Monsters and Bunny Hills

February 28, 2008

Today we went cross-country skiing.  I took today and tomorrow off from work anticipating this to be a difficult time.  My birthday is a great source of stress to me.  John’s been married to me for 15 years, and he knows this.  I programmed his google calendar to send him a daily reminder each day for the last month, so he was well-prepared for today, my birthday.  He started off the day by giving me some fantastic books on writing and a very interesting novel, Labyrinth, that I can’t wait to start reading.

We did something we haven’t done in a long time.  We went to a nearby cross-country skiing center and spent the day cross-country skiing.  I haven’t been cross-country skiing in a while, and the thought of skiing on hilly slopes frightened me, so we did mostly beginner trails in the morning.  As we were on our way back to the lodge for lunch, there was a man standing on the top of one of the slopes.  He was 50’ish and a bit on the chunky side.  I stopped beside him and waited for him to ski down the slope so that I could watch him.

“I’m playing hookey from work,” he said.

“Well, that’s a good thing.  You only have one life and you should enjoy it.”  At 50, I know well that playing hookey from work to do something fun and refreshing is a really good thing, so I completely supported him.

He went on.  “I called work this morning, checked in, and then drove here.  Took me two hours to get here.  I’ve been here since 9 AM.  Heck, all anyone cares about anyway is that I show up to sign timesheets on Friday.”

I smiled at him.  People are so willing to share their lives with perfect strangers.

He pointed with his ski pole. “See that hill?  I broke 3 ribs there a couple of years ago.  After I healed, I got right back up and came back here, yep.  I even brought my son here for his birthday.”

“You’re quite the father.”  I dished out the compliments.  I appreciated his willingness to share himself, and I thought he really was quite a remarkable person.

“This is nothing, I just bought a motorcyle,” he said.  After a second, he went on.  “There’s an interesting trail here called the Valley View.  Hills aren’t too bad — It’s up and down — but there are uphills to keep you from getting out of control.”  I can’t fathom what made him say that, maybe the gods or spirits of fate.  Because we decided that after lunch we would try Valley View.

At first Valley View wasn’t too bad.  It was mostly uphill, and I figured out how to walk uphill with the skis.  It was tedious but do-able.

Then there was the downhill.  It started off with a sign that I skiied past.  The sign said “Caution”, with an exclamation point.  Already being apprehensive about doing downhills, I backed up and consulted with John.  “Should we do this?”

We looked for the trail sign.  Sure enough, “Valley View” pointed down this hill.  Well, heck, how dangerous could a beginner trail be, right?  Valley View was marked beginner.

I started down the hill. I started going faster.  A slight left-turn came up… ok, no problem.  I snowplowed through the left turn.  I sighed a breath of relief.  I did it.  Up ahead, still on the downhill, was a right turn that I didn’t expect.  I was going faster now.  Snowplowing.  I just barely made the turn, but stayed on the trail.  I was still accelerating.  At this point my speed was long past my ability to be under control.  The skis were demons on the loose, flying to the right of trail with the rest of my body flopping like a ragdoll, struggling to remain upright.  The only stopping would be an uphill, a tree, or a tumble.  If I didn’t have enough problems, I discovered there was yet another turn.  NOW, up ahead, was a turn to the LEFT again.

How much turn control can one human have on a pair of cross-country skiis?  I felt my skiis go farther and farther apart, each with its own independent agenda.  I felt myself start careening off of the track into the trees.  I hit a snow mound on the side of the trail.  My legs flew into the air, hands flailed out to the side, and I landed flat on my back.

I checked myself.  Broken leg bones?  No….  broken neck?  no…  arms all right?  Yeh, they seem to move with no pain.

John went skiing past and waited for me at the bottom of the hill.  I got up, slowly, and cautiously finished the hill.

“Want to go again?”  John asked.

“Sure,” I said.  The thought of doing that hill again horrified me.  I couldn’t refused him, though.  First off, it was a freakin’ bunny trail.  Second off, I knew intellectually that it should be do-able for someone at my level (sort of advanced-beginnerish).  Third, I simply will not refuse a challenge unless I’m 1000% sure I can’t do it.

We went around and climbed back up the hill.  I found myself shaking with a consuming fear at the thought of doing this downhill again.  The inside of me wanted to run as far away as possible.  I wanted to yell out at John to stop and let’s go home.  The pride in me refused to do that, though, and so, quivering, I continued to follow him, being able to think of nothing except how desperately desperately afraid I was.

As we climbed to the top, I began chanting a mantra to myself:  Bent knees, bent knees, just concentrate on keeping your knees bent, and remember — lean DOWN the hill, not against it.  Lean down, and you’ll keep your balance.  Don’t be afraid, just bend your knees and lean DOWN the slope. Trust that it will work.  I knew intellectually from a skiing lesson way back when that this was the only way I would be able to tackle this.  Doing these things was counterintuitive, though.  They went against every self-preservation instinct in me.

When we arrived back at the top of the hill, I took a deep breath and stared down.  The slope loomed in front of me, teeth bared.  I gave myself a tentative push and inched forward 1/4 inch.  I gave myself a slightly bigger push and started down, quickly gaining momentum.  I bent my knees — to the point of nearly sitting in the snow.  Studiously following my own instruction, I leaned downhill.  My speed increased by the millisecond.  Focus…  concentrate….  Look at where you’re GOING, not down in front.  Look AHEAD.  I kept my focus.  Bend your knees, look ahead, lean downhill, into the speed.  I knew that if I allowed myself to buy into the fear I felt, it would only lead to disaster, so I willed myself to keep my nerve.

I made it to the bottom in one piece.  The trail had been nowhere close to being the cataclysmic monster I’d remembered from just a few minutes prior.  I was filled with emotion at the release of having made it down in one piece, and my eyes welled with tears.

I thought about this as we drove home.  How many cataclysmic monsters do we have in our lives that turn out to be mere bunny hills.  It was a small challenge in the context of an entire lifetime, but I realized that there are monsters all over my life — both today and tomorrow — and I need to remember this lesson.  Something that seems like a cataclysmic monster can turn out to be a bunny hill.  I simply can’t let fear rule my life.