Remembering John

2016 was a brutal year. And in its final days, it stole the life of one of my dearest friends. John’s death was tragic, sudden, and wholly unexpected.

I first met John almost 29 years ago, in April of 1988, probably on the first day of my new job at Mercer. He was the kind of person you would notice right away. Three things always stood out: (1) his looks (young, tall, handsome, and always impeccably dressed) (2) his laugh (raucous and infectious), and (3) that mouth (loud and profane).

About a year into the job, when I tried to play match-maker between a single young woman, who worked as my paralegal, and John (who, as previously noted, was drop-dead gorgeous), she politely informed me that John was gay. The fact that I was so astonished shows how naïve I was at the time, and how much I had yet to learn. I had yet to experience the John Canova Tutorial on Life & Style.

I worked closely with the group that John was part of, and as time went by and the number in the group diminished, I found myself working more and more with John. I began to see that, under that brash, flamboyant, irreverent exterior, was one of the most genuine persons I’ve ever known. John gradually crept into and occupied a place in my heart as I slowly and unexpectedly found a generous, caring and loyal friend. In our large, competitive work environment, there were always competing agendas and shifting alliances, and I was forced to always watch my back.  John was one of the few (maybe the only) colleague who I never doubted had mine.

John and I at my retirement celebration in August 2013

John and I at my retirement celebration in August 2013

I encountered a very rough patch the first year back on the job after giving birth to my son. I was tired, distracted, and trying to find my work-life equilibrium. John was a teammate of mine on two of my largest clients, and he went out of his way to help me, in a variety of ways – whether cutting me slack on deadlines, pitching in where I needed assistance, or even sticking up for me when others in the office complained about my new part-time schedule. When one of my colleagues repeatedly grumbled that I “wasn’t pulling my load,” I heard (after the fact) that John paid a special visit and flatly told that person to “f*@k off.” I was mortified and delighted.

And we had such fun together on business trips! Once we went to a 403(b) conference in Denver. We flew in late at night, took a cab for what seemed like miles (at one point, John asked the driver, “Are we in Wyoming?”) and arrived quite late at our hotel. We met for dinner, and since we were both starving, ordered the huge rib-eye steak special. The next day, we were so dehydrated from the altitude and protein that we could barely stay awake, much less concentrate on the complex details of the tax code being taught. We laughed for years about the time we “ate a side of beef, a mile high, at a 403(b) conference.”

Another time, we flew to Nashville to do a compliance review on a 401(k) plan. We ate chicken-fried foodstuff at the Cracker Barrel (the first and only time I’ve been) and laughed at the Big-Hair ladies, we walked around the Opryland Hotel, and then got horribly lost on the way to our hotel in rural Tennessee. We found ourselves on back country roads, and John remarked that he was expecting men in white robes with burning crosses to appear from behind the trees. Which launched us into hysterics for no good reason. We stopped at a 7-Eleven to ask directions and John re-enacted his conversation with the “snaggle-tooth meth addict” clerk for me. Oh, he was so inappropriate, and all I could do was laugh!

Then there was the time that John and I were on our way to a meeting at Cal State University headquarters in Long Beach and we missed our turnoff and kept going right over a very long bridge. Even though we were late for our client meeting, we laughed uncontrollably all the way over the bridge and back.

Many days, in the office, at around 4:00, a bunch of us would gather in my office, to laugh and gossip, and basically blow off steam from our stressful day. When John was there, he and I would invariably start down some path of discussion (again, usually something wholly inappropriate) that would result in side-splitting fits of laughter, with tears streaming down both of our faces. There are only a handful of people in my lifetime that have consistently made me laugh that hard, and John was the best.

Apart from all the fun, there was a serious, sensitive side to John that I grew to admire. We talked about almost everything in our lives with each other and I valued his opinion because I knew he was always honest in his feedback. Likewise, he trusted me with his struggles, and we discussed everything from his challenges as a gay man to his heartbreak over his mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s disease. My long friendship with John opened my eyes and informed me, and gave me new perspectives on numerous issues, and for that I am indebted to him.

