Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Riding Motorcycles

In the wake of my most successful and probably most confounding Facebook post of all time, I felt compelled to expound on how a motorcycle fits into my life: what it is to me, and what it isn't.


I don't like to give weight to things on Facebook, but it's ignorant for me not to.  Because we have this relatively new and prevalent platform for sharing things about our lives with 1000 of our closest friends I shouldn't dismiss the things people put on there as insignificant, or believe that the things I post and the way I communicate on Facebook aren't saying things about me. Things are always being said and read between the lines.

It should never be a bad thing to want to share exciting news with your people, and Facebook is a great way to do that.  But still, each post feels charged, and exposing in a way. It felt good to have an event that actually merited a Facebook post. Sometimes I feel so behind my friends, never having had a baby, or a wedding, or an engagement to share. For me, this post was basically a substitute for an engagement or a birth announcement.  And I intentionally worded my post like it was a birth announcement. I wanted it to be funny, and so much of humor is its foundation in truth. This is me trying to catch up to my friends a little bit. How astonishingly prone I am to the trap of unfavorable comparison of my actual life to the virtual lives of my Facebook community.  It felt important to share my good news, but I went back and forth many times on that point because I wondered if I was just trying to prove to the online world that, hey, good things, BIG things, are happening in my life too!

I want to clarify and organize my own thoughts on a secret delight of mine that has just been given a real place in my life.

First, a little backstory:  I have always had an undeniable adventurous streak in me. I really, really love being outdoors, feeling the sun on my face, and wind in my hair, and driving my car with all the windows down.  It was almost inevitable that motorcycles and I would someday find each other. I was inspired to get my license one day when I was thinking about my dad.  I know how much he loved to ride in his Air Force Academy days, and that he loves to ride still, though he seldom finds opportunity.  I thought, wouldn't it be cool to surprise Dad one day by showing him my license with the Class M on it and then go on a Father-daughter bike ride?  That's the whole truth. I got my motorcycle license simply because I had a vision of my Dad and I riding motorcycles together. While we love each other very much, my Dad and I have a tough time with one another.  We needed a way to bond, and this was something that could draw us together, a way to relate without speaking, which doesn't always go well for either of us.  So the spark behind this undertaking was father-daughter bonding time, a way to create space for our relationship to grow. But it appealed to me outside of that context as well.

I had never driven a motorcycle when I first stepped onto the training course range at Northern Virginia Community College on the hottest weekend of the summer of 2012.  I had ridden behind my Dad when I was in 4th grade.  I loved looking down at the ground speeding below me and feeling the lean of the bike going into a turn.  But when it came time for me to operate my own bike I was nervous. I remember our instructors preparing us. We had spent the first part of that sweltering morning on the range learning how to turn the bike on and off, how to find the friction zone with the clutch, and getting a general feel for the operating procedures of the bike. We had all lined up on one side of the range and Neil said, "Some of you are about to ride a motorcycle for the first time." I remember that 200 feet to the other side of the asphalt parking lot like it was yesterday.  It was absolutely exhilarating, even at 7mph.  Back and forth we went, learning how to start, stop and shift.  My favorite part of the skills course became the "S" curve section.  You weave your bike through a series of close together cones laid out in a straight line.  I loved how quickly my bike responded and how nimble it was.  After that first day on the range, I knew that I loved to ride.

Or at least I knew I liked the idea of myself riding and the initial experience was enough to push me further. I rented motorcycles by myself every once in a while, one day at a time.  I was exploring, building skills and experience, and figuring out if it was a real desire or if it was just rebelliousness, or daddy issues, or all of that, or none. The image of a motorcycle rider is one I associate with words like cool, tough, rebellion, badass, and danger.  There is, admittedly, a part of me that wants to be associated with those words.  It is appealing to project the image of a tough, fearless girl. So, I needed first to sort out if I ride simply because I enjoy it or if I want to create an image.  I practiced discretion with my growing habit hoping to keep vanity at bay.

Every time I go out on a ride, I have moments where I can't contain myself and start smiling and laughing out loud.  My ride out in the Nevada desert in April easily ranks among the top 10 most awesome things I've ever done.  What I love is that I can feel everything.  Every time I pass from sun to shade on a bike I can feel the temperature shift ever so slightly.  I can lean into curves, go up and down hills, I am so much more connected to the road. And the scenery around me feels so much closer. It is like a rollercoaster. But motorcycles far surpass rollercoasters because roads go on, ostensibly, forever. It's not such a violent and sporadic thrill but one of long-lasting joy.  That is much more suited to my temperament anyway.  I can just hop on and feel so connected with my environment.  Even when I was stuck in a traffic jam on 395 on a bike I remember thinking, I can really see people, understand the flow and motion of cars more, and make many other strange observations you don't get to make when you are inside the four walls of an enclosed vehicle.  I am acutely aware of all my surroundings to a level I never am in a car. I treasure that.

And yet, I can't deny that the appeal of the tough-girl image is present too. I don't know that I can fully separate them.  I only know that my love of riding is real, as is my brokenness as a human being, and wanting my friends and family, and random acquaintances to think I'm cool. I'm nearly 20 years out of middle school... old habits die hard, I guess.  

I was trying to tell a close friend of mine last night about this conflict I have felt with this purchase and tangible investment in this love.  I know that I love to ride and I know that it is a real love, but I also know that the image is appealing too.  I'm just trying to make sure and protect against doing things because of how I want to look to people, and just the overall image it creates.  I couldn't express myself well on the topic when we were talking about it, but as I mulled it over, I came to a surprising discovery.  I think what all those words I associate with motorcycles, and the image of being a motorcycle rider connote is tough protection against, and a numbness to, feeling.  But what really inspires me about motorcycles is actually feeling more.  And that continues a trend present in my thoughts and introspection for the past two or three years.

When people commented to me about getting a bike the number one word I heard was "badass".  Part of me enjoyed it, but I knew that it didn't entirely fit.  Yes, that's what it says outwardly, it seems, when you buy and ride a motorcycle.  But I know myself well enough, and badass is not a word I would use to describe me.  This is not about a reckless disregard for convention or a need to shake things up.

Yes, there is danger in removing doors and seat belts and all those safety features which cars provide. I certainly don't disdain those things, not at all.  I am grateful for them, especially navigating the angry conditions of DC rush hours on a daily basis. But if I'm trying to figure out what the motorcycle is really doing in my life, (and clearly I am!) then I have to extend the metaphor of the motorcycle to my inner life.  I want to remove the enclosures and really know what makes me up. I want to go into things I've been trying not to feel for a long time because I was afraid of them, but no longer. I know it will not all be fun. It's dangerous and there is no guarantee of safe passage with any journey, but it is necessary.  I will have fellow riders to help me along the way, I will not go alone. But I am trying to make myself more available, make the true self in me come out with no walls to hide behind, or any obstacles to that self coming through.  I don't want any filters or doors, I just want to know what's in me, what God wrote into me, and how the choices I have made have shaped me and perhaps subverted that for a time. I also want to ask, where God is in all of this? and What's true about the person I am now and moving forward? And I want my friends and family to share in that, because they love me, and care about that. For a long time I liked to think that they didn't, but that wasn't very fair to them.God is very present in this whole endeavor. Each time I go out, I feel like its a leap of faith and I ride and pray and lift up myself and my surroundings to my Protector, Defender, and Savior.

Somehow, unexpectedly, riding a motorcycle is a part of all of that. As this season of motorcycle ownership begins, I pray that it would never be done apart from God, or in hiding or contempt or numbness. I pray it would always be about relating to my father, both earthly and heavenly, about openness, and certainly, constantly, joy and gratitude.

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