It's the birth month of a brand new year. Another 12 months have vanished, taking with them a year's regrets and accomplishments, its luck and meddle pulled into the flow of time. Perhaps you find yourself in a reflective mood: Now what? What will you make of the year ahead? I find myself recalling these rousing lines from a Mary Oliver poem: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?"
The poem is called "The Summer Day," but its message belongs equally to January, the official month of resolutions. January is traditionally a time for making commitments to beneficial habits and dropping less-wholesome ones. It's a time of stepping up and beginning again. For me, January is time to get out on my skate skis.
If you haven't seen skate skiing in action or tried it yourself, you may be confused. Well, is it skating or skiing? Skate skiing is where ice-skating and cross-country skiing meet. It's like dancing on snow. Instead of an ice rink, you have a groomed trail through the woods. Instead of skates you wear stiff, skinny skis and use tall poles. Good skate skiers are strong and graceful and make it look easy, though it's not easy, not in the least.
Skate skiing is one of the most demanding winter workouts you can find, but this isn't the source of my devotion. I'm a distinctly non-competitive athlete, motivated more by pleasure than by performance or fitness metrics. My husband wears a heart monitor and tracks his distance; I don't even wear a watch.
I love skate skiing because of how I feel when I'm doing it. Right now, that's not so great, actually. I'm breaking in my muscles, finding my winter groove, and it's painful, sometimes nauseatingly so.
But it's also exhilarating.
I love being in the brisk outdoor air -- just me and the low sun angling through the conifers. Sometimes a fox or a coyote trots across the trail. Sometimes I have music in my ears, but often not. I love being my own engine on the uphills and surrendering to gravity on descents. When I'm skate skiing, I'm both intensely in my body and intensely in a landscape. This makes me happy.
Even if I'm skiing without a partner, as I often do, I'm not alone in my bliss. Everyone at the cross-country center where I ski, near Lake Tahoe's north shore -- with a few rare exceptions -- is happy too. The ones who glide expertly across the snow and those who tightly grip their poles and wedge down every moderate slope. There is something about snow that invites delight. Maybe it dates back to making snow angels and sledding. Snow makes the inner child want to cavort and frolic.
It doesn't matter that I know the groomed trails by heart and ski them over and over in the course of a season. Snow transforms a familiar landscape into a clean slate, and this transformation gladdens the heart. I think that's what we love about snow, those of us who do love it: its very transience. We know it won't stay, and thus we adore it. The same goes for skate skiing. That I can't do it all year long only makes my appreciation keener. Right now, what I want to do with my one wild and precious life is to give all my weight to a pair of skis and glide through the forest.
But before every glide, there's usually a grunt. I don't want to say "No pain, No gain." There isn't really gain from a Zen perspective -- even if I get in good enough shape to make it to the top of the hill without my legs turning to mush and my lungs seizing up. That's just me skiing in January and me skiing in March. Zen practice has taught me that it's possible to embrace pain -- or at least to open to it -- and not just to want the glide without the grunt. The trick is to enjoy January for January and March for March, not expecting one to be the other.
Tomorrow, despite stiff legs and sore feet, I'll be out there skate skiing again. Maybe I'll feel a tad stronger and smoother than I did today, or yesterday. Maybe not. But I'll be smiling, grateful for January's particular gifts. Whatever it is you have resolved to do in the new year, I hope you find not only challenge but also ease and happiness in your effort!
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