I agreed to go cross-country skiing during a cabin trip up north this past winter.
My partner had suggested the whole thing, and was really excited about the idea. We would spend a long weekend in a tiny rustic cabin at the edge of civilization, with heat and electricity, but no running water or cell service (there was a modern communal bathhouse across the field). Nothing to do but cook, read, spend quiet time apart or together, and embrace the cold outdoors. While I had never done anything like this, and would normally draw the line at a lack of indoor plumbing, I had to admit a private retreat isolated away from civilization seemed like it would be a good counterpoint to the increasingly unbearable quarantine life. The recent worrisome spike in COVID-19 community spread had destroyed all semblance of a normal holiday season, and the fear plus the cold left little to do but work, sleep, and stare at screens day after day.
So, I agreed. Pushing my comfort zone is the best way to learn about myself, I reasoned, and besides, how hard could it be?
The question still reverberated in my head as I found myself standing in the snow, looking down at the long, smooth skis now strapped to my boots. Dressed in my cutest, warmest, never-previously-worn winter attire, I tried to psych myself up for the challenge ahead. Unlike my partner, I had never been an athlete, but I’ve been exercising regularly for years now, so I must possess some fitness baseline that would help me out. I watched thirty minutes of instructional videos before I had left civilization, and it looked pretty straightforward, so I was clearly basically an expert already. And we’re just kinda going in a straight line in some predefined tracks, which doesn’t seem so bad. Honestly, I was as ready as I would ever be to attempt this new adventure.
That is to say, not ready at all.
But it was time, and we were off.
And I fell.
I fell on the straightaways, struggling to get my body to find the rhythm and form that would let me move forward consistently. And of course, I fell going uphill, sliding back down on my knees as my awkward, flailing steps refused to help me ascend the powdery snow. But I fell even more going downhill, kinesthetic dissonance and subconscious fears preventing me from leaning forward and squatting low enough to last more than a couple seconds upright. Even the tiniest descents were a chaotic battleground between mind and body. “Bend your knees! Lean Forward! Squat! Don’t be afraid!” I’d yell as I reflexively stiffened up, reeled over, fell backward, hit my shoulder hard again and again. “Fall on your side! Just pick a side!” I’d plead to myself as I once again landed on my ass, ankles straining painfully against the stiff ski boots latched into place.
But I refused to be defeated. I was here, in this place, with this person who wanted to be here, with these ridiculous sticks on my feet, determined to keep moving forward after every fall. I was here to learn, dammit. I was here to grow, and be challenged, and find my fucking self in this specific fucking northern woodland on the fucking lovely groomed ski trail that I had left pockmarked with patches of my awkward silhouette in the snow. Roll over, dust off, laugh to keep from crying, say something witty, and carry on.
And so I kept battling onward. On the flat parts of the trail, the time between falls got longer as I started to get a little bit of a stride going, chanting to myself, “Right Left, Left Right, Slide slide slide, don’t skate, keep going, go straight.” On the uphills, I eventually adopted a sloppy bowlegged herringbone that I dubbed the Awkward Penguin, using far too much upper body strength to pull myself up with my poles, commenting how it must be similar to three points of contact in rock climbing, which I’m pretty sure was a thing, but I don’t know because I can’t look it up because the northwoods doesn’t have fucking internet, and how the fuck am I supposed to get my short legs wide enough to not cross my skis anyway?
And yet every downhill was still the same, another hard fall, coating me in ever-accumulating amounts of snow, covering me in ever-accumulating bruises to my body and my pride.
My partner was kind, skiing ahead of me with enough skill that it was clear he had done this a few times, and then waiting patiently for me to catch up. I had refused to let him follow behind me, feeling embarrassment and shame at how poorly I was doing and how much my demonstrable lack of skill was ruining any sense of pace we could have had. I didn’t want him to watch me struggle because I hated how I was struggling, how plainly my limitations were laid out. Instead, I told jokes and made sassy commentary to show I was still here, still participating and trying to have fun and really it’s fine that I fell for the five millionth time because damn was I learning so much. He tried to be helpful, commenting that I was starting to get better, attempting to help correct my form so maybe I wouldn’t fall so much. In response, I would bleat out an apologetic laugh about how no amount of fitness could make up for my lack of athleticism.
