Nick and I stood in front of the chairlift, fully kitted out in our rented skis and brand new snow pants. All around us, Swiss skiers and snowboarders queued up to sail into the clouds without a care in the world.
Meanwhile I was frozen to my skis. All I could see was a massive mountain. Not one of those Appalachian mountains either that have been worn away by time. An Alp. An Alp so tall I couldn’t see the top. An Alp so tall that Mother Superior would have told Maria to go hide in the convent rather than climb it. No way was I getting on a chairlift to the top of that Alp.
“You go ahead,” I said to my patient husband as I snapped off my skis. “Tell me how it is. I’ll hang out down here.”
It had been 17 years since I’d last skied, not that I’d ever been great. I didn’t learn until I was 15 years old. Skiing is kind of expensive and my mother hates the cold, so my brother and I didn’t learn until we went on a church ski trip. My dad, who’s actually pretty good thanks to lots of college weekends on the slopes outside Pittsburgh, taught us the basics. I got good enough to enjoy it, which is a miracle for someone like me.
My last time out was at Wintergreen Resort in Virginia for a high school physics lab my junior year. Ms. Elton, our fantastic teacher, had assured us no one had ever been hurt before. I broke that record when I hit an icy patch, caught air and snapped my ACL on the landing. I attended prom in a knee brace. I hadn’t been on skis since.
Now I was staring up an Alp and wondering why I had such fond memories of skiing with my dad anyway. This looked like a good way to die.
While I waited for Nick to report back on the Alpine death trap, I looked at the little kids zipping down the mountain with insane confidence. A nasty spike of jealousy filled my stomach.
Kids in Switzerland seemed to be born with skis attached. School aged kids were on their own, swishing down the slope like miniature pros. The slightly younger set were lashed to their parents with long ropes. The kid skied down ahead of Mom, while she followed behind, pulling on the ropes like a puppeteer. And the kids who couldn’t walk yet were bundled onto sleds with their parents and sailed down the trails. With their pink, chubby cheeks and reflective sunglasses, the sledding babies looked like little Russian oligarchs being ferried down the mountain by their servants.
Dear Lord, even babies weren’t afraid to slide down this mountain. I felt ridiculous.
Then Nick stopped in front me, kicking up that perfect arc of snow. “You can totally do this,” he said. Nick had his own ACL repaired just three years ago. If he could do it, I had to do it.
I made it on the chairlift. I even made it down the mountain with the help of an aggressive snow plow stance. I only fell once, in very soft snow. And I came back the next weekend and did it again. Once my legs remembered what to do, it was actually fun.
I know I sound like a drama queen. Who is scared of a few beginner slopes? Well, imagine the things you’re most afraid of – asking “dumb” questions in a meeting full of important people, losing your job, moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, switching careers. Those things don’t scare me. But anything athletic, anything where my body must be strong, coordinated and controlled, that terrifies me. I can’t rely on my body. I have no natural ability to throw a football, hit a tennis ball or even dribble. The only “sports” I have even modest success with are solitary and require nothing more than the will to grind it out. Running. Swimming. Spinning. That’s about it.
I used to be incredibly embarrassed about this. It seems like all well-rounded people play a sport or have a natural physical ability. I don’t, and for a long time I felt deficient. In college I got a scholarship for which one of the requirements was “physical vigor.” I spent four years expecting them to take it away.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve cut myself some slack. I haven’t stopped trying new physically vigorous things – skiing, road biking, salsa dancing – but I’ve learned to be forgiving. I know that it will take me five times longer than a normal person to “get” something new. I know I’ll need lots and lots and lots of practice just to be OK at it. And that’s fine. Because some people can’t speak extemporaneously or write a news story on deadline or say the right thing when someone is crying in front of them, and I can. Everyone is good at different stuff and lousy at different stuff.
The important thing is to not let the lousiness stop you from trying. I’ve learned there’s nothing wrong with getting help with the lousy stuff. I’m just lucky to have a kind, patient husband who will scout the slopes before I put my butt on a chairlift.