Riding Bikes without Boundaries and Other Endangered Rights of Childhood

The writing prompt over at Red Writing Hood this week is inspired by Natalie Goldberg‘s book on writing memoir, Old Friends from Far Away, which has caused me to revisit some of her earlier work on the craft of writing in general and memoir in particular. While it would seem, at first glance, that writing memoir is all about time, I’ve come to believe it is rather all about place. Much like the sense of smell dominates memory, place is the cornerstone of memoir.

And so here we are.

For me, it’s rural America: dirt roads, pine trees, 4-H, and fishing. Candy from run-down concession stands at dusty ball fields. Mill ponds that do double duty as ice skating rinks in winter. One main drag through town including a Frostee Freeze, a Chinese restaurant that used to be a diner, a bowling alley with three lanes, a lumberyard, and a single stop sign. Small town gossip buzzing around small town problems. Neighbors you know, friends you made in kindergarten, teachers who’ll see your parents later that day at Rotary, the PTA, or bridge club. High school football the only show in town on a Friday night.

Growing up, I used to have the run of the place: miles of county roads, wooded acres, homemade tree-forts, friends’ backyards, corner grocery stores, nearby stables and just about anywhere else my ten-speed or my horse could take me. I used to ride my bike (blue with silver handlebars) to school from the time I was in the 4th grade. Down my dirt street, up a hill my kids would whine about, past the Quik Stop where I’d stop (only if I didn’t recognize any of the cars at the pump as belonging to friends of my mother’s) to buy Laffy Taffy at the register. From there, I’d cross a highway, and if I was running late, I’d take the shortcut on the other side through the woods on a path the neighborhood boys had carved out on their dirt bikes. Windy and narrow as a hiking trail, it rose and fell over the hills past the railroad tracks like waves cresting (all the better to jump their bikes and crash and burn) and I’d pedal furiously on the inclines and coast, standing tall on my pedals, on the decline. I’d hit the pavement again right next to the railroad station, being careful not to stop where the bums slept under their tarps and plastic bags in the sagebrush.

If I wasn’t running low on time, I’d head over the bridge, past the bowling alley and the liquor mart and the used book store that used to be the movie theater where I saw Clue with my best friend and threw up Junior Mints all over the floor. One way, the commute was about two miles and took me twenty minutes. I’d get to school sweaty, tired, dirty, and happy.

Now, I live in semi-rural America. My kids are accustomed to cow pastures and pear orchards, but also sub-divisions and stop lights. I drive them to school (3/4 of a mile, but in my defense, I’m going there anyway) and drop them off at the entrance. They still have their freedoms: a loose rein while they’re playing outside, lots of neighborhood streets to explore. But they seem to know what they’re missing; whether it stems from hearing my stories of an unencumbered childhood or simply an inherent drive for fewer boyhood boundaries, they want more.

Case in point: Calvin wants permission to ride his bike (a much nicer model than any I ever owned) the mile and a half to his buddy’s house. And I wish I could give it, but so far, I’ve said no. No to the country road with no shoulder. No to the tricky four-way stop where drivers pay no heed to pedestrians. No to the small boy riding past house after house with strangers behind the doors.

I wish I could explain to him that it’s out of my hands, anyway: I can’t give him that magical place, geographic or otherwise, that to me means safety. Means cradled by the place you are in. (Perhaps someone still living there now would tell me it no longer exists. Perhaps it only ever did in my mind: after all, I read The Lovely Bones thinking, ‘how did this not happen to me?’) But that was my childhood, not his. Calvin will have his own memoirs to write. And they’ll be full of opportunities I didn’t have, education I was not exposed to, and larger town thinking to which I wish I had been subjected. But it saddens me to realize what will be missing: safety not in numbers, doors without locks, and bikes without boundaries.

29 thoughts on “Riding Bikes without Boundaries and Other Endangered Rights of Childhood

  1. Their lives have to be different, because the world is different. And I don’t mean that in the scary, there are dangers out there way, I mean that in much the same way as our lives were different than our parents. And how our grandchildren will have different lives than our children. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to give them the freedom to live, no, but we have to live the life we have today. This comment feels a bit convoluted, but I think you get my meaning. It is one of the reasons we decided to live in the small town that I grew up in, and why I bust my butt to commute long distances every day. I’m trying to give them a piece of the life I had as a child. It’s different, but they’ll know glimpses.

    But I have to tell you your imagery, especially the high school football game and Chinese restaurant – oh how the thought of them brings back memories.

  2. I just stumbled across your blog and wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your writing. It’s always wonderful to discover a well-written blog!

    Your post made me think of a book I read a few years ago called The Last Child in the Woods. I can’t remember who wrote it, but I remember the author claiming that the world now isn’t actually all that different from the good old days. Apparently, crime rates were high during our childhoods, too, but there was less awareness (maybe?) and the way they reported the news was different. He argued that the risks our children face from unstructured, unsupervised outdoor time is actually less significant than the risks they face by NOT being allowed to roam about in nature. I remember I liked the book…although, I’m with you, I’m still not going to let my little ones roam the countryside on their bikes…totally unprotected!

    At any rate, you should check the book out–I think you’d like it!

    • Glad you found me, Emily! And that sounds like a really good book. I’m always happy for a recommendation, so I’ll check it out. And I agree: the world was plenty scary then too; we just heard about it less, perhaps.

