Friday, March 25, 2011

Falling Down the Hill

Noel taught me to ski when I was 43.  When I tell the story, I always start with the line, “It was brutal.”  When he tells the story, he begins by saying that I went down a black diamond run on my fourth day of skiing.  Both statements are true. 
He gave me skiis  and poles for my birthday.  As he was taking a picture of me with the poles I quickly leaned over and whispered in my son Joe’s ear, “Are those downhill skiis?”  I still remember the sinking feeling when he nodded. 
I’ve never considered myself athletic.  I had knee surgery in high school and didn’t even participate in gym. I never liked organized sports, and the closest I came to skiing was a bit of cross country.  I was always concerned about wrecking my knees so I didn’t do many other sports either.  Well, here I was with new downhill skiis, a new man in my life and a new sport to learn.  And I was worried.
So, just after Thanksgiving we went up to Big Mountain in Whitefish.  This was where Noel learned to ski when he was a child.  Back when he didn’t have the fear of falling.  Back when his only goal was to keep up with his big brother Larry.  Larry had told him, “You can ski with me and my buddies as long as you keep up.  If you don’t, you’re on your own.”  So, Noel kept up.  He skied fast, hard and beautifully.  Over the years he taught skiing, he’s been a ski patroller, and gliding down the mountain on two skinny sticks was second nature to him.  Oh my goodness, I was intimidated.  
The lessons started way before we reached the mountain, though.  I was taught how to put on rigid plastic boots, how to carry my skiis without looking like a dork; how to bundle up against the cold.  I had bags to carry my gear, double layer gloves to keep my fingers warm and a helmet to protect my head from the outside even though I really thought there was only something wrong with the inside.  Before I met Noel I had never owned a helmet.  Suddenly, I had a roller blade helmet, a motor cycle helmet, a bike helmet and a ski helmet.  At this point in our relationship I was still wondering why I was keeping company with someone who required such additions to my wardrobe.  But, I must admit, I was intrigued.
As we stood at the bottom of the beginner hill, I surveyed the other skiers.  Most were two- and three- year-olds snowplowing their way down the slope.  I was encouraged when I realized that there also were a few adults learning on their snowboards, so at least I wasn’t the tallest person there.  But, when Noel had to tell the tow rope operator that I was a first time rider, I felt pretty small.  Up we went, and I made it about halfway before falling down.  All he said was, “This is a pretty good place to start.”  And we did. 
While Noel skied down I fell down.  About the only thing I learned was how to get back up with those awkward boards attached to my feet, my hands encased in gloves that would not bend and two poles that seemed to be more trouble than they were worth. After falling my way down the beginner slope only once Noel announced that I was ready for a more challenging hill.  “Are you crazy?” I said, “I can’t even make it five feet without ending up with my face in the snow!” But, off we went to a hill where I had to learn how to get on a ski lift.  Again, I heard the term “first time rider”, the lift was slowed to allow me to get on as everyone in line watched, and up we went.  Noel used the entire ride to instruct me in how to get off the lift without falling.  By this time, my stomach was tied in knots and the higher we went up the hill the more I nauseous I became.  And, of course, as I got off the lift I fell.  I was incredulous when Noel said, “Good, you got off just fine.”  I only wonder what kind of upbeat comment he would have made if I’d been hit by the chair lift as it went by.  Perhaps, “Geez, it didn’t knock you out.  That’s good….let’s go.”
Well, just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.  Near the top of the hill, after I’d fallen about six or seven times and made it about twelve feet, I heard someone yell, “Hey Noel, how ya’ doin’?”  I was sitting on the snow with my skiis headed in nearly opposite directions and I looked up through ice-covered goggles to see a man and his pre-teen daughter looking down at me.  I was introduced as I was struggling to get back up, but to this day I have no idea who it was.  Nor do I want to know because they proceeded to follow us down the mountain, chatting with Noel, giving additional advice to me, and watching my every move.  Somehow, you just don’t want to meet new people and have them make comments like, “Wow, that fall was even better than the last one,” or “How is it that you grew up in Montana and never learned to ski?” But I made it down that slope despite my audience and all of their advice and gladly waved good-bye to them as they went off in search of steeper slopes worthy of their skill.
