Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


The Last Can Be First: The (Almost) Billion Step Program

First off I will tell you that I was last both times. And both times I survived.

A few Novembers ago, I went trailblazing with an Alexandria Meetup Group. We embarked from Fort Ethan Allen Park. The hike was described as of moderate difficulty, with a few water crossings, and rock scrambles, and elevation changes. It promised a scenic overlook of the Potomac River. Only five and a half miles in just under two hours.

Piece of cake.

I almost died.

At an early water crossing I slipped on a rock and fell flat on my face into the stream. I hit my head and bruised my left shin. I was soaked head to toe. My shoes and socks were sopping wet. It was 35 degrees. My lips turned blue. To avoid hypothermia, I stripped down to my skivvies in front of fifty of my new best friends. A handsome stranger lent me his dry coat and warm gloves.

I should have turned back. But…

It seemed there was just one dangerously steep hill to descend and then I would be back on solid ground. A transgendered park ranger held my hand all the way down. (I would love to thank her but I forgot to get her name.) I thought the worst was over.

I was wrong.

It turns out “rocks” meant “boulders” and “scrambling” meant “scaling” and a “few” meant “way the hell too many”. The hills turned into cliffs, breathtaking, death dealing cliffs.

I prayed for a helicopter.

God-in-three-persons answered my prayer, namely three handsome (and sadly married) guys: Gordon, Joe, and Luke. One in front and two behind, they took turns literally holding my hand and guiding me each and every step of the way – “Put your foot here, grab a hold there”. If I looked down, I was a goner. Instead I looked to them. I listened to them.

Thanks be to Gordon, Joe, and Luke, I came in last. Exhilarated, shaking like a leaf and kissing the ground, I came in last.

But not for the last time.

Just one week later on Thanksgiving Eve, I finished the Real Girls RUN Half Marathon in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The race started in Crozet, a picturesque village in the horse country outside of Charlottesville. The field of 100 plus runners quickly outpaced me. I was blissfully left alone with my thoughts to walk the course: 13.1 miles of serious hills but no cliffs and no boulders!

(But hills, lots of hills!)

Piece of cake.

When I was finally in sight of the finish line, a fellow racer – who had long ago finished herself – cheered me on from her car window. “It’s my very first one,” I told her, “and I am coming in last!” She pulled over and walked with me the last half-mile. “You may be last” she said, “but you finished the hardest damn half marathon in in the state of Virginia. That’s a first!”

I recovered from the five-mile hike. I recovered from the 13.1-mile walk. But more importantly, in the process, I recovered myself. Not an overnight process for sure. But with every little step I took, I got a little bit of myself back – body and soul.

(And since I have completed two more half marathons and planning on the fourth!)

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Coming in last, Real Girls Run, Nov 23rd

Looking back, I see that I took thousands of steps long before I ever strapped on that first pair of size 7 ASICS. Steps that did not seem to matter. Steps that were daunting. Steps that were awkward. Steps that were clumsy. Steps that were steep. Steps that were halting. Steps that were scary.

Steps forward. Steps backward.

The Million Step Program.

The (Almost) Billion Step Program.

So far I have been in the program for fifteen years. I will be in it the rest of my life. It’s about lifelong recovery. Not recovery from bipolar disorder. I will never not be bipolar – nor would I ever want to be. The program I am in is about embracing the gift of my bipolar self.

To help quantify what it takes to get with the program and keep up with the program, I compiled a few statistics from just this last year. Holistically speaking, I’ve done pretty well.

  • 48 weekly visits to get my head examined (Thank you, Sondra!)
  • 4, once a quarter trips, to my psychiatrist (aka Mr. Rogers!)
  • 3 x 365 nightly vitamins for my brain
  • 24 hikes round Huntley Meadows
  • 52 walks on the river front
  • 104  tours (2 miles each) at the Library of Congress
  • 389 tunes “Folk Rocking Down the Highway” (Thank you, Spotify!)
  •  29 blog posts (so far)
  •  a baker’s dozen of sermons
  •  6 score (120) services planned
  • 2 times, twice over, on the Story District stage
  • 1,095 cups of coffee
  • 400 pieces of toast
  • 4 dozen books devoured
  • 1st book written
  • “2” much time on my couch
  • 5 new dresses and just as many shoes
  • 1/2 dozen new pairs of pajamas
  • a few sleepless nights
  • and maybe more than just a little mania

But…

I lost track of the calories. I lost track of the miles. I lost track of the steps.

But I am stepping up my game and getting it back: a new Fitbit, an actual scale, a stair stepper to step on, and resistance bands. Walking clothes and shoes always at the ready. Back in the pool for a little aerobics. Even a bike ride, now and then.

It took me a dozen of years of coming in last — to finally count myself as first. And what is true for me is surely true for us all.

There is no magic pill or miracle program or magic bipolar wand.

