It’s 6:43 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I’m half-awake and hazy as I walk into class.
I didn’t want to come here today. My bed was warm. My pajamas were soft.
But Trisha is saving me a bike. I don’t want to leave her hanging.
So here I am.
The studio at Sarah Fechter Fitness is bathed in red and blue lights this morning, looking more dance club than gym. Shadows blanket the silver Spin bikes. They’re gathered in a gleaming group like a herd of stallions. Pop music plays…something familiar but not exactly memorable… with a sturdy, thick beat.
I feel antsy as I anticipate the difficult and discomfort that awaits me. But that’s working out, I guess. I adjust my white cotton headband—a strategic dam for my forehead sweat—and head toward the front of the class.
People are already on their bikes, turning pedals and swigging water. Some are wearing maize and blue. Others are wearing green and white. I’m wearing neon pants and a purple tank top. The same color as Barney the Dinosaur. I got it for $5 at Old Navy a million years ago.
Oh yeah, I remember. The game is today. THE Game. Michigan vs. Michigan State. Mom has moved from slot machines to sports bets, just waiting for the day when she’s finally won her millions.
“Who would you bet on?” my mom asked my brother last week over sirloin and fried onions at Outback Steakhouse. Ryan shrugged.
“I just don’t know,” she continued. “They say Michigan is supposed to win, but then again, Michigan State always comes back, so…” She twisted her mouth to the side. Her thinking face.
Now, the soft hum of the spinning wheels fills the room. I wonder which team Mom picked to prevail.
“Hey Trisha,” I say as I walk up to the bike in the front row, one off from dead center. “This bike mine?”
“Yep, I saved it for you,” she smiled, adjusting her bike to the left of mine. She’s more hardcore than me. She’s got special cycling shoes and two water bottles.
“Thanks.” I clutch on to my water bottle from Meijer. The cheap plastic crunches beneath my grip.
I look down at the shiny wooden floor. Trisha has set down her tennis shoes on one of the studio’s black foam mats. The words “PERFORM BETTER!” are branded in white letters. The “O” in “PERFORM” is a smiley face.
I sit down on the bike and settle in. The class is full now. I turn the pedals, joining the chorus of caloric burning.
The music stops. Janelle stands in front of me on the small, square stage. Janelle’s bike sits stoic behind her, lone and looming over the room. Waiting.
“Welcome to Saturday Spin, friends!” she bellows. She’s tall and lean, her long brown hair slicked back into a sleek ponytail.
Janelle is an elementary school teacher. You can tell. She commands a room with kindness and authority, her voice ringing clear as a bell. “I’ve got to ask: Who’s cheering for Michigan?” Some cyclists cheer. “And who’s cheering for Michigan State?” More cheers. She grins.
“OK, we’ve got a great ride for you today,” she tells us as she plugs in an iPod to the outlet in the wall. Music pulses over our heads. “Great playlist, great class. Let’s get going.” She hops on the bike and begins to pedal.
Suddenly, the class takes on a focused seriousness that reminds me of church. Janelle stands tall over us like a pastor. The bikes are in line like pews. We follow her every move.
My enemy comes in the form of a small, red knob on the bike. It looks gray under the red and blue lights. The actual name of the thing is the Resistance Knob. Yeah. RESISTANCE Knob. A turn to the right adds tension by adding weight to the wheel. A turn to the left lightens the load. You determine the difficulty.
“Add,” Janelle orders. We turn our knobs. We spin our wheels. The ride gets harder, mimicking an upward climb on a hill. The song switches.
“I’m sweating like a man up here,” Janelle jokes. Um, same. The red light catches the gleam on her face.
“Now I want you to add resistance,” she coaches. “Add enough tension to stand tall.”
I turn my knob to the right. My cadence slows under the new weight. “Now stand up in the saddle,” Janelle instructs. “Don’t fly off.”
I stand up from the bike seat, my knees bouncing like bobbers in the water. My mind wanders. Enough tension to stand tall. Sweat pours down my back. I’m still bobbin’, still standin’, until Janelle tells us to sit back down.
“Take some tension off, grab a towel, get a drink.” I guzzle from my cheap water bottle, gulp oxygen into my lungs, turn that wheel with quiet desperation.
The hollowed, intergalactic sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” begins.
“Okay, we are going to do a strength climb,” Janelle instructs. Her wheels are turning. “It’s going to get heavy.”
Michael wails in his high-pitched voice. “Now, add, add, add, ADD,” Janelle chants. “Now go.”
The song plays. My legs burn. The wheel slows. The mind games begin as my body wails. All it takes is one turn for me to end this misery, to ease up, to let off. To make it, you know, not so damn hard.
But then Janelle chimes in, as if she’s reading my thoughts.
“Come on,” she urges, pulling her fingers toward her palms in a “gimme more” gesture. “Don’t fall off, come with me.” She looks into our faces. I bite my lip.
