Daily poem, 4 april

under the sand, a dragonfly
its lurid pencil wings
becoming oyster

the sand is full of birds
but they’re microscopic
— so many layers of world.

I look into milk
are the cells white
or do they just reflect my eye

Donkey-plain, reality seems
when it’s breakfast
but everything that fits under a microscope
becomes worlds

Daily poem, 2 april

Dangling saw
an hourglass tooth
The dark drink on the table
She reaches a finger
but it doesn’t come

It smells of leopard
and ancient snow
and she goes,
shutting that door.

 

Note: Daily poems is a project for National Poetry Month. I’ll write one each day and post it (likely the following day). All content, as always, is ©Lizbon and may not be reprinted/reposted anywhere without express permission.

Migration

heronb&wThinking about something a friend said about being an expat — that it will ultimately lead you to feel that you belong nowhere. He meant that it’s a form of freedom — that when you have no country or culture to be tied to, you can simply be who you are, wherever you are (shades of Buckaroo Banzai, I know, but there’s a reason why that expression took off like fire the moment we left the theaters in 1984).

I don’t know how long I’ll live here, but I know that whether I live here, or back in the US, or somewhere else, I will feel this same rootlessness, which often translates to restlessness — to wanting to be one of the birds. It would make more sense to be one of the birds, swirling overhead, alighting and then moving on. That is a lot of what happens to me, on the bike, the chasing of that desire, or simply being propelled by it. Something indefinable, but so strong that when I try to sit still through it, I feel like a tin man whose layers are falling off, decayed sheets of rust flaking down.

I cannot abide that, so I get up, I run downstairs, I unlock the bike. The birds swirl overhead. I saw a group of seagulls needling a single crow today.

I saw a strange, small, crested waterbird hustling along the ground. I saw a black duck killed by a car, its bloody remains sprawled across the ground.

I saw two huge storks in the distance. I saw the herons, always the herons. I startled one in the ice, and the sudden scratching as it took off startled me in return. There were more egrets than usual. I saw a photographer, pointing a long lens out the window of a car at them.

I don’t fit, but then maybe neither do the birds. They are not really part of either earth or sky. They have territories they haunt. They migrate, moving to where it’s warm, or where the food is plentiful, or where there is a good spot to lay some eggs. Maybe I need to look at my own migrations that way. Here, right now, is a good spot to lay some eggs.

Strange Days

bikefaceIt’s awfully hard to write a personal blog these days. Not because there’s nothing going on in my life, but because my one life feels overshadowed by all the Everything going on in the world.

The plots of the most far-fetched spy stories pale next to the conspiracies and machinations that dominate the headlines — and the reality underpinning them is likely far worse.

This is the world we live in. Shock exhaustion. Waking up thinking it can’t possibly get any crazier today. Knowing that it will.

In the midst of that, I am struggling to find my place in a new culture, to find new clients, to learn a new language. All of which can be frightening, or fun, or exhilarating, or all of the above. I feel less intimidated by the little interactions in Dutch — not full conversations yet, but the back-and-forth information and pleasantries of shopping. I get a little thrill when someone doesn’t immediately switch to English. There is, for me at least, something inherently pleasurable in trying to speak a language other than the one I was born into. Even when I don’t get it quite right, there’s a little jolt that feels like swimming. The waters are not my environment, but I can move about, I can stay afloat. I like it. I always have.

And the whole adventure is taking place in the context of living on a bicycle, which is as familiar to me as breathing. The bicycle is grounding, although it seems strange to describe it that way, since it’s a thing made of movement — its very essence is to be fluid and free. If I’m on a bike, I know where I am, even when I am geographically (or emotionally) lost.

Dear Bicycles…

bike+burstIt occurred to me today, while riding a narrow fietspad flanked closely by tiny canals (don’t wobble if you want to stay dry), that if I hadn’t fallen in love with bicycles, I never would have come here. That the thread that led me here began with a hard entry into bicycle transportation, a sudden leap from zero to bike commuting 16 miles (each way) to work in #bikenyc on September 12, 2001.

That insane commute evolved into a passionate love affair that has at times threatened to eclipse most of my other interests. It grew into a steadfast (read: stubborn af) commitment to move about my daily world by bicycle.

It took me out of NYC (because gawd that was brutal) and to the U.S. “bike mecca” of Portland (not all it’s cracked up to be). It made the DC metro area (where I’d moved to be near family) an impossible devil’s bargain. It took me a hair’s breadth from moving to Minneapolis (but the stroads!), and finally it spurred me across an ocean, in a move born of desperation (but also of that same deep and abiding love for the bike).

