It’s rare to be a beginner as an adult. As kids, “beginner” described our lives. Everything a kid does is new. They’re inexperienced and unafraid of grabbing a sweet potato and peeler for the first time ever and skimming the blade over the peel without hesitation.
But as adults, we almost never put ourselves in the position of not knowing how to do something. We drive our cars via muscle memory, we do the laundry out of habit, we’re confident in our careers and we know how to peel sweet potatoes without impaling ourselves. This makes our lives stable, secure, predictable and perhaps a tad too rote.
Earlier this year, I made myself a beginner. A complete and total beginner.
I Learned To Ski
My husband, two of our friends and I took an adult learn-to-ski class starting in early January. At the first class, I didn’t know how to put on my skis. And as soon as I did, I fell over.
Our instructors started us out on the miniature bunny slope, an imperceptible incline I’m not sure a ball would roll down. Never mind, I still managed to fall over not only while going down this “hill,” but also while getting onto the magic carpet* that takes you back up the hill. I actually fell OFF the carpet and into the snow, taking out another class member with me, necessitating that they: 1) turn off the carpet; 2) come help me get back up. To say I was a beginner is an understatement. I was a remedial beginner.
Once I could reliably get up and down this minute slope (which I later learned is intended for teaching three-year-olds how to ski…. ), our instructor took us up the larger bunny slope. This slope is accessed by a bigger magic carpet and, remaining on-brand, I fell off this carpet into the snow and tangled my skis up so badly they had to: 1) turn off the carpet; 2) come help me get back up.
I didn’t feel my usual confidence. I was embarrassed at how abysmal I was. But I also didn’t want to quit. There was a lot of adrenaline going into each movement I made on skis and I felt like a different person. So I got back on the carpet and went to the top of the hill. Then I wanted to quit.
*A magic carpet, I’ve learned, is a people mover/conveyor belt that propels you back up the mountain while you stand on it in your skis. Most preschoolers can do it without any problem. No problem whatsoever.
The Big Bunny Hill
This hill does not look steep from the bottom. This hill looks like Mt. Everest when you’re on top of it. I considered my options. The carpet only goes one way so I couldn’t ride back down. I could take off my skis and walk down, but I was almost as bad at walking in ski boots as I was at skiing, so that wasn’t attractive. I could pass out and force the ski patrol to cart me down in their rescue sled, but then they’d probably ban me from the mountain. Or, I could close my mouth, open my eyes and listen to our instructor.
I watched as he showed us how to make a pizza shape with our skis, which slows you down. I watched as he demonstrated a turn and then told us to glide over to him and execute a pizza stop. I pointed my skis in his direction, sailed towards him, broke into a grin, and fell at his feet when I executed my pizza stop. But I got up by myself that time. To say there was a lot of falling would be another understatement. A gross understatement.
I went up the magic carpet and down the big bunny slope in my pizza wedge so many times I learned the names of all of the carpet operators. They’d wave at me, riding up the carpet surrounded by other beginners (mostly four-year-olds) and I’d plow down that hill, my back rigid with fear, my legs bowed into the triangle that saved me from picking up speed, my arms clamped into the “driving a car” position we were told to emulate with our poles.
After three weeks of bunny slope-only practice, our instructors told us it was time to go up the chair lift. I disagreed. I figured I could be a full-time bunny sloper. I’d be out there in ten years, riding up the carpet with each year’s crop of preschoolers, happily wedging my way down the hill, going so slowly as to barely meet the definition of “to ski.” But my friends, my husband and our instructor encouraged me on. Actually, they said nothing; it was sheer inertia. Everyone else in the class went over to the chairlift so I followed, mute with trepidation.
The Chair Lift of Terror
It wasn’t so much the skiing part of it, it was more the heights part of it. I am terrified of heights. Correction: I was terrified of heights until last month. Just looking at the chairlift elicited that horrendous stomach feeling indicating, “run away!!!” Getting on it seemed an impossibility, but I ended up sitting on a chair in between two very reliable people: my husband and our 65-year-old instructor. They were chatting about…. I have no idea, making maple syrup possibly?… while I gripped the bar and wondered if anyone had ever thrown up on an instructor BEFORE starting to ski for the day.
