Cycle St. Paul. Hills and All.

I am seated on a steel bench just after lunch: June 25 at 12:30, hot sun, and worries about my sunburn getting worse. I cycle this university campus. Indeed, I was here 18 hours ago peddling my bike up the hill to the student center. I’ve cycled over 800 miles this season getting ready for RAGBRAI, most spent on the terrain of St. Paul. I hear a lot of groans from other cyclists when I tell them I choose to train here.

No really. I choose to ride these hills.

RAGBRAI is a 7-day ride from the western to eastern border of Iowa. About 20,000+ cyclists make the journey annually during the last full week of July. It averages about 468 miles in total length, which means 67+ miles per day. I can also expect over 12,000 feet of total climb. Iowa is not flat.

Have I mentioned the corn sweat?

I frequent a coffee shop downtown. It’s a good mid-way point and I have spent many hours there in the off-season writing (not in spandex). But it is summer, and the baristas are impressed by my mileage. I got a 50-mile ride in last Sunday and plan for 55 miles the next. I come into town by way of Shepard’s Road and out again by Big Rivers Regional Trail.

I often see eagles hunting along the river. Soaring grace until a fierce dive to the fish below. I feel that way on my bike. I feel like I am flying. There is no other world besides the connection between me and the steel bike frame… the bike tires and the road… the road leading forever to the horizon. Sometimes, the meditation is so deep I really believe I can go on for days. Then I stop for a snack and a dose of reality.

I came to cycling in 2014, about a year after my back surgery.

A friend asked me on a whim, “You wanna ride RAGBRAI with me?” I knew what it was having attended the University of Iowa as an English major years before. But I had never cycled before. I thought there was no way I could ever do such a thing.

Then I paused.

Two years earlier, just after my 40th birthday, a disk in my spine herniated and cut into my spinal cord. Intense waves of pain and weakness in my left leg caused it to randomly stop working. Some days, it was all I could do to walk the few blocks from the bus stop after work and lay on the floor all night. This went on for nine months: pain, mobility loss, and isolation all stealing my life and dignity away. Then I got back surgery. I got my life back. And I got asked to ride a large, insane cycling event.

My leg was working again… why couldn’t I ride RAGBRAI?

There is something about the slow pace of 14mph that allows you to see the world in a way that driving does not: deer darting through the high grass, tiny flowers of yellow and blue, and every butterfly that lights upon them. But that’s fast enough that if you are panting, and a June bug decides to commit suicide by flying into the back of your throat, you have little choice but to swallow it.

Hey, it’s fuel for the ride.

We are so spoiled in the Twin Cities by our extensive system of bike trails and lanes. I’ve tried cycling in other cities, in other states, but there is simply not the same quality and quantity. This place is dedicated to cycling access. I feel safe here. I don’t have to ride on the streets and when I do, there are safe places to do that. Without it, I don’t think I would have taken up what has become one of the best parts of my life.

Thank you for that St. Paul… ride on!

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2018

Irish American

This blog post is a week late, but you will have to forgive me. I was too busy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with my family.

The Feast of Saint Patrick is held annually on March 17, which coincides with the traditional death date of this patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival, all thanks to us Irish diaspora, those of us who are the descendants of Irish refugees. I am officially 2/3 Irish, with Welsh and western Europe making up the rest. The right to register as an Irish citizen terminates at the third generation and since my Catholic ancestors were forced to emigrate to the United States during the Irish famines of the late 1800’s, I cannot claim Irish citizenry and am considered an American. Fair enough.

I have been told that it is in my DNA to go to Catholic Mass, then hit the Irish pub and I suppose it is. Many authors have chosen to compose in pubs. Drinkers with writing problems. But unlike bars, pubs are ‘public houses’- social spaces to meet your neighbors over a pint and conversation. They are a different animal than your run of the mill bar. If there are rooms to rent overnight, they are called an inn. Strange concept for most Americans and yet so common in the old country. There are poetry readings, live music, and céilidh dancing. I can always pick out the non-Irish by not only the way they look but also by the confusion on their face. They sit uncomfortable while the rest of us clap and sing and dance shamelessly, even while sober.

I know no other culture than Irish American Catholic.

There is a weird phenomenon among Irish Americans, a sort of posturing with one another about who is ‘more Irish’. It is really stupid. I understand it though. I believe that the 500 years of occupation by the English and their systemic attempt to eradicate Irish culture, language, and religion developed this tight grip, this desperation among the Irish people to hold on to their identity. Maintain the old and stay ever true to it. That came over with them and that is perpetuated by their offspring.

When people get up in my face about how much ‘more Irish’ they are than I am, it starts to piss me off. I will then ask them what county their family comes from. They generally do not know what I am talking about and if they do, they don’t know the answer. Mom’s family is from County Mayo & Leitrim. Dad’s family is from County Carlow & Waterford. I’ve had native Irish comment how my parents’ families come from the north and the south, but they met in the Midwestern United States. All of the Troubles mattered less and less.

Corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dinner. It is an Irish American dinner commemorating our immigration and poverty. It was the most affordable food for a special celebration, regular beef being expensive and out of the reach of most Irish households. Both corned beef and cabbage were ingredients of the lower working class.

And don’t pinch me if I fail in the wearin’ of the green. You, joe-average American, don’t know why we do it. You puke your green beer in Wrigleyville and perpetuate negative stereotypes of the Irish people as a bunch of violent drunks. That color is the color of the landscape and the color associated with St. Patrick, who legend says converted all us pagan Celts to Christianity using the shamrock to explain the holy trinity. But the wearing of the green in about Irish nationalism. At one point the British outlawed that color. So you see, the wearing of the green is an act of rebellion.

Learn your history.

There is song I sing every year to celebrate the day: Thousands Are Sailing by the Pogues. Not a traditional ballad by any standard but the story of my family and the family of millions of other Americans. The lyrics sum it up pretty well:

“Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies
And we dance to the music and we dance…”

-Written by Phil Chevron, featured on The Pogues’ album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

le grá go deo

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2019


Reference materials for this blog post:

St Patrick Day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day
Irish Diaspora: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_diaspora
Thousands Are Sailing by the Pogues: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thousands_Are_Sailing

Stuff

I bought a dresser.

When I walked into my apartment on May 11, 2013 after a fire incinerated everything that I owned, I had little more than a garbage bag of clothes, a grocery bag of canned goods, an alarm clock, and a cot. The only piece of furniture I still had was a kitchen island with bar chairs that had remained in my car in its original box. I could not carry it up the three flights of stairs to my loft with a herniated back, so it survived and serves as my kitchen table now.

Like my clothing, I received a lot of second-hand furniture and household items for the living room and kitchen. For my bedroom, I bought crappy put-it-together-yourself furniture from a big box store. This winter, the bottoms of the bottom three drawers of my dresser all fell out at the same time. There was wardrobe everywhere. After years of trying to reassemble it, I gave up. I bought a real dresser. Thank God we celebrate President’s Day with up to 70% off all furniture…

But the truth is, it’s not the crappy dresser’s fault. I was trying to stuff too much stuff into it and it exploded. And as I look around my home today, it is bursting with items that seemed to just appear one day and never left. I walked in here with nothing and now six years later there is too much. But isn’t this how it goes for all of us? We live in our hovels with an ever-expanding pile of stuff that creeps up so slowly that we don’t notice it- until there isn’t room to live in our living rooms. Unless we move, we are not really forced to take stock of our stock.

This has all got me thinking about what happens to the heap after we are gone.

My mom has terminal blood cancer and is now too tired to consider sorting out her stuff. 2013 stands as the worst year of my life because, among other things, in January, my childhood home burned and then in April, my apartment burned- four months and 400 miles away. All of my stuff ended up in a dumpster in front of the building. All of my mom’s stuff went into storage. This means that when she is gone, we inherit the pile of products. We have to shift the shit.

Consider the difficulty of letting material things go. I was able to take the tack that no one died and the rest can be replaced. It helped that miraculously, all of my photos and the hand-written copies of my writing survived. I was also given only 24 hours to get out of the burned-out shell of what was my life. I didn’t have time to reminisce. If my friends had not come to help me, I have no idea what I would have done.

My mom could not bring herself to do it. Always, it would be someday that she would get her stuff back or go through it. She had to downsize into a smaller house so my advice to her was, take a picture of the thing and then get rid of the thing. You don’t need the thing. What you are after are the memories and the feelings the thing provides. Unfortunately, she didn’t do this and any suggestion that we help her sort through it was met with stubborn resistance.

Now we are at the end.

First, we will make good memories. Next, we will walk through health decline and hospice. Then the funeral. Then the estate. It would be easy for me to get angry, but I think about the 45 years my mom lived in her home, the cancer she was diagnosed with shortly after it burned, and the MDS she was at risk of developing from the radiation treatments that now will take her life. She just didn’t have it in her.

And time flies.

If this experience does anything, please let it teach me to keep my home in better order, to dispose of things in a timely manner. I want to enjoy my space. I would like to have people and laughter fill my home rather than piles of paper, knickknacks, yesterday’s fashion… Maybe buying new, quality furniture is just the kick in the pants I need. It’s the return of feeling invested in my own life, my own happiness.

That feeling has been gone way too long…

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2019

Apple Tree

Every apple
Every last Macintosh
Has a hole in it
No holes before
Dad died
Now the tree sags
Weight of unwanted fruit
Scent hangs heavy
Apples drop
Rot on the ground
Memory preserves
Harvested bushels
Apple pies, apple butter
Dad had a gift
To tend life into green
Growing things
Twenty years later
It is old and dying
Animals live off its bounty
Insects, birds, and rodents
His care gives life still

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2005