“In the silence of the heart God speaks.” — Mother Teresa
“Go, do not be afraid, and serve.” — Pope Francis
The wind whipped the remaining strands of my tangled mop of hair that wasn’t covered by the helmet, which was continuously pinching the skin under my chin. I chose to ignore the minor skin irritation; and, instead, embrace the sensation of freedom that comes with riding a bike out of doors. In fact, I grinned from ear to ear feeling like a teenager again.
Sweat dripped down my face.
“Please stay upright, Steph. Now is not the time to crash. There is a car behind you.” “Oh Lord, I’ve got to stand. Pedal harder, Steph. You’ve got to get up this hill.”
Lungs and thighs burning.
“Get up and around the bend of this hill, Steph. Come on.”
Heart pounding in my ears. Lungs in my throat.
“Oh my heavens, are my shorts stuck to my butt from sweat? Is my underwear showing?
Oh please, no God, don’t let them be showing.”
Heaving breaths. Legs trembling.
Random lyrics from a childhood record that my siblings and I used to play in my grandparents’ attic ran a loop in my mind — one word at a time, matching each stroke of the pedal.
“Just. Think. You. Can. And. Know. You. Can. Just. Like. The. Engine. That. Could.”
Legs, pushing harder on the down stroke of each pedal, slowed, as the peak of the hill bend grew closer.
“No, no, no, Steph. You can’t stop now. The bike will topple over. You. Will. Be. Run.
Over. By. The. Car. Behind. You. Don’t. Stop. Now.”
Hands gripped the handlebars so tightly; I could feel the bubble of sweat trapped below each palm.
“Must. Hold. On. For. Dear. Life.”
“I am at the top. Thank you, God. I made it. Here I go. Oh, Steph, don’t go too fast.
You could topple over and that car is still behind you.”
Wind blowing through my long, youthful tresses that were bleached from summer sun; the perspiration on my face and limbs drying from the rush of air that was the downhill flight.
“FREE . . .DOM! Feel it, Steph. Total freedom from it all. Oh Lord, don’t get carried away though; you could wreck. Car is still behind you! Oh, why won’t that car pass me?”
I shake my head out of the Solida Road reverie of my August bike ride home from high school band camp that I regularly made during the early weeks of August before another new school year had officially begun. I am snapped back to the reality that I am no longer a teenager, not even close; and for a moment, I feel a knot of restriction in my throat threatening to release a spillway of emotion for which I did not have time.
I was at Camp Magis for heaven’s sake, chaperoning St. Joseph Catholic Middle School seventh-graders on their annual retreat; and right in front of me, a wreck was unfolding as two girls’ bikes accidentally collided on the rough terrain of the off-road trail.
“Time to shift gears, and not on this mountain bike you’re currently riding, Steph, get back to your current reality. Be an adult, for heaven’s sake, and help those two giggling girls get their bikes upright!”
Bike riding was only one of the activities planned for seventh-grade students during their three-day visit to Camp Magis, located at the Mary Help of Christians Pastoral Center just outside of the Kumbrabow State Forest and on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest between Elkwater and Huttonsville. From archery to rock wall climbing; from canoeing to swinging on a zip line; from a focused, mindful prayer-walk to a late night scavenger hunt; and from a morning prayer service to an evening mass, Camp Magis focuses on students experiencing fellowship, prayer, and service to others through an adventure-filled, camp-like atmosphere. Students get out of the classroom environment and away from their screens and spend their days filled with plenty of fresh mountain air, exercise, and the glory that is the natural world.
Honestly, it was physically exhausting, but it was worth it as the other chaperones, along with my husband, John (also at teacher at SJCMS) and me, were able to observe the students interacting with one another and their faith in new ways that were equal parts challenging and pleasurable. By the end of each day, there was no convincing the kids that the lights needed turned off at 10:30; they were ready for a good night’s sleep. Of course, so were all of the chaperones!
While Camp Magis is offered for all seventh-grade students enrolled in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia Catholic Schools, John and I also reaped spiritual benefits from the experience in spite of the always-present fatigue as we were as deeply immersed in the activities as our students. It was, in fact, that nagging, age-related weariness that required us to rely on our faith to get us through.
Additionally, Camp Magis provided a continual reminder that our life together is rooted in service to others. The very motto of the camp, “Go, do not be afraid, and serve,” truly emphasizes what is required, not only of educators, but of all humanity at this moment in time. We cannot, and will not, survive, much less thrive, if we do not conquer fear, step outside the boundaries of our personal comfort zones, and offer good to the world.
During those long-ago days spent biking to and from band camp, I had to conquer my fears — fear of falling, fear of failing, fear of flipping my bike. (Never squeeze the left hand brake first, Steph, that’s the front wheel. Always squeeze right hand first when braking.) I may not have realized it then, just like it may not have dawned on the students at Camp Magis, but I was relying on my faith to get me through those numerous, and dare I say, treacherous, bike rides.
I recognize, as I look back on it now (just as I hope my students will do), that those bike rides were an important step in learning self-reliance, overcoming challenges, and deepening my belief, and faith, that something Greater than myself would get me safely across that four-lane intersection, up that curvy hill, and around the sharply bent, downhill slope.
Now, as I boldly face the early stages of aging, the physical and mental demands that not only my career still dictates, but also that life in general requires, I choose to continue to keep going, to keep pedaling up that metaphorical hillside. I choose to keep serving others through teaching, writing, and creating — however small my service may be, it is my life-bike to ride.
Fear tries, and will continue to attempt, to dig its claws into me. Some days, I swear I can feel it sinking its talons into my heart, contracting my throat, and ripping into my stomach; however, I choose to persist, persevere, and well, keep on pedaling.
And in the end, when I am coasting down that last hill, embracing the last gasp of breeze, may I still not be afraid, but may I know that it was worth every push of the pedal.
Remember, Dear Reader, there is joy in the push. Pedal on life, pedal on.