330 Miles of Freedom: On Bike Camping and The Paths That Teach You

Photo: MO

Photo: MO

Sometimes the path to freedom is clumsy, achieved only by trial and error. That was the case for me one rainy 60 degree Thursday in May. A few friends and I were going on a four day bike camping trip from DC to Pittsburgh, that is, if I could figure out how to bike with all this stuff without tipping over. I never made it to REI to buy a sleeping pad, so I experimented with different angles in which to slide the cot poles into my makeshift milk crate bike rack.

I first slid them sideways, like a mini jetliner, silver poles akin to three feet long airplane wings. Tipping over, neighbors waiting at the bus stop peered over with a look of confusion. I then tried length wise, airplane wings traded for airplane streaks hanging off the back. I tipped over again, this time neighbors lightly chuckling through their perplexed grins.
I rested my heavy bike against the porch, while all five tent poles slid through one of the crate holes. “Damn it!” I shouted, chucking bagels and bananas from the crate to the porch. I leave the groceries I bought at home, taking just enough food to get through the next 24 hours, grabbed my sleeping bag and a blanket, and left the house.
Stepping onto my bike, the first few pedal stroke felt liberating. My sole task these next four days was to simply bike on wooded trails with apertures to mountains, gurgling streams swimming with us, with nothing but my backpack and crate, plus the camaraderie of a few friends until we reached Pittsburgh 330 miles later.
This is freedom, at least, one form of it: to have all you need to get you until just beyond the next day, so that you might truly take your days one at a time. Freedom to feel movement, momentum, the wind on your face, sun to your skin. To bear witness to light and water and air, fresh air. To hear the owls, lay beneath stars, and simply be. It’s not always easy to reach this place, and many thoughts of my unknown future would try to bite at the outskirts of this space. But my feet are pedaling, I was in motion, the thoughts and fears of the future trying to lurk in the shadows of mile markers simply couldn’t keep up. Because I was moving forward into sunshine lit gravel paths, not turning back.
                                                                   . . . .

Thump, thud, thump. “What was that?” I asked, hissing from my back tire answering back. I took out my headlamp and began to fix my flat. “I believe you forgot this,” David motioned, holding up my can of dented vegetarian chili, one of the few food items I brought that also took a beating from the pothole. We burst out laughing and pitch our tent in the dark, trying to make sense of terse instructions with inadequate pictures, poles poking out of corners, until we reached sleep.

. . . .

The next day brought more flats, fixes, and an unsuccessful stop at a meager bike shop, followed by a successful one. “That’s a lotta gear you got,” the owner greeted us, welcoming us into his small town shop. I bought two tires, having been the only one to not consider beforehand just how worn mine were. The owner invited us back to his work area to tackle the tires. Sensing our slow progress, the owner bent down, “I usually go like this, ” he said, trading levers for bare hands. He told us about his nine year old daughter and all of the bike maintenance skills she could already do, while the other shop owner told stories of when he made this exact trip. “But you all are crazy camping. We did bed and breakfasts.” We laughed and soon were on our way, saying goodbye, warmed by small town kindness.

“Listen, baby, ain’t no mountain high,” Devan sang.  “Ain’t no valley low,” I responded, until the three of us sang away on fresh tires. Devan would be a source of optimism, joy, a beacon of unflappable positivity throughout this journey. She’s that kind of friend, both on and off the bike. The one who gets you outside of your head, until you’re singing or dancing, whatever the moment calls for. She takes both the ordinary and extraordinary experiences, and gives them just a little kick, by befriending strangers, by whooping and hollering on bikes riding through the city streets at night. I’m not sure where I will end up when my fellowship ends in a month and a half, but I can’t imagine doing life without this friend, and vow to keep in touch no matter where we both end up.

. . . .

We pitched our tents in the dark again, only slightly faster than the night before and fall asleep exhausted and content.  We churned out sixty miles in the daylight and at dusk, we took turns leading our pace line. The sun set into a dim light until headlamps and bike lights were necessary. I turned mine on and picked up speed a bit, glued to mile 114, our resting point for the night. We were quiet except for the occasional “woah!” exclamation that happened when an owl swooped down beside us to pause on a branch and each time we reached an aperture from the woods into grassy openings that gave way to the stars and heavens above. Away from the illumination of the city, our lights and headlamps shed the way 10 feet at a time. It dawned on me, as I continued to ride steady, that I didn’t even want to try and look more than 10 feet ahead. I couldn’t see beyond there no matter how hard I tried, and might miss something important if I attempted– like the unexpected tree root or rock or quiet fox that brushed against the space between trail and grass. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the shapes and contours of the future, when all I really needed- and all that was really beneficial- was what was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation to life that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting to ensure security and assurance in a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of the new way in which I wanted to orient myself with the world. I end a year long fellowship in two months and feel convinced that this is the time to travel for a few months and figure out the whole career thing when I return. It doesn’t feel natural to not know what’s next, and I somehow feel irresponsible for taking a timeout to learn from the world. But here, the only thing that feels more irresponsible is to not take advantage of this natural break to taste more of this world and the people in it. These trails speak of a freedom, an unconventional way of life that’s countercultural to societal norms of work, marriage, home ownership, and family in a linear fashion, as though that molded timeframe is supposed to fit everyone. If these paths could speak, I’m sure they would whisper just one word, “Freedom… freedom…” gently but firmly, over and over again until the word and all its possibilities hug me on the shoulders like a wise parent who guides and then sets free. 

