Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

October 31, 2016

old-man-writing-1On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.

Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.

My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.

There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?

Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.

The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.

At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”

In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”

As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but  instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).

North Illinois Street, Indy: Cycling with the Wild Things

October 29, 2016


For close to forty years, my weekly routine has included vigorous bike rides three or four days a week, totaling seventy-five to 100 miles. Usually, there has been one ride of forty or more miles and the rest of the mileage in quick dashes of fifteen to twenty-five miles at a time.

One of the settling-in tasks for my first two months now that I have moved back to Indianapolis, living right downtown, is to find routes that meet certain criteria: paved roads, preferably with smooth surfaces; bike lanes or shoulders or sharrows (shared lane markers) to accommodate cyclists; relatively easy-going automobile traffic; long stretches with no stop signs or signals; and pleasant scenery.

Since early September when I moved into my apartment, I’ve logged 525 bicycle miles.  Two rides were about 65 miles each, and the others have been in fifteen to twenty-five mile segments along eight or nine different routes, most of which are discouraging. Streets are narrow and broken up. Traffic is heavy, pushy, and unfriendly toward cyclists. Several of these routes travel through neighborhoods equally broken up, with derelict houses, boarded up store fronts, and empty church buildings.

People often ask if I use the downtown cultural trail or the Monon Trail that starts on 10th Street a few blocks from my apartment and continues through the northern sections of Indianapolis to the town of Westfield nineteen miles distant. I have to answer “No” because the frequent cross streets require greater diligence and consistently slower speeds than I ordinarily use. The northern half of the Monon is more suitable, but even there, mixed usage—parents with strollers, children on bikes weaving back and forth, clusters of easy-going walkers, and skaters—make fast cycling difficult.

On a late October day, with bright sun, temperature about 62, and rich autumn colors on the trees, I did a ride that will become one of my regulars. North on Alabama Street (where I live) and then over a few blocks to North Illinois Street, which is the north-bound street paired with south-bound North Capitol Avenue (where our family lived for thirty-three years). Both streets are designated bicycle routes, with marked lanes or sharrows.

Then across the Central Canal to Riverview Drive and its wide arc that follows one of White River’s bends heading toward Broad Ripple Village. I turned south on Central Avenue, working my way back to Capitol Avenue and then south toward home.

Most of the way, this route meets the criteria listed above. The northern half (on the top side of 38th Street), travels through leafy suburban neighborhoods where the currents of life seem just like they were in the 1960s when we first moved to this part of Indianapolis. Although Indianapolis may never again seem as much like home as the Pacific Northwest, this ride takes me through a part of the city that does awaken strong, happy memories.

An added bonus is some public art, the wild things that I mention in the title to this report. On the street level of this route there’s nothing much bigger than chipmunks and squirrels running around on their own four legs.


One building on Illinois Street just north of 33rd, however, has been adorned with giant beasts in deep, surreal colors. Some are sea creatures and others roam on land. In broad daylight, of course, they bring smiles to my face and an easy-going feeling to my inner self.

This city has its troubles, its horrors by night and by day. But there also is love, joy, lightheartedness, and a playful spirit, and that’s what I see in these garish creatures.

I saw evidence of this brighter side of city life later in the afternoon. As I rode back home on Capitol, I noticed several new houses, with essentially the same design, and all painted gray. Two men at a front-yard sale just down the street, and almost straight across from the wild things on Illinois, explained. “They’re Habitat Houses, and they’re nice. Before they were built, those lots were just plain dumps and now they have good homes.”

On this Halloween weekend, many people will go to haunted houses and horror movies to get their kicks. As for me, I’ll ride up North Illinois Street and back down on Capitol. Wild things and happy homes! These are the things I want to see.


The persistence of memory on Morgantown Road

October 22, 2016


In 1931, the year I was born, Salvador Dali finished one of his “hand painted dream photographs,” which he entitled “The Persistence of Memory.” It features four clocks in an unfamiliar landscape, warped to the forms on which they are placed. Dali explained that his purpose, in part, was “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.”

The title of this surrealist painting comes to mind as I think about a mid-October bicycle round-trip ride from downtown Indianapolis to Morgantown, a small community 30 miles to the south. While the immediacy of this year’s expedition was the continuing focus of my attention during the day, memories of a ride over this same route some 40 years ago kept pushing into my consciousness. Past, present, and future became intermingled, and this warping of time is what made me think of Dali’s misshapen clocks.