The rest of the day was pretty much a blur, as was the next.  Noel insisted that we ski two days in a row so that I wouldn’t forget what I’d learned the first day.  I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t in danger of that.  I’d pretty much learned only two things:  Number one….my mind was willing, but my body was confused, and number two…the best thing about my helmet and goggles was that I was pretty sure no one would recognize me later.  I really didn’t think I would ever be able to learn how to get from the top of the mountain to the bottom without spending half the time sitting on the snow.  I was honestly in awe of Noel who skied with such grace and ease. 
Well, the next weekend we went to Snow Bowl just outside of Missoula.  To say that I was dreading it would be a terrible understatement.  I felt humiliated that I couldn’t seem to learn this skill.  I was afraid of falling.  I was afraid of looking stupid.  I was afraid of ruining my knees.  But, mostly I was afraid that I would never be able to live up to Noel’s expectations.  The day started pretty much like the Big Mountain days had ended.  I fell my way down the slope despite Noel’s helpful advice and encouraging words.  He truly had the patience of Job.   I remember becoming so angry that I threw my goggles on the ground blaming them for my latest tumble.  “These damned things fogged up!  I can’t see where I’m going!”  Noel just reached down, handed them back to me and wisely didn’t say a thing. 
And then I think the angels intervened.  I was going along pretty well and had linked some fairly good turns, so I was feeling pretty smug.  I was headed for the left side of the run, but instead of turning I just kept going.  Well, the wind had drifted the snow over on that side and what I thought was the run was actually a big drift.  Both tips of my skiis augured into the snow drift, I released out of my bindings and went flying, doing a belly flop in a huge pile of Montana’s legendary powder.  Of course I wasn’t hurt because it was like landing in a pile of feathers.  Once I wiped the snow away from my goggles I looked back to see my skiis standing tips down, perfectly erect in the snow about six feet behind me.  And I can tell you that was the most fun I’d ever had on skiis.  I laughed and laughed until my sides hurt.  It took forever to claw my way back and get my skiis on, because I couldn’t stop laughing.  Noel said, “Wow, in all my years of skiing I’ve never seen anything like that!  You really know how to fall!”  And at that moment, something inside me just dissolved.  Suddenly I wasn’t afraid of falling anymore, or looking stupid, or not being able to impress Noel with my athletic prowess.  My attitude after that was more like, “What the hell!  Full speed ahead.”  Now I won’t say that I didn’t fall again or that I turned into a graceful skier, but somehow it was all just easier when I just let go of my fear.  I remembered the little ones on the beginner hill and how they seemed to embrace the whole experience.  Learning new skills for a child is an everyday occurrence.  They don’t care if the world watches or if they don’t get it right the first time.  They just keep plugging along and pretty soon they’re zipping down the mountain with a grin. 
 So yes…it was brutal at first.  But then, it turned into fun.  And yes…I did go down a black diamond run on my fourth day of skiing and I still remember how proud we both were of my accomplishment.  I’m sure it wasn’t pretty but I did it and that’s what matters.  Well, something else matters too.  Despite my fits of anger and my fear of looking stupid and my hesitancy to take on a new skill, we both persevered.  Noel stayed by my side with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement.  I would often say, “Why don’t you go off and enjoy a steeper run by yourself?”  But, he never did.  He always makes it clear that he taught me to ski so that we can ski together and I always know that he’s waiting for me just around the bend.  Last Sunday was our last ski day of the season and on our final ride up the lift he turned to me and simply said, “I love to ski with you.”  Oh my. How could he have said anything better?
Thank you, Noel.  Thank you for being by me side.  Thank you for the adventures.  Thank you for helping me to see with fresh eyes and for doggedly persisting in teaching me to embrace life. 
I love to ski with you, too. 
I've fallen for you. 
Can you tell?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pumpkin Bread

