The Absence Beneath My Skis

Olivia BaileyJune 8, 2017ResilienceInterfaith Connections
The Absence Beneath My Skis

“It’s no use to go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” -Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The entrance to Upper Upper Thrombosis is small and concealed. If you aren’t looking for it, if you don’t already know where it is, you’ll likely miss it. Jack found it a while ago, and eagerly showed it to the rest of us. It technically isn’t a trail, but we don’t really care. It’s generally untouched, leaving plenty of snow for our skis to find purchase on the slick ground.

It's an ordinary Saturday, and Abby and I join the rest of the group after slipping off the Rangeley Double. We take off immediately, laughing as Mitch, Jack, Patrick, Fiona, and Mark scramble to catch up. I bounce happily over the soft moguls, going up and down, up and down.

Kshhh. A shower of wet snow sprays from my skis when I stop at the small opening in the trees. I almost missed it, all wrapped up in the joy of the moment. Abby comes next, then Mark, Jack, Fiona, Patrick, and finally Mitch, who sends up a huge shower of snow that rains down on us all. There's a general uproar of protest, and then we're laughing, and I wipe the wet snow from my goggles.

“Alright!” shouts Mark, “Let’s go!”

I push off, desperate to be first, to be able to bounce through the trees before any of the rest of them.

The entrance to Upper Upper Thrombosis is tight. You have to give the person in front of you space, and you need to turn at just the right times to get in. When you do, it spreads out slowly, the trees opening up to let you in, like the wide grin of an old friend.

I can’t help it. I grin too. And then I'm off, curling through the trees, carving my skis in happy patterns, a song (“On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons) stuck in my head.

I stop about halfway through to wait for everyone else. I like to go fast, maybe too fast on occasion, so I have to wait for a bit, watching the bright blues and reds of my friends swerve through the brown and white landscape. This time it's Mark first, Abby in hot pursuit. Then comes Jack, after jumping off a rather large rock, as Jack likes to do. Then Fiona and Mitch, who are happy to appreciate the turns and trees without jumps and speed. Finally, Patrick comes to a stop. He is often last, though not for lack of speed.

I smile up at my people, my friends, my Saddlebackians, and then I turn and take off once more down the mountain I love.

That’s it. It’s a happy story. No one got hurt that day, no one got lost, no one had a meltdown, no one questioned anybody’s friendship. So why am I telling you about it? I’m supposed to be talking about some terrible thing that I had to get over. I am.

Saddleback closed down that summer. It was over. The Saddlebackians became the Lost Saddlebackians, and more than that, I lost a friend. A mountainous one.

Over the summer, I had to cope with the grief of that loss. It was hard. I tried to simply not think about it, but that didn’t work. My mind would go to it like a bee to a flower. I was stuck in a world without Saddleback, and I was miserable.

We didn’t commit to a mountain that winter, perhaps out of hope that Saddleback would pull through. It didn’t. We spent the winter bouncing between mountains, sometimes skiing with some of the other Lost Saddlebackians, often not. It was sad and it was hard. A year ago I had been a part of a community, skiing on the mountain that I loved. I had been a living trail map, vandalized with hand drawn trails, full to bursting with nicknames and inside jokes. I missed it terribly.

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t manage to get over Saddleback right away. I couldn’t let it go. I was stuck in the past, missing out on what was happening in the present. I don’t remember much of my skiing that year; it’s all a blur. I wasn’t thinking about skiing. I was thinking about the absence of Saddleback underneath my skis.

The next winter, we found a new place: Wildcat Mountain and Attitash Ski Area in North Conway, New Hampshire.

I liked it there just fine. The town was nicer, the mountains busier, the lodges better. But I was still stuck fast with Saddleback. I couldn’t let go.

It wasn’t just the mountain I was missing. It was also the people. In the moving of the Lost Saddlebackians to North Conway, we had left one family behind. Remember Patrick and Fiona? They’re siblings. Their family was skiing at Sugarloaf. All season through, it was a feeling of failure, of uncertainty.

There are some kinds of change that you need to accept. Losing Saddleback was one of them. But we didn’t have to lose the Lost Saddlebackians, too. We had memories, foraged trails, and inside jokes, and none of us wanted to lose that. Even the boys, who would never admit it.