This year I was one of twenty-five or thirty cyclists who were riding to Ellettsville, near Bloomington, so that they could enjoy the 49th year of the Hilly Hundred bicycling event. Between 1973 and 1991, I often rode the Hilly as part of my annual cycling schedule, but my move back to to Indianapolis this summer came too late in the season for me to be ready for the event this year.

This Ride to the Hilly, however, seemed exactly right. I could go part way and turn around when I was still strong enough to get back home. There would be other cyclists on the road, mature, serious, experienced, and accustomed to aggressive, open road cycling. Perhaps most important was their current knowledge of the roads through Indianapolis’ south side and the rural hinterlands, roads that my son Mike and I used to ride together.

It was my good fortune to pair off with a white-haired man younger than I by a couple of decades or more and a strong cyclist. He had bicycled from a town well to the north of our starting place and noted that his day’s ride would add up to 91 miles (compared to my 60). And he would then ride the Hilly—two days of hard cycling in the limestone hills around Bloomington.

During brief snatches of conversation, we described our respective histories as cyclists. Although the details differed, the tone of our two-wheeled stores was much the same.

Persistence of Memory near Morgantown Road

Persistence of Memory near Morgantown Road

All day long, however, the immediacy of this year’s ride was pushed aside by memories of a time some forty years ago when Mike and I rode this route. Our plan had been to bike to Bloomington and back in the same day, a total of 120 miles. As we rode southward on Morgantown Road, he explained the technique that his trumpet teacher at the Indiana University School of Music was instilling. “Focus on the song, not on your playing. The music will be better and your ability to keep on playing will increase.”

We discussed how this idea could be applied to our cycling: Think about the glory of the ride rather than the gearing and cadence, or the weather and the road. With a growing sense of exhilaration, we sailed along. As we worked our way over the chip-and-seal roads of Morgan County, however, we realized that something was wrong. We both were so tired that we doubted that we finish the ride we had planned. At Morgantown, we stopped for refreshments and headed back home. As we rode back north on Morgantown Road, we paid attention to gearing and cadence. Maybe the song would sing itself some other day.

Mike still plays trumpet and bicycles in ways consistent with long ago. “I remember that ride and conversation,” he wrote in response to a draft of this blog, and continues with a comment that explains why we ran out of energy on that ride so many years ago.

“One difference between cycling and trumpet playing is pacing. With trumpet playing you are at or close to max sustainable effort at all times. You also rest as much as you play, as opposed to stopping for a few minutes every hour. With cycling it is usually better to pace oneself for the planned distance, which usually puts you at a lower power output.”

Pacing keyed to what you are doing. One key to success, on Morgantown Road and everywhere else.




Growing old in Cochise County

October 18, 2016


The full moon shining high over downtown Indianapolis this week inspired memories of a bicycle ride I did fifteen years ago at this same time of year—on the weekend close to the October full moon. With fear and trembling, I had signed up for the annual Cochise Classic, a challenging event sponsored by the Tucson-based Perimeter Bicycling Association of America. As its name indicates, the PBAA encourages people to ride around geographical features, around mountains, cities, counties, countries. Any circuit can qualify so long as it is at least 50 miles.

The Cochise Classic back then had five rides for people of varying ability. The tour all around the county was 252 miles, with a shorter option of 157 miles. The Tour around Potter Mountain that I was doing was 97 miles long. Two shorter rides completed the weekend’s list of events.

The headquarters was (and still is)) in Douglas, Arizona, a border town that had once been an important mining center. We spent Friday night before the ride and Saturday night after the ride (if we stayed over) at the Gadsden Hotel, which even fifteen years ago had faded significantly. The lobby with its forty-two feet long Tiffany window was once billed as Arizona’s grandest public space. My room on the mezzanine had an impressively carved, heavy oak door, but the house phone didn’t work because it had been pulled loose from the wall.

One hundred sixty three cyclists had signed up for the 2001 Classic: 44 for the 252-mile circuit; 18 for the 157-mile trip, 66 for the 97-mile circuit that I was making; and 33 for the short tour of 45 miles. One of the riders was introduced, an 80-year-old man named Reece Walton who was registered for his eleventh riding of the 252-mile classic. The previous year he had done the loop in 22.5 hours. The fastest riders did it in just over twelve hours, averaging more than 22 miles an hour.

