“Who are you if not the one I met?”
-Jason Isbell, “The Life You Chose”
From a long list of gibberish I utter about living authentically, one of the most often employed is “we teach people how to treat us.” It’s a great one from the quiver, and it’s usually followed up with something along the lines of “you would never stand by and allow someone to treat your best friend this way, so why do you allow someone to treat YOU this way?” Hopefully the person on the other end takes a pause and reflects for a moment and sees themselves and their worth as I see them, deserving of respect, love and a little patience. And, like most maxims I espouse, I rarely take that same advice for myself.
Why is it so easy for us to hold a mirror up for our closest people, shake them by the shoulders, look ’em dead in the eye and recite a litany of reasons why they matter, why they’re loved and that, dammit, they need to set their hat on straight, take a shot of whatever and face the world on their own terms, that you and I will have their back no matter what, and they’re worth every ounce of good energy you can muster? Why does that come easily, yet we stumble when no one is around, we wonder why our choices landed us where they have, why there is a stutter in self-confidence in the absence of someone murmuring it into our ears? THIS, this is what lands us in Funktown, and it’s not one particular person, nor one particular situation, but rather a compilation of every single decision swirling around us, each person convinced no other understands what we’re going through at that particular moment.
And so we seek an exit out, a new environment to forget for the briefest of moments the lonely weight of reality. I’ve sought it in a hundred different locales over a hundred different years, from the therapist’s chair, to the bottom of a bottle, to the chase of adrenaline that comes with riding a fire truck for a living. The latest, and perhaps most healthy, iteration of this search has been on two wheels, a guilty pleasure of a purchase to pedal away the demons, to forget about the abstract and focus on six feet in front of a wheel while the burn of middle age lights my thighs on fire with each attempt to climb a hill. A guy who would know, a guy who is a prominent local figure in the biking/bike accessory world said it to me simply: “the machine you’re riding matters a lot less than the engine”, a not-so-subtle reference to having decent cardio and the need to hydrate less with beer, perhaps. The best part of this new adventure may well be the sheer number of people in my weird world that want to be out there in the woods, too, grinding away uphill and flying back down into the cold rush of rewarded effort.
I won’t lie, I’m cautious because I’m old, as was revealed when I fell down my own stairs today, twisting an ankle, cracking my skull on a concrete corner and contemplating how long it would take for either someone to find my corpse or the cat to begin to eat my nose off. If I can’t handle a set of stairs in my house, then to navigate single-track Ozark trails needs to be an exercise in prudent choices, not exactly my specialty of the past. I lay on the floor of my stairway, alternately cursing the pain and laughing at my idiocy, and wondering if this is how it all ends and should I get Life Alert or something, and I was reminded just how much it matters to have that sense of worth mixed with an ability to laugh at yourself. With only a narcissistic cat as a witness, you gotta rely on you to shovel your broken ass up off the stairs. To get outta Funktown, you need to take in all the chaos and heartbreak and joy and cheer and navigate your mind to the best of all of it, a function of choice. We need to choose to see what we do in the mirror. We need to absorb the blows, the falls down stairs and trees coming up in our paths, gingerly calculating how we protect our hearts and skulls.
I’m a million miles away from there, right now. But this time, this chapter, rather than wallowing in resistance, I’m choosing to laugh at the reality of laying in a pile at the bottom of my stairs, or over the edge of the trail, learning more daily with each experience. Somewhere, deep in the woods, I will be working on my engine, slowly; when I emerge after each ride, sweaty & trashed, I’m just a little further down the trail, stronger around every curve.