The night before our meeting, Marilyn emailed me her photo with the caveat that she had recently cut off quite a few inches of hair.
She was still getting used to it, she wrote. As I came to learn the next day, Marilyn is prone to switching things up and reinventing herself – hair and otherwise.
At 64 years old, Marilyn embarked on her journey as a lecturer at San Francisco State University. At 39, she began bike touring; by 42, she was riding solo from Montana to and through Alaska, and to the Arctic Circle. If you’ve ever felt that you’ve been “too late” to try something, Marilyn is your newfound inspiration.
I was in awe of this everyday Madonna – how does someone have the energy, the spunk, the guts to keep trying new things, when the comfort of complacency is always calling?
Marilyn cocked her head and said, “A lot of people assume they have to follow a certain course in life… I think we limit ourselves.” I pressed Marilyn for the secret to staying unstuck. She paused for a second and then revealed her core truth, the thread that’s been woven through all of her experiences: a love for learning and a penchant for going with her gut.
She described her first brush with adventure – it was a Saturday afternoon at Russian River when she met a couple riding on fully stocked bikes, ready for a cross-country trip. Marilyn was honest: “I had never seen anything like that or known anyone like that. So I thought, ‘Are they out of their minds?’” As it turns out, maybe so is Marilyn. Stepping out of her mind – her comfort zone – led Marilyn to the library, where she voraciously checked out biking books to prepare for her own 3-month cross-country bike trip shortly thereafter. Marilyn read up to prepare but also confessed, “I think I like being a little bit scared sometimes.”
Marilyn recounted, “It’s funny when I decided to ride my bike up to Alaska by myself, I did think maybe I had lost my mind. Certainly my mother thought I had.” Her voice quivered, but she went on. “So I took the train out to Whitefish, Montana and I just wasn’t sure how I was going to feel. I loaded up my bike and started riding. Within half an hour, it was like, ‘this is what I’m supposed to be doing and who I’m supposed to be.’ I felt very comfortable out there. It gave me a sense of being part of a larger world.”
Opening up to, and being excited by, this feeling is what got Marilyn through grueling hills and freezing conditions. She said, “Almost everything is mental…. the hardest part is usually the beginning.” Perhaps this is a truth we all recognize but, at times, forget to remember. Even Marilyn admits, “In all aspects of life, when things are difficult, I have to learn how to open up my mind and embrace them. I can’t always do that. I wish I could.”
Embracing difficulty reaps rewards. By tuning into the experiences that fulfilled her, like following breadcrumbs through the forest, Marilyn found her calling, little by little. While biking, she explained, “I ride my bike with binoculars around my neck. I stop for everything that interests me. I’m not in a hurry.” This is the approach she’s taken to her career as well. After returning from her solo expedition, she took environmental science classes to learn more about nature to write for a magazine she had co-founded, Bay Nature. One class led to another, and now Marilyn stands in front of the classroom. As a child, she assumed that girls didn’t really “do science.” It’s funny how things change once you shift your perception.
[bctt tweet=”Marilyn Smulyan -‘I ride my bike with binoculars around my neck. I stop for everything that interests me.'”]
Despite Marilyn’s thirst for exploration and comfort in the wilderness, she admits that she fell victim to being a perfectionist. I brought up a book I had been reading, called Playing Big, in which author Tara Mohr reveals a female tendency to let self-doubt stop us from getting where we could be. Marilyn agreed: in her first year, although only teaching part-time, Marilyn was slogging 60-hour weeks to prepare for class, terrified of being asked a question she didn’t have the answer to. As time went on, Marilyn-in-the-classroom began emulating Marilyn-on-her-bike: she followed her instincts and started to feel more comfortable with her abilities. She started sharing her stories more and worrying about questions less.
To that effect, Marilyn left me with one last story to highlight the beauty of tackling difficulty. Camped with friends at almost 11,000 feet on the way to Mt. Whitney, Marilyn had to pee in the middle of the night. As I started to complain about what a pain it is to have to do that, especially in the cold, Marilyn stopped me. She raised an eyebrow, “well no, because you get to see extraordinary things.” She described how disoriented she was as she stood in total darkness – the night sky was so perfectly nestled in the mountain peaks that she had to look straight up just to catch a glimpse of the twinkling lights. She had never seen a prettier canvas. How’s that for battling discomfort, following your senses and reaching a brighter path?
Agnes Pyrchla is an adventurous spirit with insatiable wanderlust. Her thoughts and writing often meet at the nexus of nature, art and the human psyche. She is living proof that city people can be outdoorsy.