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Just keep pedalling
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Last night, while my own kid was at a birthday party down the block, I sat at my second-floor window watching another kid, a four-year-old in our little cluster of college buildings. With the help of his father, he was learning how to ride his first two-wheeler. This kid’s parents are Swedish and Finnish — one a graduate student, one an environmental lawyer, I want to say — so the belted-out encouragement, the specific directions were lost to me, but I could, of course, glean what the dad was trying to communicate. The boy rode around and around, his father running behind him in black jeans, a black T-shirt and a black hat, hand hovering around the seat and the kid’s small back. By the time the boy called his mother and little brother out of their flat to watch his triumph, the father was sweating buckets.
Watching a kid learn to ride a bike is one of the most tender moments one can witness is a child’s life. The shakiness, the eagerness, the determination, the fear and hope — how quickly the whole thing can go south, ending in scraped knees and elbows, or worse. (I remember riding directly into a Parisian rosebush at that age.) The boy was wobbly, but with each round, the handlebars stayed steadier and steadier and his father had to work harder to keep up.
Is it possible to watch a kid learn to ride a bike and not immediately be crushed by the tyranny of time? Spying on the pair out my window for just a few moments, I was hit with the impact of a thousand suns that my husband and I are no longer those parents, parents to a small kid. We are no longer 30-somethings running energetically behind our four-year-old while she learns to balance, we aren’t trotting out with a baby on our hips; we (well, mostly I) have lots of grey hair now and a kid who can (and would prefer to) bike entirely on her own and we get many more hours of sleep at night and have bigger problems (big-kid problems) to worry about, problems that can’t always be solved by a cuddle on the sidewalk.
But while I was sucked into a nostalgic void of my own decade of motherhood, time collapsed further: I saw my own husband running after our daughter as she learned to balance on her first bike; he, too, sweaty with the ecstatic effort. I could feel my own father running after me, cheering me on in the lane of our old house in Montreal, the terrifying moment when I realized he had let go, that I just had to keep pedalling on my own.
In that moment, it felt like all we ever do in this life is teach each subsequent generation to ride, to balance, to stay upright, knowing a hand is right behind if we fall. You can do it, we seem to be saying to each other, and also I’m right here.
I have no idea how to gracefully navigate the next few weeks, the last we have here in Cambridge, studded with travel that feels like too much and all too little. I feel so much like that wobbly kid, just trying to stay on the bike. This is when the city turns shiny and perfect: when the trees are greenest, the flowers are in bloom, everyone is out on a bike, the sun is out, our flat no longer seems so terribly small and cramped, the courtyards between buildings huge, idyllic playgrounds for the children, our own little kibbutz.
And yet, I know there are people back home saying, I’m right here, waiting with challah and wine and groceries to hold us over and the warmth of open arms, just as we would for their returns. It is both joyous and hard to move between worlds, to build a community you will have to leave, to fall in love with people who become vital but will soon, inevitably, move to the outskirts of your day-to-day life, a little piece of your heart stretched across an ocean, a continent, years of separation.
At (yet another) friend’s birthday party this weekend, a going-away cake was brought out for our kid. The event was filmed (for us, I’d imagine, since we weren’t there), and when the cake was set before her, her face belied nothing. But in the last few days, I have begun to sense that under her gleeful excitement about finally going home (to her room, her friends, her school, her best friend) is a sadness and anger that she, too, has invested in the people here (an entire school, a whole new way of life) that she will need to be wrenched away from.
We can only hope that it all sticks, that this experience imprints itself on her memory, encodes in her body somehow. That she will walk around with pieces of past lives inside her, the way her father and I do: patchworks of Montreal and Vienna and Munich and Oxford and Berkeley and Los Angeles and Brooklyn and Tel Aviv and Paris and Woodstock and Beijing, and now Cambridge. Open us up and worlds fall out. May we all be so lucky.
Abby’s Secret Summer School launched this weekend and I am already BLOWN AWAY by the volume of extraordinary work. You can still jump in! Sign up here.
This will be the last letter for a few weeks (see above), so I will leave you with some (other) summer reading: I absolutely adored Jessica George’s Maame. And I am already loving Katherine Heiny’s Games and Rituals. (I will read anything either of them write, TBH.)
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