In Which The Young Feminist Learns to Ride a Bicycle

April 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

I never learned to ride a bicycle as a kid.  I used act like it was no big deal.  But I was in denial.

I had tried only once as an adult to teach myself to ride.  Several people in my house had bikes and encouraged me to ride.  The friend with the most ideal bike to learn on said I could ride it anytime.  So I waited until one day when I was feeling especially bold.  I took the blue bike from the garage to the driveway and got on.  It was ludicrous.  My pedaling the short distance of the driveway was belabored and felt impossible.  I literally imagined myself as a bear on a bicycle.  As things progressed, I concluded that I lacked an essential inner gyroscope of some sort and was almost making peace with it.  When the friend whose bike I was supposed to be riding came up the driveway on her bike.  “Whose bike is that?” she asked nicely, and I have to admit it, I panicked and lied and said, uh, our other housemate’s boyfriend’s.  “Oh,” she said and went away.  I asked another housemate later whose the other blue bike was, and she said it was in fact our roommate’s boyfriends’.  And it had two flat tires and needed a tune up.  When I admitted what had happened to both roommates, they laughed until they cried.  And biking dropped off my radar for a while.

A few winters ago, I got some variant of the H1N1 and was the sickest I have ever been in my life.  It was the kind of sick where I wanted to get up and make toast, but I couldn’t and had to wait for a good spell. While I was weak and lonely at my house, I watched a remarkable documentary called The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.  One detail they describe in Cuba’s transition from an import/oil dependent culture to a self-sufficient one after the embargo is that people learned practically overnight to ride bikes.  One Cuban commenter states that they had no previous culture of bike riding, that it was sheer political will.

I realized I really wanted to learn to ride a bike and tried to tap my political will.  I began to unload all this baggage I had about bike riding.  My brother had learned early, and I was supposed to learn to ride.  But no one ever bothered teaching me, even though they went through all the motions to act like it was going to happen.  Once when my parents were separated and I had a lot more room to be unnoticed, I tried teaching myself on a bike that was too big.  I crashed, and I was shamed by my mom when I admitted what had happened.

The next year, I read Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd.  In it she tells a brief story about watching a family by a river bank.  The son is taken down to touch the water, and the slightly older daughter desperately wants to go.  But she is told no, that it is too dangerous and has to sit and watch.  That story set off a personal will of resistance towards messages I had imbibed as a child.  I had this sense that my body was not my own, that it was not appropriate for me to apply my own judgments in determining when and how I was to take risks.  It was a deeply entrenched message, and I am forcing it out still, but I try to keep the frontline moving.

I looked up adult bike riding classes, and I also looked up information on bicycling and feminism.  I discovered what a strong role bicycling played in the history of women’s liberation and empowerment.  I felt like I was getting my own tiny dose of what must have been their personal experiences of transformation, reaching out and taking self-sufficiency and what they knew was appropriate to them despite ridicule and threat from external culture.  I tried to channel some of that fiery spirit.

I found a bike riding course in Somerville, Mass., near where I live.  My teacher had a garage full of bikes and helmets and knee pads and pieces of war protest art.  She was wearing an orange jumpsuit protesting Guantanamo at the time.  All the other students in my class happened to be women ranging in age.  We were all self-conscious and awkward as we pushed our bikes and followed our teacher, a row like over-padded ducklings on the sidewalks, as she led us with her own bike to the empty parking lot where we would start .  Little by little, we were taught to balance, then to pedal, then to turn, then to do tricks like standing on one foot and looking back.  Some of us picked up the pivotal balance the first day.  Another woman did not find it until the end of the third class.  When it finally happened for her, all the students stopped and watched.  When she stopped her bike, she was winded with excitement and cried.

I’m still a relatively new rider, and this year I will probably advance to riding in traffic and thinking about distance riding.  Every time I get on a bike, it still changes my mood.  I feel like my old image of myself is challenged and a new one takes its place, one where I can make changes and have the life I want for myself.  Something as simple as learning to ride a bike, but I can’t tell you how complicated it was in my inner world.

The journey of becoming feminist, as I experienced it, pits you against forces of coercion in your life.  For myself and everyone I’ve been close with during this process, it includes confronting internalized voices of coercion that dominate your life and cause you to restrict your own freedom.  They are often echoes of the messages of coercive parents and authority figures from the past, which often mirror messages from broader society those people never learned to rebel against for themselves.  Figuring out what you want that you believe is not suitable to you, where your creative blocks are, is part of the journey to me.

A lot of my work began with dismantling and rebuilding my views on sex and my own sexuality.  Another was working to overcome my creative blocks.  And among and surrounding both journeys was the challenge of reclaiming my body.  I imagine the same themes come up in many people’s lives as they try to defy whatever forces coerce and inhibit them.

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