Life has always been uncertain. But the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak has shattered a myth I’ve told myself for years: that I could plan things and count on them.
A friend’s wedding in May? The spring bicycle tour I’ve planned from Seattle to Portland? The new job I was hoping to land as an event coordinator? Forget it. Those plans were wiped clean over the last week as precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 became more and more strict. Now I find myself, like millions of people around the world, isolated in a small urban apartment. Life is cramped and weird and uncertain. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting cabin fever. Or having a panic attack. Or both.
The uncertainty reminds me of bicycle travel. On my two-wheeled adventures, there were so many unknowns: how far I’d be able to pedal or where I’d sleep that night. A watering hole I’d been counting on might have dried up, or a bridge had washed out, or a small-town grocery store had closed for the weekend. There were so many surprises.
I had to tackle each plot twist one at a time, and I learned that managing my emotions was the majority of the job. As it turns out, I had to maintain my own mental health with the same care I maintained my bicycle: those tires weren’t the only things that needed to be pumped up. My morale and self esteem need some uplifting, too.
Times are tough right now and could be for a while. So, do I let panic get the better of me? I sure did last week. But this week, I want to act differently. I want to square my shoulders, narrow my eyes, and stare down my fears like a badass. This week, I want to remember what bicycle travel taught me about uncertainty.
Feeling down is completely understandable, but beating yourself up helps no one. I’ve spent far too many hours in a bike saddle, berating myself for taking wrong turns or forgetting to refill my water bottles. We all make mistakes, but how many of us can forgive ourselves as readily as we forgive our friends?
Befriending yourself means being a true friend: regularly checking in, advocating for your needs, and accepting who you are. It means having a soothing inner dialogue, instead of a harsh, persnickety one. This takes practice, but it’s worth it.
On my first bike tour, I was a total dummy. I’d get super lonely and then tell myself, “Don’t call anyone; they’re busy.” But after the bike tour (which lasted four months), my friends said they’d wished I’d called more often. “We didn’t want to call you,” they explained, “because we figured you were busy.”
So there you have it. Put your doubts aside, and contact your loved ones. Don’t wait for them to contact you first. Whether they’re healthy or immune-compromised, a simple “how are you holding up?” text message can do wonders for someone who’s stuck at home and feeling insecure. Let people know you’re thinking of them, and you’ll receive some needed human connection in return.
When I left home on my first cross country tour, I packed nothing extra. Not a single book, music player, or sketchpad. I told myself that these were distractions, that to have a mental “escape” would detract from my experience.
Boy, was I wrong. After three weeks of pedaling all day by myself and sleeping alone in my tent, I knew I needed a regular escape from the drudgery (and delight!) of bike touring. The simple act of listening to a favorite song in the morning or reading a book before bed gave my mind a break from reality. It allowed me to relax more fully, sleep better, and wake up ready to tackle reality again.
So, allow yourself to get lost in something you love. If you’re crafty, it’s time to whip out those art supplies. For the hobbyist, we’d better bust out the model trains. Favorite TV shows, cherished films, that recommended reading list you’ve been collecting for years: all can provide a welcome mental escape from the world that’s currently so taxing to live in. Turn off the news, and allow yourself to get lost in someone else’s story for at least an hour per day. It’s not “cheating” or “burying your head in the sand,” it’s a way to refuel your imagination. That way you can come back to reality with a more creative, calm mind to handle the surprises. Because there will always be more surprises.
We are cyclists. And luckily, for some of us, the act of bicycling is still an option. It’s social distancing at its finest. But for vulnerable populations, pedaling through the world may not be safe right now. I hope you do what’s right for you, and remember that this too shall pass.
There are no guarantees in life except that change is inevitable. Be kind to yourself, connect with your loved ones, and get a little lost in something wonderful each day. Together, we can get through this pandemic, and we’ll be cycling together again soon.