Have you ever done a thing that, you realized afterward, changed your DNA?
I recently participated in the Friends for Life Bike Rally, an annual fundraiser in support of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation, which had me committing to riding my bicycle 660 kilometres from Toronto to Montreal over six days. That's no small thing.
It was hard.
Like.. REALLY effin' hard.
Partly attributable to the fact that my bike is too slow and heavy for this particular type of ride (a fact I didn’t learn until Day 5), but also.. it’s just bloody fucking hard.
It was the hardest physical thing I've ever done in my life. And, I've climbed all 19,350 feet up to the very tip top of Mount Kilimanjaro in a pummelling blizzard. So, when I tell you it was harder even than that you might get a sense of just how hard a physical thing we’re talking about.
But, it was also the most rewarding. Because of the achievement, of course. But, for so many more reasons than just that one.
I signed up for the Bike Rally because:
1. I have a 2000 kilometre tour with TDA Global Cycling coming up in October that will begin in Hanoi and take me through Vietnam and Laos and into Cambodia where I'll finish up at Angkor Wat. The tour is paid for by TDA as part of a bit of contract work I did for them in 2017. I'm beyond excited to be getting to go to Southeast Asia for next to nothing and I wanted to be well prepared. Knowing my tendency toward procrastination, I knew I wouldn't train properly for the ride unless I found a way to force myself to stay accountable. Which got me thinking about...
2. A friend of mine who had participated in the Bike Rally years ago and told me about his experience and how much fun he'd had. His stories about the ride had been rolling around in the back of my mind and it became a thing I thought I'd like to try some time. With the TDA tour forthcoming and knowing the Bike Rally team would put together a training schedule, I decided it would be a great way to do something meaningful while preparing myself for the Asian experience. Also...
3. In 2014, after reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro as a member of the Dream Mountains Dream Team, I'd had the opportunity to visit an SOS Children's Village, one of the charities supported by the climb. There I met dozens of children who had been orphaned by AIDS. I saw first-hand the impact of AIDS on the lives of these beautiful people and I wanted to do something more to contribute to making a difference for people living with AIDS and HIV. AIDS had entered my life on a more personal level when...
4. During my days working as the Office Manager at the Gestalt Institute of Toronto, I spent a great deal of time chatting with the students of the various training programs, several of whom became friends. One of those students was a guy named Bob, who shared with me his initial motivations for coming into the Gestalt Training Program, an intensive approach to personal development decidedly not for the faint of heart.
Bob told me how he’d been living with HIV since the 80s. “I’m one of the dinosaurs” he'd told me. “That’s what we call ourselves. We’re the originals, the ones who weren’t supposed to survive, but did. They’ve used all the drugs on us; some worked for a while then didn’t anymore and had to be changed, and changed again. And, now they’re out of ideas. We weren’t supposed to live this long and they don’t know what to do with us.”
He went on to say to me, “When I first came to the Gestalt Institute, I came to learn how to die; I learned how to live instead. I learned.. dying is easy. Living is the hard part.”
Bob’s words that day tattooed themselves onto my brain. They were so perfectly, profoundly, achingly true. As I have come to experience time and again myself. Most recently when..
5. My eldest sister died by suicide on January 28, 2018, which was the ultimate end result of a cycling accident that had stolen her mobility and hope over a four-year period. I wanted to find a way to stay connected to her and keep alive the things she most loved and most wanted to still be able to do.
So.. I got on my bike.
And I rode.
And it changed me.
The best parts of experiences like the Bike Rally are the aspects you can't plan for. Including the disappointments and frustrations and detours. Because they have the most to teach us.
