Monday, May 28, 2018.
I was 2 days and less than 150 miles from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb right outside Cleveland where my lovely cousins Leah and Jeff and Ezra and Dahlia reside. There, I would rest. Rest as in take an actual rest day and be with family members I love and be in air conditioning constantly and eat good food and get my bike checked out and write and write and write. I was starting to stress a little that I hadn’t blogged anything since before I left. I’d been meeting people and handing out my business cards. But even though I’d been writing in my head for 5 days, on the site the most recent post was this one, being marooned in MD. And though the overly anxious version of myself is never that far from manifestation, he was at least temporarily on hiatus and out of accord with the version who woke up on Memorial Day Monday, May 28. Rested, unstressed, excited to cross the state line into Ohio, curious, open, joyful.
I bounced outta the Priory and bounced. This was my first day where I didn’t have an already predetermined route to start out with (whether I actually followed it or not is a different story!) I had the Adventure Cycling maps in store (post-Cleveland) which are incredibly functional for a directionally-challenged, under-listener, over-interpreter of instructions like me. But how does one cycle from Pittsburgh to Cleveland?
I thought, just google it. And I found something that ‘Wrighteous’ (not his real name, very likely) posted in 2015 on RideWithGPS, a site that I was unfamiliar with but that Scott and Jen from Shepherdstown, WV had mentioned was kind of buggy and sent you in the wrong direction sometimes because of how route creators misplace pins at intersections. Well. Considering I do that even without an app, I thought I’d try. Here was a route that (if I joined at $5.99/month) I could download on my iPhone and follow. It was created by a cyclist (not a Joan/algorithm), and I was thrilled! Because the route didn’t begin in my exact location, I spent (too much) time trying to adjust it the evening before. I couldn’t figure it out exactly (Scott and Jen did say that mapping was complicated on this site), but famous-last-words estimated it. How hard can it be?
It’s so funny (funny haha, as we are days away from the incident) how quickly everything can turn on a dime. Bright mood and intrepid attitude then soured by riding over several bridges, the new RideWithGPS Joan barking directions at me with a shaming “Off Route!” Debbie-Downer-sad-trombone-whomb-whommmb noise at her disposal, asking several people directions and getting several perspectives, encountering a couple of Doubting Thomases out for a run (Them: “I don’t think you can ride over that bridge, you’ll get killed” Me: “But I just did. There was a bicycle sign.” Them: “But I don’t think you can.” Me: “Yeah, but I just did and I’m trying to figure out whether I need to do it again.” Them: “But I don’t think you can ride a bike over that bridge.” Me: “But I—oh never mind.”) whomb-whommmmmmmmmmb
I went out of the way an extra 5 miles, which seems to be the going rate these days. But that incident only made the pling-ping of finally getting it right on the RideWithGPS app only sweeter, and all manner of stress dissipated in a poof of sweat vaporization.
After Pittsburgh, I rode on bicycle-friendly but still principal roads mostly alongside the Ohio River, through old steel towns with bridges commemorating their former source of jobs. Because of the holiday, it was definitely quiet. At 35 miles or so in, I crossed the Ohio at Beaver, PA and then rode a pretty steep climb out of the valley.
The way up was a four-lane highway with a paved shoulder area decent for riding just to the right of rumble strips whose function seems to be startling a dozing driver awake so he’ll see you right before he runs you over. Another, um, drawback to the main road is now all of the fauna one encounters are decomposing carcasses. Here’s a silver lining, though: I had a tailwind up this long climb. In this situation, the tailwind is actually what I’d term a double-stitch silver lining, as one knows to hold one’s breath just after passing roadkill to avoid inhaling the stench, which in the broiling heat one can certainly taste.
I coasted down the hill at the other side gliding across into Ohio and the Midwest!! Celebration was muted, however. During the downhill, I noticed that Whitey Jackson was not handling himself quite correctly. Something was up with my rear tire? I jumped off, and, oh no. Assessment showed that Whitey’s wheel wasn’t flat. Well, not flat-flat, just not, well, full-full. Always willing to be avoidant (especially when it’s 90-something degrees), I decided to pump up the tire and see how it goes. For the next few hours, I stopped every 5 or 10 miles to refill and prayed the rest of the time.
