READING: To a Daughter Leaving Home, Linda Pastan
When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew smaller, more breakable
for your life, screaming
the hair flapping
behind you like a
The poem by Linda Pastan brought back memories of my learning to ride a bicycle. It was my father who taught me. By the time I was nine, I could ride my bike to my best friend’s house so I must have been around eight or younger. Before that, I had a red tricycle on which I was fearless speeding in circles around the columns of our concrete basement. There was a time in-between when I got the light blue two-wheeler with training wheels securely attached. As I recall, it was relatively easy switching from the tricycle to the bike with training wheels. The biggest challenge was learning to brake by reversing directions of the pedals instead of just throwing my feet on the ground while the wheels were in motion. A bicycle of course was much further off the ground then my red tricycle. A sign that I was growing up!
However, once those training wheels came off, I longed for my good old tricycle! I had a hard time finding my balance. I was afraid of falling. I was afraid that if I ever got going, I would not be able to stop.
I grew up in West Newton, Massachusetts on Waltham Street, a road with a constant buzz of traffic. Directly across from our house was the Swedish Home, a nursing home set back from the road with a long circular driveway. When my father could see how frustrated and discouraged I was we crossed the street with the light blue bike between us to practice while my mother prepared dinner.
I don’t remember how many times we went to practice but it became an afternoon ritual. My father would hold the handlebars while I got the rhythm of pedaling. Later, he held the back of the bike and simply let go when my pedaling seemed more confident.
After a while, we had an audience. The residents of the Swedish Home started gathering on the front porch to see this father and daughter routine. When my father pointed them out to me, I felt shy at first. My father explained that they too first learned to ride a bicycle and they were simply cheering me on. After a while, a group was always out there to greet us as we walked the bike across the street and up the driveway at the usual time. We exchanged friendly smiles and waves.
My father was a wonderful coach. When I exclaimed “I can’t do this!” he encouraged me. His steady reassuring presence motivated me to keep trying and never give up. When I fell over and scraped my hands, he’d whistle a few bars of a song that continues to echo in my head to this day, “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, try all over again!” One day, I was able to ride without my father’s steady guiding hand. I found my balance pedaling on my own and even engaged the brakes—the start of my journey toward independence. Now I could ride my bike to my best friend’s house on my own.
The determination to persist even when at first I do not succeed is a lesson that has helped me face many challenges and transitions through out my life. My father offered the same steadfast reassuring support as I learned to drive, auditioned for plays, went to college, applied for jobs, felt called to the ministry, purchased my first home, and committed myself in marriage. The transitions were always mine to face but the fact that my father believed in me gave me the confidence to move forward in unfamiliar territory.
On this Father’s Day, I am keenly aware that my father is facing his own unfamiliar territory. His mind is increasingly clouded by dementia and his body has become frail. My mother is offering him steady reassuring support by caring for him at home with the aid of home healthcare workers. He is afraid of the transition from life to death although I have tried to assure him that he will be at peace. At this point, there is no disease nor prognosis so we do not know how long this slow goodbye will continue. Even though I am not able to visit with him as often as I would like, my heart is with him as I know his heart is with me, across geographical distance and ultimately when the veil of death passes between us. As I face this life transition, my faith assures me that the bonds of love remain unbroken and timeless.
Today we honor the transition of our youth toward adulthood. At the end of the service, this community will create a bridge symbolic of this life passage. In truth, each one of us no matter our age is navigating life’s transitions. Some of these changes call on us to learn new skills or face new challenges. There are new chapters which we consciously choose for ourselves that help us move toward our personal goals. There are other transitions like the loss of a loved one or an obstacle unforeseen but no less real on our life’s journey. There are times when the love and support of family or church community is close at hand, cheering us on, providing comfort, and offering inspiration. There are other times when our new chapter takes us far away from all that is familiar to face unknown territory alone.
I want all the youth to know that even though we might not see one another as often, this community is here for you. I am only an email away anytime you have a challenge or a success you would like to share.
For all people who navigate life’s transitions, we offer inspiration from our Unitarian ancestors, first Ralph Waldo Emerson who was present at the dedication of this historic church, “Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.” And then the following words from Henry David Thoreau who had Emerson as his friend and mentor, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” Foremost when you fall literally or spiritually hum a few bars of the simple tune, “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, try all over again.”