Next Two Chapters, Five and Six, of My Motorcycle Novel- Hope Bats Last; Light the Fire, Get a Cup a Tae, Bring the Wee Dog in, an Relax.

Chapter Five

Day 2 – Somewhere in South Carolina

 

We are significant, precious, and needed, not just for the choices we make and the actions we take, but for our very presence. The scriptures of every major religion attest to it: the love in which we exist loves us for our very being. These words from Isaiah are one example: “I have called you by name and you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Gerald May

 

I answered the phone early the next morning.

“Dad, how’s the trip going so far?” Colin asked.

“Fine son. No problems. How are you?”

“Good, good, good. Where are you?”

I honestly couldn’t remember. I looked out the window and could make out part of a number in the flashing neon motel sign. There was a restaurant across the street with a sombrero and a cactus painted on the window. “I’m at some motel with a number in its name and there’s a Mexican place across the street.”

“Well, that narrows it down quite a bit.” He laughed.

“How are Siobhan and Stephen?” I asked.

“Good. Siobhan is on Skype with her mother back in Ireland. Stephen’s online playing some internet game with his buddies.”

“Well, I’m doing fine here son. Things okay with you?”

“Yep, yep yep.”

“Well look son. I want to hit the road so I’ll give you a call later.”

“That’s fine dad. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. I heard there were two shootings over in South Carolina yesterday.”

“I heard that too.”

“Well, you be careful.”

“I will son. I love you.”

“I love you too dad.”

 

Last night I drank five Coronas at the Mexican restaurant hoping in vain that each one might help dull the memory of yesterday’s horror. It didn’t work. Alcohol and age seem only to take away the good memories. Why can’t we choose which memories we lose?

Before taking off this morning I did some mindfulness exercises to get my mind back into the present, to let go of what had happened yesterday as well as some painful memories from the past that had been stirred up. Violence begets memories of violence. To ride safely your mind has to be in the here and now. You have to let go of thoughts about the past and worries about the future. You can’t ride with a bunch of ruminations like mental billboards distracting you from the road. Each day is a gift in the cosmic raffle of things and you have to be present to win.

Heading west I cut back into Georgia and rode the old blue highways. On the ancient Rand McNally atlases, the back roads were drawn in blue. These were the tiny roads, the now almost forgotten roads that once stitched the USA together in the early motoring years. Now it’s all interstates. Generally, roads that have even numbers go east and west; odd numbers usually signify a north and south route. So as long as I’m on an even-numbered road and following the sun I’m heading west. That’s all I need to know for now.

I rode for about an hour, came into a small town and stopped for breakfast at a place called the FWW Cafe. It was about half filled. I nodded to folks as I entered, sat at the counter, ordered up some coffee, took off my gloves and jacket and scanned the menu. Grits. You know everything’s gonna be all right if they’ve got grits on the menu. I ordered, “The Widowmaker” which consisted of three eggs, bacon, and sausage, red-eye gravy, a biscuit, pancakes and grits. I closed the menu, handed it to the waitress and glanced around. There was a skinny old man a couple of chairs down from me who saluted me with a forkful of pancake.

“Howdy.” He said.

“Howdy to you too,” I replied and glanced around the place. Old Georgia license plates adorned the walls like trophies celebrating a better time. There were farm and tractor calendars and high school yearbook photos in black and white.

“Where you headed to?”

“California.”

“You couldn’t have started out anywhere closer?”

I smiled. “Nope. Had to start in Savannah.”

“How long do you think it’s gonna take you to get out there?”

“Not sure. I’m not in any hurry. Just want to take my time. Why’s this place called the FWW cafe?”

“Stands for farmers, workers, and widows. Those are the main customers. Get a biker or two like you in now and again. He slid over a chair. My name’s Mike. Mike Crawford.” He offered his hand.

I took it. “Monk.”

“That’s an usual name. Monk what?”

“Just Monk.”

“You a Catholic monk or one of them Buddhist monks?”

“Yep.”

“Well, which one?”

“Both.”

“You can’t be both.”

“Who says I can’t?”

“It’s in the rules somewhere.”

“What rules?”

“The monk rules.”

“I’ve never seen the monk rules.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.” He shook his head and looked away but then glanced back. “But why ‘Monk’ anyway?”

“A friend thought I acted like a monk. He called me that and it stuck.”

“You married.”

“I was. Twice.”

“Divorced?”

“Nope. Both wives are dead.”

“That’s bad luck.”

“Yep. You?”

“One wife. Just made it to our 50th wedding anniversary last week.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. She’s a hoot. Said to her last week: ‘I’m proud of you.’ She pretended not to hear me and said: ‘I’m tired of you too.’ Ha! Great sense of humor.”

“You hope so.”

“What? Oh, ha! I get that!”

I grinned at him and then my food came.

