Wednesday, July 3, 2013

on dreams, usefulness and mobillity: an evolution

On the eve of Independence Day, I am pondering the tricky balance between radical independence and intentional community, and how my evolving ideas about transportation and place figure into it all.

June was an amazing month for me in many ways. I participated in my first extended Jewish camping experience; I got to play my music for a wider audience in another place; and I traveled outside of my town quite a lot more in one month than I do most of the year. In fact, the calendar year 2013 has so far been FULL of travel and it's not over yet. In a month's time I have traveled a distance of more than 5,000 miles (including all the out-and-back trips), traveling by bus and airplane. On the bus, my body moved at an average speed of 60 miles an hour; in the airplane, more like 500 miles an hour. Traveling such great distances in a relatively short time really tires me out, and it's good be home.

Now that I'm home again, I've been slowly getting caught up on things. I mowed the lawn, which was finally dry enough for the push-mower not to get hung up in the tall grass and weeds. I've begun sorting my music and notes for the upcoming school year. I need to prepare to lead music at a Bat Mitzvah this weekend (one I'd been contracted for months ago, because the mom wanted me specifically and wisely made advance arrangements).

Today, while straightening out space in the shed and getting my cargo bike ready for a gig next weekend (Cargo Bike Festival After-Party at Velo Cult, 7/13/13 at 6:00 pm), I came across a small stack of magazines I'd saved for years. Car-Free Times was a publication with multiple news desks around the developed world, including the Czech Republic (home base); Arcata California (well, of course); Germany, France and the UK. The issue I'd saved multiple copies of, from Summer 2001, carries the theme "Hypermobility: Farther, Faster, Bigger, More". Articles inside decry the capitalist trends that have allowed darker forces to ruin the lanscape with roads and oil-dependent vehicles; point out how a lessening of auto-dependence would increase real democracy and human health; and generally suggest that perhaps staying home and not traveling so much is key to shifting the tide towards a more localized, intimate, human-sized economy of scale.

I used to read this stuff and nod my head in full agreement. In the heady early days of my career in the bicycle industry, I worked in a radical, socialist-type shop that was run collectively. (I admit that, back in those same heady days, we were all younger, more energetic, more idealistic and able to live on a lot less money than we are today.)

In 1995 I was deeply influenced -- okay, radicalized -- by Ivan Illich's seminal book, Energy and Equity. In it Illich talks about how the mainstreaming of the automobile has been a natural and political disaster for free people everywhere; and that the growth of auto-dependence over the last century has widened the gap between rich and poor and helped to concentrate large sums of capital in the hands or the wealthy few. The book is short, succinct and powerfully written; and even today I can say that it changed my life. I had already given up automobile ownership five years before; now I saw that there were larger reasons for doing so permanently, and that was when I decided that I would never again own a car of my own. In a compromise to the reality around me, I have kept my drivers' license current, just in case I need to rush someone to a hospital or something. These days I use my license on the average of once every 12 to 18 months, when I help share the driving so we can visit Sweetie's parents in California. But other than that, I simply don't drive a car anymore. And as long as I live in Portland, I find I don't miss it at all.

But now that my work-life has changed -- is continually changing -- and I find I am being asked to travel much more often in this year than ever before, I am being forced to re-think my radical stance on motorized transportation.

In the title article from that magazine, writer John Adams suggests that increasing hypermobility (due to the higher speed of transportation and also of communication) will lead to the following phenomena (I am quoting from his article):

--Society will be more dispersed.
--Society will be more polarized as hypermobility reveals a greater gap between rich and poor.
--The world will be more dangerous for those not in cars.
--Childrens' freedoms will be curtailed by parental fears, and the social catalyst of children playing in the street will disappear.
--People will become fatter and less fit.
--The world will be less culturally varied.
The world will be more anonymous and less convivial.
--Society will be more crime-ridden.
--Society will be less democratic.

