Thursday, July 05, 2007

. . .cycling in the rain, I'm cycling . . .

People who know me well know that I don't bicycle ride just for exercise. I ride to go to the supermarket and the park. . . . And I ride because God is out there.

Out where, you say? Well, there are three classic places to find God in the Jewish tradition -- in out texts (Torah!), in our relationships with others (ministering to hospital patients for sure!) and in nature (God's creation). And while God certainly created the sunny day we normally hope for when we get on a bicycle, sometimes it's easier for me to find God's hand in nature when I can feel that hand actively touching me. . . . When I can feel the wet of the rain touching me, the wind pushing me and the sound of thunder in my ears.

קוֹל יְהוָה, עַל-הַמָּיִם
The voice of HaShem (the Lord) is upon the waters! we sing as we parade the Torah around the sanctuary on Shabbat
אֵל-הַכָּבוֹד הִרְעִים;
The Glory of God thunders.
יְהוָה, עַל-מַיִם רַבִּים.
HaShem is upon the myriad of waters.
-Psalm 29
This afternoon I awoke around 2:30pm (I was recovering from being on-call in the hospital for the 24 hours of July 4th). I would have tried to get out on the road right away, but I had broken a spoke Tuesday night. Luckily I had a spare and -- as part of my ongoing program of trying to learn to do more of my own bike maintenance -- I already had the experience under my belt of once replacing a spoke before. This was the occasion for me to assemble my new truing stand (I had purchased it at the end of April, along with a repair stand ($175.48 for both, including tax and shipping from Nashbar). You really don't need a stand for basic truing, but I have to say it made the task much easier.

Anyway, so I had this feeling of success when I finally got the bike put back together. But it was kind of dark outside and there was rain and some thunder. I looked at the weather report and saw the rest of the afternoon and evening was expected to be more of the same. It took me a few minutes to talk myself into it, but soon I was heading out the door into the rain. I'm so glad I did!

It made me think of the best time I ever had riding in the rain. It was last August and part of an awesome week-long bike tour I did on my own from here in Reading to the Jersey shore and back (around 300 miles total). That day I had badly underestimated how much time it would take me to get me to my final destination for the day (about five miles northwest of downtown New Brunswick, NJ). Around dusk, I hadn't even made it to New Brunswick when powerful gusts of wind and the sight of lightening in the distance ushered in the storm. And this wasn't just any storm. It was probably the worst thunderstorms to hit New Jersey that entire summer; trees and power lines got knocked down throughout the state.

When I finally made it into New Brunswick, it was dark and I found myself in a maze of roads under construction by the Rutgers campus. I was lost and didn't have a good map. All I knew was I needed somehow to follow the right bank of the Raritan river. All I had was my compass and a rough sense of where the river was. There was no one around as the rain started to fall hard and I started to get scared.

Eventually I made my way into downtown New Brunswick and found the road I needed (rt. 527). At first it was a fairly decent city street, but it soon turned into the kind of high speed multi-lane highway (with a minimal shoulder) that it would have been dangerous to ride on during the daytime. And here it was dark amid a pouring thunderstorm! Trucks were passing by splashing up waves of warm water onto me. I could hardly see in front of me.

And then it happened. The fear disappeared. I was bone tired and exhausted, but my legs kept turning without me having to consciously will them on. I realized that I was singing.

I have been a rover
I have walked alone
Hiked a hundred highways
Never found a home
Still in all I'm happy
The reason is, you see
Once in a while along the way
Love's been good to me
It was from this amazing Johnny Cash album -- American V -- that was constantly on my iPod and in my heart and mind that summer. Songs that spoke to me with their voice of a man who knows he is close to death, but has grown to have nothing but acceptance in his heart (acceptance that brings him profound joy even as he stands right before the doorway to the end). . . Songs that were a deep spiritual inspiration to a man who was spending his time working amid so much death and suffering in a hospital. Songs of a man who was prepared to die at that moment and face whatever might lay before. Songs of spiritual joy.

At that moment, in that rain storm, I was prepared to die and face whatever might lay before me. I don't know any state in the world a person can experience that is more spiritually powerful than that . . . that has more God in it than that. And it wasn't prayer that got me there. It wasn't Talmud study or meditation. It was the bicycle . . . and the rain, the beautiful rain.


I haven't been riding as much this summer as last, but I feel I am at a point where I can make a reasonable commitment to myself to ride regularly for the next two months or so. My goal is to ride 150 kilometers a week (93 miles). For those who are serious bicycle riders this probably seems like an absurdly modest goal. But for a man of my (rather large) size and slow average speed, it will take some effort to maintain.

I am on good pace to make it this week, however. I have gotten out every evening. Including today's ride, I have gone 98.6 kilometers so far. I have tomorrow off from work, so, God willing, I will probably have no trouble getting in a 60 kilometer ride. I will probably go on one of my standard rides. Here's a map of it!


The Johnny Cash song I quoted above (Love's been good to me), I have since learned was written by Rod McKuen and first sung by Frank Sinatra! (I've never heard the Sinatra version.)

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