We reach the end of the canal and find our way uphill to a YMCA campground consisting of an open soccer field, port-a-potty, and a nails-on-chalkboard loud train on a small hill above us about 20 yards away. We fell asleep and woke up several times to that stupid train, until it was morning and Devan greeted me with a cheery, “Good morning!”

“Uhhh,” I groaned back, cursing the morning light, clamoring for sleep instead of embracing our third day of adventure. A few caffeinated gels later, I perked up enough to speak in respectful sentences and we began our second leg of the journey into the Allegheny. Our 80 miles take us uphill, downhill, and back up again; exhausting, but hope filled. If I ever need to have my faith restored in humanity, I will remember the rural Pennsylvanians who shared free water and a place to rest along the trail, the many people who offered us food and even rides to our campsites “in case you don’t make it before dark,” and these friends who shared chamois creme when my butt was on fire. We reached our campsite in the dark, where another friend met us for the final leg.

MO 2015

MO 2015

Our last morning began with sliding down a natural waterslide in 55 degree water. Invigorated, we pedaled onward. We reached mile 270 by afternoon, and I was already grieving the journey’s end. The circus I performed for my neighbors trying to balance a cot on an old crate I found in the basement. The night we showed each other planets and other parts of the sky that we didn’t pay attention to back in the city, until we’re laughing on our backs about things that really wouldn’t have been so funny if we had not been biking 80 miles into the 10 PM night sky. Funny how you can want it all back- the saddlesoreness, the rough starts, the bugs that hit our jackets like raindrops. The down trees that force you stop until you decide to take a much needed beans-from-a-can dinner break. The flat tires that get changed much faster when its you and three friends, each teaching one another a pointer we learned along the way from some other cyclist, until by the time our fifth flat arrived, we had an assembly line of sorts down pat.

MO 2015

MO 2015

Evening sun illuminated bridges and tall buildings off in the distance. Pittsburgh. I thought about others’ journeys to freedom, like those souls that constructed the highest point of the bridge, then walked across for the first time, and what sense of freedom that must have felt like. And for how many, now well over a century later, find leaving across this bridge to be a form of freedom from a quotidian routine, and for how many, entering this city is a different kind of freedom, one of return, arrival, a sense of home and hope. There are so many kinds of freedom out there. We raised our bikes above our heads from the bridges into the sunset. I did not think of the future, and I was free.

Photo: MO

Photo: MO

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And Then I Remember. (Thoughts on Racing at Burnout’s Edge)

Late afternoon sunlight refracts off Lake Arrowhead, mountains hugging the park’s edges. I put my goggles on for a pre-race practice swim open to all athletes competing in tomorrow’s Olympic distance triathlon. My feet meet the squishy moss of the lake as … Continue reading

Confessions Of a Woman in a Bike Shop (Plus Strategies to Get More Women-and men- Into Shops + On the Road)

bike blueHe pointed to his back tire. I knew now what that meant. I believe it was his way of subtly but firmly saying, “I see you’re pushing yourself. You’re reaching that point where you’re getting close to exhausting your energy. I want to see you succeed. Draft off my wheel and keep going because you’re capable. NOW GO.” I nod and stare intently at his back wheel, no longer worried of hitting his back tire like I used to fear in the beginning. I trust my instincts and that he was paying attention to the road and traffic around us. It feels so good to have allies, now, I think to myself, and we attack the remainder of our sprint. It’s Wednesday night and I’m riding on my local bike shop’s weekly ride. I’m one of three females out here—something I’m making my mission to change— but at least it no longer feels intimidating. I can’t speak for all of the men out here, but the ones I’m getting to know so far are allies, open to hearing new ways to support women in cycling.