I was nauseous, sweaty (hard to do when it’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit) and dizzy. My mouth was two layers of sandpaper interrupted by a tongue that was out of commission. We made it off the chair lift without incident because the lift operator stopped it for us (on account of seeing me, I imagine) and we were headed down a hill. An actual, real hill that people ski down. Briskly.
That first descent took us over 30 minutes and the only thing I remember is terror. I don’t like heights, speed or feeling out of control, all of which makes my choice to learn skiing highly questionable. But I was already committed. Lessons had been paid for, a chair lift had been ridden. Down that mountain we went, methodically making our pizza turns, carefully stopping at each junction, not dying. Then we got BACK on the chair lift and did it again.
Each time up the lift, my neck eased a bit out of its self-imposed shackle. By the fourth ride up, I was able to turn my head and talk to the person next to me. I reduced my grip on the bar to just one hand. I was able to dismount while the chair lift was still in motion.
And then the repetition set in. I watched videos on how to ski, I read tutorials on how to ski. These did not help. I listened to our instructors–that did help–but nothing helped as much as doing it.
Over and over I rode that chair lift, each time easing the tension in my shoulders, each time able to rotate my head a little more until yesterday, I realized I was riding up with arms splayed across the back of the chair, my legs dangling free between the bar, my poles resting in my lap, my head rocked back to see the clouds, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” playing on my iPhone. The teenage boys in the chair in front of me were 100% judging my music choice, but just try to change my mind that Bonnie Tyler is amazing.
The radical shift from terror-inducing torture to ENJOYABLE ride up the mountain shocked me. At our most recent class, one of our instructors told us we were skiing too stiffly. Yes, I thought, we are trying not to die.
He said, “I’m 72 years old, I’m retired and I love being out on the mountain teaching you people how to ski, but you need to loosen up. This is not work, this is not drudgery, this is fun! I want you to sing a song and dance while you ski.”
My husband nominated “Stayin’ Alive” as our theme song, which seemed a bit on the nose to me, but the beat totally worked. We skied better than ever with the Bee Gees in our heads. I rolled my shoulders back, I let my poles relax to my sides, I… had fun.
My First Black Diamond
I turn 38* in March and I skied my first ever black diamond last month. I also skied my first ever bunny slope, green trail and blue trail this year. I put myself in the position of being a beginner. I allowed myself to be vulnerable, to look ridiculous, to admit I didn’t know something and to listen. Not knowing how to put your skis on while kindergartners zip past you isn’t a great feeling.
Most of the time, I don’t try to be a novice, I try to do things I already know how to do. But there’s something liberating about putting yourself in the position of not knowing. I went into my ski lessons with no preconceived ideas, no need to prove anything, with no one expecting anything from me. I could just be a beginner, ready to learn.
I now ski as often as I can, which is facilitated by the facts that:
- Our local mountain is only 30 minutes from our house (that’s right next door in rural Vermont!).
- We have season passes, so I’m not paying for lift tickets each time.
- Kidwoods participated in the ski program with her school AND took lessons, so I ski with her at least twice a week.
- My husband learned to ski so it’s something we enjoy doing together.
- Littlewoods is learning to ski on the magic carpet with all the other four-year-olds. She has yet to fall off it.
I’m obsessed with flying down the mountain, improving my turns, learning to carve (I fall on my hip every single time) and with the realization that this will hopefully be a lifelong hobby for me and for my family. Kidwoods already likes to ski the full day (9am-4pm) and begs me to take her more often, which gives us an incredible chance to bond over a shared love. I feel less like a parent and more like a friend on our ski days. Unlike me, she had no problem going up the chair lift and sailing down the mountain. She’s the one who goaded me onto the black diamond and I have to say, she was right, it really is the best trail.
*I used a calculator to confirm this and yep, this year is 38. I think I thought I was turning 38 last year, so there may be inconsistencies in previous posts. But the math proves it, THIS year is 38.
Give Yourself The Gift of Being a Beginner
I’m already dreading the end of the ski season and casting around for what I can learn next. Maybe how to play the guitar? A chainsaw safety course? Stand-up paddle boarding? Some other warm weather sport?
I feel like I’ve opened a new willingness inside myself to be a beginner. To enjoy the process of learning something from the ground up. It hadn’t occurred to me how much I craved this novelty until I tried it.
I imagine new neural pathways lighting up with the remarkable experience of learning, with the gift of being a beginner.