Anyone who's been paying attention can see that some of these things have already come about in our modern society; we joke about "first world problems"; but the truth is that the hallmarks of a first-world lifestyle are no joke, for the radical social, political and environmental change they've wreaked upon the rest of the world. And more and more, I wonder just how possible it will be to avoid this change, or even to temper it through choice or by mere example.

In 1995, I was young, relatively healthy and able to live on peanuts. I rented a tiny apartment and rode my bicycle to work every day, working at a job that served people directly, deliberately and locally. My life was simple and clean and very close to the ground, and I loved it for the gentleness and freedom it represented.

In 2013 I am middle-aged, still remarkably relatively healthy, but have begun to feel myself slowing down a bit. I do not have the body I had twenty years ago. Nor are my needs so few, so simple or so affordable anymore.
And now I engage in work that, while still direct and deliberate, has a broader reach, far beyond the boundaries of the town in live in. Now I do things that other communities want to pay me to bring to them. I have a talent and a skillset that others are telling me should be put to use to serve more than just my local community. I am being told, in so many words and gestures, that this work is making a difference and that I should not, as it were, hide my light under a rock. I have been listening to the messages and I have been taking my gifts farther afield.

This year has seen me travel to Florida for a music festival, and to Kansas to teach and lead worship services, and to Arizona to help bring outdoor experiences to life for a group of suburban families. It has all happened in a relatively short time. I moved stuff out of the way, psychically speaking, to make room or other things to come in and to show me what I ought to do next. And now, here I am -- getting ready to head out again in a few short weeks, to share my music again with a community far from home.

It is heady in a new way, every bit as heady as when I read Illich's book and saw what perfect sense he made. But Illich, in his stark, demanding thesis that everyone give up some -- okay, most -- of their hypermobility to make sure everyone could live a more decent, humane life, didn't count on the power of identity and intention to change lives in spiritual ways. And so I find myself at an odd crossroads -- the anti-car radical is staring at herself in the mirror and finds an older, slower woman looking back at her, a woman who no longer wants to deny or delay dreams she has held close for a very long time and who recognizes that she had better act on them while she is still able to. In a selfish sort of way, I am discovering that I cannot be as radical as I used to be if it means completely stuffing my dreams in favor of a larger -- and, sadly, unattainable whole. I find that I am not willing to be radical in that particular way anymore, and perhaps it's time to find other ways to be radical and intentional.

Where do I make the compromises now? Well, some of them are made for me; because of my night-blindness I now have a restriction on my license that means I cannot rent a car anywhere; if my hosts want me to come they will have to work with me to come up with transportation solutions. In Kansas, that meant finding a homestay very near the synagogue, and helping me procure a loaner bicycle and trailer -- something my hosts there were actually happy to do. Although a number of Jewish musical artists have asked for specific accommodations before, I think I may be the first to ask for a loaner bike and trailer so I could haul my gear back and forth during the week, and get my own groceries on the weekends. People talked about it, and starngers on the street pointed fingers and stared when they realized the trailer wasn't towing a child, but a guitar. So in my own way perhaps I've raised some consciousness about what is possible in cities across America. I'd like to think so.

But is that enough? Is it enough to show people what's possible, in small ways that are limited by the circumstances of my visit? The hard answer is that, if I want to keep pursuing this dream, for now it may have to be. Bicycle radicalism is not the primary point of this part of my journey. Just admitting that in writing, out loud, is powerful stuff. And perhaps it's a little scary, because it means that I am adjusting my sense of personal identity in ways I hadn't wanted to consider before. This is what it means to say to yourself, "This is not the hill I want to die on today." This is part of compromise. I still remain committed to living car-free in Portland; but I am also aware that it may not always be possible, especially out in the unknown future. So this summer I will see what is possible in the world of compromise, and how much of my former radical self it's appropriate to keep at my core as I traverse this new landscape, and hopefully continue to grow.


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