Anyone who knows me also know how much I love to bike around the city. I fell in love with city living several years ago and have not looked back. I love hopping on my bike and going to my favorite coffeeshop or brewery to write and to work. I love exploring the different trails and streets and discovering the most efficient routes. I love not using my car.
When I’m on my bike, I feel like myself again. I get out of the loops in my head and the heaviness of my heart, which can sometimes occupy my days or nights, and back into my body. I return to my senses, beyond my thinking, which we westerners are quite good at, and am reminded that I am much more than my mind. As I listen to those city sounds—the howling train and the thumping cars and the music flowing out into the street from the bars—and as I smell those city smells—all the restaurants I cannot afford and the farm-like stenches from breweries that remind me of my rural home and even the piss beneath the bridge—and as I see all those stories walking on the sidewalk and waiting at the bus stop and clanking glasses for friendship’s sake in the pub window, I feel human once more, my senses guiding me out of the mental and emotional labyrinth within and back into a world that I share with my brothers and sisters. On my bike, I get back into my body and into the present. You kind of have to be present. You’re on a bike in the city. You’ll get flattened by a bus if you remain in the labyrinth.
I recently moved from Nashville, Tennessee, back to the NoDa arts district in Charlotte, North Carolina, an area that I love and feel like I belong; an area where I became who I am and wrote my first book; an area where God, through friends and family, found me and met me where I was. I couldn’t wait to get back on my bike again in an area—a home—that keeps calling me back into its grace.
The other day my buddy texted me to grab a drink with him uptown, so I got on my bike for the first time since moving back to Charlotte. It felt good. It felt right.
As I was biking past a construction site just south of NoDa, I heard a trailing hum behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a beat up, red SUV tailgating me. It then pulled up beside me, and within seconds, I was drenched. A white, burly man in a backwards cap pulled his cup back into the window and laughed hysterically alongside his friend in the driver’s seat, as they sped away.
I have gone back to that moment time and time again, trying to understand what exactly my brain did in the seconds that followed. All I can say is that I spiraled. A certain shame washed over me. It is embarrassing to not be treated like a human being. It always will be. And all of a sudden, I was back in time. I was a little kid again with a squeaky voice and fidgety tics, unable to sit still because I was so anxious and self-conscious, being made fun of by the other basketball managers or the bully who sat behind me in science class. I’m not comfortable saying I was bullied during those formative years, like the terror a number of my peers experienced, but a seed of “smallness” was planted nonetheless. All the way into adulthood, I always had a chip on my shoulder. Something to prove. A desire to show everyone who laid eyes on me that I was not as small as I felt.
What did I do to make those men hate me? Was it how I peddled? Was it what I was wearing? Maybe my posture was weird and deserved it. Maybe I looked weird and deserved it. Maybe I didn’t belong and deserved it. Maybe I wasn’t home after all. In that moment, as I was drenched with who knows what, I felt small once more. Sure, I had done stupid things before in high school and college with my friends, things that I regret, but these were grown men in an SUV just looking for a laugh.
As I kept peddling, another SUV pulled up beside me.
Oh no, here we go again.
I heard someone yelling at me. I looked over. This time it was a black woman leaning over to make eye contact with me.
“Did that man just throw water on you?” she screamed over the noise of traffic, with a righteous rage and justice in her eyes that made me feel as if I was, though humiliated, perfectly safe in her care. It was as if she understood something of what it was like to be mistreated in this world. I glanced down at my brand new drenched cognac shorts and black-and-white polka-dotted button-up, as if to make sure that what I thought had happened did indeed just happen. And then I said to the woman driving beside me, “Yeah, I think he did.”
She grunted profanity and then stepped on the gas pedal and sped off to do who knows what to the burly white man.
I have no idea what happened to the man who used me as a punchline to the joke he told to his friend. I have no idea if the woman tracked him down and perhaps snapped a photo of his license plate. By the look in her eyes, she might have rammed him off the road. But the moment remained with me.
In fact, once I zoomed in, explored the shame, and confronted some of the lies I still tell myself about my own smallness, I was even able to zoom out and laugh about the exchange. It turned out to be a pretty good blueprint of the emotional journeys we each must embark on whenever shame resurfaces, a movement of zooming in (confronting and naming) followed by another movement of zooming out (finding perspective).
The liquid turned out to just be water, which actually felt pretty good on that hot, Carolina afternoon. Thank you, burly white man. And thanks for not dumping your soda on me, as I’m sure you had one beside you.
Then there were the deeper spiritual implications of the exchange.
In his essay, “The Christian in World Crisis: Reflections on the Moral Climate of the 1960’s,” Thomas Merton wrote, “[W]here there is a deep, simple, all-embracing love of man, of the created world of living and inanimate things, then there will be respect for life, for freedom, for truth, for justice and there will be humble love of God.”
What sent me spiraling was the fact that the burly white man did not even know me yet still treated me in such an inhumane way. Had my peers dared to see beyond my squeaky voice or make the connection that my fidgety nature was related to my overall angst, maybe I wouldn’t have been a punchline then. And, similarly, what was so inspiring to me about the exchange is that the black woman, also, like the burly white man, did not know me—yet she went the opposite direction. Her righteous rage and conviction for justice arose out of her connectedness to me, who she did not even know, a reality of connectedness that I have too often neglected in my ignorance. But she didn’t care about my track record. I could’ve been the biggest jerk to have ever walked (or biked) the face of this earth, but our inherent connectedness moved her to action.
The brief moment reminded me that we each have a choice: to live out of our mystical connectedness with one another in a heaven we get to create for ourselves on this earth or to neglect this spiritual reality and, instead, live as solitary figures in a bitter and fearful world like the hurting man. She reminded me how profound it is to affirm connectedness—that infinite space of union where justice can rise up out of our souls and into the spaces of this world, through our senses, where our connection to one another has been forgotten. Her remarkable awareness in those five seconds—a seemingly insignificant moment in time—turned out to be significant to me. She could have just as easily driven by without saying anything, and I would not have blinked an eye. But she was not lost in her head or the stresses of her day. She was there beside me. I saw it. I heard it. I felt it. Because she saw, heard, and felt me in that moment.
Her senses—that ability to experience the fullness of what was currently unfolding, to be present with me as I peddled along—reminded me of something: I was home on my bike after all.