Note: I wrote this over a year and half ago now. At the time I took what felt like a bold move printed it out and sent it via real mail to Bill Strickland, with the hopes of getting it published. He was kind enough to give me good feedback and passed it along. Nothing came of it, but I remember liking something about it. There are a lot of things I would change, since I feel like my writing is a bit different now, but I’ve also moved past what’s here, so leaving it intact feels right too. Thanks for reading — Bob
I’m standing outside in a misting rain that is Portland in winter. The light on my handlebar illuminates the rain, before moving on to the sidewalk in front of my wheels. My bike is waiting for me to swing my legs over the top tube so I can show it the way home. I’m waiting for the Garmin mounted to my stem to connect to the satellites above. I never wait for the computer to connect. I always ride off, not wanting to be told when to ride by a small electronic master. I’m not waiting for the computer, but for my eyes to stop watering.
For the past thirty weeks I’ve visited this building in Northwest Portland because they offer counseling to people with low income. Today was my last session with the best therapist I’ve had since starting therapy a little over seven years ago. It feels a little like a break up.
I give up waiting for the satellites, throw my leg over the bike, clip in and push off. The hiss of my tires on the wet street distracts me from the tears and thoughts occupying my mind. The moments of relief that always accompany that first pedal stroke quickly give way to the all the work I still have to do. As I pedaled back across Downtown Portland my mind flitted between watching traffic and wondering how I was going to continue the progress I’d made with Jeff.
I took a two-year break from therapy after losing my job in 2008. No job meant no benefits, which meant I was on my own. For those two years I survived due to the good graces of my girlfriend and a series of temp jobs. When I started seeing my therapist Jeff my temp jobs had dried up – leaving me without income, and no savings. I was also half way through my first season of road racing and starting the cycle of self hate and self destruction that has plagued my entire life. A friend pointed me to services for those without means. That’s how Jeff and I came to work together. That May the few moments of mental peace came while riding and racing my bike in the Willamette Valley.
After five years of pursing mountaintops I came back to cycling after realizing I wasn’t pushing myself enough to keep the darker side of life at bay. Road racing provided the same jolt as climbing, without the constant
threat of what climbers refer to as objective hazards, such as avalanches, falling ice and seemingly bottomless crevasses. The meditative act of riding also provided something that was near impossible for my mind to achieve, quiet.
I’ve long held the belief that I could not only learn about myself, but also improve who I am by actively engaging in the suffering that comes from intense physical activity. Which is part of the reason I returned to cycling after a five-year hiatus.
The problems that haunt me off the bike, show themselves in my racing. A moments hesitation and I miss out on the break, or place myself to far back to be of any good in the final sprint. Those hesitations are rooted in my often debilitating self doubt. For me, that split second where I watch a rider go up the road is directly related to my ability to bury my head in the sand when it comes to financial matters, dealing with those small life problems that, when not attended to blow up into major hassles. Issues like those, mixed with a tendency toward self-sabotage are what brought me back into therapy in the first place.
During my course of therapy we talked about how to tease life lessons from the harder moments in the saddle, the sprint to the line, bridging to a breakaway, attacking the pack, or not letting up during that last interval. We talked about how those moments can be used to demonstrate my worth as a person. That they could be used to slowly build the self-confidence I need to gain to live my life off of the bike. The pain we feel during those moments could be used to confront the things in our lives that hold us back.
There are things in my life that needed to be confronted: My seeming inability to commit to anything that could improve my relationships, the tendency toward self-sabotage and my inclination to bury my head in the sand when dealing with the important things in life, like my finances. These are things that I would have to work on alone, things I would have to learn how to manage on my own.
Before leaving that night Jeff left me with two things. The first was a USB drive, containing eight sessions we had taped. The second was an imperative. “Pain tells you where the work needs to be done. Move toward the pain, that’s where the lessons are”. Jeff had left me with a cue sheet for saving myself. He’d given me a clear and defined goal the upcoming road season.
All these worries fade to the back of my mind by the time I pedal over the Hawthorne bridge and follow the multi-use path south to my home at the edges of Portland. My light still illuminates the rain, but is also guiding me toward home. The Garmin’s blue light shines it’s dull blue light up toward my face while clicking away the miles. Enough mist has collected on my glasses making them nearly useless. Even so, at this time of night the path is deserted and the way is simple enough that I can almost guide myself home by feel. There isn’t much to do put keep the bike going straight and continue to tap out my preferred cadence. I get lost whooshing sound that rings with every pass of the posts that line the trail. The problems of my world are gone for a moment. Transcendence.
Its popular to say “To suffer is to learn’, which is true, but its not enough. Suffering is easy. Using the lessons learned while engaged in that is hard. To suffer is learn but only if one has the courage to engage that suffering and then ask ourselves hard questions about what we truly want, what makes us happy, and what we need to do to fix those things we feel to be wrong with our lives. It’s a courage I hope I have.