Christmas cookies with John and Andy 2015

Christmas cookies with John and Andy 2015

After 25 years on the job (all of them with John) I took early retirement from Mercer in 2013. I wondered if my work friendships would survive the transition to retirement. I found several lasted a few months, but only a very few endured as lasting friendships. John’s friendship was probably the strongest. He continued to call me regularly (his favorite pet name for me was “Treasure,” along with “Bettina” and “Lamb”), and we enjoyed seeing each other for lunch and museum dates.   Once, when my son came home from college and needed a new suit, John met us at the Macy’s in Sherman Oaks and we shopped for a sharp-looking suit. Every Christmas, we made holiday cookies together at my house. And on December 17, 2016, my husband and I had dinner with John and Andy (John’s partner) to celebrate the holiday season. When we hugged and said good night, and he called me Treasure, I had no idea that would be our last time.

For me, a bright light has gone out, forever. Someone who has been in my corner, in my heart, for almost half my life, has left.  There will never ever be another John, and I will always cherish the memories of a sweet and beautiful friend.

Island Living, Canadian Style

Per typical for us, planning for our latest road trip began with a couple of destinations in mind, then grew organically as we thought of more things to do and then strung it all together. When all was said and done, we were gone 50 days, traveled over 8,500 miles, visited 14 states and 4 provinces (Canada).

The primary impetus for the trip was to visit our friends Sted and Robin, who invited us to spend a couple of weeks with them on their island on Georgian Bay, in Ontario, Canada. Yes, they have their own island and compound where they’ve spent every summer for the past thirty years.

Sted and Robin also have a home in Annapolis, MD, which they generously opened to us while our son attended the Naval Academy, and which basically became our second home for four years. Sted and my husband rowed crew together as midshipmen at the Academy, but we became close friends with them during our son’s stint in Annapolis.

During the many hours we spent with Sted, he spoke tenderly about Georgian Bay. His grandparents and parents owned lake cottages there, and he recalled how summers in Canada were his fondest memories from childhood. Many friends and relatives from Cincinnati, OH (his hometown) also summered there. Shortly after turning 40, he talked Robin into buying their own place on Georgian Bay, and they have spent every summer there since. Their four kids and 7 grandchildren grew up going to the island. It was always clear to me that Georgian Bay is key to Sted’s heart, and only by visiting would we truly know him.

Our ride is here!

Our ride is here!

With that in mind, and dearly missing Sted and Robin since our son graduated, we accepted their invitation to visit the island this summer (not an easy proposition since we live in Southern California).   In late July we left home for our trek across country on the Lincoln Highway (see my previous post The Lincoln Highway for that part of the trip). On August 11, we pulled into the marina at Pointe au Baril, ONT, parked our car, and waited for Sted and Robin to pick us up. Ten minutes later, they appeared in their 20-ft motor boat, loaded our suitcases and took us to the island.

The island

The island

After hearing so many of Sted’s island stories, I had a mental picture of the place, but didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had imagined a bay, with the various cottages in a rather straight line along the water. Instead, we discovered a vast body of water (Lake Huron) with inlets and islands dotting the bay, requiring navigation through a maze of twists and turns. Their island compound was about what I expected, but more comfortable, although not at all ostentatious. There was a dock for the boats, then a short walk up to the main cabin (where we stayed). They have two small guest houses (for their two daughters with kids) and their own small cottage on the opposite side.

The view from the main cottage

The view from the main cottage

We spent 12 blissful days on the bay, and got a real taste for island living. Every morning, my husband would go down and take a dip off the dock (it was a little too chilly for me, but I never tired of telling him to go jump in the lake). We woke at our leisure, made our own breakfast and lunch, and then had dinner together. There was no TV, and unless we had something planned, we spent our days reading, writing, talking, or napping. One day, we took Sted’s large boat out to Western Island harbor, jumped in the water, and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs onboard for lunch. Another morning, my husband joined Sted’s mens’ kayaking group for a morning paddle. As I waited on the dock to take pictures, I was astonished to see an armada of old guys in kayaks sweep around the bend. Later in the week, I reprised most of kayak route with my husband and Sted. The up-close views of the landscape and wildlife were breathtaking from the quiet of a kayak.

