I recently learned to downhill ski. I am even respectable on blue slopes at this point and can’t wait to get on a pair of skis again. It was, however, not easy to get to this moment.
For some, such a milestone would be just another pebble along a path of athletic success: there was a 15 year old girl in my skiing class, for example, who began the class because her mother made her and after 3 days of instruction was always the first one down the slope, waiting for everyone else to catch up and join her. She got to like it. Through chatting on lifts at various points, I learned she was a cheerleader, a member of the school soccer team, lacrosse team, field hockey team. Simply, by the age of 15 she already had a long history with learning and mastering such things. With such experience comes a certain physical confidence. She knows what she can do. She knows how to do it. And she said when she is afraid of something she does it anyway and doesn’t think too much about it.
But what do you do if you don’t have such a resume? While I liked to run for my own purposes when I was a teenager, spent years working out at the gym in my 20s, learned to Lindy Hop in my 30s (and loved it), have enjoyed hiking up mountains since I was a child–so, not a couch potato but not a tremendous athlete–I was, nevertheless, not ever really pushed to participate in and master anything sport-like. I was not part of any sports team as a child, was always one of the smallest children on the elementary school playground, picked last for the team . . . I didn’t have the best experiences with learning new things in the physical world. Most of my physical activity, aside from the dancing and to some degree the mountain hiking, has been solitary, self-taught, self-motivated. There is a certain amount of avoidance in these scenarios.
I had known for a year that we were going skiing in Vail. And every time I thought about it I felt some trepidation, an irrational fear, my heart pounding against my ribs at the thought (truly). I would console myself with the idea that I would be in a class; I would tell my self, I can do this. But evoking The Little Engine That Could, as I confess I have done many times in my life, only goes so far and then you need actually to chug up and down the mountain as the Little Engine does.
It was my turn to do something.
Whenever we learn new things we carry with us the freight of all that has come before, especially as it relates to learning new things. For me, as I have said, my experience and confidence is in the mountains, but at my own speed. I love to hike, to scrabble over boulders, to run down the trail skipping from rock to rock. I mastered this quick balancing act as a child and it feels comforting, comfortable, fabulous.
To move so quickly on fiber glass sticks down a steep mountain has no precedent in my life. This lack of experience and knowledge is like a dark cave. It can be filled with anything. So, what do you do when the cavern of unknowing becomes filled with fear, so much so that your heart starts beating hard in your chest just thinking about it?
The projection of what is unknown and most feared, or known but not helpful or comforting onto the unknown can happen with anything, with knitting, with the idea of holding a baby, with the idea (even for some) of leaving the house. . . I have taught people to knit for whom just the process of making the stitches was so filled with stress that the knitting itself became wet with anxiety, harder to slip from one place to another on the needles. I have heard some of my (now long ago) English students tell me they are lazy, selfish, can’t write, were never good students, could never write, are not creative . . . their own voices echoing the words of their parents? former teachers? siblings?
For those students, I wanted to supply them with new narratives about writing. Something more along the lines of the Little Engine’s script: “I think I can. . . I know I can.” I might even have mentioned her since she has helped me out so many times, and recommended her autobiography–it’s still in print, you see. And I often recalled for those students the time before language when they were learning to walk and no one would have dared say, when they fell down, that they were lazy or quitters or not creative enough to learn such a difficult thing (for it is, you know. . . a difficult thing to walk, really complicated and miraculous as anyone who has tried to learn it again as an adult will tell you. It is a precious precious thing). I might say, “What do you like to do in your spare time–one thing?” One boy loved basket ball and played often for his own pleasure. He was good at it. Confident. I could see him square his shoulders, straighten his body. I watched him gain more than an inch in stature, smile a little. “Were you always good at basketball?” I said and he laughed and tipped his body gracefully to the side as though there were a ball there that had just been bounced toward him and he would catch it. “No!” he said unabashed and it was plain that the memory of that early awkwardness was a wonder to him, as though he almost couldn’t believe the time before mastery. “Did you just instantly become good at it?” I asked him. “Of course not,” Looking straight into my eyes as though now he was having trouble believing I wouldn’t understand how much work it took. . . Maybe when he saw my own small smile he knows what I have been doing but he presses on. “No, I was terrible in the beginning. My brother wouldn’t let me play with him and his friends even, because no one wanted me on their team.” I could see him, small, his brother’s too-big, handed-down clothes getting in his way, leaping to make a basket on the big-boy basketball court. How many times he missed and raced after the ball. The excitement when the ball dropped in through the hoop, cradled by the net. Again. Again. Again he shoots. He looks a little too casual as he finishes his last sentence: “So I would play by myself,” his palms briefly forward in a gesture of, what? of the truth of hard work?
