By Peter Burns
I bought my phone because it has a good camera and I wanted to record my adventures in the Vermont countryside. Bike riding is about momentum and every once in awhile I see something I think would make a good photograph, but I don’t stop, because the ride is more important than the images I bring home.
I don’t want to sacrifice the experience for recording what I see. I often take photographs when I have stopped anyway, to take a break from riding. The image that goes with this post is one of the few that really came together as a photograph. It was taken when I stopped for a break on Marrs Hollow Road in Milton. Curiously, it was not a spectacular day, I didn’t think the photograph would be of much interest, but to a non-professional like myself, what is of interest to my eye often does not translate into a good photograph and vice-versa. It just happened that the elements of the photograph came together in an interesting way.
Many years ago I was part of an evening of performance art. One man had a sign with the word ‘even’ written on it. He pointed out that ‘even’ is not even. To be even it would have to be spelled differently. Neven or eve would work. Neven is an archaic word meaning to name. In the Old Testament, it was Adam who got to name things, not Eve. In French even is ‘meme’, which is even in terms of spelling. Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work, most often called ‘The Large Glass’ is also known as ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même).
Every state has a motto, Vermont’s is ‘Freedom and Unity’. If I had a motto it would be ‘Even’. I believe, as did the Stoics, in calmness and tranquility. In the last ten years, I have been through enough drama and anxiety to last a lifetime. A day in which I can follow my daily routine is a day when I feel blessed. For me, ‘even’ also means that no one activity is more important than another. I want to give the same attention to my commuter riding as I do to my rides for pleasure. The Balinese have a saying "We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” All of daily life can be an art form, even riding to work. This is a challenge, I still favor some activities with more attention than others. When I take a long bike ride I can sometimes achieve a sense of tranquility. I call it the ‘away feeling’. After I have gone a certain distance from home, my daily worries and concerns seem to flow out of my body, and I feel relaxed and calm. This does not happen every time I take a long bike ride, but it does happen once in a while. I would like to experience the away feeling even on short rides in the city.
My other motto would be ‘Not always so,’ which is the title of a book by zen master Shunryu Suzuki. I can get caught up in ways of doing things, systems and techniques but all of them are provisional and subject to change. There are no unchanging truths.
Many of us have a difficult relationship with food and weight. I am at a weight I want to be for riding, and I am disciplined about the way I eat. That is not my ideal. I wish all of us could relax about food, eat what we enjoy, stop when we are no longer hungry, and be happy about our bodies the way they are. Obviously that is not the case for most people. Everybody I know has some food-related issues. Many people are intolerant or allergic to certain foods, unhappy about their weight or on very restrictive diets. I exercise a lot, but to maintain my weight I have to be careful. I eat in a very structured way, that does not vary much from day today. I eat mindfully. When eating alone, I sit up straight, take a sip of water between each bite and refrain from any other activity. I don't read or check my phone or listen to podcasts. I also don't take seconds at any meal or eat sweets during the day unless someone bakes something special or I am at a birthday celebration. When I am eating with others, I still take a sip of water between bites. I weigh myself once a week. I am careful not to fall below a certain weight. That is also unhealthy.
I teach classes about everyday bike riding and winter bike riding. My main purpose is to inspire participants to ride more, but I am often uncertain about how to do that. Everyone's circumstances are so different it is hard to know exactly what is needed. Sometimes it seems that all I am saying is "Be more like me.” which is not very helpful. I can offer information and encouragement, but I wonder if that is enough. My style of presentation is to be confident in what I say and I think I appear knowledgeable. I have a friend who is a psychiatrist and a leader in her field. She is a brilliant woman who has been an innovator in treatments for mental illness. From time to time I get to meet with her and one of our clients. She often talks about her uncertainty, her hesitation in prescribing certain medication and giving advice. It goes without saying that each person must find their own path, and that change is often complex and messy. My own evolution into passionate bike rider has taken many years. There have been times in the last 35 years when I did not even own a bike! This evolution would not be possible in rural Vermont. Without Car Share and a bus system, I would want to own a car. I hope that the classes I teach help more people view bikes as practical ways to get around.
When I get ready to ride, I am a little like a knight gearing up for a battle. I put on the reflective gear and lights. Like a knight, I wear a helmet. My bike is my steed. Cars are dragons, they emit smoke and are dangerous and unpredictable. They may be out to get me. A road is a hazardous place and I must be physically and mentally prepared for anything. Survival is the goal. Bike laws are not enforced so each bike rider must develop its own code of chivalry, their own code of conduct. I believe that things can be different. When the proper infrastructure is in place, bike riding will become more casual. Cars will no longer be the enemy. No special equipment will be necessary and riding will become a lot more like taking a stroll. Riding will no longer be something that only a tiny fraction of the population engage in, it will be as common as driving. I know that it seems like a utopian vision, but we can look to cities around the world where everyday riding for many people is a reality. It is achievable.
There is something romantic and exciting about the road warrior way of life, and I have enjoyed the admiration of those who know I don't own a car and ride all winter. On balance, I would rather be safe and ordinary than extraordinary and in danger.
About the author:
Peter Burns is a long-time bike enthusiast, and one of the original year-round bike riders in Burlington. He writes amazing monthly blogs and teaches a variety of Everyday Biking workshops. In addition to his work at Local Motion, he also works at a group home for people with Psychiatric disabilities, teaches classes for the Vermont Humanities Council, teaches swimming at the Burlington YMCA, and is a regular host of Storytelling VT.