It hasn’t always been that way. Like many women, I’ve battled feelings of inadequacy, intimidation, and fear in bike shops and on the road, despite having grown up biking with my dad in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and being a triathlete since 2005. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012, when I signed up to ride in a 365 mile women’s bike ride across Maryland with World Relief, that I even learned basic bike mechanics. The great folks at Race Pace gave our team a general bike maintenance overview, including instructions on how to change a flat tire. But being a tactile learner, I went home that night and quickly forgot everything I was taught. It wasn’t until I started consistently bike commuting in spring 2013 that I realized there’s no way to fully avoid a flat tire and knew it was time tackle this skill. I confess, I went to a bike shop and paid to have it done the first time. The mechanic let me intently peer over her shoulder to learn—and my, was it awesome to learn from another woman. “Just practice in front the TV and you’ll get the hang of it,” she encouraged me. Satisfied with simply being able to successfully get home, I called it a night.

When I had a little more time, I went to another bike shop to buy tubes. “What size do you need?” the gentleman asked. What size do I need? Why don’t I know this stuff!? I thought. “I don’t know; what kind do you need for a road bike?” I asked, sheepishly. I learned that I needed 700×23-25c and scribbled this in my notebook as newfound vocabulary as soon as I got home. It wasn’t until my second and third flat that I used the tubes and gave myself a pep talk: “You’re gonna fix this damn thing if it takes you all night!” I then You-Tubed, grumbled expletives, levered, and pumped my way through fixing a flat 38 minutes later- a long time, I know, but at least it was a starting point.

As I began training for my first half Ironman, I began having gearing issues. “What kind of gearing do you have?” the gentleman at the bike shop asked.  Here we go again… why do I STILL not know this stuff? “Um…” He came from behind the checkout counter and started counting: “3×9,” he shared, which I scribbled in my notebook later on that night.

After addressing the gearing issues, it wasn’t long before I experienced shifting issues on a training ride. So I went back to the bike shop and spent five minutes trying to describe what was happening when I shifted. “I’ll take it outside, shift through all the gears, and I’m sure I’ll figure out what you mean,” the gentleman reassured me. A couple minutes later, he came back in the shop. “I see what you mean. It’s skipping gears.” Yeah. Skipping gears. That’s what I was trying to say. The staff pointed out all sorts of parts I needed and $238.35 later, I made a commitment to learn how to do some of my own repairs and to actually understand the parts I even ordered. I spent months bingeing on Youtube bike anatomy videos, scribbling in my bike notebook, and vowed to lift my head a little higher each time I entered the bike shop.

Fast forward to now, and I love everything about going to the bike shop. The new tire smell. The myriad of shiny bikes that inspire me to dream of new races to register for. A place to test out the vocabulary I’ve accumulated and to laugh at myself when I invent names for parts that don’t exist— like I did last night. Ask me to tell you my story about “lib nuts.” But I think the thing I love most, though, is that my eyes now meet the eyes of each employee and my voice is louder than when I first walked in. I stand a little taller and don’t beat myself up when I mis-name a part.
Bike shops can be an intimidating place for some women initially, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. I believe that women can make a conscientious effort to familiarize ourselves with bike terminology and to practice effective communication skills. To go into the places that make us feel uncomfortable, even if we’re nervous. To ignore any internal dialogue of inadequacy and to remember that most people in the shop just want to see you experience the joy of cycling. To do it scared. To say yes. To surprise ourselves. Because I’d rather lack knowledge (and learn) than lack courage to embark on something new.

There are some things bike stores can do, however, to become a little more “female-friendly.” Take a look and share your comments & experiences below:

-Hire more female staff. An estimated 89% of bike shop owners are men, while 33% are owned by a husband-wife team, and 45% of paid bike advocacy staff are female. If more women are hired as bike mechanics and employees, perhaps more women will feel a sense of belonging.

-Conduct free or low cost bike mechanic workshops at the store. This is a sign that the store is safe to newbies and less experienced riders, thus making it more inviting to ask questions without fear of how it will be perceived. Furthermore, 26% of women say that learning more about bicycling skills would encourage them to ride more. Similarly, 20% of respondents in a 2010 Women Cycling survey said that a bike repair class would cause them to start or increase their riding.

-Host women’s rides from the store. While I realize a male-only ride can be off-putting, given that men outnumber women in riding 3:1, a ride designated for women can tilt the pendulum back to center and provide an unintimidating space to ask questions. And hey, since you’re at the bike shop anyway, it’s easy to go into the store afterwards for parts or tools. If you live in the Baltimore area, check out Twenty20’s women’s rides- 9:30 AM the second Sunday of every month.

-Examine the interior for subtle gender messages. Are all of the shop’s wall posters pictures of men biking? Is the TV in the store only showing men’s cycling events? Take a mental note the next time you’re in a bike shop as to what images you see. I did this recently and every piece of wall art featured a white male cyclist. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong about this, there also isn’t anything inspiring or inclusive of the rest of the world that’s not a white male. A few small changes in ambiance can help convey the message that women belong in the biking world.