Dear bicycles: I’m incredibly grateful to you.

Love always,

—L

Focus

tandemI expected, I really did, to have lots to say about bikes here. I did not expect that in very short order, I would cease thinking very much about bikes. And yet, to a degree that’s exactly what’s happened.

I’d always wondered how my life would be, if I could actually ride in peace, to get where I’m going, or for pleasure, or some of each. I wondered how it would feel, and what I would think about, if I didn’t have to funnel so much of my energy, every moment that I spent on the bike, into simply fighting to stay alive. I thought, idly, that maybe I’d have time for my other interests, the things that have always been important to me but that I used to care about in a more active sense. Art, nature, various sciences, photography, storytelling, the making of things.

I thought that, but I didn’t really believe it, because I couldn’t feel it. It was just a theory, and one that occurred at some distance from where the center of me seems to reside.

willetjesbrugI was obsessed with bikes. With bikes and the riding of them, and the incredible difficulty and stress of continuing to ride them in a society that felt to me as if it were getting more and more cruel toward anyone perambulating outside the steel walls of automobiles.

I was so obsessed that I left the United States seeking solace — seeking the freedom to ride where I wanted to go (or nowhere at all) without fear. I neither expected nor wanted to lose the obsession. Yet, within the first couple of weeks, I adjusted to the sight of bikes everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE, all the time, being ridden by every kind of person to do every kind of task, and parked on every available surface at all times, everywhere you look. Not only did that quickly begin to feel normal, but I ceased to even notice them most of the time.

goldcurveAnd then, little by little, I stopped thinking about bicycling as a separate activity. Riding became walking, or breathing. I still ride almost every day; I just don’t focus on it in the same way. I don’t think about planning routes — unless it’s finding new ways to crisscross the city through the little alleys — or pedaling into the countryside looking for the fietspads that cut across the flat marshy fields and into little towns.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still gab obsessively about bikes if there’s a bike person around to talk to, but my thoughts are often occupied with…art, nature, science, stories, photography, and making things. With truth and human nature, with where the world is going, and how we can help it survive and help each other through this difficult, frightening time.

I don’t yet speak much Dutch, but apparently I have absorbed at least one aspect of the culture. Here, bicycles are a means to an end, and that end is life. butcher

Well actually, America…

crescentmoonSometimes we don’t know why we make a particular choice, what it means to us — how it fits in with who we are or will shape who we become — until later, often years later. I became a born-again bicyclist (as my friend Kimberly puts it) in New York City, at this time of year, in 2001. I’ve written about what that was like, about why I had to leave when I did, and about my search for a place where I could simply ride my bike in peace. Just be able to go about my business with a reasonable expectation of both being and feeling safe doing so.

But it’s only recently that I’ve been able to see the last few years — and maybe even the last fifteen — in context, as a trajectory that means something to me, and that has a pattern.

I’ve said before that I dislike the notion (popular in transportation research and planning, and even among bicycle advocacy groups) of categorizing people who ride bicycles (or don’t) according to their attitudes about it, e.g. “strong & fearless” <eyeroll>, “enthusiastic & confident,” “interested but concerned.” I know people are fond of using labels as a shorthand so they can talk about how to meet various people’s needs, but my experience in this and every other form of human experience is that labels are harmful. They’re reductive, and they’re a slippery slope to stereotyping.

And one thing they miss entirely in this particular case is that people’s feelings about bicycling, their preferences, their “style,” change over time. As with all other aspects of our lives, how we experience life on the bike evolves. Because we get older, because we try new things, because what used to be fun or comfortable for us no longer feels the same, but we might enjoy some other way of being on the bike.

lotuspadsThis is natural. This is normal. Were we a cycling culture, we would understand this in our bones. But we are not. We are a driving culture, and as such we can barely recognize that people on bikes are human, much less that their cycling needs and preferences will develop and transmute over time.

I don’t enjoy riding my bicycles any less than I did when I lived in NYC, but I definitely ride differently now than I did then. And that’s neither good nor bad; it just is. It’s part of being a human on a bike. I have evolved. I will continue to.

The trouble is, the U.S. has no room for me to evolve. Say what you will about your own experiences, for me there is only one type of riding I can do here: high-alert riding.

And I was ready to be done with that style when I left NY almost five years ago. It was why I moved to Portland.

purples2I’ve written in detail about how Portland changed in the time I lived there, and about why it fails to fulfill its substantial promise as a haven for people who choose to bicycle for transportation. You can read that here, and here. Things haven’t improved since I left; more people walking and bicycling have been killed or seriously injured by drivers this year than last year, in Portland and in the U.S. as a whole.

