Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Surviving the Fall

You’re never too old to learn to be brave

When a handyman friend told me he had started buying used bicycles through Craigslist and fixing them up to resell, my reaction surprised even me. “I’d like a bike,” I heard myself say. “Find one for me.”

1970_schwinn_fairlady_slik_chikBikes and I had not formed a strong and lasting partnership in the past, although there had been highlights. As a child, my first memory of triumph was the afternoon I finally got it: I taught myself to ride without training wheels. My white whale was a typical little-girl’s bike of the 1960s, complete with high handlebars, colorful streamers, and a sparkly banana seat. My parents had done their best to interest me in two-wheeling, but I was whiny and defeatist all the way through—an attitude I still lead with, unfortunately. It was not until I tackled the demon bike on my own, with my parents nowhere to be seen, that I made the transition from child to adolescent, from lurching to flying, from innocence to experience. And the best part was, I did it all by myself.

Fast forward to my first year after college. I was living in a big city, free and easy, and my thoughts naturally turned to spending half a paycheck on, of all things, a bicycle. With visions of my hair flying in the breeze as I became one with the rugged road less traveled by, I plunked down my brand-new credit card to purchase not a bicycle but a dream: a red mountain bike, no girly streamers in sight. And I hated it. Whatever magic I had experienced as a child was gone. I rode it maybe twice, felt bad about the purchase for years, and finally sold it at a loss. It was a shameful chapter in my young consumer life.

firmstrong-bella-3speed-beachc-cruiser-bike-blueSo why, at the brittle-boned age of fifty-four, was I keen on yet another two-wheeled dream date? I have no idea. But, reader, I bought it. A blue cruiser and a snazzy helmet to match. And I love it. I soar around my tiny neighborhood chasing mockingbirds and bumblebees. I look up at the sky above, or what I can see of it through my glare-blinded old eyes, and feel the sun shine down on my graying head, and I am filled with a kind of childlike glee. Being me, I do worry about the coming crash (not if, but when), but these days I am more afraid of not trying than of failing. This is an unprecedented attitude for someone whose mantra has always been less “Yes, we can” and more “Who, me?”

I chalk up the change to survival—to having made it through the last few years of my marvelous and monstrous middle-aged life.

First the marvelous: writing. When Chapter 16 needed a Chattanooga correspondent, I started writing again for the first time in years. It felt like coming home. I had nearly always worked with words, but the high of writing my own was irresistible. Before I knew what had hit me, I had written not one but fifty book reviews, plus author interviews and features. And it was so much fun—hours passed in the blink of an eye. If I hadn’t found this new well of creativity within me, I don’t know how I could have survived what came next.

Within the space of a year I found myself bankrupt, divorced, and empty-nested. I was alone and adrift, not to mention completely broke. For a while I spent my time binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and collecting inspirational internet memes. (“The best revenge is to have enough self-worth not to seek it,” apparently.) Thanks to a good job, better meds, stalwart friends, and a sympathetic therapist, I was eventually able to pull myself together, but my decades-long comfort zone of hearth and home was pretty much shot to hell.

The absolute last thing I needed in my life was another man, I told my friends: if God wanted me to date,he would have to plop the candidate down on my front porch with a big bow on his head. Then one day a man did appear on my porch to sweep me off my feet, proof that sometimes God saves the absolute best for last, even if he forgets the bow.

So here I am pedaling along on my metaphorical bicycle, sometimes coasting and other times pumping for dear life, and it’s all OK. It’s all part of the ride. So what if I can never afford to buy a house, or travel to exotic destinations, or die—much less retire? So what if my kids move far away and never come to visit? Or, even worse, what if they want to move back home? For me, happiness is books and cats and a hot cup of tea, and as long as I have words in my head and love in my heart, I hope I will find the courage to keep pedaling.

What I have learned in mid-life is that courage comes in the present moment. You can’t save it up for the future. When the crashes come, and they will come, I know now that it’s best to have enjoyed the ride. And to be wearing a snazzy helmet.