Learning to Ski the Slopes of Lent
Kh. Krista West · April 16, 2009
Khouria Krista compares the Lenten journey to learning to ski.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a blessed Holy Week. This week finds us completing the race, so to speak, and drawing nearer to our goal of being present at the Cross and Resurrection. It’s a time for a small pause along our way as we gear up for the intense week ahead of us.
It’s also a time when many of us find ourselves reflecting on our Lenten experience. Did we go to the services we committed to? Did we fast as we agreed to with our family? Did we keep our prayer rule? Like many of you, I find myself reflecting on my spiritual progress this Lent and I have to say that this is one of the quirkiest Lents I’ve had yet as an Orthodox Christian. Quirky? Lent? Yep, it sounds a bit off the mark to call Lent quirky, but then again, I never thought learning to ski would be a form of spiritual discipline!
You see, in addition to the extra services and the fasting, this Lent has found me learning to ski. To give you some background information, my husband is a very good skier, having learned in middle school and skied avidly all through high school and most of college. We went skiing together once after we were married and as I was heading down my second run of the day, two drunk ski bums crashed behind me, knocking me over and scaring me silly. After that experience, I wasn’t exactly anxious for more. But, a lot of time has passed since then and now that my daughters are soon to be reaching the teenage years, my husband thought skiing would be the perfect family activity; after all, if you’re hitting the slopes, just about any teenager will hang out with you.
As soon as he began to bring this topic up last winter, I just nodded my head, hoping dearly that the notion would pass. Sure, it sounded fun—fun to someone else. After all, I hate to be cold, I hate anything that involves speed (in over 20 years of driving, I’ve never had a speeding ticket), I’m not very athletic, and I have a mild fear of heights. There was really nothing about skiing that sounded remotely pleasant or relaxing.
But my husband is the kind of guy who doesn’t ask for anything for himself very often and I did have to agree that this type family activity would keep us close as a family as my girls began to prepare to enter into the teenage years. He first had to teach the girls to ski, since he couldn’t handle three beginners (and one a very cranky beginner) at once, so I had a little respite last winter and was able to spend the season as a “lodge mom”. After the season, I decided that I was going to have to get some skis on and get out there, because as much as I wanted to sit in the lodge and knit all day, I was really going to miss out on time with my girls if I wasn’t on the slopes with them. In a burst of Christmas spirit, I suggested to my father that he give the girls ski passes instead of Christmas gifts this year, and once we had the passes, well, we just had to use them.
My stomach was in knots for days before my first day on the slopes. I was terrified—scared that I would injure myself, scared that I’d fall down, scared that I’d make a fool of myself. I hoped the truck might break down or an avalanche would happen—anything to keep me from skiing. But alas, the dreaded morning came and I bundled into my seemingly endless layers of clothing. I considered hanging onto the doorposts for dear life, but was finally wooed into the truck with the thought of knitting and potato chips. There was the hour drive to the mountain, which meant a lot of great knitting time, and the lunch—for those of you who heard my podcast on gluttony, you probably know that potato chips aren’t allowed in my house, but if you’re skiing, well, then you can justify an entire bag of those salted wonders—talk about being led by one’s stomach! So, almost entirely against my will, there I was, standing in the lodge signing up for a ski lesson, absolutely terrified.
We live just under an hour from one of the most beautiful ski areas in the nation, Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. Mt. Hood, at 11,249 feet, is a very big mountain. It is almost always visible in the Portland skyline and since I grew up here, I find it a subconscious visual marker as I go about my day. I remember moving to Boston for my husband’s seminary training and feeling somehow off-kilter the first few months. I suddenly realized that there was no mountain on the horizon to give a boundary to the city and I felt somehow exposed without a mountain at my back. My family has hiked this mountain for years, and we have many memories of being here: we started hiking with our daughters as soon as they could fit in a front pack and my oldest daughter rolled over for the first time on a picnic table at 6000 feet. We’ve spent summer camping trips on the mountain and we drive by it every time we head to our local monastery. The mountain is beautiful and austere, majestic and frightening at the same time. It is a glorious place, indeed.
