As I straddled the white seat of my Minnie Mouse bicycle, I considered the options. Either I could follow my father’s lead and lurch forward into almost certain peril, or I could dismount and walk my bike down the hill, trying to avoid tripping over my training wheels.
My father sat at the bottom of the hill on his own Schwinn, motioning for me to join him. I could see his green eyes crinkle and bushy red beard shift as he masked his worry with a nod of encouragement. I was facing my greatest childhood challenge: Cherry Street’s biggest hill.
My knees wobbled beneath their safety pads.
I launched the Minnie Mouse bike and gained speed fast. “Hit the brakes,” I thought. But instead my legs slumped uselessly off of the pedals, sending my bike into violent motion, tilting left, then right.
My bike careened off the road.
I could hear my father’s footsteps. I looked up at the blue August sky. I was lying in the yard of a Cherry Street resident (the one who handed out full-sized candy bars at Halloween).
My father lifted me off of the grass and began inspecting my scraped hands and knees. Cheeks tear-stained and pride hurt, I stood there on the hill, certain of one thing: I was going to ride that bike down the Cherry Street hill, and I was going to do it without my training wheels.
For weeks I practiced riding my bike underneath the shade the maple tree in our front yard.
My mother would ask, “Why don’t you try riding in the alley? I think it might be easier than on the grass.” She was right, of course. However, I knew that the grass would provide some cushion if I should fall, and a gravel alley was much less forgiving.
Years later, as a confident cyclist, I would wreck into a barbed wire fence, catch my toe in my bike chain and soar over my handlebars as the front wheel of my bike stuck in an unseen hole in my neighbor’s yard. But I did learn, and I spent countless summer evenings biking around my town of 800.
Fourteen years later, I found myself facing a very different challenge. Nearly 4,000 miles from home, I was living in Peru. After six weeks of studying in Lima, I went to San Roque De Cumbaza, a village in the high Amazon for six weeks of service.
The morning of my first day on service, Josh Bustos, Katie Hurst (the two other students in my service location) and I went to Saturday morning English class. The majority of class was spent playing soccer, and after an eternity of being schooled in futbol by a mob of pre-teens, the students wanted to go to the river.
After a five-minute walk along a dirt road, the students veered off the path and down a grassy decline. Curious, we followed, watching in horror as the students filed onto a rickety wooden platform that was about to be used as a diving board.
Twenty feet below, the water rushed. It had rained the previous week, leaving the water high and difficult to see through. There was no measure for how deep or shallow it was, and while the platform jutted out high above the water, it did not completely clear the rocky cliff below. Wide-eyed, I watched as student after student leapt from the platform.
The students teased until finally Josh said he would jump. I was petrified, but for some unexplainable reason, a swell of confidence rose within me. I looked at Katie, and we began to strip.
Hands intertwined, we counted: 3, 2, 1.
My legs propelled my body forward, leaping with all of my might to clear the platform and the rocks below. I let go of Katie’s hand and felt my body slip into the cold, Amazon river.
As I rose to the surface, I felt a fiery sting on the back of my thighs from hitting the water. I snatched my black bandana, then floating in the water next to me, and I thanked God it wasn’t my underwear that had come off.
It was my first day on service, and I had faced my greatest fears.
My fears are a part of who I am. Control comes with practice, and a life worth living is one that forces us into discomfort. I’ll never know if I’ve made the right leaps or pedaled in the right direction, but I have done it.
You will do it. We will all spend our lives crashing and sinking and sitting in the dark, but then we find ourselves looking up at a blue August sky.