Everything I needed to know I learned by unicycling
By PATTIE BAKER
It was six weeks until my big 4-0 birthday and I fell upon a little tidbit of life-changing info by total chance. “It takes about six weeks to learn how to ride a unicycle,” some Website said. I thought it was kismet.
When the planes crashed into those buildings on 9/11, my business crashed temporarily as well. I struggled to keep it running and to come to terms with the purpose of life, and my life in particular. I needed meaning. I needed hope. And yes, I needed balance. The odd, unexpected desire to ride a unicycle was a calling I somehow knew I needed to answer.
“How hard could it be?” I thought, and called a local bike store to order one. And now, several years later, a regular at the local track on Zippy, the unicycle, I still count the joy of walking out of that bike store with a unicycle under my arm as one of the happiest moments of my life.
As Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Riding a unicycle has put me on a different path, a path I didn’t even know existed. It is truly one of the hardest things I have ever done, requiring unparalleled concentration, coordination and trust in myself. Yet I already know it has taught me some of the biggest lessons of my life.
1. Get over the fear of falling by learning to fall gracefully.
After learning how to just sit on the darn thing, the next thing you learn on a unicycle is how to fall. You perch there, with your hand on the previously-white wall in your hallway, and let the seat drop forward, falling effortlessly, miraculously, on your feet. Then, you do it again, letting the seat fall backward. Again, you’re on your feet. You practice this for hours so that when the day comes when you finally leave the wall and pedal an actual rotation or two, you can fall with ease and confidence, knowing you will land on your feet. Okay, fine, it doesn’t always work out that way, but you learn. Fast. Especially that it’s far less painful to fall forward.
When I get book rejections or lose clients now, I try to remember to fall gracefully and to use whatever knowledge I acquired from the experience to move me forward in my career, and more importantly, in my life.
2. Relax your back, remember to breathe, and keep pedaling.
When you stop pedaling on a unicycle, you stop. Period. There is no coasting. Pedaling must be constant. And when you’re focusing on teetering up there on that seat and basically trying not to kill yourself, it’s sometimes hard to remember to keep those leg pistons going, like a duck in water.
When I first started riding, I had to sing songs to remind myself to pedal on each beat. This required so much thought that I would forget to breathe and would tighten up my back until it was a total knot. Yoga techniques help with both these problems, which is why I often refer to unicycling as uniyoga—besides, it’s the ultimate balance pose! Now, in the yoga studio, I sometimes visualize myself on that one-wheeled wonder and boy, do my poses sharpen up.
3. Lean into the wind or get blown right over.
I ride one morning a week, all year long, through all kinds of weather. Rain, snow flurries and scorching sun are no problem. Wind is the problem. Here, I had to remember what I learned in that church basement in New York City where I took those budget sailing lessons many years ago. The instructor walked in with a fan and said, “Today we are going to learn about wind” and he proceeded to blow it at us from various directions and attempt to teach us the proper ways to jib and jab.
So now, on Zippy, when the wind blows, I try to figure out which way the fan is pointed and react accordingly. My arms are the sails. I raise and lower them slightly, making minor corrections, until I once again maintain equilibrium. When the wind blows straight at me, there is only one defense, however. I must lean forward into it and keep on pedaling. Likewise, when adversity hits in life, I see it as wind to which I must simply react by either making adjustments or leaning into and plowing through.
4. Keep your focus on where you want to go, not where you are.
I heard once that heads weigh something like ten pounds so if you keep moving your head around, you throw off your balance. Focus is everything. On Zippy, I lock my eyes on a mid-distance point ahead of me and go toward it, although my ears stay tuned for sounds in the present so I can tell if a dog runs up behind me (never fun) or respond to a jogger who wants to chat (which is often). In my daily life, I try to keep mindful of my big-picture intentions, and just keep the momentum going in order to get there.
5. Don’t worry about how silly you look. Who really cares?
I’m a middle-aged suburban mom. I live in a neighborhood where we have to get the color of our shutters approved before repainting. I don’t know how many people ride a unicycle in this country, but here in my town, no one does but me, as far as I can tell. Riding a unicycle is a little out there. But, you know what? Once I got out there, and once the high school kids stopped heckling me from the windows that overlook the track, unicycling became the most normal thing in the world for me. I was free. Truly free.
I can skip wildly down the street, sing out of tune while washing my car, jump awkwardly off the diving board at the community pool, laugh from deep in my soul, and even allow myself to be vulnerable to criticism and yes, even rejection. It’s okay. It’s part of living my life out loud. Even though my shutters are a lovely shade of blue.
6. Celebrate the joy of achievement, no matter how truly useless the skill.
I can do something today I couldn’t do a few years ago, and something most people have never tried to do at all. Each time I have a setback in my life, I remind myself, “Yeah, but you can ride a unicycle” and it always make me smile. I am proud of myself. And somehow I am once again connected to a spirit I almost lost, who is curious to see where the road less traveled will take her.
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