Here I am again. At the top of a small hill, trying to ski down it with some elegance and style. More realistically: without injuring myself, others, or my dignity. I’ve made it down several hills today with complete success. Well, most people wouldn’t call them hills, more like a small rolls in the trail. Whatever. I made it . But the hill before me is steeper. I’ve been out for a couple hours. I am tired. I’m alone, choosing to return home while my more skillful companions headed further out on the trail. My foot aches.The small still voice within me is rather loud. “I don’t think we’ve got this in us.” What my outside voice says is, “We’re going to be OK.”
Learning to cross-country ski late in life is an act of faith, especially those of us who are not athletes. I have friends who promised they’d start their unborn children skiing before enrolling them in elementary school. It’s easier to learn how to move in this completely different medium when one is young. I took up the sport at mid-life, to bond with my now-husband, to look into this new experience through his eyes. It’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve undertaken as an adult. I’m the rankest of rank beginners. And it makes me so happy.
Gliding through a pine forest, moving like some sylvan winter being. Pausing to take in a small flock of mountain chickadees or unusual cottonwood bark. Floating further along, suspended between soil and air on a cushion of snow. Drinking water that flows ambrosia-like into a dry mouth, liquid in this frozen world. Awe-struck at the ponderosa pines’ tall tall tall orange trunks and starbursts of long green needles against the bluest sky ever seen. The world is magic and I am part of the enchantment. Then, my stride slips, balances lurches, and I am no longer a sylph but one more unskillfull human oaf.
This is the other part of what I love about skiing: the chance to listen to my imperfections and practice taking care when it’s not easy.
The twinges of fear started a week ago, as we prepared for this trip. Would I remember how to plough — to control descent downhill? Would the newly cranky shoulder combine with the longtime cranky knee and cranky foot to create more weird ski techniques? Would I hurt? Would I be able to keep up? Would I be ok?
And now I have met these fears in person, at the top of a bunny hill with the scared internal voice rising again, along with the hot eyes of tears-about-to-be.
Here’s what I have learned about my fears, when it comes to skiing anyway: they want to help keep me safe. And often they’re right. They’re a clarion call cutting through my should’s and hopes and pretensions. PAY ATTENTION. Jeez. This is not easy for you to do. Choose wisely. You could get hurt out here.
Sometimes if my fears don’t think I’m paying attention, they shift tactics. “It’s not fair.” That’s a favorite one. “Every one else is having fun, and I can’t.” Really? You chose this. Lashing out with frustration, blame, trying somehow to wriggle out of the difficulty. Slowly I’m learning to recognize this side-stepping fear and to come back to the problem before me. To pray, to feel, to ask the fear-adrenalin to stop talking about other people and to help me with the eight foot dip in front of me right now.
So at the top of that hill I stop and breathe. I remember the skills I’ve been taught. Bend ankles, sinking weight down. Hands in front. Kick out heels. Inch forward. I allow myself to be frustrated. I offer myself several options. I don’t lie and say “You’ve got this.” I ask, “Would you like to stop trying?” I breath, again. I realize “You are better than two years ago.” I smile at myself. I give thanks for the day and the chance to meet this moment. I decide to launch. I do. And, finally, halfway down, I sit down on my skis, scooting along on my butt. Not elegant but effective. And finally, I am OK.
That night I return to the lodge, where I can listen openheartedly to my husband and friends around the table, as they share their adventures on bigger hills and longer runs. Yes, because that night I am a cross between that blissed out woodland nymph and an Olympian who has challenged a personal best on the icy slopes of imperfection.