Mountain biking is a wonderful thing to do on a late Sunday afternoon in February when the skies are gray and the temperatures nuzzle into the 40s. That’s what found me pedaling north through the tri-cities of Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles.
I’ve lived in all three of these communities. First in St. Charles, where I attended high school. Then Geneva, where our family lived for 11 years while the children were young. And finally in Batavia, where I now live, and have done so for the last 18 years.
At the northern apex, I cycled past the school where my mother taught for 20 years. It sits on one of the highest points in the area. The neighborhood street passes the side of the building where her classroom once was. Many years I’d visited that classroom to talk about art or nature or birds to her children. She taught second and third grade, and my mother loved reading and writing. She loved teaching those things to her children. The year she died she printed out books of her poetry to give to all her sons. That was her gift. A love of writing. They were her memories wrapped in poems.
She was also a swimmer. This interest she evolved late in life. She would swim three days a week at the Norris Recreation Center where recently I’ve gone for a few lessons with a teacher named Whitney. And while it’s not literally the same water that my mother once swam in, the sensation of swimming is now a shared bond with her. She passed away in 2005, but I clearly recall her stories of “having a good swim.” I can imagine her loving the feel of the water, it’s ultimate liberation from the weight of life. She liked that.
I also pedaled past the old high school in St. Charles where our family moved in 1973 from a town 15 miles to the west. The adjustment to a new school was both fun and strange. And that fall in cross country I ran against my old teammates.
Some people from that former school thought I’d moved on purpose, to run for a coach that had recruited me, who was also a graduate from that former school. But there was none of that. I wasn’t that good. Just the best kid in a modest new high school with a will to run to the best of my ability. It actually turned out that my father moved our family because he did not want my younger brother, who turned out to be a star basketball player, to be stuck with a coach who insisted on an ugly, slow-down offense. That was how much my father hated a lack of beauty in sports. “I knew you were a social kid,” my father told me years later. “I knew you’d adapt.” And he was right. About a lot of things.
The friendships earned through that move to a new school are still alive today. I pedaled right past the house of a teammate with whom I ran in high school, attended college together and even lived in the same apartment in the city. For 40 years we’ve trained and partied and experienced life together. We’ve shared experiences even we don’t talk about. It’s a pact. And that’s the way it should be.
Then I rolled past the house of the girlfriend from my senior year in high school. Many summer nights we sat in her driveway in my father’s Buick Wildcat. We made out and steamed up the windows with midnight dew. It was innocent and luscious stuff, and truth be told, I did not really know how to go much farther than that. And that was a grace of sorts, I’ve realized. She moved on to a more intense boyfriend that year and our paths did not cross again until a late summer night a week before I headed off to college. I was drunk and so was she. We collided like stars in the night, she in her white jeans and loose black top. Me in my callow desire.
Then I went swimming with friends in the black water quarry below her house and realized with a shock that the world did not care if I lived or died. I could sink into the water and be lost to eternity. The newspapers would mark the death as the stupid antics of a drunk teenager. So I swam to shore and climbed out like a pale white crab on a rocky beach. Alive, at least.
That quarry is now surrounded by pricey townhomes. There are changes like that through the tri-cities. And yet, the character of the place has not essentially changed. The memories blow like wind through my mind every time I run or ride. Thousands of training miles logged on these streets. Preparation for countless races. Coping with life’s vagaries.
Pedaling along the Fox River, I noticed a string of cars parked near a river island. In the trees were groups of Bald eagles. These were once extinct in the Fox Valley. Only through the banning of DDT and water quality laws has it been possible for these birds to make a comeback in our river valley.That gave me the feeling that the many years of writing about the environment have not been wasted.
And yet, there are always new challenges ahead. It makes you wonder why the world never learns. It’s always the same stubborn, selfish forces at work destroying creation and causing extinction of species and of hope. So I will keep fighting. And call those bastards to account. They know who they are, but arrogantly deny their policies and purposes have any such effect. But they are godless sinners despite claims that their business and methods are the work of God.
It is hard to forgive such ugliness. But then I roll past the track where in a fit of rage years ago I’d retreated to gather my wits over a wrongful situation at work. While lying there on the high school pole vault pit, I took off my glasses and began to cry. At that moment, a voice popped into my head and said, “Forgiveness.” To me, that was the voice of God reaching out in the night. One must learn to forgive. The world. And yourself. And then do something constructive to fix the problem. That is my life’s philosophy.
And indeed, through all these years and all these miles, there has been an explicable* force at work in life. As imperfect as I am, and as desperate as life has felt in some moments with emotional crises that come up no matter who you are, there is a memory in the moment of each of those experiences that rolls up beside you when you need it. We need only to pay attention. That is the voice of God, as far as we can know it. And we should listen. And learn.
*Explicable: able to be accounted for or understood: