In my neighborhood, one family is teaching their 5 year old daughter to ride a bike, and my next door neighbors are teaching their 17 year old son to drive. Watching these rites of passage play out, I am touched by the devotion that both sets of parents are displaying. They are giving their children a sheltering love that both protects and guides them as they undertake the process of growing up in America.
My little dog Winky and I have witnessed several bike riding lessons, beginning with one that occurred on the grassy knolls of the hill that is the center of our shared properties; the Dad had wisely chosen that terrain so that when his daughter inevitably fell off, she would be hitting soft grassy ground, rather than unforgiving concrete. She took several rides down the hill while he held on to her bike seat; the Dad retrieved her and the fallen bike, and they would begin again from the top of the hill. Then, last Sunday morning, the Dad went with her for a ride on the sidewalk while her Mom, younger brother (riding his own small bike) and the family dog followed behind for support as they all focused on her ability to stay upright and steady. The Dad at first trotted along, one hand on the back of her bike seat, and then quietly removed his steadying hand and off she went! Proudly, she rode along the walk, and then we heard her laugh outloud, the sound of pure joy, as she realized that she was under her own power. The Mom began to clap, the Dad, beaming, shouted spontaneously “Just like that!” with the universal posture of winning, both arms up over his head in jubilation, and the girl kept laughing. Winky and I were transfixed as we stood and watched this celebration. I smiled all the way home, just remembering the sound of her laughter.
We have had less exposure to our neighbors’ son mastering how to drive; we’ve only seen him getting in the car with his dad seated on the passenger side, and then backing out of the driveway into the street and driving away. We have heard a few of the Dad’s comments such as “Be careful!” and seen the son’s facial reaction, a mix of seriousness and exasperation. These few observations have brought me back to recall my own driving lessons with my cigar-chomping father seated next to me, yelling instructions, gripping the grab bar up over the passenger door, and sitting upright in a tense posture. It took only two of these rides for my Dad to abruptly declare to my Mom, “I think she better take the Drivers’ Ed classes at school.”
My neighbor is a more patient driving instructor than my Dad was; he seems relatively calm and composed and he and his son often come home after a lesson to play a game of Frisbee together, smiling often at one another as they exchange that floating disc that seems to have a mind of its own.
What do these passages represent? They are like so many other rituals we go through – timeless and ageless and bound to a significant transformative experience. Rituals help us recognize our continual rebirth experiences by helping us enact the “hero’s journey” with symbolism, and celebrate the turning points, milestones, and other landmarks of our personal life journeys. Just like street signs help orient us to our physical location, rituals create emotional markers that help orient us to our current stage of life, adding color and texture to our personal narrative.
Perhaps someday that little girl and that young man will tell these stories to their own children and maybe their grandchildren, and the circle of life will be complete. That’s the way history becomes lore, and our legacies are made.