When I moved to the D.C. metro area, I experienced significant culture shock. It was the first time I’d lived in such a deeply car-centric region since I became a dedicated bicyclist. This summer, I visited Minneapolis to see whether it might work as an alternative. The people I met there were wonderful, and the Greenways ranged from minimally serviceable to downright delightful, but the moment you exited them you were shoulder to shoulder with aggressive drivers zooming past your elbow at 50+mph, on the largest stroads I’ve seen outside of Los Angeles. Not to mention that everyone warned me about riding the Greenways at night (in a word, “Don’t”).

My experiences in all these cities have made it increasingly clear that the answer to my simple plea, “I just want to ride my bike where I’m going in peace” is, in this country, “No.”

I’m not the first person to face this hard truth, and I won’t be the last. The surge of interest in “gravel bikes” and bikepacking is due in no small part to people getting discouraged by the constant stream of aggression and near-misses they experience riding on roads.

But as fun as gravel and snow and singletrack are, I still have grocery shopping to do. Like everyone, I have places to go and people to see, and I’m not willing to give up my commitment to doing these things by bicycle. At the same time, I’ve had about as much of this as I can stand. Looking at the rest of my life stretched out before me as an endless stream of abuse, trauma, and threat avoidance, I’ve concluded that I deserve better than an endless pitched battle to stay alive. We don’t require war vets to live their entire lives on the front lines, and I shouldn’t have to, either.

So I’m leaving. I have a roundtrip plane ticket to the Netherlands for the winter, and if it seems like the place for me, I’ll transfer my freelance business there, come back, grab my bikes, and relocate permanently.

Looking back, I’m glad now that I started my bike life in NYC, because it’s the one place in the U.S., perhaps, where the car does not rule, and where one can feel most clearly the way the bicycle unlocks a city. As I always said to the bike-curious when they asked why I rode, the bicycle puts back the freedom the city takes away. It gives you autonomy. It gives you freedom of movement. Those two wheels are a pair of wings.

reds

Not losing my religion

ripplemonumentI suppose it is a measure of how much bicycling is still a fringe activity in the U.S. that the most commonly asked question of someone who rides is “What kind of bicyclist are you?” as if you’re meant to choose a team. The multiple choice options are generally something along the lines of: recreational, commuter, racer, fitness, “avid,” etc.

I hate that question. No one in the Netherlands gets asked that question, because there riding a bicycle is embraced as an ordinary part of life. Here, if you’re an adult on a bicycle, well, you’d better explain yourself. Preferably by choosing one of these little icons so we understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and can place you in your proper box.

The thing is, none of those boxes fit.

My real answer to this question is: observant. I am an observant bicyclist. No, I’m not talking about noticing natural beauty in my surroundings or being alert to potential dangers (although both of these are true). I mean observant in the religious sense. I am a practicing bicyclist. I am devout.

Before you scoff or assume that I’m exaggerating for emphasis, think for a moment about what religion is, the purpose it serves for people of faith. At its most basic, a religion is a basis for understanding life — both one’s own experience and the possible reason (if there is one) for existing. It’s a way to make sense of the world, and of one’s experience moving through it. Most of all, it’s a way to interact with our core selves, to make contact with the quintessential spark that makes it so obvious when a living creature is inhabiting her body, and when she’s left it.

Fundamentally (no pun intended), religions exist to connect us to and help us understand life — both within us and around us.

All of those things come to me and move through me when I’m on a bicycle. I make sense of my world by riding through it. When I am mired, confused, struggling through the difficulties of my daily existence like so much sticky pudding, I get on the bike and pedal my way clear.

swampfenceOn the bike I am both free of the world and part of it. I am distinctly, purely me, and yet I am also body, blood, and flesh of the land, water, and sky.

It is as natural for me as breathing, the most simple and mundane of activities, and yet I guard that time on the bike with a ferocity I cannot explain. It is sacred. It is for me and me alone that I ride, and you are not invited into that space.*

Nor will you ever take it from me. The very idea of being forced off-bike turns me savage. I resent intrusions, demands that I sacrifice this one thing I do for me. This one thing that makes sense, in all the world, and that — in the moment, at least — comes closest to making sense of the world.

If (more likely when) I flee this country, it will be as a refugee. No, that’s not a metaphor.

swampreflection*That’s not to say I don’t like riding with other people. But it is different, just as going to a church fete is different than solitary prayer.