A few weeks ago I bought clipless pedals for my bike. I had already bought shoes with a space on the bottom where a cleat can screw in, and that hollow spot kept calling me. So, back I went to the sports store to buy the pedals. Then off I went to borrow the right sized wrench from a friend who knows her way around a bike. Then off I went to the bike shop to get help loosening my old pedals, and finally, I cranked on the new pedals on Sunday afternoon. Then it started raining.
It rained Monday. Then it rained Tuesday. Then it rained Wednesday…Then it rained Friday. I live in a desert in drought, so this sort of week doesn’t happen here. I just kept looking at my bike shoes sitting patiently on the piano bench. They looked happy, eager. They looked ready for a ride.
The point of clipless pedals is to lock your feet to the bike, without using any straps or toe cages. When you want to free your foot, a quick twist of your ankle releases the cleat. My pedals are flat on one side, so I figured I could click one foot in while keeping the other free, thus easing in to this learning curve and reducing my chances of falling, which my friend had guaranteed would happen.
Saturday afternoon, while all the usual clouds convene to decide if they will rain on us today, I head out. I want to see what changes all this water has made in the world. I ride east where the bike trail skirts the Piedras Marcadas Dam, not quite a mile from my house. My first near miss happens just before I get to the dam, before I’ve even gotten my courage up to click one foot in. A jogger stops me for information about where the trail goes, and as I stop to answer her, I push down on the pedal and hear my left foot click in. I panic and yank hard, skinning my knee on my handlebar, while talking casually to the runner. (If you are having trouble picturing the geometry of this moment, it’s not you. I’m certain I couldn’t recreate this move intentionally.) Her question answered, I ride on.
The dam flanks a flood control zone tucked between neighborhoods just west of Eagle Ranch, so if you don’t walk or ride your bike around here, you’ve probably never seen it. Most days, it’s a large dry bowl, a strangely lovely open space where clumps of trees grow bucolically and an abandoned shopping cart announces that someone calls this landscape home.
I’ve always laughed at the hopeful, stucco-colored pillar at the far end painted with the numbers one through twelve, every one of which has been visible every other time I’ve been here. Saturday afternoon when I ride by, though, water has covered one through five and is lapping at the six. Six feet of water has shortened the trees and turned this hollow basin into a lake. As if to emphasize this fact, a group of adventurers in a green rowboat is dipping their oars in last night’s rain.
An hour and a half into my ride, when I’ve looped most of the way back and I’m approaching our new lake from the south, I’m feeling cocky. I’ve had a few other near misses, like when I stopped at a light on Coors and clicked out with just my left foot, leaving my right connected to my bike. This worked fine until I leaned to the right to hit the crosswalk button, but another hard yank of an ankle kept me upright. I’ve got this, I’m telling myself as I slow down at the bottom of the hill to walk my bike through a turnstile.
Seeing all this water pooling in drought land has me thinking about abundance, about how things go empty and are refilled. Recently at a faculty meeting, I watched a Ted Talk. (Note to future anthropologists: This is what private school teachers do at faculty meetings in the early twenty-first century.) Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, was teaching the audience that everyone loves classical music. Before playing a Chopin prelude, Zander asked us to think of someone we loved and had lost.
I didn’t do that. I was at work, in a room in which I’ve already spent too much time thinking about loss. I didn’t want to begin the new school year weeping with my colleagues. Been there, done that, would rather not this time.
I opted not to engage.
The school year has started out beautifully, though. I’ve felt confident, competent, and joyful. I’ve been getting enough sleep, finding time to write, playing my violin. That’s why I was so surprised last week at another faculty meeting when I found myself paralyzed in the face of a simple decision. Two meetings were happening simultaneously, and I couldn’t decide which one to attend. I asked clarifying questions about information I already knew; I expressed concern about the plan, and then I changed my mind after the meeting I had chosen started, left it abruptly, and spent fifteen minutes roaming around campus trying to find the other meeting, which, it turned out, was happening just across the hall from where I’d begun.
It took me another half of a meeting and a few more moments of panicky indecision to realize that something other than having to choose between two meetings was bothering me. It all came flooding back: the sadness, the fear, the knowledge that to love children is to skip along the edge of a beautiful chasm. Somehow I’d managed to get a good month into the school year without tripping into that old fear.
Saturday afternoon, though, I’m standing astride my bike at the bottom of a hill looking at a lake where a field used to be and thinking about the fact that cool water rains on us from a generous sky. I’m wondering if the drought is over. I’m thinking about everything I know about loss and abundance. My left foot is safely planted on the ground when I turn my head to the right to gaze at the mountains.
This is the moment, as I’m falling into the bushes by the side of the trail, when I remember that my right foot is still clicked in to my pedal. There’s nothing I can do. I ride gravity down to the ground.
On one of his first visits to Albuquerque, my father remarked that everything in the desert looks like it wants to hurt you. (At the time, he might have been picking a goathead from his golf shoe, but I can’t be certain.) Today, an innocuous looking bushy plant with leaves like razor blades slices into my calf to prove him right. As I free my foot and climb out of the weeds, long streaks of blood stream down my leg. I don’t see the other thing in the desert that wants to hurt me, but I can tell you that it was hard and pointy, and it left a two-inch mark just southeast of my tailbone that looks like one of those pictures of deep space nebulae on NASA’s website.
Weeks before I bought my new pedals, I came home from work and dug through my sheet music. I found my old book of Chopin preludes and sat down at the piano. Before I started playing, I thought about someone I had loved deeply and lost. I played that prelude over and over and over. I let it hurt me and soothe me; I let it empty me out. I let it refill me.
Saturday afternoon after I laughed and lumbered out of the bushes with my bike, I did what there was to do. I clicked in and pedaled home.