I've been into trying pumpkin concoctions lately and this whole wheat pumpkin bread did not disappoint.  I was worried that it was a bit crumbly, but then I didn't wait until it cooled to cut myself a healthy slice (who does, I wonder?).  But after I had my slice and let the loaf alone to cool, the rest was very moist and sliced nicely.  I only had one cup of pumpkin left over after I made pumpkin scones, but the recipe cuts in half easily to make one loaf.  
And if you use a terra cotta loaf pan inherited from your dear departed mother-in-law.  And if that loaf pan makes you smile every time you use it.  And if that loaf pan departs extra love into every loaf baked in it.  Well, so much the better.
Pumpkin Bread
2/3 cup butter or margarine
2 2/3 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 cups pumpkin
2/3 cup water
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. nutmeg
3 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, cream together shortening and sugar.  In another bowl, beat eggs and then combine with pumpkin, water and vanilla.  Combine egg mixture with creamed mixture.  Add baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and flour, stirring to blend.  Fold in nuts.  Pour batter into two greased 9 X 5 loaf pans.  Bake for one hour.  Remove loaves from oven and cool on a wire rack. Well, maybe you should cut yourself a slice before cooling just to make sure it's fit to eat.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stepping into the Flow

Several years ago I was working at the worst job I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some pretty crappy jobs throughout my life.  I’ve scrubbed toilets as a maid in a motel and as a janitor at the university. I’ve sewn 500 waistbands on men’s tennis shorts per day with floor managers breathing down my neck to make me sew faster. I’ve changed filters in air conditioning units making one hour’s work last a full eight (boring!) and I’ve helped deliver newspapers in the dead of night. 
But, this job wasn’t horrible because of my duties.  Instead, it makes the top of my worst job list because the management simply didn’t value their employees.  They continually made comments that left me and my co-workers feeling that we could be easily and quickly replaced.  We were left out of important decisions and the list of rules we were to abide by not only grew every week, but changed every week.   Although they pretended to listen to our concerns, our comments fell on deaf ears.  We felt that they only paid us lip service. But I stayed for several years.  Partly, I didn’t think that I could find another job in my field that paid as well and partly I figured that I could deal with my feelings by having a sense of humor.  I thought that if I laughed at the rules and the derisive comments I could somehow insulate myself.  Instead, I ended up becoming bitter and my humor quickly evolved into sarcasm and cynicism.  Rather than rising to the challenge and becoming a valuable employee worthy of inclusion in decisions, I turned into the kind that really should be replaced.  I hated going to work every day and they probably hated seeing me walk through the door.
But, more than anything I stayed on because I was fearful of leaving.  I had grown comfortable and complacent.  The thought of revising my resume, interviewing for another job and ultimately having to learn a new way of doing things with different co-workers and a different set of rules was daunting and downright scary.  I’d been working in long-term rehab for many years and I knew the ropes.  I also knew that unless I wanted to move to another town, which was impossible at the time, I would have to change settings.  This would mean embarking on a very steep learning curve at perhaps a clinic, hospital or school.  The thought of this left me with a knot of fear in my stomach.  So, I stayed and I didn’t learn new things; I didn’t give any more of myself than absolutely necessary and I simply collected my paycheck. I felt rotten.  I remember gazing out the upstairs window one night and making a desperate wish on the first star that my whole life would be different.
And then one day everything did change.  I remember being outraged as I was eating my lunch wondering how I could deal with the latest dictum from the management when my co-worker, Erin said, “Hey Shelley, here’s a want ad in the paper for an OT at a clinic here in town.  I didn’t even know they had OT’s down there.”  I didn’t either, but I said, “Let me see that,” as I reached for the newspaper.  I tore out the ad and kept it in my pocket all day.  That night, my resume came out and it really didn’t take too much to revise.  I applied for that job, fearing that I wouldn’t get it and also fearing that I would.  It was a totally different setting and my duties would be markedly different.  And then my current job blew up in my face.  It was awful.  And with that, the fear of moving on was finally less than the utter frustration of staying. 
I remember that time as if it was yesterday.  My emotions were so raw that everything that happened is indelibly imprinted on my brain.  I recall entire conversations with my old boss; I see myself interviewing for the new job and I feel the thrill when I received the call that I had been chosen for that job.  But, most of all I remember finally shedding the old me and embracing the change, the challenge and the new. I felt reborn.  I knew that I had a new chance to make it all better…to make it all right and to basically re-invent myself.  Finally, I wasn’t afraid anymore and I willingly accepted the steep learning curve and the new co-workers I would encounter and the chance to be and behave differently.  It was nothing short of exhilarating. 

 I’ve been thinking about those days lately because I revisited one of my favorite poems by Rilke.  This is an inspired translation by Robert Bly:

            This clumsy living that moves lumbering
As if in ropes through what is not done,
Reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
Of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
Is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
Into the water, which receives him gaily
And which flows joyfully under
And after him, wave after wave,
While the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
Is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown
More like a king, further and further on.

Clumsy living…lumbering…as if in ropes…awkward.  Yes.  That describes me exactly when I was trying desperately to make something good out of a terrible situation.  And yes, I clung to the familiar ground.  I clung to what I knew far longer than I should have.  And finally, the clumsy living became too much and I nervously let myself down into the unknown water.

