My high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Jarl, used to hypothesize the involvement of “god, or whoever you believe in,” as he taught the mysterious phenomena of attraction and architecture of chemical bonds. I loved his phrase and all it evoked. And I love, with abandon, those unexplained events—maybe chemical, maybe magnetic, maybe metaphysical—that have ever since occurred and let me know I’m on exactly the right path, often when I’m most worried I’m wayward, despite always best following my heart.
I had one of those moments of synchronicity just last week. It involves my bicycle.
When I first began riding a bicycle in the city 13 years ago, I was a student of the arts, living in downtown Portland, Oregon, attending grad school at Portland State. It was just before the Pearl district burst with an uprising of skyscrapers, spouting with LEED features, like recycled rain water blooming from fountains and flushing down toilets.
After I graduated, I began biking to work, sometimes with the help of MAX, from my still-affordable North Portland duplex on the light rail line. Looked like I had accomplished my goal: I was a poor working artist. I wrote and worked to publish poetry in the spare hours clustered around my day job, like a new mother trying to keep up with her art between her infant’s naps.
Biking was cheaper than driving downtown. These were the days of high gas prices and layoffs and the soon-to-be great recession of ’08. Also, it seemed whenever I drove to work I managed to collect parking tickets. That, of course, is if I could find parking in the first place, in time to tip-toe to my desk, trying not to be late.
I didn’t know a thing about city policy at the time, but in part through its parking policy, the city was strategically leading me away from car dependence. And then one fateful evening, my car was sandwiched and totaled in a hit and run on eastbound Highway 26, right before the tunnel. Fortunately, no one involved was hurt, except in the pocketbook thanks to some speeding driver who selfishly didn’t give a shit, whose license plate was branded into the back bumper of my ’94 Ford Thunderbird on the wrong side of readable. My shift to biking was now complete. It was just a matter of saying goodbye for good to my now vestigial vehicle. The Universe had spoken: the carfree island had voted me in. I was off the mainland.
I deposited my thousand dollar check from the insurance company and paid rent with it.
There was no way then for me to know that my focus on and awareness of car culture, and of cars’ saturation of American life, was just beginning.
I was still learning basics, like how to correctly eat to sustain a bicycle commute without bonking. I didn’t even yet know the word “bonking.”
My bike commute to work back then was five miles one way. I’d been a track athlete in high school, and a lifelong runner, but biking took it out of me physically in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The physical depletion affected my mood and emotions, vitamin & iron stores, and indeed, hormones. My route happened to be a freight route full of exhaust spewing diesel trucks. Was it also the noise and stress and pollutants of trucks and cars alongside me that wore me down? That still hadn’t occurred to me to ask. That’s how embedded car culture was: having driven a car for so long, I still didn’t think to blame cars. The bicycle had much, yet, to teach me.
When I was first learning to bike as transportation, which is very different from any kind of biking I’d done as a young girl, I relied on the advice of those who’d done it longer. Most of that came from my partner, a musician who’d been bike-commuting in Portland for twenty or so years. I still remember the first time he came over. As I opened the door to my apartment, I saw he’d hauled his bike up the indoor stairway. A minute passed at the doorway as I slowly realized he intended to bring it inside… I’d never brought a bicycle inside a house before. I still didn’t even own a bike, yet.
I’ll save that part of story for now & fast forward on to the first years of riding my new bicycle (it actually took three tries to get the right bike, but that’s a whole other post, too).
“Car.” When I heard him say this from his spot behind me, I learned he meant to scoot closer to the curb or row of parked cars, and to stay single file, because he’d heard a driver approaching us fast on the greenway. Soon I, too, learned to hear cars coming from behind.
“Stop for a snack?” He could spot the vacant look in my eyes that came four to ten miles into a ride, depending on when I’d eaten last. It indicated my sugar levels had dropped and I’d start to get cranky without an apple. In the early months of riding it rarely occurred to me to stop and eat a snack until I was too far gone. I could run for miles without needing a snack. Biking was different. It involved my brain so much more, which made me hungry.
In the same year I began biking, a now well-known bike blog emerged in Portland: bikeportland.org. I think I first heard about it from a co-worker, who told me I might be able to look for my stolen bike via the blog. Ha, yeah, I know. Stolen bike already; rough start to biking, right? But something kept me attracted. I’d crystalized with the bike. Some kind of chemical bond.
Just as it never occurred to me I’d one day be living carfree in Portland’s suburbs, as I am today, it never occurred to me I’d one day write for BikePortland. But as I came into my own as a bike commuter, I began reading the articles. Over the years I relied on the blog as a reference to learn about various biking issues and routes. The comments were often tremendously helpful, and illustrated the range of choices people could make with this amazing and nimble vehicle: the Bicycle.
I don’t understand hipster wars, or even really what “hipsters” are, but recently one group of Portland hipsters dismissed online bicycle forums as so much unimportant other-hipster drivel.
