Friday, October 29, 2010

Group Riding

Within a year of getting my first motorcycle, I found out about RIDE Motorcycle Club through Amy, a woman in my writer’s group. Her husband Michael is the first person I met from RIDE, the first of many friends who love to ride motorcycles.  One of the things that drew me to the ride club is the people- they are very welcoming and supportive.   With their openness and eagerness about riding, it was a good fit.  I experienced this support in another place in my life as well- in my writer’s group.   For over 4 years, Amy and I met with two others each week to read, write and talk about books, writing and life. It is with those four women that I learned to trust that my pen could find a way to sort through my thoughts. 

One of the things I liked best about the RIDE club when I joined was that I was encouraged to ask questions.  Ken is our local RIDE coordinator.  I had regular contact with him because of his weekly email newsletters detailing our scheduled rides for the month.  His newsletters were a sort of North Star, guiding me through my early riding experiences.    They often open with a story about a ride which he parallels with something happening in his life.  More than once, I responded to his musings with questions about riding.  His responses were always helpful.    RIDE encourages all kinds of riding, on all kinds of bikes and, as is the nature of a group united in a common love, we often ride together.  When I was first riding, I worried that I would hold people back because I preferred a slower pace. Ken encouraged me to join the weekly rides and reassured me the group would accommodate me.

After a three year hiatus, Amy and I are writing together again, this time with Jen.  Just as with Ken, it is how these two are showing up for themselves and their lives, and how they express it in their writing that is guiding me in my writing life.  We send each other our latest pieces a day ahead then meet up to discuss them with one another.  Our writing styles are very different.  We each have our own voice, our own manner.   Yet we each write from a place of deep feeling.   I share pieces with them that I won’t yet share with others.  I trust them and where their writing is leading them.  And I trust my own writing process because of them.

It is RIDE who taught me how to ride safely in a group.  They taught me there are different skills needed for riding alone versus with a group.  I like riding in a group.   I like the ride while alone, too.  They are very different experiences. 

When riding alone, I don’t have to think about any other riders, what they want or need and where they are in relationship to me.  I ride where I want to, at the speed I’m comfortable with, for as long I feel like riding.  With RIDE, our routes are often pre-planned at a set pace for a set time with arranged stops.  When I ride alone, I’m unencumbered and unfettered by others wishes, needs and problems.  While in a group, I feel supported, encouraged and protected.  When riding alone, I’m responsible for ensuring a safe ride, monitoring the road and the driving conditions.  I revel in the solitude.  I rely on my own resources when there is a problem with the bike.  I gain courage and resiliency.  While in a group, we signal each other to point out road hazards and share the same remarkable view with each other.  And if something goes wrong on a group ride, there are others to help sort it all out, help everyone get home safe.

It’s easy for me to see as I write this, that I’m not preferential to one type of riding over another.  Both are important to me, both are essential.  There are times I need to clear my head and focus on me, keep it simple and straightforward.  And then there are times when the feel of the group, riding staggered through curves and straightaways, holds me together and grounds me.

In much the same way, my writing life is being served by both writing alone and with others.   Before I send pieces to Amy and Jen, it’s just me with my words.  I write regularly for both long and short periods.  After a time, a few phrases jump out at me and I decide to play with them, explore their origins and see what else will come when I write from the place those first thoughts initiated. Sometimes when I sit down to write I am disappointed and a sad voice flows onto the page in the form of an essay about unrequited love.  On another day, I am filled with memories of my father’s death and begin writing only to discover a poem that links the details of his passing with my career as a nurse.  Writing is powerful for me.  Through it, I communicate the truth of my experience and transform it at the same time.  When I read the poem about my father’s death it pulls me back to that day, nearly three years ago now, with such fierce detail I’m in his hospital room again, at his bedside with my family.  What’s different though, is that somehow, the sorrow has deepened into a recognition of the universality of grief.  I’m no longer lost in the memories, but I am united with others who’ve experienced a similar loss.  My solitary journey has been transformed into a shared journey. 