-Stock child carriers and trailers. One factor that some women cite as a barrier to cycling is the inability to carry children and other passengers (19% of women reported this, compared to 7% of men). To increase ridership among different demographics, such as mothers and fathers, bike stores can have on display children’s bike seat attachments. If you’re going to promote the product with a poster advertisement, earn a brownie point for featuring a man toting his child via bike instead of a woman.

While we’re on the topic of reaching different types of cyclists, let’s place panniers and fenders on visible display to inspire men and women to commute and run errands via bicycle. Women comprise 24% of trips taken by bike, but on average, take an additional 110 trips per year than men, so same as above: if you’re going to have a poster promoting these products in the store, show a picture of a woman riding a bike with panniers and fenders to challenge gender norms.

It’s not just women who benefit from inclusive settings. As Chicks on Bike radio points out, not every man cycles competitively, so making bike shops more friendly in general can go a long way to make both genders of every ability level feel welcomed.

Moreover, we also know that both men and women cite traffic safety (both perceived and actual), lack of infrastructure, and the inability to bring bikes on other forms of public transit (such as trains) as a few of the many reasons for not biking, so in the mean time, let’s keep riding, keep advocating, and keep educating our friends and family on the realities of cycling.

See you on the roads—


For more info, check out the following resources:

Local Baltimore Bike Collectives:
Bearings Bike Project and Velocipide Bike Project: Open environments designed to be safe spaces for learning about all things bikes, including how to do your own bike maintenance.

Local Baltimore Bike Advocacy groups:
BikeMore– advocating for biker rights, bike friendly infrastructure, and increasing ridership.
Baltimore Bicycling Club– Partners with area organizations to promote advocacy and ridership

Local Baltimore Groups to Ride With:
Biking in Bmore– weekend, evening, and morning rides of many distances and paces
Baltimore Area Triathlon Club– weekend, evening, and morning rides of many distances and paces- newbies to experienced riders. Road bike with clips recommended.
Crank Mavens-women only rides Monday nights, ~10 miles
Twenty20– Wednesday evening rides for experienced riders- road bikes and clips; women’s ride 2nd Sunday of every month, all paces welcomed
Race Pace– Beginner rides Sunday mornings out of Columbia; advanced rides Tuesday evenings at CCBC
Baltimore Bicycling Club– several rides per week of varying distances and speeds
Baltimore Bike Party– last Friday night of every month in costume!

Photo credit: Women on Bikes

Photo credit: Women on Bikes

Reports:
Women on a Roll, The League of American Bicyclists, August 6, 2013

Podcasts:
The Uphill Climb of Women’s Pro Cycling, Stuff Mom Never Told You, August 28, 2013
How to Get More Women Riding Bikes, The Bike Show Podcast from Resonance FM, March 12, 2012
Women: Expanding our Presence in the Bike World, Chicks on Bikes Radio, December 20, 2012.
How did Women Pedal Their Way to Emancipation? Stuff Mom Never Told You, May 11, 2011.

Infographics:
10 Myths About Women & Cycling, The League of American Bicyclists
 Women Mean Business: Will the Bike Industry Benefit? Women Bike
Overcoming Bike Concerns, Women Bike
10 Myths About Women & Cycling, The League of American Bicyclists
 Women Mean Business: Will the Bike Industry Benefit? Women Bike

Faith, Hope, and Bikes: Turning Cyclist Attacks into Community Dance Parties

In light of the Passover and Easter holidays upon us, I’ve been pondering Judeo-Christianity a lot this week. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words about peace and reconciliation, things he talked a whole lot about, while he was silent or had little to say on the heated issues that so often people associate with Church or religion. He said things like “Blessed are the peace makers” and raised the bar on love by saying, “What good is it if you love only those who love you? Instead, love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you.” He talked about creating Heaven on Earth, not just trudging through this life in order to reach some celestial afterlife. He believed we could experience some of that good stuff right here, right now.

And everywhere I’ve looked this week, I’ve encountered these sweet drops of Heaven that I think Jesus was trying to tell us was possible to experience on this side of the planet in our human bodies. On Sunday, I encountered it through Free Hugs at the Farmer’s Market. The next night, I experienced it when someone I never met before not only helped me find my friend’s dog that I lost (I know. Some friend, right?), but gave me a hug afterwards and offered to make me tea, willingly going out of his way at 11 PM on a weeknight for a dog-watcher he didn’t even know. But I think the example that speaks the most to me of all this love and peace and doing-good-in-the-face-of-bad stuff is what’s going on in the Baltimore bike community right now.

