing is poetic and imaginative. The story is engaging, adventurous, and epic, and I traveled right along with it for the past two years. In the third installment, THE LAST MORTAL BOND, Staveley’s theme prevailed. Experiences with pleasure and pain define our lives. THE UNHEWN THRONE is a very visceral story, lots of battles, wounds, blood, and references to lustful pleasure. And I considered whether life is so simply described by experiences of the flesh. It isn’t. Trivialities of the flesh is only the first step in the cycle of life.

Because they do not fit my lexicon, I wanted to rephrase the terms pleasure and pain into joy and sorrow. Sorrow is what I face, or fear of facing. Time sweeps by, and my oldest son will graduate from high school in the next nine months. Just yesterday, we had an Army recruiter at the house as my oldest wants to begin his first solo life step by serving in the military for a few years. And I keep thinking, this is it, we will never be the same. Our dirt bike adventures are probably done. It’s the rare weekend that everyone is free. Our family game nights are nearly extinguished. Soon he won’t be around to brighten the room with his smile, his laughter. And those thoughts – that reality – hurts, seizing my stomach, stifling my lungs, aching my heart. I am proud of all he has done and will do, but I miss him already – I miss “us”.

Sure, I have more pain in my life, loss of family though most members still live, past tragedies that rile their ugly heads, nip at my skin, and sear my soul. But my view of pain is sheltered. While in the spectrum of pain, sorrow focuses on the losses or potential losses of friends, loved ones, times. Describing pain as sorrow limits the theme to individuals who do not have to fight to live, those endowed with housing, warmth, consistent and plentiful food from a store, and good health, whose only physical pain might be a headache or hangnail. Sorrow ignores the life experiences of individuals who struggle to live, who are hungry, out in the cold, facing violence, health issues, and utter loneliness.

It’s autumn now. Little birds have been prolific, fluttering amongst the bank of dead wildflowers behind the house, and our kitty has been equally busy, leaving her hunting trophies on the back porch for us to admire. The other day as I was picking up after the cat, the finch’s de minimis form tangible but lifeless, wrapped in a paper towel, I was struck with contemplation. It must be a relief for him to no longer suffer from hunger, cold, fear, to just rest, released from any pain, to not feel.

But have I forgotten pleasure to be charged with such a melancholy thought? Did the finch not thrive in song amongst his flock and nature? Did he not know happiness? Do I know happiness? Is it the pleasure of being in close relationships, loving and being loved unconditionally or belonging? Or is it self-fulfillment of goals, dreams, aspirations? Is it a mixture? We cannot say pleasure spawns from comfort; there are many sheltered individuals without a care in the world living without pleasure, happiness, just breathing. But we could argue that sorrow only comes from joy – when the goodness shifts only to memories.

Along that dichotomous line of thought, some individuals endure physical strife but experience great pleasure – that even amongst the pain of living, they have found joy in severing the societal bonds that once strangled them. Perhaps those are the lives worth living, being challenged by the world. It is the extraordinary man or woman who can live on the fringe of society, suffering its epitaph, but rise above to find joy in the battle and the spoils. There is no flesh in that pleasure, only a flourishing soul.

Towards the final third of THE LAST MORTAL BOND, Staveley conflicts one protagonist with the choice of destroying the deities of pleasure and pain. The act would erase all suffering but also all joy from the world. In this, Staveley implies that pleasure is more than the flesh, that he ultimately means joy.

Physical pain is all encompassing, a strident discord of life, meant to protect or warn the body from danger. Joy reminds us why we endure that pain, that we want to live. One without the other is incomplete. But because I have known joy, I suffer from sorrow. And so, the cycle continues: flesh, fulfillment, sorrow, and the end. Hopefully, my end, when it comes, continues forward – a reminder to my loved ones to embrace joy because it can be so fleeting.

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The Joker is a Symptom of Society.

