Globe and Mail, Tuesday, May 24, 2005 Page A16
I was running with my daughter, as she, terrified, held the handlebars of her two-wheeler. She wasn't sure, like most, whether she even wanted to try. In the middle of her sixth year of life, she asked me to remove the training wheels of her bike. As I unbolted her training wheels, she bit her lip, asking earnestly how one comes to ride a bike. I answered the way Kierkegaard would have: "I don't know," I said. And it's true. I don't. Riding a bike is a bit of knowledge, like many of the best knowledges we have, that requires that everyone find his or her own way. Words won't work.
She wants me to give her a sure method so she peppers me with questions. I reply with instructional platitudes to try and calm her. She wants bike riding to make sense before she begins. But there is nothing to do but put her on the bike. Balance awakens when she acts as if it exists.
She presses for instruction. I reply by telling her it's going to be fine. She's absolutely frustrated with my confidence that it will go well, because I haven't given her any explanation. My optimism seems unfounded. She wants to be taught. Why won't I teach her? I won't teach her because I can't. There's nothing to be said. Yet, she wants something more than handlebars and a shove.
That anyone learns to ride a bike is a minor miracle. I wonder just how many sleeping capacities are in me. How many have I roused? How many more might I awaken? Can a middle-aged man live every day as though he's learning to ride a bike?
I ignore her intensifying questions and take her up to the field at her school. She's shrieking at her lack of information. She insists she doesn't know what she's doing. I put her on her bike seat and begin to push her up and down the field. The first few times she's deadweight and her weight drops fully into my hands, left then right, as she screeches at me. "This is too hard," she says.
I shrug."Do you want to learn to ride a bike?" I reply.
"Yes," she says in a way that's meant to wallop me. "But how do you do it?" she asks, venting the anger she's feeling.
"I can't tell you," I said, "because it's sleeping inside you and you have to try until it wakes up." She eyes me suspiciously, as if I might be telling her one of those parental mistruths. She senses that although things aren't square, they're as square as they're going to get.
She lets me hold her shoulders again, and we run up and down the field. This next few runs, she's sitting like a 45-pound egg on the peak of a roof, ready to roll either way at any second. But I notice, as I run, that her front wheel is beginning to steer in the direction she tips.
She's still mad. "You're not helping me, Dad. You're just holding me," she yells. We stop, after her she catches her calf on the sharp face of her pedal. "This is not riding a bicycle. This is boring," she yells through her tears. I give her a minute. She doesn't get off her bike.
"Do you want to learn to ride a bike?" I ask again. She nods, and the tears cut clean paths through her dusty features. I see her agony. I want to help, but the way is silent. "We can do this another day, if you like," I say with a smile. "You don't have to today."
"No," she says and hangs her head.
Up the field we head, and down, up and back again. As we finish the last of the length, she's suddenly light in my hands. I hold her all the way, but she's balancing most of her weight on her own. "You're getting it," I say to her, as we stop.
"This is too hard," she says, "I hate this." She can't feel her progress like I can.
"Do you want to learn to ride?" I ask her again. She nods sadly. Some odd compulsion drives her on. We go up the field, and when she's more or less balanced, I let go of her briefly. She rides for a few seconds, alone, and I yelp at her success. Her smooth ride wobbles as her consciousness interferes. I grab her shoulders again. At the end of the field she looks at me, frustrated still, and a little bewildered. The next few trips up and back I hold her and release, hold and release, hold and release, hold and release. Her focus slowly rolled inward, into herself.
She stopped commenting at the end of each of our runs. We stopped for a break in silence. She blows dander off a fresh fistful of white-headed weed.
This holding on and letting go seemed like all that I do as a parent. Her weight started out completely in my hands, and I hold on and let go, catch and release. That's all I do. I hold her until she strikes balance; then, I let go.
We begin again. This time, first try, she's flying up the field with me jogging beside her.
She's got it. She's dazed at her success and almost falls. I catch her again. She's up and riding on her own again, and I'm thrilled. I was beside her when it happened. Bike riding is one of those things that she'll never forget.
And so she learned. I rest at the far end of the field while she rides all over the grass, and then begins to teach herself how to start off without me. A few minutes later, she can hardly remember what it was like before she learned how to ride. She's puzzled by her success. "How didn't I know how to do this?" she asks. To her, the big lesson was mastery of two wheels. To me, it was that she abandoned reason and pedalled forward: she gave up understanding in order to learn.
Bill Bunn lives in Calgary.