Bad Skier

“I can’t do it.”

I’m paralyzed in the middle of an intermediate ski run yelling helplessly at my dad, eight feet below me. My skis are completely sideways and I’m trapped by the sensation that if move in any direction, I’ll plummet to my death in a tumbling ball of wet, sticky, snow.

I see my dad pause to evaluate his response before giving it. I can tell he’s skeptical about the gravity of my peril.

“Get parallel to the fall-line, Boney.”

I heard that phrase countless times growing up on the icy slopes of Northern California, but am still uncertain what it means. I imagine it’s something like: point your skis down the mountain like a normal person and let’s get on with it, I don’t have all day. My dad is practical, scientific and ever attentive to accuracy and precision. He taught me how to ski the same way he does everything else.

My heart rate quickens as the initial distress intensifies into full fledged panic. If my dad can’t help me, I’m doomed.

Twenty years later, I am still a terrible skiier. Inexcusably bad. I’ve skiied almost every winter since I was five years old. My progress feels equivalent to the time scale of evolution. I’m convinced I’m entitled to some unusual and dubious honor as the world’s most experienced beginner.

Skiing, even more than my yoga mat, is an oversized magnifying mirror for my worst traits. Most notably, my inability to relinquish control (of everything) and (not unrelated) the way fear interferes with living my fullest life.

At the top of each ski run, I breathe in a fresh gulp of mountain air. I am relaxed and energized. I am inspired by my surroundings and excited for the opportunity to begin again.

As soon as I am moving, my energy shifts. My body is tense, my jaw muscles tight. I feel my elbows lock against my rib bones, bracing for  imminent disaster. I am suddenly without balance or coordination. The loss-of-control feeling overwhelms the entire experience, rendering me hopelessly unskilled and pathetically flailing.

At the bottom of the ski run, I let out a deep sigh. My face softens and my arms relax.

Between the tension and relief is a moment of confusion, “who was that up there and why did she do that?”

In the aftermath, I promise myself to do better next time.

It’s not all angst and discomfort. Sometimes I take three or four turns in a row feeling light and effortless. Occasionally, I find just enough calm to make contact with what it’s like to really ski. I let go of the need to control it: the snow, the other skiiers, the conditions, the outcome, and find the freedom to move gracefully, with purpose and ease. Each glimpse of my potential, fuels hope for my future as a downhill enthusiast. So far I’ve had just enough of them to prolong my inevitable resignation to failure and retirement from the sport.

In my life, I am similarly skilled and capable, but frequently blocked by fear. I want to be assured of a result before I am willing to explore the unknown. The voice of risk silences the allure of reward. I have the tools to navigate, but am frequently dragged off course by my resistance to letting go. I battle anxiety at the top of every new run, and beat myself up at the bottom for what I didn’t do right.

Recently, I resist pursuing my biggest dream in the face of paralyzing fears. I know what I have to do, but get bogged down in swampy, self-doubting thoughts. I have everything I need to move forward, but hesitate each time I start to take off.

Love in Southeast Asia: At the Top of the World

Damn it’s hot here.

The four word mantra that never gets old.

My travel partner, the manliest man I know, is wearing a Sarong to increase ventilation. And happiness. And sex appeal.

Maybe not that last one.

The heat is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This includes all eight years of summer camping in Sacramento.

At 2 p.m., we leave our lavish accommodations. Even the synthetic magic of Luon can’t keep my shorts from getting stuck between my butt cheeks.

The mood in the van is part excitement, part dread.

At the base of the rock fortress we learn about killer wasps. The top of the rock is covered in wasp nests the size of my (old) mini cooper. Everywhere we look we see handwritten warning signs in questionable English translations.

In our group of seven, there are several bee allergies and at least one paralyzing fear of heights.

Morale is plummeting.

Amidst an enthusiastic debate about the proper way to survive a wasp attack, our rail-thin, wide eyed, Sri Lankan guide appears. Neil. I feel attached to him immediately. He has sunken eyes and a long face. His hair looks like Donnie from New Kids on the Block, circa 1991.

We follow Neil fifteen shuffling steps to a rectangular ditch carved into the red clay dust.