We chatted off and on between bites and he told me that he had a daughter and a grandson but that his daughter was married to a “no good peckerwood son of a bitch”.

“That’s rough man. Do you get to see your daughter and grandson much?”

“Yep. She drops him off and we babysit while they’re working.”

“At least you’ve got that.”

“Yep, could be worse.” He looked away and warmed his hands on his coffee mug.

 

Chapter Six

 

We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can we learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs.

Oscar A. Romero

 

I couldn’t finish the pancakes but the rest of the meal was great and soothing. Especially the grits. Nothing like connecting with a memory from your childhood, unless your childhood had been awful. Having said that, grits alone, usually made by a kind grandma, have redeemed many a bad childhood. When I lived in Ireland, every once in a while I’d start jonesing for grits and I’d have my sister send some over. For Colin, she’d throw in a couple of bags of candy corn, another delicacy and southern staple you couldn’t find over there.

I paid my bill, left a tip, said goodbye to Mike and got some recommendations of his for back roads to take.

The clouds to the north and east were gunmetal gray, the wind was stirring and it was decidedly colder. My boots crunched on the gravel as I walked over to the bike and circled it to make sure everything was okay. I pulled on my helmet and gloves, cranked Big Red up and headed out the blue highway that Mike had recommended. I figure that the more I left things to chance the more easily God, Fate or the Universe could intervene.

I hit Dahlonega late in the afternoon and hopped onto GA 60. I leaned into the curves and tight turns and felt a strong connectedness with Big Red and the road. Curvy roads challenge you and bring out the best or worst in your riding skills. I passed the rock pile grave of a Cherokee princess and a place called Woody Gap where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Colin and I used to do some hiking on that trail years ago. The bike managed the curves almost effortlessly, which is, of course, the secret to good riding.

Daoism has a concept called wu wei which can apply to motorcycle riding. Wu wei happens when you use your natural abilities and intuition to flow with the environment. Its actual translation is “no doing” but it’s better understood as a kind of effortless action. Applying this to motorcycle riding means finding the flow, going with it and then taking no action or thinking beyond what’s needed. You learn to position yourself in the lane correctly for the curve, trust your intuitions, look where you want to go, relax and just lean into the curve. Inexperienced riders think too much, panic, focus on the obstacles ahead instead of the path, tighten up, overreact and manhandle the bike, often resulting in a crash. If you find a metaphor in there for life you’re welcome to it. I’m too old for metaphors.

Here’s the place I was looking for. I pulled off the road into the parking area of Two Wheels of Suches, a rustic wooden lodge and motorcycle campground I had visited off and on over the years. It had a long porch filled with rocking chairs and picnic benches. The gravel crunched as I rode over it. I backed my bike into a parking area. I put the stand down, switched off the engine and the lights, tapped the tank with my knuckles, thanking God for my safety and climbed off the bike. Next, I pulled my helmet and gloves off, stuck the gloves in my saddlebag and put the helmet on top of my handlebar mirror.

“That you Monk?” A voice hailed me from the porch.

“It’s me.” I headed up the path to the steps. “Who’s that?” I said toward a grizzled, bearded man in a leather vest heading toward me.

“It’s me, Skunk. I ain’t seen you in years.”

“Monk,” I said extending my hand while at the same time recognizing the redundancy of my introduction.

“Don’t you remember me, Monk?”

“Skunk, my memory ain’t what it used to be. Never was actually.”

His eyes narrowed and a worried expression swept over his face like the shadow from a Sunday cloud. “You got that Alltimers Monk?”

“The doctor thinks I do but I think I have something else.”

“What’s that?”

“Buddhism.”

“What the difference?”

“Not much from what I can tell. Both say ‘Live in the present’. With Alzheimer’s you can’t remember the past very well; with Buddhism, you want to let go of it.”

He took a step back. “This Buddhism, is it contagious?”

“No, not really, unless you want it to be.”

He waved his hands. “No thanks Monk. I’ve got that shingles and that’s enough for me.”

I smiled, sucked in and let go a deep breath. The air was fresh, smelling like fir trees and the aroma released by freshly dug soil. There was the sound of a nearby waterfall and the tinkling tabulations of a stream.

We sat down in the rockers. “It’s so beautiful up here Skunk. Why don’t we just live here?”

“Dang Monk you say that every time we meet up here. We’d start to lose our ‘preciation of it if we lived here all the time.  All things wear out. Even good things.”

“Especially good things. Where are you staying?”

“I got me a room upstairs. Too old to be camping out anymore. You?”

“I’m in the tent.” I pointed to the little bridge. “Gonna pitch it over there by the stream. This is my last trip.”

“Tent huh? Wait, what do you mean it’s your last trip?”

“Well, uh,” I stuttered, not wanting to say much. “I’m getting old. Not sure how many bike trips I still have ahead of me.” I raised my shoulders. “It’s just a feeling.”

