Chausson’s Bicycle

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In 1899, Romantic composer, Ernest Chausson, went out for a bicycle ride. While riding downhill, he hit a brick wall and was killed instantly, cutting short a promising career. In her poem about Chausson’s death, Denise Levertov imagines him riding, his mind filled with music and the colors of the countryside, both gaining in intensity as he gathers speed, takes flight on his bicycle. And then the wall, and a sudden silence.

I’ve owned Breathing the Water, Levertov’s collection of poems in which “From the Image-Flow — Death of Chausson, 1899” is printed, for twentysome years. I’m uncertain how many times, in those years, I’ve read this poem without real comprehension. I didn’t know who Chausson was and never felt enough curiosity to look him up. Furthermore, as someone who didn’t ride a bike, I didn’t catch her allusions to cycling.

This week, I happened to read the poem again and, although she never uses the word “bicycle”, I knew. I finally understood the poem (not just the words she used), and I caught on to the manner of Chausson’s death without resorting to Wikipedia (though I did look it up just to be sure).

What made the difference to my comprehension, this time around? It wasn’t imagination, I’ve certainly had the same ability to conjure thoughts and mental pictures at other times. And I doubt it was merely a matter of timing. No, what opened me up to the imagery of the poem was experience: the flash of recognition that comes with having practical contact with and observation of facts or events.

There was a time in my life when I did not seek out experiences. A long period in which it seemed enough to imagine, dream or surmise how a thing might feel; to use books or other people’s life stories as a guide. “Practical contact” might lead to things I feared, things like pain or grief or disappointment – so I avoided it. I anesthetized myself with food, and protected my tender possibilities with layers of fat that held other people and direct experience at bay. Eventually, I protected myself into near self-obliteration – both literally and figuratively. Almost worse than the erasure of my own life was the discovery that I had completely blunted my ability to feel empathy or compassion.

I had lost my ability to feel my way into a poem.

That changed when I began to say yes to new experiences. I even made it a New Year’s resolution one year: “Say yes to people and doing, no to staying home and sitting.”  Today, a few years down the line from that sterile space I once inhabited, I have not quite become an advocate of stockpiling experiences for their own sake. I still don’t understand the adrenaline-junkies among us, for example. But I have become a vociferous supporter of trying the things that call to you. This has led me to experiences I wouldn’t exchange for “safety”, even though some were emotionally difficult – experiences that opened my heart and engaged my intellect, experiences that allowed beauty to blow open my perceptions or that drew forth gifts I had hidden deep within.

If I hadn’t allowed myself to open up to experience, I wouldn’t have felt the grief  of this past week following the death of a friend. But I also wouldn’t have felt the balm of connection or the solidarity of shared loss.

After such a week, this is the two-fold gift of Chausson’s bicycle. First, the realization that my capacities (to see, to feel, to express) are enriched by engaging with new or broader experience. Second, that life cannot be fully lived if I’m always looking fearfully for the unseen brick wall ahead. Like Levertov’s imagined composer, I intend to ride fast and free, to hear arpeggios in the passing stream and revel in the flashing colors of this world. The wall and the silence are somewhere ahead: this I know. Even so, I will keep my feet to the pedals.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Goal

After a short night and an eight hour shift on my feet, the last thing I felt like doing was riding. It was in the 90s, humid, windy. For so many reasons, I did not want to ride.

However, I changed my clothes. Pulling the chamois on over already sweaty skin wasn’t easy. Jersey on, hair up. I grabbed my helmet and gloves on the way out the door.

The first few miles were a leisurely ramble. Bike lane to bike path, to street (where I had to stop for a slow Sunday train). Finally, the Hennepin bridge and ramp back to bike path. The long, mostly straight one heading out to the near suburbs. Here’s where I got serious, pushing my legs and lungs to go as fast as possible into the gusting wind.

Something happens, riding alone like this, on afternoons when I think I want to nap instead. A part of me I didn’t know existed until a couple or three years ago presents itself. It still surprises: that piece of me that wants to know what I’m made of. How hard, how fast, how “flow” can I go?

Then, almost before I know it, I’m on the home stretch. The wind is finally, blessedly, at my back instead of in my teeth. This is when I can really think, when the air I’ve been sucking has oxygenated my blood and my brain; when my heart-rate is descending for the first time in an hour or more.

I know the only reason I made myself ride was that I set a weekly goal of 100 miles Monday-Monday. If I hadn’t gotten out, I’d have missed it by 20+ miles this week. I rode hard because I didn’t want to complete the goal as I had the previous week, circling the block to eke out that last mile. Still, both weeks I met (and this week exceeded) my goal.

I’ve never really been a goal-driven person. For many years, I didn’t believe in goals – setting them seemed like one of those things people give lip service to but no one really does. Like always having an up-to-date resume, extra batteries, or underwear in your carry-on in case the airline loses your luggage.

“Why,” I wondered, “does it matter if I meet this arbitrary goal I set for myself?” The answer that came was simple – because I set it. The goal was a promise I made to myself. The 100 miles target may have been arbitrary. But the promise I made was a commitment to myself and for myself and was in no way arbitrary.

I wonder what would happen if I set goals like this in other areas of my life – and made a commitment to myself to keep them? Riding my bike has taught me to appreciate my body – its strength and endurance, its potential (which has not nearly been reached). Can it also teach me to appreciate my intelligence, skills, experience? Can it teach me to celebrate all that I have to offer – and find a way to bring it forth from my internal world into the world at large?

Will my bike be the vehicle that leads me where I need and want to go in my life – that leads me to the person I hope to be? Now that I know goals can be set AND met – BY ME, of all people! – and that I will approach them with resolve once I’ve committed, it’s well past time to set concrete intentions in the other parts of my life.

My biking goal isn’t  “to ride 1000 miles”. But in 100-miles-a-week increments, it won’t be long before I’ve reached that milestone. Instead of setting my sights on my “Pie-in-the-sky” life desires, it seems logical to start with goals that allow me to collect the ingredients, combine them in the right amounts. Eventually, they’ll bake a pie.

I’ve read lots of articles about the health benefits of cycling. They almost never mention (actually they never do) increased capacity to set and reach goals. And while the benefit to mental acuity is sometimes mentioned, the fact that  it can lead to spiritual growth is generally soft-pedaled. I’m beginning to believe that, when people talk about how much they love their bikes or their time cycling, what they’re really celebrating is the fact that riding teaches us to love ourselves. To love ourselves enough to set goals – to make a commitment.