When I was young my family didn’t own a television. Occasionally something would come along we simply had to watch and we’d pack up our snacks (always Sour Cream and Onion chips) and walk up the small side-hill to Ralph and Marguerite’s. (Are those not the best and most stereotypical names for an old married pair? If I was ever to write a novel, Ralph and Marguerite are my current frontrunners for the friendly neighbourly couple.)
Ralph and Marguerite (let’s revel in the perfection of their names one last time) lived in a small house with brown shag carpet; their home always smelled odd – as all houses do, I suppose, to outside olfactory senses. I’m sure if I were to open up their back door today – with my eyes closed – I’d immediately know I had been transported to Ralph and Marguerite’s porch circa 1992.
Now back to that TV. We would pile onto the shag carpet and munch on chips; the screen would crackle on and I would live my best life. Almost always the impetus for our visit was to watch figure skating.
It blew my young mind.
More than anything I wanted to be one of those graceful ballerinas-on-blades. I can remember sobbing one Saturday evening in our avocado green bathtub (and, yes, there was a matching avocado green toilet – very classy) because I had seen my dentist’s daughter doing fancy twirls and jumps at the afternoon public skate. I knew we could never afford figure skating lessons and that seemed the ultimate injustice to my 6-year-old soul.
So I watched skating instead. I’d sit with bated breath when my favourite skaters took the ice; I’d pump my fist when axels were landed and groan when toe picks got the better of a landing and someone was sent unceremoniously to the ice. I’d move my body in tandem with the music, strain my neck and elongate my torso as skaters entered a jump sequence as if I could, by sheer force of will, help ensure the successful execution of their technical performance.
One night last week I was sprawled out in our living-room armchair reading; I’d skimmed over the same book years earlier but felt like I was in a better headspace to internalize some of the concepts. I was nodding along, taking notes, and generally feeling engaged with the material.
And then – BAM – I had crisis moment where I literally stopped reading, looked up into the otherwise empty living room, shook my head, and wondered: Why haven’t I figured this out, yet?
And by ‘this,’ I mean life.
I’ve learned a lot of very valuable lessons over the last few decades, but why do I keep getting things wrong? Why do certain positive behaviours still feel so hard to implement?
Why do I still eat my feelings? Why do I still yell instead of hug? Why do I keep forgetting to floss? Why do I still fall into the trap of mindless scrolling? Why do I keep interrupting and nagging and forgetting to be kind?
In the last decade, we’ve (switching to the collective now) watched people we love die in the prime of life or battle horrific diseases. We’ve watched parents/grandparents age and fight against the relentless advances of dementia. We’ve waged an invisible war between work and life, forever trying to strike the right balance. And now we’re all living through unprecedented political, environmental, and global health situations.
And while I can agree I’ve learned a lot, I still sometimes spend the weekend crying and banging my hands on the floor like a toddler in the middle of a tantrum (yes I did this recently and, no, it wasn’t pretty but, yes, it did make me feel slightly better and, no, the children didn’t witness this adult tantrum or capture it on video but, yes, it likely would have been sadly hilarious to watch as a casual observer).
Don’t I realize I’m an adult and can give myself permission (to quit, binge-watch Waco until 2 am, take multiple hot showers in a day, eat ice cream for supper)? What about buffers and values and choosing to fail. I know I can’t do everything, so why do I sometimes insist on trying to do just that?
How can I offer advice to my children about managing their emotions and then have a tantrum of my own (to be fair, at the time of my tantrum the kids had been home – fighting – for days on end, my husband was stuck in another country, and every snowflake in Canada was piling up into my driveway)?
After learning (or at least reading about) so much, how come I often feel like I’m stuck in the kindergarten class at the School of Life? Or my own version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day where I keep forgetting to walk around the hole (even when I know it’s there).
My mind went through all of this in rapid-fire while sitting in my armchair with hot Magic Bags wedged at my feet (obviously). And I decided here’s what I can say with confidence: I have learned a lot. But I’ll always be learning. And for some reason, my thoughts immediately wandered to parallels with figure skating. Random, I know, but at the point of my late-evening crisis, the Olympics were just a few weeks away, so I guess the timing made sense (also, there had to be some rationale for telling you about Ralph and Marguerite, aside from their awesome names).
life lessons from the RINK
- All skaters start with the basics. I can guarantee Nathan Chen didn’t do a combination quad lutz + triple toe loop his first time on the ice. The best skaters, ultimately, must learn a incredible number of complicated skills. But those skills are meaningless if they don’t first master the basics of skating. Becoming a wife, mother, friend, employee, etc. – these all require a unique skillset that takes time to develop. Patience is key. Showing up and staying upright is even more important than dazzling displays of greatness. I need to work on the basics first (and recognize they can never be “mastered” as even the greatest skaters can catch an edge while performing the simplest of skills).