At some point, I had given up the idea of camping out that day. I keep changing the rules (in my head) about when to camp or not to. Price, for one. I don’t want to overspend. I don’t have a particular exact exact exact budget for the trip, but I have some idea. Weather is a complicating issue (rain, as we discovered on Day 4, or heat). The type of site. (Q: Who wants to camp in a dirtpile in the middle of an RV site? A: ‘Not I,’ said the fox). The distance traveled that day. (Should 90 miles be the cutoff? As in no camping after riding in excess of 90. If not 90, then what is the cutoff?) The primary rule of bike touring for me (which, as I’m writing this from the future [Day 21], is even more clear) is that there is no primary rule. Or secondary ones. All this to say, with ZERO warmshowers hosts anywhere nearby, I booked the only indoor accommodations situated about halfway to Cleveland. Bella Fattoria was in the middle of nowhere, seriously. It’s not like there was a choice. I reserved it on booking.com which is a site that makes you PANIC by telling you EVERY SECOND with a pop-up that there is ONE ROOM LEFT and OTHER PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT IT. RIGHT. THIS. SECOND. It wasn’t inexpensive, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t see their website or look at the pics. I assumed it would be vying for the Spookiest, Tweest, Quaintest, Mustiest, Dustiest, Old-Lady-est, Sad-Clowniest Establishment in the Universe Award for the 2018 season. I didn’t care. This is where the road was taking me.
I spoke with Brenda, the owner of the B&B, to let her know what time I’d be there, and after stopping multiple times to fill Whitey’s tire, called her again to let her know I’d be a tiny bit later. She said it was okay. She was there and had some work to do yet.
I’ve been thinking about my experience with Brenda at Bella Fattoria B&B for two weeks, and I really want to get this right.
(Let get this out of the way: the B&B is really, really lovely, a converted farmhouse built in 1899, abutting a winery. There are wineries, too, in the area, if that’s your thing. The room was fantastic! It had one of those big tubs with jets that I didn’t end up using, because sitting in a hot bath after roasting all day is not my thing. The place is beautifully restored, and breakfast was fab. All of that was wonderful, and if you live in PGH or CLE or wherever and want a romantic getaway, this is your spot. Props, props and more props for Bella Fattoria B&B. So that’s that.)
What was the most significant aspect of this visit and, truly, set the stage for me in the Midwest – and I mean spiritually – is Brenda. I don’t know what you, Reader, believe in – whether it’s god or God or the Universe or, or a recovery-based higher power of some sort, or everything, or nothing. But what I experienced with Brenda was a gigantic gift. And I can’t explain my way out of it being a spiritual experience. Because it kinda really truly was.
Let me back up. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in an entity of any sort. I did not grow up with God or god, not really. I had a bar mitzvah, sure. But largely the religious education I received felt so pointless, because I did not experience it from a spiritual perspective and, in the spirit of being confessional, it felt more like political brainwashing. We were fed a one-sided perspective regarding the state of Israel and the Muslim world. Horrific images of the Holocaust were somehow tied to a culturally-generated insistence of marrying within one’s faith. I remember the words ACCULTURATION and ASSIMILATION written on the blackboard. You can dabble, but you can ‘never forget’ – lest your actions fuel another genocide. I don’t know that interfaith marriages were proscribed verbally, but this did a number on me for sure! I rejected this ghettoistic (for lack of a better word) homogeneity wholeheartedly, at least partially because I’m gay. I wanted something different. (I also realize that my white male privilege allows me, even entitles me, to seek something different—for instance like what I’m doing RIGHT NOW – but that’s for another post. Stay tuned.)
These false equivalencies, this hoodwinking, is why so many progressive Jews who grow up in reformed synagogues so often, as young adults, reject Israel and Judaism as a faith and settle for being ethnically Jewish (like me)—because what we were fed was not the whole truth, was nuance-less in terms of politics and nation and identity, and we are ashamed of what is true about the ‘birth’ of Israel. My parents never talked about god, and my maternal grandfather, who was the most observant person in my family, never spoke about having faith-in-that-super-wrathful-Old-Testament-God-of-Abraham.
So, my spiritual home in a sense became the political arena and progressive values my dogma. Although lack of inclusiveness is the very thing I rail against, I have put people in boxes and made decisions about their worthiness as people based entirely on perceived ideology. I truly believe that I’m on the ‘right’ side of issues, when it comes to human and civil rights and solutions to poverty and the climate crisis, and on and on. But I’ve also learned that antipathy toward other people does not forge new ideas or policies. In other words, I am getting older and maybe even a bit wiser.