Last Saturday evening, a cyclist was attacked by a group of youth while riding home along Guilford Avenue. This cyclist bikes with a video camera attached to his helmet everytime he rides in light of a friend who was a victim of a hit and run. Since then, he bought a video camera and regularly records his commutes, unaware, I would imagine, of just how handy this would come this past Saturday when a group of young kids attacked him, punched him, and tried to steal his bike. He caught this 1:20 clip of the event before his camera shut off after the camera battery disconnected. It’s hard to watch, and even more personal knowing it occurred on an intersection used by so many bike commuters, my friends and I included. Attacks have occurred previously in this area, though at random.

The cycling community is one in which finding a friend, an ally, someone to connect with is never hard to find. In fact, most of the time when I bike throughout the city, I regularly make some form of human acknowledgement with other cyclists I see. A head nod, a wave, a hello, a “Hey, isn’t this a great day for a ride?” while we’re stuck at a red a light. Oh, and my favorite, the guy who gave me a peace sign as he rode by on a fixie.

So news travels fast in our little-but-ever-growing cycling community and it wasn’t long before we were dialoguing with each other in person and on social media about the event. I was amazed at the discourse because it seems as though all of the advocates get the fact that if kids just had more community inclusion and opportunities for recreation and play, they wouldn’t be out here committing crimes like this. Crime not being the problem, but the output of what happens when opportunity and meaningful activity cease to exist in an area. So instead of creating an us-vs them blaming mentality, activists decided to booth volunteers in the area in which the attacks occurred to “Bake some cookies and sell them! Make balloon animals for kids! Have a dance party! Whatever – the point is to be out on the street, watching for potential trouble, and nipping it in the bud before it happens!” (source: BikeMore google group). It’s ok to get angry about crime, in fact, humans harming other humans should arouse that emotion inside of us as a protective instinct to look out for one another. But what’s more beautiful to me- and to the other activists I know, is to turn something tragic into a reason to bring the whole city together to dance in neighborly love. That’s beauty. That’s Baltimore. That’s why I now almost come to expect activists to show up when injustice happens because everywhere I go around this city, I meet people whose hearts and voices refuse to be quelled in the midst of violence or oppression.

I think that’s what the Prophet Isaiah meant when he said, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will study war no more” (Isaiah 2:4). Except instead of swords, we have present day street violence. And instead of plowshares, we have creativity. Creativity to create bake sales, balloon animals, dance parties, hula hoop contests, and community interaction in place of violence.

Earlier this evening, I stopped by one of these volunteer booths for a Cyclist and Pedestrian Appreciation event that members of  the Greenmount West community organized. Community members waved to cyclists and passer-bys and invited them over for snacks and conversation. Said one of the women I spoke with at the event, “We don’t like our community being known for violence. This is a chance to change that.”
This is what I love about the biking community.
This is what I love about Baltimore.
This is why I doubly love the Baltimore biking community.

Members of the Greemount West community with cyclists and advocates. Photo: MO 2014

Members of the Greemount West community with cyclists and advocates. Photo: MO 2014


While the media shouts of violence and drugs, we are out here, out here in these open spaces linking arms and bike locks singing of something else possible.

While the cynics are out there saying “the city would be great if it weren’t for these hoodlums” (unfortunately, those are actual words I read on Facebook about this particular incident), we are out there finding these kids so that we can introduce them to you by name and not by label. We will learn their stories and they will learn ours and together we’ll ride our bikes at Bike Party or maybe down the street to the nearest bike collective. Or maybe I’ll teach them how to change a flat and they can show me how to pop a wheelie. Because we can all learn from each other, no matter our age or background.

The Cyclist and Pedestrian Appreciation event today indeed reminded me that it was Good Friday, that violence, much like Jesus’ death, doesn’t have the last word, and that faith, hope, and love are not just quotidian metaphors, rather, they are tangible exchanges we can choose to give every moment, every day.IMG_0662

My heart is so full.
And my stomach is too, thanks to the snacks the Greenmount West community brought today.

But we’re not done.
Because like BikeMore said, we can run with this.

So next Sunday afternoon April 27th, I’ll be out there with hula hoops and water balloons. Another guy I met today offered to bring his guitar. And another said that while he couldn’t play music, he could bring a bunch of his friends.
So come join us Sunday evening April 27 on Guilford and Lanvale, say 4:30.
We’ll stack our bikes up next to each other’s and say hello. We’ll learn each other’s names, and faces, stories, and dreams. And then we’ll dance. Because we love this city, we love each other, and are willing to raise hell and create heaven by speaking up out of the silence and stepping into communion. Because that’s there the love is. That’s where the life is. And that’s how community will continue to build, one neighbor, one cyclist, one activist at a time.

Let’s dance.

