How to Know When it’s Time to Update Your Identity

by Liz Jansen

Update Your IdentityGrowing up in Niagara, close to the U.S. border, it was commonplace to go “across the river” for shopping and entertainment. Any photo ID would do; a passport wasn’t necessary. Once I started traveling, especially by motorcycle, we’d cross regularly, traveling through or to American destinations.

Five years ago, I got a Nexus card to ease land crossings. It’s much faster during peak time bottlenecks, way better than baking in the sun while waiting in line, and saves carrying a passport.

So imagine my surprise when last month, U.S. Customs officials seized my card. I’d used it in April with no issues. This time, I was making a routine crossing with a friend to hear Paul Pelland, aka Long Haul Paul, speak to the BMW Riders’ Club of Western New York. Jeff had cleared uneventfully and was waiting for me to do the same.

Inadvertently, I’d tried to use a card that had expired on my birthday in May. After a very brief secondary check, customs officials cleared me, although they kept my card.

Passports are valid for ten years; Nexus cards expire after five. In 2013, when I got the card, I was preparing for a six-week pilot trip to the Pacific Northwest, experimenting with living and working from the road. That trip led to my extended quest, begun in 2014, seeking the answers to how the experiences of my ancestors had shaped me. It was a life-changing trip in every way.

Now in 2018, I’m not the same person I was when the identity card was new, yet I was trying to pass off an outdated version of myself.

Rivers, bridges, and borders are all symbols of crossing to a new state of being. My old identity worked that evening and got me to the meeting, but it was the last time.

It’s easy to fall back into old patterns, thoughts, and beliefs rather than questioning whether they’re still valid (or ever were). That’s what my quest was about. Spirit has a way of reminding us to question the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we’re going. Sometimes, the message is subtle; other times, as with my border crossing, it’s vivid and definitive. Still, the meaning didn’t sink in for two weeks, and then it was unmistakable.

So it’s time to update how I view myself and how I operate. Old ways of being no longer work to get me to my destination.

Watch for the signs. If your identity’s due for a refresh, they’ll be there.

What “aha” moments have you had recently, and how did they come about? Tell us in the comments.

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on VisualHunt / No known copyright restrictions

Remembering my Grandmother on Her Birthday

Four years ago I set out on a quest, seeking answers to who I was before my culture told me who I was. To help me understand my ancestors’ lives, I followed their migrations in Western Canada after they’d arrived as refugees. How have they informed me and shaped me into who I’ve become?

Today, I pay homage to my maternal grandmother, whose birthday was this week.

remembering my grandmotherSusanna (Susa) and her twin sister Anna were born in 1898 to Heinrich Koop and Sarah Klassen in the village of Alexanderkrone in the Molochna (Mennonite) colony in southern Russia, now Ukraine. Five days later, their mother, age twenty-six, died. Everyone thought the babies would die, too, so they left Sarah’s grave open. Both babies lived into their late eighties, a harbinger of their strength, resilience, and determination.

Heinrich, a farmer, already had three daughters—ages six, four, and barely two. He couldn’t manage two more babies, even with his parents, who lived next door, taking care of their toddler. To help out, his late wife’s sister and her husband, the Enns, who lived near the middle of the village, offered to take one of the twins. The only condition was that whoever joined them would be considered part of their family. She could visit her father and sisters, but had to accept their home as hers. Heinrich was in a poor bargaining position. In the end, they sent one of their teenage sons with instructions to “pick one.” He picked Susa.

Already as a newborn, she’d lost her mother and was separated from her father, twin sister, and three more siblings.

The Enns were well off. Their sons were grown, and a baby girl in a houseful of boys was a novelty so they treated her like royalty. Russian servants looked after everyday housekeeping chores. She didn’t even have to do any dishes until she was eighteen, just before the Bolshevik Revolution erupted.

Susa flexed her independence and courage, before her marriage to Gerhard Reimer, in a move that was surprising for the times. Within their tight-knit colonies, Mennonites had divided into two distinct “strains,” KGs and MB’s, differentiated largely by their method of baptism. Susa had been raised and baptized as a KG. Gerhard was an MB. The MB church insisted Susa be re-baptized their way before getting married. She refused, stated her case, and they ceded. (Anna did the same thing.)

Less than a month before arriving in Canada in 1924, Susa and Gerhard had been parents to a beautiful little girl, whom they buried the day before emigrating. They were Soviet citizens, and lived in a large colony established 110 years earlier. They’d sung in a community choir. Seven years before that, Gerhard had qualified as a teacher and begun work. They laughed, played, and sang. They worshipped. State officials held the Mennonites in esteem for their economic prosperity.

