Hello all, and thanks for waiting for me. I know it’s been a long time, and thank you for the emails and comments of concern – I got hit by some sort of combination crap train. When I left for the Rally everything was on fire, and then about halfway through the Rally the Blog (the software, not you) broke, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to fix. In fact, it was impossible to fix from the back of a bike, so it got fixed in the few days between being home from the Rally and leaving with the family on vacation, but I was sick for a few days there, which I now think was just exhaustion, on some horrible cellular level. Then the whole family headed up to a cottage for nine days, to rest and be together on the anniversary of my Mum’s death. I spent that time doing my best to put all my relationships back together after months of neglect, and maybe I can do the same here. Pull it all back together. I tried to figure out what pictures to show you from the last while, and I’ve essentially settled on postcards – some of them I posted on Instagram, but they’re everything I’ve been up to, and I’m sorry I was gone. I feel like things are back to “normal” now, if there is such a thing.
Every year I write about the Bike Rally after it’s done, and I feel like I always start these posts the same way – by noting that every year has a theme that I figure out over the course of the thing. Sometimes I worry that these aren’t real themes – that as a writer, I’m looking for marrow that doesn’t exist and creating plot where there is only chaos and random events. I even know in my heart that I sometimes write scripts for the ways I think things will happen and the way I’d like people to behave – and then feel extra disappointed in real life when everyone fails to act upon their psychically issued instructions. I did this a while ago when I thought someone was going to show up somewhere, and they didn’t, and I texted them and they made it pretty clear that they weren’t coming, and instead of just being disappointed once, I managed to convince myself that they were trying to throw me off so that they could surprise me.
They weren’t, and my secret scripting just meant that I was disappointed twice. All of this, my propensity to look for meaning where there is none, – to attribute motives to people that they don’t have so the plot’s great – I know that it isn’t always real, but I sometimes can’t help myself, and since I’m me, I look for that theme.
In retrospect this year’s theme – real or not, asserted itself really early on – the earliest it ever has (if it does) and I could feel it, and I feel like I was trying to connect with it, but it was such an…. uncomfortable theme that I think my inner self didn’t really want to know. No matter how clear it became, I looked the other way.
Two years ago I decided to take on the two year commitment as Co-Chair, because I felt like I was in such a great place in my life. I was working hard and things were on track. Elliot had just been born and I was planning on travelling a little tiny bit less for a few months, I was writing tons, my relationships were in a great place, my inbox was even more or less under control. My 50th birthday was on the horizon, and honestly, I felt like I was as strong and polished as I was ever going to be.
What’s that expression – Man plans, and God laughs? Immediately after I felt like I had it together and had been accepted for the Co-Chair position and had all this bandwidth to spare— my Mum died and absolutely everything went sideways.
I began a period of time that has been truly the loneliest of my life. I didn’t just miss my mother, though that pain has been acute – I felt like her absence screwed up all my relationships, right down to my relationship with my work, my writing – it effected every aspect of me. I didn’t dream for months. In that first year, the Bike Rally was a lifeline. If I had known that my mother was going to die, I would have never, never taken on that job. I wouldn’t have thought I could cope with it, I wouldn’t have thought I could manage it and my grief, but in the end it was sort of perfect. I had to go to the meetings, I had to manage a team, I had a Co-Chair, Ted – and I felt like I couldn’t unfairly burden him because I was grieving, and somehow having to show up for something kept me at least a little tethered. That leadership position and my family were honestly the only things that did. (The theme had already started to sneak in around the edges.)
Then the time came for me to begin the second year of the position, and the way it works is that there’s always two Co-Chairs, an outgoing ( that would be me) and and incoming… but nobody came. Despite having just come through a ridiculously lonely year – this surprised me. I was prepared, and I decided to make the most of it, but I was surprised. It hadn’t happened with the Rally before, and I admit that I took it kinda personally. (I was taking a lot really personally around then, so don’t read too much into that.) The workload, rather predictably – when you go from two people doing a job to one – doubled. I had a great Steering Committee, and we got through it really well, I think, but do you see the theme starting to develop?
I didn’t. I kept pushing back, and the theme kept trying to assert itself. I started finding myself alone in decision making, alone working, alone thinking – which as a natural collaborator and consensus seeker, was hard for me. I found myself alone in presenting concepts or ideas, and I found myself alone when there was disagreement. I had still totally failed to fill the hole my mother’s support, guidance and help used to occupy, and was trying to fill it with resolve and hard work. At the same time, many of my support people had their own big life stuff going on. I have always enjoyed having just a few really good friends rather than a wide array of casual ones, but there’s a risk in that. While I struggled, my chosen few were all entering new phases, completing school, being crushed by jobs, travelling – the theme, it seemed was not screwing around, now recruiting others to make sure that I got the message. I didn’t.
I kept pushing back against it, trying to not be alone… I remember one day in particular, right before the Rally, I’d had a tough thing to do – some big decision or pressure, I can’t remember what, and I’d texted about eight people looking for some support in that moment, and every single one of them was busy. I sat and cried – and I know now that I was crying because I had the theme wrong. Through it all, I thought that the planet was trying to teach me to get good at something that I’m frankly terrible at, which is admitting weakness or asking for help. I’d spent the first year after my mother’s death trying to tough it out, and now I’d finally conceded that it was impossible to do by myself, and I’d reached out…and nobody reached back. I figured that I was doing it wrong, or that I was unloved, one of the two for sure, and I swung back and forth between those options, and hunkered down, determined that if I had to do this work alone, the least I could do was do it well – if sort of unhappily.
