Thursday, July 3, 2008
Ten years ago today, on July 3, 1998, I awoke to a morning much like this one.
Bright, sunny, with a simmering mugginess that told me it was going to be a hot one.
On that particular morning I was far away from my Long Island home.
I was in a hotel room in Fitchburg Massachusetts, preparing for the second day of a 4-day bike race. A race that I had trained and planned for, for over a year.
Bike racing was my life. I worked in a bike shop. I rode my bike to work 26 miles every day. I did three-hour rides on Saturdays and on Tuesday nights I cycled over to the park after work and rode another 30 plus miles. I rode with a group of guys who try as they may just couldn’t shake me off their wheel as we did endless laps until sunset.
I did this all in preparation for Sunday. Sunday was my holy day. Sunday was race day. I’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning and head off to Central Park or Prospect Park, where each week I tried to duplicate my Tuesday night success, but in a larger field of much stronger riders, I just couldn’t keep up. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
Sunday after Sunday, year after year.
I had just enough success to keep me in the game, to keep me chasing the ever-elusive carrot. To keep coming back for more despite the effect my obsession was having on my life.
With endless hours spent in the saddle I had little time for friends and family, and God help anyone who tried to talk to me on a Sunday morning - when pre-race nerves and post-race disappointment colored my mood for the entire day.
Now, take this Sunday morning pre-race mood and magnify it a hundred times.
That’s how I felt on the morning of July 3, 1998.
I had traveled to Fitchburg alone, as none of my teammates was available to make the trip.
They had chosen to stay home with their friends and families on this 4th of July weekend.
But I could not be swayed to do the same.
And unbeknownst to me, someone, something, was trying to sway me.
From the minute I got onto the Wantagh Parkway to head up to Fitchburg, something was just not right.
I couldn’t stop crying.
And I didn’t know why.
Though I had many reasons to cry.
I was lonely – my friends were growing tired of my using training and racing as an excuse not to do things with them on the weekends.
The relationship I was in at the time was not only going nowhere, it was an emotional drain that was sucking the life right out of me, and I had to admit to myself that despite my endless trying, I could not fix it and I had to let it go.
And then there was the racing.
I was scared – what if I failed, again? What if my year of intensive training resulted in yet another disappointment? What if I finally had to accept the fact that cycling was just not my thing - that it was no longer worth the time and energy I was putting into it?
I was 32-years-old. I had been riding since I was 15. I had worked in a bike shop since I was 18.
My identity and sense of self-worth was wrapped up in this sport.
If I didn’t have my bike, who would I be?
I was scared and I was lonely and all I could do was cry.
I was crying because I was hearing a voice that I didn’t want to acknowledge.
God was whispering “enough,”
but I was too stubborn to hear.
When I arrived in Fitchburg and checked into the hotel the crying continued.
I was up half the night and by morning my head was throbbing with a numbing pain, as if something inside of me was trying with all it’s might to push its way out.
I warmed up for the day’s race and 10 minutes before the start I noticed my rear tire was going flat. In a panic I whipped the wheel out of the frame, changed the tire, and made it to the start line with only 30 seconds to spare.
16 years of racing and I had never had a flat tire outside of training.
God was whispering “enough,”
but I was too stubborn to hear.
The first day of racing, on the 2nd of July, was a Time Trial. Each rider alone against the clock, set off at one minute intervals.
13 miles of hills and unfamiliar roads, and I knew from the minute I rolled off the start ramp that something was wrong.
I couldn’t get into a rhythm, my chain skipped over the gears every time I shifted, and my heart rate was way too high for the speed I was going.
Riders who left the start house after me were passing me – first one, then two, than five, then ten.
I felt as if I was pedaling in quicksand.
On the final hill up to the finish line I got out of the saddle and channeled every last ounce of my energy into turning over the pedals. And after I crossed the line I spent a good 20 minutes bent over the handlebars trying to catch my breath and waiting for the spots to dissipate from eyes. I had never ridden this hard in my life.
And what did I have to show for it?
I came in 2nd to last. Every rider but one was better than me on that day.
In defeat, I turned to ride my bike back to the hotel and I noticed that it didn’t want to move.
