I don’t know if you know this about me, but I am pretty much a coward. I spend a lot of time worrying, and a lot of time being afraid, though I am afraid of regular things, I think. I am afraid of getting hurt physically- when I ski I worry about falling, about hurting myself (mostly I am afraid of breaking an arm. If I broke a leg I could still knit, so I think it would be ok.) I am afraid of not fitting in. I am afraid of love or respect extended and not returned. I am afraid of spiders. (This one I don’t worry about. I think that if you’re not afraid of spiders you just haven’t thought enough about it. They can walk on the ceiling. That’s not right.) I am afraid of not measuring up, of doing my best and still falling short of the mark. (There’s a joke in there about how I’m only 5’1″, but let’s leave it.) I am afraid of disappointing people, I am afraid of letting them down. I am afraid that trust will be given to me, and my best self won’t be good enough, and I that I won’t be able to rise above petty thoughts or small mindedness, or that in a wild effort to live a really decent life, I’ll miss things, or grow old with regrets that all this fear held me back from amazing events, and that I’ll be some old lady with a pile of things left undone, because my cowardice kept me home. I worry that when handed a microphone I will say something stupid, or that I will hurt someone with my words, and I am always afraid that I won’t understand someone else well enough to spare them pain, or find enough understanding for them to ease the fear I feel they must have – because I have it. I worry that we are all afraid, and I don’t want us to act out of that fear, personally, socially, or politically.
All this was on my mind on Sunday, when Jen picked me up, and we gathered the few essentials we hadn’t put in the trucks the day before, and we drank coffee quietly in the backyard, reflecting on the challenge ahead of us. Let me be absolutely clear about this next one… riding more than 600km doesn’t get easier with time. As a matter of fact, I’d say it gets harder. The experience you have from the times before is enough to give you the screaming willies, and the two of us sat there knowing exactly what was ahead. “It’s going to be okay,” Jen said. “We’ve done it before. We can do it again.” Then we strapped our bikes to her car, gave a nod to the fear we both felt, and drove to the departure point at Allan Gardens.
The minute I arrived, I remembered everything. I was nervous, and scared, and my back hurt already, and I started to be afraid of all the things I always am. (In the short term, I worry that upon departure, as a whack of riders all leave together, I will do something stupid, mostly I worry that I will fall off my bike and become a human speedbump. This has never happened – to me or to anyone, but I still think it’s a real risk, and if anyone is ever going to do it, it’s me.) Meg, Alex, Amanda and Elliot turned up to say goodbye, and we took a group shot, and I darted out for a whole rally selfie, covering (as I so often do) my nerves with humour. Then we left, and almost immediately, it started to change.
My friends were with me. Not just the ones that I have every day, like Ken and Jen and Cameron and Pato (and when did he grow up enough to be my friend?) but the magic of the Rally that over the course of six days, makes everyone present your friend.
For six days, you are a small travelling town. A group of people committed to one thing, all living the same life, and all held by one goal, one experience. From the fastest rider to the slowest, we’re the same. We’re all trying to ride our bikes to Montreal – we’re all in debt to our donors, to the people who put faith in us to make this happen (that’s you) all of us trying to fulfill a contract. I’ll do this hard thing, if you’ll help me by contributing. There’s nobody on the Rally who doesn’t feel the honour or the pressure of being the midpoint of those donations – and nobody who isn’t in it for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation as the end. There were moments when the gratitude I felt to all of you is overwhelming, and moments when only the deal I’d made with you kept me going, and I know I’m not the only one.
I know I’ve written about this before. I’ve told you that every year is different. One year it’s about perseverance. (Or rain.) One year it’s about the people I know who are HIV positive, and and making a personal commitment to making their journey better – one year it was even about loneliness, about finding strength within myself to do it by myself, a fear I freely cop to. This year, the theme was apparent from the word go. It was friendship.
Jen gave me a ride that morning so I didn’t have to ride an extra 14km. Cameron changed my tire on Day two. He knows I can do it, but he can do it faster, and it was a gift of friendship to do it for me. Jen knows I was struggling with my back, and was generous and sweet with her patience and words – cheerful to the end, that one. (You should all be so lucky to have a friend as deliberate with her love as Jen.)
Both of them rode sweetly behind me on Day two, when my back really hurt, and I pulled ahead for a bit to have what I was hoping was a secret weep, and though both of them could easily have caught me, they lagged behind, knowing I was crying, knowing I’m afraid of that weakness, and letting me have that time to pull myself together. Darling friends.
Ken, faster than the rest of us, came into camp early each day, and together with the faster riders, collected our bins, and set up our tents, making sure that by the time Jen and I staggered into camp, things were as beautiful and welcoming as they can be if they are also covered in spiders.
For the first time too – a special little treat, knitting was normal on the rally, even desired – two more riders asked to be taught as we travelled along, without anyone making fun of it, or suggesting it was an old lady thing, or anything other than a way of making and being and doing. (Note to self, pack more yarn and needles next year. Best to be equipped if the plan to take over the world is finally taking hold.)
