I have been feeling nostalgic these past few weeks. In reconnecting with the past, I have – as we invariably do – romanticised the early years of my existence. The bicycle has made a special appearance among those untouchable childhood memories. Perhaps this is because, unlike most memories, it is something I can still connect with directly – every day. More likely it’s because 2017 is the year of the bicycle and I can’t help but think about the impact it has had on my life.
A few weeks ago, a close friend took me to the place she grew up. As we visited the sites of her early memories, I could connect to the same feelings she did, even though the equivalent places in my story are so different and far removed from her reality. Not all memories are pleasant, and creating distance – whether physical or not – from home is one way to pave our own path. Yet, and as I realised after visiting my friend’s home, regardless of how positive or negative our associations with “home” might be, the mind, or the heart (or wherever it is we store emotion) holds a special place for remembrance.
I suppose we draft the narrative of our lives by holding on to the memories we think explain in some magical way how we arrived at the place we are. Perhaps it’s because, as we learn the hard way, life rarely turns out the way we imagined when we were idealistic adolescents. Very few things remain intact; except in my case, of course, for the bicycle.
The bicycle has been a fixture in the 37 years of my existence and, as I learned recently, in the last 200 years of humanity since this magnificent tool was first invented. It has undergone significant modifications, of course, yet it remains a two-wheel vehicle that – except for new electric versions – is propelled solely by human power. It is fascinating to read about its history.
From a more philosophical stance, I like to think of the bicycle as the only vehicle that can propel me into the future at the same speed it takes me back in time. In both instances, the potential for fantasy is unlimited. I still dream about the first time I rode a bike and, whether a genuine memory or modelled by movies, I still reminisce about that sensation of being on top of the world. Achieving balance on two wheels in an upright position for the first time feels like an audacious victory. Likewise, the idea of streets full of people on bicycles is my version of a future that holds promise and hope. Like that first bicycle ride, getting a glimpse of that future makes me feel that despite the seeming unravelling of many of our achievements as a society, all is not lost.
My ode to the bicycle is, therefore, simply a personal note. As a result of fate, socialisation or simple fluke, it has grounded me to the earth and provided me direction. It is what keeps me going – literally, given the work I do, and in these days of nostalgia, in a more emotional way too. I’ve threaded many stories around it and, in my attempt to understand what it is that my mission on this earth is, have continued to build on the memories that others have shared with me. One that surfaced recently, thanks to Facebook, was told by my English as a second language teacher in the US. She remembered with fondness that at the time students my age were getting their first car, I rejoiced at receiving a bicycle on my 16th birthday. Apparently, also during that period, my aunt with whom I lived at the time remembers having a scare or two when I appeared in the midst of storms having refused not to ride it in the rain to travel home from school.
I must confess, I remembered neither of those instances, but they came back as clear as day once I heard them. Today they are the sturdy memories where I find solace when life seems to spin out of control. Many more memories created in recent times have continued to build my narrative and have linked me to interesting individuals around the world who, like me, have been touched by the spirit of the bike.
It has been a journey on two wheels of a personal nature. The bicycle has transformed me and been a vehicle to self-discovery and identity. Today I celebrate, with some nostalgia but certainly with much joy, the 200th anniversary of this beautiful human feat.