My husband and I used to frequent the movie theaters before we had kids, and then when the kids were old enough and good movies still common. Lately, the theaters offer a lot of remakes and superheroes or remade superheroes (Really? Another Spider Man?). And if not one of those, Hollywood patronizes us with mainstream scat popped of cupcake molds. They slather it with a little frosting, hoping to masquerade the crap below. I get it; originality in writing is risky in the big economy. Society likes to chew on the same themes and memes, because repetition doesn’t force individuals to think beyond the boundary of their knowledge. It’s the same reason young children like to be entertained with the same book or movie; nothing is more comforting than retreading steps to the same conclusion. While the Joker is a spin on an old tale – a prequel to Batman – don’t go to the theater expecting an action-packed DC episode, but do reflect how society’s indifference for the individual transforms Arthur Fleck into the Joker, a man we all fear.

The Joker is not about defeating good or evil. Or even combatting it. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of a man already struggling with mental illness who is injured, demoralized, and humiliated by society is both fascinating and painful to watch. Arthur Fleck begins the film as socially awkward but good-hearted man with contorted and cringey dance moves. Skipping the step-by-step erosion of a man’s dignity, I will tell you he is physically assaulted by both teenage thugs and Wall Street-type upstarts. He shows strangers kindness, but they rudely dismiss his company. Coworkers betray him. And he learns of his mother’s treason to his young, innocent self – most likely the catalyst to his mental illness. But the Joker’s transformation solidifies when Fleck’s role model publicly humiliates Arthur in his pursuit of a lifelong aspiration. Nothing is better than a viral laugh unless it is to the detriment of another.

Arthur’s life course is the recipe of suicides, mass shootings, and radicalizations. Let’s face it; life is hard. If the constraints of society do not inter us, then we are fighting to survive in a third world country. And we need to belong in this ugliness, to feel that those moments of connection with others are worth trudging through the mind-numbing sludge. But demoralized or isolated, as a pariah to others, few can resist the impact. Some escape the pain in one fashion or another. And others shift into something beyond societal boundaries.

All it takes are moments of kindness, communication, genuine reflection and connection with others. These drops of dust in the erosion of time are the nourishment of community. Just a smile, a shared laughed, or twin tears can bind us, propping us up for days, weeks, years. But when life is stupidly busy, it’s hard to find those moments. We take loved-ones for granted, overlook friends, and ignore strangers. Though we try, social media is not a substitute for authentic connection. Those ones and zeros only dissolve the glue of society, injecting it with anger. Instead, be present in the real world, look for that friend, that stranger, and engage in a conversation. In the world’s strife, find something common, and share in that commonality. Take an interest in another’s life, and maybe they will take an interest in yours. And for goodness sakes, a smiling emoji is not the same as a genuine smile.

When the Joker emerges from his streak of revenge, the city is in civil unrest. With riots, protestors, and flames surrounding him, the Joker stands atop a police car, and never did he dance so beautifully smooth. In the absence of all others, he had found a connection with chaos.

Toward the movie’s beginning, before undergoing the brutal attacks, Arthur is in his social worker’s office. She’s asking him routine questions, and he notes that despite her job, she never really listens to him for her narrative never varies visit to visit. And he asks, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”

Yes, Arthur. Yes, it is.

Why do I write?

A river can’t be rushed. The current, boulders and bramble in the midst, the river becomes larger than its passengers. So when I shoved my boat from the shoreline, my endeavor became a journey of obstacles, scenery, and faces old and new. Along the way, rocks bruised my shins, my palms became calloused by the oar grips, and ignorance abraded my ego. But with toil, comes resilience and appreciation. The more I row, the more I understand the passing landscape. And downstream the rugged, stunning topography shifts. The canyon walls encroach the river, suffocating the passageway. In the narrow confines, the stream becomes furious and tumultuous. Other vessels congest the waterway; their oarsmen are so focused on pointing their bows downstream they ignore the mounting paddock.

The Ardent Halo saga is the culmination of two stories – two elements of a challenge facing humanity: safeguarding the old while propagating the new. We have challenged the elements of this world, and those elements will define our future and fate. We love our children and their children to come but the river can only ferry so many. Discussions of the consequences of our manifest destiny are rare. When will the magnitude of our population be considered? Who will warn the others that only so many of us can drift this way? Let not hubris drown the travelers. Allow reflection to govern the morrow.