Six years old, I learned to ride a bike on a little red Schwinn. No training wheels. My dad said training wheels were for sissies. “It’s all about balance, Joani Baloney. You can do this.” He steadied me on the seat of the bike and instructed me how to steer and how to pedal. Like the whole thing was an intellectual exercise. And then he let me go at the top of the hill of a little cul-de-sac. It was a little hill, but to a six-year-old, a very big hill. I careened down. I crashed. Head on into a telephone pole. I cried.
Now this is not a method I recommend. (A method my father also used to teach me how to drive a car – with similar results.)
But I did learn how to ride that bike – and it was my first little taste of freedom. My first little experience with independence.
I rode my bike to school, to the pool, to the store, to piano lessons and softball practice.
Reach back and remember. When was your first bike ride? Who taught you? Where did you go? And along the way, who have you taught in return?
A virtually universal rite of passage for little American kids.
But as a mom, I have flat out failed in this regard. Three of my four children will tell you that they are scarred from the experience – or the lack of experience – of learning to ride a bike.
We lived at 212 East Windsor, a 1920’s bungalow right here in Del Ray, directly across the street from the fire station. This was quite exciting when my kids were little. When they would hear the sirens, they scrambled to the front porch to watch the fire fighters slide down the pole – and gaze in amazement as they raced off in the bright red fire trucks.
As a mom, this spectacle also terrified me. A bit of a safety fanatic, I imagined my bike and trike riding children getting run over by fire engines. The sirens screaming so loud, I feared I couldn’t hear my children’s screams. Extreme. Ridiculous. I know.
In an abundance of caution, I made the street in front of our house totally off limits. And by extension, all streets in our neighborhood – relegating my children to sidewalk transport only.
On foot, of course, but also on wheels: roller blades and skates, wagons and scooters, big wheels.
But never a bike.
And my grownup children have never let me forget how I handicapped their childhood.
Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
So today is at least in part about making amends.
As the liturgist at Emmanuel, as a lark for a friend I was googling “new car safe driving prayers” when I came across the Blessing of the Bicycles. Several urban churches and even cathedrals have held annual Bike Blessings.
I forwarded the link to Chuck, the rector and my colleague, an avid cyclist. “Would you like to do this at Emmanuel?’
“OF COURSE! LOVE THIS!” he fired back in all CAPS.
We concurred, June 24th, the first official Sunday in summer would be a great day to do it. And we decided to do it up right. Not just a five-minute perfunctory blessing after church. No, we would lean in for the entire service: scripture, hymns, prayers, remembrances.
We are breaking more than a few Book of Common Prayer rubrics. It’s easier, of course, to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. And for the liturgy police out there the early service at 8:00 AM on the 24thwill be entirely kosher.
But what better way to celebrate the summer solstice than to celebrate the spirit of all things bicycle.
As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground…This is what the wheels looked like: They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope.
They went in any of the four directions they faced, but straight not veering off. The rims were immense, circled with eyes. When the living creatures went, the wheels went; when the living creatures lifted off, the wheels lifted off. Wherever the spirit went, they went, the wheels sticking right with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
Now the prophet Ezekiel, in the 6thcentury BC, was not writing about bikes. They describe apocalyptic visions he had of the Israelites escaping captivity in Babylon. But their wild and vivid imagery suits our purposes for today – a vision of that wild ride, a vision of a spirited journey rising above the road.
Now I myself have not been on a bike in over thirty years. I am an avid pedestrian but not a cyclist.
So, for authenticity’s sake and to genuinely throw myself into the spirit of the occasion, I too had to get a bike. And actually ride it, of course.
I walked into Conte’s Bike Shop on King Street with the following criteria for my purchase:
- I am not even sure if I still know how to ride a bike.
- I will not be riding in traffic of any kind.
- I am only going to ride on flat surfaces and seldom used bike paths.
- I will not be doing any racing.
I picked out a red one with big fat white tires – an updated version of the Schwinn I had as a kid. And nearly identical to Peewee Herman’s in Peewee’s Big Adventure!
I have worked up to an hour’s ride, pedaling on the back streets of my neighborhood. And I have begun to experience a bit of all of those positive byproducts that bicycling brings.
It’s good for your mental and not just your physical health. It can lift your spirits when you are down and moderate your mood when you are manic. It’s very beneficial for the brain for ADHD and bipolar people like me.
Your lungs get stronger. You can breathe better. You can even enjoy a second breakfast if you bike to work.
Cycling can help you sleep better and it can even make you smarter! Boosting blood flow to your gray cells.
Without google maps telling you where to go, you develop a better sense of direction. Better to map your own way.
And cycling can widen your social circles and expand your world: Beyond friends and family, in clubs you can meet fellow cyclists of all kinds and in races for good causes, you can find kindred spirits along the way.
Biking is kinder to Mother Nature and a boon for the environment. No fossil fuels. No greenhouse gases.
And economical too. A car costs about 55 cents a kilometer to operate. A bike, only about a tenth of that. A little more than a nickel a kilometer. With a bike you might not need a second car.
And affordable bike sharing – in economically challenged locations – can help to provide low cost transportation – to work, to the store, to school – for the less affluent who need it the most.
And cycling is good for the soul. Connecting the rider not just to creation but to the Creator. It can get us out of our comfort zones and off the couch and put us in touch with communities we have never dreamed of.
And isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?
Every ride can be a hymn of praise: for life, for health, for the sheer joy of pedaling down the road.
And while you ride, you can say a prayer for everyone you pass along the way: other riders, pedestrians, motorists and truck drivers too. Pray for safety and the security of all with whom we share the road.
So, let’s end this little blog post with a Celtic blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you;
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall soft upon your path;
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
And come join us June 24th, 10:00 AM at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Click here for all the details on The Blessing of the Bikes!