Monday, January 25, 2010

Slippery Slopes

A few years ago, our family went together with good friends to purchase a cabin in the little ski resort town just south of Anchorage. At that point, I didn’t know how to ski at all. I grew up in Kansas where people don’t go around slapping blades or boards to their feet and then locating treacherous surfaces to move about on or launch yourself off of. I envisioned long snowy days in the cabin alone, curled up in front of the fire with a book and a cup of cocoa while everyone else braved the slopes and the elements. It sounded like heaven!

But, our first season in the cabin, Mark presented me with a request. He hoped that skiing could be an outdoor activity that we could do as a family.

He wanted me to learn to ski. And he had already scoped out a program, Women’s Midweek Clinic. He was asking me to take Wednesdays off, drive to Girdwood, ski with an instructor and a group of women at my ski level (beginner) for 2 ½ hours and then partake in a lavish luncheon at the resort hotel. Very posh.

I didn’t want to do it. Several years before, I had let Mark convince me to get off the green runs (there’s essentially only two of them) and go up the mountain to try blue or intermediate runs. (There’s no other way down except “blues”.) I cannot tell you how terrified I was up there. I was convinced that I was going to die. Really. Highly unpleasant. When I got down, I hung up my skis (well, I turned in my rentals) and that was that.

But now, Mark said, “I am asking you to try this. It’s just four weeks. And if you hate it, I will never bring it up again.” Hmmm…sounded fair enough. I was back to imagining the fire and the book when the lessons didn’t work out.

Our instructor was a 23 year old guy who had been skiing since he was three. Skiing was as natural to him as walking. He was a good enough teacher but he just couldn’t quite understand our fear. We did our few runs down the easy green trail and then he was ready to get us on the blues. (Because really, if you can’t ski blues at Mt. Alyeska, there’s almost nothing else to do.) He was attempting to teach and coax seven or eight trembling women down a short (and icy!) intermediate run.

He said, “Just do this.” He lifted his arms parallel to the ground, his poles dangling from his arms, pointed his skis down that slope , and let go. His skis carried him down ten or fifteen feet at which point he made the tiniest little adjustment to the angle of his body allowing his skis to turn and carry him across the mountain in an arc as graceful as any ballet dancer. Effortless. Beautiful.

Something inside me shifted, ached, broke open. I longed for that ease, that grace and that fearlessness. I am sure you see the spiritual corollary here and my heart felt it immediately.

I would love to end this part of my story by telling you that I lifted my arms and glided down that slope as beautifully as he did. Nope. No way. I inched down, forcing my skis into a wedge, sliding down the icy incline, falling a couple of times and near tears. But then, I got back on the lift and tried again. And kept trying again.

By the end of my four weeks, I had been down many blue runs, mostly terrified and sometimes still near tears, but also in equal measure, exhilarated. It wasn’t quite “fun” yet and it was still a constant challenge for me, but I was in. I was a skier. A very bad skier, true, but getting down the mountain none the less.

Sometimes I still feel like a very bad pilgrim on the spiritual journey. I feel like I should be further down the road or have more figured out. But, I’m in. I am a pilgrim and I will be until the day that I die. There’s no turning back. I can’t help but respond to the constant drawing of the loving spirit of God, calling me to the next possibility or the next slippery slope. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s effortless. There are still some tears. But, oh, what an awesome ride it’s been and will be.

**I probably don't have to tell you, but, that's not me in the picture.

18 comments:

Barbara said...

When it comes to spirituality, we all navigate the "bunny slopes".

Sulwyn said...

Great corollary, especially when I think about all of the things that "fear" has kept me from doing, and still does keep me from trying. I wonder if I would have the guts to even get as far as you have on the slopes!

The Pollinatrix said...

This is just glorious.

I'm reminded of a skateboarding video I watched with a soul-friend of mine who's a serious skateboarder. The guy in the video would sail from one ramp to another effortlessly - and they were seventy feet apart and VERY high off the ground! Sometimes his board would start to fall out from under his feet, but he would just ever-so-casually reach down and pull it back into position again as he was zooming through the empty air. It was breathtakingly graceful and thrilling.

The analogy I saw in this is that it's not about doing it perfectly but about being able to correct oneself "in midair."

