Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Letter to my Daddy

that somehow also became almost something of a manifesto, as a 35 year old female bike riding college student.

Today as I was riding my bike to campus, you were undergoing surgery.  You were asleep in Michigan with doctors meddling and fussing with your insides, and I was pedaling my way across Lincoln, Nebraska. Today was my coolest day of bike riding so far at a balmy 70 degrees, but the humidity was so thick there was a consistent spray of mist as I rode.  Not so that you could ever feel any individual drop of rain, but just enough so that every surface had a layer, (or two, or three) of wetness on top of it. Devin warned me that parts of the trail were flooded, but his last words to me this morning were, "you can drive if you want, but if you want to be a serious bike rider you could ride your bike." You know he didn't mean it as a challenge, but of course that's how I heard it, so you already know I rode my bike.  Footnote: While I rode through copious amounts of mud, the watery puddles were actually disappointing, given what I had anticipated facing.

This is what the ride is like. There are parts of the trail where the air hangs heavy, sickly sweet with the smell of fruit that has fallen to the ground, now sodden and rotting.  There are some fruits that still dangle from branches, cheerful in shades of yellow and red, but some are also a bright orange that leads me to wonder if these are possibly wild peaches?  These ones seems to say, "It's ok, look at us, we have not given up."  So on I pedal, the sweat at this point rolling free and unashamed down my forehead, across my eye creases, to rest on my cheek, to gather saltily on my upper lip.

The air is saturated with sounds, so many that I have to listen carefully to distinguish each one, and attempt to categorize them all.  The wind rushes fiercely past my ears, and I marvel that any other sound can linger at all to make an impression of its own.  But such is the determination of the insect world to be noticed, I suppose.  The trilling, sibilant sounds are individually so discordant, yet they combine to create not cacophony but a certain harmony, each little creature providing a rhythm and tone, each saying, "I exist, I am here, this is my place."

In perfect juxtaposition I can hear the soft, metallic vibrations of cars going by somewhere beyond the cornfields that surround me on this trail.  They add their melody, playing along with the undercurrent of the susurration of the wind in the trees - which, it may surprise you to know, I can hear as a distinct sound apart from the wind that teases my hair and flaps my shirt as I race on my way.

Above all this is the song of the birds, their notes perfectly perched; a heavenly descant that soars above it all.  I listen and think this is the chorus of the world, the symphony of life.  I have not heard a human voice in any of it, yet I am not lonely.

I know that soon enough on my route there will be people at the next corner, or around the next bend. They will be sitting in their cars, waiting for the right of way to turn in their favor - waiting, as am I - and for a moment our lives will interconnect and I will hope they see me.  Or this person will be a fellow biker coming along the path, on their own journey to, or from, a mysterious somewhere.  And to each of these travelers I will smile, and I will nod, and I will lift one hand to wave and nearly every time, I will get a like greeting in return.  It is reassuring to be seen.

When I come across a pedestrian, I do the same, perhaps with an added vocalized, "hello", and an added sustained eye contact.  Some that I pass on my path have five day old beards on sunken cheeks below tired eyes.  They sit, hands apathetically at their side, a cigarette hanging loosely from their mouth.  Next to them a rugged backpack with a sleeping bag tied up neatly, or a little cart with shopping bags full of items spilling out.

Some of the people I cross paths with on the sidewalk seem to have just stepped outside for a moment, I notice them wearing a tie and shiny shoes.  They seem to need a breath of fresh air, and a peek at the sun in between phone calls and emails and coffee breaks.  With each of these men, however they appear to me, I smile, I nod, I say, "hello", hoping for an acknowledgment, "I see you, do you see me? Can we share this space for this one moment in time?"

A friend asked me recently, "do you feel safe when riding your bike to class?" and as sad a question as that is, it also feels relevant and important.  A few times I have come across men in the parts of the trail where there would be no one to hear me scream, if it came to that.  I make extra sure to acknowledge all whose paths I cross, to encourage them to see me, just a person like them, wanting to exist in the same space for the briefest of breaths.  A puff of air, and I'm gone, safe and on my way.

There are parts of the trail where the branches on the trees hang low over the path, and I have to duck my head, even as the branches tug, grabbing and pulling at my helmet, teasing me as if to say, "stay here for a while, it's nice in the shade."  It is nice in the shade, but I go on, though it's hot and I am tired already and there are many uphills still ahead in my ride.

I try to enjoy both the uphills and the downhills, daddy.  The uphill I remind myself to enjoy for inside the struggle that burns is the promise that once I have ascended to the very top, I get to begin the downhill portion.  There is no downhill after all, without first going uphill.  And what thrill, what relief there is in that burst of air filling my lungs as my wheels roll along, gaining momentum, my legs resting at cruise control.

