Urban spirituality on two wheels

April 29, 2017

Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, by Laura Everett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017)

Laura Everett lives, works and bikes in Boston, but we met at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis. The occasion was a retirement dinner for a church executive with whom each of us had worked in our own church-related jobs. Everett was seated at my left and my granddaughter, also a church executive and only a few years younger than Everett, was on my right.

When Everett mentioned that she bicycle commuted to her job (executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches), I responded with casual interest, wondering how competent and committed she might be. My skepticism is understandable because I’m the kind of bicyclist whom Everett calls a Fred, retro-grouch, or retro-grump (pp. 105 ff.)

I’m an older male cyclist who has been on the road forever, with “an unfortunate tendency to mansplain to everyone, regardless of gender, exactly how a particular bike component works.” I’m glad that Everett holds old male cyclists like me in a favorable regard, but her characterization does come as a warning.

Most of what I know about Everett comes from Holy Spokes, which she published in April 2017, a year (almost to the day) after our dinner at the Columbia Club. I had known that it was coming but had little way of anticipating what kind of book it might  be. Although it stands on its own, this book resembles Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by Bike Snob NYC. and parallels Robert Penn’s book It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels.

Holy Spokes is organized according to the parts of a bicycle, and each component is paired with an aspect of what Everett depicts as urban spirituality: Frame/Rule of Life, Wheels/Habit, Saddle/Endurance, Handlebars/Adaptation, and so on. Each chapter begins with a few lines from the seventeen-century spiritual writing, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

After two or three paragraphs about that chapter’s bike part, Everett broadens the focus. She tells her own experience learning about that part of the bicycle and then describes how she has matured as a city dweller and young professional woman in a man’s world.

The chapter Fork/Rest is especially strong. Everett acknowledges that “forks aren’t the most interesting part of a bike, but they are critical. . .The fork isn’t productive in its own right, but it’s the connective tissue that allows the bike to roll and steer” (74).

She started paying attention to the fork about eight months into her life as a cyclist when she was hit by an automobile on her way to work. She soon discovered that the “bent fork was an early indicator of a much larger problem: my bike was actually both un-rideable and un-repairable. But my body took the more serious hit: after the crash, I ended up with a bulged disk in my spine and a fair amount of fear in my legs. It would take me a full two years to get back to where I had been on my bike” (p. 75).

She tried to resume cycling before her body and spirit were ready. Gradually she came to realize that she was trying to live too fast a life and that she needed to find a new mode of quietness. “Even though Boston is a smaller city, it moves quickly and constantly. But we humans aren’t designed for constant motion. Cultivating quiet and stillness might be the spiritual practice with the largest gap between city living and rural life” (p. 79).

Laura Everett

Everett tells the story of how she has become a vital cog in Boston’s biking community and in the process has learned to understand her city in a newer, deeper way. I’ve been mostly a solo cyclist and have rarely participated in cycling communities as Everett does. Now that I live downtown, surrounded by my city’s urban cyclists, it may be time for me to open a new chapter in my cycling way of life.

I became an urban bike commuter and aggressive open road cyclist about the time that Laura Everett was born. Even so, in Holy Spokes this strong, wise, young urban bicyclist is helping me rethink cycling and the process of living as much as any book I’ve read for a long, long time.   


Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

April 22, 2017

The St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year–1931. I first saw it about twelve years later and have always held it in high respect as the blog I posted March 4, 2011, indicates. Today, Earth Day 2017, I read an article in the “Portland Oregonian” reporting that in the bridge’s 85-year history only one cyclist has been killed on the bridge: Mitchell Todd York, on October 29, 2016. Since I no longer live in the Portland area, my occasions to bike this bridge will not be often. My prayers are with all who ride this highway high in the sky, and especially with Mitch’s family.

Keith Watkins Historian

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most…

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Especially the alto section: an Easter meditation

April 18, 2017

Choir II by Mark Tobey

My Easter reflections this year have been shaped, in part, by Landesman’s Journal: Meditations of a Forest Philosopher, a small book I bought in Patagonia, Arizona, on a bicycle tour in February of this year. The author, Leon Landesman, chose to live the later years of his life in a small cabin located in a forested region close to the Arizona-Mexico border, with only his dog and an occasional passer-by for companionship.

Earlier in his life, Landesman had received a graduate degree in philosophy, and steady reading in a wide range of philosophically oriented books continued to be central to his life. Although antagonistic toward religious belief and practice, Landesman was intellectually invested in matters related to the soul as a metaphysical reality.

In this regard, he writes, “one can only resort to the time-honored reliance on intuition—the intuition that there is a meaning to the creation and development of one’s metaphysical soul and that it does not share the fate of the body. . .But the intuition within me tells me that my soul will return to the ultimate metaphysical source from which it came and enrich its nature” (p. 24).

I use more theological ideas to describe my stance toward reality, including death and that which comes thereafter. Landesman and I, however, have much in common in our reflections upon that which we cannot now know with certainty.

These reflections are too cerebral on Easter day when in churches everywhere the songs and ceremonies are so vibrant, so filled with new life. Christian affirmations that Jesus breaks the power of death and transforms death into a new kind of life renew our joy in living despite the inevitability of dying.

On the morning my wife of 62 years died, near three years ago, I posted a notice on our condominium door: “now singing alto in the choir of angels.” This picture language more accurately embodies the tone of my intuition about death continuing into life than do Landesman’s metaphysical words.

Early this Easter day, I remembered a print that Billie and I bought fifty years ago. Only today have I realized that it portrays that very choir in which she now sings the music of the spheres. Our family was living that year in Seattle. During the spring both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. One day we were visiting the Seattle Art Museum and found ourselves drawn to Mark Tobey’s painting, Choir II: gouache on board, 16.5 by 10.5 inches, in deep shades of maroon and gray blending into black. Long, vertical slivers of white outline an abstract design, with suggestions of Asian calligraphy.

When you look closely, the design comes into focus. Seven ranks of choristers stand almost as though each rank is superimposed upon the one beneath it. Scattered through this choir are a few members holding horns—trumpets, I suppose—but to my ear they sound like renaissance recorders made of fine wood. During the last thirty years of her life, Billie expressed the music of her soul by playing these instruments with small groups of friends, first in Indianapolis, then Phoenix, and for the final thirteen years in Vancouver, Washington.

On Easter afternoon I gathered for a festive meal with members of my family in Indianapolis. For our devotions before the feast, I revealed to them the mystery of this print that has been displayed in our family home as far back as any of them can remember. I was the one with tears and a voice breaking so that I could not speak, my grief still very strong, but everyone in the room heard the choir sing, especially the alto section.