I remember my grandfather teaching me to ride a bike. There were tricycles at preschool that everyone rode, and my parents had gotten me a banana yellow Schwinn with training wheels—balance bikes were nothing anyone had heard of in suburban Seattle at the time—but I was afraid of falling down on a bike with only two wheels. Our parents rode bicycles, carrying us through the neighborhood in their front baskets or perched on a top tube, but didn’t have the time or patience to teach us to ride. My grandfather took the training wheels off my bike while visiting one summer, and ran up and down the driveway with me, holding onto the seat. After a while I realized he was running up and down with me and not holding onto the seat. Then I fell down. By the end of the day I was riding by myself. For years afterward I never really thought about my riding skills again.
I grew up riding that bicycle and later, a 10-speed, to visit friends and parks. But like most of my friends, when I was old enough to drive I started taking many of those trips by car. After a while the only people I met on bicycles were the friends, like me, who’d kept their bicycles lying around. After I graduated from college I bought a car and left the bike in my mom’s garage. The car, along with almost everything else I owned, eventually got sold in one of the frequent moves around the country and the world. It became easier to rely on public transportation and my own feet, which were always with me no matter how skimpy the luggage allowance.
We had children and another car, a minivan, before I got back on a bike again during a visit to Copenhagen. It had been years, and climbing back on a rental bike with my daughter strapped into a seat on the back took some nerve. I was wobbly and nervous, but the infrastructure in Copenhagen is designed for that. My primary goal was not to fall down, and I managed that and more. By the end of that day I wanted to ride a bicycle everywhere with our kids, even the hills of San Francisco, and even though I was anything but graceful on that bike.
Coming back to riding a bicycle after a long hiatus was humbling. Getting better at something, unfortunately, usually implies that you start out being really bad at it. Most of the families we meet on bikes are made up of people who never stopped riding. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched someone test-ride one of our bikes and envied how easily they swung on and off it and how neatly they turned. For a long time I was not one with the bike. I rarely stopped exactly where I’d intended to stop, I tangled up my legs while getting on and off, and I dropped my poor bike many times. Even worse, the stakes were higher for me than for other riders, because I often had a kid on the bike.
Over time I got more graceful. Now I stop where I mean to stop. I still get a little thrill every time I successfully dismount in motion and pull up right at a rack where I want to lock up, or swing up onto the bike as I push off. I lost a lot of riding skills when I was disabled and couldn’t ride, but I’m still a better rider than I was two years ago. Sure, I’m horrible on an unfamiliar bike, and starting from a stop is difficult with my bad leg. Sometimes I drop my bike when walking it because I forget to compensate for my limp (although I don’t feel too badly about dropping a bike that’s already been run over). But I know that the grace I developed will come back eventually.
I spent a lot of my life being unhappy with my body, which is evidently the price of being a woman in America. From puberty onward I didn’t like how I looked, and when we decided to have children I despised my body for the seemingly endless miscarriages. A year after my daughter was born I still weighed 50 pounds more than I had five years earlier. I was glad when I lost that weight but I still didn’t feel that my body was worth appreciating much. It took developing a skill to do that, and to my surprise the skill that finally felt worth developing was riding a bicycle with my kids on it.
Then being run over changed everything again. I was mowed down with a few thousand pounds of steel six months ago and now I am walking again without a cane. Granted I have a limp, but still: go, body, go! No one can tell I was even injured when I’m riding a bike. Now the scars on my legs are more noteworthy than anything else about how I look, and I find that having made peace with those scars—which are healing pretty well—I can’t really get uptight about wearing skinny jeans or a swimsuit. I am bemused to find, in the last few months, that when I think about my body I only feel gratitude, because it healed. Even though I’m still clumsy, I find it pretty easy to get around now. I have all the grace I need, and I earn a little more back every day. I couldn’t ask for more.
2 responses to “Grace”
This is such a wonderful post. I have always been uneasy about my body, but recently started going to the gym, and running, and have discovered why so many people do, because it is so exciting to discover how strong and capable a body can be. From a lifetime of cultural immersion that says our bodies should be pretty, it is marvellously freeing to discover that, no, our bodies should be strong, and do lots of hard work. That is what they are designed for. Confession. I still haven’t got on my bike. But every time I read another one of your posts my mind shifts a little closer towards it!
Wonderful to hear this! And it took a few months after we decided we were definitely going to ride bikes before we actually managed to buy bikes that we could ride, so I completely understand the way that you need to decide you want to ride a bike before actually getting on one.