And here I was, proud that as I turned 70—by reason of strength four score and ten, to use the biblical phrasing—I was planning to ride 97 miles.

Early in the ride, two of us found that we were traveling at the same rate and for the next 70 miles we helped each other by regularly changing the lead and sheltering the rider behind from the wind. My companion for the day was a nurse from the area, much younger than I, and a skilled cyclist who was well-versed in the routines of the road while cycling in the Arizona desert.

During the last 10 miles she was fading even more than I and insisted that I continue on and let her finish at her own speed. The posted finish times indicated that she came in only a couple of minutes after I did. I was the 45th finisher (out of 66 who started), averaging 15.3 miles per hour.

The next morning, as I headed for home in Sun City West near Phoenix, I attended the Sunday Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tombstone. Built in 1881, this little church described itself as the oldest protestant church in the Southwest. The congregation consisted of some two dozen people and the music of the liturgy was enlivened by the powerful voice of a young African-American woman sitting in the pew ahead of me.

The peace of the moment was shattered, however, as the pastor began his sermon. In an even voice, he announced that earlier that morning the U.S. Airforce had begun the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan. Then he read a prayer asking that God send peace into the world. As he made his announcement, the sun, it seemed to me, went behind a cloud. I wondered—and this was fifteen years ago—if it would ever again really shine upon the world.

Note: The 2016 Cochise Classic was ridden October 8. Fifteen people completed the longest version, 165 miles; the oldest was 63. Eighty-one cyclists finished the 95-mile circuit, the oldest being 72. Eighty people, one listed as 99 years of age, completed the 47-mile ride. Fifty-one riders, including a person 99 years old, are listed as finishers for the 27-mile ride.


Going to church in Indianapolis

October 15, 2016
Central Christian Church, Indianapolis

Central Christian Church, Indianapolis

For seventy-five years I’ve been a steady church-goer. In my new home in downtown Indianapolis I expect to continue that practice by wandering around from Sunday to Sunday, attending a rather wide range of churches. My purpose is to explore the churchly character of this traditionally religious Midwestern city.

Bicycling around the city, I pass a wide range of churches, many of them with denominational connections that are unfamiliar to me. Some of these congregations appear to be unrelated to other ecclesial networks, and instead are enlarged family gatherings or the ecclesial shadows of founding pastors. Other church buildings are large and well-tended, indicating that the membership is large, generous, well-organized, and that their pastoral leadership is skilled.

My primary interest is in congregations that historian David Hollinger identifies as ecumenical Protestant churches—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ. Many of these churches were active participants in the Consultation on Church Union and spent nearly forty years in the attempt to create a new American church that would be fully catholic, fully evangelical, and fully reformed. My book published two years ago, The American Church that Might Have Been, gives a full account of this generation-long effort.

Some of the congregations on my list to visit were familiar to me during my earlier life in Indianapolis (1961–1995), such as Broadway United Methodist Church. Others are representative congregations of my own Disciples of Christ network, such as Central Christian Church right around the corner from my apartment. I’m interested in a string of long-established, prominent congregations stretched along North Meridian Street: Christ Church Cathedral, Trinity Episcopal, North United Methodist, Meridian Street United Methodist, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and Second Presbyterian.

These days, Lutheran churches are especially interesting because of their ecumenical activities, including theological rapprochements with the Roman Catholic Church, concordats concerning mutual recognition of ministries and eucharistic hospitality with the Episcopal Church and a group of Reformed churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also is taking the lead in creating a new generation of worship books and hymnals.

Some congregations are interesting because they have gone through challenging changes in their neighborhoods. I hope to learn how they have moved from flourishing times, through periods of diminished strength, to new vitality.

I’m on the watch for pastors who can become conversation partners as I try to understand the various aspects of congregational life during the current reshaping of American church life. Maybe they can help me decode language that is widely used these days, terms like progressive, postmodern, spiritual but not religious, recovering fundamentalist, and post Christian.

The puzzling character of church life was manifested in a recent gathering at a once mighty church in a sociologically ambiguous neighborhood north of downtown Indianapolis. Thirty years ago, the pastor was a strong preacher who filled this large church week after week and at the same time inspired the congregation to engage in a significant range of social services to people in the distressed neighborhood that had emerged around the monumental church building.