I looked down to see the back wheel had shifted sideways, and it was not only rubbing against the brakes it was rubbing against the frame.
In my haste to fix my flat at the start line I had put the back wheel in crooked.
I had just ridden 13 miles with my brakes on the whole way.
God was whispering “enough”,
but I was too stubborn to hear.
The next day, July 3rd, we would race 18 miles as a group on the streets of downtown Fitchburg. 18 miles, 6 laps, with a nasty hill thrown in for good measure. I lined up with 50 other women and we started off on the first lap. On the backside of the course we had just begun a quick descent before tackling the hill when two women touched wheels at the front of the pack and the whole field went down like dominoes.
I was floating at the back and as women crashed all around me I saw a gap open up between two piles of riders. I aimed my bike for the gap and for a split second I believed that I was home free. Only me and a handful of other women would survive the crash and we’d ride alone to victory as the rest scrambled to catch up.
But it was not to be.
With the yawning break of daylight looming before me I felt my stomach drop as my back wheel suddenly slid out from underneath me. Someone had hit me from behind. I never saw it coming. I hit the ground at 30 mph, sliding along the pavement with my hands still locked onto the handlebars.
In the first seconds after the crash I vaguely remember someone trying to disentangle themselves from me and my bike. I heard screams and moans and I knew then that this crash had been bad.
How many had fallen?
How many were hurt?
Who was screaming like that?
I was too afraid to look.
I clenched my eyes shut and with my body twisted on the ground I clawed my hands against the pavement. With bits of gravel sifting between my fingers I tried to brace myself against the pain that was shooting across the entire left side of my body. I tried to lift up my head but I couldn’t move. I tried to roll over, but I couldn’t move.
The screaming continued.
Would someone please shut that woman up!
She can’t be hurt any worse than I am!
I was strong. I was silent. I held the pain down deep inside so no one would know how much it hurt.
I tried to get up.
“I probably just had the wind knocked out of me,” I thought.
Where’s my bike?
Why are they taking my bike away from me?
Why are they wheeling that gurney towards me?
I don’t need an ambulance.
Just let me get up and walk it off.
That’s my bike leaning against the fence over there.
If someone could just get it for me, and let me catch my breath.
But I couldn’t move.
They lifted me up to put me onto the gurney and I felt pain like I had never felt before.
And I finally screamed.
I opened my eyes and scanned the racecourse.
There were no other riders in sight. No one was on the ground. No one else was hurt.
Everyone else had gotten up and continued the race.
It was then I realized that I was the one doing the screaming all along.
God had shouted “Enough,”
but I was too stubborn to hear.
With the muffled wail of the ambulance siren drowning out the EMT’s voices, I could feel them cutting my racing skinsuit off of me. I felt exposed. Vulnerable. My team skinsuit was my pride and joy, and now it was ruined.
A broken pelvis was the EMT’s diagnosis, which an x-ray would later confirm.
As I lay in the emergency room I kept thinking that this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. I looked down and my tan and muscled legs, I was in the best shape of my life. I shouldn’t be laying in this hospital on this warm and sunny day. There was a race going on! Where’s my bike? Where’s my car? How am I going to get home?
How am I going to drive?
How am I going to walk?
I was completely alone.
And again, I cried.
But then God said “Enough,”
and this time I was ready to hear.
Into the emergency room walked a familiar face.
The coach and founder of our Long Island racing team.
At the last minute he had decided to attend the race and he drove up to Fitchburg with his wife in their motor home.
He heard about the crash, found out that I was involved, and before I knew it I was whisked away into his waiting motor home. He had already claimed my bike, checked me out of my hotel, and I made the long trip back to Long Island in a medicated stupor, drifting in and out of sleep on a comfortable bed, while his wife drove my car just behind.
My life was never the same after that day.
I went from having no time to think about anything but cycling to having a whole summer to think about everything but.
I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t work.
But I soon rediscovered my love of reading, my love of learning.
Suddenly the whole “meaning of life” and “why are we here” conundrum began to take center stage in my life.
That can happen when you can’t leave the house and there’s nothing on TV but Judge Judy reruns.
I devoured books on philosophy, sociology, and religion.
In early August, I went back to work on crutches but before my old world had the chance to suck me back in, God spoke again.