At the heart of all my travels, whether on a bike or with my pen, are those unifying forces, the communion with others in shared experiences.  There is the recognition that while we are all here on our own journey, it is somehow reflected in each other’s and so it is that I am connected as if by a thread from one to another- to Ken and all the RIDE club members, to Amy and Jen.  And it is these people and the thread woven between us that informs my life and enriches it.  And so it is, that all of the traveling I’ve done on my own has also been with them. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Stories, Myths and Memories

How do we know what influences our decisions when we make them?  The story I tell myself about the Bonneville I have, the second bike I fell in love with, is that I knew the first moment I laid eyes on her that I wanted her.   I’m not sure if this is true or just how I remember it.  Memories are like that- they take on a life of their own, after our choices seem to point to that one experience as the reason everything after it came to happen.  So looking at the Bonnie, that’s what drew me in, but when I sat on her, the feeling only deepened.   And then came that first test ride- she glided smoothly through the gears and took corners like she wanted me to see how deep she would go for me, leaning with ease and just a bit of show.  God I couldn’t get enough of her, couldn’t wait to make her mine. 

My first bike was a ’79 Yamaha XS650 that I’d picked up for $350 4 years before.  It hadn’t run in over a year, the battery was dead and she was pretty dented up. It was the perfect starter bike:  I wasn’t worried about dropping her while practicing maneuvers in a local parking lot and it needed enough work, I knew I’d learn how to work on a bike, too.

One Spring, my RIDE club took a day trip down to the Gilmore Car Museum for their annual vintage motorcycle show.  Lifecycle dealership was offering demo rides on their Ducati’s and Triumph’s.  I road 5 bikes that day- the Triumph Bonneville was the first, and the only ride I remember.  I knew after that ride that I’d get one but wasn’t sure when.  It was only a few months later that my Yamaha blew a piston.  It didn’t take much figuring to see that I was going to get the Bonneville sooner than I’d hoped.   I took her home in June of 2008. 

Sold! Picking the Bonneville up from the dealership

Joe told me recently he thinks I have a masculine bike- a guy’s bike.  I was surprised.  Her tank is full and rounded with a glossy black finish and she wears a distinct tank badge.  The handle bars curve up and out - they don’t gawk like ape hangers or hide away like cafĂ© bars-but sit there perfectly placed to rest one’s hands.  She’s shaped to ride, curvy and sexy.  Sometimes at a stoplight, I rest my hand on her tank just to feel her vibrating underneath me.  She purrs when I start her up, nothing loud or raucous about her.  She wants to be ridden, she wants to be enjoyed.  She’s all woman. 

Some decisions, like getting the Triumph, are easy.  Other times, when I see something I really want, I find myself peering like a child from behind her mother’s skirt- wanting to see it but also afraid to be seen.  For years, I was guided by a set of rules believing they kept me safe.  Then I figured out those rules kept me from the joy in life, as well as the pain.  The memories on this part of the story aren’t quite clear.  I don’t remember exactly when I started to come out from behind my mother’s skirt, as it were.  I do know it was a series of decisions based on my gut responses that began to change things for me.  I was yearning for freedom and I found it when I started to trust my responses to what was happening around me instead of looking to the rules to show me what to do.

Sometimes I still fall into the old pattern of looking outside myself to figure out how to act, what’s expected of me, how I’m being perceived.  I think back to those initial feelings about the Bonneville, that intense urge to own her, to know her, to explore with her.  Those gut feelings were so strong there was no mistaking them.  It’s a little harder to interpret other gut responses.  Sometimes I feel inexplicably drawn to someone in a way that defies what I’ve come to know about myself. 

Carl Jung has been my bedtime companion in these last weeks.  His books encourage excavating our dreams –both waking and sleep- for information about deeper parts of ourselves that long to be seen.  My trip with him so far has me asking lots of questions and not yet finding answers.  It feels like I’m on the cusp, though.  And while I’m a little wary because I can’t see what’s coming next, my gut is telling me to start looking at my memories to see what they tell me about this life I find myself in.  If my reverie about my Bonnie is any indication, I’m in for quite a ride. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finding My Way

Here she is, the Hodaka Dirt Squirt.  The first motorcycle I fell in love with and the first bike I learned to ride.  Dave taught me to ride on his parent’s property. I practiced going round and round on a dirt loop running through the woods and on gravel roads and state land nearby.  It was a good place to practice.  Not a lot of traffic.  Lots of room to make mistakes.  The Dirt Squirt is in storage now in upper Michigan – hours and miles away, a lifetime really.

