The snow gives us a glide
And the slope, a slide.
In winter, the mountains of northern New Mexico are not just so much pretty scenery, white handmaidens who serve as decoration. Some people find them seductive. I like to think of them as fierce goddesses who will rip you out of your car even with the seat belt on, or from your Laz-Y-Boy Recliner in front of a warm pinion fire before you can even change the channel. “But I might fall,” you say. I reply, “Well, you might.” But gravity, who never ever makes exceptions says, “You will.” There’s no levitas without gravitas. Perhaps facing our fear of falling is facing our fear of the natural world. Or maybe just of life. Life gives us plenty of occasions to crash, biff, wipe out, endo, and have a yard sale. You get the drift.
Each place, each landscape asks different questions of us, and verticality is part of the landscape here. I grew up in the part of South Dakota that is flatter than your grandmother’s table. Folks around those parts are pretty stoic, and the drama is all in the weather, which has been known to change 135 degrees in 24 hours. Though we have the same state question as New Mexico (red or green) in South Dakota it means Jell-O not chilies.
I still like Jell-O, but having moved to northern New Mexico, the story has changed. The mountains spice up my life, like chilies. This crazy place offers some new twists on the old paradigms. It offers fresh opportunity to see that paradoxically, falling is not failing, it’s just learning. I gain perspective when I get out. My pulse quickens and my lungs fill with oxygen. I remember “Jack Rabbit” Johansson, a cross-country skier I met once. At 106, he was still out there on skis, balancing, breathing in some fresh, cold air.
I’ve taught folks to ski from ages two to ninety, including my own kids. By the standards of parental control, I was a very bad indoor mother, but a good outdoor one. I thought being indoors with small boys was rather like being pecked to death by chickens. Instead, I put my baby in a backpack, shlumped the second one over a ski pole held between my legs, and the third tagged along (or ahead). Kids play like otters, sliding and falling. I saw the whirling joy of the world in their little bodies, as they rolled down hills, or just to be safe, rolled a little brother down hill first just to play it safe. I guess it’s good to check out the conditions.
So by kindergarten the littlest one skied alone nonstop on his favorite advanced run alone under the chairlift while I was working. He’d inevitably fall but people were only too happy to help dust him off and get his skis back on. “Thank you,” he’d say politely, leaving them in the dust. It was a lesson in gratitude, in independence and interdependence, something we can all use.
But sooner or later, we all fall. I saw a woman fall hard as bones once outside Timberline Lodge in Oregon, where their snow is not soft powder like ours. I slid on over to help her up. It turned out she had fallen on the only banana peeling frozen into a ski area parking lot in the entire universe. It was like the time I miraculously took second place in a terrifyingly fast Downhill race, only to have someone knock me down helping me cross the street afterwards to buy me a drink. I separated my sternum. “Thanks,” I said, but really, it hurt to laugh for weeks. Still, such incidents give us big stories to tell about life’s little ironies.
Falling means a momentary loss of balance. How did we learn balance? By losing it! We have to make friends with falling, even though culturally, we fear falling incomes, falling property values, or any intimation we might be “going downhill.” Still, we might accept life’s lessons tougher lessons with greater grace. I watched a baby take her first steps last week, morphing from infancy into real bipedal babyhood. There were two falls to every step she took; she seemed equally delighted with every step and every fall. We both giggled. I watched the way she fell softly and limberly without trying to “break” her fall. She simply got up again. There was no failure, only falling. It was like Aikido class, a martial art in which you learn to literally roll with the punches, rolling and dropping your way into the flow without resistance.
Being alert and aware helps, while fear and rigidity doesn’t. The steeper the mountain the more that balance becomes a dynamic force. You have to match your forward balance relative to the pitch of the hill. Hiking up past 11,000 feet to an expert slope called Upper Stauffenberg, I clicked into my skis and took in the view. It was pure blue atmosphere, the Sangre de Cristos reaching north into Colorado. Below me lay the pure steepness of expert terrain. Hesitation in that first turn quickly became a headfirst dive. Fortunately, instinct, that highly evolved form of intelligence, told me to roll my skis below me until my edges got some purchase. Still, the initial impact had been electrifying, like a cattle prod to the spine. It does make sense to take stock for a minute, to count your fingers and toes and gloves and poles and blessings. There was nothing but one bruised ego. Actually, that quick snap had perfectly re-aligned my neck and back. It was a free chiropractic session, not to mention the therapy of seeing my life flash in front of my eyes. I needn’t have feared so much in this lifetime. Maybe we don’t need to fear so much at all.
We all fall down, and to some degree it’s a learnable practical skill, something you can get good at. It’s one of the first things we teach in skiing or snowboarding classes. But it’s also not so different from falling in love, and the most basic rules still apply. First you gotta show up. Secondly, you don’t get to be in control all the time, and thirdly, there are no guarantees. We might as well just enjoy the ride.
– Dr. Michele Potter has been a ski instructor in the US, Germany and elsewhere for over 20 years.
This story appeared in SkiCountry 2010.