I could appreciate all of this in the pleasant summer sunshine, when we were hiking in T-shirts and sandals, through alpine meadows, with a clear view of the Cascade Mountain range. But, in winter, when it was cold and blustery and I was layered in more clothes than seemed physically possible? I put on my rental boots and skis, which was an event in itself, and then stood there feeling like some terrified Michelin Man. OK, I thought, I can go home now. Where’s my potato chips?!
But, Ron, the fabulous ski instructor, came to my aid. Ron is well over 70, probably pushing 80, but he looks the epitome of skiing. He’s graceful and poised, moving on his skis as if he were just walking around. He was kind, yet firm. We are going downhill. We are not going to cry. We are going to learn the wedge. I looked at his weather-beaten, friendly face, and thought, I am going downhill. I am not going to cry. I am going to learn the wedge. OK. I was so terrified, I could barely breathe and my heart was pounding, but here was Ron and it was only the Bunny Hill (for those of you not in the ski-know, the Bunny Hill is the super-easy, super-short run that they start toddlers and little kids on—it’s about as elevated as a parking lot and the chair lift goes VERY SLOW). Ron got me off to a great start, giving me lots of advice and encouragement. I got down the Bunny Hill once and then twice and then 9 or 10 times. I liked the Bunny Hill. The Bunny Hill was perfect. Meanwhile, my girls were careening past me, having mini-races and jumping over any mound of snow they could find—“Hey, Mama, try this jump!”. “Right.” I thought.
The first few trips up, I stayed on the Bunny Hill. By my third time, I thought I was doing pretty well. I had just about mastered that Bunny Hill and I was actually beginning to be bored. “Wow,” I thought, “I’m actually bored with the Bunny Hill. How great is that?!” This was monumental progress for me because I had already warned my family that I might never leave the Bunny Hill. But, the fourth day up skiing came along, and I was ready to try something bigger. We left the Bunny Hill and within all of 30 seconds, I was ready to go back. We had to go down a slight slope to get to the “beginner” runs and I almost lost control. I was frustrated that I couldn’t control the skis and all of my efforts to control them seemed to make me more OUT of control. So, I went down part of the slope stuck in a permanent wedge, which for those of you who haven’t skied, is where you put your ski tips together and your ski “tails” (the back of your skis), out, like an upside-down “V”. It slows you down marvelously, but it also takes quite a toll on your quadriceps muscles, so your legs are on fire by the time you reach the bottom of the hill. You also do not look very graceful or athletic since the wedge seems to be accompanied by a facial expression combined of gritting the teeth and raising the eyebrows in terror. I didn’t even make it halfway down the hill until I came to a klutzy stop and paused for my first all-out adult temper tantrum.
I was absolutely furious with my husband—how could he take me down this run that was clearly beyond my skill level? How was I supposed to get to the bottom? There was no way I could do this! We now laugh at that day as being the maddest I’ve ever been at him. My daughters were nearby, so I had to get my temper under control so that I didn’t set a completely terrible parenting example. I got to the end of the run by putting my skis parallel to the hill and creeping one little step at a time down the hill and to the blessed chair lift. But, alas, even the chair lift was more difficult, since it went about 10 times faster than the Bunny Hill chair lift and all of these snowboard and ski dudes stood around, looking perfectly at ease. I managed to get on the chairlift without losing my skis and as we went just near the tops of the trees, I had to appreciate the magical beauty of the mountain. I was still slightly out of breath from exertion (and truth be told, the temper tantrum), but I could see that there was something up here and I had the first glimmer that I might, just might, want to keep on working to be a part of it.
So, each week saw me back at the mountain, a little less terrified and nervous. My progress was very slow and each week saw me getting little bits of the mechanics of skiing under my power. “Use your toes, don’t sit back on your skis, initiate the turn with the outside leg”. I was slow, but steady. I felt a more than a little foolish most weeks, since it wasn’t too many almost-forty moms who were up there learning to ski. But, we were having a great time as a family and, seeing how happy and rested my family was after a day of skiing, made me more and more committed to learning to ski.