I love that Hodaka the same way I love hot chocolate after shoveling snow.  There’s a nostalgia to both- a thread that draws me back into earlier fond memories.  When I was a child, my father made an ice rink for my sister and I underneath the arms of the apple tree in the backyard.  The memories are snap shots:  sitting on the back landing while mom methodically tightened the laces of my skates, the clink-clink of skate blades against the cement floor of the garage, the swish-swish of snow pants as we made our way to the backyard.  We must have played for hours - but who knows, there is no concept of time in childhood.  We went back inside only after our mittens and knit scarves were wet with tiny balls of ice, our fingers red and numb, cheeks pink.  Mom greeted us at the door and watched as we labored out of snow clothes. Then we tramped downstairs together to sit in front of the fire and sip hot chocolate.

Late last night, I was working on my bike in the garage, replacing the spark plugs and air filter and changing the oil.  Light from the garage spilled out toward the house and was swallowed up by the night.  Now and again wind would rush in, swirling leaves about my feet, setting the tall grasses just outside rustling.  The darkness outside peered in, the smell of oil and Fall thick in the air.  I was on the floor under the bike waiting for the oil to drain when I looked up into the rafters and noticed the new wood secured to the joists to reinforce it.  I remembered the first thoughts of those repairs and the weekend spent making them.  How many years have passed since those rafters were replaced? How many hours have I spent here working on the bike?  How did all of those moments lead to this? Sometimes I find myself suspended between two worlds:  then and there, here and now. I’m amazed at how the mundane feels so powerful in some moments, metering out memories that stretch backward and forward.   All this I found from the measured care of my bike.

Those early days on the Hodaka were like those young days skating.  I was exploring a new world, a new life.  A childhood of Michigan Winters gave me many memories of skating and sledding and snow forts.  And early dirt riding has given me a life filled with new friends and long rides on new roads. Back then, there was someone beside me guiding me, keeping me warm and walking me through it. Today, it’s all self-lead, this caring for my bike, my home, my self.   Sometimes I think I’ve detoured because things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would, when life didn’t go the way I planned.  But now I think the plan was only an idea of how things should be rather than the only way to go.  So many unexpected places I’ve visited on this trip.  So many seasons marked on the bike.   One thing I never expected or planned was how many people would show up to fill the space of those who no longer travel with me.  My family now made of friends who lend tips and tools, time and talent as I continue to ride. 

To the many people who’ve helped me maintain both me and the bike, I give much thanks: to Aaron, Austin, Mike and Motorcycle Superstore for helping me get the new tires on; to Ashley for helping me change the spark plugs and clean the chain; to Joe and Dave for tips on changing the oil and filters; to Kate, Erica, Amy and Jen for helping me find my way.   

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going to Church

The last few Sunday mornings I’ve found myself at biker church.   I’m tempted to say it’s not church at all, except it is for me.   Simply put though, it’s a coffee shop up the street from my house where motorcyclists gather.   Bikes of all types line up along the curb out front while riders mill about, coffee in hand.   Some people have been coming for years, know which bike belongs to which body, though they may not remember the name of the owner.  The camaraderie is enough to keep people coming back again and again.  The first time I went to biker church, I met Phil- the guy who organized the trip to Deal’s Gap.  He’s part of the reason I think of biker church as church.  He’s pretty religious about riding; he rides every day, owns several bikes and does all kinds of riding- dirt, track, street.   I’d say I’d like to be like him when I grow up, except that I am: I’m pretty religious about riding, too. 

Bike Church

Biker church is a community of people united in their love for bikes and enjoyment of the ride.  I’m meeting new folks there, some I hope to call friends.  Last week, I was talking with Patrick and I found myself trying to explain my relationship to bikes.  I’m not like most riders I know in that I don’t care much about the specs of a bike.  For example, no matter how many times I try, I just can’t remember how much horsepower my bike has.  I know I don’t remember because it isn’t that important to me but sometimes I still catch myself trying to explain instead of just saying, “It’s all about the ride.”  It’s wearisome, all of this explaining and defending.  It wears on me after awhile. 

When I first started riding, I didn’t know how much of my life it would impact, how many of my friendships would result from a shared interest in motorcycles, how many vacations would be motorcycle trips or that a bike would be my main source of transportation.  More than these things though, riding has become a means through which I engage in life and it engages me.   It’s a continual teacher- the bike, the riding.  I didn’t realize how defensive I am or how much I question myself until I heard myself talking to Patrick.  It’s like a part of me feels that I don’t know enough about bikes to talk about them intelligently.  Logically, I know this isn't true but I'm not ruled by logic.  It's something else all together that has me questioning.  And I'm not sure yet what it is.  But I do know I’d like to be a little more gentle with myself than I am.  A little more forgiving. 