“Huh.” He sat back in his rocker and got a faraway look. “Remember that time when my wife and I met y’all up here? You had that old BMW. Your wife was on the back. Was it Clare?” He leaned toward me and stared.

“Yep, you got a good memory Skunk. That was Clare. Hell, that was a long time ago I had that BMW. It was a black 1966 R60/2. I’d forgotten that. Thanks.”

“No problem Monk.”

“Hey, what did you ever do with that thing?”

I paused and searched my mind but couldn’t remember. “Can’t remember Skunk.”

“And how is Clare?”

“I’m afraid she’s passed. About three years now. Cancer.”

“I’m real sorry to hear that Monk.”  He was shaking his head and I felt like crying.

“What about you? You were married, weren’t you? Sorry, I can’t remember her name.”

“April. Her name was April. She’s fine Monk.”

“I remember her now. She was pretty.”

“Pretty as a speckled puppy under a shiny red wagon. That’s what I used to say.”

I laughed.

“Where’s she now?”

“Busy babysitting the grandkids. We got five. You got any grandkids?”

“Just one, Colin’s boy. Name’s Stephen. Smart as a whip. My daughter Hannah’s married but they don’t have any kids yet.”

“What are your kids up to?”

“Colin works at the public defender’s office in Savannah. Hannah is living out in LA. She’s studying to be an elementary school teacher and is trying to get into some modeling, last I heard tell.”

He smiled, sat back, looked into the distance, rocked a few times and shook his head slowly.

“We’re lucky our kids turned out well Monk. Thank you, Lord.”

“Amen to that brother.” I sighed and looked around. The Lord thanking mood had come and gone off me over the last few years. A steady diet of loss and grief can do that to you. It’s a sad but tireless companion, which you can quickly grow accustomed to having around. And it’s hard to let it go when you don’t have anything to replace it with.  But this trip was about letting go of the siren sadness of the past, and instead riding in the present, where things reveal themselves, and being thankful.

“Well, look Skunk, I’m going to go set up my tent and everything, take a shower and then I’ll be back up here later for dinner.”

“Sounds good. But if you want a steak, let me know. They sell out fast.”

“Nah, I’m okay, thanks.”

I walked down the steps to the bike, took the bungee cords off my gear and carried it over toward the tent area. I clomped across the little bridge over the stream and onto some grass and pitched it right there. Thank God the instructions for setting up the tent were still attached to the tent bag because I had poles and pegs heading every which away until I spotted them. After it was up, I threw in my gear, sleeping bag and opened the self-inflating foam pad. I am too old to sleep on the hard ground. I glanced over at the stream and watched it burble and roll. The sound of the water was soothing. You can’t step into the same river twice. The river changes but so do I, moment by moment. Each time I step in I’m a different person. I climbed into the tent.

Day 1: Over 500 miles. Beautiful Ride, rain, sunny, lost, rain, found, more rain, windy, motel doesn’t have my reservation, wow, gratitude.

These are the comments I wrote when I stopped.

Left at 7:45am. 70 degrees. Cool, misty, beautiful creamy white magnolia blossoms. Soft pink primroses. Fill me with joy seeing them I feels myself smile each time I see them. The bike is riding great.

Abandoned chimneys have always fascinated me. Deep breaths and feelings of gratitude.

Old men meeting together to socialize at a McDonalds. Beautiful ride through Lake Weiss. Gadsden, Alabama.

Horse Camp. Beautiful horses romping in a field. Camp? Maybe they will learn archery and go canoeing?

Rain. Slashing. Stopped at an overpass to put my rain suit on. Road on.

4 miles south of Memphis it poured. Rain splattered on my windscreen, my helmet visor and my glasses. Hard but not impossible to clean them while I’m riding. Rain starting to slip into the nether regions. Raining so hard I can’t see, so I find an exit.

Off ramp is flooded so I have to ride carefully.

Dairy Queen! I say to a woman in the parking lot: “Nice weather.” She replies: “My Harley friends say they love to ride in any kind of weather.”

“Yeah, well, any day on the bike is a great day.” I mumble.

With the water falling off my clothes I make a big puddle on the Dairy Queen floor. Radar looks bad. More rain ahead. About 150 miles to Little Rock.

Rain died down eventually. Headed back out.

Okay. I get lost a lot. If you’ve read my blog before that you know. I don’t have a GPS or a map. And maybe I reentered Mississippi and Tennessee a few more times than necessary and maybe added about thirty more miles than I needed but eventually I found I-40 West. I crossed the Mississippi (once!)

More rain. Got soaked. Then it cleared. I dried out some. Then it rained more.  Finally, made it to my motel. They didn’t have my reservation. I phone Expedia. 45 Minutes later it’s finally sorted. I have my room, only the TV isn’t working. The desk clerk comes down and can’t fix it. She moves me to a room a few doors down.