But — bipolar or whatever – you can recover yourself one step at time. Walking this way may seem ENDLESS. Yet every step may take you places you never thought you would go.  And on this road, miraculous people you are likely to meet.  Neighbors turn into friends; coworkers become companions; and strangers – wilderness guides along your way.

Like the  park ranger, like Gordon, Joe, and Luke, like the woman who walked with me that last half mile. God in all these persons witness to the truth.

The last can be first.

Just take it one step at a time.

JoaniSign


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The Avid Pedestrian Handbook

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ASICS size 7 1/2 in elegant black.

Over the last year and a half, I have logged 5,989,993 steps on my Fitbit.  That’s about 2,537 miles or 4,083  kilometers.  I also earned a bunch of badges to stitch onto my long lost Girl Scout sash, most recently one called Monarch Migration.

I am especially skilled at putting one foot in front of the other – on mostly paved surfaces. I nearly lost my life, discovering the hard way, that I am no hiker but a walker.

I am quite the avid pedestrian. I embrace it as a lifestyle. My wardrobe, my schedule, my reading, my writing, my socializing, my moods, and my prayer life all revolve around my walking.

Proper provisions for my daily constitutional are a must.

I carry a very compact backpack packed with enough stuff to keep me alive for a couple of days. More like keep me entertained for a couple days —  should I become stranded at some urban outpost.

Inventorying my bag (and without exaggeration) these are the essentials:

  • Wallet, sunglasses, keys, and chill pill box,
  • Colored pencils and sketchpad,
  • Colored pens and notebook,
  • Tissues and cucumber face wipes,
  • Throat lozenges and ginger mints,
  • Kindle or paperback book,
  • Checkbook and chargers,
  • Lip gloss and mascara,
  • Hand cream and sunscreen,
  • Kind Bars and water bottle,
  • Iphone

I am so prepared I put Boy Scouts to shame. Who knows? I may need to stop and sketch the next Mona Lisa. I may need to stop and write the Great American Novel.

And of course I have to look fabulous. I may meet some dark and handsome stranger along the way.

So yes, it is also critical to be properly outfitted.

In order to maximize walking opportunities I always take a change of clothes with me wherever I go. I either take my walking clothes to work or work clothes to change into after I walk. I don’t leave home without them.

Shoes are most important. Mine are size 7 ½ ASICS Nimbus. Proper socks are also a must – either Feetures or Belega. $12 a pair and worth every penny.

Sweats and jeans are way too heavy and slow you down. Running tights for freedom of movement, breathable high tech undershirt, lightweight, water repellant jacket, thin gloves, and a hat. Knit in winter, brimmed in summer.

You can shop at Target or Lululemon depending on your budget. Lululemon is pricey but their stuff wears like iron and lasts forever. This is a lifestyle choice remember.

The goal is to be as fleet of feet as possible.

And don’t forget to accessorize! A little jewelry is appropriate.

First and foremost is my Fitbit Flex.

I never take mine off (except to charge it of course!). I shower with it, sleep with it, grocery shop with it. It keeps me honest and motivated. It sends me weekly report cards in my email and gives me badges for a job well done – which greatly appeals to the third grader in me.

A wrist rosary and Tibetan prayer beads.

My two-decade wrist rosary is a souvenir a dear friend brought back from Assisi. The Tibetan prayer beads are from off the rack at Ten Thousand Villages. I pray with them as I walk. I pray with them on park benches. Both are great for sidewalk contemplation traipsing around God’s creation.

St. Christopher Necklace.

Yes, he is a totally bogus saint, a pious legend from the 13th century, but his name literally means “Christ carrier”. The medallion reminds me that when I am out and about that every driver, every cyclist, every pedestrian carries the sacred within them. Every single living, breathing thing is holy. So watch those traffic lights and look both ways before crossing the street.

NO earphones. NEVER.

The only soundtrack I want to hear is the sound of the streets. Oncoming cars, horns honking, birds singing, wind in the trees, street musicians playing, people talking, children playing. The sound and rhythm of my own footsteps on the pavement.

And so where do I go?

Depending on the weather and my moods, I change up my destination as much as possible. The best routes are both away from home and close to home — different and interesting but also doable. I rarely, if ever, walk in my own backyard.

But I do have favorites.

The Del Ray Loop

Starting at High St, down Russell Road to the train station, King Street to the river, and back again.  4.2 miles. Favorite stop: Killer ESP for latte and Hotrod Potato pie.

Old Town Riverfront

Starting at Jones Point Park beneath the Wilson Bridge, walk the Potomac riverfront through Old Town Alexandria up to Tide Lock Park, and back again. 4.5 miles. Favorite stop: Carluccio’s for coffee and scrambled eggs.

Huntley Meadows Park

Starting at the visitor center, several turns around the woodland and wetland boardwalk trails. 3.5 miles. Favorite stop: Observatory tower that overlooks beaver dams, wild geese, and cattails.

Roosevelt Island

Walking with my steady, Teddy is the best. Wetland and forest trails through this memorial wildlife preserve dedicated to our 26th President, father of the National Parks.  4 miles. Favorite stop: Photo op with the great man himself at center island.

