I am collecting little girls on bikes. I know that sounds weird, but listen.
Between riding my bike to take care of errands and bike-ride rides, I am on the bike just about every day. That means I spend a lot of time on ordinary streets, on bike boulevards, and on mixed-use (read: everything but cars) paths. There are a lot of little girls in Portland, and because it is spring, and an especially beautiful, sunny spring at that, many of them are learning to ride bikes.
They ride in dresses. Pink dresses, purple skirts, bright yellow tops. So do I (except for the yellow. I look terrible in yellow).
When we meet, it is like looking at an alter ego. I remember being that age. I remember the moment when, riding along on a patch of grass on the cul de sac at the friends’ house where we were staying while my parents tried desperately to find an affordable apartment, I first felt that mysterious balance kick in. When I went from being afraid of the bike’s wobbly movement as it teetered between one off-key training wheel and the other, to moving forward in a simple smooth line.
I still don’t know how it works. There was a moment yesterday when I wondered, as I sometimes do, exactly how I was doing this. It seemed weird to be hovering on two wheels, with no obvious reason for not falling over. It was a little scary. It’s like looking at a familiar word and having the order of letters suddenly stop making sense. It’s a free-fall sensation, and all you can do is hang on, waiting for things to come back to normal.
I reminded myself that I spend a lot more time riding than I do walking. I am far more graceful on two wheels than on my own two feet (unless I’m dancing, which probably has more in common with bike riding than it does with walking).
Eventually the unease slipped away, and I was back to normal, sailing along. But the point is, riding a bike is no more explicable to an adult who does it every day of her life than it is to a child who is striving to find the secret of staying up. It’s a kind of magic.
I think, too, for a child, who lives in a world of “you’ll get to do that when you’re older,” riding a bike is one of the rare things she can do now. It’s difficult to get the hang of, and once you’ve got it, it lets you move through the world in a different way. A five-year-old girl has an eternity to wait before she can drive. But if she masters this bike thing, she can go places right now. Under her own power. Like a bird.
Yesterday, I heard a dad coaching his young daughter, “Pedal pedal pedal!” And she piped up, “Pedal pedal pedal, like that bicycle!” [meaning me].
I always wave, and I’m always rewarded with a wave back, or “Hi!” or an amazed look (holy cow, that lady is riding a bike, just like me).
One day there was a girl of about eight in a purple dress walking along in front of her grandparents. She was watching me ride by, so I waved and said hi, and got a huge smile and excited “Hi!” in return. As I passed I saw that her grandparents were wheeling a purple bike.
Telling my friends about it, over dinner, one of them pointed out that I was wearing a purple dress that day, too. That was when I got it. The girls see an adult woman in a dress just like theirs, doing something they are learning to do, too. A big-kid something. It’s a kind of magic.