Thursday, March 05, 2009

Looking Up

As I've mentioned before, I like to ice skate. When I was in elementary school, our yard had a low area that would fill up with rain water and then freeze over seasonally, making a small pond for us to skate on. My favorite Christmas gift ever was my first pair of beautiful white figure skates.

Late fall and early winter I would check the pond daily, usually when I was walking home from school, to see if it had frozen over yet. As you might have guessed, I fell through the ice many a time in my impatient anticipation. Fortunately, it wasn't more than a couple of feet deep at its deepest point, so falling through meant nothing more than wet boots and cold feet.

Our ice rink was small and had no real straightaways. There were small trees growing up here and there in the middle of it. It was ideal for playing tag and keep away and other games that built speed, balance and coordination, but not really conducive to learning what I really longed for: skating backwards.

My girl scout troop took roller skating lessons together and I tried to learn to skate backwards there, too. I remember the skating backwards lessons and I remember just not getting it, like the other girls seemed to. I'm not sure how I passed that section satisfactorily, but somehow I did. I have always been good at faking it, I guess. From then on, when "backwards skate" was called during the open skate times, I always conveniently needed a bathroom break or a Laffy Taffy from the snack bar.

I never did learn how to skate backwards, be it on four wheels (two sets of two, front and back, of course, none of this roller bladey business) or a blade.

This winter, I've been taking the kids ice skating in town every Monday afternoon--discount day at the open air ice rink. The kids generally bring or find friends to skate with, leaving me to skate alone for the duration. I've been using the time to make myself learn to skate backwards finally. It has been a slow and frustrating process, but I always like a challenge, so that is how I am approaching it.

This week I finally started to improve a little. I could flip myself around from forwards to backwards fairly smoothly and keep moving along backwards, but as my momentum ran out, I would slow to a crawl. Again and again I forced myself to turn around and try it again, being both athlete and demanding coach, all in one.

As I began to fatigue, I decided to up the difficulty level a bit and try turning backwards instead of just working the straightaways, but this was more difficult, as I had to watch where I was going more.

But it was in the more difficult turning that I had a breakthrough. I stopped looking at my feet and started looking over my shoulder to see where I was going and to watch out for falling children. It all happened so suddenly that I was startled and nearly lost my balance and crashed to the ice. As I looked over my shoulder through the turn, I was skating backwards! Not just coasting with the momentum I'd gained from forward motion before I turned around, but actually reverse. It was as if, by taking my concentration away from my own feet, studying and analyzing my movements as I'd been doing, they suddenly went into auto pilot and knew exactly what to do. I just had to look up, get a grander perspective, focus on the larger picture and stop worrying about my own ridiculously meager efforts.


Two or three weeks ago, after our ice skating session, Elli and I dropped Tano off at his fencing lesson, which is conveniently scheduled with just enough time for us to take off our skates, jump in the car, grab a quick bite to eat and drive to, only a few miles away. Just as we dropped him off, one half of the sky turned dark and gloomy and it began to rain, but the late afternoon sun shone brilliantly on the other side, like cosmic battle lines drawn in the sky. It was the blue and the grey all over again.

I craned my neck and looked out the windows of my car, still parked in the lot where we'd dropped the boy off. It had to be there, the rainbow, I just knew it. I twisted and contorted my body every which way my seat belt would allow, but I couldn't see anything. I hadn't been rainbow hunting for years, but it was time. The conditions were ideal--a dramatic sky and no where we needed to be for an hour and a half.

Rainbow hunting had been a favorite hobby when we lived in Vancouver, Washington. I had two very small children then, an age that has never really been my favorite, and I also suffered a bit from the long and dreary, muddy, damp and grey winters. The best way to beat the PacNW blues, at least the best way that didn't cost much money that I'd found, was to go rainbow hunting if there was any trace of sunlight in the sky. Living there, sun breaks had to be celebrated, like a rare summer rain is celebrated in a dry land like the one wherein I now live.

So the kids knew. My son even learned, very early on, to recognize prime rainbow conditions. The light was different, dramatic. I would look at him. He would look at me. Rainbow weather! We would jump in the car and drive aimlessly (obviously, this was before gas prices went up), searching the skies. If we found one, a great cheer would rise from my little car and we would treat ourselves to something, anything special. It might be a tromp around a muddy playground, if the kids had their rubber boots on. It might be an ice cream cone at McDonalds, if I had scraped together the change from under the couch cushions. If a rainbow wasn't found, we would skip the treat, but go home happy, having killed a bit of time and enjoyed the excitement of the hunt.

