Yesterday I cycled into Northampton for the first farmer’s market of the season. The ride is about 30 minutes, mostly flat or downhill. It was my road biking debut, rather than using a bike path (to which I drive). At the market I stood in a socially distanced line for half an hour before I could enter. With only four vendors, the few able to comply with new sanitation guidelines, I wondered whether the trip had been worth it. While I am glad to support local farms, the market, with one-way foot traffic and produce that could only been seen, not touched, felt sterile. As I rode home with my vegetables, with some uphill stretches and against the wind, I was reminded why I prefer lazier rides along a path, surrounded by trees and birdsong rather than passing trucks and cars.
The house I’m renting is up a steep and curvy driveway into the woods. The road leading to the driveway also begins with an uphill stretch, followed by a short plateau to catch one’s breath. As I approached the end of the ride, I tried to prepare myself for the final climb, my first in a very long time. When I was growing up, our garage was at the bottom of a steep driveway. I had to start with a climb whenever I went for a ride. Then there was another hill to ascend, and then coast downward, before arriving to the center of town. I prided myself on muscling up the hills in both directions rather than walking my bicycle, which might have only had three or six speeds.
That historic impulse to stay on the bike, no matter what, must have still been alive in me as I began my final ascent. As the ride became more difficult, I kept downshifting and kept my legs moving. I thought of stepping off the bike and walking it the rest of the way but an inner voice said, no, keep going, just as it has said every single day of this COVID quarantine that has kept me from the life giving waters of the swimming pool and life affirming human contact. As I pedaled, memories flashed across the screen of my mind. There I was, a toddler, riding on a red folding seat on the back of my father’s black Raleigh bicycle as he took me for a few spins around the block. The spring beneath his seat squeaked under him as we traveled, the bike gently swaying from side to side as he shifted his weight. When that short film ended, another began: there I was at nine or ten, watching my father work out on his brown Exercycle in our unfinished basement. He grunted as he pedaled. His perspiration sprayed everywhere, the droplets eventually hardening into rusty bumps on the stationary bike. Afterwards, he’d toss his smelly, sweat soaked t-shirt on the floor. My cat rolled around on the damp fabric with an ecstasy and enthusiasm she exhibited for no other treat, toy or human. I am not sure what horrified me more: my father’s exorbitantly sweaty exertions or my cat’s exuberant delight in the byproduct.
While these old movies played, I managed to get up the hill. When I got off the bicycle and removed my pannier, I wondered why I had been visited by such vivid recollections. Then I remembered that today, the 13th, is the secular anniversary of my father’s passing. It’s been 17 years, yet this crisis we are in, with lonely hospital deaths all around and the ensuing isolation, has surfaced the trauma of losing him unexpectedly and reopened the gates of grief. I wondered if these mini-movies of the past offered some meaning today. Perhaps one is that my father’s presence is still here in some way, encouraging me to keep going when the world seems to be hurtling towards economic, ecological and social disintegration on a scale that has been likened to World War II, which he barely survived. If there is a meaning in the second snippet, it’s that there are moments when the effort required to stay alive can be arduous and even messy. In these weeks of quarantine, every day feels like it begins with a steep emotional climb out of depression, whether I ride my bike or not. Then I considered, what if my childhood cat, who also suffered a difficult demise, had a message for me now? Perhaps it’s to find pleasure wherever possible and to shamelessly enjoy oneself. It’s always been true that death can come for us at any moment, and today that truth is more starkly present. Now is the time to delight in what we still have, even if it’s not what we want.