Honks and labels

I was cycling my way to meeting on a recent Sunday and passing cars honked at me.

But it’s not that simple.  You see, I was in Seattle, or rather its northern suburbs.  I’m not familiar with them.  I’m not a city boy, nor a suburbanite.  For the past week or more, I had eagerly planned this bike ride of about two hours.  It included three sections.  First, some hilly residential way-finding along twisty roads.  Then a middle section along several miles of Burke-Gilman Trailthe extensive Burke-Gilman lakefront trail, which Seattle has only recently converted from an old rail line.  The journey would finish (I hoped.) through an urban residential and commercial area leading to the Central Area Senior Center where South Seattle Friends meet.

I had loaded my bike on the rack for a six hour car journey, unloaded it that morning at the hotel in Lynnwood, and fueled up on the hotel’s breakfast.  I was set with a Google maps route especially plotted for a bicycle.  Somehow the Seattle bike map hadn’t been at the hotel waiting for me, although I had requested online that one be sent.  Seemed like a small problem.  Google had a smaller scale map that I had printed along with the detailed turn-by-turn routing.  Such an arrangement had gotten us from the hotel to our neighbors’ wedding just the afternoon before.

After some somewhat problematic way finding on twisty roads, I came to the Burke-Gilman trail.  It was under construction.  Fenced off.  Not in use.  Google maps hadn’t known about a resurfacing project.  Following my sense of the trail went, I rode parallel on some residential streets for less than a mile.  The residential neighborhood came to a dead end.  The Burke-Gilman trail was still fenced off.  I asked a fellow in his driveway at the last cul-de-sac where the trail was useable again.  He didn’t know.

I backtracked to the nearest trail entrance.  “Detour ➔,” it said.  I rode a block or two on that detour (Why is it always uphill?) to the intersection with Bothell Way–a four-lane, forty mile per hour thoroughfare.  No more detour signs.  This is regrettable, but expectable when there is construction along a separate-but-unequal pedestrian and bicycle route.

My local knowledge was limited to the turn-by-turn routing on my Google maps route card.  The routing directions said nothing about other trail heads or how to find them from the streets up ahead.  So I wasn’t sure where to go.  But I had seen Lake Washington over to the east.  Puget Sound was west of me.  So long as I kept the morning sun on my left, any road would lead to the southern end of this peninsula and the passage between the two bodies of water, which I planned to span by one of two bridges.

I’m not shy about riding on busy highways.  I regularly commute to work on a section of 99W.  I plan alternate routes because they are quieter, smell nicer and are more interesting, not because I lack confidence in my safety on the straighter, more trafficked routes.  Cars have been passing me faithfully on the left for almost 50 years of cycling; it seemed unlikely for that to change on this bright summer morning.  Bothell Way became my way.

The first section of Bothell Way that I traversed had six lanes, not four.  The rightmost lane was marked clearly, “BUS ONLY.”  I’m not a bus.  I stayed out of that lane, hugging the right edge of the middle southbound lane.  I soon found that passing cars tended to honk at me.  Dialog of any detailed nature is difficult at forty miles an hour, so I was unsure what this signified.  Perhaps they were telling me where to go.  I might have been interested in some of their directions, but none slowed down enough to explain exactly.

I saw no bus traffic on this Sunday morning, but I stayed out of the empty lane, which continued in its restricted fashion for a few miles, occasionally allowing right-turning traffic to filter over.  I didn’t plan to turn right, but I fudged it and used the lane for those short sections.  The honks continued.

I was well conscious of my stubbornness in using the edge of the lane designed for motor vehicles.  I tend to follow directions literally.

When I passed out of the suburb of Lake Forest Park and into the more urban Lake City, the street design changed. Lake City Way from http://www.seattle.gov/CityArchives/ No lane was reserved for buses.  The street was as wide, but the area on the right varied in its function.  At crosswalks, the sidewalk and curb would bulb out to lessen the distance a walker needed to traverse the highway.  In front of businesses, the area seemed available for motor vehicles to pull over to discharge passengers or unload cargo.  I don’t remember any street side parking, but there may have been some.

