I am not a hardcore bike commuter. I only ride to work a couple times a week. It’s less than an hour each way, and I don’t go when the weather is particularly nasty or on garbage day when the shoulder is filled with dozens of cans in helpful tones of gray and black. Even with my low bar, there are plenty of mornings when I wake up—having fully intended the night before to ride to work—and I just don’t want to do it. Excuses abound: It’s cold, I’m sleepy, I should spend that time commenting on a few more papers.
But if I push past this resistance, this predictable, familiar self-indulgence, I’m never sorry. That’s not hyperbole. I’m never sorry. Within ten minutes of rolling, my lungs fill, my legs stop griping, and my brain clears. The ride is mostly rural and I notice things I’d miss at 50mph. Hand-lettered signs for farm fresh eggs, dry firewood, or, enigmatically, “Stop Wars! Home Educate!” I notice dawn coloring the fog around Mt Rainier. Owls calling in the woods. Neighborhood horses and goats. Once, I saw a ghost—but that’s a story for another day.
That 45-minute ride to work also gives me time to think. Work the body, free the mind? Something like that. I’m a public school teacher, and for much of my commute I think about my students. What are their lives like? Where is their world heading? What do they need from me in order to meet it? To survive it? To thrive in it?
I’ve concluded the best thing I can give them besides love and grammar is an honest look at my morning struggle to stick with it. Obviously, “it” doesn’t have to be biking. They will all experience the lure of quitting something worthwhile because it gets tough. How we prepare for that temptation can directly affect how likely we are to succeed. And by “succeed” I mean freedom from the anchor of obsessive excuse-making that too often passes as self-care. Freedom to do what we truly need to do. If I can share the practical steps I use to outwit my own candy-assery, maybe—just maybe—they’ll move closer to being free.
So here’s my seven-step night-before-the-commute set-up. This may not work for everyone, but it fools my weaker self every time. Go hyphens.
Tell someone. If I commit to others as well as myself, I’m less likely to renege.
Charge the lights. See and be seen.
Lay out the right outfit. Look good/feel good.
Lay out the accessories. Details matter, toes to head.
Pack the messenger bag. Include a treat, something high-cal and fragrant like stuffed olives.
Bring the bike inside so it’s not chilly & lonesome.
Pump the tires and point it toward the door so it’s as ready to go as I am.
David Foster Wallace says that being free, “involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” That summarizes teaching. And it also summarizes my bike commute.
Occasionally someone who doesn’t work in education says, “Oh, you ride your BIKE! Your students must think you’re so cool.” Um, no. Five minutes inside any high school will remind you that being cool is not on their list of things a middle-aged English teacher can be. But I hope my students sense that I’m free, and that discipline plays a huge part in that.
My colleague Anne blends a life of global travel, writing, and translation with her job teaching middle-school. When I told her once how much I admire her wide, active life, she replied dryly, “I try to be a good example.” In my small, commutery way that’s my hope too.