“Writing is like basketball,” I told him. “You have to practice to be good. You have to practice and practice to see how good you are, and be able to do with words what you can with that ball.” He was thoughtful and quiet. He took it in. He smiled a little as he looked down, inward. When he looked up, he says “Yeah, I see what you mean.” And he does better after that. He seems to have a different relationship to words, to writing. He’s in the shoot and miss, shoot and score, chugging up the mountain stage. He’s not the least bit scared or lazy and he seems to know he may not always shine . . . not yet.
I am standing at the top of Lost Boy, a middling to harder green slope and it looks so steep to me. As steep and daunting and terrifying as a blank page must be to a new writer but with physical consequences. The sky is huge, the land falls away to my left (this is the less steep part of the slope, too, which is counter-intuitive and unnerving). I am afraid I will tumble down the mountain. The earth ends there and I will fall forever if I get too close. I feel this in my bones. It feels like physical knowledge. Though I realize now it was all thinking and the thinking is paralyzing. My muscles are exhausted. The thinking is so terrible, because it is filled with such terrible things. My instructor is watching and says simply, “follow me. . .” And I can do that.
Everyone wants to ski Lost Boy again but I am so drained and suddenly so tired that I can’t even feel a sense of accomplishment. I just can’t go again. There is so much anxiety wrapped up in skiing at this point that I am drenched in it and I wake up at night to my very stomach clenching and unclenching. I take a day off. But then I try again.
And there I am standing at the top of Lost Boy. My instructor skies half way down the steepest part there at the top and looks up at us. With my heart pounding I am first and start down. I know how to go slowly even on a steep slope and I am employing this knowledge to the point that, again, I am frozen. . . when the instructor starts yelling at me “Down!” and I go down. “Turn!” and I turn. “Down!” I go down. “Turn!” I turn. She keeps yelling until I am through what has frozen me and I can ski again.
The next time I am standing at the top of Lost Boy I hear Joanne’s voice even though I am with a different instructor: Down! Turn! Down! Turn! and I listen, whispering commands to myself until I am skiing. It is quicker this time, and feels better.
We do Lost Boy again. This time, as Joanne speaks to me, as I speak to myself with her voice, she is just reminding me. . .
And the next time I just ski.
It is then that I see why people love it. I am flying, I don’t exist. It is just this moment and this one, the shush of the skis, white, sky, wind, silence.
There was only one path to the place of flight and dancing. Maybe it is always this way with things that we fear, with the unknown. We must go through that dark cave, made passable by our own voices in our ears, or the voices of those who have gone before us and know the way.
It is fear that says turn back. You can’t. You’re not good enough. You’re not creative. You never will. You’ll die. And this voice can sound in our ears at any time and for the slightest of reasons, reasons that may be buried in our past, or even deeper, in the histories of our parents and grandparents.
But like that young man who replaced the narrative of laziness with the narrative of dribble, shoot, try again, we can talk back to worry, fear, defeat, grief. My mother told me about a book she read that states we have some number of seconds (and it’s enough seconds, truly, to do this) to replace our buried and default speeches to ourselves with new ones. Replace I can’t do it, with I can. I’m terrified, with I know how.
And if we persist, we learn to knit, to write, to walk again, to ski, to dance.