So here we were, Elli and I, poised to go chasing after the rainbow that must be out there somewhere. But as we pulled out of the parking lot, I hesitated. Some people have an internal compass built right in. I do not. In Vancouver, Washington, I always knew basically where I was. I lived there long enough to know my way around very well, and even when I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, the mathematical numbering systems of the streets could tell me exactly where I was and which direction I needed to go.

Vancouver is divided cleanly into four quadrants. Almost all roads are numbered rather than named, and labeled clearly with an indicator of what quadrant they are in, NW, NE, SW or SE. Streets run east-west; avenues ran north-south. By looking at the address of any building, you can tell immediately where you are, and by looking at the next number, you know exactly which direction you are heading. It's boring as all get out (my four homes there were on NW 78th St., NE 20th Ave., NE 179th St., and NW 112th St., respectively), but it is extremely functional. But back to the story...

Missoula, for me, is an all together different story. I have never really had a good sense of direction. I get turned around very easily and have to have driven a route many, many times before it really feels comfortable to me. Consequently, in Missoula, which I rarely go to more than once a week, and sometimes far less than that, I am not really comfortable with anything other than the handful of routes I have memorized to and from the places I have to go with some regularity. I don't know many street names, only landmarks, so if I don't recognize any landmarks, I'm hopelessly lost.

But the rainbow was out there, I knew it.

I had an hour and a half. If I didn't know where I was after forty-five minutes, I'd spend the rest of the time trying to figure out how to get back to pick my son up. We would find that rainbow. Elli cheered. It had been so many years, but she remembered the joy of rainbow hunting.

I blew caution to the wind and turned on to an unfamiliar street in the direction I knew the rainbow would have to be--toward the darkest part of the grey rain clouds, directly opposite the soon-to-be-setting sun. And there it was. It was an excellent one, a full bow arcing across the sky. We could see both ends.

I chose the brighter end and began to chase it down, obeying traffic laws and trying to be conscious of the cars with whom I shared the road, but with one eye constantly on the brilliant glow of colors in the sky. "That way, Mama!" Elli would yell, and we'd change course, laughing and enjoying ourselves immensely. We turned left, then right, then left, then right, then left again, cutting a jagged diagonal through town toward the pot of gold. Where was Los Coyotes Diagonal, in Long Beach, California, when I needed it?

We chased that rainbow right out of town and sighed as we realized it was now over the hills, out of reach of roads. Our hunt had come to an end.

I blinked my eyes and tried to snap back into reality after our joyous and fanciful flight. Where were we? I had no idea. Nothing looked familiar at all. I had a moment of alarm, but then felt a hunch, a sense of which direction I needed to go to get back to fencing lessons. Generally, I ignore such hunches, as they are invariably wrong. I often choose just the opposite instead, having learned from experience not to trust my warped sense of direction. But this time it felt different, not like I knew which way to turn onto any one particular street, but like I knew which general direction I needed to go, and could use any main streets to get there.

With absolute precision--not a single wrong turn--I arrived back from whence I'd come, and in plenty of time to stop at the Good Food Store nearby (my favorite grocery store by far) for a small treat, the traditional reward for having chased down a rainbow.

I had done it. To anyone else, this would have been no big deal, but to me, it was monumental. I had effectively found my way across unfamiliar territory, not by following a map or taking meticulous note of street names or landmarks, but by doing just the opposite. I had paid more attention to the sky than the roads I was traveling on, and drove back by feel, rather than by careful consideration.


These two experiences, although they occurred a couple of weeks apart and might seem to the casual observer to be completely unrelated, have somehow linked arms in my mind.

In both instances, I took my eyes off of the immediate, off of the details, off of the worries and concerns of the moment, whether they be at my feet or at the stoplight. And both times, when I looked up, when I strove for a broader perspective, a bigger picture, I found I had exactly what I needed.


Mister Ed T said...

Skating backwards, something I never really mastered either, a necessary skill for a defenseman.

Chasing rainbows was never a problem when I was growing up on the farm. Wasn't much to get in the way of seeing them. They are beautiful, even if you can't reach the pot of gold.

Your conclusions. I could make a sermon out of that.

Anonymous said...

This was a really good read! Thanks, Sherry!

CML_Shearings said...

Loved your take-off on these two experiences. I also had trouble learning to skate backwards & never did become proficient. I may try your broader perspective idea if I get the chance again.