My seven-year old daughter Sophia has never been particularly graceful or agile. She, like I once was, is the slowest runner in gym class, and on every walk we have ever taken as a family, she lags behind, and we are perpetually calling for her to “Hurry up, Sophia!” When she does pick up speed, it is frequently at her peril. I’ve seen her trip on steps, pebbles, her own feet, and what appears to be nothing at all.
She was the last kid her age in the neighborhood to learn to ride a bike. The other kids often snickered at her training wheels. So, in attempt to fit in, she asked my husband, at the beginning of this summer, to remove her training wheels. After he did, she hopped on, tried to ride for about a half hour then gave up, explaining that she was more of an indoor girl who liked reading and had no real need to learn to ride anyway. And so the bike sat outside our front door most of the summer this year, getting rained on occasionally.
It was last month that she changed her mind. She had been playing with a little girl from across the street who loves bike riding and inspired Sophia. “I’m going to learn how to ride my bike after all,” she told us. My husband and I followed her outside and watched her climb on. David held tightly to the back of her seat for the first few tries, but then, to our surprise and hers, she was riding up and down the street on her own, a little wobbly to be sure, but there she was, my girl on two wheels. She had done it.
Life changed for her then. She didn’t give up entirely on books, beads, and Barbies, but every day she came home from school, did her homework, then took off outside for the bike. She rode with the little girl across the street sometimes, but mostly she rode alone, up and down the street, over and over, until her face was red and her hair was soaking wet with sweat. Just last week, when I was inside cooking while she was riding, I noticed I hadn’t seen her ride by the front window in several minutes. So I stepped outside and saw her on the ground, the bike on her legs. She’d wrecked. I ran to her. “You okay?” I yelled.
“Sure,” she said as I approached. “It hurts, but I’m okay.” She stood up, brushed herself off, and climbed back on the bike. I stood and watched, a little puzzled. This was a girl who visits the nurse’s office in school at least once a day--to get a cough drop, because she’s tired, because her arm hurts, because she fell at recess and may need an ice pack, because she may or may not feel nauseated or she may or may not be potentially developing a headache. I stood in a bit of awe of her as she pedaled away from me without so much as asking for a bandaid. But another part of me felt the dread of more falls to come.
The next one came just days later. It was just before dinner on a Wednesday evening, and with my two-year old in hand, I stepped out on the porch to call Sophia in the house but saw her splayed out on the concrete again with my husband knelt over her. I ran over, the baby bouncing in my arms, and as I approached, I noticed that the left side of her face was bruised, swollen, stamped with the wavy pattern of the pavement. “What! What is it? Is she okay?” I screamed.
“I don’t know,” my husband said. “I don’t know. I didn’t see it happen.” Together, we unbuckled her helmet, pulled it off, straightened her leg, looked at her pupils, helped her up, asked her if she could walk. She could.
“I’m fine, Mom,” she said. “It’s just that my face hit the ground before anything else. That’s all.”
We walked her inside, sat her down on the couch, where she lay down, closed her eyes, sighed, and said she’d take a break from the bike for a while. “But,” she said, clearing her throat, “I’ll get back on tomorrow.”
I wondered if she actually would, if the new determination to ride would survive such a nasty fall.
The next day, I sent an email to her teacher, explaining the bruise on her face. The school nurse emailed me later, telling me that Sophia had gone to her office three times that day complaining of pain--in her jaw and in her shoulder. I scheduled an appointment with the pediatrician just to make sure nothing was broken, but before I could get Sophia in the car, she was back out on her bike, pedaling furiously, as fast as she could, no fear in her eyes, up and down the street, hunched over her handlebars, her elbows up, her eyes focused entirely on the world before her. One could have mistaken her posture for courage. But it was something else; it was a kind of urgency.
In her essay “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard admires the insistence of a weasel who had clamped down on an eagle’s neck in defense of itself and stayed there, clamped to the bird’s neck, refusing to let go, even after it died. “I think,” says Dillard, “it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
While I stood and watched Sophia, I realized I didn’t just admire her willingness to get back on a bike that could so easily injure her in her dealings with it; it was her need to get back on, her insatiable appetite for it that I stood in awe of. My daughter, who preferred the security of solid ground, had found something worth crashing for. And though I cringed at the thought of her flying over those handlebars again, I could almost feel the height of her flight, something inside of her begging her to pedal harder, push, go, go, go, her jaw clamped down on something that let her soar.
I haven’t been on a bike in a while, but for the last two months, I have begun my own new practice, a writing practice. Instead of continuing to wait for “extra time” in which I can write, I have decided instead to make the time, to wake up every morning at 5:30 a.m. (except Wednesday, which is my early day at the college) to write. I sit at my desk at the window, sip coffee, put words on the page, hold on tight, and try to keep going. At first the practice felt difficult. Waking, in and of itself, is not easy, especially when sleep is already so rare. And the mind takes a while to reboot. But within a week, I began waking with excitement. It seems, in the dark quiet of the room in the morning, my fingers, mind, and computer are all poised for this labor.
But, as Mary Karr says, writing memoir “is hard.” “Here’s how hard:” she says. “Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” And indeed, whether it’s been tears over the past creeping back to life on the screen or a rejection from an agent or editor, or realizing how bad something I’ve written actually is, I’ve taken my share of falls. Just this week, after spending a year on a book proposal, I’ve been turned down by two agents. Just two agents, sure, but two’s enough to hurt. “This just isn’t working for me,” one of them wrote. I didn’t cry. I felt a short urge to, but I stifled it. And I kept writing.
There are so many good reasons to avoid it, to stay on solid ground, to keep safe, to stop rehashing the past, drudging it back to life, and trying like hell to shape it into something worth sharing. But the trouble is that I’ve already bitten down--not just in desire but in practice, the practice of applying my ass to the chair every morning. And it isn’t because of courage, which takes pressing on in spite of fear. Returning to this chair is not an entirely rational decision. It’s something deep and primal, like my need to eat or my need to protect my children. It’s different from waking up to run, which is one of those things in my life that I do because I know I should; I’ll be better off for it. But I won’t necessarily be better off for the two hours I spend at my desk. Maybe I’ll walk away freshly wounded by old ghosts, nothing to show for the effort but words nobody else will ever read. But I keep getting back in this chair because when I’m here, I forget to be afraid of falling. I forget because the writing, the stories, the memories--they absorb me. They’re all I can see while I’m here.
This morning, Sophia is rushing to get dressed for school so that she might have a chance to hop back on her bike again, feel herself on the seat of the thing that moves her. And while I pack her lunch box, hoping to hell she’ll stay on, she’ll pedal passionately, believing, maybe, in flight, in herself. The world from that seat is a world she’s not afraid of. And the seat is the one place she’ll return to day after day, without coaxing. She dangles from the practice limp, red-faced and wet-haired, wherever it takes her. She may never become an Olympic bicyclist, but who she is on that bike can’t be taken away from her. Not unless she abandons it.
It is, maybe, partly, in the coming back to the writer’s chair, again and again, defeat after defeat, that makes us writers, not in the the publications or awards but in the refusal to be stopped by the knowledge that we will certainly fall again and again. It’ll hurt. We know that. But we bite anyway. “Seize it,” says Dillard, “and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”