SUNRISE SISTER said...

Rebecca,
Oh the ski/spiritual journey connection is terrific, so apt, so real. I learned to ski almost as you did although the snow/mostly ice I encountered was in Vermont. Bunny slopes and the very beginners were sorta fun. I think I actually had a pair of my own boots for a while but the distance from slopes, the great stretches of in between times of practice overcame any desire to head to higher ground. Thankfully, I DO NOT run my spiritual quest in that manner - much bolder, much more confident, but still on ice a lot of the time. Thanks for the sharing.

xo

Dan Gurney said...

Fear is a great obstacle. So is judgment, positive or negative. Good/Bad thinking obscures reality, covering it up with a lot of irrelevancy.

How can anyone be a bad pilgrim?

You're the perfect pilgrim, with, maybe, but only if you insist on it, just a little room for improvement.

Beth Knight said...

Rebecca - what a great metaphor of spiritual pilgrimage. I applaud your courage and persistence for the goal of outdoor winter sports communion with your family ! Thank you for this great story !
bk

Dan Gurney said...

And, oh, by the way, I see you list Jon Kabat-Zinn's book "Wherever You Go, There You Are." I want to concur: It's a wonderful, non-sectarian introduction to mindfulness by a very good writer. I had the privilege of meeting him a while back and I've studied meditation with a bunch of his cohorts. A more accessible, reliable, readable, and useful guide would be difficult to find.

Nichol said...

Rebecca~ first of LOL at it not being you in the picture.

You are truly amazing to me. your braveness and honesty make me so proud to call you my friend.
love you

Rebecca Johnson said...

Barbara,

In the cosmic scheme of things maybe I am only on the bunny slope, but sometimes it FEELS like a double black diamond. Sometimes what is most interesting about getting down a run is to look back up at it and say, I did THAT?!! It's all pretty remarkable, on the slopes, but mostly off. : )

Love...

Rebecca Johnson said...

Sulwyn, I think about fear constantly when I am on skis and also when I am in/on/around water. I so want to be fearless and in my inner life I feel pretty darn brave like I can face anything that is in there, but I constantly wonder if my fears of the outward world are feeding my inner life. I don't know.

Love...

Rebecca Johnson said...

Polli,

Thank GOD we don't have to do it perfectly! And much of the time, we don't get that "mid-air" correction. But, we get to try again. And again.

Love....

Rebecca Johnson said...

SS, I have heard that the mountains out east are almost as bad as ours here. Alaska ain't no Colorado. Yep, life's a little tougher up here and we like it that way. (Not really, I'm a total fair weather skiier.)

Love...

Rebecca Johnson said...

Dan, The idea that you share is the same one that I am constantly saying to my spiritual directees. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Keep going. You're not screwing anything up. I would never ever ever call them bad pilgrims (what a very funny image when you stop to think about it. A bunch of people in black and white sitting around a Thanksgiving table acting very naughty) but I don't hesitate to judge my own journey. Thankfully, I have a director that keeps me on track as well.

Thanks for reminding me as well.

Love....

Rebecca Johnson said...

Beth, Thanks for your affirmation. My family actually goes off and leaves me most of the time. More about that in future posts, I hope. : ) Love....

Rebecca Johnson said...

Dan,

How exciting to have met with Jon and other teachers like him. Did/do you practice vipassana? I am finally at a stage in my life where family schedules are going to work out to allow me to go to a meditation retreat, possibly ten day. I was wondering if you could recommend any retreat centers to me on the west coast.

Thanks!

Rebecca Johnson said...

Nicol, If I was in that picture I would be at the top peering over the side but not getting too close in case I might fall of the cliff. I always make Mark or the kids go down before me and tell me if I'm going to make it. Poor things. Then they stand at the bottom and make fun of me. (Well, Mark doesn't.) : )

Love you....

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Rebecca,

I've been to Spirit Rock just north aof San Francisco for a number of retreats. Highly recommended. Yes, I have practiced a lot of Vipassana. Google Spirit Rock Meditation, and you'll find it.

Suz said...

What a great analogy. I can so relate! I never want to ski and people in Minnesota are starting to ski. I love your honest ending and it's relation to the journey.

Thanks, my friend. I love your site so much!