When I ride my bike, all this doubt, this needing to be better, recedes into the background.  There’s a time during a ride when I fade into the landscape.  I’m not a person on the bike on a road passing scenery but rather I become part of the scene.  This happened again Sunday during an afternoon ride when a bunch of us from the Deal’s Gap trip met up at biker church.   We road over toward Ada and down into Middleville then stopped for lunch at the Blackhawk Inn in Richland, a common stop for hungry riders.  After eating, we road up M43 with its series of curves then I broke off and headed home by myself turning north onto M37.  I was riding a leisurely pace, relaxed and easy in my seat, my belly full from lunch when I became aware of minute details: the contrast of colors in the landscape, the flickering leaves high in the trees, their upstretched limbs as I rode underneath. I glanced to my right and saw a hot air balloon above a stand of trees painted in brilliant hues.  Instantly, I was “of” that moment under that sky, alongside those trees, the sky open above me.  It was magical, miraculous, mind-altering.  Something broke open in me and tears came to my eyes.   There was nothing I wasn’t and nothing I should be.  I love these moments on the bike.  It’s fairer even to say that I live for them. This is my church, my religion.  This is what I’d die for.  If I have a few of these moments a day, there’s a few less where I’m trying to figure everything out, forgive something or someone.  There’s just the simple enjoyment of the ride.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sharing a Route

One of the hardest things about a trip to the gap is the 12 hour drive in the truck to get our bikes down there.  In preparing for it, I loaded my computer with videos, podcasts.  I brought a book to read, my journal to write in. As it turned out, the drive down and back was just as fun as the rest of the trip.  It’s where the camaraderie started.

When I was learning to ride a motorcycle, it was an all-consuming endeavor.  I'd had very little practice with a manual transmission.  I stalled the bike or sat atop it unmoving, the engine roaring if forgot to release the clutch.  Each time I climbed on the bike, I reviewed all its parts: rear brake, front brake, throttle, clutch, blinker, horn, kill switch.  It was a way to get my mind to remember what my body did not.  In that first year, it took all my attention, learning to ride.  I could think of nothing else while doing it.  To stop: break, clutch in, down shift. To go: clutch out, roll on the throttle.  Every action was first a thought.  When the bike was put away for the night, I felt clearer in my head and relaxed because it took so much energy to think then act, think then act.   Each ride was a vacation from my thoughts, my worries, my obligations.  I loved that about riding.  I loved the freedom I felt from daily life.

Now, after 10 years of riding, when operating the bike is second nature, I don’t often have that same feeling of “getting away” while on a ride.  Too often, I ride home from work on autopilot.  I make grocery lists, review my day at work, make plans for the weekend.  Now it takes some aggressive riding to hold my attention while on the bike.  Or some really great roads. 

Trips to the Gap ensure a focused, intense ride. There are long sweeping curves, hairpin turns, switch backs.  The camber of the road and its grade add further calculation to each maneuver so that every ride, in this part of the country, is a technical ride.   Each ride is absorbing, a meditation.  One particular stretch of road wound down and through the mountains, with the mountains to the right and a valley stretching out far below us like a sea of trees, to the left.  We continued winding round and round, curving this way and that.  Trees and brush grew so dense along the mountain’s edge they hung over the road like cliffs as we passed under them.  There is a rhythm to a ride on roads like this.  A swing and sway to the bike, the group of bikes together.  From the rear of the pack, sixteen of us move like one animal machine riding a rail, swaying back and forth.  It’s mesmerizing.  It feels, during rides like this, that we are one organism, one humming being. 

This year I didn't drive with Joe but instead hooked up with three others who were going down.  Basically, 3 days before we left, Brian agreed to give me a ride because Phil asked him to.   We had some marvelous conversations, the 4 of us.  We talked about God, faith, sin, the nature of man, of relationships.  I like thinking through these kind of questions and I like hearing others do the same.  There is no right and wrong in this realm of questions, in this kind of seeking.  We all have our own road to ride, our own map for the journey.   And for awhile, we got to see each other’s routes.  It was like what some people must get out of Sunday service, these conversations.  

There was no superlative on this trip- no best moment, no one great thing.  That’s what keeps me reflecting back on it.  I met new people about whom I knew two things only: we love motorcycles and we love to ride.  In my world at home, this isn’t much to go on. But after this trip, I think maybe it should be.  What better place to start with someone than sharing what I love to do?  It can lead to talking about the best trip of all.