I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing lately on the subject of ‘paying attention.’ This, because of some articles and speeches I’m helping The Master of the Universe (my boss) with. Inevitably, when I concentrate on a particular theme, whether for work or for personal reasons, I’ll start seeing its manifestations everywhere--yoga, for instance, where I’m being instructed to pay careful attention to my breath and body. And I’m also realizing how much I DON’T pay attention to—the ways I stay in my head, creating entire worlds that wouldn’t otherwise exist, rather than closely watching the world I live in. I should add that the worlds in my head are rarely beautiful or joyful.
So anyway, I want to share happened—or occurred--to me while mountain biking, that really brought home the fact that as observant as I need and claim to be, I’m...well...not-so-much. Of course, there’s some background and meandering, but eventually I’ll get to the point, I promise.
As I’ve said before, I was too scared to go mountain biking when I was in my twenties and thirties. I’m naturally clumsy, so the only sport I’ve ever done well was distance running, and that’s by my own definition of “well.” I mean I’ve never won any medals, but I used to could by-god run a marathon, because I’m stubborn. I stuck with running, since I could run a long way and there was only a small likelihood of breaking my neck.
But when I was pregnant with Lo at 36, and feeling like a run-down Efficiency on the bad side of town, I decided that once this baby moved out of my body, I was going to take up a new sport, use my body a different way. I’d show those doctors, too, who’d made me feel old and used up by referring to me as “advanced maternal age” for nine months. So after she was born, I learned to kayak. I loved paddling, being out on the river in the peace and quiet. You’ll never find me on class V rapids, but I can happily take on III and, not-quite-as-happily, the occasional IV.
Then, last year, with my marriage in crisis, I was hell-bent on finding ways to connect with my husband, things we could share. As it happens, he loves mountain biking. And honestly, I was at such a low point--a nothing-to-lose point--that I was willing to risk my neck. So with that notion, and the courage I’d gained from the kayaking, I gave it a try.
It was scary, no lie: treacherous gravel, knotty roots, whole fallen trees, saplings that seem to shoot up out of nowhere in the middle of the trail. But once I got my bearings and figured out what the bike could do, I felt like a kid again, like when my sister and I used to ride through the deep woods all day, stopping to explore abandoned farmhouses, or pick muscadines, or spy on the swimmers at Sun Valley Beach.
And when Biggy and I got to the top of the mountain and stopped to rest, I noticed maypops in the field, something I hadn’t seen in years, and remembered how, as a girl, I adored those purple flowers that made me think of Indian blankets, and how we used to stomp on the green, egg-like fruits to hear them pop.
I was suddenly flooded with memories from my childhood: the wild strawberry patches that grew behind our house, blackberry bushes, plum and persimmon trees. There was a massive oak tree up the dirt road, and under it, an old rusted-out Falcon where feral kittens were born every year, and we’d get our arms shredded trying to catch them. There were tall pines, and we’d climb to the top and nap, stretching across the branches and rocking in the breeze. I’d forgotten all of this.
For years and years, because I dwell in the darkness in my head, all I’d recalled of my childhood were the cruel adults who’d yelled and hit, or the sick ones who'd done worse. On the mountain, maypops blooming, I realized that the world itself, the natural, physical world, has been offering its consolation all along. And when the people in my life disappoint me, or downright hurt me, it still does. If only I pay attention.