Finally here, now. And I feel grateful. And pleased that I had no expectations for how the day would go. No expectations = no frustration. I went with the flow. More than the tautological ‘It is what it is’. It’s letting go of expectations, accepting that what happens was meant to happen. This Buddhist thing is working!

Feel grateful, thankful for even such a wild day.

What’s in it for me? Missing the Harley. Compassion.

Yesterday I rode the bike for the first time in over two weeks. It felt great. Here in Georgia, it has been unseasonably warm as it has been in so many places. I ride my Harley all year ‘round, so if the weather is half decent, I’m out on Big Red. I rode a lot in December, back and forth from college, took roads I hadn’t been on in a while and visited that free meal program where I volunteer. These last two weeks I had been in LA (no, not Lower Alabama!) visiting my daughter, son in law and son for Christmas. My other son was stuck in poor old London. Cheap LA flights on no thrill airlines where the seats won’t even go back was too hard for me to resist. A five hour flight, but you know, if I’d had the time, I would have preferred the five day motorcycle ride.
I had a great time in LA. Watching the new Star Wars movie in IMAX 3-D at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, having a drink at Timmy Nolan’s pub, watching football with my kids at the Starlite Cantina, visiting a pirate themed bar, playing cards, a day trip out with my daughter to Venice beach, walking all over the place, and just being with family were some of my favorite things.
Still, I was missing Big Red. I even Googled how much it would cost to rent one of those new Indian motorcycles while I was there. It seemed too wasteful to me so I passed on it, but of course the ad now follows me everywhere I go on the internet. I drank a lot of coffee, did a lot of writing on my new novel and walked every chance I could.
It was a challenge for me walking the streets, because the only people who would make eye contact with me were homeless people. To native Georgians, a man is considered rude if he won’t smile and make eye contact with you. My daughter told me that so many people in LA, not just the homeless, want something from the people they meet, that folks are suspicious of random contacts. My daughter and I talked about how this was like the line in White Christmas where Bing Crosby says that everyone has a little larceny in their heart, that everyone has an angle they’re playing, a what’s in it mentality. This seemed to be true as I overheard a number of conversations (a writer’s obligation) at coffee shops where people were selling something, sometimes selling themselves (for a job), and negotiating deals. It took me bumping into someone in a grocery store or picking up something someone had dropped to start a real conversation. But then the ice was broken and folks were nice.
What’s in it for me? Is that the motive behind a lot of our actions? I had been thinking about this a lot when I was working at the free meal program a few weeks ago. So what was I getting out of it? Then I accidentally (yeah, more like karma) stumbled upon a passage in a book that I was reading that sent the message right to my heart. From Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “Accidental Saints”.
While we as people of God are certainly called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, that whole, “we’re blessed to be a blessing thing” can still be kind of dangerous. It can be dangerous when we self-importantly place ourselves above the world, waiting to descend on those below so we can be the “blessing” they’ve been waiting for, like it or not. Plus, seeing myself as the blessing can pretty easily obscure the way in which I am actually part of the problem and can hide the ways in which I, too, am poor and needing care. Seeing myself or my church or my denomination as “the blessing” –like so many mission trips to help “those less fortunate than ourselves” can easily descend into a blend of benevolence and paternalism. We can start seeing the “poor” as supporting characters in a big story about how noble, selfless, and helpful we are.
Wow. Don’t get me wrong, acts of kindness when and wherever they happen are great things. We’ve all got to keep them up! But I’ve got some thinking and reflecting to do. Which is okay because the spiritual journey lasts a lifetime (hey, if you’re into reincarnation you might even get a few lives out of it!).
As with motorcycle journeys, spiritual discoveries and journeys are always waiting for us. We just have to open our eyes, trust and keep riding.

Have a happy, compassionate and safe new year.

My Book is Published! Hope Bats Last. Cross Country Motorcycle Trip.

I finally have my latest book, Hope Bats Last, published on Amazon, available as an eBook. You don’t need a Kindle to read it! On the website you can download a Kindle app for free, enabling you to read it on a variety of devices from PCs to phones to tablets. It is a stand-alone book, meaning that you haven’t had to read the previous novels to know what’s going on in this one! Please support struggling independent artists! Hope you enjoy. Here’s the blurb.

Twice widowed, recently retired, and now an official senior citizen after turning 65, Rory Conner wants to take one last motorcycle journey across the USA. The former detective and child protection social worker wants to ride Big Red – his old Harley Davidson Road King – from Georgia to California. His plan is to take only the blue highways, the back roads, and leave all of the other decisions to chance, fate, and Divine Providence.
His son and daughter aren’t happy about his trip. He’s been forgetting things lately, won’t use a GPS system, nor will he plan his route. His son worries about his dad getting lost. Rory replies. “It’s California son, a big state. Even I can’t miss it.” What could possibly go wrong?
Rory’s sojourn takes him across the Mississippi River a few more times than necessary and he encounters murder, mayhem, mechanical problems, and romance along the way. He finds himself calling on his detective and child protection skills one last time to try and save a child’s life.
Will he make it to California? Is this his last ride? And what does it mean that “Hope Bats last”?

