Heard Enough?

I’ve accepted the fact that when I’m on my bicycle I’m doing more prayerful work than I am exercise.  When I do get to it, I maintain the same distance, about 18 miles, and even pedal within the same time frame, approximately 1.5 hours.  But I’m pretty sure that I get more spiritually out of cycling than I do physically.

Of course, I also resist such artificial splits.  I think physical exercise is spiritual.  I think God relates to us through our physical frames.  God made those bodies, knows them well, and wouldn’t have us detaching our selves from them.  I’ve written about this in pieces before, but the more I think of it, the more riding becomes a time of prayer.

The other day I wasn’t riding as well.  The wind was against me.  It was, at least, in my face.  I resolved that there was a difference.  After about four miles, I conked out, slowed down, got off the bike, and walked for a minute.  Then I turned around, got back on the bike, and rode home.

I was frustrated.  I wasn’t tired.  But I didn’t have the normal course in me that morning.  I listened to my body.  It wasn’t saying much.  My legs felt heavy.  The air around me was loud.  I heard myself during all those similar days when I felt the same way, back when I would mutter a mantra like, “Keep pedaling.”  Or, “You can slow down, but don’t turn around.”

I’m not good at turning around.  I’m not good at changing course.  I’m excellent at seeing an end and getting to it.  Detours, changes, adaptations, and enhancements–terrible things they are–though I’ve learned how to do them with some facility, are not what I’m naturally constituted for.  I am the person who gets to the destination.  With screaming feet or aching legs or a throbbing head, I don’t turn away from the path.

So, on those days when I’ve quit, I’ve bemoaned such failures.  That’s what they are to me, failures.  Because I tell myself, when I begin, what the day’s ride will be.  The minimum is always what I did last time.  I don’t make allowances for weakness, for less sleep, for crankiness, or for the weight of the two dozen things I’m thinking through while I ride.

The other morning, I rode back and felt the wind gently pushing behind me.  It was as if I was finally riding in the right direction.  When I trailed around the Point, I stopped at sat in a circle of rocks and listened to the water lapping against the stones, trading claps with green leaves overhead.  The wind and water sang to the tunes of the birds flapping around the area.  I stretched my legs and took an unnecessary breath.  I told myself that I hadn’t quite earned a seat.  I had more riding to do.  The message coming inside the wind said to me quickly, almost sharply, that there are things that I can’t do.

I got up, hardly motivated to listen to more than that.  It was an answer to many things.  I didn’t need to hear the voice of the wind.  I didn’t want to hear the voice of the Spirit.  I had heard enough.  And I didn’t have to travel my normal course for it.

A Detour Off The Bike Path

The other day I took a detour off the bike path, turning down to where I usually see pedestrians walking close to the edge of the water near the Pier.  I had cycled by this spot many times and once was even intrigued to stare into the tunnel where people were going.  So I rolled around a flagpole and pedaled into the unknown corridor.

It was a gateway to the riverwalk, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the city.  I spend no time on the riverwalk.  I’ve been down there before, for a boat tour, for a short walk.  Perhaps I love the place so much because I haven’t spent time there.  Because it’s so out of the way.  Nonetheless, I pedaled through the tunnel.

A couple sat on the hard sidewalk on a blanket with a brown bag between them.  They were too good-looking to be homeless; that’s the thought I had as I watched them for those moments.  Around us was pictorial of the city’s history.  I think that’s what it was.  I didn’t stop and read the tiny words under the blocks of beautiful images.

A different but joyful detour from a few years ago

I pedaled on, saw a cafe dedicated to Monet, felt a hundred water sprinkles on my arms, my shirt, and my face.  There were places people could eat.  I thought of the couple behind me, the pair that sat on the ground instead at one of the tables.  I saw a dog who saw me as I rode by.  I spoke to the walkers on the walk.  Everyone was smiling.  I thought to capture a photo of a sculpture but didn’t.  I thought about something someone told me once that God had told them to tell me.  I made a note that I’d return to see the sculpture, to take that picture, to remember what God may have been saying to me.  At the end of my little stint–because I turned around at the Dusable bridge–was the architectural boat tour office.