It was more than this though, it was watching everyone do the same thing – over and over and over, fear and struggle and concern were met with kindness and a gentle word, and respect and a soft touch. Struggling riders were encouraged, crew was thanked, flat tires mended, patience given, smiles offered at the port-a-loo lines, coffee fetched, complements freely given, and so quickly, kindergarten rules took hold. Take turns, be gentle, use your words, big ones take care of the little ones… anyone who strayed from the path of this softness was taken for how they were in that moment. Tired, overwhelmed, exhausted, wet, hot, afraid… and their problem, rather than their behaviour – was addressed with compassion, and do you know, it worked the way with grownups that it does with little kids when you hold who they are, rather than how they are behaving in your mind.
Quickly, over the course of the six days, this world took hold. They don’t call it the Friends For Life Bike Rally for nothin’ I remembered – and the power of friendship moved all of us, so much so, that by the last day, when the heavens opened and unleashed a torrential downpour upon us, the whole Rally pulled into a the shelter of a gas station and stood there, wet, cold, our final approach spoiled, the moment of glory delayed, the lot of us drowned rats by at the side of the road, it would have been easy to feel sad, or disappointed, or afraid, or something negative, but friendship had owned us all by then, and there was singing, and laughing, and smiling faces, and arms round cold riders and a grand explosion of joy as applause and bike bells rang out. Together was enough. Friendship was enough. Doing the right thing for PWA and the clients who need us was more than enough.
Eventually the rain stopped, and we rode on, those few kilometres to the end, and were welcomed in in grand style, and there was Kim – from Indigodragonfly, who’s own sense of friendship and commitment had led her not just to donate the profits from her Rally themed yarn, not just to sponsor our tee-shirts, but to actually turn up to hug and welcome all of us. She’s a grand friend, and a good person.
All week long, I felt it. Moments of fear supplanted by camaraderie and friendship. We are all cowards in some way. Me, I’m a dumpy middle-aged grandmother who has almost no business cycling 600km. Jen’s a mother of two walking away from her family for a week to model fierceness for her young daughters. Pato’s a young man trying to shape a world that he wants to live in, Ken is still recovering from the shoulder surgery that put him back together after his accident and showing up anyway. Cameron packed his work laptop and somehow carved out the time to do his job and the Rally – and everyone else riding met their own personal challenges. Again and again, why we were doing it came up. At dinner, at breaks, at our celebration in Kingston… and the thing we talked about was this: People are living longer with HIV/AIDS. It isn’t the death sentence that was when the Rally started. There are good drugs, help, and a sense of hope, and most of us realize that presents a challenge. In a way, supporting people with HIV/AIDS used to be sadder, but cheaper, not to put too fine a point on it. People didn’t live long enough to need years of support. The crisis was clearer, it had people’s attention. Now it must seem to so many people as though that time has passed, and it has – only to be replaced by a different need. Now grownups and children with HIV/AIDS may need a lifetime of support. They need years and years of medication, years and years of help living with the stigma that it brings, years and years of our help and belonging. It is still important.
We all shared this fear. That even though there are still a very great many people who need help, that they will be forgotten, and that sense of fellowship further strengthened our resolve, and made us braver. For me and Jen, we reflected often on the ride that so often, given the way the world works, women lack the personal power to make choices in this way, and that riding for them felt like something a woman in a strong, privileged position could do to help lift other women up too. It felt… feminist to us. It felt like the right thing to do, despite our own fears.
It was, despite the rain, the work, the fear, the pain, and the difficulty… a wonderful ride, and I spent much of it reflecting on if I’d done the right thing. Not just in riding, or in fundraising, or in doing my best to be kind all week, but in thinking of a decision I’ve made that will shape a part of the next two years of my life.
I’ve been accepted as a Co-Chair for the Rally. I’m putting my time where my heart is. I am pretty young, and pretty strong, and pretty privileged, and I have time and energy to put towards being the change I want to see in the world. It was a big decision, but I’m doing it, despite fear, despite being a great big chicken, and despite the fact that inevitably someone is going to hand me a microphone and I’ll say something stupid. I’ll have to count on my friends when that happens.
I do this because the rally is the world as it should be, for six small, wild and wonderful days. It’s why despite the difficulty, so many of us suffer the “Bike Rally Blues” when it’s over. The Rally is challenging, scary, disarming, powerful, heartwarming, supportive… so many ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing, all powered by nothing but friendship to moderate your cowardice, and that is a strong thing indeed. Blog, my dear ones, thank you for being my friends on this side. Thank you for the donations, the comments, the emails… All the kindness in the world is meaningless in this without you, riding is meaningless without you, no change happens without you. You’re the magic that makes this work.
You are amazing.
(PS. Obviously I signed up for next year.)
(PPS. I am going to knit the snot out of the rest of this month.)
(PPPS. When I came home, tired, bedraggled and with all our camping stuff in disarray, Joe had cleaned the house, filled the fridge with my favourite food and wine, and bought me flowers. It takes a big man to support ideas this wild. He’s wonderful, and my friend too.)