Almost overnight they’d lost most material things and become peasants, having to beg for food at times. At one time, Susa and her brothers stashed their motorcycle in a false wall in their barn to hide it from the terrorists and soldiers. Gerhard had said two classes of people remained after the Revolution—poor and poorer. They’d pled with God to spare them and their country from one pestilence after another, including the human one. The only thing the terrorists couldn’t take were their souls, although they tried.

Mercifully, they were allowed to emigrate. As was the custom, Susa left with her husband’s family, not knowing if she’d see her father or siblings again. Fortunately they followed a few months later.

In Canada, they had their freedom, but life wasn’t easy and it took decades to get established. They’d zigzagged across a huge area—first to central Saskatchewan, then back to southern Manitoba, and then another 800 miles west to Alberta, doing what they had to do. When they had to forfeit their farm in 1931 after three years of weather-related crop-failure, they moved to Southwestern Ontario, just as materially poor as the day they’d arrived.

Life didn’t get easier, although by now, most of Susa’s family lived in the area. One day when the cupboards were bare, Susa didn’t know how they would feed their family supper. Unannounced, her uncle stopped by with a loaf of bread. That got them through until the next day when Susa would earn twenty-five cents at her housekeeping job and be able to buy three pounds of hamburger meat.

By the time I came along, they were living in Niagara, on a farm (still in the family) they’d bought when post-WWII credit was easy to get.

Susa was slight, fair, and willowy. She wore her waist-length medium brown hair in a Schups—a long braid, wrapped around the back of her head and kept in place with long hairpins. As the oldest grandchildren, my cousin Jude (Judy) and I, born two months apart to sisters, and more like sisters ourselves, reaped benefits, like overnight visits. We’d gape in awe when Susa let her hair loose to brush it and it would cascade down, almost to the floor. We had yet to learn about her life, and how her stories had shaped us. To us, she was Oma, and we adored her.

Happy Birthday Oma! Thank you!

What favorite Grandmother stories do you have?  Tell us in the comments. Susa would love to hear them! 🙂


Related stories:


Who’s that Face in the Mirror Looking Back at You?

by Liz Jansen

face in the mirrorIf you could divest yourself of social constraints, expectations, and cultural conformity, who are you when you look in the mirror? Who is that wild you? What does she or he want? What are their dreams?

Four years ago this weekend, I set out on my motorcycle seeking the answer to that question. At age sixty, I was on a quest to understand who I was before my culture told me who I was.

I’d expected to be on the road for twelve to eighteen months, traveling the Americas. Barely three weeks later, my crash in rural Alberta changed my plans. The external journey got put on hold, but the internal journey continued apace. It wasn’t until two years later that I resumed the motorcycle trip, and even then, it had an entirely different trajectory. Looking back, I needed that time off the motorcycle to get to my destination.

We tend to define ourselves by familial, professional, and social roles. In addition to being a friend, daughter, sister, and aunt, I’m a healer, writer, author, and motorcyclist. Yet none of those define me. They aren’t who I am. They’re what I do. I need to put something on my LinkedIn profile and business cards.

As soon as you hang a title around your neck, it limits you. None of us fit in a box. We hold a perception of what titles or possessions mean, and the expectations around those who hold them. What happens when you lose that role? For ten months I couldn’t ride a motorcycle but that didn’t change the core of who I am.

I love that I can express myself through written and spoken words and on my motorcycle. That, I believe, was the message of the stranger in the parking lot I wrote about recently. (Read Opening a Message in a Bottle — Or Parking Lot.)

Knowing the answer to who I am, under all the layers, is important to me. Each of us brings unique gifts into the world to be shared for the highest good of all. In order to be fully present in life, I need to let that wild, untamed nature have expression. She’s a force to be reckoned with!

While my quest helped me understand who I am, allowing myself freedom to shine takes courage and is a life-long lesson.

How do you define yourself? Tell us in the comments.

Photo credit: Jim Bauer on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

Almost Successful— An Ingenious Rise and Spectacular Fall

by Liz Jansen

Almost successfulIt was a bad idea from the start. Yet determination out-muscled my rationale and patience.

Trudy, my Triumph Tiger, is a fantastic motorcycle, and I love almost everything about her, except getting her onto the center stand. I can’t do it by myself. Her height, high center of gravity, and my reduced upper body strength work against doing it alone. It’s frustrating.

Every time she needs routine chain care, I have to find and ask for help to heft her onto the stand. The only other option is to clean and lube the chain, push her forward, and repeat until done. That would be an absolute last resort. I’ve installed an automatic oiler to reduce the frequency of lifts, but she still needs to be on the center stand to adjust the chain tension.

