When I was a little kid, I felt strangely like two different people. In retrospect, I imagine that other children of divorce felt the same way. But it was the 70’s and divorce was rare in our Catholic community, so I didn’t have anyone to compare my experience with. You see my parents were diametrically opposed in their personalities and nature. My mom was mercurial like a tornado touching down and disappearing unpredictably. My dad was more like a granite wall- decisive, determined, disciplined. My mom was a worrier, afraid of new things and fearful of future she talked about as if it had already happened. My dad believed in action. He never backed down. Nothing was too daunting for him to tackle. My mom wanted help. My dad eschewed it. As I grew and traveled between their homes, I became an awkward combination of daredevil and rule follower. Like armor, I would take one suit off and don the other. My mom’s tentative nature spurred me on to take risks. She would catch me climbing the tree in front of the Rossellini’s house and she would gasp. So higher I would go. I’m sure in some small childish way, I wanted her to gasp and marvel in my fearlessness. I think my dad liked my fearlessness. I am sure he was trying to prepare me for the inevitable challenges of life. But fearlessness was only tolerated within the rules. For him, I was a rule follower, diligently adhering to his expectations for grades, behavior, and performance. And, in case you are wondering, I bent a few rules but only safe in the knowledge he would never know.
Those two parts of me converged one day on the snowy hills of Snoqualmie Pass with an object lesson I will never forget. After a rocky start to ski lessons, I quickly embraced the rush of feeling the icy air pelt my cheeks; the way my tears froze crystalline in my lashes; the feel of my breath condensing in hot puffs beneath the raised neck of my sweater. I craved the edge of speed and control – the bounce of my knees left and right, shifting the tail of my skis as I slid between the chaos of moguls. For some reason, I felt anxious as I got on and off the chair lift. But once those were conquered, I was home free. The world faded as I perched above the drop. My stomach clenched, and my chest heaved with each frosty breath. I bent my knees, leaned over my poles and pushed off. One hundred yards of rolling slope flew beneath me as the moguls approached loosely at first but tighter with each passing second. I hit one late and new with absolute certainty that I would be eating the next one. A thought, which ran through my head with disturbing regularity, hit me, “This one is gonna hurt.” And down I went. Hard. I hit the next mogul shoulder then head. The impact brought my legs keister over kettle and I tumbled until I ran out of momentum. (My crashing skills are legendary.) I lay there on the hard, packed snow looking up as brightly colored skiers narrowly sped by me. I did an internal inventory and thought I probably escaped uninjured. I turned my head slightly and saw that my skis had not released. They were spanning the snow in an unnatural way. I remembered the ski instructor explaining that the binding release prevented you from having a broken leg. My first thought was not “is my leg broken?” but “Mom is never going to let me ski ever again if I break my leg.” I knew I pushed the limited just a bit over the line this time. Clearly, I was on a slope beyond my ability (though apparently not beyond my delusions of my abilities). Then the rules kicked in. I searched my brain to remember what I was supposed to do if I got hurt on the slopes. All I could remember was “stay put and wait for ski patrol”. So that is what I did. I waited as the cold snow melted around my body seeping in the cracks between my boots and pants and my gloves and jacket. I waited patiently shivering until the nice men with a basket arrived. I am not sure exactly how long I waited but it must have been quite a while. I know this because after the ski patrol guy unhooked my boots from my skis, he realized that the tip of the ski had frozen to my forehead. With a grimace on his face which foretold the pain I was about to receive, he explained that he was going to try to knock it loose from my forehead. With one sharp smack of his gloved fist, he popped the ski tip off my forehead and with it came my skin. With the pain on my forehead as contrast, I knew I was not injured but they insisted that I had to be checked. They wrapped me in a blanket and strapped me in the basket and we glided down the slopes. In the end, my only injury was a cut forehead. The ski patrol guys kindly explained that I didn’t have to follow the rules so strictly. I could try to get up and see if I was still in skiing condition. Then they gently recommended I drop down a level or two in difficulty on my next run. Probably they didn’t want to break my spirit, but they also didn’t want me to break a leg.
I didn’t have a revolutionary change in personality as a result of the great forehead scar of 1975 (I have a list of scars spanning 50 years to prove that.) I did realize that I should question some rules or at least how I was applying the rules. I learned that sometimes things seemed black and white to me because of how I was raised, when in fact, the world beyond my home was not just full of shades of grey but a whole rainbow of colors. I realized I could still get a rush from doing daring stuff, but I should give some thought to the risks. Though much later, I also realized that I am me. I may share some traits with my parents. But I am not my parents. Becoming one full and complete person means letting go of stories of what I think I have to be, and just being who I truly am.
I selected this photograph because it makes me think of my true nature – the me I truly am. It was taken when I was around 18 months old. I know when I am relaxed and at peace I can still feel that joyous, exuberant, loving spirit.