I don’t remember how old I was, but I was young enough that my dad was able to beat my brother and me to the punch. “Boys,” he said with that this-is-how-it’s-going-to-be-don’t-even-think-about-it tone in his voice, “we can talk about most anything, but you can never have a motorcycle.” He gave good reasons. He had high school friends who had been killed on bikes, or at least that’s the way I remember it. As I said, we were young enough for them to feel out of reach anyway, so we agreed and adopted his fear and life went on – without motorized wheels or the future expectation thereof.
As we got into our forties, things changed. My prodigal brother began riding motorcycles while living in the far country of Tennessee and eventually got a Harley of his own, on which he still finds solace riding off across the Texas countryside. I, the dutiful older brother, still stayed away from them. I just got my ear pierced instead. Twice. The only bike I’ve ever been around much belonged to my friend Billy. In our songwriting days, I would drive down from Fort Worth to Manchaca, south of Austin, where he lived. He had a beautiful BMW motorcycle and I would climb on the back and we would ride to dinner. He’s the one who taught me to lean into the curves.
I wasn’t expecting to go motoring down this particular memory lane this Lent, but John Berger issued the invitation with this short paragraph:
For many years I’ve been fascinated by a certain parallel between the act of piloting a bike and the act of drawing. The parallel fascinates me because it may reveal a secret. About what? About displacement and vision. Looking brings closer. (111)
Part of where the passage took me was back to a conversation, or rather a host of conversations, with another old friend, Christopher, who is a graphic designer. He told me how his mentor taught him the basics of the craft. While in college, Chris approached him about being a mentor. The man agreed and asked him to come to his house for their lessons. In the backyard, the man had a tightrope a couple of feet off the ground. Christopher’s drawing lessons began with learning how to walk the tightrope. Chris didn’t understand at first.
“There are basic principles to life,” his mentor told him. “For example, learn how to walk the tightrope and you will also know how to draw a straight line freehand. Both require that you keep your eye on the end point – where you want to end up, rather than looking at what your hands and feet are doing.”
You pilot a bike with your eyes, with your wrists and with your leaning of your body. Your eyes are the most importunate of the three. The bike follows and veers towards whatever they are fixed on. It pursues your gaze, not your ideas. No four-wheeled-vehicle driver can imagine this.
If you look hard at an obstacle you want to avoid, there’s a grave risk that you’ll hit. Look calmly at a way around it and the bike will take this path. (112)
I think about the days when I have allowed myself to get caught up in a power struggle with a stubborn student. Most of the time it’s not because they were more stubborn than usual, but that I couldn’t look beyond them and set myself up for a collision. I think about how I have derailed some dreams by looking at who I am not and seeing only where I will fall short rather than keeping my eyes on where I want to end up. And I think about those times when I have been able to see beyond the chaos, beyond the obvious, beyond the obstacles and seen some dreams come true, some things change.
“I will lift my eyes up to the hills,” wrote the Psalmist.
“Come and see,” said Jesus.
“Draw me nearer, nearer, precious Lord,” says the old hymn.
“You are riding a drawing,” says John Berger (116).
I love the image. At the bottom of the page I jotted a verse from James that came to mind: “draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (6:8), and an old song floated down across the memories that seems a good benediction:
turn your eyes upon Jesus
look full in his wonderful face
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim
in the light of his glory and grace