When my landlord, a retired auto mechanic, told me I could use the hydraulic pump lift parked under his workbench, it sounded perfect. Last Sunday afternoon I tried it.

A neighbor had cautioned to use a spotter, a wise idea. But there was no one around, the chain needed cleaning and tightening, and it seemed simple to try.

I removed the panniers and proceeded cautiously, putting a short piece of 2X4 under the side stand to get her as upright as possible, then positioning the lift beneath her undercarriage. I kicked myself for filling up the gas tank the day before. Slowly I pumped the handle with my left hand, keeping my right on the seat, feeling for movement and balance. All I needed was to get the rear wheel off the ground. It was so close to happening when I decided it was too precarious and stood back to assess the situation. I had to come up with another solution.

Using even more caution, I let her down in minute increments. Still, she lost her balance and tipped towards me, away from the sidestand. I couldn’t hold her up and she fell to the ground, scraping and bruising my legs on the way down. Her back end had fallen on the lift and I couldn’t pick her up alone. Now I had to ask for help, for more than I’d needed in the first place.

Reluctantly, I called a friend who happened to be home and lived not too far away. Since the rear wheel was now up in the air, rather than sit there and wait for him to arrive, I cleaned the chain and rear sprocket. With his help, we had her up in no time, a shattered turn signal lens the only damage.

Have I learned my lesson? Time will tell. In the meantime, we devised another option. I rolled the rear wheel  that piece of 2X4 and with him spotting, lifted her onto  the center stand, by myself. I still need to have the patience to find a spotter, but somehow, being able to do the lift makes all the difference to my independence.

Do you have similar stories, where your will got in the way of reason?  Share them in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

Photo credit: dingler1109 on VisualHunt / CC BY

Watermelon as Soul Food—Connecting the Past and Present

by Liz Jansen

soul foodAs soon as I opened the notice for the Watermelon Social, I knew I’d have to find a way to go. Yesterday was the day. Watermelons, it turns out, are soul food.

When Dad could no longer care for Mom because of her dementia, we were extremely fortunate to find a room in a long-term care home run by the Mennonite Church. Even better for Dad, it was in the same complex as their apartment and a short walk down the hallway. The home serves traditional food on occasion, an important connection for many of the residents who are first-generation Canadians.

My German Mennonite ancestry stretches back 500 years, with well-entrenched traditions and cultures. These ties were especially important to my grandparents who arrived in Canada as refugees in the 1920s. They arrived with little more than their souls, faith, and rich traditions, like food.

I moved away from the culture in my teens, and it was only two years ago, while on my motorcycle quest in Western Canada, seeking the answer to who I am before my culture told me who I am, that I discovered the relevance of food. I’d found myself in the village of Linden, in central Alberta, a Mennonite enclave. Country Cousins Restaurant in the heart of town, serves home-cooked meals and I was delighted to see Borscht on the menu. With the first spoonful, memories of my childhood, of meals prepared by my grandmothers and Mom, flooded over me.

The Borscht went straight to my soul. It took me back to being a little girl when all was right with my world. It confirmed that the relationship between culture, history, and food is inextricable.

Watermelon is another of those connections. Mennonites cultivated large tracts of them on the steppes of southern Russia and brought seeds with them to Western Canada. Traditionally, they were served with Roll Kuchen, a kind of fried bread, although Mom or my grandmothers never made them. Watermelon, however, was a staple at extended family picnics when I was young, and as such, has a heart connection to my roots.

Mom may have cognitive impairment, but she recognizes soul-food when she sees it. So yesterday was a poignant and joyful event we could share, connected to the past, connected at the heart.

Opening a Message in a Bottle — Or Parking Lot

message in a bottleby Liz Jansen

He stood in the distance, against the curb behind his parked vintage motorcycle, beckoning, a helmet under his right arm.

I noticed him from the middle of the parking lot, where I stood with my co-instructor, Mike. Our vantage point allowed us to keep an eye on the students we’d taught to ride that day.  At the end of the first day of training, they were buzzing around the lot, exploring their fledgling freedom, but not yet road-ready.

He was insistent. We motioned for him to walk over, along a safe edge of the lot where he wouldn’t be a target for the new riders.  He strode over with purpose, animated. As he neared, it was obvious he’d come to see me. From fifty feet away, he extended his arm, pointing and exclaiming, “You saved my life! You saved my life!”

I had no idea who he was, what he was talking about, or how he knew I was working that day.