At first, he speaks softly. I turn my body to the right and aim my good ear at him.

He explains about the fortress. About the King who buried his dad alive in the side of the rock. He tells us about Buddhism and Karma, and that, when it finally came to him, the King had it coming. We learn about the 500 concubines and natural irrigation. One by one, each of us is pulled in.

The group energy is shifting as we make our way towards the first of over five thousand steps.

Neil talks about the fortress like he grew up in it. We all feel transported. The eroded cliffs take the shape of a thousand years ago.

We climb up a spiral staircase that juts out over the edge of the rock face. Looking down feels nauseating, and exhilarating, all at once.

A landing at the top of the staircase marks the base of the highest point on the fortress. Two giant lion paws reach out from the base. We look up and see the wasp nests. At first they look like solid masses of black ash. When we look closer, we notice the wasps are moving in a constant, rhythmic wave. They look industrious. And threatening. They’re up there buzzing about how they’re going to kill the next batch of tourists.

“Awesome.”

A makeshift tent houses two racks of dark green protective suits. We measure ourselves against them, make our choice, and zip-up.

“Let’s do this.”

Thin metal slats run straight up the side of the rock. We take each one gingerly but efficiently. Every time I look down I get woozy. Every time I look up, I see the wasps.

10 minutes inside my suit and my entire body is covered in sweat. The whipping wind feels cold against my skin.

“Do I really feel cold right now?”

I squeeze everyone in celebration.

“We made it.”

Instantly, it’s the most incredible experience of my life.

“It’s like we can see the entire country up here.”

I lean into the wind and take in my deepest breath of the trip. I open my eyes and notice the clouds are touchably close and the ground is almost invisible.

The seven of us sit perched on a ledge overlooking miles and miles of undeveloped, tropical beauty. For the first time I feel like my friends are my family. I feel proud of them, and grateful for each of them making it all the way up here. I feel lucky to have this experience and joyful that we made this journey together. I want to look each of them in the eyes and tell them I love them.

Everything is clearer at the top of the world.

Love in Southeast Asia: "I’m not going"

“I’m not going”

I posted a sign on my bedroom door a week before our family vacation to New England. I used red marker and underlined each word individually. I concluded the sentence with three exclamation points to convey the seriousness of my position.

In the summer of 1995, I had already survived two airplane flights. On flight number one bound for Honolulu, I unbuckled my seat belt and attempted to charge for the exit as we taxied away from the jetway. It took my mom thirty minutes to convince me that I’d missed my opportunity to get off the plane.

During our flight home, I tortured the middle aged woman next to me by crying uncontrollably and shifting anxiously back and forth in my seat for four consecutive hours. As soon as the plane landed, I decided I would never fly again.

I’m still not sure what combination of motherly voodoo and parental control of my free will got me to Boston, but it was the last trip my family took on an airplane. It was the last place I flew anywhere for vacation.

In the weeks leading up to my trip to Asia I made a mental “I’m not going” sign ten or twelve times. I imagined all of the terrible things that might happen to prevent me from making the trip. I’d calculate how much money I’d already spent and immediately decide that my emotional well being was worth at least that much. I’d sit wide awake in bed and count the hours before my first flight.

The morning of my departure, I indulged one more time in the contemplation of bailing on my trip.

“My friends will understand.” “I have the rest of my life to travel” “Maybe I’ll get therapy, or hypnosis.” “I’ll get on an airplane when I’ve recovered from the fear.”

I pictured my eleven year-old self in the Salem Witch Museum on that New England vacation. I remembered feeling completely transported and totally mesmerized. It was my favorite stop on our trip. My mind flashed on every memory of my childhood that required me to get on an airplane.

I counted seventeen years that I’d refused to fly.

I got out of bed and started moving.

At 10 a.m. my friends arrived at my apartment to pick me up.

At 11, I checked my bag to Bangkok.

I shoved my yoga mat through security, ate a yogurt parfait and texted my mom.

I kept moving.

I buckled myself into seat 16G. Before I could even think about escaping, we were up in the air.

“Shit,” I thought.

I guess I’m going.