I want to tell you what this means (an open letter to my family)
[Image by Michael Robertson]
My sister texted me last week to find out if I would make it to the family gathering at the ocean over the 4th of July.
Which is when I realized that maybe I’d not been communicative enough with her (or my parents) about how I will be spending July. I want to tell them what this means, but first I have to sort it out for myself.
I started riding bikes. That was my first mistake. You can blame the Sicilian for that.
But, as with everything, Sal rides bikes with a steady kind of calm and I ride them with a wildly imbalanced passion that waxes and wanes unpredictably, landing me in all kinds of funny situations. My relationship with the bike is torrid and tortured. One day it is the best thing in my life and then the next day I set it down and refuse to touch it for months. I always come back.
In 2010 I set off alone and mashed my way deep into Oregon on small roads that cut through big landscapes. I fought my way over mountain passes and broke 65 mph on a long, straight descent somewhere out under a baking sun. You should have felt the speed wobbles. You should have felt the breeze. I could not have been less aerodynamic that day, a biggish girl on a bulky bike laden with 40+ pounds of camping gear.
I left myself out in the August sun for 10 or 12 hours a day, observing the way my skin darkened and the way I dried out from the inside. More than anything, the trip was a lesson in exposure. At night I slept with trespassing field mice. During the day I counted wildlife sightings instead of miles (the dead outnumbered the living by far). Having lived most of my life safe behind walls, I threw myself out into the wind and darkness and waited to absorb the world through my pores.
It was one of the best months of my life.
Not just because of the physical challenge, but because I took a moment to turn off all of the questioning voices and I just pushed down on the pedal and did this thing that I felt I needed to do. I was not adequately trained. I didn’t have any answers or any real plan. I wanted to ride my bike really, really far – so I went and did it.
This trip to France is something different altogether. Far from the daily solitude of pedaling alone into the remote parts of Oregon and Canada, we’re a polished and shiny marketing machine: complete with a fancy website and stunning photography. We have the best bikes and the best gear and the best everything. We have follow and support cars that will be branded and wrapped with logos. We’re slick.
Slickness is good for business, but it tends to overshadow the thing that really drives challenges like this: heart. We, the four of us (remember when it was just the four of us?), learned this together. We were Patriots in tattered, 10-year-old softball uniforms. Mom slapping grounders, Dad getting all worked up in the stands. Heather punching fatties. Heidi stealing bases.
We won because we loved the game. We won because we loved the team. We won because we respected what it all represented: a place to come together and be outside of our lives for a moment. To engage in a game that was as simple as it was complex: a place we all understood the rules and the risks. To rise above the unpaid bills and threadbare jerseys. On the field it didn’t matter than Daki’s father had just died and we didn’t yet know that Maria would get pregnant at age 15. We were kids (yes, you too Mom and Dad) learning to love something bigger than ourselves.
This thing in France is big, guys. If I can finish, it is the hardest physical thing that I will ever do. Twenty-five mountain passes in three weeks. 2,200 miles in three weeks. I can’t explain to you what that feels like because I will not know until I am there. Try to imagine riding 130 miles every day, over and over and over again. Imagine your most exhausted moment and then multiply it by 21. Now imagine a camera in your face every step of the way.
I didn’t do this to get in shape – there are far better ways to go about that. I didn’t do this to prove something (I’m not sure what I’d be proving? That I am audaciously reckless?) I didn’t do this for the slickness or the media coverage or the photos. I’m doing this because you all taught me to follow my gut and to recognize when life was handing me something that would never come around again. I’m doing this because Heather played hockey with boys until the goalies grew mustaches, because Dad wakes up every morning and finds a way to battle and keep moving forward in the face of severe bi-polar disorder, because Mom worked the same high-stress journalism job for 36 years just to keep food on the table and the house intact.
We are doing the hard shit because that is what we do. And we do it well. Every day I wake up and thank god that we are all still here together, though I hardly ever get to see you anymore. Every day I wake up and thank god that we have been able to keep living and loving and forgiving each other over and over again. It’s not easy being a family these days. It’s even harder being a family living in the presence of mental illness.
We aren’t slick. We aren’t rich. We aren’t even completely sane.
But at the core, we are Swifts. And that means something to me. It means tenacity and scrap and perseverance and shamelessness.
This year, it means I am going to France with you all in my heart. I am taking Dad’s illness and Mom’s worry and Heather’s life transition and all of our glorious dysfunction. Because I love you crazy fucking people. And this thing is, in some ways, a culmination of who you have created.
I accepted the challenge because I didn’t have a choice. It’s in my blood.
Thanks a lot.