Hometown, Downtown DC

Yes, I am a native Washingtonian. Subway to Metro Center at 12th and G streets. walk 10th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, up to the Capitol, East Capitol Street to 8th, ending up at the Eastern Market, and back again.  4.6 miles. Favorite stop? So many to choose from: Ford’s Theater, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Archives, The Botanical Gardens, and be still my heart, The Library of Congress. (And coffee, or course, at a variety of cafes along the way.)

Walking has become my spiritual discipline, my philosophy of life.

Find a path and walk it. Investigate all the twists and turns. Do not be afraid. Change direction as needed. Pay attention. Listen to the rhythms of the street. Pause and talk to strangers you meet — entertaining angels along the way. Breathe the breath of life into your lungs — bus fumes and all.

And not to worry — it is perfectly okay to get lost.

In the life of an avid pedestrian, that’s what God, and therapy, and Google Maps are for.

So strap on your shoes, my friends, go outside, and take a walk.

JoaniSign

 


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Silence. Quiet. Shhhh!

shhhlibrarian_jewelry_case

The Zen master of  the library –  recognize her?

 I am not by nature a quiet person.

Third child in a household of six, I had to speak up loud and clear to be heard. An extrovert par excellence, I am compelled to fill awkward silences in awkward conversations. A social butterfly — who works in a library – I am often shushed by the Head Librarian. In fact, last year at my stellar annual review discussing “room for improvement” my boss told me:

“Joani, you need to remember to use your library voice.”

Yes, my library voice.

As the noisiest person on staff  I am positioned in the perfect place – at the circulation desk. I love getting to know whoever comes through those front doors — studious students, various visitors, crazy clergy, fastidious faculty, steadfast staff.

Checking books out — I deal in public relations. Checking books in — I do a fair amount of pastoral care. We talk church politics. We talk reading assignments. We talk family. We talk churchmanship. We talk theology. We talk mental health. We talk small talk. We even talk a little bit of trash. (Shhh!)

I am a noisy and priestly librarian want-to-be. An Anglican who LOVES the OUT LOUD prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, I would make a very lousy Quaker.

A very lousy Quaker indeed.

Yet even in this loud mouth beats a somewhat contemplative heart.

I am no stranger to quiet. In fact, I love quiet. I live on my own and all alone and very rarely am I lonely.

I live in a third floor walkup. Two bedrooms and two baths — it is my sacred and solitary space. Alone in my cell, I am free to walk around in my skivvies and turn up the volume on my Spotify. I love to light my gaslight fire and curl up on my couch with a good book and a bowl of cereal.

It is my sanctuary.

I walk alone. An Olympic walker, I constantly check the stats on my Fitbit. I have taken 6,011, 861 steps  — alone. I have walked 2546 miles — alone. I have burned 1, 387, 139 calories — alone. Well mostly alone.

Walking  — my head is freed up to think about everything or nothing at all. Silently walking the streets of Capitol Hill, the Old Town waterfront, the wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park, St. Theo’s Holy Island –I think, I write,  I fantasize and pray.  While walking, I meditate, negotiate, and investigate.  I regulate, navigate, and instigate —

silently walking alone.

Stopping along the way  — I go coffee shop  hopping — alone. Silently sitting, nursing my latte, watching people come and go, I catch snatches of conversations – little bits of meaning – in all kinds of languages – haikus of wisdom. I pull out my notebook and write and write and write.

In high school,  I’d   go —  alone — to THE LIBRARY – the Library of Congress reading room. A hushed sanctuary, it smelled of wood polish and old books. I’d do my homework and write my essays on those lovely wooden desks lit by green shaded lamps. Here in this holy of holies, I first read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”

 Journal-like it is not a journal. Theological, it is not the least bit systematic. Seemingly random, it is deeply reasoned. Mystical, it’s down to earth meaningful.  A monk in a Trappist monastery, Merton writes as a man of the world.

A man alone — a man who practices sacred silence — he has much to say. And what he says — he says in a few paragraphs, with a few sentences, and with a few well chosen words. (All the better for that long ago high schooler to understand.)

“Above all, these are the day-to-day impressions, the simple conjectures of a man in his own world with its own challenges. It is a monastic world, and doubtless strange to those who have no experiences of such a thing. Yet it is, I think, open to the life of experience of the greater, more troubled, and more vocal world beyond the cloister. Though I often differ strongly from the ‘world’, I think I can be said to respond to it. I do not delude myself that I am still not part of it.”

I am in no danger of entering a monastery anytime soon. But Merton does teach me that I really do have monastic moments. These monastic spaces help contain this  manic brain. These mindful and meditative places help expand this melancholy soul.

“One has to be alone, under the sky before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all…a spring morning alone in the woods…the ceremonies of the birds feeding in the wet grass.”

 Silence, quiet, shhhhh!

JoaniSign