Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Bike Ride -- Conclusion (The Hero's Journey)

Now that Spencer’s wailing has subsided, the wood becomes itself again. It’s as if Spencer’s injury was a vortex of action and sound, sucking life from the clearing, leaving it characterless until the crisis ebbed. Now that Spencer is paying quiet homage to his pain, the sunlight dances again over the brush. A breeze lazily flaps leaves on their branches. Insects buzz. And I can hear the scurry of a critter on the other side of the path. Murph notices this reanimation too. His attention is drawn to a bird pecking the ground.
I can clearly hear Pat talking to Spencer through the phone, “Remember the hero’s journey, Buddy?”
“Yeah,” says Spence, not taking his eyes from his wound.
The hero’s journey – why didn’t I think of that? It’s a perfect thing to say. Spencer and Murphy love Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s narrative in many mythologies as told to them frequently by Pat, most often in reference to Star Wars. Casting Spencer as a hero instead of a boy with limited cycling experience led into challenging terrain by his mother with no water, no first aid supplies, and no real plan is a brilliant move. Already I can see Spencer’s shoulders relaxing.
“…then there’s the refusal of the call to adventure,” I hear Pat say. He’s on the second step already. The first step is the actual call to adventure, the point where Mommy said, let’s all rent bikes and ride them into the woods.
“I told Mommy that the side of the path had too many loose stones,” Spencer says into the phone.
“That’s it,” says Pat. “You refused to bike on the side.”
“No. I biked on the side like she told me and that’s how I got hurt,” Spencer says, a hint of his former hysteria creeping into his tone.
Pat hears it too, because he counters quickly, “Forget the refusal of the call. That’s one of the steps some myths skip anyway. And we can skip supernatural aid, I bet.”
“Yeah. Nothing like that.”
“So we get to ‘crossing the threshold’. You left your comfort zone and answered the call. You agreed to go biking with Mommy…”
“I didn’t exactly agree.”
“OK. Let’s say that you didn’t disagree.”
            I smile to myself. Spencer must be feeling more himself since he’s hassling Pat on the details. Murphy draws his knees up and leans in closer to the phone so that he can hear Daddy too.
            “Oh,” says Spencer, “some people stopped and gave me water and a Kleenex. That could be supernatural aid and I just didn’t know it.”
            “Could be,” affirms Pat.  I feel the conversation veering off track but Pat brings it back. “Let’s not get lost in the steps right now. The point is that the hero has to overcome many obstacles and sometimes he even fails. Sometimes he doubts himself. All that is part of his journey. If the journey was easy, he wouldn’t be a hero, he’d just be a pretty accomplished guy. So see, Spencer, you can be the hero here. You can be scared and still get back on the bike.”
            “I’m not riding on the side of the path though.”
            “That’s something you’ll have to work out with Mommy.”
            “I’m telling you that I’m going to ride down the middle.”
            “OK, Buddy. Talk it over with Mommy. Can I talk to her?”
            They say their goodbyes and “love you”s like Spencer is going off on an honest-to-God trek across scorched earth to start his ascent up and through a perilous mountain range that he must pass before the winter comes. I can almost hear the swell of a movie soundtrack as Spencer hands me the phone and starts to stand, keeping his wounded let stiff.
            “Thanks, my love,” I say into the phone to Pat, “I think I can take it from here.”
            I pocket the phone and reach down to help Spencer lift his bike. Any pause might give him time to reflect and weaken his resolve. I remove twigs from the spokes and Spencer lifts his good leg over the frame, straddling the bike. I grab his helmet and hand it to him.
            “Why don’t you start,” I say, “and Murphy and I will follow.”
            Spencer snaps on the helmet and pushes off. Immediately the bike wobbles.  Spence can’t get any traction. He stops short and the bike falls against his inner thigh, pushing him into a pile of leaves again. He screams, “The bike won’t go. The bike won’t go!”
            I run up to him and pull him from the felled bike.
            “It’s broken,” he yells, kicking the bike.
            I look back at Murphy who is standing next to our tandem, helmet in hand, with a look of barely suppressed irritation. I look back at Spencer, “Maybe it isn’t broken, Spencer.”
            “YES IT IS, MOM!!!” he yells at me, red faced, tears streaming down his face.
            Yet again, I feel completely helpless. I want to say, “What about the hero’s journey?” A minute ago, you were ready to take this whole thing on --be the hero --and then, BAM, one little set-back and we’re back where we started? Really? And, what’s all this outrage directed at me? What the hell did I ever do except try to give you an adventure that I obviously can’t even afford now because the clock is ticking and at this point we’ve probably spent more money than we would have if we had gone sailing. And why? Because of YOU.
            And on and on.  Resentful thoughts tumble in my head as I stand over him. They are non-parental thoughts. Worse. They are the thoughts of a pissed-off peer. They are thoughts that could be owned by someone Murphy’s age. And my one proud moment in this whole thing thus far is that I don’t voice them.
            Then. Slicing through the jumble in my head with laser-like precision is a super-thought, stronger than the rest. It is an undeniable thought which is almost laughable for its simplicity.
It is this: What about me? Why can’t I be the hero? Why am I continuing to refuse the call to action? I have been passive since Spencer first took the fall. In fact, the only active thing I did was dial Pat’s number so he could deal with it. Jesus, when am I going to the fucking hero of my own life?