Some days are hard, daddy.  Some days are hot, are humid.  Some days I have not had enough to eat or drink, or slept enough the night before.  Some days I come across someone on the path who stops and begins digging for something in their backpack as soon as they see me and I wonder what access to guns that person has recently had.  Some days I almost get hit by a car because they were too careless to see me and I was too used to being seen.  Sometimes my entire body is burning, the muscles in my legs, the organs of lung and heart, pumping and it's never enough, my eyes from the sweat that collects and pools.  Sometimes my gear chain jumps off and I don't know if I know anything about bikes at all, and might just collapse by the side of the path and never get up again.

But I take one more breath.  I pedal one more rotation.  I look both ways.  I pause.  I go.  I smile.  I wave. I nod. And the wind rushes past me, with smells and sounds, and the world is alive around me, and I am alive inside of it.  I think that when I drive my car somewhere, I am merely existing, but I am not experiencing.  What joy is there in the life that was never pushed or challenged, that merely rested and enjoyed?  What strength is there in the absence of struggle?

I think of people who have faced actual hardships, actual pain and sorrow far more serious than my 13 mile bike ride, and I wonder if they feel that joy and pride in having overcome the moments in life that tried to break them.  Did they pause, look around, wonder if anyone saw them, and then on a hope and a prayer that they would make it, carry on?

I realized on my bike ride today that it is September now, and September is suicide awareness month.  I think of the depths that people find themselves drowning in that bring them to the point of sinking, of ceasing to struggle. Giving up, or giving in, or letting go and do they find the relief they were hoping for?

Do I feel safe on my bike ride?  Do I feel safe on a sunny day, at noon, in Lincoln, Nebraska amid the rows of corn and birds in the sky?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I don't know what it is that draws some people to hurt themselves or to hurt others.  But as I ride, and look at my small corner of the world, as I think of pain and the joy that comes in overcoming it, as I smile and nod at the people that cross my path I have come to one solid conclusion.

If someone does hurt me, I want, in that moment, for my thoughts to be of relief that they had noticed me, had picked me, had targeted me, perhaps because I had been too kind, than too casually cruel.  If cruelty were the cause or the motivation behind whatever twisted logic lies in their brain, I wouldn't be able to feel myself much better than them.  But if, by casting a light in their direction, I had drawn their attention and whatever was broken inside them made them want to break me, at least I will know it was because I was not like them.

Obviously, I hope that no one hurts me.  And obviously, I hope that the joy and relief I, or anyone, feel in overcoming hardships and struggles never comes as a conclusion of some person inflicting pain on another person.  There is enough to struggle against in this life without adding to it willfully ourselves.  I imagine legions of people, side by side, some with secret sorrows that no one knows, and some with scars that show on face or hands and some doubled over with pain that yet drags them down.  I imagine they stand. I imagine them with hands raised high, fists clenched. I imagine them thinking back on all the hills that they have climbed, and saying together as one, "still I rise."

I imagine them taking a moment to breathe in deeply, pride in who they are - not who they are in comparison to anyone else, but in who they are simply for who they are.  Pride in facing down their own very individual hills, what they have seen, what they have faced, what they have lived through, what they have breathed through, what they have gone on to see and to do.  Feeling that pride swell to a joy in knowing that life is challenging but we, as people, as humans, rise to challenges.  With these weak, frail bodies that feel so many things, that suffer from so much that bring us pain and anguish, we can cross land and sea, we can launch to the moon itself.  With tears wet on our own cheeks we can see another's pain and pause to help if we can.

I see you, do you see me? Can we exist together, either in this one isolated moment, or moment upon moment that stretches out becoming eternity?

I see you.  I see your struggle.  Carry on.  I can.  You can.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your bike ride and your thoughts with me.

    I’ve been trying to start running/jogging again. This morning I was out on the street before six in the morning. The street lamp should were still lit and the sun had not rise , but it was dawn—night had already begun to withdraw. I heard some sounds that were scary to me as a woman on the street with no one in sight. As I tried to figure out what to do, the sounds continued and then turned into crowing, and I realized it was a rooster. Perhaps he had been clearing his throat before making his proud announcement?

    I continued to run, and I passed other roosters on the street. The street lamps flickered off one by one and the blue was slowly turning to pink.

    As you do, I always greet everyone I see. “Hello, I’m here. I’m a human. You’re a human. Let’s acknowledge our humanity and coexistence.”

    I only passed three people this morning. All men. I imagine off to an early start to begin a long day of labor.

    And then I returned to my home where three eager faces were waiting for me to make their mornings begin.

    Weeeellllll, this comment got lengthy. Maybe I should post on my blog today.

    Thank you, Ames, for all your musings. I share your hope.