Trusting Your Journey: Part One; Why do Bad Things Happen to Good Motorcyclists? Abandonment to Divine Providence? Why Are You Reading This Now? Caution: This blog entry contains spiritual questions. Enter at your own risk.

What does it mean to “Trust Your Journey”? I’m not sure I really know. Every time I try to describe it I get muddled down in motorcycle metaphysics. It starts as a nice ride down a well maintained street then after a while I hit potholes and gravel. To fellow Christians, Trusting Your Journey might mean: Trust in God. Muslims certainly preach it. And so does Judaism. If you are a Taoist it means trusting the flow of the Tao. Buddhism believes in living in the here and now. I’m sure most religions believe in the idea. But what does it really mean? Trust your journey and good things will happen to you? Nah, we know better. I bought a friend a beer the other day and told her she could buy me one someday when I’m destitute. She said: God won’t let you get that way if you trust Him. My response was: Why not? Maybe that’s what God has in mind for me. I asked her: Yeah, well how come bad things happen to good motorcyclists? –A question that every motorcyclist asks at some point or another in their riding career.
There have been a number of books out on the subject of why bad things happen to good people.
Two spiritual classics that have influenced me over the years are called: The Cloud of Unknowing and Abandonment to Divine Providence. Essentially the first one says, and here’s a quote from Wikipedia, “The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.” The second one, this time from Amazon, says God is to be found in the simplest of our daily activities and especially through total surrender to whatever is His will for each of us. That is the message of this 18th-century inspirational classic by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Its encouragement to “live in the present moment,” accepting everyday obstacles with faith, humility and love…”
A more modern version can be seen in the words of the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor:
“There is a sense in which if I will trust that what comes to me is for me (now that’s the hugest faith statement I can make to you), if I will trust that what comes to me in my life is for me and not against me… what I find is that it breaks my idols, that it breaks my isolation, that it challenges my sense of independence, it does all kinds of things for me that I would not willingly do, that are for me, that are for my health.”
So essentially, let me see if I have this right- I have to believe that the bad things that happen to me are really, essentially good for me? Yeah, right. Tell that to Job from the Hebrew Bible. God totally wrecked his motorcycle journey. And this motorcycle problem I’m having now? How is it good for me? Well, it did throw off my schedule yesterday and caused me to be places where I probably wasn’t going to be. I met some interesting folks last night that I probably wouldn’t have met. It caused me to stay an extra night in Destin.

I do try to abandon myself to divine providence when I ride. My destinations are never absolutely fixed. The only GPS I use is a spiritual one. And most of the time I’m not sure I’m picking up the signal. I get lost a lot. If I like the look of a road or the direction it’s heading I’ll take it. Which explains to some degree why I ended up crossing the Mississippi River 5 times last year when 1 would have done rightly. And why it took me 18 days last summer to make it from Georgia to California by way of Sturgis, South Dakota. I was trusting the journey, trusting Divine Providence, trusting what happened to me. It can feel downright spooky to let go of so much.
And it can be mind boggling. For instance, what set of weird circumstances brought you here right now to read this blog? Or me to write it? Heck I was getting ready to walk down to the Hog Breath’s Saloon when something told me to stop and write this now. I would really rather being having a beer right now, thank you very much.
Okay. I need to write more about this but first I’m going to go get that beer. What are you going to do?

Concluding Thoughts About My Journey

Reflections on My Journey
I spent 24 days on the road, covered over 6700 miles and crossed 18 states. A personal accomplishment for me but many people have ridden much longer and farther than I have. The record apparently goes to Emilio Scotto from Argentina. He holds the Guinness record for the world’s longest motorcycle ride: 10 years, 279 countries and a total distance of 457,000 miles (735,000 km).

So what did I learn?
I don’t know about you but I can easily get lost in ruminations about the past or worries about the future. I have some great memories and some tragic ones. But these worries and memories often rob me of enjoying the present moment. What has helped me over the years has been to try and develop “mindfulness” which is a practice anyone can do. It’s not owned by any particular religion and is no more ‘new age’ than sliced bread. My sister uses it with a cancer group that she runs. It helps the patients let go of their worries and embrace the holiness of their remaining moments.
I have tried to practice the concept of mindfulness when I ride.

Mindfulness – The Chinese character 念 is composed of two parts, the top 今 meaning “now; this” and the bottom 心 signifying “heart; mind”. Beautiful! I’ve included a good quote about mindfulness, and how to practice it, at the bottom of this entry.