I'm pretty new to cycling. I really only started riding when I began working for TDA and I'm certainly not one of those people out on my bike through wind and snow and sleet and hail. I'm also not one of those people with a penchant for murdering leg-crushing hills. I like riding on warm (but not too warm) sunny days up the relatively flat Don Valley Trail, around Tommy Thompson Park, or along the Waterfront Trail from my place at Harbourfront out to Port Credit and back. Fifty to sixty kilometres is a nice ride. Beyond that it begins to get a bit gruelling. I'm not fast. Like.. at all. I am strong. Stronger than I typically remember. But, still.. I'm pretty new to all of this. Adjusting to being in a saddle for hours on end, adjusting to clip pedals (hello slow-motion wipeouts), adjusting to staying committed to, well.. anything, was a lot to take on all at once. Of course, it didn't happen all at once. It happened over a period of about eight months, but it somehow felt as though it was happening all at once. Because life was also still happening in the midst, and time passes SO MUCH FASTER than we ever think it will and, while I did keep up with the training schedule and got so I could ride 100 kilometres with relatively little pain, I still showed up for Departure Day in tears and panicking.
I was, at that point, 100% sure I could NOT complete the six-day ride.
My mind was scrambling around in search of any reason to bail. Right up until the moment we pulled out of Barbara Hall Park at The 519 en masse.
But, then.. I was peddling. And, people were encouraging me, addressing me by name as they passed on my left--I heard a LOT of "on your left" over those six days!--and they were saying, "You've got this Lara. You can do it!" And, something started to happen. I started to become a part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my reasons for riding, bigger than any personal agenda. It started as a very small sensation. It was difficult for me to let it in at first. I'm generally not that great at being loved. I'm a moody little thing. I have about fourteen different personalities and most of them are crabby. I carry around a considerable amount of body armour from past heartbreaks, traumas, and losses, and I was still riddled with self-doubt. But, there were stirrings of something. Something I would only later come to understand.
Day One: Toronto to Port Hope
By lunchtime on the first day my mood was soaring. I'd found that beautiful groove that one settles into after the endorphins kick in and I felt like I could peddle forever. I was slow and near the back, but I didn't care. I was doing it. I was going to make the first 110k and I was immensely proud of my effort.
Then, as I reached the corner of King Street and Ruddell Road in Newcastle, about 90 kilometres in, after stopping for a quick rehydration rest, I found myself unable to get back on my bike. My back, compromised by degenerative disc disease and old injuries suddenly reminding me of their existence, went into full spasm and there was simply no way I was riding any further that day.
Road Crew caught up with me and loaded me into their van to take me the rest of the way to break and then into camp. I was heartbroken. Only moments before I had been singing my lungs out and beaming with the joy of personal accomplishment.
Then.. I wasn't.
I plunged into feelings of failure.
Two of the sweeps--those are the riders who stay to the very back and make sure every other rider stays on course and gets to camp each day--took the time to talk me out of that abyss by lovingly reminding me how big a deal it is to ride 90 kilometres and that the rally is just that: a rally, not a race. It's nice to ride the entire route. That's the goal of every person who signs up. But, shit happens. Disappointment happens. Bodies (particularly 49-year-old injured bodies) sometimes have different ideas than minds. And, at the end of the day, the body is boss and it's how we handle the disappointments that matters most.
They pep-talked me back into a smile and my Road Crew friends called ahead to make sure the Wellness Team could take me in for an assessment and treatment, with a goal to make me ride-ready for the following 131 kilometre day, the longest of the entire journey and one that would wind through a beloved countryside I’d once called home.
My spirits picked up and some (if not quite all) of my optimism returned.
At dinner, however, my spirits were dashed once again.
In a group of 300 people, many of whom have barely met if at all, there are bound to be personality conflicts from time to time. Not all the people are going to be your people.
In a dinnertime discussion I shared with a couple other riders on my team that, while I was incredibly disappointed at having been unable to ride the full distance for that day and concerned the next day might be more than my back was going to allow me to do, I was choosing to focus on the fact that I had done the most important thing: I'd smashed my fundraising minimum and I'd shown up for something WAY outside my comfort zone.
