I remember lying on my back, looking up through tree branches. Leaves crunched under me, and my new mountain bike lay on top of me. It was not a promising beginning. In fact, it was a broken rib.
Painful as the injury felt, I actually found it a bit comforting. This fracture gave me a perfectly understandable reason for hurting. I had a broken place to which I could point. Unlike the pain of a divorce earlier that year, I could easily explain my bike hitting a tree. For my divorce I didn’t have many words, not for others or even for myself. You might say that was why I climbed onto a mountain bike in the first place.
When I’d moved, newly single, I’d expected to return to the stack of books always waiting for me, but they didn’t hold my attention. That felt odd. I wondered what people did with themselves who didn’t turn to words.
I borrowed a mountain bike one day wondering if it could hold my attention. I hadn’t been on a bike in years, but I rode up a hill and found myself soaring down into the woods at a speed I could barely control. I felt scared, but not so scared that I shut down. I became alert. Flowing through the breeze and grinding musty leaves under my tires felt exhilarating.
I bought a bike and took it as often as I could to the trail. I’d make my way over tree roots, up and down hills, and around tight curves, surprised by each new thing I found I could do.
My mind got space to roam, too. It was spacious enough out there to wonder about love and what happens to it, about hurt and what allows trust to return. Throwing myself into this new thing felt life-giving. Even if I wasn’t trying a relationship, the sheer trying of something new reassured me that I hadn’t come to an end of my possibilities. I spoke to myself about such things out there and, while I was at it, found myself speaking to the trees and to the God I believed to be listening. It felt like prayer.
One day I spoke with a hiker who’d stopped at the top of a root-covered hill.
“Look,” he said when I paused. He pointed to a birch whose white bark stood out against a dark, distant tree line. “See the bald eagle in the upper branches?”
I saw it. A huge head glowed as white as the birch bark. We gazed a long while before I turned back and found the hiker grinning at me. I didn’t know which felt more amazing: to see a bald eagle in the wild or awe in a human face.
I could still share wonder with another human being – I’d needed that. Divorce is one of many things can shut us down and make us doubt ourselves with others, so it felt good to notice how easily my heart warmed up. I even looked forward to seeing the creatures on the trail, like blue herons by the creek and snakes that sunned themselves by the prairie grass. They reminded me I wasn’t alone.
Then I broke my rib. Then the pandemic came.
I craved the chance to get out of my lockdown isolation, but even after the rib healed and I could have ventured further, my chest would tighten at the thought of returning to the trail.
“I can’t handle any more pain right now,” I thought. “I can’t justify that risk.”
Near-constant pain in my ribcage, recalling the feel of a marriage falling apart, now masking up in COVID-era fear of human nearness – all these visceral memories blurred into one big overwhelm. Yet, I missed my critters and hikers. I missed the conversations with myself, and trees, and God. I’d begun to suspect that falls – off a bike, out of a marriage, into a pandemic – will happen sometimes and are less dangerous than the fear afterwards.
I finally emailed someone from church who’d been mountain biking for years. I worried that we didn’t know each other well enough to ask in-person favors during a pandemic, but I wrote anyway. I asked if he’d meet me at the trail one day and – socially distanced – give me some pointers. I explained that I hadn’t ridden since a rib injury months before and needed help trying again.
Bless William. He showed up at the trail one morning with Jon, who was also learning to ride. We chatted about technique, and then Jon rode towards the trailhead. William gestured that I go next.
“No,” I said. “I’m slow. You go next.”
“Go,” he said. “I’ll give you space.”
I went. My shoulders tensed when tree roots twisted across the path. When I saw the place I’d fallen, I stopped abruptly. William stopped, too. I turned back and called:
“Please go ahead so you can enjoy your ride.”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “You’ll be more confident knowing someone’s back here to scoop you up if you fall.”
I noticed his reassurance didn’t say I wouldn’t fall. He seemed to assume that trusting I’d have help would make the difference. I wasn’t so sure, but I went on.
Slowly, I did begin enjoying the trail’s flow again, relishing some speed and noticing lines through obstacles. In the parking lot afterwards, we stretched and talked of favorite moments on the ride. I felt amused that we’d never chatted this easily during “fellowship time” after worship.
I may not have had words for my deeper pain, but this time together with things we enjoyed touched me deeply, too. Christian tradition offers a table with bread and wine as a place where we meet, where the broken belong. These communion “elements” are everyday things we turn to – together – for nourishment, things held and blessed by God. The table is a place where we receive what we need – together – to go give life another try.
A divorce had pushed me into trying new ways of being with myself and others. The pandemic had kept us three outside our church building to notice elsewhere the wondrous presence of God and one another. After this morning’s communion on the trail, I couldn’t help but think that many of us might find ourselves bolder and braver at the end of our pandemic and chaotic times, resilient with experiencing these wounded places as exactly the places where we – and life – become new.
Originally published in the January 26, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.