In March I made my yearly pilgrimage to Anaheim, not to Disneyland but to the Catholic Religious Education Congress sponsored by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, where I am always provoked and energized by the workshops offered. I am still pondering a point made by David Wells, a speaker and educator from England, in a talk that considered the polarized views of faith and science in western culture. “Beware of your world shrinking,” he said. “Don’t let your world become too narrow.”

            His point resonated in me, because I’d been uneasily aware of my own world narrowing. As my children grew up and moved out, there were fewer kids hanging around my house. I was exposed to fewer outside influences, thoughts, trends, even music and styles, and I often felt out-of-touch with the emerging generations. I found myself saying things like, “I’ve never heard of that,” and feeling out of the loop. I knew exactly what David Wells meant.

             As we age, we follow one of two paths. We can continue to develop, personally and spiritually, by setting goals and challenges for ourselves to meet, maintaining a vibrant interest in the changing world, even greeting each day with a measure of joie de vivre. Or we can settle into an unvarying existence, limiting our exposure to different ideas, becoming brittle and unimaginative in our choices and plans, feeling ever more fearful about anything new, and taking on the personality of a curmudgeon.

            Our world can shrink. Much as I am a fan of routine – I believe it is essential for a writer with a regular deadline - it can stifle any kind of renewed perspective. If I stay all day in my womb-like office and write only from there, day in and day out, I will quickly run out of topics. I will repeat myself. I will grow stale. As a writer I must necessarily get out of both my comfort zone and myself, be an attentive listener, respect conflicting opinions, take chances, be willing to be wrong. I have to live an examined life, and not only for my craft. 

          Sometimes, though, it is much easier to stay home, to be sedentary, to draw the blanket of certainty and habit tightly around my person and insulate myself. I have to fight my resistance to new experiences and my tendency to say no before I consider saying yes.

            Which explains how I found myself riding a bicycle through downtown Portland, Oregon on a recent visit. 

            Portland is legendary for its bike-friendliness. There are bike paths and bike lanes and bike racks just about everywhere. When my husband and I looked up old friends one Saturday, they suggested riding bikes to the sprawling Farmers’ Market downtown. To which my first, unvoiced, automatic response was, “Oh, no!” Our friends are a delightful and adventurous couple whose idea of a vacation is exploring a 360-mile river in the Northwest Territory by canoe. Really: I am not exaggerating. They had just returned from this three-week trek. They regularly commute to work in Portland by bicycle in all weather, and they had a couple of extra bikes. My husband is an avid cyclist who goes on 100-mile bike rides for fun. That left me: a bicycle novice. My best bike-riding years ended in my teens. I take a little spin with my husband about twice a year, mainly to the exotic destination of our local Starbucks.

            I have no idea why I said yes.

            Fortunately for me, our ride took place on a beautiful summer day. I admit to being plenty nervous. The expression “It’s like riding a bike” rings truer if the thing you are attempting to do feels like you haven’t done it in a really long time, and involves a pretty shaky, very embarrassing start. Where were the brakes? What did the gears do again? I even had to borrow proper shoes.

            As I fumbled to relearn the technique of riding a bike, I immediately rubbed a big grease spot on the inside of my calf, which my fellow cyclists assured me was a rite of passage. They called it, affectionately, my “bike tattoo”. The three veterans were sweet and supportive, although possibly they inwardly regretted their idea to include my disastrous self on what was, for them, an easy ride. My riding form bordered on the suicidal. 

            Although I knew my companions rode in protective formation around me, I pedaled in trepidation. I tried not to focus on the fact that I was riding a bike in the midst of zooming cars, other, faster cyclists, oblivious pedestrians, and even over a river. Whenever I tried to glance at something to the side, my whole bike veered treacherously in that direction. Slowly I got steadier, with much room for improvement.

            But what a morning! Hunched over my handlebars, pumping my legs, wind in my hair, I felt a close connection to all I passed. My heart was beating in time to the exhilarating pace of my narrowed world expanding. It was fantastic, eye-opening, inspiring! We stopped for breakfast. We bought onions, green beans, cherries, peaches, berries of all kinds at the Farmers’ Market. Then we rode home, back over the river, on now familiar streets, savoring the lovely day in a lovely city.

            The world sometimes shrinks by default, until we notice and resist. I’m deeply grateful to my fellow cyclists for the adventure on two wheels, for the expansive view from a bike, and for the opportunity to say yes.

 

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 8/23/2011 - 2:10pm
Thank you, Valerie, for a delightful and very wise personal reflection.  As a former "biker" I enjoyed your description of what I bet will be many more fun trips.  When I was 55 and in a seniors' biking group. we rode from San Clemente to downtown San Diego, a distance of 47 miles and my one claim to fame!


I agree with David Wells advice to not let your world shrink and David Smith's point about the need for discernment in choosing what we discover and cultivate.  My parents were both nurturiing and fun-loving.  I think I inherited the joie de vivre from them, but, like everyone else, I also live with grieving over losses and separations.  In 2005 I experienced an epiphany of sorts:  I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in January and then in March, I was with my mother as she died from that disease.  My life changed for the better.  I began attending Daily Mass and became increasingly aware of God's presence throughout my life.  I came to believe in the redeeming graces of suffering united with the sufferings of Christ as I could see it happening in my own life. I can see now that the abuse I suffered (childhood molest, emotional abuse by a trusted therapist) were redeemed through my working with abused children and women as a social worker.

My heart condition improved bit by bit each year.  I've used this gift of time to attempt reconciliations with those I have harmed and those who harmed me.  My brother and I are reconciled after a long estrangement; my ex-husband, who died a few years ago, and I were at peace at his passing.  There is one person, a friend, who refuses reconciliation and I must live with that.  As I love to travel I've been able to go on a pilgrimage and another strenuous  trip to Europe and Africa. 

With increasing age and the increasing difficulty of caring and planning for my children, my heart condition is worsening.  To celebrate my 75th birthday, I went on a cruise to Alaska that inclulded a helicoptor ride to the top of a glacier where we  went dog-sledding; rode in a float plane over Misty Fjords, saw 3 pods of whales feeding, took a 7hour train trip on the White Pass-Yukon Railway into British Columbia.  Saw a black bear and eagles.  It was wonderful and I could not have done the trip without the loving people of Catholic Answers who took such good care of me. 

It took a terrible medical condition to show me the preciousness of life.  I hope my sharing this experience will inspire others to look at each day as an opportunity for learning, expanding one's horizons and most importantly, becoming closer to God.
Anne Chapman | 8/23/2011 - 6:00pm
It's nice that some people enjoy riding a bike.  My experiences as an adult riding a bike are pain and discomfort - (the seat), discomfort (the legs), discomfort (the sweating), discomfort (the shortness of breath). So, I just stick to walking - you are even more able to enjoy the nature and scenery around you than when whizzing along on a bike, you can carry on a conversation if walking with a companion, and it's a lot safer too. I can't even imagine enjoying riding a bike in heavy car traffic - breathing in all the exhaust fumes alone would be enough to make me want to avoid it.  Maybe a nice flat rural bike trail somewhere would be OK (for the five minutes I could stand it before all the hurts begin).
Shayne Labudda | 8/23/2011 - 3:07pm
Valerie
Hooray for one more human employing and enjoying the bicycle.  Joy and simple pleasure in so many ways.  I personally love, and recommend, evening time rides on lightly traveled streets.  The night air, the quiet, and the slight apprehension of not seeing something in your path are exhilarating.  It's as if you're a different animal moving through the darkness. 
Juan Lino | 8/23/2011 - 11:45am
Wonderful post Valerie - thanks.