“Freedom,” such a lovely word, is about to get its annual binge on. It will be overused, misused, badly used and, occasionally, poignantly or profoundly used. Why even try to compete?
So I’m keeping my contribution simple. You ready?
Freedom is a bicycle.
Stay with me here. Ride with me.
I live in a newly rebuilt neighborhood where many of my neighbors are African immigrants. Our home overlooks a small central park built around two enormous red oak trees. On summer afternoons, it is usually full of children.
One recent afternoon, I sat at my desk, trying and failing to focus on my work while I watched the park fill with kids. They were headed towards a shining sea of bicycles parked under a big blue canopy down at the other end. It was the annual bike fair and giveaway sponsored by Bikeworks, one of the most high-energy, generous nonprofits in Seattle. One by one, thirty children were fitted with a new helmet, passed a safety test, and sped down the sidewalk on a bright new refurbished used bike. One by one, I watched them ride right towards me, smiles filling their faces.
Freedom is a bicycle, I’m telling you.
When you get on a bike, your feet kiss the ground goodbye. Pedaling uphill may make you sweat, but coasting is flying. One minute, you’re standing in the park; the next, you’re flying, and it’s not magic, it’s your own muscles turning those wheels and making it happen.
I learned to ride a bike late. I was the third of six children, and my parents, like many of the parents in my current neighborhood, were busy with the youngest ones and apparently never thought about teaching us middle girls to ride. Finally, when I was about nine or maybe even ten, our grandparents gave my sister and me funny bikes with banana seats and we taught ourselves. No training wheels; just a few weeks of bruised shins and crashes until riding a bike was, suddenly and forever, as natural as breathing.
And it was freedom. Overnight, we graduated from footsore hikers of the neighborhood to fliers, little Amelia Earharts piloting our low-slung, banana-seated planes as far as we dared.
I love seeing that Amelia Earhart look in the faces of the neighborhood kids, soaring by on their new bikes. Few of them will go to soccer camps or summer camps, but they’ll be able, occasionally, to soar.
I worry a lot about safety. I wish they would wear their helmets at all times. As in many American neighborhoods, we have a problem with a few young men who love driving fast in cars. Trying to soar in a car is never a good idea. But once you’ve got a driver’s license, bicycles just aren’t as cool.
Until you get past all that and realize that actually, they are.
On the Saturday of the Solstice, my husband and I rode our bikes up and over Beacon Hill, through the International District and Pioneer Square, along the downtown waterfront, through Myrtle Edwards Park and along the Interbay bike path to the Ballard Bridge, where we picked up the Ship Canal path and took it to Fremont. We got there in time to catch the last wave of naked bicyclists in the annual Solstice Parade. Seeing them was a lot of fun, but really, the best part of the day was riding through our city, speeding past snarls of traffic. Feeling free.
I’m sure we looked as old and uncool as we are. But who cares? Like the little girl who just sped by as I write, her bright blue hijab flying out from under her red helmet, we were tasting freedom, and it tasted like the Fourth of July.
Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.