- All skaters require regular coaching. You simply don’t see figure skaters without coaches. No matter how good they become, no matter how many gold medals they’ve accummulated – they are always led by a coach. We all need coaching. Over and over and over again. To encourage us. To remind us of our strengths and to support us in overcoming our shortcomings. We need someone older and wiser. This isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of maturity and self-knowledge.
- The best skaters pick programs that fit their strengths. Some skaters thrive at artistic choreography, others at engaging the audience, others with footwork sequences. Some figure skaters stoically land jump after jump, but are wooden and unengaging. Others might fall more often, but capture the hearts and imaginations of the audience. We’re all good at different things and we need to spend more time celebrating our strengths and exploiting those than self-flagellating over perceived weaknesses. Life skills are not one-size fits all.
- Routines change. Every year or so, skaters require a new program – new music, new costumes, new choreography. Sometimes this shakeup might involve a different coach and training facility. Sure, each routine builds upon skills that have been honed over years and years of practice. But even the most seasoned of skaters spends months of awkward trial-and-error to get a new routine perfected. And guess what? Even then, it’s never perfect. There will be double-footed landings. They’ll pop a twist. There might even be an epic fall. Life changes. If having kids has taught me nothing else it’s that each new stage usually isn’t easier or harder…it’s different. There are unique challenges and unique joys. Things don’t stay static. Do I gain more awareness and life skills as time passes? Absolutely. But I often feel like I’m floundering to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, when I’ve only just gotten comfortable with my routine set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
- Skaters learn how to fall because it’s inevitable. Have you ever been skating and fallen to the ice? It hurts! Now imagine doing that while hurtling at high speed on extremely sharp skates with very hard boards surrounding you while wearing only some nylons and what essentially amounts to a skimpy one-piece bathing suit…while the entire world watches you. Falling is inevitable and it will leave bruises but skaters practice the falling part too and learn ways to minimize the impact. I know I’ll get overwhelmed with life. I know I’ll hit brick-walls. I don’t always time it right, but I’m learning that I need to nap or cry or maybe even eat that chocolate bar to help ease my landing. And I’ve learned to surround myself with family and friends and other supports to help me get back up and move on.
- Once the music starts, you keep on going. 99 times out of a 100 what do figure skaters do when they fall or pop their jump? They regroup and carry on. It’s hard (and often embarassing), but after they’ve learned how to fall semi-gracefully, they learn how to get back up. Over and over and over again. If they don’t fall in competition, be darn sure they fell plenty in practice. This is life. Sometimes after a tough fall, I have to skip a few jumps and muddle my way through, looking dazed and confused. It’s frustrating and can hurt as much mentally as it does physically but, eventually, I’ll synchronize to the music and keep going with my program. My mistakes don’t mean I haven’t practiced. They don’t mean I haven’t listened to my coaches. My mistakes are usually just “life” happening.
- There is joy and there is pain. Ever notice the name of the landing spot for skaters when they’ve finished their routine? The Kiss and Cry. My theme of late – if you haven’t sensed it yet (but you’re all brilliant and definitely have) – is the constant juxtaposition of easy and hard; joy and pain. Whether they executed their routine flawlessly or spent most of their skate stumbling through jump sequences, they bow to the audience and head to the Kiss and Cry. They might hug and celebrate, or they might sob and ruminate. Either way, though, they learn. Either way they leave the rink – whether it was a good performance or a disappointing one – with another skate under their belts. It’s nice to have good days, weeks, months. It’s encouraging and uplifting. I want to perform at my highest level. I want a clean skate with no wobbles or awkward landings. But sometimes there will be a string of hard days, weeks, or months. And, at the very least, I can say I’ve added another life lesson to my repertoire and can move on more informed and perhaps with fresh resolve as to how I can improve things.
- Skaters show up. As long as you’re a competitve skater, you have to keep showing up. Most of the time I imagine it’s a slog. Days are spent in dingy arenas practicing the same technical elements over and over again. Listening to the same cut of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92: II. Allegretto (I happen to love that song, but can you IMAGINE how many times figure skaters have to listen to the same piece of music)…or Barry Manilow (did you hear that New Zealand played his greatest hits on a loop last weekend – along with the Macarena – to disperse COVID protestors). Sometimes I have to be content with just showing up. That’s an important part of the process, and learning happens then too.
It can feel frustrating to see just how far I have to go. I’m a flawed human being and will never be anything but while here on Earth. But I am learning. Sometimes I fall and it sucks and I’m embarrassed and start crying and the world sees my mascara-streaked raccoon eyes and I want to quit, and other times the ice is coated in a layer of roses and I wave and bow and life feels great.
I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. I don’t. I’m not going to pretend I always (or even regularly) get it right. I don’t.
But I can say that I’m learning…
When I was in university, the pastor of the church I attended talked about how we like to accrue letters after our names which then get used to inform the outside world of our qualifications.
But instead of a PhD, DDS or CPA designation, you know what he had written on his business card? LLSL.
It stood for Learning, Learning, Still Learning.
And I hazard a guess that those are credentials that deserve a place at the top of all our CVs.