Letting the Eagle Fly

Last August, at a freshman orientation, a bald eagle was released in the chapel at Oral Roberts University.  The plan was for the eagle to circle the audience and come to rest on the stage. Instead, mistaking a pane of glass for the great outdoors, it slammed into the window, and fell to the ground.

I was reminded of this earlier this week when I almost lost my youngest daughter.

Elizabeth has my spirit for adventure, and her father’s penchant for solitude.  She had the day off from work and decided to go for a solo hike around a nearby lake.  The day was sunny but cold- less than 20 degrees- so she pulled on a hooded sweatshirt, a Columbia shell, leggings and a pair of Doc Marten boots.  She grabbed her cell phone and drove to the lake.

eliz sunLeaving her car in a parking lot near the woods, she took off through the snowy trails. This year New Hampshire has seen consistently cold temperatures, so she wasn’t surprised to see snowmobile tracks in the snow that covered the frozen lake.  She considered walking across the lake to visit a small island, and then changed her mind, and headed down a trail toward a less familiar wooded area.

As she walked she snapped photographs with her cell phone. The stark New England landscape was blanketed in granulated snow that glittered like diamonds in the brilliant sunshine.  She spied a large uprooted tree and trudged toward it to get a closer look.  Suddenly, she heard the cracking of ice beneath her feet and realizing that she was not on firm ground, sprinted back in the direction from which she had come.  About six feet from shore, she fell through the ice into the frigid water below.  Soaked to the waist, she struggled to find her footing.  Ice and water scraped her legs like daggers and for a split second she panicked.  Remembering a lesson Bear Grylls taught on a television show about survival, she forced herself to calm down, and waded to shore, breaking the ice in front as she went.  It took her several attempts to get out of the water and then, hoping to keep hypothermia at bay, she jogged the half mile to her car.  Miraculously, her cell phone still worked and she called her brother, who sped to the lake to help her.  She then called me, so out of breath and cold sheeliz legs was barely able to talk.  I kept her on the phone until Gabe arrived to bring her home, and then met them at home to help her out of her wet clothes and into a warm tub.  Although cut up and bruised, she is none the worse for wear, and perhaps a little wiser about embarking on solo winter journeys.

When things like this happen, I find myself torn.  The mother part of me wants to lecture and admonish, telling her she should never go off by herself, that hiking in unfamiliar areas, especially in the snow can lead to disaster, and that she should count her lucky stars that she is still alive.

eliz snowman croppedBut then there is the part of me that understands.  Elizabeth has always been a free spirit.  She has always craved solo adventures.  As a little girl, she played in the snow for hours, trudging home only when the street lights came on.  I would help her take her snow-filled boots and mittens off, warm her red little hands under my arms and “tsk, tsk” at her for staying out long after she was cold. Her eyes would sparkle with delight as she told me how she explored in the wooded area by our home, and how she imagined herself to be a lone soldier struggling to survive against the elements.

As a teenager, Elizabeth thought nothing of taking long runs by herself.  Running cleared her head and helped her sort the myriad responsibilities that mounted as she grew.  In college she explored underground tunnels and drove to secluded areas to think and unwind.  And last summer, when the pressures of life began to close in on her, she hiked and ran the trails by the lake, because putting one foot in front of the other with nothing but trees, grass and rocks nearby sorted chaos into small manageable bites.  All of this she did alone.

So it came as no surprise to me that she had been at the lake alone.  It also came as no surprise to see her Twitter post a little later that afternoon :

“ Top 3 life experience thus far: fell through ice into deep water, remembered s***  from Bear Grylls and eventually pulled out on shore, stumbled half a mile to my car and adrenaline… realized survivor instinct is innate, incredible and **** glorious to experience.#humans #strongerthanwethink #thrill #moved #universe #conspires# ALIVE  ****I love nature.”

And now you see my dilemma.  For I know that trying to hold Elizabeth down is like tethering an eagle, trying to keep it safe.  It can be done, but wild creatures will always soar to the sky.  We cannot deny them their nature, and if we do, the consequences are far worse than we can imagine.  They lose their fire.  Their essence.  That which makes them what they are.  And if we do that, they may be alive, but they are not really living.

Am I grateful that Elizabeth survived her ordeal?  Of course.  Do I hope she learnedlizza mom to be a little more cautious?  Indeed.  Will I tell her to never go hiking alone again?  Probably not.

Fly, my little eagle.  Fly.

To Ride, Perchance to Fly


In a recent email, my friend Gerry mentioned his old bicycle. He wrote: “As I was readying to take a left in my car, a guy who looked a little older than I am was coming up the road on a bicycle. As he passed, it brought me back. “Peugot U08, circa 1970, 25 inch frame,” I thought.  Then, I got sentimental about it. “I used to have that same bike in red.   Long gone now, though.”

What adult doesn’t remember the bicycle he rode in his youth? Gerry’s Peugot was a racing  bike- the kind with handlebars that bent down like rams’ horns. They were all the rage in the seventies.

I actually never got the hang of riding a bike with shifts and handlebars that were bent down so far you felt like your nose was going to rub the front tire. When I was growing up, we had The Bike. It was my mother’s when she was a kid, and one summer my grandmother sent it home with us. For years, my parents could not afford another bicycle, so whoever needed The Bike most was the one who got to ride it. The rest of us walked.

I learned to ride a two-wheeler on The Bike. I remember propping it up against a tree, and pushing off, wobbling over the bumpy sidewalk, until I fell. I tried and fell, over and over, determined to master the skill like my older sister had, for to ride The Bike meant to fly. And I needed to fly.

The Bike was a dark green Columbia with narrow tires and a wire basket just big enough to hold a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Most of my friends had red Raleighs or blue Schwinns with hand brakes, bulky fenders and a thumb shift for their three speeds. The Bike had foot brakes and one speed, but it was swifter than any bike around. 

I lived at the top of Green Street, a long hill lined with Dutch elm and maple trees. When asked to ride The Bike to the store, I pushed off from the front steps, peddling as fast as I could so by the time I was half way down the hill, I was moving so fast that the pedals  disengaged from the gears. Coasting at full speed, I would cautiously remove my grip from the handlebars, knowing that to fall meant that my knees and elbows would require more methiolate and gauze than I could imagine. In a moment of fearless abandon, I’d raise my hands above my head and then quickly grab the handlebars again, just in time to stand on the brakes, announcing my entrance to Main Street with a loud screech similar to the sound of an angry blue jay. No doubt it was dangerous. It was great fun.

By the time I was in my early teens, somebody gave us an old blue Roadmaster with balloon tires, and shortly after that, my younger brothers and sisters received wheelie bikes with banana seats and sissy bars. They were shiny and new, and they got a lot of use, but to me they didn’t compare with The Bike.

As the years passed, bicycle wheels turned to car wheels and nobody rode The Bike any longer. The fenders were gone, the dark green paint chipped and faded and eventually, it went to that secret place to which old and broken toys disappear.

I never owned a bike again. Years later, I watched my own children ride their bicycles down the hill in front of our townhouse.   Abby and Gabe had their own bikes, but Elizabeth had only a Big Wheel, and she was too small to reach the handlebars on the scooter sitting in the front yard.  I watched her big eyes wistfully following the other kids zoom down the hill. She was skinny. And sick. And more than anything else, she wanted to fly.

Buckling a helmet under her chin, I placed her on the scooter, and stood in back of her, pushing us off with all my might. We flew down the hill, cheered on by the astonished neighborhood children who had never seen a mother on a scooter before. It was perhaps, a little dangerous. It was great fun.

Sometimes you just have to fly.

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