Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Joys of Being a Beginner

This year marks my 40th season on skis. It's been a l-o-n-g time since those first awkward efforts on my junior high school ski-club weekend in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, and I'm now proud to label myself an "Advanced Skier." With an average of 15-20 annual ski days during most of the years when I had a "real job," and 25-30 days a year since becoming a winegrower, I should be Advanced, right? Earlier this week, I had a few days in a row in the fresh powder when I just couldn't seem to pull it all together anymore. (Note: Yes, I still do remember that even a tough day on the slopes is better than a great day in the office!) But I was frustrated and annoyed, and feeling like I needed to take some lessons again. What I didn't know is that the lessons would come from a couple of beginners. 

Catching a chairlift with my nephew, John

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few," wrote the great Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. Learning to maintain a beginner's mind is one of the teachings I valued most from my first yoga teacher. It means taking an attitude of openness and eagerness, and letting go of preconceptions when studying a subject, just as a beginner would. Somehow my inner skier had forgotten to keep a beginner's mind, and I ended up a little frustrated instead of joyful.

Last Fall, when I invited my sister-in-law, Alice, and her husband and kids to visit us in Steamboat, I didn't know that I'd actually be skiing with them. Three of them were beginner-level snowboarders, and one was a ski-wee with just 4 prior ski days in his little legs. For their first 2 days here, they all took lessons and then had 2 more days to ski/ride together. That third day was another snowy deep-powder day, but I decided to give my exhausted legs (and brain) a break and join them on the gentler ski trails. 7 year old Davis, on 30" long skis and without ski poles, decided he wanted to follow behind in my tracks. He and I both used a snowplow wedge stance, known in ski school circles as pizza. We made pizza to go around the turns and then straightened the ski angles into "french fries." We called out pizza, french fries... pizza, french fries over and over until we were at the bottom, laughing and talking about the great run we took. Almost-10 year old John, on his snowboard, wanted to go in the trees and ski in the powder. I let him lead me and Davis into the woods to make fresh tracks in the new snow. We hooted and hollered in and out of the aspen trees, up and down the tiny moguls and dips. On every chair ride, riding with one of my nephews, who both clamored to ride up with Aunt Deb, we'd talk about the run and plan the next one. The final run of the day was accomplished in an almost total whiteout, an epic adventure for all. Over apr├Ęs-ski beer, soda, and wings, as well as the trail map and all the data on my brother-in-law Jeff's ski-tracker app on his iPhone, my nephews relived every run.

My nephew Davis, proud to be a real skier
By their 4th and final ski day, I knew I wanted to spend the day skiing with them. My legs and my brain felt rested, and it had been a kick to both guide them and ski with them all over the mountain. Uncle John decided to join us as well, and we took them up to the summit for the first time. After an easy warm-up, we introduced the whole crew to their first "black diamond" run, a short run down the bowl, followed by a bounce through the powder and back to the lift. Nephew John was the first to the bottom and Davis, a few tumbles notwithstanding, made it down just fine. We introduced them to all new runs and after lunch, I took young John on another black run. I told him I was confident he would do fine, so we left the others and skied down Storm Peak together. As we waited at the bottom for the others to meet us for the next chair ride up, he was giddy and explained to me how he had to adjust his riding to get down the steeper trail.

Davis and his mom, Alice, on the chairlift
Leading Davis through the final run of the day, with both of us practicing pizza and french fries, I realized that my frustration had evaporated and my balance and joy of being on skis had returned. It was exhilarating to get back to basics and approach skiing as a beginner again. Through the eyes and minds of my two young nephews, I was treated to skiing anew. It was a splendid gift, both the ski adventure and the reminder of the endless possibilities for delight when I embrace my beginner's mind. (Many thanks to John and Davis, Alice and Jeff.)

Family Portrait: Alice and Jeff, young John,
not-old John, and Davis on the gondola