The oak tree in Tommy Weaver's front yard stood well above the roof of his ranch style home. The branches stretched with broad shoulders and long arms to shelter the expanse of the front yard; its roots exploded through the concrete sidewalk in front of their house. It was impractical really. Summer time called for games of baseball and kickball, or hours of catch with a football or frisbee, but we could never play any of those things in his front yard. But the tree was good for climbing or for standing against to count with our eyes closed tight next to arms leaning on the tree while neighborhood kids ran in the dark through scores of lightening bugs looking for a good place to hide until someone stealthily reached the driveway to kick the can.
Summer days stretched lazily from the cooler morning hours of baseball and basketball and long bike rides around town through the hot afternoons of quieter activities in the shade of the giant oak and well into the night when our families sat in cheaply made lawn chairs with flimsy aluminum frames and fraying nylon strips that tenuously held us while we ate watermelon and drank slurpees in plastic cups with pictures of baseball players from the Kansas City Royals. Our brown bodies and dirty bare feet bore the marks of summer. Chigger bites swelled under cracked layers of clear nail polish from spots on our feet and legs. We relished in the freedom of summer. The neighborhood belonged to us and our days were our own to structure and plan as we pleased.
In the summer when Tommy was eight and I was nine, he got a unicycle for his birthday, May 25, two days after school was out. We had three months to learn to ride it. Our goal was to make it around the block once by the end of the summer, a trip that would take us up and down a hill and over crumbling sidewalks. We practiced for hours, falling off with each half turn of the pedals, the cycle dropping clumsily to the ground at our feet. We were stiff and clumsy. Each move came timidly, uncertain where it would take us. There was no one to teach, no one to say, "Lean forward" or "hold your arms out to keep your balance." We were left to experiment and see what position on the bike would keep us upright and what shifts were necessary to compensate for the terrain we traversed.
Our lessons eventually shifted to the thin patch of lawn under the oak tree. The bumpy roots mimicked the crumbling concrete on the sidewalk and the opportunity to keep the tree at arm's length while we rode in circles around its trunk gave us the balance we needed to stay on the unicycle long enough for our bodies to feel where it needed to position itself to stay on. Slowly we made progress, spurned on by the competition we offered each other, yet free to enjoy the pleasure of learning something new just for the sake of learning it.
The day came when we were ready to move away from the tree. After hours of practice, we were consistently circling the tree five or six times without ever having to touch it to keep our balance. We wanted to see how far we could go. I was timid at first and the unicycle quickly fell from under me, crashing down while my feet dropped to the ground to keep me upright. My legs and arms were tight, my jaw clenched. Over and over, I tried to keep my balance, but I kept falling off. I would make it two feet on one try and five the next, then fell with the first turn of the pedals. And just as I was ready to give up, in a flurry of frustration and anger, I pushed on the pedals with greater force and groaned through the stiffness in my stomach until with each turn of the pedals, I found myself moving another foot down the sidewalk. I went over the Collins' double driveway and past their house, crossed the Schmidts' driveway and before long my own house was no longer in sight. I breathed in deeply and laughed with delight while my body took over and kept the delicate balance needed to ride all the way to the end of the block, where I had to turn to go down the hill and around the block. I stayed on the cycle until sheer exhaustion kept me from making it back up the hill on the other side of the block.
That's the feeling of summer to me...beginner's mind with no attachment to an agenda, free to learn and explore, playfully finding a new balance that my body can learn and embrace.
And if I close my eyes, I can feel the warm summer breeze in my face and the sheer pleasure of effortlessly balancing on the unicycle down the crumbling sidewalk and around the block, the sheltering oak tree in Tommy Weaver's yard saluting my freedom as I ride past.