It felt kind of hollow without Patrick and Fiona that season. Mitch took on the post of skiing in the back, making sure no one got hurt, but there was no one to whack Mark with their poles, no one to join me in only half understanding the gossip of the other eighth graders. There was no one to complain about how annoying the boys were, and there was no one with whom I could discuss books while the other teenagers chattered on about goodness-knows-what. We were like a clock missing two of its most important cogs. And, for some reason, I thought it was somehow my fault.

I can’t tell you why, but I felt that if I had done something differently, we might be skiing with all of the Lost Saddlebackians instead of just most of them. I don’t even know what I thought I could have done differently. I just thought I had done something wrong.

It took me a while to realize the toxicity of refusing to allow things to pass, refusing the present in favor of the past. When I did, when I grasped the fact that I was poisoning my experience at these new mountains, I turned to mindfulness.

I’d been practicing mindfulness for two years now; I knew what to do. I took a deep breath, grounded myself in the present, and, gently, I released Saddleback. I treated the memories as though they were clouds, and them do what clouds do best. I let them be blown away into the past, where they belonged, and let my mind become a cerulean sky, free of judgement and open to the concept of skiing somewhere else.

I didn’t vanquish Saddleback from my mind forever, of course. I held onto the memories, but I let Saddleback fall back into the past. I let it go back to where it belonged. I accepted that I wasn’t going to be skiing there that season, and that I wasn’t going to be skiing with Patrick and Fiona, either. It hurt at first, like I was throwing away my entire experience. It felt like I was forcing myself to believe that Wildcat and Attitash were better. But soon I realized I wasn’t. My mind simply didn’t want to accept that I was letting go of the past.

The entire practice of mindfulness is based upon being in the present, without judgment. Neither of those things can ever happen if you’re stuck in the past, or whiling away your time in dreams of the future. Mindfulness teaches you a way to let those things go. You ground yourself in the present by paying attention to your breathing, or sensations you are feeling. And when you do that, you have to let go of imagination, let go of what has already happened. Otherwise, you’ll just keep comparing things to other things, which they can never be, because they are what they are, and nothing else.

Wildcat and Attitash won’t ever be better than Saddleback. It simply isn’t going to happen. But when I got down to it, when I pulled myself back into the present, I realized that I had been gripping the past too hard. Wildcat and Attitash weren’t so bad. I just thought they were, because I was judging them so harshly, comparing them to Saddleback the way we compare movies to books—unjustly. Because no two can ever be the same.

We are not unfeeling machines. We all react to events, sometimes with joy, sometimes with despair. It is those that we treat with sadness and anger that we pay more attention to, that we always try to forget. But in the process, we forget that hanging on too tight to good things can be toxic, too. I’m not telling you that you should never feel sad, and I’m certainly not telling you that you don’t have a right to happiness. I’m saying that you need to be careful with how tightly you grip the past. You can set aside a room or two for emotional memories, because they are things you need to remember, but don’t dwell there. Try to spend most of your time outside of that room, because it’s pointless to lock yourself in with the past when you could be outside making things happen.

I don’t want you to walk away from this article thinking you should simply forget everything that happens to you, thinking you shouldn’t dream because it takes away from being. I want you to know that you should treasure what you have while you have it, and then stash it away like a precious keepsake that will fall apart if you touch it too much once it’s over. I want you to know that it’s no use thinking that all you are going to do in your life will be in the future, because that future doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is the present, and if you waste that, you will spend your life tucked away in your memories and dreams of a nonexistent someday. Today has to be the only day.

“What day is it?”
“It’s today” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day.” said Pooh
-A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Losing Saddleback was hard for me. It was one of the few times in my life that I dwelt on the past for a long time, and let it turn rancid and toxic. But it was also a kind of cleansing.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Dumbledore says, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Remember this wisdom, would you? Remember the wisdom of Alice and Pooh and Dumbledore. You’ll never have this day back, so don’t mope about and whine. Go out there. This time is yours and I expect you to use it.

Olivia Bailey is 13 and heading into eighth grade at Frank Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, Maine. Her hobbies include reading every fantasy novel she can get her hands on, writing about Odorea (a world she created with her friends), drawing constantly, skiing at Saddleback Mountain Ski Area, and playing with her dog, Piper, who enjoys chewing up things bigger than she is. Olivia is working hard to get her whole school to participate in mindfulness and has nearly succeeded.