It became clear through the conversation they didn't necessarily share my view. It was suggested that, had I shown up for more of the scheduled team training rides and team socials (which were difficult for me to get to because of my single-parenting and travel schedules) vs. training on my own, I would have been better prepared for riding what some cyclists refer to as EFI (every fucking inch). The remarks directed at me were pointed and, I felt, wholly uncalled for. I felt shamed and unsupported.
And, I was pissed.
I explained that, as important as the ride was to me, I wasn't willing to cripple myself for it. I have a son who needs me intact and an entire life outside of the Bike Rally that requires I continue to be able to walk. I excused myself and left the table to go to my tent and fume.
Day Two: Port Hope to Adolphustown
After a decent night's sleep and in spite of an emotional hangover, I woke up feeling I wanted to attempt the 131k. I decided if it became too much for me and my battered old back, I'd stop. As planned the previous day, however, I met with the head of the Wellness Team, and he had other ideas. On his recommendation I reluctantly (very reluctantly) agreed to take the day to rest and join the Road Support Crew instead.
My ego was not happy.
I wondered whether I'd been crazy to think I could ever do such a thing to begin with. I worried about having to tell all the people who had supported me I had to quit. I fretted over having to tell my son the same thing and the example that would set.
I was still furious about the previous night's conversations and I was struggling hard against a returning and rising desire to abort my mission and go home. I contemplated who might be able to come and pick me up. I thought about how many times I've felt out of place in my life. I thought about how isolated and separate from the group I was feeling in that moment and how it was just a reflection of a bigger problem for me: never really knowing who my people are or how and where to find them. How many times I'd joked over the years about waiting for my spaceship to come and pick me up and take me back to my home planet. All my fears were being confirmed in an onslaught of emotion and I was not. having. fun.
Tears pricked behind my eyes.
I went back to clear away my tent and pack up my belongings and, while I was doing so, I paused to take a breath, my sister's last-ever piece of advice echoing through my mind, and I thought to myself, "Are you really going to let someone else's ideas about the "right way" to do this rob you of the experience? Are you really going to let that story trump all the others? What about the stories of the people who ARE still cheering you on, the ones who still believe in you? What about your story and your belief in yourSELF?"
I realized I had a choice in that moment. I could stay mad. I could allow the dinner table conversations to solidify my lifelong list of (utterly irrational yet deeply seated) fears: there is nowhere in this world I truly belong, I am a bad person, I'm better off staying alone in my cocoon of safety than trying new and scary and challenging things, nobody wants me around anyway.
I could subscribe wholeheartedly to that story and live into it as though it were true.
Or.. right then and there, in the middle of a farmer’s field in Port Hope, I could write a different story. I could remind myself (for about the thrillionth time) I am the author of my own damned life and the story of any life amounts, quite simply, to a series of choices and consequences. That’s it. It’s the ultimate choose-your-own-ending adventure!
Truth is.. despite their shitty delivery, those people had actually been doing the best they could do with the communication tools available to them in that moment and they most likely didn't mean as much harm as they'd caused. This was one of those times to choose not to take it personally. It was also an opportunity to supplant anger with compassion.
Not everyone is good with words. Not everyone is good with tough feelings. And, everyone, EVERYONE, has their own internal story about how things should--the most insidiously damaging word of all words in the history of words--go and none of their internal stories has anything whatsoever to do with me.
The words they had spoken to me weren't about me; they were about them. Here was an opportunity to integrate that truth on a cellular level instead of turning what they'd said into an excuse to give up on myself. Perhaps more importantly for me, however, was that it was also an opportunity to speak up for myself and for the way I expect to be treated as a capable, intelligent, self-sufficient adult and as a member of a team. Which, as a lifelong people-pleaser, is something I've frequently struggled to do and as frequently been left feeling bitter and resentful as a result. This was my chance! I could leave in a huff. Or, I could draw a boundary and make it clear: I wasn’t there to explain myself and I don’t owe anybody anything.
So, I went back to my teammates and I addressed it head on.
