I’ve been wanting to write about enthusiastic consent, and how it relates to my journey. I don’t know if this is the perfect story to illustrate it, but I’m going to take the opportunity.
I became familiar with this concept nearly 20 years ago, when I began attending touch-positive snuggle and play parties. It was a nourishing and transformative time in my life. We would always begin such parties with some sort of opening circle, and some boundary/consent exercises. One of the most powerful exercises was for each person to ask to touch another in a certain way, and the other would say no. The one who had asked would then respond, “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
This was profound to me, terms of “flipping the script” from the awkwardness of being asked for something I didn’t want and either conceding so as not to hurt someone’s feelings, or saying no and worrying that I had hurt their feelings… and from the awkwardness and fear of shame of asking for something and being told no, and taking it personally. This person was taking care of themselves! Good! We all should! I can too! And we can all celebrate it!It felt liberating, revolutionary.
Consent has become a hot topic in recent years, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement. It is a profoundly important topic, and I hope that society will continue to talk about and value consent in all contexts.
And that’s the thing: consent is vitally important in touch/sexual contexts, but it doesn’t end there. Consent in all interactions is a cornerstone of healthy humans and healthy societies. I could write whole books about this. (And of course many others have.)
But I’ve been thinking about consent—and especially enthusiastic consent—a lot in connection with this bike tour.
As many of you may have heard me say by now, this journey, for me, is about “doing exactly what I do want to do, and not doing whatever I don’t want to do.” Of course that is a bit oversimplified: there are certain tasks involved in any life decisions that we “must” do, even if we don’t enjoy them (for a recent example in my own life, scaling hills on my bike!) But there are so many ways to “do” bike touring, and almost everyone I talk to has ideas about how it “should” be done. And they are very welcome to these ideas… and this is my journey, and I’m choosing to do it my way.
Part of that includes me stepping out on a limb and asking for things from people, more than I have ever done before. Lodging. Financial support of my journey. Putting me in touch with friends. Mechanical assistance when I need it.
It feels edgy to me. Vulnerable. I have generally preferred to be very self-sufficient, not asking for help if I could avoid it. I like to support others when I can, and now I’m finding that I’m being supported.It’s beautiful. It’s heartening.
And… it’s so crucial to me to lean into enthusiastic consent as I do ask for various kinds of support. Lodging, for example. I appreciate people opening their homes to me. Some people would rather not, for various reasons. I’m excited to stay with people who are excited to have me. I don’t at all wish to pressure anyone who would prefer to keep their space to themselves, because of introversion or COVID concerns, or literally any reason at all.
When I can trust that if I ask, “no” is an acceptable answer, then everyone benefits.
Many of you know how much I love to find fruit on my neighborhood walks in Portland. Sometimes when I “harvest” fruit from neighborhood trees, I feel slight pangs about enthusiastic consent, because technically these trees belong to neighborhood residents, and I usually do not ask before taking the fruit. One thing I do practice is that I don’t actually pick the fruit from the trees; I take it from the public sidewalk. (The fallen fruit is arguably more delicious anyway, since it is very ripe and often has been warmed by the sun.) The sidewalk is in the public right-of-way.
I recently had a situation in which one of my favorite magical plum trees was cut down. I was devastated! This tree was one of just two I was aware of in the city of Portland that produced a particular kind of “magical” plum.
This past summer, as I was preparing to embark on this journey, I happened to pass the other such tree. (Actually two trees, on one lot.) The fruit was not yet ripe. But the trees did not overhang the street much; they were sequestered behind a thick fence. On the fence were several signs, admonishing passers-by not to “steal” the plants. The plants in question were growing outside the fence, along the sidewalk, but they were pretty flowers that clearly were tended by the residents, and I was saddened to think that people had been taking them.
But it brought up my ethical conundrum about the plums. If some plums fell onto the sidewalk from these trees, would it be OK for me to take them? Would the resident(s) object to this?
I wasn’t sure if I would ever have another opportunity to taste these particular, rare plums (I’ve never seen them in any store) if I couldn’t taste these ones, on this street.
I finally decided to trust the practice of enthusiastic consent, even though I knew that if I asked, I might hear a “no,” and then I might feel very disappointed, even though I would do my best to say (and mean) some version of “thank you for taking care of yourself” if the person(s) didn’t want to share their plums with me for any reason.
I typed up a letter.
I printed it out and put it in an envelope.
The next time I went to that neighborhood, I slid it through the mail slot in their front door.
I held my breath.
Later that evening, I got a phone call!
It was one of the residents of that property, and he was tickled that I had contacted them about the plums. He was very passionate about trees and plants in general, and we talked on the phone for nearly an hour about such topics, including stories of international travel and the plants and fruits and such found overseas.
He invited me over, and soon after I went and got a tour of his garden. Later, when the plums ripened, I returned and gathered a big bag, upon which I feasted and also shared copiously with my neighbors.
How does this all relate to my bike journey?
Well, yesterday, on my (absolutely breathtaking) ride from Eugene to Deadwood, I passed an Italian prune plum orchard. I love prune plums!
The ground beneath each tree was absolutely littered with fruit. There were signs denoting private property, etc (and of course the whole topics of private property, colonialism, control of food sources, etc are rich topics of their own, but this is already a very long post, so I’m skipping over them for now) but it would have been so easy for me to go and grab a few plums, most of which were going to go to waste anyway.
But for some reason I did hesitate. I thought about consent. I thought about wanting to receive abundantly from life, people, the earth… but within the context of knowing I had enthusiastic consent. There was no way to ask permission to take those plums.
I thought to myself, “I don’t really need those plums. I trust that at some point, I will encounter some that will be enthusiastically offered to me. If and when that happens, I’ll enjoy them. For now, I’ll just ride past.”
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I glanced down at the pavement in front of me. What should my wondering eyes behold, but a perfect Italian plum lying directly in front of my bike.
It was on the other side of the road from the orchard. I could see no easy way it could have made its way over there.
And yet, there it was.
I reached down, picked it up. It was perfectly ripe.
Wow, I thought, and popped it in my mouth. It was delicious.
Enthusiastic consent. There is magic in it.
And there is magic in this kind of journey. The best was yet to come.
After a few hours of no cell service in the breathtaking valley between the hills (I got a bit nervous, though luckily I knew my hosts’ address was very easy to find even without Google Maps) I arrived at my destination. I was met by my wonderful hosts—the daughter and son-in-law of a longtime Portland friend—and got to spend some time in their field and next to their stream, before having a wonderfully rich conversation for hours.
At the end of the night, as I was about to turn in, they said, “Would you like some plums? Our tree has been producing like crazy!”
I followed them into the kitchen, and was met by an incredible sight: overflowing boxes of those exact magical plums from my Portland neighbor.
I am officially living in the magic. Thank you for joining me.
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