When I was eight years old, I crashed into a tree.
This is not to say that as a result I now suffer from deformities, bodily or otherwise, or that I have an irrational fear of trees. It was a trip to the skiing capital of California during the Ski Week of my second grade year. What kind of a school has a Ski Week? I could just picture our head of school sitting at her desk, spinning around in one of those polyester swivel chairs you can only find at IKEA. Cackling to herself: “Now they’ll all be forced to go skiing for a week. And I don’t even like skiing!”
Even at eight, I questioned why my parents spent 30 grand a year on this school.
So I was at the top of this mountain, right? My puffy hair crammed into a pink helmet, my chest all puffed up and riding my high f***ing second-grade horse. I had endured two days of skiing lessons with Andrea, a thirty-something native to the mountains who over enunciated the word “gondola”, who my sophomore roommate would describe as “crunchy granola”. I had conquered the bunny hill with more speed and precision than all the other second-graders who were new to skiing. I was ready.
My mom placed her hand gently on my back and pushed me off. I had slid no more than ten feet down this slope when it occurred to me that after two days of lessons, I still really had no f***ing idea how to ski. Paralysis set in. I did what any amateur snowbunny would do- immediately crossed my skis over one another (like a pizza!) to stop myself and flopped face-first into the snow. I choked on a mouthful of flakes. Mom veered sharply to the side to avoid running over her slightly incompetent offspring and skidded to a stop. “What?” she demanded, in the confused exasperation that only a parent who just dropped a few Ben Franklins on some ski lessons could relate.
“I’m scared,” I whimpered, spitting out snow. My lips were nearly numb.
She almost softened, but a glance at the ridiculous amounts of mountain we still had left to cover stiffened her resolve. “Plenty of things are scary. You still need to learn how to ski.”
“But I know how!” Upon reflection, this babyish squeal became the most cringe-worthy part of the entire story. At the time, however, all I wanted was to slide down the rest of the slope on my butt- maturity be damned. “I’m just scared. And I don’t want to.”
“Well, we have to get down this mountain somehow, and we can’t take the gondola back.” I glanced longingly at the line of suspended rotating chairs. I quickly concocted a plot to hijack the lift and ride my way back down to safety. My mom grabbed me by the arm and with alarming swiftness brought me to unstable uprightness. I clung onto her for dear life. “You know what to do. Let’s keep going.”
She was a woman who rarely took no for an answer- my sister and I referred to her as “The Boss Lady”, often with affection. Sometimes without. I steeled my nerves and shifted my skis back to parallel (like hot dogs). She did not give me the chance to look back, plead with puppy dog eyes; I was flying down the slope before one snowflake had the chance to fall on my eyelashes. In later years the feeling of cold mountain air rushing my cheeks and waking me up would be an ecstasy that I traveled 8,000 miles to seek. I was zooming. I could do this! The bottom of the run, sweet security, was almost in sight. Kind of.
Without warning or anticipation, I crashed face-first into a Douglas fir.
It smelled like Christmas, and so for my senses it must have been confusing as to why I was lying belly-up with snow sliding into the crack between my ski jacket and pants. Was the sky spinning? Hot blood rushed to my head and filled my ears with a whooshing sound. Tears froze on my face before they had a chance to drip, but it felt like they weren’t even coming from me. Another eight year old girl, one who hadn’t just spent two days under the tutelage of Ski Goddess Andrea, was definitely crying at the foot of a tree with snow in her ski pants. My mom sprayed me with powder when she coasted to a stop next to me, which only made me cry harder. “Are you okay?” Concern etched in her voice. Among the many life lessons I would come to learn after moving across the country, Lesson #1 was invariably: Call your mother more. Because no one else will curb their laughter when you plow into a tree on a pair of skis that are too big.
My face was hidden in the fluffy down of my jacket. When I emerged, blotchy and teary-eyed, I only spoke six words. They would determine my spectrum of failures and triumphs over the course of my next seven years. “I am not skiing ever again.”
It took me 40 minutes to scoot down the rest of the course on my LL Bean snowsuit-clad rear, resolved and vaguely ashamed. I was filled with a pervading sense of ineptitude. Who even created a Ski Week? Who even goes skiing in California? The pastime was for Lindsey Vonn and Canadians, and certainly not for me.
I spent the rest of the trip bundled up with flannels and Harry Potter books. I sipped my hot chocolate without regret every afternoon when my mom and sister would return to our lodge all rosy cheeked and shivering and alive. My mom tried to convince me to give it another shot, even resorting to bribery: a viewing of The Goblet of Fire (rated PG-13!) in exchange for getting back out there. I refused. On the drive home, she lectured. What would I do when I was nineteen and my new college friends found cheap tickets for a weekend skiing trip? When I was thirty, and my glamourous work friends offered me a room in their vacation home in the mountains so that the whole team could bond as we hit the slopes? My perspective extended as far as the spelling quizzes we had to take every Friday of that second grade year. I would stay at home, I replied defiantly. Nobody even really likes skiing, anyways. They all just pretend to.
From time to time it has occurred to me that the FOMO which plagues my generation will most likely debiliate me on those weekends in the future, leave me cursing my prepubescent self and my inherent stubbornness. Yet I do not believe it was mere obstinacy that caused my former self to make this grand declaration of permanence.
Let me go on the record to say that I dislike the term perfectionist. I think it is a humble-brag, a fatal flaw that those who employ the word are secretly glad they possess. I am not a perfectionist- I am afraid. I do not want to run the risk of slamming into a tree when I go flying down the mountain. When I hit my first Douglas fir, I often scoot the rest of the way instead of getting up and trying again. Failing to attain immediate competency in something frustrates me, be it conjugating Latin verbs in the pluperfect tense or navigating trees when skiing down a slope. I am afraid to try again. My therapist says I struggle with delayed gratification.
It remains unclear to me if this childhood incident has prevented me from achieving my full potential in years since. Has my unwillingness to make mistakes saved me from embarrassing mishaps, steered me off collision courses? I wrestle with the alternative. Had I gotten back up, readjusted my skis to parallel and sent myself careening down the mountain, perhaps I would have embraced all the times I flopped into the snow. Eventually I would have made it to the bottom on both feet. What I do know is that I am tired of being afraid, of dodging every tree that is in my path. I am thinking that maybe it is good to hit one from time to time.