I rode the same path back to the Lake, saw the same rain-soaked tables, the same couple with a burrito between them.  I felt the same water spraying me, refreshing me with what I needed.  I was on my way to park for a while.  The half way point would give me a marker to spend some time in prayer.  But riding through the riverwalk, I had already felt that I had been with God, that I had been praying all along.  And it was true.  I had been praying.  Those moments, even the eye contact with the chocolate lab, were prayer-filled.  And I told myself that all that had come from a detour off my path.

Learning About Spiritual Life By Bicycling, 2 of 2

In my last post I started a list of things I’m learning about life and about growing in life, lessons I’m picking up from the bike paths I use to get to and from work.  Here is the rest of my list.  Tell me what you’d add.

6.  You will get tired.  My commute is 12.5 miles each way.  I remind myself of that when I slow down.  That may not be as long as some of the people on the path, but it’s a long way when I get to my 20th mile late in the afternoon–after a few counseling sessions or a couple meetings or a sour email that just won’t leave my brain–when I want nothing but a shower and a sandwich and an unending hose of cool water lodged directly into my mouth.  Whether it’s that first experience of tiredness, on my way in, when I’m going around that circle-like path at 39th street or when I’m headed home and between Madison and Balbo, I get tired.  Everyone does.  Acknowledge it and move to the side so that faster people, people who aren’t necessarily in better shape, can keep going.

7.  After a while, your lungs strengthen.  I was born in my mother’s sixth month of gestation.  I had very underdeveloped lungs, was born with asthma, had weak eyes, and needed a surgery or two after birth.  I always think about those early lungs when I bike because I feel like my past can be an excuse for all the huffing and puffing I do on that thing.  But I’ve noticed that even a small amount of regular biking has changed my lung capacity.  I can run up those flights of stairs from under the Clark & State street Blue Line stop and have no problem heaving like I used to.  I attribute that to the bicycle, to my getting on it.  I down “run out of breath” as quickly when I’m on it.  I can keep up.  And my old faithful memories, my understandings of the past, don’t come back when my body is growing stronger.

8.  Stopping and dismounting is appropriate and necessary.  I fly by beautiful places on my way to the church office.  Sometimes I imagine that my body works with the landscape to sabotage me so that I can stop and watch birds fly over northerly island or so that I can see a family playing together in the park or so that I can hear the sound of balls bouncing between boys playing at the court near 34th street.  I tell myself that it’s not a crime to stop, that it’s best to listen to my body rather than judge it.  I stop.  I dismount.  I drink water.  I watch people.  They smile and nod, acknowledging that they understand.  I don’t look at the people dressed in real bicyclist clothing.  They don’t understand.  They’re too far into their training to offer me anything when I’m resting.  They’re going too fast to notice people like me leaning over on a rock and stretching every muscle under my waist.

9.  Everything becomes a distraction.  People opening doors.  People running and jogging and going faster than you on their bikes.  People talking on cell phones and wavering over to the right, unable to hear you yelling for your life.  It’s takes concentration to ride in the city.  If you don’t, you could harm somebody or be harmed yourself.  Protecting yourself becomes a goal, taking the place of getting to a destination.  That’s my definition of a distraction: when your first and most important goal gets moved by some other goal.  And things take my attention away from getting to work.  I try hard to bring myself back to the ride.  The noise of my old clunking pedals helps.  The splat of a bug on my glasses helps.  The ring of fellow traveler’s bell helps.  Seeing someone on the side resting helps.  Those things somehow give me something else to look at and attend to when the distractions take away from the ride.

10.  Communicating with fellow travelers is important and, sometimes, fun.  I learned a short way of coming behind another bicyclist.  “On your left,” is the way to say that you’re passing someone.  They anticipate you.  If they’re like me, inexperienced and often confused between one gear and another, they’ll appreciate it.  They won’t get as mad if you ride like Lance Armstrong and make them feel really out-of-shape.  The nods to people riding in the opposite direction become salutations which encourage you to go where you’re going and to return.  They remind me that people will probably always be doing what I’m doing at the time, riding a bike.  People will always be turning those pedals, pushing their thighs, talking to their feet.  I won’t be alone when I turn around and come back.  I won’t be alone when I pass the memorial park that afternoon while feeling my entire body burning and aching and and twitching and singing off key.  There will be others even when I can’t see them in front of me or behind me.  Somebody will come and zip by.  Someone else will walk by slowly.  And I’ll remember to keep going at whatever speed.