The Words I Could Never Understand Then, That Could Only Be Understood Now

ImageI binged on 90s music last week and rediscovered some of my favorite gems. Among them, Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Primitive Radio God’s “Standing Outside a Broken Phonebooth,” and The Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” I sung them freely around the house, delighting in the early evening spring sun shining through opened blinds, grateful to be in the present moment, yet overcome with nostalgia and wisdom from time’s past.
I think that’s one of the gifts music provides. That no matter your musical history, the words and melodies will find a way to speak to your heart. My small brush with musical talent began in first grade when I got to play the glockenspiels for three years in a row in the winter concert. The best part of all— my music teacher would let me come practice in the music room during lunch time. I figured out what mallet to hit based on sound and never learned how to read music. FACE, Every Good Boy Does Fine— that was a foriegn language I could never understand. In fact, I only made it through high school chorus by knowing that when the music notes flipped upsidedown, that was my part to sing, being a soprano. Needless to say, it’s a talent I never possessed but appreciate like no other.

Music’s gotten me through training practices, heartache, amplified my best days, and softened my worst days. It’s provided me clues of my past and offered wisdom for the future. So as I was singing the familiar harmonies of “Closer to Fine,” I was struck by all the things I missed while singing those words back in the 90s. Things I could never understand until my heart developed into a melded mess from beating fast, and being held after brokenness. Things I could never understand until my memories included those of pain, uncertainty, doubt, big decisions, hard breaks, tough calls, and the freedom of the open road and hostels. Experiences, in other words, that my young heart was too naive to understand until it went through the hard process of growing up and maturing.

I think much like music, pictures or stories speak to us in different ways throughout our life span. As a kid, The Giving Tree was an awesome book about a boy and a tree that fell in love with each other, and now -call me jaded, but- it feels like a story of a selfish little boy who manipulated a codependent tree. I’m still a sucker for Oh The Places You’ll Go, though, and will forever wonder what a zizzer-zazzer-zuzz is in Dr. Seuss’ ABC.

Similarly, much like pictures and stories, parents and friends speak to us in different ways throughout our life span. I learned the joy of what it feels like once you finally see your parents outside of an authoritative role and into the role of an old friend, finally understanding the sacrifices they made to bring your little life into existence. I learned the great sadness it feels to see a parent sick in the hospital, as you question their mortality, and yours as well.

And much like parents and friends, faith/God/a Maker/Creator, can speak to us in different ways throughout our lifespan. That’s one of the things The Indigo Girls reminded me of last week. While I relate to the Indigo Girl’s description of what it feels like to take life less seriously and to search for the things that will fill our heart with peace, perhaps what sticks out most to me is the refrain, “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” And how true is that of life, or faith, or getting older and “growing up?” Why does it feel like my human nature to tighten my fists, muscling through things the way think they should go, when perhaps it really would be easier to turn my gripped fists into open palms? Why do I look at paper applications and beg for certainty that everything in my life will all turn out ok, and then lay on my front porch, stare up at the stars, and suddenly don’t care anymore? Don’t care about career. Don’t care about when to get married, if/when to have kids. Don’t care about my sh*tty salary. Don’t care how I’m perceived. Don’t care if I’m understood. And, most freeing of all, don’t care about certainty anymore. And the less I beg of God for answers to life’s questions, the less I feel like I need to explain or defend why I don’t really go to Church anymore because of the way I experience Church when I ride my bike, when my sister smiles, when I feed the chickens, and when I sing old 90s songs alone in my room that feel less like pop culture and more like hymns. 

I’ll stop asking for certainty.
And trust that the God that got us this far can get us the rest of the way.
I’ll linger under stars.
Stand up on my bike pedals when going downhill.
Do headstands in the grass.
Get fresh Earthen dirt under my nails.
Learn from the birds, the bees, and the beats of 90s rock. 

Because I’m closer to fine than ever before
And we’re all gonna be ok. 

 

Audacious Freedom: Screaming YES ‘Til We’re Breathless

Susan B. Anthony once said about the bicycle, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” I get that feeling every morning and afternoon as my feet touch pedals, epitomizing that freedom she talked so wisely about in 1896. And tonight, two days in from the dawning of Daylight Saving Time, I’m delighting in this audacious freedom again and again as fresh air fuses with endorphins. A smile creeps up inside of me that simply cannot be held back.
And so tonight, as I’m about to go into my house and say goodnight to another beautiful day of freedom and bikes, something catches me outside for the umpteeth time. Maybe it’s the clear sky above me. Or the fact that I am out here in a t-shirt for the first night after a long winter that developed its own vocabulary (“polar vortex:” who can forget that, and what it feels like).
But I lay here.
I should be preparing for an interview tomorrow.

But I lay here.
I should probably go inside and get proper rest.

But I lay here.

All I can see above me is the moon, this ever present wonder in the sky that shows up night after night to remind us that life moves on, moves forward. 
Stars scatter the sky daring us to notice them, not to show off, but so that we will show up. To be here now. To stop missing the beauty that’s above you, watching over you day after day, night after night.