We finally reached a fork in the trail, a longer loop in one direction that went out farther into the woods, and a short path in the other that intersected the loop when it returned. A decision needed to be made about where to go next. To me, it was crystal clear that, though my partner was offering support and saying he was enjoying himself, under the surface he had the same desperation to get out of the situation that I did.
I offered an olive branch in an attempt to assuage my guilt for my ruinous lack of skill. I told him to go on ahead and ski the long trail, enjoy some real cardio and speed without a snow-covered albatross around his neck, and I would be happy to limp along down the short trail and wait for him at the close of the loop. I didn’t mind how long I would have to wait, and frankly I figured my worn-out body needed the rest before we tried to get back to the cabin.
He took off down the long path, an obvious aura of lightness and excitement around him. As he disappeared from view, I turned and faced down my own path with equal parts determination and trepidation, then shuffled forward, chatting with myself to keep myself company alone in the forest.
At first it seemed fine, my graceless gait managing to provide me a semblance of consistent forward motion. I paused to take a photo of a lovely snow covered boulder in a clearing, remarking to no one in particular that Michelle-time means time for lots of photos. But then I rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the longest stretch of downhill path that I’d seen on the entire trip.
I fought back tears as I stared down that hill, my body preemptively wincing at the beating it was about to take. “I don’t want to!” I cried out loud. “It’s not fucking fair, this sucks, fuck, why do I have to to this!?” For a moment I contemplated detaching my skis and walking to the bottom, but my stubborn desire to complete this challenge got the better of me. Wiping my eyes, I pushed myself forward. Picking up speed, begging myself to make it work, flailing, falling, cursing, crying, getting up, and pushing forward again, over and over again, struggling mightily against myself in snow.
When I finally made it to the meeting post, I was battered and exhausted. Unable to do much besides lean on the sign and catch my breath while I waited, I finally gave myself a moment to take in my surroundings. With each exhale, a tiny frozen cloud quickly disappearing into the silent air, I became more aware of the stillness surrounding me. I began to think about how close we were to actual wilderness, how few people were anywhere near me, how different that was from the usual low roar of urban life.
Suddenly, out of the silence, I heart the faintest noise in the distance. Almost imperceptible, like a whisper, like a rustle, like a… ski cutting through the snow. Realizing what it was, I froze, neither moving nor making a sound, holding my breath, fixing my senses on this barely audible marker of humanity getting progressively closer. Nearly a full minute later, my partner glided to a stop beside me, glistening with sweat, a smile on his face.
I met his gaze with a look of horror as the reality of the past few hours came crashing into me. The way I had shown up all day, like a chaotic cursing tornado wreaking havoc on the peacefulness of this silent forest. My loud, stubborn will to prove something, bulldozing over the quiet, introspective experience that was meant to be had here. Spending the entire time chatting, talking, yelling, crying, cursing into a scene so silent that you could hear the sound of a ski in the snow… if you were listening.
It hit me that this is the way I had been showing up to most of my life. Facing a challenge, digging in my heels, gritting my teeth, and plowing through situation after situation seeking growth and improvement, with little regard for how it would affect the environment around me. Congratulating myself on how hard I had worked and how much I had overcome, when really from the outside, I was just swearing at the trees in the silent forest. How many quiet lessons had I ignored because I was so loudly determined to control my outcome? How many small experiences had I blown past because I was too distracted, frustrated, resentful, or exhausted to notice? How many trees had to hear my angry complaints, when I should have been joining them in silent reflection? How often did I grit my teeth and barrel forward, ignoring my own emotions, and refusing to just be what I am in that moment?
How often have I put a blind desire for growth ahead of embracing my own authenticity?
They say spending time in nature is good for your soul. I will say that my time in that cold, silent place was unexpectedly transformational. I’ll never be enlightened or perfect, but certainly when I find myself among the trees, I will remember to shut my mouth, open my mind, and be present with where I am in the journey