Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Book Review: Holy Spokes

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy Laura Everett’s delightful book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels (Eerdmans, 2017), but it helps to be a cyclist.  This is a book about cycling, but it’s also about one’s physical and spiritual journey on the bike. Bicycling everyday for transportation, she reminds us, requires discipline and intentionality, mindfulness and awareness, a connectedness with the world around you and with your own body.

Everett, a minister in the United Church of Christ, cleverly uses the various parts of the bike (frame, saddle, handlebars, lights, etc.) as metaphors for the various spiritual elements of bicycling.  The frame represents the “rule of life,” the saddle “endurance,” the lights “visibility,” and so on. Throughout the book, she refers to the writings of “Brother Lawrence,” a 17th century monk, who sought communion with god in the mindfulness with which he approached the prosaic tasks of life. Lawrence “was convinced that mundane tasks done with intention bring us closer to the holy,” and Everett uses her daily bicycle commute as “a way to cultivate that same awareness in me.”

Author Laura Everett on her daily commute. (photo: AP News)

Everett shares a number of insights that regular cyclists will recognize.  She writes of the intentionality and discipline that cycling requires, and regards these as elements of a spiritual life as well.  She illuminates the way cycling forms a “habit of our daily life” that shrink our cities “into more manageable places.” I thought of this insight recently as I waved to the crossing guard I see on my ride to the train station and the groundskeeper I always say ‘hi’ to as I ride by the Episcopal church.  I don’t know their names, but they are familiar to me in a way that makes me feel more connected to my neighborhood. Locked inside metal boxes speeding along at 40mph, we are strangers. On the bike, on foot, or even on the bus, we become human to one another. The bike lifts the veil of alienation that surrounds so much of our modern life, helps us see the details of our surroundings and think through the big picture of our small but meaningful place in the world.  In this way, urban cycling is not about escape, like bikepacking for example, but rather is about openness to and engagement with the troubled yet beautiful urban world around us.

She struggles with her feelings of anger and frustration at drivers who yell at her or whose dangerous driving imperils her life (oh, sister, I share that struggle!). But she also revels in the simple and myriad joys of cycling–the sights, sounds, and connectedness to our surroundings when we’re on our bikes. The way the rhythm of our breathing and pedal strokes and the wind in our faces makes us happy and alive, helps us develop, in her words, “a deeper internal life and greater attentiveness.” One might even say riding a bike is one way to experience what some call grace.

If you’re a person who gets around by bike and thinks about the bigger questions of why we do it, Everett’s book will resonate with you and delight you with insights, as it did for me. There’s also an element of light-heartedness, as when she compares different categories of cyclists to various religious sensibilities. There are “velo-orthodox” (who only travel by bike), “velo-conservatives” (who make rare exceptions for the car), and “velo-liberal” (the least observant). As she explains, the “velo-religious” frame their lives around the bike:

How shall we get there? The rule is always “by bike.” [The velo-religious] make few exceptions for inclement weather; they just wear better rain gear or warmer mittens. The bicycle is their frame for all transit, and then all activity. These people keep kosher.  (p. 14)

Everett connects the way she journeys through life on two wheels to life’s spiritual journey.  I found her analogy resonant in a way I hadn’t expected. I’d never consciously thought of riding my bike as both a physical and a spiritual discipline before but having been made aware of it by Everett, it makes sense.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about sharing this journey with others. I find the journey by car hollow, soulless, even a bit depressing. The journey by bike is so much more fulfilling. The bicycle makes us stronger, freer, happier, and it can give us a deeper appreciation for all creation around us. The bike doesn’t pollute and denigrate creation. It doesn’t let us ignore the human crises around us, either. We can’t just roll up our windows, turn up the radio, and ignore the homeless as we drive to church on Sunday. The bike helps us see and feel what it means to be alive, to be more fully human–and humane–in a troubled world.

This book is a wonderful gem, worth reading whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof).  If there’s a church of two-wheels and the Rev. Everett is preaching, count me in.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Holy Spokes

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines – Streetsblog Los Angeles

  2. Pingback: Eerdmans All Over: June 16, 2017 – EerdWord

  3. Richard Slimbach on said:

    Wonderful post. While so many bicyclists seem to wear a silly grin, they probably would be hard-pressed to explain why. Your review (and I assume the book) suggests it’s all about “right relationship.” On a bike one feels connected to oneself (body-mind-spirit), to the wonder and unpredictability of the natural world (where it sinks and rises, whether it’s hot or cold), and to distinct places and peoples that auto-mobility homogenizes. (Autonomous cars and ride-hailing apps will only make matters worse.) On a bike, we’re reminded of our finiteness, our vulnerability, our inability to control anything or anyone but ourselves. In accepting fragility, we receive special grace to “accept life on its own terms,” as 12-steppers like to say. And in an age of oil-fueled wars and climate distress for millions worldwide, bike commuting, together with adopting a plant-based diet, becomes a prophetic act of peace making. I think that’s why those bicyclists seem so much happier than their car-caged peers.

  4. I was intrigued by the idea of bicycling as a religious experience, and the use of terms from the world of Judaism. It also made me imagine two friends chatting after Sunday Mass at St. Timothy’s: One asked, “What are you doing for Lent?” and the other answers, “I’m giving up driving. I fixed up my old bike and bought a Metro pass.” Praiseworthy action, but it makes non-automotive travel seem like a kind of penance; giving up the comfortable and nearly effortless motor car for travel that requires work and planning.

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