Another beauty of life on the bay is that, as an alternative to the solitude of the island, one can enjoy an active social life. During our time with Robin and Sted, we accompanied them to two cocktail parties, one dinner and a morning Bible study on other islands. We simply dressed up (a little), got in the boat, and motored over to the other island, where we were typically met at the dock by our hosts, who greeted us and helped tie up our boat. On our last Friday evening, Robin and Sted hosted a dinner party, and we spent a fair amount of time helping them prepare. We learned that menus are often driven more by what ingredients are available in the cottage, or at the small store at the marina. The only alternative is to take the boat to the marina, pick up the car and drive 45 minutes to the grocery store in the nearest town.

As comfortable as our island stay was, we were appreciative of the hardiness and resourcefulness of the Bay community.   Each island must be largely self-sufficient. They each have their own septic and power systems, and many don’t have electricity. Any large equipment for repairs or building must be brought in by barge. To go anywhere off the island requires a boat trip – day or night, good or bad weather – and most residents, from older kids to adults, are skilled in boating. Robin talked of her first few summers on the island, unfamiliar with water life, when she was basically left to fend for herself (when Sted had to return to work for several weeks) with four small kids and a boat. She learned ingenuity, but she also learned the mutual dependence of the community. We witnessed firsthand how the residents support each other, be it borrowing items, coordinating rides, or sharing information. On the morning that the guys went kayaking, Robin volunteered to make the coffee for their post-kayaking breakfast at a cottage with no electricity. We woke up early to start two large percolators, filled several large carafes with coffee, and waited with them on the dock for the hostess to pick them up in her boat.

Sunset on the bay

Sunset on the bay

Our time on Georgian Bay was a gift on so many levels. It was beautiful and relaxing. It was a joy to spend time with Sted and Robin. It was fun to meet their friends and enjoy a taste of the Bay social life. Most of all, it was a profoundly special experience to be invited into, and enjoy, the cherished place of a dear friend’s heart.

Travels with Flat Monica

I have been neglecting my blog lately, but only because I’ve been traveling and having way too much fun. I particularly enjoyed a recent trip to the Big Apple with my new close friend Flat Monica.

Originally, the trip was conceived as an epic birthday gala for my friend Real Monica. We have a tradition in our book club of celebrating milestone birthdays with a special expedition. In the past, we’ve typically stayed closer to home in Southern California, but Real Monica decided, for her milestone birthday festivity this year, she wanted us all to visit Tracy, a book club member who moved to New York a few years ago.

We went about planning our trip, finding dates that worked for everyone, exploring various activities and shows, and coordinating travel schedules. Ultimately, three of us (in addition to Real Monica) committed to the trip.

A few weeks after we purchased our airline tickets, Real Monica announced she couldn’t go (it’s a long story). The rest of us conferred and decided (what the heck!) we would go anyway. Our imaginative and creative friend Kathy hatched the idea of taking Flat Monica (a takeoff from the old “Flat Stanley” craze I only slightly remember) and showed up with two laminated photos of Real Monica (now Flat Monica) for us to haul around New York City.

Flat Monica proved to be an ideal travel companion. She fit in our purses and backpacks, did not require travel costs, space, food or her own bed, went along with all of our plans, never complained or got lost, and, no matter what happened, kept the same smile on her face.

We had a ball planning, staging and executing Flat Monica photo shoots all over town and posting them on our group page. To kick things off, we filmed a video tribute of Flat Monica behind a pie with a lighted candle, while we sang happy birthday, ending dramatically as one of us (off-stage left) blew out the candle on cue. We photographed Flat Monica kayaking on the Hudson, enjoying two plays, listening to commentary on an architectural boat cruise, sampling rice pudding at a trendy eatery, and strolling through Central Park. In fact, at Strawberry Fields, in Central Park, we ran into two young men from Australia, one of whom was carrying a life-size Flat Mom (a photo of his mother) and we introduced and photographed Flat Monica with Flat Mom.

Some of the many Adventures of Flat Monica

Some of the many Adventures of Flat Monica

At one of the (Way Off-Broadway) plays, an odd affair involving puppetry and video, we took Flat Monica backstage post-play and photographed her with the star, a Flat Monica-sized puppet (he waived the “no touching” rule and put his arm around her). We took Monica to a 7-Eleven store on 7/11 and plied her with a free Slurpee, and then took her on a mine tour in New Jersey. And when we dropped our friend Sara off at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (where she was staying the following weekend while she visited her son) we photographed Flat Monica in the lobby with the ornate London-built clock and under the 800-thread-count sheets in Sara’s room.

