My husband is an excellent ski instructor. As a child, he went skiing for a week or so every year, starting in preschool – so by rights he should be a lousy instructor, because skiing is second nature to him. But he is a keen observer – of people above all – and so he is very good at passing on the skills he has, even when passing them on requires taking a totally different approach than the one he himself used.
We went skiing this weekend for what was only the fourth time in my life (although arguably the first time, when I was 15, might more accurately be described as downhill careening.) As when we went two years ago, my husband was shepherding our young daughter down the hill. Which meant that I was only semi-supervised: whenever he and Hannah were at a standstill, Brian would turn to me and give me a pointer and a half before needing to return his attention to Hannah, who within those 20 seconds or so had taken to happily chomping on well-travelled over snow.
As we headed from the plateau where the chair lift had deposited us to the slope, Brian asked me, “What do you need to know?” “I think I’m in good shape right now,” I replied confidently. About 20 meters downslope, all too aware that I was now going too fast for me to control, I threw myself down in the snow. Brian looked back, not having seen what led to my now comically rag-doll evoking posture. To the amusement of a pair of snowboarders, sitting together a few meters upslope, I shouted to him (I hope) good-naturedly, “I wish I had asked you how to stop!”
Once I was upright, I made my way the short way down to Brian and Hannah – where he made this suggestion: “Go a little slower, a little easier than you are comfortable with. That way, when you hit a spot where you speed up (as you inevitably will), you won’t be going faster than you can handle.”
And with that, I made it down the rest of the slope with a lot more enjoyment and less anxiety. And I had a good time down the slope the next time, too – even though we took a more difficult initial approach. At the end of that last run, I thanked Brian – that had been the advice I was most needing to hear to improve my skiing: not to push it. The mountain would push me more than enough.
As I pulled into the parking lot at my daughter’s preschool yesterday, I was driving faster than I ought to have been – I was running late, having once again allowed one minute less than I would have needed to get there under perfect conditions. And, as usual, the conditions were less than perfect. As I came around the corner of an SUV parked at the end of a row of cars, I braked less than a car’s length from a little boy who had wandered away from the truck’s open door. Brian’s advice came to me again at that moment, adjusted for the situation: “Allow a little more time than you need to. That way, when delays come (as they inevitably will), you won’t be late and inattentive and almost knock down a preschooler.”
I spend so much of my life careening downhill. I take on one more responsibility, I add one more skill, I invite one more person – I test my limits – right up to the edge of what I am comfortable with. Without accounting for all of the things I cannot account for! That is, I forget that the mountain will push me more than enough – that life throws all sorts of things at us that we were not counting on, and that we had not made time for in our schedule.
In our culture we celebrate (mostly) men (and some women, too) who pushed themselves to their limits and “achieved great things.” That they cannibalized half their expedition team, even after learning from the earlier mistakes of six other people who died making the same attempt – that sort of thing is best brushed over. What we consider to be “achievements” says a lot about what we expect of ourselves and each other as a culture.
As for me, I am learning that I am not cut out for careening. I am not interested in seeing “how fast this baby can go” and losing myself on a forgotten hairpin curve. Sure, there are emergencies that call for taking a chance on fast and edgy – life will push us more than enough. But in the meantime I am going to stop trying to figure out how to prove how much I can do and how fast I can do it. Instead of speeding up, what I need right now is to slow down.