“So Portland,” they scoffed. “There are such worse things happening in the world than not enough bike lanes.”
Not every hipster is a seasoned enough citizen of the world to know that the fight for bike lanes happens to be a national—indeed, international—movement. The momentum for life-supporting and equitable transportation, as well as environmental & climate justice, is gathering force.
I got to thinking. I’ve really only read the one bike blog, but would some of our conversations about bike lanes even make sense to someone who drives a car alone to work Monday through Friday? Maybe, maybe not. Some people bike enough to understand the need to drive slowly in neighborhoods, or read enough on forums to know to stop driving behaviors like passing too close. Then there are the commuters who use driving apps to speed through neighborhood greenways at rush hour, too fast for neighbors to tell which post-90s slacker-grunge album, band older now and broaching politics, is emanating from the speakers. Neighbors and other roads users have opinions about that behavior, that they freely discuss online.
In defense of the bicycle forum, although talking about bike lanes is an intellectual activity, and biking seems physical, these two activities actually support each other.
Riding a bicycle requires, and at the same time develops, a mind-body-spirit union. Also, particularly in the midst of car traffic, biking is an immensely creative form of transportation. Hundreds of little choices & decisions & fast judgments, any of which could be life-altering, must be mentally made on a single ride. So: exercising the intellect & tuning our emotions with online bike banter is useful—if not necessary—training.
Time’s funny. It takes years to arrive at a single moment of synchronicity.
As I mentioned earlier, my graduate work is in the arts. I consider my career path to be Writer. But I was also raised to be responsible for myself & others, as the oldest child of four. And I was taught to be service-oriented, as the daughter of parents who did medical service work, raising me and my siblings overseas before returning us, culture-shocked, to America.
A few years after graduating with my dual MAs and falling victim to the great recession, I moved west from Portland, where jobs and rents were more attractive.
Immediately upon moving to the the suburbs, I was laid off. There was an arbitrariness about it—my manager was tasked with making cuts, par for the course—but something he’d said in the past made me wonder if my riding a bicycle to work had anything to do with it. But I said nothing. A previous manager had already extended my original contract once, making it twice as long as I’d first signed for. I qualified for unemployment, and figured this was “meant to be;” another chance to forward my writing path.
I also applied and was accepted to a state program to help me start a small business.
I’d lived in these suburbs before, but always with a car. Like most of the other suburban residents, I’d never used a bus or a bicycle when I lived out here before—not even for recreational rides. So, along with getting used to biking next to the higher speeds people drove on county arterials, I found I also had to help educate them about what they could and could not put in bike lanes:
Bicycles they were riding, yes.
Trash bins, no.
Road construction signs, also no.
I wrote to the county, and they put a blurb in the recycling newsletter about Oregon law, which prohibits blocking a lane of travel—such as the bike lane—with trash bins.
I moved ahead with my consulting business to help people eliminate clutter from their homes. But I quickly realized the bicycle infrastructure to my clients’ homes was hit or miss. It was hard not to arrive overly harried by dangers of the route.
I was also teaching at the university as an adjunct, and en route I found some of the giant employers of suburbia to be the worst offenders, treating bike lanes as dumping grounds for their campuses’ landscaping waste.
The icing on the cake was that the professional organization I’d joined as a businesswoman, National Association of Professional Organizers, or NAPO, held its monthly chapter meetings in the next county over, in a suburban location with no bike infrastructure or bus service at the hour the meeting ended.
While NAPO may not have made the connection between America’s clutter problem and cars, I now had.
In service to myself, and I hoped to my community, I let my NAPO membership lapse and gave up biking to clients’ homes. I settled in to write about these things instead, and to help bring about more bicycle infrastructure, with various part-time employment as financial supplement.
I also took time to consider why I’d felt conflicted the entire time I’d worked at my service business. I’d felt strongly drawn to do it, but also worried it’d deter my path as an artist. What about my persona as a poet and literary writer? Artists and writers craft their “personas” alongside their art, and develop their “writing platforms,” in hopes of scoring that big publishing deal. This was what Facebook was supposed to be good for. “I wish I could get off Facebook,” writers would wistfully tell me. “Yes, yes, I know,” I’d sigh.
Posting about clutter clearing had a way of puncturing the inner tube of my Portland-Bohemian artist’s tyre like a stray piece of Bullseye glass.
I imagined some publisher holding my manuscript saying, “Hey Mortimer, check this out. I’ve got a poet/novelist here who sorts clutter… sort of a Don Aslett meets feng shui meets Agatha Christie meets Allison DuBois. No way we can possibly sell that, right?”
“Doubt it, Randolph, but we sure could use some help clearing out boxes around here!”
I still have a complex about this.
But artists—or at least, I, in my experience—also know the impulse to create. I know how wrong it feels to resist a creation impulse once it takes hold. Doesn’t matter what the medium is, or if it’s consistent with the rest of the oeuvre.