Real Monica seemed to enjoy traveling vicariously through Flat Monica. And Flat Monica made a delightful portable companion, providing us with hours of amusement. All in all, I highly recommend taking Flat Friends along on travels, especially when Real Friends can’t go. Since I was the last to leave New York, I flew home with Flat Monica (in my carry-on, although I let her look out the window a few times, much to the amusement of the 8-year-old girl sitting next to me). As I now write, Flat Monica is smiling at me from the coffee table, and, since we had so much fun together, I’m seriously considering taking her along on more trips.

Some Things Never Change!

Often, the saying is uttered in exasperation to describe a never-ending irritant. But, I recently discovered I am grateful that some things don’t change.

Two dear friends from college visited me this past weekend. Lynne was my first roommate in the dorm, and Devie lived down the hall. I met both of these women when I was eighteen, my adult self still very much a work in progress.

The first day I met Lynne, she came bounding into our dorm room carrying a field hockey stick in one hand and a tennis racket in the other. Before her dramatic, high-energy entrance, I warily scrutinized the photos already hung on her side of the room, which were mostly of pigs. She later clarified that she was a P.E. major (which explained the multiplicity of sporting equipment) and had been in 4-H (which explained the pigs, whom she proudly declared were named Aristotle and Socrates).   Over the course of our college years, I found Lynne to be uproariously funny, whip smart (she later changed her major to biology), with an almost insatiable curiosity, and a great problem solver. She was our unofficial dorm den mother, a natural caretaker with her calm wisdom and ingenuity.

I met Devie in my Art History class. She was physically striking, talented, creative, slightly neurotic, and I found her endlessly entertaining. She was an art major and a gifted pianist. I spent weekends at her Jewish parents’ house, and she was highly skilled at discussing and dissecting (often inventing) problems (hers and mine) until we were both near exhaustion.

Last weekend was the first time in 37 years that the three of us had all been together. Although Lynne and Devie became two of my closest friends during college, after I graduated and continued to law school and then moved to the east coast for a period, I largely lost touch with them until recently. I was curious to see how much we’d changed, both individually and as a trio.

We quickly discovered that the essence of who we each were at eighteen had not changed, and that we eased almost immediately back into our comfortable, safe friendship. Thirty-seven years later, Lynne is a retired science and special education teacher, married to a deaf Native American man, who lives on a chicken farm in Tennessee and is currently building a fence. Devie is an art therapist who is even more beautiful now than in college, works with children and teens in the Bay Area and is still highly conflicted about many things. They both found their callings, perfectly predictable based on their eighteen-year-old selves. They both claimed that my successful legal career was completely foreseeable (even though I began college as an interior design major).

My weekend also wonderfully illustrated teachings from a recent Alive and Well Women workshop entitled “Deepening Connections” in which my friend Cissy spoke about self-compassion. We talked about how we, as women, are often more compassionate with others than with ourselves. We explored the power of female community, and the healing that takes place when we find those friends to whom we can safely confess our self-loathing, our fear, our shame, our needs, and from whom we can receive loving empathy and compassion.

With Devie (far right) and Lynne (middle), back in my world

With Devie (far right) and Lynne (middle), back in my world

After three solid days of each other, in which we laughed (much) and talked (a lot) and even cried (some), Lynne, Devie and I shared how affected we each were by our weekend together, both emotionally and physically. The best that I can describe it, for me, is that I was not changed by this deep re-connection with my old friends, but anchored. An important part of me, deep inside, never lost but perhaps unnoticed, was re-aligned, reinforced. Through speaking our fears, our shame, our needs to each other, and finding the solid core of our friendship still trustworthy and strong, it became a deeply comforting, healing, and spiritual experience of compassion.

It was also great fun for my friends (and for me) to get a glimpse into my current life.   I took them to my yoga class and my favorite brunch restaurant and we walked around my neighborhood. We’ve now decided to make this an annual event. Next year, whether chasing chickens in Nashville or doodling with crayons in Palo Alto, I will be joyfully discovering new friends in my old.

