Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Escape Velocity: A Meditation on the Poetics of Biking

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For whole days at a time, when she'd first got back, she had gone biking, despite the slush and cold. In her helmet and sunglasses and gloves, no one had recognized her or stopped her. Biking comforted her. The risks were familiar risks: anonymous insults, skidding on streetcar tracks, car doors opening, an onion lying in the middle of the road. She'd tried to explain to Paul how much she loved the thrill of self-propulsion, feeling stripped down, sucked clean, swift and autonomous, warm in the raw air, the gas-sweet smell of car exhaust. [Catherine Bush, Minus Time.]

At escape velocity it is possible to rise above the earth, to leave its orbit, to be propelled into space and the unsilent reaches of the expanding cosmos.

But escape velocity is not known only to astronauts. It is possible to feel it at other moments when the pull of the earth’s gravity is overcome, or when the forces of gravity, wind resistance and momentum are perfectly balanced. This feeling is something more than inertia: it is something akin to flying—something any city dweller can experience on a bike.

One of the protagonists of Dionne Brand’s novel What We All Long For, Carla, is a bike courier who rides through the city not only out of necessity but for solace as well. Visiting her brother at the Mimico jail leaves Carla feeling claustrophobic and anxious, and to escape the burden of responsibility for him she flees eastward, roaring through the city like a comet:

When she made the intersection at Runnymede, the glow was still on her body, searing and damp. The afternoon light was sharp for spring. The sun coming west was dead angled at her head as she rode east, chipping between cars, crazily challenging red lights. The city was vivid. Each billboard screeching happiness and excitement. The cars, the crowds intense in this-and-that of commerce, of buy this, get that, the minutiae of transient wants and needs. As fast as she was riding, she could still make out the particularity of each object or person she saw, so acute this searing light around her, tingling her skin. Could anyone see her? Drenched in lightning?

On a bike it is possible to escape the plodding heaviness of walking by converting gravity into balance and forward flight. And this forward flight is your own, aided by the mechanical advantage offered by gears and wheels but propelled by your energy alone. It is possible to rise above the road, to flow and to feel, truly, your own movement against the wind, against the pull of the earth's core, against tides, currents, memory. To ride freely is to experience the true physical self in its corporeal present. To dwell in your own body, and then to transcend it. This is escape velocity. Brand adds,

Before long she was out on Bloor Street again, speeding east toward the centre of the city, flinging herself through the lights at Keele and bending southward to the lake; the bellowing horn and pneumatic brake of an eighteen-wheeler flinched her sinuous back, but she didn’t stop for the trucker yelling curses at her. She left the drama of the shocked driver and skewered traffic behind. If she could stop, she would have, but she was light and light moves.

To ride freely does not necessarily mean to ride easily. Escape velocity is hard liberty. It is not achieved while pedaling along sightseeing or trundling to market or contemplating your enlightened exercising self. It is something very different: hard work borne out of strain and sweat and an animal alertness. And its rewards are different, too: a sense of physical transformation, not only in physical space but across internal and cosmological distances.

In Holding Still for as Long as Possible, Zoe Whittall describes two women, drunk on a dozen tequila shots between them, biking home from a bar where they have just bonded improbably over a mutual boyfriend, one having left him, the other beginning to date him. Their ride home together is cathartic, liberating, perilous:

Smiling at each other, the young women bike west, fingers curling lightly over their brakes, pumping, pressing. […] Pink Dress sees herself up ahead, body crushed by the transport truck now gaining ground behind them. In a blink, the vision is gone. The truck passes by without incident. This happens a lot to Pink Dress. While biking, she frequently hears an involuntary incantation: Time’s up. Time’s up. Time’s up. She has visions of her death: large objects crushing her limbs; two arms flailing as she plummets from the TD Bank Tower, sudden immolation by her own struck match, a knife slicing a check mark across her cheek before the killer plunges it into her rib cage. The images fade but continue to shake her. She blames the meditative state brought on by bicycling, the repetition of pedal up and pedal down, the continuous click and shove.

Our culture, paradoxically, trains indifference to the body but simultaneously inculcates fear through a kind of restless coddling. A vacillation is evident: the body is seen as a tool, something we might perfect through gym visits and plastic surgery; but it is also narrated as a delicate thing, the house of our hypochondria and imagined suffering. At root this is the struggle against—and toward—the weight of our mortality. Our excesses—of sex, plastic surgery, eating, exercise, overwork—also reflect the lunging oblivion of the viscera. But the body is the husk and holder of our soul, the corporeal expression of our being. It is a creaking thing, an organic process, shedding cells, ripening, decaying, changing. A vulnerable thing, despite the parallel belief in our own immortality. Whittall continues:

Pink Dress swerves first. The city is unusually still. Yellow Raincoat doesn’t notice the truck as she follows. All she sees is the pink dress, the strip club sign that is supposed to say BABY DOLL but only says BYLLS. She notices the bright O! of the full moon above Ossington Avenue. She coasts towards Pink Dress, too drunk to notice the signs, at hear anything but her own blissful interior monologue: I am going to be okay on my own!
Later, neighbours will describe the sound for weeks: A truck pushing through a yellow light turning west onto Dundas, the girls assuming they are the most visible people on earth, glowing brightly with purpose, turning south onto Ossington. A broken bike light, a single helmet, and two heads.

In the hospital afterward, Billy is startled to realize that for the first time in her life she is at peace with the prospect of her own death. She says to herself, “I spent so much time afraid to live; maybe this shock was all I needed,” adding, “Ironic, huh? The secret to renewed mental health: head injury! Fly through space! Irresponsible drunk cycling! I can see the Oprah show now.”

Escape velocity is not only a flight from the body, from mortality. It is a recognition of the body as process, a conversion of cells into clean motion, the kind of motion that makes you conscious of the burning of energy, the movement of your limbs, the intake of air and expulsion of carbon dioxide, the swelling and beating and unstill heart. Your connection to the cosmos, the sense of expanding along with it.

In her poem “Me and the Runner,” Gwendolyn MacEwen describes biking through the city behind an athlete she has noticed running along the sidewalk. Matching his cadence, she follows him, finding herself joined to him by some peculiar trick of momentum:

I start to pace him on my bike at Yonge and Bloor, just a shade behind him, my shadow behind his shadow, he runs due east away from the falling gold light of dusk, gold sweat running down his back. […] I follow him into the evening lengthening light, by Woodbine and Danforth our shadows have attained a perfect intimacy, then he turns a corner and the traffic blinds me, I lose him, for the moment I lose him, I will never meet the runner, he will never know my name, the essence of his body is salt, gold light, I adore you, I adore you, some part of me will follow you forever, if you ever glance behind your shoulder you will see me there.

And this is the paradox of biking at escape velocity: there is nothing more solitary, nothing else that leaves you more perfectly possessed of yourself, even while you long for everything and everyone around you. The people you pass, pedestrians and passengers in cars, might think it is sweat that beads on your face, but often enough it is tears.

This is why so many people love flying. The moment of lift-off, when the plane achieves a lesser sort of escape velocity; the power, the momentum, the feeling of escape, forward motion, launching into the expanding universe. There is nothing easy about flying, although it is certainly beautiful.

And there is nothing easy about biking at escape velocity, although doing so is also beautiful. Because after the shuttle has breached the atmosphere, after the plane has reached altitude -- after your bike has achieved sufficient speed to settle into its momentum -- after all this, there is a serenity, a floating stillness, a balancing of forces.

And this is where ideas are born, here in this space where you are perfectly aware of your living and your dying and of the balance between them.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page