And, I was met with an apology that I felt was sincere.
And, that was the end of it.
[insert the That-Was-Easy button here]
Funny how life hands us the very sets of circumstances we most need to grow.
From there I left to join Road Support and find out what it was they needed me to do to help. Despite my disappointment at being unable to ride, I was glad to still be able to make a contribution to the rally. The route that day covered 131 kilometres of rough road surfaces, encounters with massive construction vehicles, some impatient drivers, lots of hills, and intense heat. It was a tough day for every rider out there.
Being part of the Road Crew allowed me to see each one of them from another vantage point. And, since my vision had cleared and I was once more focussed outward rather than inward, it gave me a chance to give them something as they passed: a piece of me, some of my love and admiration, my cheers and encouragement... the way they'd been doing for me since we'd pulled out of Barbara Hall Park. From having been on the receiving end I knew how valuable a gift it was.
It turned out to be my favourite day of the ride.
I have learned that compassion trumps anger and kindness cancels out self-pity. These things, it seems, cannot co-exist.
If I can get myself to a place of compassion for a person at whom I'm feeling angry, I cannot stay angry because I'm able to see them as they are rather than as I think they should be.
If I'm struggling to leave the after-hours of my all-night pity party but I know it's time to let go, facing outward and directing kindness toward anyone or anything other than myself brings the pity party to a halt as quickly as the cops showing up at a booze can.
Both of those things happened that day.
Coincidentally, it was the same day I began to make new friends.
Over lunch I met Pastor Jeff, one of five "men of the cloth" on the tour and probably the least likely person for me to forge such an immediate connection with--I tend not to be super god-faring (*ahem*). He confessed he’s not one of those kinds of pastors. We chatted at length about a variety of socially relevant topics, one being the hypocrisy of organized religion. Boom! New friend.
In the afternoon the two Russian womxn from my own sub-team, Kinky Chains, who I'd previously felt a little intimidated by (what is it about Russian accents?) and who were now having some bike and body issues of their own, joined me in the back of the Road Crew van and within a few minutes we were chatting away and sharing snacks as though we'd known one another for a lifetime. Boom! New friends.
I observed as the larger group began to take shape over the course of that day on Road Crew, the way any group of individuals focussed on a common goal will gel and take on an entirely new form--a particular kind of alchemical magic in which I take great delight (nerd for humanity that I am). Those sensations that had been mere stirrings on Departure Day began to grow.
Nearing the end of the afternoon, while waiting for the ferry at Glenora, I was getting ever-so-slightly impatient as the hype wore off and fatigue set in. I was hot and hungry and ready to be back at camp (as was everyone else). The ferry was only running every thirty minutes and the line to get on it was long with only twenty-one cars fitting on at one time. I realized a moment too late I could have hopped on on foot, so I missed my chance and was left to wait an additional half hour (*sigh*).
About one minute into that thirty-minute window I met and got to hear the story of another Road Crew volunteer and (it turned out) client of PWA, waiting in the same lineup. He shared with me how he'd been living and working as a journalist in New York City for seven years (legally, for those of y'all about to get all pissy about it). Originally from Turkey, he was outspoken in his work about the current state of politics in his home country, which meant going back there was not a particularly safe nor desirable option for him. He'd come home one afternoon from the grocery store, full bags in hand, and been met by his landlady who told him two immigration officers had been sniffing around the place. She felt strongly he should leave on his own terms before they came back to ensure his leaving on theirs. He dropped his groceries right there on the spot. Then he dropped everything else he had worked so hard to build, hastily packed a bag, and left. The friends he left behind took care of selling his car, clearing out his apartment, and tidying up other loose ends on his behalf.
He arrived in Canada as an asylum seeker with next to nothing. Somewhere in the confusion, fear, and haste along the way he'd lost his documentation: wallet, ID, passport, and money. He spent his first several days in a new city sleeping cold and exposed in a subway station. That was, until someone directed him to PWA. The people of PWA turned this man's nightmare into a love story, a story of hope and possibility.
