Red Flags and Inertia

I did something incredibly brave.  And terrifying.  I submitted a piece I (re-)wrote to So Say We All, and it was chosen and last night I stood up in front of a huge crowd of people and read it out loud to them.  And I didn’t throw up or anything. What was most interesting is how what was an anecdote about one little adventure turned out — through three months of marinating in my head; the midwifery of a writing coach, two critique sessions, and a performance coach; and approximately 15,329 re-writes — to be a manifesto about how I parent and how I live my entire life.  Crazy, right?

The theme was Red Flags, and here’s what I said.  (My mom would like me to inform you that that it was even better when I read it aloud.  In her completely unbiased opinion.)

The minibus driver, as I expected, pulled out from the curb without looking, just as my 12-year-old passed on her bike.  I could see her calculating as she was squeezed into the tangle of traffic: should I speed up to pass, or slow down to drop back?  Two taxis, caught behind her, began a call-and-response of honking.  A row of moto drivers peeled out into on-coming traffic to pass; one, centimeters from a head-on collision with a smog-belching city bus, swerved directly into my daughter’s path.  She sped up, aiming for the dubious safety of the curbside.  

But so did the minibus driver, drag-racing my precious little heart-fragment on the traffic-choked streets of this dusty, dumpy Colombian town.

The idea of an English-speaking bike tour sounded reasonable at first.  I had so many questions about this town — my home for four lonely, sweaty months — and no one of whom to ask.  The guide knew we brought children.  Besides, it would obviously be a leisurely pedal through the calm calles of the historic district.  Anything else would be loco in a country where “one-way” is discretionary and a honk merely warns bystanders that the driver does not plan to slow for the red light.

We met our guide near Parque de los Novios, adjusted our bike seats and donned helmets.  Helmets were a pleasant surprise because we have yet to use seatbelts in this country.  They are simply missing from most vehicles, or sometimes encased behind plastic, taunting us with safety we cannot reach.  And five-point-harness toddler seats? Please.  Just the month before, our conveyance out of the jungle was the back bumper of a Land Cruiser only to end up in a village where the sole transport was the back of muffler-less motorcycles captained by a gang of teen boys.  These dances with danger thrilled my ten-year-old son, but indicate an almost obscene lack of fear, at least by American standards.  They also illustrate the advisibility of a bicycle tour in this region.

Lulled by the security of helmets, we set off through the mellow centro historico.  After a brief ten minutes along the beachfront malecon and circling the sad little cathedral claiming it once housed the bones of Simon de Bolivar, our guide announced our next destination: a site six kilometers across town.  At rush hour.  Through anarchic traffic circles and stop signs that apparently only gringos can see. We pedalled with city buses who dropped unsuspecting passengers exactly where we were passing, wildly weaving moto drivers, and entire fleets of cars whose side mirrors missed our handlebars by mere centimeters as they turned abruptly — without signalling, claro — directly in front of us.

We started with gallows sarcasm early.  “Gosh, this fresh air is great,” I yelled through the clouds of exhaust.  “These wide, well-marked bike lanes are so helpful!” my husband hollered as a bus ran him into a curb.  “Of course we’re running the red light,” I howled as our guide did just that, “because that just makes this more fun!”

My son was brave at first, as a kid-sized person on an adult-sized bike in a frighteningly foreign place.  But out near the crumbling city soccer stadium, he threw his bike down on the curb and informed me in tears that he would go no further.  Swept along by my own inertia, I fought his declaration; of course he could do this, I insisted.   There was no other option.  This was a bike tour.  One rode a bike.

But pep talks, threats and bribes were useless on a child who knew, deep in his heart, that this was a stupid and reckless plan and his mother had lost her mind.  After a bout of berating on my side and obstinate tears on his, I gracelessly gave up.  We locked his bike to one of Colombia’s ubiquitous razor-wire-topped chain-link fences and he spent the rest of the tour perched side-saddle on the back of the guide’s bike.

In hindsight, of course, I wonder what kind of horrible mother does this.  I question why I didn’t just take my terrified child home in a taxi.  The entire double-length album of How To Be A Good Mother plays on repeat in my head and I blush with shame.  

