Hope Is A Thing With Spokes
It’s spring. Well, it is spring some places in the world.
We in Toronto are enduring the season finale of “Grey and Rainy,” but the farmers’ market opens tomorrow and hope springs eternal. Hope for lovely fresh spring days when you can linger on a patio, go for a walk, plant flowers or even ride your bike. For many, spring is the time when we bring bikes out of sheds and depend upon them again as our primary mode of transportation, a form of exercise and, frankly, the most delightful and efficient way to get anywhere in downtown Toronto.
I love the feel of the first spring bike ride to work. It’s as freeing as almost anything else – to pedal past the crowded streetcar, to stop and pick up a basket full of groceries and wind your way home through the side streets. It’s a luxury of sorts: to have a bike that gets you to work, to have the stamina and skill required to ride in the city. To have good judgment, quick reflexes, the ability to pay attention to many things at once, and to be able to balance calculated risk with safety.
It’s a long way from riding my bike as a kid in the suburbs, when all you needed to know was the fastest route to the local pool on a hot day and the best hills to take home. You pedalled backwards – hard – to activate the brakes. You rode a scratched-up, hand-me-down bike from your older brother or sister, who had graduated to the revered ten-speed.
Think back to your first tentative moments on a two-wheeler. I remember my dad holding the back of the bike steady, pushing and telling me to “pedal hard” and then – whoosh! – I was in motion. A few scrapes and falls later, I was actually able to stay in motion. It was a great day when I learned to ride a two-wheeler.
Though the tricycle does the trick to get you up and down the street (where mom can still watch you out the window), the two-wheeler is an initiation into the world of the free. Or at least, the-more-free-than-you-have-been. You can ride past the end of the street to a friend’s house, to the store to pick up milk for your mom, to the library, the pool, the park. You can attach plastic streamers to the handlebars. You can clip pieces of coloured straws on the wheel spokes, and slap a few STP stickers on the frame. And voilà, you are stylishly at large in the hood.
I remember one of the first times I took my two-wheeler farther than my trike had ever travelled. I turned the corner of Holywell Drive in Etobicoke and left the comfort of my own street, so excited at the feel of the wind on my face and the prospect of being at my friend Gail’s house in a mere matter of seconds that I could barely spare the effort to wave good-bye to my mom. I just lifted my hand in a casual backwards wave, without turning my head. I imagine she was watching me and I hope she was smiling.
Over the past few weeks, while the warm weather briefly visited us, I saw lots of little ones out on their brand-new, tiny two-wheelers, with anxious parents running alongside. The faces of these little kids look the same as when I was a child. The anticipatory excitement, the taste of freedom, the triumph of smooth motion over shaky balance. But these days when I look at the parents’ faces, what I see is something that I want for myself too: the feeling of reliving a formative childhood moment. Where, all at once, you realize just how old you are but at the same time feel thrilled to watch your own child, repeating history. Your son wobbling on his two-wheeler makes you remember your first fall. Your daughter coasting down a hill, her feet off the pedals, brings back the feeling of the wind blowing past you as you soared. The overlay of memories with real life, one generation later, is the true privilege of parenting. And it’s not something diminished by the modern world and the complexity it offers through technology and virtual connectedness.
I long for that feeling of watching my child and re-experiencing my long-ago initiation into bike-riding. When the living room was open to let in the summer air and the sheer curtains, caught in the breeze, blew back out through the open window. When your best summer friend was your transistor radio, and you wore a halter top and shorts with bare feet to the A & P. When you rode past your friend’s house and yelled their name without dismounting from your bike — and they were out of the house and had caught up to you on their own bike by the time you reached the park. When you both left your bikes lying on their sides in the grass, their wheels spinning in the breeze while you hung out on the swings, giggling and talking for hours. The look I see on parents’ faces as they watch their own children on their two-wheelers suggests to me that they too are lost in a sentimental journey of their own.
Georgia hasn’t yet learned to ride a bike. She rode a tricycle when she was little, and my dad fashioned a “pushing rod” out of an old broom handle with a two-pronged attachment; I used it to push her down the street, as she couldn’t quite get the knack of pedalling. Nor did she have the strength in her legs to move forward more than an inch at a time. So we pushed. We avoided downward-sloping hills – braking wasn’t a skill she could develop. We avoided upward-sloping hills – pushing her up was more work than anyone could sustain. It worked while she and her trike were still small, but as she grew out of it we wondered how she would ever progress to a two-wheeler, and how we could make that work. The adult-sized tricycles are good but impractical; heavy and large, they pose huge mobility and storage challenges. I’m not sure Georgia actually has the strength to power one of those things.
And yet the idea of Georgia riding a two-wheeler opens up a world of promise. She’s not a great walker, so a long, leisurely summer afternoon walk is in reality a slower and shorter walk. She tires easily, has difficulty focusing movement in a particular direction, and has poor balance just manoeuvring up the stairs without a railing.
We’re sending her this year to our very good friends Laura and Brett to begin to learn to ride a two-wheeler. Husband and wife, they run the Steps program out of Stouffville. They are absolutely remarkable in a number of ways. When we first met Laura and Brett, Georgia was around three years old, and we had been sent there in order for her to learn how to ride a horse — a skill that had a number of advantages for a fairly non-communicative, non-walking tiny kid. I had no idea what we were in for when we got there.
At first I thought Laura was some kind of horse whisperer, but quickly realized that actually she was some kind of kid whisperer. She treated Georgia in a way that implied she actually had expectations of my child. This was novel; at the time no-one expected much of Georgia. Laura stuck her on a horse, insisted that she pay attention and made her work.
And Georgia did work. She was, and remains, the epitome of ‘highly distractible’ but she focused on the horse and her riding the entire time she was there. The horses were patient to a fault, never minding much that Georgia liked to end the class by clumsily petting their faces (well okay, their eyes), and then stand underneath them kissing their tummies. I knew from the first moment in that barn, watching my kid on a horse led by Brett or by Laura, that this was a unique setting. It’s the kind of setting I want her to learn to ride a bike in, and the people I want to help her learn that seemingly, but not really, straightforward skill.
It is such a simple thing in a way: riding a bike. It’s something that most of us take for granted and can’t imagine not being able to do. Most of us haven’t stopped to remember the feelings we once had when we were still learning, and when we finally succeeded in riding our two-wheeler down the street. But I know those feelings are there: the look on many faces tells me that the experience extends beyond that magic “Hey, my kid is riding a bike!” moment. It’s an experience much more complicated and special.
I know my kid won’t likely slice up straws lengthwise and stick them onto her bicycle’s spokes to enjoy the sound they make while in motion. I suspect she won’t ever ride to the store to buy milk in her bare feet and a halter top. I don’t think she’ll be yelling at her friends to come out and play, or riding home from the pool as fast as she can go to beat the street lights. But something about spring makes me yearn to see her climb onto a crappy hand-me-down bicycle, and then wave over her shoulder as she heads down the alleyway, out of sight.