But I am also a recovering addict and a member of Narcotics Anonymous. Until 2012, I rejected 12-step fellowships, in large part because they are spiritual in nature. And don’t get me started on my issues with the word ‘god,’ and whether it’s capitalized or not, or is gendered. Without getting into too much of that, after rehab and a looooong process of embracing, then rejecting, then rationalizing, then examining, and then surrendering, I understood that the spiritual principles of the program were absolutely aligned with how I wanted to live my life: being honest, openminded, willing; having the capacity to let shit go and not take everything personally; having faith that everything is going to be ok; being accepting, forgiving, compassionate toward myself and others; and loving, supporting and helping other people and letting them love, support and help me.
When I rode my bike across the US in 2009, I really struggled with the word ‘journey’—it felt so self-aggrandizing and like I was donning some sort of inauthentic drag of sanctimony. But I realized then, that it was a journey. The word was correct, both in meaning and as an invocation. I could have continued to call it a ‘trip’ but it was a journey. Now, I am in the process of accepting that this journey I am now on, here in 2018, is a spiritual journey. I have to kind of swallow and wrinkle my nose a bit as I am writing this and put spiritual journey in italics one last time to distance myself from it, because, again, is this me? Or some sort of pose? But, one of the things I’ve learned being in recovery is that no matter how much denial I am in about something, it doesn’t alter its reality. This is a spiritual journey. Ugh, can I say that with straight lettering, or just italics?
Okay, back to Brenda. (I know, right? What’s your point, Getzoff?)
Meeting Brenda, unbeknownst to her, has had a major impact on me and my trip thus far, and our encounter has affected so many of my interactions since. Like I said, she oriented me toward the spiritual aspect of my journey. She is in a sense the gatekeeper, even a guide on this spiritual journey. Oops. I mean: spiritual journey.
So, what exactly happened with Brenda? Well, it started as a political conversation. No doubt every person reading this blog, and indeed anyone who consumes (fake or real) news, everyone living in this country today, it seems, has been made aware of the divisions between Americans. The divisiveness. (Wait, one quick question: are you a di-vice-ive or a di-viss-ive? I am happily the former and categorically reject the latter as snooty-sounding! … OMG, See what I mean????!!!! O, the divisiveness!) I have (like you do, too) lots of opinions about what those divisions are, when they started, who unearthed the beastliness, who’s inciting the divisions, who’s benefiting from them financially, and more and more and more! In choosing to bike across the US this year, I am no doubt exploring some of this, stepping outside of my impenetrable bubble (I like it this way, btw, I live in a progressive bastion with a vast majority of like-minded people who agree with me), and as I did in 2009, am challenging my own prejudices and narrowmindedness in an altogether different landscape, largely upon so-called red state turf.
Ok, back to Brenda, for realz this time.
Let’s get something straight: Brenda is anti-Trump. This isn’t a story of Danny having a come-to-Jesus moment with the ‘other side.’ She voted for Hillary, and we largely agree on issues. But she gave me some perspective that has been invaluable. Okay, so she lives in Mahoning County, Ohio; its County seat is Youngstown which now is home to a population largely of low-income people of color. Much of the rest of the county is more rural, middle class and white. In national politics, Youngstown has been exploited by both parties. You know: The Rust Belt. There have been countless visits by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to this quintessential American city in America’s heartland that’s been hammered by the shipping of American jobs overseas. As the steel industry has flagged (and the unions’ power hobbled), both Democrat and Republican candidates have vowed to reinvigorate Youngstown’s hard-hit economy—and nothing has happened as a result. Historically, the county goes Democratic in presidential elections; Obama won this county both times (handily in 2008, less so in 2012). Only because of Youngstown’s demographics did Clinton eke out a victory in Mahoning County in 2016; the rest of the county was heavily for Trump. She lost Ohio anyway. And…you know the rest.
While Brenda acknowledges that there are plenty of locals who love Trump and believe the crazy conspiracy anti-Clinton shit they read on Facebook, she believes there are two primary reasons that Mahoning County swung right. Partially, it’s because Clinton is a woman, but primarily it’s because no one comes through with their promises to reinvigorate the county’s economy. Classic we want the new guy. All these older people raised their children here, and then they left for the pastures where jobs are.