They found him legal counsel, they got him set up with new documents, they gave him clean clothes and something to eat. One PWA team member, upon learning he'd been sleeping in the subway (information she'd had to pry out of him), gave him a place to stay for two weeks until a longer-term housing solution could be found. Through their tireless efforts he obtained refugee status and is now employed, safe, happy, and surrounded by a community of loving people he calls friends.
My heart exploded.
I was beginning to grasp what I was becoming a part of, what the donor dollars I'd worked to raise were contributing to directly: other people's health and happiness and freedom. "Making a positive difference" is the PWA motto. Standing before me, beaming with gratitude, was the evidence of their dedication to that motto.
It was one of the best-spent thirty-minute delays of my life.
Boom. New friend.
Also.. a new perspective, an expanded worldview, an increased capacity for love.
Which segued beautifully into..
That evening, as part of the Day Two festivities, when riders and crew were invited to participate in Bike Rally's Got Talent. I opted in and performed my spoken word piece, Faith Will Be Required. It landed well. Better than I could have hoped or imagined. Several people came up to me afterward to tell me how my words had spoken directly to them. Many were moved to tears. As was I upon receiving such beautiful feedback.
Sharing my writing and poetry publicly is also pretty new for me and I'm still getting used to the idea that I might actually be good at it. Taking in praise feels alien to me.
Day Three: Adolphustown to Kingston
In the light of the morning, when we could see one another's faces again, more and more people came to me to tell me how much they'd loved the performance, thanking me for the gift of having shared it. I felt seen. As myself. I felt appreciated for my gifts, long subjugated out of a paralyzing fear of being rejected or, worse, ridiculed.
Walking to the campground bathroom to brush my teeth in those wee morning hours, I was struck with an understanding I'd never had before:
You cannot be angry at the world for misunderstanding who you are if you're unwilling to show up as yourself.
I've been angry since the day my father was taken to prison when I was ten years old. I've been angry at the abuse he inflicted upon my family and me. I've been angry at my family for not understanding my reaction to it and not leaving space for my anger. I've been angry at them for making me feel as though I don't belong to them because I'm not the same as them. I've been angry at teachers and boyfriends and girlfriends and bosses. Most of all, I've been angry at myself. I've struggled to reconcile who I am with who I'm being for as long as I can remember and I've been pissed off about it the entire time. Anyone close to me has borne the brunt of that anger at one time or another. There have been times I, myself, have been downright abusive. Despite hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of therapy, I have, too many times to count, felt like a caged animal with no understanding of how to, once and for all, be entirely free of the traps childhood and other abuses often lead us into.
In that crystal clear moment on that clear crisp morning at Adolphustown Campground early on Day Three of this crazy endeavour I'd undertaken I realized, I'd been so afraid to show them (and the world) who I am, I'd tried so hard for so long to be what I thought they wanted me to be--intermittent with rebelling against doing so, railing hard, sometimes raging, and frequently holding myself at a safe distance to avoid further rejection and pain--they had no way of knowing or relating to the me I'd been keeping locked away inside. How could they relate to me if they couldn't see me? How could they see me, if I refused to show myself?
In that a-ha moment, I felt my grip on my body armour loosen and slip.
From that point onward, I was all-in.
Days Four, Five, and Six: Kingston to Johnstown to Lancaster to Montreal
There were no more ideations about bailing. There was no more self-preservation-style holding people at arm’s length. There was no more armour or self-pity or shame. There was just me and a whole bunch of other really cool cats doing this hard thing together, riding in the direction of our dreams, getting closer with every pedal stroke.
There were hills and headwinds, shared meals and campfire conversations. There were moments of confusion then moments of recovery. There were hands to help and hands to hold. There were boo boos and Band Aids, botched turns, and busted tires.