I had enough room to ride here.  No line divided the lane I shared with motor vehicles from the area to the right.  No sign or pavement marking prevented me from straying over into unused parts of the right hand fringe.

The honking stopped.  Cars could pass me on my left, two abreast, each using their own lane.  Unrestricted by line or sign, I could move a bit farther out of their way.

Expecting to center myself for meeting and learn from a quiet ride along the lakefront, I was instead learning the meaning of a term that I had been reading in my bicycle-pedestrian journeys on the web–complete streets.

I’ve not read enough to know whether my experience of this complete street matches what traffic engineers are hoping for.  I know I felt included along with pedestrians, delivery trucks, motorized through traffic, local car traffic and loiterers on that section of this busy thoroughfare.  On the highway section I had left behind the designers had designated a spot for buses and a spot for 40 mile per hour motorized traffic, then relied on the nearby separate trail to carry my ilk.  When part of the design broke down, I traveled bereft and bothered through the territory.  I had asserted my right to a travel lane for single occupant vehicles, even though others who shared that designation loudly wished to claim the lane for their own, more speedy variant of the label.

I made it on time to South Seattle Friends Meeting that Sunday morning, where our time together was favored and the potluck was good.

It wasn’t until a recent ride on country roads that I reflected on the implications of my street experience for how Friends organize ourselves and designate our meetings.  Rooted in the great awakenings and sectarian history of North American Christians, Friends have designated some yearly meetings as Conservative, some as Evangelical, some as Pastoral, some as General Conference, some as a combination.

I’m part of a yearly meeting that grew from a small movement not to be designated.  With no desire to pick a label, Independent Friends sought to welcome Quakers from any of the other persuasions or groups.  Some of these Friends were refugees from separations in yearly meetings to the east of us.  Gathering on the Pacific Coast, where Quakerism had not been long established, these Friends could not afford to pick and choose which style of expression and belief to welcome.  If you liked silent worship, you were part of the meeting.  The meeting I grew up in had Friends from several heritages, including the evangelical reaches of Kansas Yearly Meeting, the plains of northwest Iowa, and the intellectual southwestern suburbs of Philadelphia.

The meeting I’m in now looks liberal, but I regard it as diverse.  We have sponsored Bible-studies and burned smudge pots together.  A few years back, we started a Wednesday evening midweek meeting to be especially open to Christian prayer and expression.  After a while, we stopped labeling it that way, but it continues to meet.  There are points and occasions of raised eyebrows or questioning each other, of friction and misunderstanding.  There are also some times of graceful resolution and greater insight growing from our diversity.

This is what I’m hoping to keep.  A complete meeting.  I’m concerned that any movement to choose a label will leave no place for someone or some valuable experience.  I know my own faith doesn’t fit into the classically liberal strain of Quakerism.  But I also know I’m not Conservative or Evangelical.  I want to worship with Conservative Friends and with Liberal Friends.  I want to continue the efforts our meeting is making at evangelism.  I want to hang out with the rest of us who can’t figure out what label to choose–or don’t know or care about the labels at all.  Sometimes we’ll have a prayer meeting; sometimes we’ll try chanting together.  We may even build a sweat lodge.  Our study group finished John Woolman’s journal.  Subjects for discussion this autumn may include Complexity as a Philosophical Touchstone, International Peace Day and Mysticism in Modern English.  We may turn to Margaret Fell’s epistles this autumn.  The meeting may be unlabeled and the design of our programs may look a bit haphazard, but I know by experience that it can work.

I’ve had a few experiences with Quaker labels that are analogous to being honked at for stubbornly asserting my designation as a 15 mile per hour single occupant vehicle in a 40 mph travel lane.  I’ve heard about a few others.  Treasured Friends have been on each side of them.  I think a major source of intra-Quaker squabbles is our attempts to live up to the expectations and designations of the label we are trying to fit into.  I pray that my yearly meeting will not rush to take the most apt label.  We run the risk of repeating those sort of episodes here.