Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Perfect Form and Grace

On Sunday night, Monday and Monday night there came a blizzard dropping a little more than a foot of snow, with high winds and consequent drifts here and there--near window height at the back of the house. I had to go out twice with the snow blower, once on Monday and again this morning, to make paths around the house, the barn, and the old store. This afternoon, with the temperature in the low 20s, it was ideal for cross-country skiing; so off I went for a half hour or so, on the same walking paths I take that start with the trail going back from the house to the orchard. One of the advantages of this location is the ease of walking or skiing, just out the door and into the woods.

My father, who died two years ago aged ninety-four, was a skier, a downhill skier. He had learned to ski at Cornell, in college, and did not stop until he was in his late fifties; he continued to play tennis up to his very last few years. As a young married business man, he took his vacations in winter; my mother and I accompanied him to various ski resorts. His favorites were the one at Stowe, Vermont, and another in Quebec, now no longer in operation, called Jasper-in-Quebec. He was, as my mother was fond of repeating, an "expert" skier. He taught us both to ski.

I learned from my mother--my father did not speak about this sort of thing--that an expert skier was not the one who could go the fastest down the hill, the one who could win the slalom or downhill races. The downhill racers jerked themselves around to catch the steepest parts of the slope and did not bother to keep their skis together. No, the expert was the one who could ski the trails with grace and skill, a ballet dancer on skis, always in control of the most difficult terrain, making the hard look easy. He had, as my mother would often say, perfect form.

Perfect form, then, was something for a boy to strive for. As I grew to be a better skier, I tried to shape myself in his form, skiing down the trails. We would go together, sometimes he in the lead, sometimes me. Eventually we skied the expert trails together. I was able to navigate them, but he remained well ahead of me on the grace and form front, try as I might to carve the turns and hold myself as he did.

I realize, now, that I could never have achieved his perfect form merely by trying to shape my body like his, whether skiing or playing tennis (another sport where "form" was evident). I would have gotten closer if I'd felt about skiing (or tennis) as he did; but I was far too young to have had those feelings and to have understood their reasons and histories. Occasionally as a boy I overheard him talking with other adults about the best skiing in the world and where it might be found. On these occasions when it was his turn he would speak about skiing in the French (or was it the Swiss?) Alps, on furlough while in the US Army during the Second World War. He and a few of his army buddies used to spend all morning climbing up a remote mountain glacier. I suppose they must have had their rifles as well; my father was a crack shot, a rifle instructor. Then they would spend an hour gliding down through the fresh fallen snow. There was nothing in the United States like that alpine touring, as it was called. Well, there was one place--Tuckerman Ravine. It was on one of the faces of Mount Washington, in New Hampshire. You had to walk all the way to the top. My father had skied there after the War, but it wasn't the same. The only danger there was from avalanches. Usually the others were silent for a little while after he got done talking about that. I heard his story more than once. I understood what he said but not what it meant to him.

When my father skied, his outward form embodied the motions of his inner ecstasy, circling over the snow with the rush of wind at his face while his two skis moved as one, balanced and "centered over his skis," as the saying goes, curving over the bumps and bending into turns, arcing his improvised path down the steep mountain trails, occasionally--very occasionally--having to compensate for an instant when an icy patch would speed him up or a wrong decision about a mogul would force him into a new direction, a new rhythm. He did not talk to me about it. No nine-year-old boy would have understood why he would choose to spend six or seven hours a day on a mountain, repeatedly going up on the chair lift and then skiing down, while soldiers only ten years older than I was were killing one another in Korea, and while nuclear warheads were being armed and aimed for so-called defense. He did not speculate aloud on which world, the mountainous world of skiing or the dangerous world of mutually assured destruction, was the least absurd, or which was the most human.

A dozen years later when I started graduate school in Minnesota I thought to go skiing there, but there are no ski mountains near Minneapolis and St. Paul. The  only skiing available was cross country skiing, something I'd never done. I tried it a couple of times at nearby ski resorts built for the purpose, trails with lots of skiers walking themselves around. Pushing and gliding along the crowded trails on rented skis was easy enough--all too easy; it wasn't challenging and after a while it became tedious. I stopped. 

But six years later, PhD in hand, living in the town of Reading, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, and teaching at Tufts University, I longed to ski again. I was an adult with a full-time job; by then I had a little history and ski memories. I recalled the thrill of making the early-morning "milk run" after a night that had dropped snow as fine as powder, the first tracks in the new snow.

My house in Reading was not far from the town forest, a tract of land owned by the town that had been set aside for conservation and light recreation. Trails for walking; no snowmobiles allowed. I bought a pair of cross country skis and waited for the first snowfall, when every trail would be a milk run. For the two years I lived in Reading I skied there and also in the Audubon bird sanctuary, not far away. Instinctively I knew that was my kind of skiing, out in the natural world, away from crowded ski resorts with their groomed trails. 

Here on this island off the Maine coast, where for thirty years I have spent most summers and some winters, the trails offer the same possibility. It is not a dangerous mountain climb and drop during wartime, but it is what I am able to do here, right out the door. And so today, only a few hours ago, less than a half mile from my house, skiing contentedly where the trail slopes gently down, passing by deer tracks in the snow, hearing the dee-dee-dee of a chickadee in a spruce tree, and bending to avoid its snow-laden boughs, I was put in mind once more of my father, and perfect form, and grace.

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