My dad stopped so suddenly on the side of the Natchez Trace Parkway, that I thought something had to be wrong.
“Did you see that?” He said excitedly.
“What?” I replied anxiously.
“It was a red-headed woodpecker—oh there it goes.” He exclaimed, pointing upward, marveling at it’s royal red head, explaining that this is a rare and special bird.
I looked up, doubtful I’d feel as excited as he did. But as we both stood there, our jaws slightly ajar, I saw it. I really saw it. What a magnificent bird.
We rode on, but I’ve thought of that bird a lot over the past several days, especially as I settle into my new home in the very hip and vibrant Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans.
As each post-day ride goes by I fear that the lessons of the road will slip away and feel that anxiety that always arises in times of transition. Was I present enough as we rode through Western Mississippi? Did I listen to people’s stories with deep attention? Did I pedal hard enough (I mean I barely lost any weight)? Did I marvel at the beauty of this country adequately? Did I ask my dad enough questions about his life? About his career? Were my blogs poignant enough?
But, that’s all noise. The answers are of course yes. They have to be yes. Because I didn’t ride to “achieve” or “accomplish,” I rode to ride. Wherever that took me. And sometimes that meant I was riding with a deep sense of purpose to remedy the wrongs of our (in)justice systems, and other times that meant I was riding to get to the next town by any means necessary.
My dad and I had to pedal through our “achievement mindset.” Sometimes when we rode just a mere 50 miles in a day, we’d start making excuses to each other… “well, I mean, the storms were bad, so that slowed us down” or “it’s good to take the time to see the towns, really, it’s important, so it’s ok that we didn’t make it further, really.” The reality is that in the worlds where my dad and I spend most of our time, there is lots of work to be done, and not a lot of time to dawdle. But part of this ride is the dawdling. The only measuring stick of our success or failure is our own. And it matters not a drop how far we pedaled in any given day so long as we made it to New Orleans—which, of course, we did.
So, I ride, in part, to slow down. And in slowing down, to see more sharply. To appreciate more deeply. To know myself more thoroughly. To refuel.
When I was 23 I read this book, Trauma Stewardship. After a solid year and a half in the nonprofit world I was already feeling burned out. The voices of young people had to be heard by chicago public school leaders, and it was my job to make sure that happened. A bit self-important feeling, I know. But, regardless of whether it was in fact true that my role was so essential, the feeling that I needed to work all the time and the recurring sinus infections were very real. The book was written for people that take on impossible jobs. For those of us fighting to curb global climate change, heal the sick, tackle poverty, humanize the inhumane. It discusses the idea of second-hand trauma, and the impact on the professional who works with trauma daily. The book included many personal stories of leaders that had accomplished great things professionally while their personal lives fell into disarray. As I read these stories I made a promise to myself to not let that happen in my life. That no matter how deeply I found myself in the fight, that I would remain committed to my own self-preservation. I know everyone has probably made this promise to themselves at some point. And while it is perhaps trite and too-oft repeated, I continue to believe that we are better advocates, activists, teachers, leaders, and lovers when we have found ways to slow down and smell the roses or roadkill…whatever you fancy.
Bicycling 1360 miles on a tandem bicycle with my dad happens to be one of the ways I find balance. I get that would not suit many, but know that we all have our country roads that refuel us, and urge everyone to make the time. Because it is worth it. Always.
I write this knowing that this perspective does drip with privilege. This bicycle ride was a luxury. We had the money to support our own ride. We had the time to take off. We had the legs and backs that worked good enough. For this I am grateful. So grateful. I try to never take this for granted. I said thank you many times as I rode.
One big concern I had about the ride was whether my body would hold up. In the past several years I have had some struggles with fibromyalgia. I have a bad knee. My back pain has kept me horizontal on several occasions. And, well, training was minimal. I’d be lying if I said my body didn’t feel it. And yes, I’ll answer the question I know you all have—my butt hurt a lot. I even had my bike shop back home send me a replacement seat halfway through the ride that just served to redistribute the pain, but certainly didn’t rid me of it.
And while maybe this is slightly masochisist, the pain is also part of why I ride. Or at least it became that way.
A year or so ago I went to a talk by Melissa Harris Perry on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She made the observation that social change and the fight for civil rights has always been felt by bodies. Real bodies. That people have physically struggled for justice. She made this point while showing pictures of slavery and lynching and Selma. She challenged my generation to consider how much we were really in the struggle? Had we felt it?
My bike ride pain is not the kind of pain she was referring to. I’m under no illusion that the struggle to ride 113 miles comes close at all to the struggle to end slavery, the struggle for integration, the struggle for equal rights, the struggle to end police brutality, the struggle to be seen. As we rode through this country’s history of racial oppression and discrimination, beginning with today’s struggle in Ferguson, then to Memphis where we immersed ourselves in the fight of the 60’s, then to the deep south where we went to a plantation dedicated to telling the true and horrific story of slavery, it was impossible not to see how many bodies have been sacrificed along the way. How much people have endured, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
In comparison, the pain I felt in my body was nothing. Really. But comparisons are not really so useful. What I carry with me from my own pain is the lesson I have already written so much about in this blog. We are capable of so much. We can endure so much. We are so strong. Incredibly strong. And on days this summer when I want to give up—because there will undoubtedly be those days—I will have the ride to keep me going. The times we push our limits and remain standing are the motivation we often need to endure the next struggle.
So, I ride for a lot of reasons.
I ride for time with my dad. I ride to have a break from “normal life.” I ride to become more effective in “normal life.” I ride to learn the stories of this country that I otherwise would likely never see. I ride to meet people like Greg and Alex. I ride to be fit. I ride to raise money. I ride to cross state lines. I ride to go to church. I ride to battle the wind and to catch a break in it. I ride to feel the presence of those I’ve lost. I ride to crash graduation parties. I ride to practice patience. I ride to relinquish control and take control. I ride to get wet. I ride to see the red-headed woodpecker. Because it really is such a magnificent bird.