I close my eyes and I feel the relief wash over my body again as I recall the openness, support and joy I found at my new employer.  I learned again what it felt like to be valued and trusted, and I was received gaily.  The learning curve was even steeper than I imagined, but it wasn’t a problem because I regained my passion for my profession and I delighted in learning new systems and treatment techniques.  What I thought would be difficult became enjoyable.  This new job was a combination of hand therapy which I knew, and pediatrics which I did not know.  I learned to love the children I treated and I found my true, authentic self in helping them develop.  And the water flowed under me joyfully, wave after wave, while I, marvelously calm allowed myself to be carried along…each moment more fully grown.  That job eventually led to my private practice where I treat children in their homes and schools and daycares.  And I continue to be carried along, knowing that in letting go of the familiar I am finally moving in the right direction.  I know this because it is almost effortless and because every day I rejoice in the simple, yet crucial triumphs of my children.  I love these children as my own and when finally after months of struggle a dear child can put together a puzzle by himself or when another can write her name, I willingly share their jubilation. 

And for now, it is enough to remember this lesson.  I want to learn this by heart so that the next time I resist change or fear the unknown I can take a deep breath, hold on tight and let myself down into the flowing water.  And then I will let go and wait for the transformation from the awkward lumbering to the calm knowing as I move further and further on.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What We Say

I was looking in an old file and found this essay.  I think I wrote it almost seven years ago, but it is a good reminder to think before we speak.

I got a call today from an occupational therapist who sees some of the same children I work with.  I treat them on a private basis; she sees them at school.  We were talking about different kids who really steal our hearts, and how hard it is to discharge them when they get better and don’t need us any more.  She said, “You know who really misses you is Tess.  We were working the other day and she kept talking about you and how she got to go to your house.  She was telling me about your teddy bear collection and she said that she was the only one who could play with the one with glasses.  I didn’t quite understand what she meant.”  I thought about it a bit, and then I remembered and understood. 

Tess is a beautiful blue-eyed, blonde-haired pixie of a child.  When she was three, her favorite possession was a pair of red patent leather boots.  She proudly wore them every day until she outgrew them.  We worked for several weeks so that she could fasten the zippers with hands that were not exceptionally coordinated.  I smile as I recall her dance of triumph around the treatment room when she finally was able to put those boots on by herself.  I treated her for several years and we simply adored each other.  Her one-hour treatment was one of the highlights of my week, and it was very difficult for us both when the day came that she really didn’t need me or occupational therapy anymore.

So, today’s phone conversation reminded me of the day she came to my house.   I had been meaning to have her over for a long time, and the opportunity finally came.  I picked her up at her house after school and she was obviously as excited to come as I was to have her.  I think that more than anything she was happy to get away from home.  She lives with three sisters and a brother in a tiny, cluttered three-bedroom mobile home.  Her mother runs a daycare and has four or five additional children at any given time.  Tess once told me that her only wish was for a little peace and quiet.  A pretty interesting wish for a seven year old.  I thought that at least she would find some peace at our house, even if it were only for a few hours. 

We stopped at the grocery store where she picked out frozen pizza and ice cream for dinner and then we headed home.  A little undivided attention and a bit of spoiling seemed to be just what she needed.  Little did I know that what she would treasure was just a chance remark on my part.  As we came into the house, her eyes lit up when she saw the teddy bears that live on the back of the couch.  I said, “You know, there are more downstairs.  Let’s go find them and I’ll also show you their clothes.” 
When we got to the downstairs bedroom, she immediately went to the mohair bear sitting on the bed.  It was my cherished bear that my brother Jack gave to me just before he died.  He gives me comfort every time I see him because I think that just a bit of Jack’s spirit resides somewhere in the stuffing.  I put glasses on him because he looks more like Jack that way.  I started to say, “No, Jess… you can’t play with that bear.”  But, something made me stop.  Instead, I said, “That is a very special bear.  I’ve never let anyone play with it.  But, if you’re careful, you can play with the bear with glasses.” 

That was almost a year ago.  I had completely forgotten about the whole thing.  But, here was Tess telling her school OT all about coming to my house, and the teddy bears, and saying with pride “and I’m the only one who gets to play with the one with glasses.”  I got to thinking about chance remarks, and what children really hear us say.  I thought that I would make Jess feel special with some extra attention and a junk food dinner.  And I did make her feel special, but not because of that.  She was honored just because she got to play with a teddy bear that was obviously treasured by me.

And what if the reverse had happened?  What if I had said, “No, Tess.  You can’t play with that…you might hurt it.”  How would she have felt?  What would she have remembered?  I think it’s often the offhand remarks that either harm or hurt our children the most. 

And now, I hold my brand new grandson who is innocent and fragile and oh, so impressionable.  If I can have any wish, it would be this. May my intended remarks make him feel loved and wanted and unique.  But, even more importantly, may my chance remarks make him feel loved and wanted and unique. 

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll let him play with the teddy bear with glasses.