And this time he took away something even more precious.
My nephew Daniel.
Just shy of his 23rd birthday, Daniel succumbed to the Leukemia he had been battling off and on for two years.
He was in remission.
He had made it to a year with no reoccurrence of the cancer.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
In grief my family gathered in my sister’s home church to say goodbye to a young man who had every reason to live.
And I was ashamed.
I had squandered my life away, while Daniel had fought valiantly to hold onto his.
Then in the somber stillness of the sanctuary after the service, I heard something I had never heard before. The sound of my father crying.
In the pew just behind us he had crumpled to his knees in grief, releasing a mournful wail that could only come from a place of deep, deep sadness.
My father was battling health issues of his own, and when he was hospitalized after a heart attack, Daniel came to visit him every day. Stopping by after his shift as a lab technician, bringing my father the newspaper and staying long after his workday was done.
I could hear my own pain in my father’s cry.
Why take someone so young when those of us teetering on the edge still live?
Those of us who are old and have lived a full life and are ready to go.
And those of us who are young, but are too self-absorbed to recognize the gift of life when it’s been given to us.
God called me in that church that day, just as he had when I was lying on the pavement in Fitchburg.
A month later, still on crutches, I hobbled into a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time. My first step on the journey back towards the faith I had brazenly left behind in my youth.
I made a few valiant efforts to get back on my bike after I healed but the desire was no longer there. In early 1999, I stepped into the pulpit for the first time and I knew, I just knew, that God had led me home.
It’s been an eventful ten years.
Full of twists and turns, disappointments that turned into opportunities, and glorious blessings that I once thought were beyond my grasp.
For ten years I’ve walked this path, sometimes leaping ahead with newfound confidence, and other times lurching in the dark with my arms stretched out before me, convinced that I’ve taken a wrong turn. But each time I’ve questioned my calling something has happened to set me back on track.
Each time I’ve said, “I can’t do this” God has responded, “Yes, you can.”
For the past three weeks I’ve been mired down in the autobiographical paperwork that I have to fill out for the psychological evaluation that I need to have before entering the ordination process.
Page after page of questions about my childhood, my adolescence, my relationship with my mother and father; an in-depth examination of my strengths and weaknesses - as an employee, as family member, as a partner, as a potential minister, as a person.
In dredging up all the muck of my past and present fears I once again began to question whether I have what it takes to be a parish minister.
But this morning, just before waking, I had the most amazing dream.
I was leading worship – and I was good.
I’ve had dreams about preaching before, but they usually involve me not being able to find my sermon right before the service starts, getting lost on the way there, or showing up for church naked and scrounging to find a choir robe before anyone sees me…(yes, all the usual school-anxiety dream scenarios repackaged with a spiritual flair).
In the dream I had this morning I was getting ready to lead worship in the sanctuary and nothing was going right - people were talking loudly, arguing, and in general were not in the quiet, contemplative mood that they should be in before worship. But I was calm and I knew instinctively what to say and do to get everyone settled down and ready to worship, and as I began to lead an impromptu guided meditation I woke up from the dream. The words continued to come as I laid there awake, and the entire service played out in my head, with God speaking through me, and me allowing it to happen every step of the way.
The dream centered on my two biggest fears about entering the ministry – not being able to effectively respond to conflicts/unexpected problems, and not being able to speak eloquently and meaningfully when put on the spot (with no time to prepare beforehand).
This dream not only allowed me to experience what it feels like to be able to do those things, and to do them well, but as it carried over into my waking moments I began to fully sense that this has nothing to do with me, or my fears, at all.
It’s all about God.
I’m just the conduit.
The message is God’s, not mine.
All I need to do is feel it, believe it, and let it flow.
And while I’ve understood this intellectually, this is the first time that I’ve experienced it on an emotional and spiritual level.
And God, it felt good.
I’m not saying that I will no longer have moments of weakness and/or let my fears get in the way when it comes to trying on the role of pastor.
I’m sure that’s going to happen many times.
But this morning I got a chance to sample what it feels like to rise above those moments.
To whine to God, “I can’t do this.”
And to have God respond “Enough,”
and show me that I most certainly can.