So I will lay here.

Freedom and life surge through my veins, a restlessness that can only be quelled by uncharted territories and taking chances and by the story that comes from when you start doing the things you’re scared of. When you stop waiting for feelings of confidence and reassurance and do it anyway, unarmed and unfettered. 

There’s no time to waste when all around you, the stars, the birds, the infantile crocus pecking its way through once snow-covered ground each beg your soul to awaken.

And so just for tonight, I won’t care about what time I go to bed.

I won’t frantic over tomorrow.

All I will care about is filling my heart with this Earth, overjoyed by the ability to walk, skip, and jump on it, along with all these beautiful people that inhabit it.

Copyright MO 2012

Copyright MO 2012

I look up at the moon once more. It’s traversed a part of the sky and moved what looks like just a few feet to the left, but indeed it has moved so many more. I try to picture it in the exact spot where it was an hour ago when I first came out here, but it begs me to let it go and stop trying to rearrange life and all of its pieces the way that I want them all to turn out.

   
I’ll let go.
And stay up too late.

And binge on open sky that opens hearts which open mouths and together, we’ll speak from bodies standing tall, hands outstretched screaming “YESSSS!” until we’re breathless.

Copyright MO 2009

Copyright MO 2009

This Beautiful Moment Brought To You By Sir Mix A Lot (Or, What I Learned From Dancing On A Street Corner With a Homeless Woman)

Nietzsche

When I first saw her walking down the street, I confess I wanted to ignore her. She was wailing, flailing her hands, and muttering jumbled words I couldn’t make out. On a cloudless 65 degree day, she was walking down the street in a long wool coat, baggy pants, and worn sneakers. The wailing grew louder, and I put on my helmet, fiddling with my bike lock, ready to leave the cafe I just got done dining in. My friends had all left, and my bike lock was stuck. Annoyed at the lock, then annoyed at myself for thinking my dad’s high school U-lock would still work in 2014, I finally got the lock undone and pulled my bike away from the street sign. The woman was walking down the street toward me, and I was coming toward her direction to go down the road that would take me home. I planned on smiling at her and looking her in the eye to say, “Hello,” expecting I might get asked for money. It’s happened plenty of times before, so my thought was not unfounded. But instead something else happened.

Our eyes stopped glancing toward each other, because our ears heard something. We both turned our eyes toward music we noticed coming from the cafe’s outdoor speakers.

Jump On It, Sir Mix A Lot’s 1996 hit, was coming from the speakers for all passers-by to hear. She began to laugh. I began to laugh. She started dancing, moving her hips then pausing them at the precise time when the “dun-na-na-na-nah-nah-nahs” came on, laughing with her whole mouth. I couldn’t help myself. I slid right next to her just in time for the part where you turn around, swinging your arm over your head as though you’re waving around a lasso. Her infectious joy caught onto me, and the two of us—she in her long winter coat, and me wearing a neon shirt and bike helmet— danced like two fools intoxicated by the music and the warm sunshine that sang of spring’s soon-to-be debut.

We kept dancing, and I was grateful they played the extended remix version instead of the regular, as to get every minute in with my new dancing partner. Alas the song drew to a close, and we finished facing the sun, arms extended, our smiles and laughs communicating to one another, as if to say, “Gee, that was fun!”

I asked her for her name. “Terryn,” she replied. “I’m Melissa,” I replied back. She began to walk the other way, and started laughing at a car driving in reverse. I guess she expected it to go forward in drive, and the sight of it going the other direction was enough to set her off laughing. As I turned the corner to head home, she went back to talking to herself. But I was so grateful we got to dance together, if only for those few moments, in lucid clarity.

A colleague I work with was recently telling me about a training she went to in which attendees were required to go out in the community wearing headphones that played a recording of voices talking in various tones to mimic what people with schizophrenia go through. Instructed not to take the headphones off and not to adjust the volume, she and her friends in the training had to complete tasks around the community— find the nearest bathroom, ask someone on the street for directions, etc. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she shared. “For the life of me, I couldn’t concentrate, and I felt crazy inside not being able to shut off the noises we were hearing. It gave me compassion. We really have no idea what it’s like,” she reflected.

I thought back to my colleague’s comment as this woman was walking down the street, back to talking to herself, and tried to put myself in her shoes. While I don’t know for sure that she had schizophrenia, I thought about what it would be like if it happened to me. How powerless or misunderstood I might feel. Maybe, I’d just want to love everybody I’d meet so fervently, but for the life of me, my words, thoughts, and behaviors wouldn’t be able to follow through. The woman I danced with, though, had a beautiful lucid moment, as though she was trying to love like that.