 

The Best Trip Ever

Whenever someone asks me which was my favorite retirement trip so far, my answer is usually “The last one!” But, I have to say, with all due sincerity, this last trip may have really really truly been the Best. Trip. Ever.

Looking back, one of my stated goals, in my quest to be ‘Alive and Well’ in retirement, was to “discover rewarding activities that feed me physically, spiritually and emotionally.” In part, to pursue joy and beauty in my world.

In thinking about our last adventure, a road trip from the Pacific Northwest (Washington state) down the Pacific coast to California, there were so many elements that I’m recognizing are the building blocks (for me) of pure happiness:

Travel Bliss. Many urged me to find something my husband and I would enjoy doing together in retirement. We don’t have many common hobbies (other than our son, who technically shouldn’t be labeled a hobby) so we’ve experimented with a few of the obvious things, like hiking, biking, golf and tennis, with some success, but none of them a home run. Our “thing” seems to be travel, especially driving trips.  Some have marveled that we can be cooped up together in a car for weeks at a time, not only without killing each other, but actually enjoying ourselves. A very odd and magical thing happens on the road, and we actually seem more compatible. We have a sense of freedom when away from the responsibilities (and the unfinished projects) of home, we enjoy similar sights and activities, and we work well together as a team. With each trip, we fine-tune our processes (preparation, packing, etc.) so our travel has progressively become more fun and less stressful. On our last trip, I was particularly struck by a profound sense of joy and gratitude to have a partner, in my husband, with whom I can experience these great adventures.

Girl Time. An added bonus was that this trip started with girlfriends. I initially left home with two female friends on a two-day road trip (see my previous blog The Girls Road Trip), then spent the weekend in Sunriver, Oregon with four girlfriends. After the weekend, my husband drove up to join me. First of all, this set-up was brilliant in that I avoided the whole joint packing and departure step – by far The Most Stressful part of any trip with my husband. But more importantly, our girls weekend was pure joy and beauty in itself. Beyond the beautiful location, shopping, cupcakes, giggling, and super fun activities (like canoeing down a river á la Lewis and Clark), there was something restorative, which blessed me deeply, in being with close female friends for an extended time.

Connection with Friends. After the girls weekend, most left, one stayed, and my husband and her husband joined us for a few days. We had not previously spent extended time together as couples, but we had a delightful time getting acquainted and playing together as twosomes. We rode tandem bikes, frolicked in the pool and water slides, went for ice cream, and generally enjoyed an extended, enchanted old-fashioned double date. On our next stop, we had lunch in Portland with a college sorority sister I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years. In Seattle, we were treated to a lovely dinner with three of my favorite former work colleagues and spouses (at the charming Bainbridge Island home of one of them). The next day, we traveled via car and two ferries to a fairly remote location in Washington to visit a good friend who previously lived around the corner but moved a few years ago. We spent the afternoon touring her new town and savored a fresh salmon dinner together. Rekindling long-lost or neglected friendships or spending time and deepening bonds with current friends, has proven to be one of the best parts of retirement. I’ve met a few new friends, but I have mostly cherished the opportunity to spend more time with the people I already know and love. I generally only spend time now with the people that I want to. What a marvelously liberating realization that was!

Family Time. Our first stop after Sunriver was a 3-night visit with our niece and her family in southern Washington at their new house. Our two adorable little grandnephews had grown leaps and bounds since we last saw them in May. I played as much as I could with the boys (until they wore me out), and we had great unhurried conversations with our niece and her husband. Finally, our last stop before heading home was a night with my sister-in-law in the Bay Area. She and her husband are preparing to sell their house, which was the site of many family gatherings and weddings, and we enjoyed reminiscing. Time to visit with family across the country has been another unexpected blessing of retirement. Since we are essentially on our own (as far as family is concerned) where we live, the more frequent contact with family has been precious.