Another issue that we spoke about at length is abortion. Brenda is a woman of strong Christian faith, and she believes, unquestionably, that life begins at conception. This is not what I believe. While clearly this issue is not a litmus test for her when considering presidential candidates, it’s something that she cares about in her soul. She explained that she used to be pro-choice and changed her position after discussing the issue over a long period time with a friend that she used to walk with regularly for exercise. The friend was staunchly pro-life and over time changed her position to being pro-choice. The fact that they influenced each other in such a way is so fascinating to me. Something else she said made me ponder: that the women’s movement excludes the participation of women who are pro-life, that being pro-choice is itself a litmus test for belonging. We discussed the language that progressives use around abortion (e.g., “unwanted pregnancy”), and how it triggers her and others who share her perspective—and hinders communication about the issue. To her, that sounds callous and signifies a lack of taking responsibility for one’s actions. She conceded, if only slightly, that the media hammers that phrase constantly. What we both agree on—without question—is the importance of access to birth control (she is fine with “pregnancy prevention” as a phrase!) and reality-based information about sex/sexuality. And we did talk about the socioeconomic issues and the politics that hinder that access.
I have to admit that it’s foreign for me to hear a woman say that if she encountered another woman who was pregnant and was considering terminating, she would unquestioningly encourage her to see the pregnancy through. What I understood from Brenda is that, for her, this is an act of faith, not an enactment of politics or of government. Brenda also gave me some more nuanced perspective about the separation of church and state. She believes that a lot of religious people who tie their faith to the successes or failures of political candidates and policies are putting their faith in institutions, rather than in god. Politicizing god is antithetical to exercising one’s faith. Let it suffice to say that Brenda gave me a lot to ponder.
As I’m reading these words back to myself, I realize that it’s hard to put my finger on why this interaction made such an impact on me. Let me try to explain. We really spoke to each other. We really listened to each other. We had empathy for each other’s perspective. There was humor, too. We were strangers. We came into each other’s orbit. We expressed gratitude for one another. Love was the result. Okay, okay, don’t hide behind the italics: Love.
Brenda’s daughter works in social services in Youngstown. She works at an agency that serves people living in poverty, and she is young and very, very impacted by what she sees on a daily basis. And she’s angry about Trump and white privilege and never shuts up about it. I shared my own nonprofit burnout story with Brenda and a little about how her daughter’s fury likely stems from her feelings of guilt at her own privilege. “Yes!” Brenda said. “What can I do to help her?” I recommended Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, because, well, that’s been my go-to solution for a while. For everything. She said she’d buy it on Amazon.
I shared with Brenda about an incident in a Kansas town in 2009 when a man named Jeff asked if he could pray with me and ask God to protect me on my journey. I froze initially but went through with it. What he said as he put his hands on me was really moving, and the experience was a breakthrough moment of love and tolerance for me. She laughed and said that she thought of doing just that, yet she doesn’t trust her ability to spin the ‘right’ words. Kinda funny, Brenda, because I pedaled away from our encounter with something that’s inexpressible and longer-lasting than words.
Dude shaker heights is where I grew up for as up as I’ve grown!
All the best, Arno
Beautiful words. Thank you for sharing. My mother grew up in Youngstown. I visited my grandparents there many, many times. I know it has changed quite a bit since then. I appreciate hearing about Brenda.
OMG Spanny! I love this so much.
You have such a distinct voice and as I was reading it, I could see you speaking it live, on stage. I see a one man show of your bike journey posts.
“More more more!” Billy Idol
It’s fair to say that reading this post with tears in my eyes has been a bit of a spiritual experience (no italics) for me too. Profoundly moved by your encounter with Brenda. We need more of this kind of connection. Xxx
Hi Daniel, I’ve been reading your posts and enjoying them very much. I’ve thought about you often since you left and about how blessed I am to have met you. Forever greatful that your god and my God brought us together. I’m not a frequent communicator but I will continue to think of you often and pray for you as you continue to impact the lives of others that you meet along your journey. I purchased “Bad Feminist” and have been reading it in my precious little spare time. I am really enjoying the authors views on life as a young woman in today’s political and social environment. Stay safe. Love, Brenda
BRENDA!! Thanks so much for reading and for being such a sensible and loving inspiration to me. So glad that you are reading “Bad Feminist”!
Hia Brenda… Today, I am new here and binge reading Danny. Fun stuff.
To press the litmus test a bit further, sadly, it seems to also be a way to alienate would-be Democrats.