It turned out that I was really good at following a map. Dad once told me that my greatest skill in life was doing just well enough to make it to the next most challenging level, which makes me sad when I think about it now, because it speaks to the fact that accumulating brass rings—which the map pointed me to—was the most important thing to me. By my early 30s I had two Ivy League degrees, a husband, a daughter, and a son. But my life, which had gone exactly as I had planned, was nothing like I’d expected. I realized that my focus on the map was a way of keeping my eye trained on the horizon. It was a defense mechanism, and one the world rewarded, but it had a high cost. Having children had made me aware of all that I was missing, and I wasn’t willing to do it anymore.
I thought of this the day my 6-year-old son Whit asked to try biking without his training wheels. Despite his outgoing personality and overt adventurousness, Whit is often cautious about trying something until he is fairly sure he can do it. In the past he had been adamantly opposed to trying to bike on two wheels. I didn’t know much about this particular topic, but I did know I was going to let him lead the way to a life on two wheels. I wasn’t going to force it.
When he expressed interest, however, we jumped. Matt unscrewed the training wheels and off we went, two blocks up the street, to the park that has hosted so many hours of our family life in the years we’ve lived here.
The basketball courts seemed like the flattest surface. Matt stood behind Whit, helping him balance, and breaking into a slow jog, pushing him on the bike. I felt that skittering sense of vertigo as my past and present collided. My own 6-year-old self seemed tangible suddenly, biking clumsily down a gravel driveway outside of Paris, my father’s hand on the seat behind me until it wasn’t anymore. I looked back over my shoulder to see my father smiling under his dark brown mustache and then, promptly, fell over.
Shaking my head, I watched Matt running behind Whit’s small blue bike. And like millions of parents before him, he let go, and Whit biked away.
He biked on his own the very first time he tried. When he slowed to a halt, disembarking inelegantly by letting the bike clatter to the ground, his face was lit by a huge, radiant smile. He wanted to try it over and over again.
And so we did. I stood back, my shadow clear and stark on the cement basketball court from the sun overhead, and I watched. My eyes filled with tears.
Finally, we walked home. Whit wanted to bike down our street to our house. I ran ahead and waited for him in front of our house. As Matt got him started at the top of the street, I waited. I had that powerful sense of observing myself even as I lived, that awareness, uncomfortably intense, that I was passing over a threshold.
Then I turned to watch my son pedal towards me down the street on two wheels. He came towards me, wobbling but not falling, a look of concentration on his face. I noticed that the pattern the sunlight cast through the trees onto the street around me was its own kind of map.
This, in front of me, was my map now.
This map was shifting, irregular, and defined by something as natural and out of my control as branches. This map was something I noticed when I had truly sunk into a deeply ordinary moment of my life with children.
I heard Whit shouting, “Mummy! Look!” and yanked my gazed down from the sky to watch my son pedal gingerly towards me, his grin incandescent. I hugged him hard when he finally got to me, in the street in front of our house, the center point of the only map I will ever need again.