As a general rule of life, I try to say 'yes' unless there's a damn good reason to say 'no,' but—and I don't think it's middle age talking here—with kids to manage and bills to pay, it can feel like life is so busy that saying 'no' is the only option.
OK, that does sounds like middle age talking.
But the truth is that it's not the bills or responsibilities that are making me say no; it's because I'm scared of getting hurt again. It's hard to believe it's been almost two years since the fall that would change the way I looked at life. It wasn't on a sketchy downhill or on some treacherous rock-laden route, but on a trail I'd been riding since high school—one that was so familiar that I often rode it with nothing more than dappled moonlight guiding my path.
For decades, the spiderweb of singletrack had been both my home and escape, and I trusted it as much as one can trust dirt, roots and rocks. And yet, the familiarity was nowhere to be found as I lay sprawled on the ground, licking my wounds and trying to discern up from down. Moments before, everything was ordinary. But splayed atop the pine needles, the sliver of dirt that taught me to love the ride looked like a stranger capable of changing my life with a single shove.
Recovery wasn't short or easy, and it was far from painless. The bruises faded soon enough, but the jury is still out as to whether the deeper wounds will disappear entirely or become permanent additions to my body's scrapbook of adventures, mishaps and life lessons. These days, I'm mostly back to normal, or as normal as anyone who hails from Florida and considers jorts perfectly acceptable riding garb can be. Except, there's this weird thing that's been happening.
I've been saying 'no,' even as I hear my younger self screaming 'yes' from some cavern deep inside. I've fallen plenty before, but this one scared me in a way that others haven't because I never saw it coming. Though the scrapes are healed and I've gotten back in the saddle more times than I can count, I can still feel the fear trying to grab hold of life's steering wheel.
There's a lot you can pass off as a side effect of being a middle-aged suburban parent. Drinking before noon is socially acceptable as long as you mix it with V8 and a celery stick. Parking your bike in the living room is no longer viewed as a side effect of being poor, but a proud display of priorities. And saying 'no' is viewed as a sensible decision when paired with an excuse of self-preservation and the catch-all reasoning of, "I don't want to get hurt."
For as long as I can remember, I've had a love/hate relationship with fear. The anxious churning in my stomach has always encouraged me to try harder, plan better and relinquish that which I cannot control. On the trail, fear is my ever-present riding buddy—the one that heckles me from the sidelines as I session an obstacle that has my number. The shouts cause me to freeze up at first, but each time I shut them out a little more. When I finally see through the noise and focus entirely on what's in front of me, I can feel fear's silent applause just off trail.
Lately, instead of turning back around and trying again, I find myself rolling on past.
"Not this time," I tell myself. "I don't want to get hurt."
Some variation of 'no' has become my knee-jerk response more often than not. The drop that's just outside my comfort zone? Not today. The epic adventure for which I haven't prepared aside from seeing how many ribs I can endure before getting meat sweats? I'm not ready. Riding instead of driving? I'll start tomorrow. Taking a break from the daily grind to hop on the bike for some quick-and-dirty fun? I wish I could, but I don't have the time.
It's so easy to say 'no.' In doing so, I get to sidestep the possibility of failure and avoid the pain of enduring. I let myself off the hook with the promise that I'll do it tomorrow, knowing full well that tomorrow is safely sealed in the future.
The funny thing about saying 'no' is that it can work in both directions. While the fear drives me to protect myself from uncertainty and doubt, I reject its empty promises of safety. Instead, I force myself to face the uncomfortable reality that I will fall again. Probably harder. I might see it coming or disaster may strike in a blur of laughter and over-confidence. But part of learning to walk is being prepared to fall.
I say 'no' to the fear and will my forefingers to lay off the brakes a little longer than the time before. When propositioned to go on an all-day ride, knowing it will end up bigger than advertised with more mishaps than my Ziploc bag of tools can handle, I reluctantly agree. In doing so, I realize I can use my recent penchant for saying 'no' to work for me.
I'm saying 'no' to avoiding mistakes, to going fast when I should be going slow and to going slow when I should be letting go. When fear tries to take hold of the steering wheel, I force it into the backseat where it belongs. This is my road, and I'm the only one who's driving.
Saying 'no' won't stop me from getting hurt, but it will stop me from enjoying life on my terms. It's time to see how the story ends. Maybe there's a plot twist I don't know about. Or maybe the crash and burn will spark the fire that's been missing from life.
Whatever the answer is, it's somewhere in the future waiting for me to say 'yes.'