Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Love song for my bicycle

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My bike in my garden (photo by Teva Harrison)

It’s hot. Summer settles heavily on Toronto. The air is thick. It wraps itself around me like a salamander skin.

Walking becomes a waking slow dream. Swimming without any of the freedom of kicking off the lip of the pool. I crawl from one air conditioned oasis to another, sweat circles forming at my folds, where my clothes catch and nest.

That is, unless I ride my bike. The bike cuts through the thick air like a sharpened blade. I create my own cooling wind. I push forward, leaning into the bike and its manufactured breeze.

This is freedom. Even strapped into a cage of a helmet, ratcheted tightly around my ponytail. Liberation. Even following all the laws and stopping even when there’s no traffic – because it’s order that stands up to chaos. The self-satisfaction that comes from behaving predictably so the cars aren’t surprised by you, so it's safe for everybody.

I had the same bike for years and years. A heavy old clunker with a giant basket, beat-up and dulled by use, not shiny enough to attract thieves. It was my grocery Sherpa. I could strap bags all around and wobble my way home. I lugged that thing from Seattle, where I wove around the lowlands, around Ballard and the docks, never up to Capitol Hill. A heavy bike, and stable. Sturdy. Wide tires and heavy bars. That bike felt like driving a K-car.

But when my back got bad, it got harder to lug that bike upstairs and through our row house. The mister hated to watch me struggle with it. Always came running to lift it for me, chiding me for not asking.

So for my birthday, he bought me a small toy bike, mint green and beautiful. The note said that for my birthday I would get a new bike, a lighter one. He couldn’t buy it without me because a bike is such a personal thing. It has to feel right.

And even though it was my present, I kept putting it off. I balked at the cost of a new bike, especially a light one. I kept finding excuses to wait. I think I was sentimental about my old clunker as much as I had sticker shock.

Finally, he found some pretense to steer me into a bike shop, then another, and another, until I knew what I wanted. And he bought me a new bike. So much lighter. No more steel. Skinny wheels. Smooth gears.

Now, when I ride my bike I feel like I’m flying. It flits and slips down streets like poured mercury. And the air parts without resistance.

I love traveling at bike speed. It bends time, shrinking this vast, meandering city into a manageable size, someplace I can criss-cross, running errands and sucking up joy like a sponge.

By bike, I can take in fashion without danger of staring, as my eyes always need to be moving. Instead of noticing individuals, I take in the stylistic bent of a street or neighbourhood.

I feel construction with my entire body – the rattle of uneven asphalt, potholes, exposed streetcar tracks – all functional speed bumps. Temporary signs pop up. I weave through them, finding space for my bike, because a bike is always local traffic. Local enough.

I watch the city change every few blocks. The snake forever shedding its skin. The city giving birth to its new self in mad repeat.

The bike tour lets me take in neighbourhoods as if I was sampling chocolates with little nibbles. As if I was marking my territory. On my bike, this is all mine.

And so I sing out at the top of my lungs, barreling down the street. Or in bug season, I hum or pick bugs from between my teeth. Sometimes it's worth it to feel that free.

And somewhere along the way I find I've filled my baskets with nibbles and treats. So full, I have to strap my treasures down with bungee cords and knots I learned at scout camp.

Yet, still, burdened as the bike is, it shoots through the streets, slick and sharp and exact. It turns the extra weight into an advantage, employing inertia to propel me forward. Flying or drifting. Either way, self-made breeze cools the sweat of the first summer day.

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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