Every morning tens of thousands of denizens of DC, Virginia, and Maryland roll out of bed and into buses and Metro trains, and are delivered (often efficiently) to their places of work. This twice-daily mass movement of people is a remarkable feat of logistical engineering, especially considering that some of the participants never even glance up from their smartphones while en route. My train arrives, I get on and off. I pay with the swipe of a card. The system takes me where I need to go. Automated efficiency.
But I often get tired of the Metro. I feel like another widget on the conveyor belt of a giant assembly line. An inanimate object, kept inanimate by the hypnotizing glow of my phone, carried by the machine to my place inside the greater machine. I feel claustrophobic.
I live for the days when weather and timing permit me to ride my bike to work. I pedal out of the dark parking garage and into the sunshine, feeling the slap of the cool fall air on my face. I turn right, into the narrow bike lane that provides a (usually) open path through the rush hour traffic.The ride is a straight shot down hill, so I go fast. I always check my brakes before leaving, reminded by a constant tingle in the scar on my arm of a time when my brakes did not serve me well. I arrive at work energized by the exercise, and the thrill of weaving in and out of traffic and dodging pedestrians who can’t look up from their phones to save their life. I’m also heartened by the sights my ride has shown me. I pass kids on their way to school and parents pushing strollers. I’ve seen people walking their dogs. I see crews of road workers and landscapers who have probably been working for hours already. The trees are still adorned with crimson and gold. At quiet intersections I can even hear birds chirping. My ride reminds me that this community through which I travel is a living, breathing place, full of people and animals who are not the lanyard-wearing, coffee-carrying crowd on the Metro.
My ride wakes me up to the beauty of the world I live in, and reminds me of much for which I am thankful.
I am thankful for the birds who stick around despite the autumn cold, bringing music and beauty in the midst of a concrete jungle.
I am thankful for the apartment complex that plants and maintains colorful flower beds along the sidewalks. They don’t have to do it, but they do. And I’m thankful for the guys who weed the beds and water the plants, and for the Spanish I hear them speaking as I zip past.
I am thankful for the Korean immigrant family who run the convenience store downstairs, and for all of the other immigrants who have started businesses that serve this community well. I am thankful for Peruvian chicken, Lebanese kebabs, Italian pizza, and for the smells that waft over me as I ride past. I’m thankful for all of the flavors that contribute to this American feast.
I think about my bicycle, a Trek, made back home in Wisconsin. I am thankful for the ingenuity and craftsmanship that put it together. I am also thankful for the generosity of the Burke family who own Trek, and who funded a graduate fellowship program which made possible much of what I’ve been able to do in life, and who gave me this bike.
I look at the scar on my arm, and I am thankful for the surgeons who bolted it back together after my crash five years ago. I am thankful for healthcare.
I am thankful for city planners and elected officials who see fit to include bike lanes and trees in their vision for their community, cause there’s so much that you just can’t experience on the Metro.
As I lock up my bike and head for the elevator to my classroom I think about Arabic. Last week I learned the words for “optimist” (متفائل) and “pessimist” (متشائم) which got me thinking a bit about those concepts. I am an optimist, and I feel like we optimists are falsely labelled as people who blindly trust that everything will work out for the best. That’s not exactly how I feel about the world. I know that war, famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, and death are real. I also know that human selfishness, ignorance, and laziness often drown out the better angels of our nature in the discussion over solutions. We fail. A lot. But I do believe that things CAN work out, if we put our backs and our brains into it. I’ve seen it on my bike ride. We can build bikes and bike lanes, start businesses, cook amazing food, and fix broken arms. Birds can continue to sing as the winds of November blow hard, and trees can put on an art show better than anything in a museum. And this thick-skulled Mid-Westerner can be taught how to say “optimist” and “pessimist” in Arabic. If those things are possible than surely anything is. An optimist isn’t a person who blindly trusts that it will all be okay. An optimist is someone who looks up, sees the good, and works to make it grow.
So this Thanksgiving I encourage you to be an optimist. Get up out of the physical or spiritual Metro tunnel that you find yourself in, put down the phone, and look around. There’s a lot to see, a lot to be thankful for, and a lot of work to do.
Thanks for reading!