Several weeks have passed since then, and now that I’m skiing on my own, I’ve had a lot of time for thinking about the discipline of skiing. Halfway through one run recently, as I enjoyed the pristine beauty of the mountain and the lovely, complete quiet, I considered how my experience learning to ski mirrored many of my Lenten experiences. Lent rolls around and it seems as if we have to convince ourselves to take on the spiritual disciplines anew, to put off the “old man” and put on the “new man”. My old man was the part of me that hated being cold and was cranky and fearful. My new man needed to be a cold, yet cheerful; scared, but willing; “not-sure-where-I’m-going” but trusting. I had to step out and brave some physical unpleasantness to experience a far greater thing. I wanted and needed to be with my family and it was their companionship and support along the way that made my experience so much sweeter. Our laughs on the chair lifts, our teasing each other about falling down or looking goofy—all of the things that would seem so embarrassing if one was alone, suddenly became humorous and charming because we were together. As a priest’s wife, I’ve seen this phenomenon countless times in church—someone feels a little awkward about standing up or sitting down or when to cross themselves or the chanters really muff it and then after the service everyone has a respectful little giggle about it. This shared experience is what keeps us connected which in turn enables us to encourage one another.
In Ron my wonderful ski instructor, I found the perfect counterpoint to a spiritual father. He was kind, but he was firm. He wasn’t going to let me sit outside the lodge in my ski gear and not get down that hill. He didn’t really want to hear if I was uncomfortable and miserable, he just wanted to see me get down that hill. Because he had taught many people, he was a good judge of my abilities and knew when I was ready to move onto bigger and better runs.
In moving onto those bigger runs, there were sections of each run in which I had to simply will myself down the slope. I was still quite scared of falling or injuring myself, but there would come times when I was standing on the middle of the run, looking down, convinced I couldn’t make it, but in my heart, I knew the only way was down. At one of these times, my daughter whizzed by me and shouted, “Hey, did you see what you just came down?!”. I turned to look where I’d been and realized that it looked a lot like what I was headed for. I’ve always wondered how we should approach our spiritual progress as Orthodox Christians—on the one hand, we want to always be in repentance and aware that we fall so short of the mark, but on the other hand, we don’t want to be so downcast that we fall into the passion of despair. Standing there in the middle of the run, I saw a parallel—I could see how far I had come and that I had indeed made progress, but I had trepidation about the rest of the slope. I was joyful at what I had accomplished, but the joy was well-tempered by the knowledge that I could still lose control on the way down.
Like Lent, part of what made skiing easier and easier each week was the routine. Goggles: check, hat: check, gloves; check. Potato chips: check. By this past trip, I could pack and get in the truck almost in my sleep. We didn’t need to discuss what needed to happen because everyone knew the routine. Less talk, more doing. In Lent, the same thing happens—usually by the second or third week, you’ve got this new routine down and it allows you to abandon yourself to the services wholeheartedly since you’re not focusing on the small stuff. Learning to ski required a certain level of discipline—I had to be up at the mountain at a certain time, I had to put in so many hours per day if I was going to make progress, I had to take care of my gear so it was ready for the next trip. But, if I followed through with the disciplines, then I had the reward of getting better and better at skiing.
This past week was a glorious spring skiing day. Ski season on Mt. Hood can go all the way through May, since the elevation preserves the snow pack. In fact, the US Ski team uses one of the glaciers on Mt. Hood for summer ski practice since it is the only ski run open anywhere in the US in the summer. So, spring skiing is a particular delight here in the Pacific Northwest. We threw all of our gear in the truck and headed out, knowing this would be our last ski day until after Pascha. The drive up had a holiday air, and we all sang heartily to Gospel music and looked forward to our day. The skiing was wonderful and after a couple of runs I found myself actually getting the hang of the swish-swish motion of turning, everything feeling a little more effortless and a little more pleasant. At our lunch break, we were able to sit in the back of our truck, since the weather was in the high 50s, eating our lentil soup (and potato chips!), thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Sitting there, basking in the warmth and my family, I finally felt like I belonged. I had a long ways to go, but I was here to stay. I was a skier!
May your journey to our Lord’s Cross and Resurrection be blessed.
Christ is Risen!