This was the view from our breakfast table at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Washington

This was the view from our breakfast table at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Washington

Breathtaking Scenery. On top of everything else, the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was arguably the most beautiful of any of our trips. At times I was stunned by God’s creation so spectacularly laid before me. We took scenic ferry rides; saw rain forests, waterfalls and redwood forests. We stayed in historic national park service lodges. We saw a long list of wildlife – gray whales, seals, seal lions, sea otters, sea elephants, elk, deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, fox, bobcat, bear. We went for long hikes through forests and walks through picturesque small towns. A refinement that worked well was to plan shorter daily drives with plenty of time for active stops (walking, hiking and physical activity). On previous trips, we’ve found that long unbroken stretches in the car not only wreak havoc on us physically, but also inhibit us from truly experiencing the land we are touring.

To summarize:

Travel Bliss + Girl Time + Connection with Friends + Family Time + Breathtaking Scenery = Best.Trip.Ever.

WHAT COULD BE BETTER THAN THAT?   Just ask me after our next trip.

The Girls Road Trip

I love road trips. I’ve been on many with my husband and have become quite accustomed to the drill. I recently completed a two-day 800-mile road trip with a couple of female friends.  I knew almost immediately it was going to be a horse of a different color. We barely made it 80 miles when someone needed a bathroom break, we stopped at an outlet mall, and, three hours and untold dollars later, we were finally back on the road.

The start of our Girls Road Trip. All smiles following on boarding and loading.

The start of our Girls Road Trip. All smiles following expedited  loading/onboarding process.

The dissimilarities between husband road trips and girls road trips were striking and amusing. If I were a sociologist, I might explain the cultural, biological and psychological reasons. But I’m not, so instead, I’ll present my, cheeky, light-hearted, and completely non-scientific compare-and-contrast observations.

 

Husband Road Trip Girls Road Trip
Preparation Required Extensive. I prepare detailed itinerary, with destinations, stops and activities; then submit to husband for navigational planning.  I must be ever ready to respond to random “where, when and how” questions (which means committing said itinerary to memory). Minimal. As long as we know where we are headed and what day we get there, we’re good.
Ease of Departure Low. Actual departure typically 2+ hours after estimated time; follows a stressful and complex on-boarding and loading process. Mood out of gate typically tense. High. Actual departure time same as estimate, onboarding process a snap, all in good spirits on embarkment.
Driver open to passenger instructions Minimal. Unless collision with incoming vehicle is imminent, better to keep suggestions to myself Maximum. Driving considered group activity with suggestions (“look a gas station!” “hey, there’s where we turn”) appreciated
Permissible stops Minimal. Mainly to eat or pee (but only if medically necessary) or other planned stops. Maximum. Mainly to eat, pee, Starbucks or shop, but really anything goes.
Sight-seeing stops Usually outdoor or museums (preferably military, not art); NO shopping Usually indoor, maybe museums (preferably art); shopping always
Likelihood of making planned stops Very high. If stops are programmed into itinerary, we will stop at each one, according to schedule.   Even if it kills us. One of the benefits of doing the planning is that we go where I want to go. Mixed. Depends on what “group” wants to do. High likelihood planned stops ditched in favor of shopping. Even if it kills us.
Activities enroute Listening (and singing to) loud music or “can’t miss” sporting events, talking when necessary Talking constantly, with occasional breaks for audiobooks or podcasts
Potential Conflicts A big game (e.g., Navy, 49ers, or Giants) may take precedent over planned activity. (Or I tour while husband listens to game.) Frequent calls from husbands, kids (usually daughters) given high priority and may cause stops or detours.
Syncing with time estimates Usually make up for late start with aggressive driving and total ban on stops. Somehow complete trip within 30 minutes of time estimate What time estimate?
Number of GPS devices used on board At least four – car GPS, Garmin and two iPhones. Oh, and a radar detector. Just one iPhone.   (We don’t know how the car GPS works and no one brought their Garmin)
Overall trip satisfaction High. I get to see lots of things and spend time with my husband. High. I may or may not see much, but I get to shop, talk, and spend time with my girlfriends.

 

Fear and Friendship

I am not a courageous person. My older brother claims I was born afraid of everything. This may surprise some, as I have learned confidence over the years. But even today, my Fear List is long and ranges from things I am not particularly fond of to those I hold in stark terror. Darkness, bats, heights, clowns, men with black hair and mustaches (I’ve mostly grown out of that one), to name a few.