And what I was strongly drawn to write about, create about, and illustrate now was car culture and biking.
“What if people on Facebook think you’re anti-social for criticizing cars and their overuse, & unfriend you,” I would argue to myself. “You don’t want to burn any bridges, do you?”
On cue, an imaginary mental movie would play, on a variation of this theme: Unnamed Facebook “Friend” posts a news article entitled, Foxes, And How To Help, which gets 25 Likes. Then they post an article called, Does Instagram Cheapen Coffee? It gets 8 Likes. After that they log off, grab sunglasses & keys & hit their garage door opener. They get in their car & start the motor, looking down at their phone to select a playlist as they back swiftly into the street. Suddenly they’re being shouted at by a person on a bicycle, who’s towing a child and has veered to the middle of the street, and looks angry! They’re yelling something like, “…bikes, would ya?” Coffee has spilled. A neighbor pulls a curtain back to look. Facebook acquaintance then drives on, alone in their climate-controlled car, checking their Gas App with trembling fingers, while driving, insulated from the sound of their own motor. The cheapest gas is not on the way, so they go on to park in the huge company parking garage & walk silently & swiftly to their work cubicle. They log immediately back on to Facebook and type a cleverly snide complaint about “having to deal with bikers” on their way in to work. The post instantly gets forty Likes, and someone posts that running-over-cyclists meme which gets a comment with the ROFLMAO emoticon. -End of movie-
So now, along with a stint in the domestic work of clutter clearing—which is really a spiritual activity, mind you—I had this “radical bike activist” persona to try and account for.
Ego cares not that Spirit is limitless.
I keep spiraling back around, free electron, magnetic field.
Last Tuesday, I was at the library, where I regularly check their book sale shelf. Proceeds support the library. In the last couple years I’ve been doing historical research as setting for a novel, so I always check the section with Oregon history books, priced at a dollar or two.
The day’s finds were literary history. I chose Oregon Fever, an anthology of Northwest writing from 1965 to 1982, edited by Charles Deemer, who was my screenwriting professor. Then I found Best Essays NW, with a foreword by Barry Lopez. The book had been published in 2003, the same year I’d moved to Portland to work on my MA in poetry. I brought the books home, resolving to reawaken and sharpen my literary writing chops. I’d been getting too focused on city and county bicycle policy, I chastened myself. Time to make sure I didn’t lose my focus as an artist and writer.
The next morning, Wednesday, I sat down determined to read the first two essays in the Best NW book before starting my day. On the schedule was a pair of open houses for transportation projects, which municipalities offer so the public can learn and comment. The first was at noon, a city open house about a road they’re adding bike lanes to; then at 5pm was a county open house about an intersection they’re widening at Nike HQ, making biking and crossing on foot even more dangerous.
The first short essay I read happened to be by Kim Stafford, the son of a former Oregon poet laureate, who was just named poet laureate himself by Governor Kate Brown. The next essay was by Kathleen Holt, called Picking Fruit. In the essay she describes picking lychee in Hawaii, later writing that she’d only found them canned on the mainland. “I refuse to even try them,” she wrote. I’d never heard of lychee, but I related to Holt’s skepticism of the mainland’s offerings. I too had grown up on fresh tropical fruit, not Hawaii’s, but that of central Africa: papaya, guava, mango, pineapple and palm nuts. But no lychee. They sounded fascinating. I wondered what they looked like.
Thoughts from my morning’s reading faded to the background I finished my coffee and got ready to bike to the first open house. It would be a day of so-called “bicycle activism,” and I’d later write about some of it for bikeportland.org.
On the way home from the first open house, I was in a part of Beaverton I’d only biked through once before. I was relishing the beautiful day on my bike, the green grassy fields, the birds, the sun. I had time to take it in. I explored around an abandoned building, lingering, looking around. At first all I saw were parking lots and nondescript buildings, but to the north, toward car-centric Canyon Road which I avoided on my bicycle, some kind of colorful kites fluttering over the asphalt caught my eye.
What’s that? I had to know.
Riding closer, I saw they were koi. They were six or 7-foot long cloth kites strung between lamp posts in front of a place I hadn’t known was there: Uwajimaya Grocery. And I’d been looking everywhere, without success, for fresh burdock root to add to a juice blend.
Maybe I’d find some here!
I found a bike parking rack, locked up, lugged my bike bag over my shoulder and excitedly went inside. There in the produce section, across from a plentiful display of fresh burdock root, was a sample duo of red watermelon and—I couldn’t believe my eyes—lychee.
I stared for a moment in disbelief. Before that morning’s literary reading, I’d never heard of this fruit, or seen it, peeled or unpeeled. Before the transportation open house, I hadn’t known this grocery was here, much less that there was a bikeable route to it.
It was one of those “god or whoever you believe in” kind of moments.
I carefully pricked one of the lychee with a toothpick. The taste burst in my mouth as delightfully as the coincidence itself.