It reminds me of my favorite poem by Mark Nepo called “Life in the Tank.” In it, he describes an experience in which a child filled a bathtub for his fish to swim in while he cleaned their fish tank. Though the fish had the entire tub in which to play, they stayed huddled together in a corner, as though they never left the tank, when all surrounding them in every direction was fresh water to explore. Muses Nepo,

“Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs were unacceptable and that certain jobs were out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.”

I wonder if the same can be said for our interactions with people. How many of us were told what people were “safe,” what people to avoid, who to talk to, and who to not even make eye contact with? Many of us were cautiously told “don’t talk to strangers” by someone who loved us with the best of intentions.

But is that the best we can do out there, in the real world? What soul-to-soul conversations have we missed because we were following the “don’t-talk-to-strangers” framework? What divine spark have we missed out on; what song did we miss dancing to, what high five did we not exchange because of the “life in the tank” mentality?

Caution has its merit, and so does instinct and prudence. Our hearts can’t be given away to everyone and anyone. But I wonder if our hearts are more malleable than we think. I wonder if we are meant to escape from the constricting layers that tell us to “just keep walking,” as if to keep every part of ourselves intact, not risking the opportunity for community and connectedness?

All of these things I ponder as I bike home after my interaction with my dancing stranger friend. The news in most cities- Baltimore, no exception- often shout of violence and try to covertly scare citizens into never coming outside, or to go outside- if you must- but don’t you dare come out of your shell of self-protection. My heart breaks over stories of innocent people victimized by violence for no apparent reason, other than the cliche “they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But maybe it’s time we start daring ourselves just a little bit more to believe in the possibility that we might be “at a great place at a great time.” That now is the perfect time to start dancing to the music- the music that may or may not even be audible. To be a little foolish. To invite someone new into conversation with dignity and sincerity. Yes. I’ll bike through these streets with both circumspect acuity and a posture of openness- open and ready to sing, dance, or high-five when laughter is our gain and excessive guardedness our loss. 

Copyright: O'Doherty Photography

One of my favorite events that brings community members together is Baltimore Bike Party, as pictured above. 
Photo credit: O’Doherty Photography

Just a few thoughts before race day about not being silent and changing the world…

Opportunities in life don’t always come for the swift, the fastest. Sometimes opportunities come for those who are willing, who are looking, who are ready. And so, sitting here in this plane listening to the songs that guided me through … Continue reading

Boulder, 2013 ((Transforming Inequality Through Peaceful Rebellion))

“Swatting the air with the back of his hand, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme says he has nothing to say to a group of female cyclists hoping to one day ride in the sport’s greatest race.” That familiar grit returned to … Continue reading

The Juxtaposition of Death and Life. (Church on a Bike)

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.
I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me. The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

It was a holy moment.
It was Church, on a bike.
I skipped church yesterday, but all of this just reminds me that God still speaks through every medium around us.

Life. Death.
A life that cannot yet speak is growing inside the womb of a woman I pass by.
Life.
Three dozen birds lined up shoulder to shoulder chirp on the overhead telephone wires like white colored lights hugging the perimeters of homes in December.
Life.
My heart pumps blood and oxygen to mobilize my legs as they go up-down, up-down.
All around us, death and life, life and death. Pitch black darkness, confusion, pain, redemption, hope, joy, life, and healing hover around us and within us each day and it’s rarely a smooth, seamless process. Situations feel impossible to traverse through. We enter into dark places of human trafficking, urban poverty, and violence. And yet, still, a thin glimmer of hope is somehow able to sneak through the cracks of our breaking hearts. The hearts of Lazarus’ sisters when he becomes sick, the sorrow they experience in his death, and the joy that unfolds as he miraculously rises from the dead. Jesus gets mocked, criticized, and experiences sharp pangs of a sword entering his side. They call it Good Friday, but in this moment, it feels anything but good. Doom. Defeat. Grief. The nadir. The zenith. Valley of the shadow of death. Suckiness. Whatever you want to call it. And what was he doing on this cross, anyway; is this all some sick joke, God? Ah, but, alas, Sunday comes and he rises from the dead, refusing to let hopelessness and death have the final say, as both coteries of Jesus’s followers and his biggest cynics realize that all of the things he stands for cannot be taken away.

And so the story of death, life, and rebirth continue to emerge out of thin pages composing scripture into our everyday experiences today.

So may we find the hand of God in the mysterious places between life and death.
May our eyes be opened while we pedal and climb around our cities and our towns, ready to find God in the faces we meet.
May we discover hope in hands held tightly in embrace.
May we choose to believe in redemption and healing and that joy can truly return again in the morning.
May we discover our Fridays, and let our Sundays, much like Jesus, have the final say.
And may we discover the peace that longs to be given to us this side of heaven.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.

Photo I took in New Orleans, 2007. Beauty in brokenness.