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Monday, August 16, 2010

So much depends on a crappy old bike

Apologies are due to William Carlos Williams for appropriating this title from his poem about the red wheel barrow. But as I undertake yet another process of winnowing out possessions before another international move, I am finding it hard to consign my 20-year-old Marin to the landfill of history.

It should be easy to ditch--it takes up much needed space, it is a decidedly unhip 80's colour combination of hot pink and matte gray, and its collection of scuffs and dings and caked-on grit in hard-to-reach places make that colour combo all the more tragic. Plus which, the cogs, through 20 years of hard gear-changing, are ground down like an old dog's teeth. This bike is f***ed. I've actually left it against lamp-posts, unlocked for hours, and it's still there waiting for me faithfully when I get back. Its homeliness is its own security system.

That leaves recycling or the landfill.

Yet every time I consider stripping the usable accessories and hauling it to the recyclers, what stops me is that it's more than a collection of sprockets, cogs, cables, and tubes. It is a site and repository of memory.

I bought it in the summer of '90, when I was newly a single-parent Dad. A child seat went onto the back, and into the seat went my 3 1/2 year old Kate. For the rest of that summer, and for many years following, we travelled the English countryside at the gentle pace and "present tenseness" that leisurely, aimless bike rides provide. I'd get exercise and Kate and I would talk about what we'd see--animals, pretty houses, big trees. We'd stop for lunch at pubs that had play equipment in their beer gardens and Kate would (as always) find mates instantly and jump and swing and slide, fuelled by Orangina, while I'd rest my legs and swallow a fortifying pint.

In unplanned trips like these, we'd come upon common things that were all the more wonderful for not being anticipated--a village fete with its unique local colour, a polo match, street markets, and once, improbably, and Alpaca breeders gathering, complete with rides for the kids.

And always around 3-4 pm, we'd find tea rooms and have cake or scones.

At the end of such days, after our adventures--calories burnt, wonders seen and talked about--I'd grind the Marin homeward, and often Kate would have fallen asleep  in the seat, slumped side-long like a rag doll, lulled by the rhythmic miles.

The bike was the portal of wonder, but more than a vehicle, it was the site where a particular relationship was formed and perfected. It was forged on that bike as surely and completely as a new shoe is forged on an anvil, mile after mile, day after day, relationship to each other and to the world. Still, yet always moving.

I remember wondering at the time if this wasn't a strange kind of relating. After all, conversation was thrown over my shoulder, and her immediate visual experience would have been the straining sinews of my gluteal muscles. To counter boring stretches of the road, I wore a bum-bag full of small toys and such within her easy reach. Of course, I underestimated her ability to make gold out of the long miles. She spent most of the time singing.

Though once, we were on a stretch of road in the Berkshires, and I noticed people who kept passing me in their cars were beaming at me in the way people do when something unutterably cute is happening. I looked back and there was Kate, with a bottle of soap bubbles and a bubble wand, wafting a trail of bubbles in the bike-made breeze, back along the road as far as I could see. She looked back, too, admiring her work.

Over the years, the old Marin has seen her grow to be too big for the child seat. It then became a companion vehicle which shepherded her own bike (once she'd learned) on other adventures. When Rosie came along, the seat got a second life and the cycle repeated itself. So to speak.

Such thoughts as these keep flooding back when I think of re-cycling the Marin, although I wish they wouldn't. I wish I could behave with practicality, like grown-ups are supposed to do. The bike is past its useful life, surplus to need and in the way, but I wish there was some way to consecrate and preserve what it's meant to me, how on it I learned how easily beauty can be happened upon, and that through it I discovered all I needed to learn about love and innocence and hope.