The morning the Rally began, I organized the last few of my things, printed my speaking notes for the morning, and I took out my worry list and made sure I was properly anxious, and left for the departure site. When I got there I was totally freaked out. I looked out over the 100 crew, and the 200+ cyclists, and I worried about not funding the agency. I worried about programs getting cut because I couldn’t get the fundraising done. I worried about someone getting hurt – I worried about everyone on the Steering Committee who was new to their role and hoped that we’d all prepared together enough. I worried that the sacrifices of the last two years wouldn’t be enough. I worried about what we’d do if something went wrong. (This despite the fact that I had the Preparedness Plan memorized.) I worried about what I’d say, about doing it by myself – about nobody being publicly responsible for a failure but me, and I realized in that second that not wanting to be alone was really about not wanting to be alone in the responsibility for it all, and that I was actually going to do it by myself, and I was responsible, that it was mine alone, and squared my shoulders and stepped up to the microphone, and I started.
In that moment, two things happened. First, I completely accepted that nobody was actually going to show up and rescue me, and the second was that in that moment the exact moment that I gave up and accepted the aloneness – it ended. Ken was there, and Pato, and Cameron, and Ted, and Joe, and Jen and the girls and in a horrible instant, I realized that they had actually been there all the time, and that The Point of the whole thing hadn’t been to teach me to ask for help – that’s why that hadn’t worked. The point of the thing had been for me to learn that I was alone, that I could be alone, that I could bear the load by myself.
From the moment my mum died, my overarching wish has been for her to come back. This is what I whisper to myself at the lowest moments of my grief. “Come back, Mum please come back.” I have felt that her death, so unexpected and fast and horrible was actually the start of a cascade of loss and change. Change is not my best thing at the strongest of times, and alone isn’t my best thing either, and now here I’ve been – alone and in the middle of what feels like an earthshake of change, and I just kept plodding through wishing for my Mum, wondering how I’m supposed to do anything without her and wondering if I even can. It turns out, that I was supposed to learn (at 50, how disappointing) is that my mum wasn’t coming to help me, isn’t coming back and I could do a big thing on my own, or maybe this is all crap, and that it’s me looking for something that isn’t there again – looking for meaning and plot in an endlessly chaotic system, but frankly I like it better my way.
In the end, the Rally did what it always does. It grew a force field of love around our little travelling town. Everyone helped everyone else, there was support aplenty, we funded the agency beyond budget and my hopes, and in the two years I was Co-Chair and then Chair I led to the Rally to their two most successful years, and I wasn’t alone- except in the responsibility, which I guess was what I was there to learn, or if there’s another lesson I’d like to ignore it for a while, because that one was more than enough, thank you. Those of you who wondered if I still loved the Rally – in the days when it was crushing my life like a bug before we left – I do, I truly do. All that was reborn in me on my bike, watching people pull together, feeling them trying to make the world a better place.
Up at the cottage, all of us together, I was struck by how surprised I still am when Elliot calls me Grammy, how it makes me feel like a bit of a fraud. Grammy was what my girls and Hank called my mum, and what I called my maternal grandmother, and I still can’t believe it’s me. Not that I’m a grandmother, I’m fine with that, but that I’m The Grammy. I come from a long line of women who are absolute powerhouses, and I worry about living up to that, about the responsibility of that, of what it is supposed to mean to be a “McPhee Woman.” I think it’s probably pretty likely that there was no theme to the Bike Rally this year – that it is absolute nonsense to think that the universe, as expansive and unfeeling as it is, worked to personally teach me a lesson. It is wholly unreasonable to believe any force had an interest in me, and were there such a force I would hope it would concern itself with things that really need fixing – like putting out an Amazon forest fire or curing cancer in a five year old, and that it is far, far more likely that I’ve dreamed all this in an attempt to give a tough situation meaning. I get that. The odds are awesome that it was just a hard job and a rough time and here I am trying to turn it all into a life lesson other than the real one, which is simply to do your damn work and try to be a good person while you’re at it.
At least that’s what my mother would say, though I’m trying to think of some of her as my own voice now.
This ended up being a lot more personal than I planned. Part of the delay in getting it to you was the process of deleting and replacing it sixteen times – I don’t worry about telling you my thoughts, by the time they make it to the keyboard I’m usually pretty comfortable with them – but I worry that without seeing my whole life, writing something like this will make me seem sad, lonely or lost, rather than someone trying to learn to deal with those feelings when they are inevitably part of a good, happy and lucky life. I’ve deliberately chosen photos this time that reflect that balance… a happy life. I am lucky, I do feel lucky – and while the last six months in particular have been more of a challenge than I can say – I’m satisfied with how that turned out. I ended up doing a job I feel really, really proud of. PWA will be able to serve clients the same way and more for the next year, and I want to thank all of you for being part of that. We changed and saved lives together, I feel that.
While I haven’t been as present for you (or anyone) as I’d like over the last while, you’ve been more than present for me. Every comment, donation, email of support – it’s meant more than I can say. You are, as always, a big part of what balances my life. Thanks for not letting me slip under as I worked on this big thing. I love you all.
See you tomorrow. (I mean that. I have knitting to show you.)