So here are some things I discovered, or rediscovered.
1. That silence can be holy and healing. It’s strange to call it silence when you’re riding a 1400 cc bike with a thunderous V twin engine and you can hear its constant staccato hum. But after a while the hum sounds more like a hymn, your holy hymn and you settle into it. There’s a sense of peacefulness and patience. You’re riding through different states but mainly traveling in the state of gratitude.

2. That you have to trust the journey. Whether you believe in God, Mohammed, Taoism or whatever, most of us have a belief that there is some meaning in our lives, that things happen, good and bad, for a reason, which we may never understand. We’re on a journey and our lives have some purpose. But we also have to let go of the illusion that we have power and control over the most important things. It was hard to resist the temptation of planning how many miles I would do each day, where I would stay, what roads I would take. Hard not to use the GPS. As much as I could I tried to “abandon myself to Divine providence” (Similar to that recommended in the book by the great Christian mystic Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence). Of course this resulted in me getting lost a lot, like crossing the Mississippi five times when one would have been sufficient! But If I hadn’t gotten lost then I wouldn’t have taken the ferry ride across the river with the kind and generous, young river boat captain (who gave me half a tank of gas as I was about to run out) who told me about his life. Which leads me to the next realization.

3. Getting lost is good for you. I love what Barbara Brown Taylor says: “If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course? I am not speaking literally here, although literal lostness is a good place to begin since the skills are the same: managing your panic, marshaling your resources, taking a good look around to see where you are and what this unexpected development might have to offer you.” Lost is the new found.

4. Riding solo was not as bad as I had imagined. I’ll confess to some fear before I left thinking about heading out on my own. What if the bike broke down in the middle of nowhere? I am almost completely incompetent when it comes to doing any mechanical repairs. If it involves anything more than spit, juicy fruit, and the Lord’s Prayer then I am out of luck. What if I had an accident? What if I got lonely? I certainly missed my riding buddy Jeff, and phoned him a few times, but being on my own was actually exhilarating. I could chat as long as I wanted with folks. No destination, no hurry. And I managed to survive without any major mishaps. The trip built up my confidence and sense of self-reliance. Still, in the back of my mind I knew that if I broke down some kind-hearted soul would stop to help me.

5. The people you meet. I went through some amazing landscapes, crossing the Mississippi, the Continental Divide, visiting the Devil’s Tower, slaloming along river hugging roads in South Dakota and Colorado, the seemingly endless holy, sacred deserts of Arizona and Texas; it was all incredible. I thought a lot about God, faith, my mortality and the capriciousness of nature. But the profoundest impact on me came from the people I met and the stories they shared. I’ve recounted most of these in the blog. It is amazing what people will share with strangers, the winsome stories of their hopes, heartaches and struggles; and the strange coincidences that have occurred in their lives, as have in ours, which brought us all to where we are now. (And, of course, as someone said, coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous.) But to hear new stories we have to take the risk of treading down new paths.

6. The thoughts you have. The trip provided me with a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. Through deep breathing, especially after I almost hit the buck, (“Breathing in I calm myself, breathing out I smile”) I was able to stay calm and not overreact to events or bothersome thoughts. I was able to practice letting go of the past and worries about the future and to concentrate on the present. I don’t have this problem conquered yet, but I know what to do about it. God, the universe, can only reach us in the present.

7. Lean into the curves that life throws at you. Don’t overreact, or over control, run away from or pull back from them. You have to go through them, experience them, understand their message to you as best you can and trust that you will make it safely through them. And you will.

8. Try out new roads. We need to experiment with new roads, new paths that take us out of our comfort zone. There’s an old saying that some people prefer the security of misery to the misery of insecurity. We need to abandon the old roads and paths that aren’t working for us and have the courage, and trust, to blaze new ones. Sure, we’ll be insecure for a while but new destinations and treasures are just up the road. Relax and enjoy the ride.

9. Look where you want to go. Some of the best motorcycle advice I ever read is encapsulated in these words. Don’t focus so much on the problem at hand, focus on the solution. If you keep staring at a ditch you’re heading towards you’re likely end up in it. Instead, look where you want to go. Bikers are advised to look at where they want the bike to go, the clear, safe space up ahead, and the bike will go there. It has always worked for me, when I remember it. Have a vision of where you want to go, instead of dwelling on all the obstacles.

10. Don’t forget to gas up. Just because you’re on a journey doesn’t mean you stop thinking and planning. Rest stops on the highway and in life can be few and far between, with the amenities being abundant or sparse. And there are a lot of deserts out there. A whole lot of deserts. Trust your journey but make sure to take care of yourself and your ride.