When I hike (usually with my husband) I worry about cliffs, bears, falling rocks, drowning in cold water, tripping on roots and breaking my foot. Approximately 75% of the time, I am happy that I powered through, but I am usually more comfortable on the hike back (once I’m familiar with the hazards). In the past week, I walked a mile-long cave in pitch black darkness. One that required lanterns and was billed as habitat to several variety of bats. Then I canoed six miles down a river, about a third of the way going in circles and zig-zagging from shore to shore. And the piece de resistance – I rode a tandem bike with my husband (previously, our first, last, and only tandem bike experience, about 25 years ago, did not, shall we say, go so well). And it was all awesome.

It was awesome mainly because I was with good friends, first on a girls weekend in Oregon and then with my husband, who joined me, and another couple. We are at that sweet spot where we are okay with our limits. And our choices. When someone floated the idea of touring a volcanic lava tube cave, I was perfectly free to ask to be dropped off at Starbucks. Or, as I actually did, I could confess to my friends that I would go in the cave but would likely be slightly nauseous the whole time.

Facing fears is part of growing up. And, even in this later chapter of life, I still have growing up to do. Being a naturally fearful person, I have had to stare fear down all my life, and it sometimes leads to inertia or even failure. But as Eleanor Roosevelt once said “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

My recent adventures illustrate some important principles on approaching fear and anxiety…and the power of supportive friendships in the journey:

First, it was important to recognize and acknowledge the fear. When I heard the words “cave” “dark” and “bats” all in one conversation, I recognized the familiar pit in my stomach. I acknowledged the fear by being honest with myself that I was scared. I was also honest with my friends, who were then able to care for me. There were four of us in the cave with two lanterns, and my “lantern buddy” Kathy graciously let me hold the lantern in a death grip and walked in front of me.

The end of the cave. No sign needed for me to go no further!

The end of the cave. No sign needed for me to go no further!

Second, I embraced the fear. The entire time I was in the cave, I felt uncomfortable. When I was in the canoe, with my friend Monica, we were slightly out of control until we got the physics of rowing under our belts. At one point on the river, we were floating backward and heading for a large tree jutting over the river, and the beginnings of terror were forming in my gut. On the tandem bike, I was riding in back, unable to see where I was going, brake or steer. I was doing the best I could but occasionally my husband would call out “Are you pedaling?!” which indicated I was probably intermittently freezing up or spacing out. But I have learned over the years to distinguish “good” anxiety, which often accompanies growth, from “bad” anxiety, which can be a sign of danger. As long as I am able to tolerate the good anxiety, I am open to experiences and growth that I might otherwise miss if I gave in to fear.

Third, it helped immensely that I could lean on trustworthy people. Good friends are the embodiment of God’s love: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified….God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 3:16, NIV) I had friends around me that I felt comfortable confiding in, who were not judgmental and who were encouraging and supportive. In the cave, Kathy occasionally asked “How are you doing?” (To which a little girl, coming the other way, responded, in tears “Not so well” which made me feel brave in comparison). On the river, Monica laughed good-naturedly as we spun in circles, saying “Don’t worry, we’ll get the hang of it!” As for the ride on our tandem bikes, my friend Kathy (also my cave lantern mate) encouraged me to give it another try and she and her husband accompanied us and cheered us on.

Our successful completion of tandem bike riding

Our successful completion of tandem bike riding

Finally, celebrate the victories. I have not conquered my fear of caves or the dark or bats or tight places or drowning or falling off a bike. But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, I gained a measure of strength, courage and confidence with the experience. And in the midst, I felt a profound sense of gratitude and joy. I occasionally stopped in the cave to shine the lantern on the walls, marveling at the structure and grandeur. Our day on the river was beautiful – spectacular weather, breathtaking scenery, and a variety of wildlife. And before this week, I assumed that riding a tandem bike with my husband was not a good idea, when in fact, it was a great idea. When we completed our ride, we did a victory lap for the sole purpose of taking photos. And to celebrate our day of tandem-tandem riding, our foursome went for ice cream and I treated myself to a hot fudge sundae. I am never too old to grow up!