“You’re uncomfortable,” she says to the class matter-of-factly, “not dead. You’re not going to die.” She continues cycling. “Mind over muscle.”
And I realize Janelle is right.
This is supposed to be uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s hard as the resistance gets turned up, it’s hard as my legs turn from fire to jelly, it’s hard as the sweat seeps into my eyes and Michael Jackson keeps singing, and THIS SONG IS SERIOUSLY THE LONGEST SONG EVER. WHO THE HECK IS DIRTY DIANA ANYWAY?
It’s all hard.
But just as quickly as the difficult comes?
The song ends. The weight is lifted.
“Great job,” Janelle boasts. “Way to finish strong.”
As I wipe sweat from my eyebrow, I think about what Janelle said back at the beginning of class…how we need to add enough tension so we can stand tall. If you don’t have enough tension, you’ll lose control of the wheel. You feel like you’re going to spin right off the bike.
Maybe that’s how life works.
We need the tension in order to stand tall. To rise above. To see where we stand. To maintain control. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s not fun.
But it’s necessary.
Last week, I visited my friend Cassie after work. She has the cutest 8-month baby boy in the world, and he isn’t a big fan of getting ready for bed. He cries as she lovingly changes him out of his clothes and into his jammies. He shakes his head no. He wants to stay awake and take in the world.
“How do you deal with the crying?” I ask. “Like when it gets really bad?”
She shrugged. “The crying stops eventually.”
Now, Janelle slows her pedals. “Great class today,” she nods as we clap.
I turn the knob to the left. The tension is gone. I sit still. I stretch. I remember Cassie, and her son, and how lovingly she looked at him, read him a story, counted to ten and tickled his toes. He gives the biggest grin and the best giggle, cracking open us all with joy.
The crying stops eventually.
It all stops eventually.
Nothing lasts forever. Including the pain.
Especially the pain.
It’s easy to forgot that in the dark holes of life—in the drippy tears and caked sweat and dirty dishes and missed opportunities and guilt-ridden mistakes— we find who we are. We design—or redesign—our lives. We get angry, we forgive, we let go. It’s a constant turn on the Resistance Knob.
We get off the bike.
Back on again.
And move forward.
Our street is busy.
The busiest street I’ve ever lived on, anyway.
The constant whoosh of cars still sounds foreign to me. Whenever the bass of some big Buick blares by the house, I can’t help but look out the window. Daisy accompanies me.
She barks. I don’t.
The first house I called home was a 1970s ranch where we lived during the 90s. It sat on the last leg of a dead end road. Pine Street.
My room was located at the end of the house. Last window on the right. I had a peach-colored comforter and a blue boom box with red and yellow buttons. I’d pop in my cassettes—the Space Jam soundtrack, Celine Dion, George Strait, the Spice Girls—and imagine stage-worthy scenarios with packed audiences. In front of my dresser mirror, I’d dance and lip sync while wearing my purple velvet dance leotard. The flower print one. A two piece because it showed my belly button. ‘Cause I wanted to be a little bit scandalous.
The house had a basketball hoop, and a dog kennel, and a two-car garage. Across the street, thick woods thinned toward the shore of the Bad River’s brown waters. When an unexpected car made the slow, bumpy drive down, down, down the road to our driveway, it was an Event.
“Who’s here?” my mom would ask, her eyebrows reaching the sky.
“Some car,” I’d answer.
“Oh. They’re probably just turning around.”
I’d step back from the big picture window to hide my owl eyes. The car pulled in, backed up, headed where it came from. I felt disappointed that they were leaving because it was such an occasion, to see a car. We usually saw more deer than people.
Every year on Halloween, we used an orange plastic bowl from McDonald’s…one of those free gimmies for buying a Happy Meal. It had black triangle eyes and a toothy smile to resemble a pumpkin. We filled the bowl with Neapolitan taffy and left it on the porch, just in case any stray trick-or-treaters wandered our way. We bundled up and went to a few houses to collect Kit Kats and Twix bars. When we got home, our pumpkin bowl remained untouched.
Since we didn’t have neighbors, there were no neighborly waves. No borrowed cups of sugar. No fear of noise complaints. During the warm summer nights, my little brother and I took turns riding on the back of Dad’s yellow Honda Mini Trail bike. The engine snarled as we squealed past our fence in the front yard, past the orange and yellow marigolds my dad planted, past the wild rhubarb we never picked but probably should have.
I loved when Dad steered us along the overgrown trail into the gnarled woods. I’d close my eyes and feel the wind’s fingers tangle my hair. The bushes tickled my face. The scent of Black-Eyed Susans filled my nostrils, lodging the memories into my mind. They come forward whenever I smell the wildflowers now.
Twenty years have passed since I lived on Pine Street. I can still remember the address. Can still recite the phone number.
