mad in pursuit :: memoir

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me skiing... photo by J

Peak Performance: Trusting

I am in no position to reflect on either my skill or my wisdom. Just go! Keep low — turn, turn, turn…

This is from a note I wrote to myself after a ski run on Whiteface Mountain at Lake Placid. It was January 1986 and the temperature was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I arranged the trip, the whole idea was mine: an adventure in the Adirondacks in the dead of winter. Bunk beds in a rustic lodge with communal meals; cross-country skiing in the back woods; and downhill skiing at Whiteface. It was Jim's Christmas present.

So there we were on Whiteface in the biting wind with Jim insisting that we ski Trail #1, the steepest slope on the mountain. I didn't want to. I felt listless and headachy, although I realized that I'd been skiing well so far and that all the weight-training I'd been doing must be paying off. I figured what the hell and followed Jim to the lift.

It takes two lifts to reach the top. The second one is ancient and oddly constructed. I manage to get seated but Jim falls off and has to take the next chair. I am suddenly alone and rattled. This was a stupid idea. How can I get out of it now?

At the top the view is breathtaking: miles of purple mountain tops, all the way to Vermont. But I actually have to force myself to notice, I am turned so inward. Jim arrives full of enthusiasm even though it was he who fell off the lift.

We have to traverse along a narrow path over to the trail. It's slow-going. A few young guys pass us by. We pass the top of Trail #2 but I don't look down because I don't want to screw myself up.

When we finally arrive at the lip of #1, I take another token glance at the gorgeous view, but otherwise have no thoughts. No thoughts except Go!

The slope is windswept and hard — concentrate on the edges. Stay in control. Don't look too far ahead: the commitment is made! There is no room for error — a fall would be serious and impossible to recover from. There can be no failure — it does not occur to me as a possibility to tell the truth. Just let those pistons pump and control those edges.

I wasn't keeping a journal. This note was made in my workout & diet log as I celebrated what was truly a peak performance. That ski run will be forever etched in my mind as a personal metaphor for awesome focus in the face of potential death. The edges of that hard-pack surface fell off to infinity — no fences, no sandbags for the out-of-control.

This is not an unusual pattern for me: the longing for adventure, for the rapture of peak performance; the hesitancy and quaking when the moment arrives; and the reliance on a partner to sweep me along.

Back in January of 1995 I did an exercise. You were supposed to look at a chronology of all the years in your life and scribble in your performance peaks. Until that moment, I had always thought of myself as working best on my own, but suddenly I saw that my best performances were always in partnership with someone else, someone I played opposite to, someone with complementary skills or personality.

I finished grad school with an excellent on-time master's essay and had a barrel of laughs along the way because I partnered up with a guy who decided we'd make a competition of it with each other, with weekly goals and penalties for not meeting them.

In the eighties I teamed up with a woman driven to create an aerobic dance empire.  She drove me to develop all kinds of graphic arts skills. Before long there were 5 of us on her board of directors. We each had our special contribution to make. We battled, we laughed, we ate a ton of chicken wings, and we made some money.

But what is it I'm trusting when it comes to these peaks? Am I trusting the partner? Or am I trusting myself to link up with the right partner? Is it the relationship I trust? Or is it the path to my desire that I trust?

If I'm simply trusting the other person, it makes me sound weak, like I'm on a guided tour, a Caribbean cruise. I wouldn't have aced that Whiteface ski slope if I'd only been following my man.

If I trust myself and my conviction to find a path to my desires… well, then I sound like a user, someone who picks out her friends to boost her own goals. Frankly, I'm not sure my goals are ever well articulated and, when they are, I've never been good at finding a mentor — too shy, too self-effacing. And I don't ever remember picking out someone to start a friendship with.

Perhaps it's the rare intersection of the two that I trust myself to recognize and, yes, surrender to. I trust myself to know when I'm mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared for a challenge. I trust the partner and the relationship not to betray me as we move forward on some serendipitous opportunity we've discovered together.

This meditation leaves me with a question. What if the tables are turned? What if someone needs me to propel them forward along their desire path? As I become older, there are fewer slipstreams for me to ride in. I have to think my relationship with Jim, where aging is causing him to be more anxious and cautious when I know he still longs for adventure.