“Last year I was in your class. You taught us how to ride in curves, and what to do when the unexpected happens. A truck came over the centerline while I was in a curve, and I remembered your words. They saved my life and I’ve come to thank you!” He shook my hand, turned, walked back to his motorcycle, and rode off.

Mike and I were speechless. He was in tears. There was no doubt we’d just shared an extraordinary moment.

Although that incident happened a decade ago, it remains fresh in my mind. The stranger was one of hundreds I’d taught at Humber College that season, and the lessons were the same for all of them.

While we never know how our messages are perceived, a stranger had shown me how a few words or an act of kindness can change, even save someone’s life. I’d never have known had he not told me.

It’s like putting a message in a bottle. You toss the bottle into the ocean and you have no idea where it’s going to end up, who will read it, or what it will mean to them. You’re not attached to the outcome, but every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a message back. You are making a difference.

Photo credit: jenni from the block on Visual Hunt / CC BY

Overcoming a 30 Day Yoga Challenge

by Liz Jansen

yoga challengeI did it on a whim. In late May, the Lion’s Den Yoga Studio, where I practice, posted a 30-day yoga challenge: 30 days of yoga in June. They relaxed the start date so the challenge could start any time in early June (I started on the third), and agreed to accept 30 classes in 30 days. We could do them at any studio, or even home, although I prefer the structure of an organized class.

The only prize, other than a more toned, flexible, and stronger body is the self-satisfaction of having achieved a stretch goal. Ever since returning to yoga in mid-November, I’ve been taking four or five classes a week, attending late-afternoon or evening so it doesn’t interfere with my workday. How hard could it be to do seven?

Much, it turns out. Especially for four weeks in a row.

Thirty classes in thirty days can become onerous. But I signed up and backing down from a challenge has never been an option.

The past week has tested my resolve. Work, family, and social priorities took precedence over yoga and I missed two days, expected to miss yesterday, and can’t attend this Saturday. I’d planned for those and banked three classes by doing doubles. Then yesterday, two unexpected events arose that need my attention next week. That means I’ll miss two more days, besides another day I’d already planned for. I’m running out of time to make up classes.

I could force myself to go and forgo other activities. But at what cost? Just to say I did 30 classes in 30 days? Choices are part of life’s greater challenge and may mean I don’t achieve my yoga goal. I’ll still attend four or five classes this week plus walk five miles most days.

Yesterday morning I woke up at 5:20 a.m. and knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. I could toss and turn for an hour, or I could get in an hour of yoga. Which is how I found myself on my yoga mat at 6:00 a.m. in a heated studio.

It turns out meeting the 30-day yoga challenge extends beyond the yoga studio.


Related Post: Gravel Roads, Grit, and Graceful Endings

Photo credit: mccun934 on / CC BY

Tagged with: , ,

Remembering A Father-Daughter Trip of a Lifetime

by Liz Jansen

trip of a lifetime

The home where Dad and his mom lived for two years.

One year ago, Dad and I were preparing for the trip of a lifetime.

For three years, I’d been on a quest, learning about my ancestors, and how their experiences had shaped me. As part of that soul journey, in 2016, I’d taken a motorcycle trip, dubbed the Ancestor Trail. It traced the migration of both sets of grandparents through western Canada after they landed here as refugees in the 1920s.

I’d often call Dad to ask questions about our history. He delighted in unearthing family stories and getting together with his sisters and cousins to help me with my research. Through regular phone calls during my time on the Ancestor Trail, he’d followed every mile while I rode my motorcycle around the country.

Beaverlodge, in northern Alberta, and two hand-made wooden valises were his only connection to Johann, his father. Johann had died at age twenty-eight, two years after arriving in Canada, when Dad was only two years old. He was buried in a now-derelict cemetery on land he’d once tried to tame.

At age 91, Dad walked with a cane, sometimes a walker, but his health issues were stable after falling and fracturing his hip early in 2016. This window of opportunity would unlikely open again. He and Mom, who was in long-term care with dementia, had been back in 2000, but now we had more facts and history. I’d discovered a 1928 probate file Dad hadn’t known about, which specified the exact quarter-sections of land Johann had farmed, and where Dad had lived. This trip would fuel him with stories and memories to last at least through the winter.

“How would we go?” he’d asked, pondering the idea when I’d asked if he’d like to go to Beaverlodge. He thought I was thinking of putting him on the back of my motorcycle. I laughed.

“We’ll fly and rent cars out there,” I said. “You cover the travel expenses. I’ll look after you.” I’d checked with my siblings to make sure they were comfortable with this arrangement.

