Rope swing in a lightning-struck tree beside a spring-fed pond, Northern Illinois, July, 2010
Compassion. Equanimity. Understanding. Emotional control. Connectedness. These were some of the ideas I wanted to mull over during my vacation bicycle rides. They are important concepts to me, made slightly more real and important lately as I've been reading things written and said by the Dalai Lama.
Before my first ride, I went down to this spring-fed pond to see about clearing my mind a bit before I started out. A slight breeze blew through the cattails, while red-winged blackbirds darted around calling their strange cries.
Agelaius phoeniceus makes a call that sounds like this (wikimedia)
An empty gravel road to ride
I pedaled along the road pictured above, down and up the hills, in the general direction of the small town nearby, which I eventually reached. I wondered if passing cars or trucks would dust me as they roared past. As it turned out, the only other traffic I saw along this stretch was a friendly woman on a bicycle, riding the other way. I waved and smiled, said good morning, how you doing, and she replied in kind. Coming home, I hit warp speed coming down that hill, which was slightly unnerving on the old mountain bike I was riding, pictured below, but I had no worries.
Everything seemed quietly OK out there in the countryside of northern Illinois, just me, my borrowed bicycle, and miles and miles of corn and soybeans growing in the sunshine. The fields were empty, yet full; the road was empty, yet full.
The bike I borrowed caught in the rye grass beside a pond
It was a "girl's frame", yes, but it really didn't feel much different when I was riding it. And although it was a few decades old, it had been perfectly maintained so that I could just adjust the seat, hop on, and ride. It even had a bar end mirror that I kept checking to see that the road behind me was as empty as the road in front of me, which were both as empty as the fields on both sides. The mirror was always full of full empty road.
Spring-fed pond, with bullfrogs calling
The fat frogs that live and make tadpoles in this pond were calling in their low wawg, wawg, wawg voices. I was thinking about one of the quotes from the Dalai Lama while sitting here, examining the alien-like creatures that were swimming around, not-quite frogs, but too big with their tiny legs and whopper heads to be simply tadpoles: "When human emotions come out of control, then the best part of the brain in which we make judgments cannot function properly." (from The Wisdom of Forgiveness)
As a parent, while traveling with kids who are usually great to be around, but who get tired/hungry/dehydrated/disoriented/freaked out sometimes after hours of flying and driving through seemingly endless miles of green fields, I was thinking: what could I do to encourage my children to maintain control of their negative emotions so that they could maintain their level-headed sense of judgment in stressful situations? Part of me already knew that the first step would be to demonstrate a level-headed sense of judgment myself in those same stressful situations.
But when I, too, have been traveling down those same long roads of infinite corn and beans, driving a rental car after negotiating O'Hare and all that, what source of patience do I tap to project a level-headed sense of judgment when the kids are yelling at each other? Why not just join in? Yell back. Yell louder. Throw something. Scream my daddy head off: that will get their attention. That will make them just stop for sure. What inner spring-fed pond of fullness do I have that will guide us all away from that destructive path?
Compassion, I think. I've spent days hiking in thirstier, hungrier, tireder places than the backseat of a car riding to a July 4 family gathering, so I can understand how the kids probably feel. More anger is not going to help any of us have a good ride. So instead of yelling, I ripped open the bag of emergency snack rations and started handing out calories and liquid as fast as I could: pretzels, cheese sticks, juice boxes for everyone, throw a couple in the general direction of Mrs. Alpha just to be on the safe side. Next, I started singing off-tune traveling songs, old familiar silly songs at high volume to distract them from their dark spirally emotional place and bring them back to a happier level-headed place of laughing and summer trips, the place where the bullfrogs go wawg, wawg, wawg, and the only other person you pass on a long gravel road is a woman also riding a bicycle, who smiles and says good morning, and who looks as amazed to see you out there as you are to see her.
On a full empty road I connected with a stranger for a moment, and we parted a little fuller than the moment before. For her, for my family, for you, I'll try hard to maintain a level-headed sense of judgment in stressful situations. Please consider that possibility, perhaps on your next long bicycle ride on a full empty road. Get up. Go ride.