One afternoon a few months ago, I stood across from my mom in the kitchen while she folded bath towels.
“Did you ever feel pressure from other parents?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, did you feel like you needed to send us to a certain school, or do things a certain way?”
In other words: Mom, did you feel the need to drink the juice out of the Perfect Parenting punch bowl?
Mom spread the pink towel on the counter. Folded one end in, then the other.
“Honey, you grew up on a dead end street across from the Bad River,” she answered matter-of-factly. She added the folded towel to the pile. “And I think you turned out just fine.”
Nowadays, my husband and I have neighbors. There’s traffic. We’re two minutes from the Class A high school. But we get a taste of the country, too. Behind our house, it’s all fields and tall trees. Blackbirds chatter like the old men drinking black coffee at McDonald’s.
A sugar beet field stretches along the south side of our house. A few weeks ago, a weathered farmer went back and forth with his harvester outside our window, scraping the fields clean and crop-free. He was so close to the house, we could have reached out and given him a high five.
Daisy barked. I didn’t.
Whenever I’m coming or going from Meijer or (let’s be honest) TJ Maxx, I pass the same line of houses. One house uses a projector to splash holiday-themed light designs on their brown siding. Not just for Christmas, either. This year, I’ve seen hearts for Valentine’s Day, and stars for the Fourth of July, and eggs for Easter. Another house further down is long and skinny and brown. It has a burgundy star hanging on the front. The fancy red brick two-story across the street has a perfect lawn and a stunning chandelier. It makes me think of that ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast.”
Other houses are sandwiched in between the rest, but they all blur together so they look the same. Like a boy band. I see them as The Bunch of Houses on the Left Side of the Street.
At the beginning of this summer, one house broke free from the pack.
It started with the bushes.
Normally, thick green bushes concealed this house from the road. But one day, they were gone, revealing a house that faced the road dead-on, defiant in its visibility. Like, “Yep. I’ve been here this whole time.” It was small—900 square feet? 800?—and shaped like a tissue box. White. Yellow caution tape criss-crossed the driveway. A hint and a warning.
As Adam and I made our daily drives into Saginaw to run errands or do whatever, we’d glance at the house. The once-hidden yard had turned into the Center of Hustle and Bustle. Men wearing jeans and construction boots were always there: moving drywall and carrying siding and pushing piles of dirt with a Bobcat.
We still weren’t quite sure what they were doing until they did it. In July, a huge garage-like structure stood large and looming next to the small house. It was two stories, and at least double the size of its partner.
“So do you think it’s a garage?” I said as I stared out the passenger window while Adam drove straight. “Or a new house?”
“If it’s a new house, I don’t know why they’re so hell-bent on saving that original house,” Adam glanced out the window, then back at the road. “Why make the addition bigger than the house that was already there?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “You’d think it’d be easier to just start from scratch. Build exactly what you want.”
The new house-garage was too big, the old house too small. The pair didn't line up. Like a tall, gangly girl and an awkward pre-teen boy trying to slow dance in a middle school gymnasium. It didn't make sense.
But then—then!—it did.
The changes to the house were probably gradual. Not to the owners, or the workers. But to us, it was as if it all happened overnight. Like a drastic haircut combined with fresh makeup and a new outfit, the pieces all clicked together to create The Big Noticeable Change.
That change? A hallway.
The builders had connected the small house to the huge garage with a hallway, or a breezeway. Either way, the two weren't separate anymore. Suddenly, we realized: they weren’t building a garage, or a new house. They weren’t starting over. They were adding on. It was one big house.
We saw the other changes come quickly afterwards. The gray siding. The white garage doors. The new roof. They still aren’t done. Every day, it looks more beautiful. More cohesive.
What looked like a hodge-podge of a situation is now a beautiful, updated home.
“Look how pretty that house looks,” I told Adam as we drove by once again. They have recently added a copper-colored awning to a portion of the old house.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “They’re really coming along with it. It looks so different.”
“It’s crazy,” I said, turning to face the windshield. “We thought they’d be better off starting from scratch.”
“Guess we were wrong.”
I admit it: I was skeptical at first. I didn’t see the vision. Not that the opinion of Lindsay the Nosy Neighbor matters. But all I saw was a tall square garage-house dwarfing a small tissue box house. I kept thinking, "Why salvage the old when you can start brand new?"
The little house down the road taught me something though.
Maybe we don’t need to start over by tearing down.
Maybe it’s good to keep the bones. Rebuild by adding on to the existing foundation. The original isn’t always a hurdle…it’s a starting place to create something new. Starting over can mean making something beautiful out of what others on the outside see as Not Worth It.
Maybe adding on is a way to let go.
All it takes is time, and effort…and a hallway to connect the two.
(Yes, I'm creepy and took a paparazzi-like photo of the house down the street.)