To “Ride By On a Wheel” by Kathryn House
If you have been socialized that fading into the background should be your first concern, cycling can seem like one long experiment in declaring your valuable, irreplaceable, amazing existence in this world.
I love riding my bicycle for many reasons. It clears my head, is convenient, affordable, good for the environment and good for my calf muscles. It no doubt also has its dangers, but most of the time, I love maneuvering through Boston’s busy streets.
I have not always been a bicycle enthusiast. Last week as she was preparing for a sermon, a friend asked if any of us had good stories about “saying yes.” I explained that my “yes” to biking has always seemed to me a story of “saying yes” to one thing and getting something else altogether. Riding my bike has also become a surprising source of insight in this first year of doctoral work in theology, and about how one who identifies as a feminist begins to engage theologically.
I could say it’s for the freedom and independence a bicycle affords, but the truth is that a boyfriend wanted me to learn to bike. He was an avid biker, and our apartments were 50 minutes apart if we took public transportation, but only 20 if we biked. I wanted to be excited, but the whole idea touched on deep-seated anxieties. I was too uncoordinated. I had a terrible sense of direction. And, in all honesty, I was incredibly self-conscious about the fact that my body – my butt, to put it bluntly – would be eye level with every driver waiting at a red light.
After great consideration, though, and feeling my competitive spirit revving up at my intransigence to try a new thing, I said “yes.” Learning to ride my bike in Boston was nothing like learning to bike in my rural North Carolina neighborhood. I toppled. Frequently. But after I few weeks, I had to confess that biking was pretty great. It was as liberating and fun in practice as it had sounded in theory. With my biking partner just a few feet ahead, I started to get the hang of it.
Then my boyfriend and I broke up and for a while, I also broke up with my bike. There was no way I was trying this alone. Perhaps thinking it would at least be a good distraction, one day a month or so later, I changed my mind. I headed to a bike path that I had never traveled before. I still remember the combination of exhilaration and slight terror I felt with every pedal. At the end, I dropped the bike and burst into tears. I had ridden alone. Even better, I knew how to get home. I cried because while so much felt unraveled, facing my fears about this one thing, however simple, bike reminded me that I was still capable and courageous.
Thousands of miles later, being a cyclist is still exhilarating (and usually less terrifying). I would have told someone she was crazy if five years ago, she would have told me that the lessons I’ve learned from cycling would steady and sustain me in this first year of coursework. A few thoughts on what cycling taught this feminist theologian-in-training:
The first rule I was taught for cycling is to not apologize for your presence. This is not the same as permission to be careless, uncourteous, or unaware of others around you. On the contrary, I think the vulnerability one can experience while cycling can make one more aware of the safety of all on the road. However, if you have been socialized that fading into the background should be your first concern, cycling can seem like one long experiment in declaring your valuable, irreplaceable, amazing existence in this world. It can seem a quirky truth, but the pros will tell you that you don’t make yourself or others safer by riding too close to an edge, or trying to disappear. It was not easy to learn this while biking, and it is certainly something I am still in the process of practicing when it comes to theology. Riding a bike is not a form of transportation akin to saying “I’m sorry,” and neither is a disposition in a classroom suggesting, “I have these ideas, but I’m sure they’re only second rate, and I’m sorry I’ve had them in the first place.” (Thank you to a mentor who advised me of this after a class presentation.) You have a right to participate.
Second, yes: most U.S. city streets weren’t originally built with bicycles in mind. Many cities are making great strides to be more inclusive, but cyclists can find that they must make a way – carefully, mindfully – where there is no way (or when the way becomes a giant pothole). So can it be as a feminist finding one’s way in theology. Institutions and systems will not always be hospitable to the questions you’ll raise and the truths you’ll name as your own. Keep making a way. It’s also important to trust yourself. I am amazed that in every instance, if I get distracted or nervous, I’ll falter in a turn I’ve made a thousand times before. When I bike – or likewise study, speak, and write – it’s trusting my own savvy and strength that keeps me balanced, even in uncharted territory.
It is also important to find allies and people with whom you can be vulnerable. I am eternally grateful that the universe has sent me housemates who are also bike mechanics. They know the attractive parts of the biking world, but also its pretensions. My questions are never too silly, and my concerns are always respected. In the same way, I has been invaluable to find other feminist-minded folks in my theological circles, and I make it a priority to nurture those relationships.
Perhaps these similarities make perfect sense. Bicycles were certainly instigators in the women’s rights movements of the late nineteenth century. In some circles, cycling was viewed as a sinister opportunity for women to dress immodestly and behave immorally. After all, as Sue Macy explores in Wheels of Change, for women to ride bicycles they’d need to adjust their bulky, billowy skirts, to say nothing of the “unchaperoned” freedom outside of their homes bicycles made possible. But for Susan B. Anthony, access to bicycles and support for women to ride them were a welcome partner in movements for women’s equality. In 1898, she wrote to Sidepath magazine of the bicycle:
It has done a great deal to emancipate women. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of freedom, self-reliance and independence… From such small practical lessons a seed is sown that may ripen into the demand for full suffrage…
For all the seeds sown from the bicycle’s “practical lessons” centuries later, I give thanks.
Kathryn House is a North Carolina native who has made her home in Jamaica Plain, MA since 2005. She is currently a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. Her academic interests include the constructions of gender and sexuality in evangelical Christian traditions and ecclesiologies. She is in the process of ordination in the American Baptist Churches, USA and a member of The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA. She is also the co-founder of Bridesmaid Trade, an online bridesmaid dress consignment business. Kathryn can be found online at @kharthouse.