The congregation went into a precipitous decline and at its low point was drawing about seventy-five people for worship. New pastoral leadership brought radically different ways of relating the congregation to its neighborhood and now some 200 people appear on Sunday mornings and a radically different kind of church is emerging.

At this recent gathering the congregation was hosting Nadia Bolz-Weber, a young, much-acclaimed Lutheran pastor who represents an increasingly prominent style of progressive, postmodern church leaders. My quick estimate is that over 400 people were filling the church nicely. A rather small percentage would have been older than fifty years of age.

I estimated that 75% of the congregation were women, and the person sitting next to me countered, as we walked to our cars after the event, that it was closer to 85%. A prevailing tone of the evening was that people were recovering from early church experiences that had been repressive or toxic or domineering, especially for women.

I want to understand this portion of the church-going population much better than I do now. At the same time, I want to understand more fully another part of the church-going population, people whose entire church life has been in liberal-minded congregations that encouraged ideas and ethical practices that were generally held in the secular world.

While paying attention to all of this, I want to sing hymns of praise and devotion, hear the Word of God proclaimed in strong sermons, and be nourished by the risen Christ who promises to meet us at the eucharistic table of remembrance.

My Indianapolis church going should be interesting! And I hope that future blogs will be too.


Cops cycling for survivors

October 8, 2016


Even with police escort, it was a hard ride!

Cycling south from downtown Indianapolis has always been challenging. Twenty years ago, the route my son and I decided was best was South Meridian Street to the junction with Bluff Road and then on Bluff Road as it angles a little to the west. That’s the way I went today and found the roads much as I remembered: one lane each direction, little or no shoulder, steady traffic and mostly moderate speeds. Not great, but OK.

Ten miles into the ride, I turned left on Stop 11 Road in order to get back to Meridian Street and the return to the center of town. When I reached the intersection, I remembered it from before, although in earlier years I would reach it coming from the south. It was the place where traffic became so heavy that I would move to a gentler route for the rest of the way into the city.

Not remembering that route, I asked a police officer standing by his patrol car outside a convenience grocery. “Your bike’s titanium, isn’t it?” was his response to my request for directions. We fell into a ten-minute conversation about bikes and cycling, during which he told me about an organization on whose board he serves: Cops Cycling for Survivors Foundation.

Their major event is an annual bike ride around Indiana: approximately 1,100 miles in thirteen days. Riders have to secure donations of $75 a day for each day that they ride. Gear is carried in a truck. Lodging is donated by hostelries and organizations along the way. Local police departments provide escorts to ease the way for cyclists. Thus, the donated money all goes to the survivors.

Beneficiaries are the survivors of officers lost in the line of duty. This sounds like a ride I would like to take.

At this point, the officer told me what he was going to do. “You ride in the curb lane and I’ll drive behind you as protection.” Although he intended to take me the eight miles to downtown, I was uneasy about that and we agreed that he would take me two miles to a quiet cross street where I could move over to a northbound street with bike lanes.

With the police car close behind, I started north, up a slight grade and into a sharp north wind. Even thirteen mph was hard work, and I felt embarrassed at that slow speed and pushed up to sixteen. Gasping for breath, I was grateful to top the rise and compromised at fifteen mph. At the cross street I turned right, and he followed me around. As we shook hands, he wished me well and headed out, apparently off duty and on his way home.

I fought my way through Indy’s warehouse and railroad district on the south side of downtown: Narrow, rough streets and pushy traffic with one guy yelling obscenities while the driver swerved around me.

In the twenty years since I’ve been away from Indianapolis, the city has made serious efforts to develop bicycle-friendly facilities, and for this I am grateful. There is, however, much yet to be done! The greatest, and perhaps insurmountable, task is to develop a new civic culture in which drivers learn to relax a little. I am struck by how many auto-related accidents are reported every morning on the traffic news, but watching behavior at intersections helps me understand. Drivers seem determined to assert their prior rights to the road so that even little old ladies, like one I saw last week, have to fight for a chance to cross the street.

What did I learn from today’s ride? First, Bluff Road is to OK as a way out of town going south, but I have to keep looking for a better way for coming back north. Second, the police officer I met is a nice guy, and I hope to raise some money and spend a few days next summer riding around Indiana with the Cycling Cops.