A few weeks ago, I had minor surgery (although, pretty much any surgery feels major, so if anyone asks, I had major surgery). I was scheduled to go in at 9:30, but complications in a surgery before mine held me up a few hours. Anxiety ridden hours. It could have been the onset of sedation drugs, or my sudden vulnerability to tailwinds, or, you know, SURGERY, but I couldn’t help but feel nervous going under the knife, not just because of the operation but because of whatever mysterious error had caused its delay.
Post-op, things were great. Again, it could have been an offset of sedation, or the freedom I felt from a hospital gown’s breeze, but I was purely elated. My surgeon had nailed it. I had nothing to worry about.
Later that day, over a plate of syrup smothered pancakes, I kept on thinking about how kickass surgeons are. What mental game they must have. I talked to my mom about how surgery is like skiing (hang with me here, I was under the influence): even if one operation (read: race) goes wrong, you have to have the strength of mind to let go and do well on the next one. I already had the blog written in my mind, sedation jokes and everything, when my mom responded:
“But there will always be the one that breaks you, coming back from those are the hardest, the most important”
Classic mom. Yoda-wisdom-inception. We can deal out our advice on getting up when you fall, bouncing back, and not letting small results get you down. But what happens when you are completely broken? How do you come back from that?
I don’t know. But I think it takes a long time.
In my creative writing class this semester, our professor asked us to go to a place in nature and write about what we experience. In February, I went for a ski (surprise) with the best intentions of having an enlightened, energizing outdoor experience. I was going to write about the beauty and the winter in the kind of prose that would make Edward Abbey swoon. As you’ll read, I did not experience that kind of day. Instead, I traveled back to a place that made me feel broken, and finally acknowledged that I might still be picking up the pieces.
The spring time is a good time to run away from those feelings, but an even better time to acknowledge them. That way, when you build into the next year, you can actually come back stronger.
Ok, I’ve written too much already. Here is my essay. Enjoy (or something)!
I peer through the dusty window, catching a glimpse of the dark, wooden inside before my breath fogs up the glass. A rocking chair, bed frame and plainly sculpted desk fill the space. Cold and untouched. If it weren’t for the divot footprints of the pilgrims before me, I would deem that the cabin abandoned. I follow the tracks around the corner to steal another glance into an all but forgotten creative life. In the next room, a bookshelf rests with a bag of trash at its foot. No, a plastic trash bag, filled with books that once sat upon the shelves above them. Blasphemy, to have arts hidden by refuse packaging. It’s enough to dispel me from the property. I turn toward the meadow behind me, capturing the landscape in its perfect moment. The blue grey hills, their piney mane frosted on all sides, roll in the distance over the sleeping meadows. The sky fades from morning bright into afternoon ash, making the neon yellow of my skis jump at me from my peripheral. I walk over to them and clip in, as I’ve done thousands of times, and stand with my back to the old cabin.
“This!” I say, to one on particular, “This is where creativity lives!” With that I push off my mound and descend the icy hillside into the birchen woods. As I climb through the lines of trees, I think about Mr. Frost. For someone whose poetic output relied so heavily on the season, dude really hated winter. I don’t. Like Frost, my creative ability flourishes in the winter months, but in response to enlightenment, not loathing. Every time I strap on my skis, I know that I will leave the day better spent than it started. I know I’ll find optimism, I know it will keep me going. And that’s exactly what I expect for today.
However, today is not the image of beauty and perfection I wanted. The icy tracks rest under a dusting of snow, blown about throughout the night by the chilling winter air. The weeks old layers of grip wax on the base of my ski refuse to settle on sticking or slipping (the decision is just as much the trail’s is it is theirs) and I fumble my way up the narrow path by oscillating between slow steps and wild slips. The grace and ease I planned to find on this day are lost. I eye my watch as my heartbeats per minute bounce between 120 (too easy) and 140 (too hard) and become acutely aware of the sharp air infiltrating my layers and burning my skin. The tips of my nose and fingers begin to go numb, along with those of my toes (a gift from my mother and her mother in the form of weakening veins and frail digits). My breath rises before me only to repel backwards and secure itself upon my cheeks and eyelashes. Had I remembered my sunglasses, my eyes would have at least escaped the chill, but instead I must constantly reach up and wipe them clean of frost so that when I blink, a layer of ice won’t indefinitely seal them together.
The clouds sink into the trees, making for a monochromatic scene of greys and whites. Swarthy and discouraged, I work against the landscape and try to escape my own shadow as to-do lists and deadlines catch up to me. They tend to do so on longer skis. One final slip is enough for me to halt for a drink of water, shuffling to the side of the trail and sorting through my layers of zippers and Velcro to access my water belt. Dropping my poles to the icy floor in an earsplitting scratch and clank, I unscrew the plastic cap and lift the belt to my mouth. It’s empty. Of course it’s empty.