11. Gratitude on your journey is your best companion. Within a few moments after heading off on any ride I begin to become overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude: To be alive, to have the friends and family that I do, to be on this incredible motorcycle, to feel the wind in my face, the smells, the sounds. I’m not special or unique. All of us have a tremendous amount to be grateful for. I’ve heard it said that at every moment we have everything we need to be happy. It’s our illusions that tell us that we can only be happy when we have ”this” happen, whatever “this” is –money, new job, new town, new relationship. Mindfulness and gratitude help bring us into an appreciation of the sacred moments our journey is taking us through.

What are you grateful for in your life?

Thanks for riding along. Hope you enjoyed it.

“Mindfulness is the quality and power of mind that is aware of what’s happening — without judgment and without interference. It is like a mirror that simply reflects whatever comes before it. It serves us in the humblest ways, keeping us connected to brushing our teeth or having a cup of tea. It keeps us connected to the people around us, so that we’re not simply rushing by them in the busyness of our lives.
We can start the practice of mindfulness meditation with the simple observation and feeling of each breath. Breathing in, we know we’re breathing in; breathing out, we know we’re breathing out. It’s very simple, although not easy. After just a few breaths, we hop on trains of association, getting lost in plans, memories, judgments and fantasies.
This habit of wandering mind is very strong, even though our reveries are often not pleasant and sometimes not even true. As Mark Twain so aptly put it, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” So we need to train our minds, coming back again and again to the breath, simply beginning again.
Slowly, though, our minds steady and we begin to experience some space of inner calm and peace. This environment of inner stillness makes possible a deeper investigation of our thoughts and emotions. What is a thought— that strange, ephemeral phenomenon that can so dominate our lives? When we look directly at a thought, we see that it is little more than nothing. Yet when it is unnoticed, it wields tremendous power.
Notice the difference between being lost in a thought and being mindful that we’re thinking. Becoming aware of the thought is like waking up from a dream or coming out of a movie theater after being absorbed in the story. Through mindfulness, we gradually awaken from the movies of our minds.”
~ Joseph Goldstein ~

All Day in Arkansas

All Day in Arkansas

 

My morning routine is a bit unusual. I blame St Patrick and Cheng Man Ching. Over the years in Ireland I became more and more interested in Celtic Christianity; an earthy, reflective, very personal form of prayer. One of my favorite Celtic prayers is a circling prayer where you recite the words while turning in a circle, your right hand overhead drawing a circle of protection around you. Weird, yes, but I like it.

After I do my “prayer” then I have to do my Tai Chi. I have to do that outdoors. It’s probably unusual seeing a guy dressed in biker gear doing Tai Chi. For some reason Jeff seems to distance himself from me in the morning. However, one good omen to start the day with was clearly posted in the motel’s breakfast room. It stated, and I kid you not: “May all beings be filled with kindness and compassion for one another.” Amen.

But that was hours ago. Right now it’s 8 pm and I’m sitting on the bed at tonight’s motel in Springdale Arkansas, watching the TV show Cheaters and sipping a Corona Familiar Beer. La cerveza mas fina. Esta bien. Muy bien. I promised that I would not say anything bad about Jeff’s choice of motels and I won’t.  We arrived a bit earlier than the motel management was expecting. They were just finishing taking down the yellow crime scene do not enter tape from our room. They were cleaning the room, just vacuuming up the body shaped chalk line from the carpet. But things have been great.

If Arkansas is looking for a new state motto I would suggest: “road work ahead”.  The first sign of problems was after we left our motel and hit the Interstate. A flashing sign announced: Road Work: Next 62 Miles.  They weren’t  kidding.

But the sky was Carolina blue, scudded with oyster colored clouds, the green fields were filled with yellow buttercups and I settled into a nice meditative awareness.  I had been following Jeff as we passed trucks (lorries) hugging the left lane. I was in such a meditative frame of mind that I lost sight of him as he cut right. When I spotted him way off to the right I had two choices: Either take the next exit and circle back or cut across two lanes of traffic and follow him. No way but then suddenly it looked possible so I opened up the throttle, darted right and made it.

Later Jeff and I ditched the interstate and instead took up Highway 71 which begins at the edge of the Arkansas River Valley and runs 42 miles across the Ozark Mountains to Fayetteville. This road was amazing. Lots of twists and curves through the lush mountain countryside. The road snakes along a beautiful green-blue river and there are roadside farms, artists shops, antique shops and interesting designed homes clinging to the mountainside. We decided not to head towards Devil’s Den, based on karma considerations alone. Apparently an old stage coach line used to run through the area. This was also a big hunting area. We stopped at a gas station which had all sorts of devices and scents for hunters for attracting deer. Unfortunately they had nothing for repelling deer.

Springdale is a special place. It’s where my buddy Jeff grew up. Right now he’s out visiting with his two aunts who are 91 years old. Bless his heart. And theirs.

