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Week 4: The Gift of Taking Ownership

Photo by jonboy mitchell on Flickr

I yanked on the combination lock in growing despair, the perfect row of numbers impervious to my attempts.

My preschooler sat patiently in the bike trailer, the only “available” vehicle among us. We were outside a fast food restaurant 3 miles from our house with my son’s little orange bike and my red Schwinn safely chained to a wooden pole in the parking lot.

“I must have re-set the combination when I was jiggling the red things to lock it up,” I said to my son, the calm in my voice belying the sinking feeling inside.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“That our lock is now set to a new, random combination and we can’t get our bikes out.”

“Oh no! My bike! My speedometer!” my son wailed. Having logged close to 200 miles since July, the speedometer had now become as precious as the ride itself.

Unable to reach my husband at any of the numbers I had for him, I took a deep breath.

“We’ll have to walk home pushing the bike trailer,” I said, looking uncertainly at my daughter, whom I had bundled up for a 20 minute ride on this February day, not a one hour walk.

Then, acting more on an impulse to connect with another human being than on any hope of assistance I added, “I’m just gonna run inside the restaurant and tell the manager.”

After waiting in line with other customers, I told the manager my story – twice – before he seemed to accept it. “I’m not asking for help,” I assured him in response to the uncertain look on his face. “I just wanted you to know what was going on, so you wouldn’t worry – or call the police to remove the bikes – or something.”

Trudging back into the cold I took another minute to jiggle the unyielding cable and stare mournfully at the two trapped bikes. In my mind, I could hear my husband’s tone of “patient exasperation” as I told him what happened. I was dreading it.

Just then I noticed a Latino man in a crisp blue button down shirt heading our way. According to the gold tag on his chest he was Juan, a more senior manager who had been called by the other manager to see if he could help us out.

After scrambling the numbers and spinning them back to the combination I provided, he dropped the cable and stepped back, examining the scene with a thoughtful eye.

“Huh..” he said, as though seeing a solution to a Mensa puzzle that was too simple to be true. “I think you could just…”

And then Juan, like a magician performing the final move in an impossible act, deftly slid the cable down the handlebar, looped it through the frame, and pulled it out, leaving my bike free while the cable remained solidly around the wooden pole.

“Wow!” my son and I cheered. “That’s fantastic! Thank you so much!”

Juan smiled shyly.

“I mean that’s terrible!” I said, laughing. “I did that chain all wrong! Anyone could have taken the bike!”

Juan was already kneeling to examine my son’s bike, which was held fast only by the spaghetti thin tubing of the brake.

Running back into the restaurant, he returned with a wrench and within minutes had taken apart my son’s brake mechanism, placing various parts of it around us on the sidewalk and freeing the bike.

I felt grateful, elated, lucky, and not a little embarrassed. Here I was a University professional who couldn’t even lock up my bike properly, never mind use a simple combination lock without re-setting it.

“How did you know how to do that?” I asked Juan after he had reassembled the brake and tested it.

“In Mexico,” he said (pronouncing it Meh-hee-co), “if you don’t know how to fix your bike, you don’t have a bike.”

I was curious and asked more questions. Juan told me how he uses salvaged parts from all kinds of models to fix his friends’ bikes – and how his bike was once stolen under his nose when he went inside for a minute to get a tool.

The kids were waiting and it was time to go. As we pushed away, I felt exhilarated at the turn of events, the only ransom for our freedom a $7.00 cable left hanging around the pole.

And there was something else as well. A spaciousness and a feeling of awakening. Something in what Juan had said had tapped into a deep place in me, a place of “recognizing” a truth I already have.

It is the part of me that wants to take care of my own stuff, to know what I am eating and where it comes from, to understand how things work, to be closer to the underbelly of the beast.

It is the part of of me that wants to learn to take apart my own brakes – and to unhitch myself from the wooden posts that seem to trap me, when in reality, I am free to go the whole time.

It seems that in my life, as in Juan’s, if I don’t know how to fix my bike, I don’t really own it.

Thank you, Juan, for the inspiration and the reminder.


Week 2: The Danger of Unasked Questions

Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr

Walking home in the darkening slush of a winter afternoon, from the house of my Neighbor – a Total Stranger earlier that morning – I thought about all the questions I could have asked – and didn’t.

After 6 years of silently, facelessly, living two houses over, I had taken that first breathless step across her door – but did not find it in me to cross the cordial, awkward distance formed between us by her kitchen table.

Why didn’t I ask her about her favorite books when she shared her love of reading? I thought. I had allowed myself to be silenced, I realized, by the heavy sense of politeness and un-clarity between us. I had forgotten that the point of my Quest was not the sharing of gifts (in this case, a blank journal representing my love of writing), or the taming of my inner terror, but the search for the divine sparks among those with whom I share my world.

And then, feeling my throat fill with sadness, I was carried back to another slushy winter, the last one I spent with my grandmother Ester (known to all as Babe).

It was 1993, not long since the Soviet collapse, and I was visiting my grandparents in Latvia after more than 10 yrs of separation by the iron curtain.

Grandma Babe, her bones too wracked by osteoporosis to move beyond her bed, and her face puffed with Prednisone, entertained me with stories about my colorful Latvian cousins, whispery renditions of half-forgotten childhood songs, and reactions to my tales of “life in America” (toilet paper in public stalls! 5 kinds of apple in every corner grocery! 60 hr work weeks?).

A part of me, watching the bubbly cadence of our conversations, always meant to veer the topic to deeper waters, to ask her about the past.

  • Tell me more about your “musical” brothers and sisters. Were they kind of like the Von Trapp family?
  • What were you doing in the Bolshevik underground as a teenage girl?
  • How did your love for grandpa survive the Gulag labor camp when you were sent away as newlyweds?
  • Is it true that before you gave birth to mom, you lost a baby boy to a drunk Siberian midwife with dirty hands?
  • What was it like to return home after Stalin’s death – to find your whole family had been killed by the Nazis?
  • How is it that your former 5th grade students, grown men and women, still visit you so many years later?

Yet, somehow, in those quiet evenings in the Riga flat, I never made room for the vital questions, the ones that now seem to matter most.

The danger of Unasked Questions, I thought, is that time is not an ever-winding ribbon, spooling out into the distance for us to retrace its path whenever we make up our minds.

The danger of Unasked Questions is that sometimes Now is the chance we are given.

Creative Commons License
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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