  3. I was just talking to my husband the other day about that freedom that we had as children, that innocence that the kids of today won’t ever know. The ability to put a pitcher of kool-aid on the back step and send the kids out to play all day. The fact that we would share that drink with every kid in the neighborhood that stopped by to play. It was much more a rough and tumble, scraped up knees, everyone kept an eye on everyone’s kids kind of world. We don’t have kids yet, but when we do, if we do, I long for a safe world like that for them to grow and discover who they are without the boundaries that the world imposes now.

    Beautiful post.

    • Oh yes, the shared drinks and constantly scraped knees! So true. I long for that for my kids, but I can only give them what I’m able. It’s bittersweet.

  4. I had the same reaction when I read The Lovely Bones. I just got this horrible chill inside. My kids can’t have the freedom I had, either. It breaks my heart to cheat them out of it, but I’m not brave enough to let them wander free.

    • Were our parents braver, or were the expectations different, I wonder? Because I give my kids a bit more freedom and let them try more things than most parents I know, and I guess it’s frowned upon to give them too much leash these days. But I know my kids are stronger for it. Thanks for stopping by, as always!

  5. I couldn’t finish The Lovely Bones. It could happen to anyone of our children. This post is timely as I’ve recently followed the news of the CT family who was terrorized and killed by two criminals for eight hours in their home. They way they picked out this mom and her family -they followed her home from the grocery store.

    It is a frightening world and we are sacrificing freedoms for our children, but like KW says, I can’t risk letting my daughter wander free and explore.

    • The way I see it, horrible news like that makes me realize anything could happen, no matter how many precautions you take. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be cautious, but I guess it means we shouldn’t sacrifice our freedoms to do so. Yes? No? It’s multifaceted, and you’ve given me something to think about, for sure.

  6. I, too, grew up on country roads with a bike with no boundaries. This subject is loaded for me and I’ve discussed it with my sister quite a bit. We were allowed to be gone all day, with no cell phone to check in and no one to watch what we were up to. The country roads had no bike lanes or curbs and definitely speed demons. We played in abandoned buildings, road our bikes into town, played in the pond, went swimming without supervision. My sister and I wonder if it’s not that the world is different, but our parents were just naive. And now, I live 15 miles outside of San Franciso, a quiet semi-rural suburban town. I let my kids (15 and 12) ride their bikes three miles to the center of town, and even further to visit the candy shop in the town next door. I feel that they are old enough to do this and as part of the parenting process, I need to let them explore – safely. Wear helmets (which I never did), understand traffic safety and rule (which I never did). Fear of all of the terrible possibilities cannot rule me because I can perfectly imagine every worst-case scenario. If I let them, my kid would never get his driver’s license, and we know that’s simply not realistic. Plus I can’t wait for him to be able to run to the grocery store for me.

    • You bring up a great point about realism: it’s simply not realistic to coddle children too much. And your childhood sounds much like mine, and I understand your struggle with the subject. Were parents naive? I think so, but perhaps it wasn’t their fault? We just have so much more news and information thrust at us every day now. It’s terrifying and I don’t want to know half of it!

    • Wow, what a stunning piece of writing about a horrific event. So glad you commented and I found your blog. Following you now. And you’re right: the world wasn’t safer.

  7. I remember these days, and while I long for my children to have them, I also know that it’s not theirs to have. I love the direction you took this prompt in, and how you made it your own.

    • Thank you. And you’re right: it’s not theirs to have. And they’ll retain something special from their childhoods that they’ll long to give THEIR children, but won’t be able…and on and on it will go, I suppose. Good point!

  8. I know I would not allow my kids to have the freedom I did. We used to run for miles in the woods, and walk home a mile through our heavily wooded street from the bus stop. Or I’d wander in the woods by myself.

    We live in cookie-cutter suburbia now and while the world may not be more dangerous, we just know too much, thanks to internet/TV/etc.

    • Yes, I suppose the idea that ignorance is bliss really applies. I used to wander through woods alone too, far, FAR from any homes. Goodness. lol

  9. “bikes without boundaries” – love that concept. This is such a thought-provoking post, because it’s so hard to compare our world now with the world then. Even when terrible things happened then, people didn’t have the media access that we have now. Is ignorance bliss or just ignorance? I don’t know.

    • It’s both, I think. It’s ignorance, and the fuzzy haze of bliss ignorance provides. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing; our parents weren’t purposefully ignorant. They were just lucky not to have such media influence, I guess. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I loved how you captured the freedom of the bike. It made me wish for my own childhood and feel sad for what my children are missing. You’re right, they will make their own memories.

  11. The other night, at my 4-year-old’s soccer game, my 8-year-old asked permission to go across the complex and play tag with some school buddies. It took all my strength to say “yes,” to feel confident in his ability to protect himself.

    And I could still see him from where I was sitting.

    It made me happy that he wanted to wander that far. But it was far enough.

    Excellent post. Your words embraced me, and brought me back to a similar time in my life. Run-down concession stand candy and all.

    • I know how you felt. I’ve been there, slowly stretching out that ‘leash’ for my kids. It’s scary, but I do want them to have a childhood with some freedom. Glad you stopped by!

  12. I loved ‘Clue’ (Leslie Ann Warren was the perfect Miss Scarlet). And this mini-memoir. My bike was pink with white handlebars…and I’m sure your son’s bike is a much better model than what I had too.

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