Monty Python and Zen Motorcycle Repair Shops

I’m pleased to say that Jeff finally got his bike back from the repair shop. Since we’re leaving in two days the delay was putting an unneeded and unexpected burden on our moods; his mainly. It got me thinking about my experiences with repair shops and whether there was any use exploring the problem from a Zen perspective.

We’ve all asked the question: “When will this be ready?”

Instead of getting a response like “tomorrow’ or “Monday” which I know is just a wild guess I’d rather just get a more honest Zen reply, like: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

We all meet a variety of skill level people everywhere we take our business. Motorcycle repair shops are just the same. There are some extremely competent people there and then sometimes, in the Monty Python tradition, you just wish you could yell: “Will every mechanic who is a mechanic punch a mechanic who isn’t a mechanic?”

I must say that overall I’ve had good karmic experiences at motorcycle shops. But then I haven’t had to use one in a long time. That’s because this is the first motorcycle I’ve owned in about 22 years. Before that I did ride a succession of bikes: Kawasaki 125, Honda 350, BMW R60/5 for years until I got the old “ultamato”. One day, staring at the BMW my wife at the time said to me.” Gene you’ve got a child on the way, it’s either us or the bike.”

I had sort of guessed this was coming. She’d hinted around about it. And, of course, you have to answer quickly because saying ‘I’m thinking about it’ would release a whole lot of pain on you that you don’t need.

“Of course”. I answered, already thinking that maybe I’ll put such an absurdly high price on it that no one will make an offer.

I reflected on the carefree days when the two of us would have great adventures riding all over the rolling hills and back roads. And you know that just offering to buy a side car, for some reason just won’t cut it.

Mothers-to-be are programmed to say these things. It’s instinctual. They know that our having a motorcycle will just interfere with our hunter and gatherer skills. Unless you are talking about hunting down and gathering more motorcycles.

Before I could get an advertisement in the paper I guy I know offered me money for the bike. In front of my wife. The worst place he could have done it!

So when I returned to riding motorcycles after the kids were grown I realized that, just like cars bikes had evolved technologically. Motorcycles also now have those check engine/ maintenance required lights that flicker on and off. The bike mechanics can plug your bike into a machine and it’ll whirl, groan, and then spin out some arcane number, both mystical and alchemical that may or may not give a clue to the problem. I’ve never seen one of these decoding machines work but I have seen the confused looks on the faces of mechanics. I remember hearing one exclaim: “Check the lean-angle sensor. Where the hell is that?”

In Zen motorcycle repair shops they probably get an answer more like: “Do not look outside. The answer is within.”

In the old days you’d stand there with the mechanic, he’d be wiping oil of his hands with a blue rag and he’d just say: “She done froze up on you.” That was the explanation for everything. We’d nod our heads in agreement and then shake them sadly in unison, staring at the bike.

I actually feel more comfortable when the check engine light is on. It’s reassuring. Most of the people I know ride with them on and, like me, get worried when the light goes off. “Okay, what’s wrong now? The light went out.”  If you’re like me you put a piece of black tape over the light so you won’t have to look at it all time. And if you’re like me you also angle your head to the side every now and then just to make sure it it’s still on.

You can tell a lot about the psychological makeup of a wife or girlfriend just by their reactions to the check engine light. Try this experiment: Next time you’re in a car and the light goes on or goes off what do she immediately say?

If she says: “what did I do?” it means she’s guilt prone, like me, and tends to take responsibility for her mistakes, along with the mistakes of others. Now that’s a way of being-in the-world you can work with.  There’s some self -reflective ability there, which, in moderation is good. If she looks at you and says: “What did you do or not do?’ you can tell that marriage counseling is likely to be ineffective with this person should you need it someday. You are going to get blamed for everything. These folks have an ability to see everyone else’s check engine lights, but their own. The Zen way of responding is just to smile, wonder at and appreciate the beauty of the disappearance of the check engine light.

I wish motorcycles would come with a check engine light, check light so I can be sure that my check engine light is always working. What if there’s a fault in the check engine light itself? . But then, having studied philosophy I know that my simple wish to have a check engine light, check light,  if followed, according to Zeno’s paradox would result in an infinite number of check engine light, check lights, each checking on each other. Motion itself would become impossible. Nobody wants that.

So how can we apply any of this to Zen motorcycle repair shops? Well it helps to teach us patience and to have compassion. Zen motorcycle repairmen have no more control over the future than we do. They are at the whim and mercy of their stock, the correctness of their inventory updates, the honesty of their suppliers and the talents and abilities of their staff, just like we are. The Buddhist idea of interconnectedness helps us see that we’re all in this together.

And while we watch them do their silly walks around the repair place, just like we do ours, we should relax, stay centered, breathe, and have gratitude.

After all, I know it’s in the Bible somewhere, maybe worded slightly differently, that we should deal with our own check engine lights first, before we point to those in others.

Makes good sense to me.