And yet…

I have a long-standing habit of sweeping past the warning signs, ignoring the alarm bells blaring in my head.  I’m aware of the jagged rocks.  I feel the pull of the whirlpool, and hear the waterfall I’m about to tumble over, but my focus is elsewhere.  All I can see is the plan I made, the vision I had for how this was supposed to go, and it pulls me inexorably along.

There was the time in Damascus, when backpackers could still have adventures in Syria and my whole heart was still housed within my own body.  A friend and I searched for a traditional bathhouse.  Down a dark alley, a toothless old woman opened the door, looked us up and down shrewdly, and led us in.  The courtyard was dim, the roof held up by a cracked log and I could hear dogs and boys skulking just out of sight.  The only thing missing was a giant neon billboard flashing, “Turn around NOW!”  

But I didn’t.  Instead, I found myself lying face down and naked on a dirty tile floor, being scrubbed by a nine-year-old girl with a bucket of warm water.  “How did I let this happen?” I wondered at the time.  Yet it turned out fine, and it makes a fun story.

And there was the time I was fixated on some hot springs in Oregon and the lack of a bridge seemed a minor inconvenience.  Still newish to parenting, my four-year-old son had crawled on his chubby little knees halfway across the slick log.  Six inches below him roiled a snowmelt-swollen, boulder-strewn river, unswimmable even by an expert.  I looked at my husband, positioned 20 yards down the river, pretending he would be of use in a worst-case-scenario, and I had a flash of clarity.  “What the hell are we doing?!”  I said in horror.  

The spotlight shifted from my original vision to its manifestation in reality, and I realized that this was the moment I would look back on, after the inevitable tragedy, shaking my head sorrowfully and saying, “I really should have known better.”  But my seven-year-old had already crossed safely, and the hot springs sounded so nice, and “chickening out” has a high social cost, so… onward I went.

In truth, this crazy six-month sabbatical in Colombia could be explained by the same inertia.  It started with, “I think I need a break,” and “I’d like to learn Spanish,” then swept briskly along through Lonely Planet, Rosetta Stone and yellow fever vaccines until I found myself clutching a passport in front of a boarding gate for Medellin, thinking, “Wait… what?!”  But our suitcases were packed, tenants were moving in and my desk was cleared out.  

So I boarded the plane.

Here’s the thing: on the other side of each flash of clarity, of that moment of realization that I missed the exit ramp for reasonable people, lies the magic.  It’s where I experience what others don’t, which makes me feel cool when it comes up in cocktail conversation.  But on a deeper level, these adventures are life: messy, and beautiful, and fundamentally uncontrollable.  These escapades let the daring lion side of me drown out the neurotic little mouse that runs my workaday life.  They challenge my assumptions about what’s right and wrong, good and bad, normal and strange, safe and dangerous.  Stepping over the boundary, although often fraught and uncomfortable, makes me who I am. So I take the road more risky.

The problem is that this willful blindness to the downsides no longer affects just me.  I have children and I am terrified that my penchant for adventure will harm them.  Terrified also of the swamping tidal wave of judgment from others if — or, to be honest, when — the odds end up against us.  But I need my children to know that a life encased in bubble-wrap is no life at all, and that the lion inside them is strong, and capable,and there is power in flinging yourself in, even when it’s scary.

On the bicycle tour, once we acknowledged that quitting was not an option, we went kamikaze.  We embraced the ridiculousness, threw ourselves into the fray, started pedaling with a “just try and cut me off, jackass” attitude.

And it worked.

There was a sudden, marked uptick in the number of drivers noticing us, and in the centimeters of gap between our knees and truck hubcaps.  Drivers noticed our determined glares, and paused for us to pass.  As soon as we conformed to the local rules and culture, it felt oddly safer.  It was like we learned the steps and suddenly the entire dance made sense.

At the end of the tour, we celebrated our unlikely survival with high-fives and empanadas, and I promised my children that I would never ask them to do something that reckless again.  To which my wise-ass daughter replied, “Even if we never do this specific deadly activity again, I’m pretty sure you’ll sign us up for something else stupid and dangerous.”

And I looked straight into the mirror she held up to me and felt both a small bubble of pride and a sinking weight of dread to realize that she is probably right.

Want to know where it started?  The original story is here.


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