It was in the mid 30s, with patches of snow across the medium brown clay and sandy dirt out back. There was less than an inch of snow covering the small pond behind the house. The morning was quite hazy, warmer air above the colder ground. The haze lifted just before noon. Initially I got my mountain bike ready to ride, then realized I wanted to pick up cans on the ride and it would be much better to take my single-speed commuting bike with saddle bags. So I switched the heart rate monitor to that bike. The temperature was such that I could wear knee warmers under black tights; I didn’t need to wear my more insulated and completely wind-proof tights. I could also wear my thin, blue windbreaker, not the warmer black jacket. Under my helmet, I could wear a thin skull hat, not a full balaclava.
The roads were clear and mostly dry. There were occasional wet spots where trees on the south side of the road shaded snow that had been blown onto the road. As I headed east, intending to turn north after half a mile, I felt a strong east wind, enough to make it difficult to go much faster than 13 mph on the flats. I was going to head north for a mile, and then west for seven or more miles. That would have meant having to come back into the headwind. I decided to continue on eastward into the wind. I find it easier to go out into a headwind than to come back into a headwind. I went five miles into the wind before turning north.
Since I decided to pick up cans and bottles, my focus and thought when riding was on the side of the road and the ditches. I was attentive to glimmers of silver, blue, red, and green. Most beer cans are blue, medium to light blue. Many also have significant amounts of silver. Plus when they are sitting on their top or bottom in the grass or snow, the ends sticking up are silver. Only a few beer cans are red; Coke cans, of course, are red. Mountain Dew are green. I get a few bottles, rarely a brown glass beer bottle; more often a Coke or Mountain Dew plastic bottle, and about a third of them had been used for chew spit juice. Most cans and bottles had contained beer. Almost all of them still contain an ounce or two. When it is freezing cold, the beer becomes chunks of ice or slush in the can. I try to get it out, but some is too frozen. They make a mess of my panniers. I did collect 36 over a 100 minute ride, and all but six were beer cans. My saddle bags, or panniers, were full. I don’t think I could have collected one more. Over the last two miles on dirt roads, they rattled and clinked together, almost bouncing out.
Usually when I ride my bike, I think about people, work, events, tasks. During this ride, I was focused on only one thing: sighting cans in the ditch. Sure, I heard traffic coming up behind or approaching from ahead. That seemed significantly in the background. My attention was on one thing. My attention was focused. It was meditative. One meditation technique involves focusing on a single idea, word, thought, image, phrase, sound. The aim is to still the mind; it is mental exercise. When I awake at night and my mind is racing over events, difficulties, challenges, things I need to get done, and planning on how to get things done, I cannot get back to sleep and get frustrated by it. One image that has helped still my mind and enable me to get back to sleep is to focus on a grain of rice. Not a bowl of rice. A single grain.
Riding my bike focused on trying to catch glimpses of colors that might indicate a can seemed very relaxing and meditative. Instead of my mind wandering all over my life, it rested. By concentrating on one thing, it rested. I have heard people talk about being “fully in the moment,” and I thought it was woo-woo new age religious code language that made someone sound profound when it seemed to me they were just goofy. It is analogous to what I take to be the sometimes empty church-talk, for example when someone tells me they had a quiet time, or spent time in the word, or communed with the Lord in prayer, or am under conviction, or that the joy of the Lord is their strength. Imagine someone who had never before hung out with church folk going to a church and hearing people talk like that. What images might come to their mind? Had they hung out enough with church folk, and acquired a cynical edge, they might think that “having a quiet time” is a way to indicate particular piety, much better than saying that you read some religiously meaningful paragraph or two and spent some time thinking about how you hoped to conduct yourself that day.
