I was talking to my supervisor this morning. She went on a family camping trip over the weekend and now is sore. Her family had struck out from their campsite, exploring the nature preserve and saw some interesting land formations, flora and fauna.
I couldn’t help but remember when my family would go camping and we would be glued to the tent. I don’t know why my father never took us out to explore the area. Maybe he thought it was too dangerous for us to traverse – my mother was never steady on her feet due to her post-natal girth. As for my sister and I, he probably didn’t want to hear us whine.
So it was bacon grilled on the Coleman, board games and boredom. With extended family, camping seemed to be an excuse to play cards and drink beer – while spraying on layers of ‘OFF.’
The other memory I have is going over to my aunt and uncle’s rustic retreat in upstate (not the UP) Michigan. They lived in Houghton Lake, a place that experienced winter for six months a year and where snowmobiles had the right of way on the city’s streets from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28.
My cousins were always there and they were much more outdoorsy than my sister and I. They had snowmobiles and their beloved dirt bikes and would tear around the countryside with reckless abandon – even taking the snowmobiles on frozen Houghton Lake once the police declared the ice safe.
This memory is of one summer day up there and I think I was 12-years-old. My cousins were riding their dirt bikes and offered me a bike to ride around a little and get used to it. After all: it was just a bike with a motor attached, right?
My father, however, was having none of it. Too dangerous for a son he was already consigning to a soft un-manly life due to my love of books and general distaste for hunting and fishing.
I’ll never forget when my aunt Delores, my dad’s sister, said in her gravelly voice, “I wanna ride one of those.” So they gave her one. And, of course, she was drunk. She revved up the bike and promptly drove it about 20 feet directly into a tree.
She fell off the bike and other than a few scratches and cuts, the only thing really hurt was her pride.
But I’ll never forget my dad’s reaction.
He wheeled ‘round on me and viciously (his yelling had that edge to it) yelled at me “SEE! See what can happen on those damn bikes! You wanna break your neck!? I told ya those things were dangerous and you ain’t ridin’ one!”
Of course, my father had puttered around on one – I remember the picture my mother took.
Any my dirt bike riding cousins were ages 15, 13, 11, 9 and 8. And they rode without any trouble.
And I wanted to point out to him that his sister was drunk and shouldn’t have been riding one anyway.
But I didn’t want to get backhanded. I knew what it was like to see my dad’s beefy forearm heading for my face.
Psychologists ask for stories from our childhood and I believe they never really hear them or draw the correct conclusions from them. Most of them just care about how you feel NOW without understanding that how one felt THEN has a direct effect on how one feels and reacts now.
As I grew into adolescence, the fact that I could but did not want to, handle a shotgun or fishing reel, was taken by my father as a sign of un-manliness. My book reading and my incessant need to ask why were also taken as a sign by him that I would grow up as a soft, whiny intellectual who would never amount to anything. I spent too much time indoors soaking up knowledge rather than being his mini-me, shooting at any four-legged creature that dared to step out of the woods.
Soft. Too soft to ride a mere dirt bike? If I fell off would that reflect badly on my father? Or was this just his way of driving home to me his anger that I was not and could never be as outdoorsy, tough and self-reliant as my cousins (who were actually very nice to me)?
Well, whatever the lesson was, it sunk in.
I am 55. I have never ridden a dirt bike. I have never even sat on a motorcycle. I would like to, but now I really don’t trust my balance or skill. Or is that because I was told I was too soft and stupid to experience such fun?
“You wanna break your neck!? I told ya those things were dangerous and you ain’t ridin’ one!”
The words were said in the summer of 1975. I would like to have some shrink tell me how to remove them from my conscious hard-wiring. They are no means the only words that were said to diminish me, to shame me, to lower my expectations of my own skill and abilities and to hold me back from experiences other kids were having.
I grew up with the mantra in my head ‘you can’t do this; you’ll hurt or embarrass yourself.’ And it’s just not as easy as some think to push those words aside when they are backed up by anxiety.
Some people go out of their way to do one thing that scares them every day. I spend my entire day being risk averse and anxious.
Hmmm, I wonder when that began?
Over a goddamn dirt bike? Probably earlier.
Parents, for the love of all that’s holy, let your kids ride, climb and swing. Encourage them to explore their world fearlessly. Yes, they will get cuts and bruises. Your job is tell them that those cuts and bruises are part of living and to see them as a badge showing that their life was lived with a fearless spirit that will carry them to much greater things – flying jets, exploring the oceans, racing cars, hiking the Appalachian Trail, skydiving, rock climbing etc. These things breed a confidence that says ‘I can do anything.’
Don’t ever tell your child they can’t do something because they might . . .
Because they might succeed.
As I’ve written, it’s little incidents; little things that children remember and parents forget. These are the building blocks that make up a life. You start building the foundation of those building blocks in childhood. If the blocks say ‘can’ ‘try’ ‘do’ ‘be’ ‘explore’ ‘support’ ‘pride,’ then I believe the child will build themselves a life without unnecessary fear.
But if the blocks you choose as a parent say ‘beware’ ‘don’t’ ‘fear’ ‘hurt’ ‘shame’ ‘can’t,’ then you set your child up for a life lived in the shadows, wanting to be more than they are but feeling unworthy and unskilled.
I have many stories like this. We forget so much of our childhood except the good times and the bad. I remember these incidents as if they happened yesterday. I remember my mother on the phone with my high school algebra teacher who told her that if I would just try my homework, I would pass with a ‘gentleman’s D.’ What did that tell me, when my mother, a professional educator, instead of demanding that I be taught, acquiesced to accepting on my behalf, a ‘D’ grade? That I was too stupid to handle anything but basic math.
And these building blocks pile up until the foundation is solid and unbreakable.
I’ll never know the fun of dirt bikes, motorcycles, zip lines, rock climbing, skydiving, water skiing, etc. etc. etc. And also: painting, writing a novel, creating pottery and sculpture, learning to dance, martial arts, yoga, etc. etc.
If I try, I’ll have to overcome an almost primal fear and anxiety I feel when I even think of doing these things – that injury or embarrassment will follow. I should face and conquer these fears – it should be a bucket list thing to do before I die.
Or I can sit in my house and write blog posts like this deconstructing where the fear originated – and leave it at that. And wonder what might have been.
Fear’s a powerful thing, baby
It’ll turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust
- Bruce Springsteen, ‘Devils and Dust.’