Over Spencer’s keening, I hear voices up the path and see a trio of bike riders heading toward us. I raise my hand and yell a phrase I almost never use, “Can you help us?”
The riders slow to a stop along side of us. I see now that they are three young men. Mid-twenties, maybe. Hard-bodied. One even has his shirt off, his defined physique glistening with sweat. I feel my face flush with embarrassment, not just because of my incompetence and screaming child, but because I am middle-aged.
I push past my shame and ask, “Do any of you know about bicycles? My son thinks his is broken.”
“Sure thing,” says the shirtless man and he hops off his bike. “You stopped the right guy. Bikes are my thing.” He walks over to Spencer’s bike and Spencer grows quieter. The man leans down to the bike and Spencer, silent now, sits up from the pile of leaves he’s been lying on.
I turn to the other riders and see that one of them is rounder than the other two. The round guy says, “As you can see, I don’t do much bike riding anymore.” He points to the shirtless man, “This was all his idea. I told him, ‘For once can we do something that doesn’t hurt my whole body? And this is what I get.’”
Spencer smiles at the joke.
The shirtless guy looks up from Spencer’s bicycle, “Chain’s loose. That’s all.”
The man in the green t-shirt, next to the round guy, eyes Spencer’s knee and says to him, “Your knee got hurt?”
“Yeah. My mom said to ride on the side,” says Spence, adjusting his leg so green t-shirt can get a better look at the wound that is still bleeding.
The shirtless man picks up the bike and straddles it. He grips the frame with his knees, “And the alignment’s off. I can fix that.”
Green t-shirt points to Spencer’s wound and says, “That’s your badge of glory.”
“Yeah,” says the round man. “You wanna show that off. It’s your badge of glory.”
“Right,” says green t-shirt, “The only thing better than having your badge of honor right up front on your knee, would be if you had it on your face.”
“Like if you flew over the handlebars, face first,” says round man. “Then everyone would see it.”
Green t-shirt giggles, “Yeah, then you could do jokes like, ‘Hey I didn’t fall off my bike. I just wanted to get a closer look at the road.’”
The round man laughs and punches t-shirt’s arm. Spencer chuckles and Murphy laughs because everyone else is. I don’t entirely get it. I mean, if it’s a badge of honor why would you say you were simply getting a closer look at the road? But my spirit lifts at seeing Spencer smile.
Shirtless guy rolls the bicycle back to Spencer, “See how this works.”
Spencer gets up from the leaves, mounts the bicycle and pedals a few feet. All without a peep of protest. Is it because he’s among guys? He stops and turns to give them a thumbs up.
They all chuckle and says things like, “Right”, “That’s it”, and “My man”. There is general high fiving and big grins as they take off. We three watch them disappear into the woods and then I turn back to Spencer, “Moving on?”
“Yup,” he says.
Murphy climbs onto the back of the tandem. I throw my leg over and wait for Spencer to start. We push off without conversation and the ride is slightly uphill. I anticipate complaints from Spencer, but he digs in. Murphy points out some scenery and I keep up the pace while considering options. The smartest financial option is to return the bikes as soon as possible. But part of me wants to redeem this afternoon. I want to return in triumph with Spencer’s badge of glory and memories of the scenery and how frigging cool it was to ride a tandem.
After hitting a biking groove for a while, we come to a crossroads. We can take the path up to a nature center or loop back down to base. Spencer is reluctant to go further but I suspect that the nature center might have first aid and water.
“But we don’t know how hard it will be, Mom,” he says.
“Just look at the map,” I say, pointing to the one under the sign. “It’s not that far.”
“You can’t tell from the map,” says Spencer with an irritable edge to his voice.
I can feel helplessness creeping into my bloodstream again, about to infuse me with inaction. And then I remember. I can be the hero. I can make choices and if they’re wrong then they’re wrong. What’s the big deal? I don’t have to be defeated by every mistake and miscalculation.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” I say to both boys. “We are going to the nature center. Spencer, I will walk your bike up this incline until the path gets flat again. Then you will take it from there. Murphy, wait here with the tandem and I will come back to get it in a couple of minutes.”
With that, I kick Spencer’s kickstand and start to walk the bike up the hill as he trails me. My legs are tired and I can feel the sweat dripping down my face. My arms ache as I push the handlebars over the soft ground. It is, however, worth the surge of effort. This is action, pure and simple.
Later, when we get to the nature center to find water, Neosporin, and a band aide, I spook the lady behind the counter with my effusive gratitude. Once Spencer’s wound is cleaned and we’ve all gulped from the water fountain, we take a tour around the nature center. The boys get free stickers.
In describing the hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell says that once the hero has earned his “ultimate boon”, he must return. And that return offers more obstacles. More dragons to slay and chasms to cross. In surviving these tests, he becomes a master of both the spiritual and material world. In other words, he returns changed by his travails, not simply triumphant because he has survived. Something internal happens on the bike path.
Fortunately, the dragons that might beset us are sleeping upon our return.  We take the path slowly and stop a couple of times to gaze up at the trees against the sky. And when we ride past the scene of Spencer’s first test, Spencer lifts himself off of his seat and pumps the pedals faster. He reaches a crest, then sits back down and takes his feet off of the pedals to let the bike carry him down.
A stop on our return


Murphy looking back