Learning About Spiritual Life By Bicycling, 1 of 2

I commute to work once a week by bicycle.  I’m into my third or fourth week of this.  I’ve hoped at different points that I could be one of those people who biked to work daily.  But I’m not.

First of all, I hate to sweat.  Even though my body likes to sweat.  Since bicycling makes me sweat, I avoid it.  Second, bicycling doubles and nearly triples my commute time.  It’s not as long as taking the bus, but it’s much longer than driving.  So, I do it when I have some thinking to do; when I’m mid-way into a sermon and need to turn over thoughts in my head.  I do it when I don’t have anyone I’m planning to meet with so that I can change clothes after arriving and look like I should be in the back room of some tall, dark library where customers don’t come.

That said, I’m learning a few things about life and about growing in life–by life I include and always mean the spiritual life–and I want to jot them somewhere.

  1. Five minutes is the same with or without a watch.  My friend and teacher Michael Bailey told me this once, and it came back to me when I started bicycling.  He said whether you look at a watch or not, five minutes is five minutes.  Sometimes I track how long it takes to get to the next mile marker.  Usually it’s the same time whether or not I’m looking at a record of long I’m taking.
  2. The small hills torture my legs.  By legs I’m talking about the long things that fall from my hips and meet with my feet.  There are 2 or 3 big hills on the Lake Shore trail.  I am currently ignoring them, taking the flatter routes.  I’m building my confidence because it’s been two years since I’ve ridden consistently.  But I’m noticing that there are small hills, and that they do me in.  I pedal slower.  I breathe harder.  I suck shallow gasps.  I hope to survive.  I complain under my breath.  I whisper curses to Daniel Burnham and other city planners.  The small mounds are where I slow down because, usually, I don’t anticipate them the way I do big hills, the hills I can go around.  Small hills come upon me, and to get through them I tell myself to, simply, keep pedaling.
  3. It’s best to keep pedaling.  The other day on my way home I removed the need to arrive by a certain time.  I don’t ordinarily pray actively while I ride.  I’m too busy paying attention to my knees, to the creeking of my chain, that annoying call for a tune up.  But I prayed that day before hopping on the thing, that God would be with me on my way home.  When I got tired, I didn’t have to push myself.  Instead, I slowed down.  I told myself to keep going.  That was it.  No time limits.  No expectations except that I keep pedaling.  If I didn’t stop, no matter how slow I got, I would make it home.
  4. It’s always best to look where I’m going.  My tendency is to look down at the ground, at the concrete trail under my wheel and right in front of me.  But this lengthens the trip in my mind.  It takes longer for me to get to work when I’m looking at the 3-4 feet in front of me and missing the skyline, the pier, the island, or the next town beyond me.  I think it’s necessary to look at my legs sometimes, to talk to those things or scream at them even.  But it’s better to look ahead, to see where I want to be, to see that busy corner that reveals the ballroom sign in the old bank building.  It’s better to look down the path when I’m at 47th street and to note the black building we called the Arie Crown growing up or to see the boats lining up inside the harbor when I’m struggling through those straight paths as drivers inch by in front of the Buckingham Fountain.
  5. I should be going faster than the walkers.  I don’t believe in comparing myself.  In fact, I tell myself silly things to prevent making comparisons at the health club or on the bike path.  I don’t always succeed.  I have to tell myself that I should be moving faster than some people.  I should pass by joggers and walkers no matter how tired I am because if I don’t, well, I’m a terrible excuse for a human being.  I’m no scientist, but I’m sure some theory in physics explains why me on a bike should be moving much more rapidly than you on your feet.  Comparing myself is generally a bad idea, but if you’re on your feet, I should coast by you quickly, maybe slowly, but coast by I should.