“In fact, if you want to go to Namaka (the area in southern Alberta where he’d lived between ages four and eleven), too, we can extend the trip to a week. It will be tiring, but you’ll have lots of time to rest when we get back.”

It would be strenuous for both of us, me more from worry that he’d lose his balance, fall, and injure himself, especially when he was alone in his hotel room. Knowing how fatigue made him more vulnerable, I was afraid to let him out of my sight, but I’d have to, just as he’d had to let me be independent.

“I can make it. You can bury me when we get home.”

We began planning where we’d go, and whom he wanted to visit. He asked to extend our time in Alberta by one more day.

And so began a journey that can best be described as extraordinary, for both of us.

A month after we returned, he became ill and died less than a month later. His life had come full circle as he’d reconnected with his father, and his past.

That trip was the greatest legacy he could leave me, and a vital piece of my quest. With great honor, gratitude, and much love, I remember him this Father’s Day.


The above is based on a story that’s recounted in detail in my upcoming book, Crash Landing, The Long Way Home.

Related Story: Learning How to Live From Being with the Dying

Getting Perspective Right Means Using the Right Lens

by Liz Jansen

“Where are you riding to this year?”

It’s a question I’m commonly asked, as people know I love long-distance motorcycle travel. It was especially relevant as I was at a Horizons Unlimited meeting, attended by people who have traveled the world or are dreaming of other adventures.

Last season I didn’t travel far in deference to writing Crash Landing. This year I’m nearing completion and aiming to have my book completed by Christmas, so travel doesn’t fit into this season either.

I explained that to the asker.

“What a cruel and unusual punishment!” he said.

Really? I’d never looked at it like that. If I’m using punishment as a motivator for anything I do, I’m way out of balance.

Writing this book is a joy, and the culmination of a powerful quest, or at least this phase of it. It’s no sacrifice, let alone a punishment. Besides, I’ve already enjoyed a short eleven-day ride with friends in the Appalachians while my manuscript was with my copyeditor.

Make no mistake. I LOVE getting out on the open road with Trudy, and being at an event surrounded by people who share this passion, plants ideas. But right now, my heart wants to complete a different journey.

I realized he was projecting his thoughts on me, but I also recognized a lesson.

I can form an opinion about someone’s actions without knowing much about them or their intentions. My cultural training and personal experiences shape my perspective and my natural tendency is to see through that narrow lens.

Listening to stories and traveling to different cultures have helped me understand others more, and shown me how limited my world-view is. Reconnecting with my roots and getting to know the culture into which I was born, has helped me appreciate my ancestors’ experiences, how those experiences and beliefs shaped them, and in turn, shaped me.

Traveling, whether it’s an external or inward journey, broadens the lens through which I view the world and others in it.

I don’t have to be on a motorcycle or in another country for that to happen. I just need to make sure I’m using the right lens.

Photo on

The Answer My Friend is Blowin in the Wind

by Liz Jansen

“The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” — Bob Dylan

blowin in the windWind represents the element of air—our thoughts, ideas, and communication. It informs us, and often brings change with it.

For a motorcycle rider, nothing matches the connection between Spirit and self that you feel when riding the open road. The endless blue sky permeates your being and dissolves any boundary between you and the elements. You can’t help but smile as the wind caresses your face and delights you, dispelling all worries. The air informs you of subtle temperature changes as you dip into a valley or snake up a mountain.

It’s magical. Every time I go for a ride, no matter how long or short, or where it takes me, I’m inspired.

For months before I wrote Women, Motorcycles and the Road to Empowerment, the idea was germinating in my mind but it seemed preposterous. I’d never dreamt I’d be a writer. In fact, in Grade Two, I wrote off teaching as an occupation because I saw how much writing Miss Wall, my teacher, had to do. It took getting out in the wind to raise a muddy concept to consciousness.

I’d been off my FZ1 for three months recuperating from a fractured right shoulder (an outcome of an off-road riding class). Three months to the day after that crash, I went for my first ride and came home with a clear purpose for the book. Then I could start writing it.

I don’t have to be on a motorcycle to turn my head into the wind, but I often need courage. Winds carry dispatches from all directions. They tell me to release old patterns of thinking, habits, and even relationships that no longer serve me. Subtle breezes remind me to release my attachment to outcomes when things don’t go as I planned. Winds inspire confidence and creativity and call on my wisdom. And they bring clarity of vision and purpose.

A gentle breeze can carry a powerful message, although sometimes I need gale force winds to get it.

Winds never give up. They’re always around to help restore balance and teach, for my greatest good. All I need to do is listen to the wind, receive the lessons, and follow where it takes me.


Photo on Visualhunt