Being fully in the moment. What is that? Given my experience on my can ride, I think it might be to be fully focused upon, fully attentive to, and fully given to one thing. To be undistracted. When done right, I think a lot of sport and athletics is like that. So too is making love, when done right: fully focused upon, fully attentive to, fully given to one thing. Perhaps the fullness of focus, attention, and giving is why one seeks silence and solitude in order to meditate. For me, silence and solitude usually do not lead to meditation. They lead to thoughts about all that distresses me, all that I need to get done. But there are times when silence and solitude can put me “fully in the moment.” As I think about it, as I scour my memory, I recall times fishing when, if someone were to ask me what I was thinking about while I spent three or six hours wading in a river and casting for trout, my answer would have honestly been “nothing.”
Or the twenty-five hours I spent inside a 42” x 42” x 72” wooden deer blind in mid-November. From the outside, the blind looked a lot like an outhouse with a six inch high opening all the way around at eye height. I walked out to the blind in the dark, an hour or more before sun-up, a moonless predawn, clear sky revealing more stars than one deserves to see. Open the door and flip on my headlamp. Set my rifle barrel on one opening with the butt of the maple stock on an opposite opening. Wiggle out of my backpack. Set my thermoses, one containing coffee, one containing onion soup, on the floor in a corner. Set my water bottle in another corner. Set my pee bottle in another corner. Hang my rattling antlers and grunt call on a nail. Unbutton my shirts to cool off. Replace my hunter orange stocking hat with a dark blue wool hat. Take a seat on the stool. Flip off my headlamp, take it off, and hang it on a nail. Raise my binoculars to see if anything is visible: it is too dark to even focus the binoculars. I sit back, resting my back against one wall, staring out into the dark. Every five minutes or so I look to the eastern sky to detect the first hint of coming daylight. Coyotes yelp and bark. Cooled off from the walk to the blind, I button up and add a layer. After thirty minutes or more I stand for thirty minutes, then sit and repeat. Daylight comes. I might see a deer, or a part of a deer moving through the woods. The first noisy blue jay announces itself an hour after sun-up. Nuthatches scoot head-first down a tree, and land on the window sill of the blind. A couple of crows, and a raven appear around 10 am. A few hours after noon the Pileated Woodpecker passes through. I see a Flicker, and a Downy Woodpecker. I hear cars and pick-up trucks carrying others to and from hunting locations or work.
I was in the blind, never exiting (except to search an hour for the buck I shot), Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 6:15-11:30 am, and Monday and Tuesday 2:30-5:30 pm. 70 cubic feet of space of a monastery, voluntarily confined for twenty-five hours. I recall that I thought about nothing; I was only attentive, straining to hear anything audible, and to see anything visible. My mind was still. I belonged to the world. Put me in a shopping mall and I am exhausted after an hour, two at the most. Put me in a river or a deer blind, and I seem to grow into it. I become part of it. Separation from it is an amputation.
Too, this time of year a 60 minute bike ride is about as long as I ride. I was out 100 minutes. Apart from the full, almost over-flowing panniers, I could have gone another hour or more. The average effort I put out was not easy. I wore my heart rate monitor. Average heart rate for the 100 minutes (the heart rate monitor was actually running about 110 minutes or more; I didn’t stop it when I stopped to pick-up a can) was 129 beats per minute. In the summer, that heart rate during a 100 minute ride on my road bike would allow me to average over 20 miles per hour. My can ride was not easy, in spite of making 36 stops and getting those short rests.
After heading east five miles and turning north, I went four miles north before turning west. Now I had a tailwind. Riding my single speed, I was spinning at a high rate. There were a couple of good hills where I could stand and pedal, give my sit bones a rest, and grind up the hills. I continued west for eight miles. Along the way I stopped at the St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt. I had driven by it several times in the car, and ridden my bike by it a few times. I rode in and rode around it. It looked quite peaceful there. They host contemplative retreats. The grounds have several tall and large pine trees. I used the seclusion of the large pines to stop and pee downwind. After heading west eight miles, I had four miles to go south, and three miles east to get home. It made for a very peaceful, relaxing ride. Contemplative, attending to one thing.