There was my Mum waiting for me on the side of the street in my home town with a batch of brownies and butterscotch squares she’d made for my team (requested by me only about an hour or two earlier) and a sign she held up saying, “Lara’s Mum”, in a blatantly loving gesture of “that one’s mine” that had everyone in camp that night exclaiming over just how adorable she is (and how great her baking is). Much to my pride and joy.
There were lifelong friends along the route who came to give me extra boosts of encouragement in the form of quick roadside hugs and smiles and cheers. These exquisite little moments went a long way toward silencing the annoyingly persistent voices of self-doubt and made every grinding kilometre so much more worth the while.
There were sunrises and sunsets and sun-dappled waters, pathways and roadways and parkways, winding us through and winding through us. There were stories shared, songs sung, dances danced, tears shed, hugs extended, and riotous laughter lifting us up and languishing over the breezes in our wake.
And there were friendships forged. Some Friends ‘til Friday and some Friends for Life.
Never has an event been more aptly named, in my opinion.
Upon arrival in Montreal, I was greeted by Ziv, one of the guys who had told me the night of Bike Rally’s Got Talent how powerfully my poetry had impacted him. He came up to congratulate me and hug me and to tell me it’s a tradition of his to get a tattoo after each rally and he was wondering if it was okay with me if, this year, he tattooed my words, faith will be required, on his arm.
I was stunned.
I crumpled into tears of joy and gratitude.
Even now as I type it, the tears spring back to my eyes and my heart lurches.
As an artist I couldn’t possibly have been more honoured.
I didn’t expect to find what I found in participating in the Bike Rally.
I went in thinking it was about getting ready for another ride, about feeling good about myself while I faced the personal challenge of covering the distance and the deeper one of attending to the wound my sister had inflicted with her shocking departure.
I came out understanding it was about those things, because those things count. But it was also about something so much bigger.
It was about how much better we all are for showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen, how much better we all are for seeing others as they are vs. how we think they should be. It was about working together as individual aspects of a larger, functioning whole, respecting one another, lending a hand where one was needed. It was about picking one another up when we were down, believing in one another, despite the odds that may have been working against any one of us in any given moment. It was about community and commitment and connection and caring and compassion and courage. It was about challenge and choice and change.
And, while those of us who peddled our saddle-sore asses all the way from Toronto to Montreal over six days in the August sun may look like superheroes to you, I can assure you (and suspect every rider on the rally would agree) the real superheroes are the ones who face the isolation and stigma of living with HIV and AIDS and still find the courage to keep going in a world that continuously places obstacles in their path.
On reflecting back on that day in Adolphustown when I had my big revelation I was able to see how I have subconsciously created situations in my life that allow me to confirm my sense of non-belonging and prove it to myself to be true.
The benefit of these types of self-limiting beliefs is that we get to be righteous, we get to justify our anger, we get to keep playing small and blaming others for the places and spaces for which we’re unfit. We get to avoid putting ourselves and our talents out into the world where, sure.. they might get judged and harshly criticized, but they also might get recognized, valued, and appreciated. As someone else once eloquently stated, it is often our light that frightens us more than our darkness.
With a travelling band of spandex-clad bicyclists I found out just how brightly my own light can shine without blinding or burning.
Most profoundly, I found something I've ached for right down into my bones: belonging.
I found my people.
And, they’re glittery AF.
Problematically, I now have pretty serious crushes on about eight different gay men.
But, that's a story for another day.
So, I’ll leave you with a dedication to Helen (my very first Bike Rally friend) and Babette (all the way from London, England), who devoted two entire days leading up to the ride doing everything possible to assuage my anxiety and make me feel welcome.
Thank you, my dear friends. I’ve had the time of my life. L.xo.
p.s. Those two Russian womxn? That's them in the photo at the top of this page along with another friend for life and me, showing off our newly-minted matching tattoos--part of our post-rally Pride shenanigans in Montreal, that also included the longest day of gut-busting laughter I've enjoyed in decades.
I really did have the time of my life.