I’ve been thinking about the phrase “muscle memory” lately. What does it mean? Why is it important? What information is stored within our bodies, and how did it get there?
For me the answers are tied up with things I learned mostly from my dad. Knowledge of tools, of their uses and cautions. In memory there are the things themselves, but also ideas about them: the workpiece on the anvil, the hammer which makes it ring, the glowing taffy-like iron pulled from the forge. The horseshoes which result well-formed, ready for service, and those others, poorly struck, or sintered and spalled when left too long in the fire.
My dad, Jim Svara, didn’t teach me smithing, but he did show me how to use a number of other tools. I don’t remember exactly when it happened with most of them, but one exception is the bicycle. I’m pretty sure it was the summer of 1977, on a basketball court near our home in Greensboro.
I’d been riding a purple Huffy with a banana seat and training wheels for a while. On this particular Saturday morning my father carried a crescent wrench and removed my trainers. Then he gripped the back of my seat with one hand and ran, pushing me forward, correcting my lean. There may have been falls, surely there were tears, but by lunchtime I was riding free. My dad had let go, and life would never be the same.
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A bicycle is a democratic tool, useful for delivering newsletters and newspapers, for getting close enough to a sit-in to do some sitting in, as my father did, back in the day.
He uses a bike, daily, to measure, map, and seek to understand and improve his adopted home town of Durham. And for 50 years he has ridden in tandem with my mother, maybe not as fast today as when they were newly wed in 1965, but every bit as joyfully, I would think.
A bicycle is a tool for joy, a tool for transport. It requires balance, especially on start-up, but also demands faith in certain physical objects and principles: the twin hubs with their gyroscopic insistence on steady forward motion, resistant but responsive to direction from the rider. The transference of impulse from brain to legs to pedals, gears, wheels, pavement. My father guided and impelled me at the beginning, but on that summer morning in 1977 I discovered that the simple machine I rode, by the force of my will and the strength of my legs, would make me my own travel agent.
A bike, and how to ride it, are just one set of the tools and skills which I learned from my father. He taught me a little or a lot about photography, carpentry, sports, landscaping, and limericks, and instructed me in the use of the devices of each. Later there would be other masters, teachers, other forms of equipment, both physical and otherwise; I’ve long made a habit and a study of apprenticeship. Master, apprentice, tool: it’s a model for education that goes back to the beginning of each of our lives, to the beginning of all human life.
You never forget, once you learn, how to use many of the tools you encounter in life. A bicycle is the classic example of this truism. Your body remembers for you. In its muscles and synapses, its scars, its narratives. At least, until it ceases to remember. Life is a continuous process of learning and forgetting, after all, over and over, one holding sway for a time but eventually always sharing the biographical stage with its shadow.
What’s important is not the equipment with which we’re born. It’s the capabilities we acquire along the way, how we put them to use, for as long as we’re able, and how we pass them along. Each of us is our own storehouse of knowledge, our own library of Alexandria in miniature. Acquire all the tools, all the skills, all the understanding you can. Never stop. But don’t horde what you’ve gained. Share it, as much as you’re willing and able, until that library burns or breaks or topples down, as it will.
Trust that others will do the same.
Dad, and to all the dads, and the masters, and the teachers, male, female or otherwise: Happy Father’s Day.
And thank you.
John Svara lives in Durham. To see more of his work go to www.formandflaw.com