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What learning to ride a unicycle is teaching me about life after death

My soulmate of 34 years, Suellen, died 13 April 2021 after 4+ years of living with stage 4 lung cancer. Two and a half weeks later, on 30 April, I had my first unicycle lesson with Donna Kisogloo of Odd Wheels.

I had been thinking about trying to ride a unicycle for a few years, as a potentially good form of exercise with a little edginess to it, but how does one learn?! In discussions with a good friend, Marian, the week after Suellen died, I casually mentioned my interest in learning to ride a unicycle – and in a synchronous moment she told me about a friend who took a unicycle lesson in Cape Town, and then promptly sent me an email with Donna’s contact details. Was I serious about wanting to try to ride a unicycle or not? Was I ready to step out of my grief and try something new? After intense caregiving for the past few months I intuitively knew I needed to do something new and refreshing – and challenging.

I also realized immediately that riding a unicycle was symbolically the healing path I needed – learning to find my balance and centre in a radically new way, taking very small practical steps of learning new skills (and ways of being), to lean forward gently and trust my ability to right myself by leaning on my pedals (trusting my support base), concentrating and paying attention to small details, the need to practice every day if I wanted to make progress, finding a mentor/coach to teach and help me, knowing I would fall down a lot and knowing that was okay – it was part of the process – and that I would continue to get up again and again, moving beyond faltering steps to ‘flow,’ building confidence slowly and steadily, reminding me daily of my desire to grow and learn new things.

Six weeks after the first lesson I attended a skills session organized by Donna on the beautiful Muizenberg Pavillion. I was keen to attend, but also a little cautious as I still could not ride without support from leaning on a wall. Mostly I was doing independent revolutions (360 pedal rotation) of 3, 4, 5 and an occasional 9 or 10 – and still far too dependent on catching myself by leaning against a wall. My ‘personal best’ at the time was 16 independent revolutions. I was on that important and exciting threshold of independent, confident riding. Everyone else in attendance could do figure eights, bounce up and down and do other cool skills. Miro was learning to ride backwards. They all inspired and encouraged me. Vincent gave me some very practical tips about leaning forward and pedaling quickly with power, looking out at a further horizon and sitting up straight. He also noticed that my seat was slightly too high – so we lowered it. Dean told me that one of the keys was really sitting fully in the seat, putting all my weight on the seat. They were paying attention to me in important and subtle ways and giving me some very specific feedback. This is what a community does for each other. I reached a new PB by the end of the day – 20 independent revolutions. I also realized that on the pavilion I had no wall to lean on – so I really had to trust myself and go for it on my own, without being so dependent on a crutch (a wall).

Donna Kisogloo is a community builder. She invites people into her world, helps them build competence and confidence, and then helps them connect around shared interests. Donna leads by example; generous, patient, hopeful, encouraging, going the extra mile to make connections, direct and honest – and making time to organize and plan. Real, deep changes (and healing) happen in supportive communities. We need many more community builders in our fractured world. Thanks, Donna, for inviting us into your world and believing in us.

I’m still practicing every day. I fall off the unicycle a lot, mostly landing on my feet and catching myself, with the occasional fall to horizontal on the ground. If ‘coming off the unicycle’ (falling down) was considered failure, then who could learn to ride a unicycle, or even to walk as a child? It takes repeated, sustained effort and practice. One’s mindset can’t be ‘if I can’t get this right today, then I’m not going to do it.’ It requires the long view, the patient view, the seeing the ‘end in mind’ and knowing it takes lots of ‘falling down’ to get there. All unicycle riders followed this path. Acquiring new intuitive body balance skills and muscle memory needs time to develop in order to kick in automatically; the willingness to ‘stretch’ oneself consistently for a while is necessary. A similar process might be learning to play a new instrument and how squawky and choppy it can be until one reaches basic competency, and then some flow starts to happen.

I reached a personal best (PB) today with a 50 independent revolution ride, two days past my seven week start of 30 April. I practice for at least 20-30 minutes every day, taking small steps, being aware and present, observing myself so I can try minor changes. In the exhilarating flow of 50 I became aware of all the subtle, necessary micro-adjustments made all the time – arms wide and rebalancing in micro-seconds, trunk twisting, body leaning slightly forward but pulling back some times – these are all the adjustments and Plan Bs required to make progress and experience the ‘flow’ forward.

What an exciting threshold to be at. I was filled with great joy, with excitement, with hope and confidence for what future rides would be like. I was filled with new life and good energy, which is what I was after. I tasted life after death, the fruit and flow of steady and persistent daily practice with a new passion. I know Suellen is smiling.

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