I roll my eyes and drop the belt. “Well, shit.” I exhale, to no one in particular. I glance up the trail, to another pair of tracks left atop last night’s snowfall. I turn and search the hills for their owner, spooked by the prospect of interaction; only to realize which direction the tracks come from. They belong to me. I am alone. At once, the silence of the woods engulfs me and beats at my eardrums with powerful passivity. Not even the sound of the highway endures these woods. The birch trees line up like soldiers without orders. They flow backwards in endless layers, each building upon the last. At their bases, a sea of white idles and grasps each trunk and holds them together like the strands of a spider’s most intricate web. I can see far into the brush, I can hear each falling twig or flapping wing for miles into the maze. That is what winter gives me. It gives me clarity. It gives me silence. It’s even beautiful when you’re not trying to use it.
Back on the trail, I step in and out of the groomed tracks. I experiment with which side skis faster, which gives me the most freedom. Now my skis are working. They glide and kick when I tell them to do so, and my body rides the terrain like a note rides a melody. Our natural frequencies dance and collide, making the most beautiful music I’ve never heard. I am reminded in that moment how much I need winter. It is my release, my exercise and my escape. I am wholly dependent on it for my happiness, I build my year around it, and chase it, like the obsessive lover I have become. Even now, as I gleefully cascade through the flowing winter air, I know that the highs of my love will only be defined by the lows.
And then I meet a fallen tree. Coming around a downhill corner, I nearly didn’t see it before it was at the tips of my skis. Carelessly thrown across the trail, its branches and bark stretch across the track. Chips and dirt from the carcass litter what had been perfect corduroy, and I wonder if the tree is a sister of another with which I also knew intimately last winter. The wreckage reminds me of the times the thick of Earth’s teeming snowfall has torn apart my blissful affair.
My mind reverts to a moment from almost a year ago, one that exemplifies the indifference these woods have to me, despite my daily exhibitions of admiration. It’s a moment that replays in my head on a daily basis, although most of the world forgot it happened before it was over. Broken and nonsequential, images of that day flash before me. First the tree, how it looked the moment before it struck, little more than a streak of Linden wood. The top of the hill, before the curve, I had gained so much time on the racer before me. She rose and pulled back to turn the corner, weary of its icy insides and threatening banks. I tucked and pulled forward, unafraid of the terrain I had made my friend. Cracking. The collision of limbs, human and ligneous, poles and skis thwacking and tumbling into a discorded, thunderous burst. Darkness.
I’m back now, looking at the cousin limbs lying across the trail in front of me. Lifting the body, I brush off the resentment that engulfed me moments ago. I move it off the trail, returning it to its domain and I to mine. I reflect on the moment past and conclude: It’s time I visit that tree. I work my way through the network of trails, one that, despite hours of exploration I still have yet to know completely. Pieces of trails have their significance based on their connections to certain workouts: the kicker where I learned about tempo, the downhill that taught me to step, the shortcut I always wished I could take, and of course, the tree that ended my season.
Standing in front of it, at the base of the descent (that today seemed elementary at best,) I feel a burning disgust in my stomach. We are silent again, but this time not in a good way. I examine its bark, looking for signs of trauma, hoping that I left some damage in my fall, some evidence to piece together my concussed memory. There is none. If I could just retrieve a clue, proof of our quarrel, perhaps I could resolve it. It looks untouched, unmoved. I must continue to live in darkness. An array of worn bark reaches up the trunk, creating sap and moss stained lattices up around the tops of the branches above. My mittened fingers grasp its lower right side, where I estimate to have been my strike point, and return covered in crumbled tree bark. But it shows no sign of change. Since my fall, I’ve dreamed of the vengeance I might feel if I stole into the woods one evening and sawed the entire tree down. I imagine the justice in its timber, the satisfaction of hearing it crack and slam into the ground. Now, in the deafening silence broken by my breath, I reconcile that hate. It wasn’t the tree’s fault.
Nothing inspires emotive hate better than unrequited love. I turn down the trail and make my way through the bending corners, following the lines and embankments designed to lead me through the entangled forest. There have always been moments where I’ve felt the environment react to me. When my shadow darkened the sky, when my smile reflected in the snow, when I thought my being coincided with the world around me. I ski over broken twigs groomed into perfect lines. I know that as long as I’m on this track, I’ll be separated from that which I thought I loved. Perhaps humanity’s strife with nature is one derived from our constant yearning for a connection with an entity that will never reciprocate.
And yet. And yet, as I emerge from the line of trees, I can’t help but notice that the sun shines brightly over the crystalline meadow where I had started. The humid air creating guazy frost knots, flakes floating daintily through the clearing. Was it like that the entire time I was in the trees? I stand for a moment, looking back toward my tracks in the shadows, thinking about the affair I have been chasing for so many years. Another glance toward the parking lot, bordered by the sparkle of the surrounding fields tells me that, for all the indifference and hurt and despair, the woods will be well worth another visit.