“Never fall within sight of the lodge.”
That was my friend Bob’s good advice when I was learning to ski more than twenty years ago. He meant, of course—you can fall all you want on the mountain, but when you come shushing down that gentle slope to the base, you have an audience. People are having hot cocoa in the lodge and looking out the huge windows at all the action: you don’t want to take a pratfall and give them something to point at, something to chuckle about. It’s a pride thing.
And of course, I did just that, bombed in sight of the lodge (the power of suggestion apparently too strong).
I’ve been skiing this week in Vermont, and my first day I was thinking about falling. There are actually other humiliating places to flop, namely: getting on and off the chair lift. Think: big audience. Last year (when I took up skiing again after twenty years) I fell getting off the lift at the top of the mountain. My boot caught on the chair—I don’t know. But I fell. It’s no big deal, nothing can get hurt . . . except your pride.
So this year, as I shuffled into the lift queue for the first time, I was a little nervous. I knew what happened last year was a fluke, but still—it’s embarrassing. Just as I was about to get on the lift, a ski instructor stopped me. He was surrounded by a cute gaggle of kids, none older than six or seven. They all had on yellow “Ski Star” vests. “Would you mind taking one of the kids with you?” he asks.
Apparently, I thought, this professional has mistaken me for a veteran skier. He has no idea that I am more or less deeply anxious that I may fall getting off this contraption in full sight of twelve small giggling children.
“Uh—sure,” I say.
“Oh, thanks. Here—you can take Celia. Celia, this nice man is named—what’s your name?” I give it. “Mr. David here is going to take you on up. You just stay with him, all right?”
He shows me a strap attached to the back of Celia’s yellow vest. “If she needs a lift getting up on the chair—or getting off—just take her by this strap.”
I freeze. For a brief moment I considered asking him for one of those yellow vests myself. I could use someone who could pull me up if I am in danger of falling. I think, How am I supposed to haul this little girl on and off the lift when I can’t even be sure I can haul myself off this thing?
No matter. In a trice, Celia and I are through the gate. The chair swings around, comes in behind us. “Ready?” I say. Celia says nothing. I grab the strap, lift her just enough so that the chair slips under her. We head into the sky.
“So,” I say, “you having fun?”
Celia says nothing.
She is autistic. She puts her hand on my arm. I know not to ask questions any more. Instead, as we float above the trees I murmur, “Beautiful,” to no one in particular. As we approach the summit, I say, “Just about there.” As I lift the bar and prepare for arrival, “Here we go.”
The chair slows slightly. My left hand is poised, ready to grab the strap. But Celia simply hops off the chair and glides down the ramp. I follow her until I see that she finds her group. Only then does it register with me: I wasn’t the least bit worried about falling as I got off the lift.
It always works this way, yet it’s perennially surprising. When all we can do is focus on our own little insecurities and worries—when it’s a pride thing—we’re more likely to fall. But when all our energies are suddenly captured in the service of someone else, someone who needs us (If only to put a hand on our arm), we rise.