Lightening My Load: Sharing the Burden
Grand Island, NE
July 27, 2013
“Do you know how to change a flat?” he asked as he approached me, offering to air up my tire. I smiled, grimacing inwardly at the number of flats throughout my life I had, indeed, changed until I had converted my children’s bike tires to the solid ones. I also thought it ironic that my rescuer was more than likely even younger than my own children.
“Yes,” I responded, dryly, but thanking him heartily for his offer. “I believe this one has a slow leak, and the trailer tire is flat because the pump I just tried to use at the co-op a few miles back was set only for vehicles, which require about 35 psi,” I threw in for good measure, just to subtly let him know I also knew my way around automobile tires as well. “I was just heading to the next filling station to see if they perchance had an air pump that actually works.”
He whipped out a bike pump from his back pocket, and after about ten minutes of fidgeting with it because it was not set for my Schrader valve, his companion directed me to a bike shop only a few blocks away. She added, “We all took our bikes there for tune-ups since we are half way through our tour, but they were well staffed. I think they can help you replace your tube if it has a slow leak.”
I was half way through Iowa, and even though this was the first flat I had encountered (well, two flats if you include the one deflated by the pump that was incapable of even filling a beach ball), I knew my bike would benefit from a professional once-over anyway.
A state border crossing, several hundred miles and five tubes later, I resigned myself to the inevitable: solid tubes, at least on my girl’s trailer, especially since the last supercenter I hit was frighteningly low on the size of tube I needed. When I had asked the salesperson if they had more, he confidently responded, “Of course,” and directed me to the same empty end-cap I had encountered, explaining there must have been a run on the 20” tubes that normally fit children’s bicycles.
As I sped back to my tethered girl with the two solid tubes thrown over my shoulder like most women carry their purses, I acknowledged the inevitable: I was going to have to drastically lighten my load to compensate for the extra weight and loss of speed that accompanies solid tubes.
Typical of most travellers, I had over packed, a brutal realization the first few miles of my trip. Rather than sacrifice all the extras at once, I trailed them along behind me like the legendary Johnny Appleseed who scattered seeds across America during the pioneer days, leaving a trail of canned juice here, a case of bottled water there, with a large helping of canvases, tubes of paint, and pencils I had used to sketch the public art scattered across Chicago.
In spite of my deep aversion to littering, unlike my worn tennis shoes, I didn’t have the heart to place the still useable items into the trash, leaving them balanced along side the can just in case someone happened to notice them and put them to good use.
Following my up-endedness in the Iowa cornfield after a rainstorm, I had readjusted my load, placing what remained of my art supplies in a canvas bag under the luggage rack on my girl’s trailer. I knew I faced an additional obstacle after the pushing and squeezing that inevitably comes with replacing air tubes with solid ones: my luggage rack, weighed down by my duffle and jostled across the miles, had become jarred onto the trailer so firmly I was unable to remove it myself.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” my advisor asked, after a cursory glance at my resume.
“No, I don’t believe so,” I responded, looking at it again. It was all there: my teaching experience, my education, my skills.
“Where do you mention you are an artist?” she asked.
After years of teaching, I had forgotten why I loved art in the first place: I loved the process of creating. Somehow in my excitement to teach others how to create, I had neglected my own art practice.
My first sketches as a young child had been derived from the same collection of fairy tales my brother and I had read before my parents divorced; women wearing flowing, pointed headpieces that melded into their medieval gowns; winged fairies and goblins in contrasting bright and dark tints; flowers and fauna unrecognizable to an Audubon illustrator: the stuff of flights of fancy and fantasy, imitating the style long before it became a recognized and lucrative art form.
And nearly every piece of paper in my school notebooks had been lined with them, sketches trailing across the margins of every assignment I handed in to my teachers.
“You’ve got to understand, I can’t cook,” I reveal to almost everyone after the first few casual conversations. “If that is a deal breaker, you need to know,” I add hesitatingly.
When I was pre-pubescent, my mother enrolled me in a cooking class. As a fifth grader, by the end of the class, I knew I was an abysmal failure in the kitchen. My hard-ball candy stuck to the confectioner’s paper like a lifeless blob; my chicken was blackened on the outside, pink in the center; my cake had fallen.
At the end of the six-week period, we were asked to make posters using ingredients we had used throughout the class. At last, an assignment I wouldn’t struggle to fulfill.
The last day, as the awards were being handed out, I had slipped into a daydream, a problem every progress report had noted throughout my school years. A sharp jab from the elbow of the girl sitting beside me abruptly returned me to the present.
“Jeannie, they just called your name,” she angrily whispered.
I walked to the front of the room and bewilderedly accepted the two-cup glass Pyrex measuring cup, the one item I have carried with every move I have ever made. Except my last one.
“No, Jeannie, you can’t take that box,” she said, glancing at my art supplies and notebooks. I wasn’t allowed to cry, a lesson we learned quickly and painfully at the other end of a belt.
I turned my back and walked away, knowing we could never afford to replace the supplies, knowing that my friends and I had spent hours—and several ink pens—scrawling our names and “Best friends forever” in a number of different styles of calligraphy, the type of treasures every middle school girl collects.
Recalling the young eyes that had cautiously peered at me from behind their SUV when I first tethered my girl to the stop sign a few miles outside of Grand Island, I understood my solution: the young man who had received the explanation of my plight was stronger and taller than I, so he more than likely could tackle the task of disengaging my luggage rack, and I would offer the then offer the freed art supplies to the children.
The young girl smiled broadly as she held open the bag, its contents spilled across the grass. As I began sorting art supplies from my pillow and bike tools, placing two boxes of pastels, several tubes of paint, a dozen canvas boards, a bag of paintbrushes, two packs of card stock and another bag of charcoals and watercolor pencils into the increasingly heavy canvas bag, she observed, “Yes, this will lighten your load, won’t it?”
After I had changed my tires, untethered my girl and coaxed her back into the trailer, and felt the sting for the first time on the trip as my leg muscles strained to adjust to the weight of the solid tubes, my load had, indeed, lightened.
Tears streamed down my face as I rode away; not tears of loss, but those that come with the remembrance of a child’s bright eyes that accompany a smile.