By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
Why is it that lessons have to be unexpected and painful in order to really sink in?
I was pondering the brutality of meaningful knowledge acquisition while skiing at Headquarters Lake behind the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge building on Ski Hill Road on Saturday afternoon.
Actually, this train of thought didn’t come about until late in the outing, when my previous cerebral caboose jumped the track. I don’t remember what I was thinking about to start with. Probably my usual mental goulash: some combination of half listening to my iPod, thinking of possible leads for the story I’d be working on later, trying to estimate if I could finish the distance I intended to cover in the amount of time I’d allotted for skiing, to-do listing the rest of my day/week/month/general-foreseeable existence, and an inner-stream-of-consciousness monologue — my heel itches. Ooh, a bunny. Did my roommate get toilet paper, or should I stop and buy some?
That’s when it hit me.
More accurately, that’s when I hit me.
The realization that my ears were cold managed to flag down my consciousness. My hat was rebelling from the extra bulk of my hair shoveled up underneath it and was attempting to cede from the union with my head. I should have come to a stop, tucked my ski poles under my arms and given the matter of hat adjustment my full, if momentary, attention.
But I didn’t do that. I prefer to multitask. When faced with thousands of self-imposed deadlines, schedules, projects and must-get-dones, I tend to go into productive mode. There isn’t a moment that can’t be made more productive — and, therefore, better — by attempting to do three to five things during it. I return calls to friends while editing photos. I listen to interview notes while folding laundry. If I’ve got a meeting in Kenai, I try to cram in side trips to the bank, grocery store or whatever other errands may need to get done.
I also cook while showering. Put a pot of something on to heat up, jump in the shower, run out to stir or reduce the heat, run back to wash my face or put on lotion, with the end goal being my food is done about the same time my personal hygiene routine is.
Sometimes this works well, when you can make use of whatever spare, otherwise-wasted moments come along. More often than not, though, it means I’m perpetually running a few minutes late, completing tasks like I wasn’t completely paying attention to them, eating mushy, overcooked vegetables and walking around with one elbow lotioned and the other one dry and a furry patch of leg hair I somehow missed shaving.
Such was the case with my skiing-hat-adjustment maneuver. My ski poles flailed free from their hand straps while I reached up to grab the errant fleece. Yanking it down over my ears drove a pole into the thin mat of snow and unyielding lake ice below. Meanwhile, my forward momentum drove my face into the now-unmoving pole.
It took a moment to register what happened, as blood seeped from my scraped chin, split lip and bit tongue. I belatedly lurched to a stop and let out an, “Ooooowwwwww.” Not in the “Ouch, that hurt,” vein; more in an accusatory tone, a soundtrack to my brain struggling to figure out who or what had hit me.
When I realized I had hit me, I ground to a mental stop, as well. Stopped plotting the story. Stopped micromanaging the rest of my day. Stopped composing a shopping list (which is probably why I forgot to get the toilet paper). Just stopped. And looked around, for the first time in the half hour I’d been on the ice.
It was beautiful out. One of those postcard Alaska scenes that inspire people to pack up and move here on an irrational whim — with no job, no plan, no purpose other than to be able to exist in this landscape for more than just one visit.
The sun was stewing on the horizon, backlighting a ring of trees that textured the light into filigrees of pinks and oranges on the white of the snow-glazed ice. The glow tinged the high, nubbly clouds overhead, which mimicked the corduroy texture the ski groomer had left on the rim of the lake. Both the clouds and the ski track stretched infinitely out past perception through the filtering portal of dimming winter light.
On my way down to the lake, I had passed a skier heading up to the parking lot who told me it was perfect out. Yeah, I thought, it’ll be perfect if I can get a ski in quick enough to make it home in time to grab some dinner before I have to get to my next story interview.
During one of my circuits I passed some walkers who had stopped on a viewing platform to take in the scene. They waved and yelled something about it being beautiful out. I waved back but couldn’t be bothered to stop. I had one more loop to do and was running late and had places to do and people to go and things to be … .
One would think I’d have learned by now that the best parts of life can’t be scheduled or hurried to or programmed in a Blackberry. I know that’s true with reporting. The best stories come up unexpectedly, when you’re willing to stick with a moment, invest your time and attention and follow as it unfolds along its own direction in its own time frame.
In my efforts to get things done — often, several things at once — I tell myself I’m trying to get caught up or get ahead so I’ll have the luxury of quality time. I’ll enjoy something or have fun with someone when I’m free to do so — perhaps from 3 to 4:45 p.m. Thursday, or maybe around 7 p.m. Friday, if all goes as planned.
But I forget to realize that quality time can happen at any time. Just like you need to be willing to buckle down and get work done, you need to be willing to buck the work and enjoy it when there’s living to be done.
It’s a valuable lesson to learn, whether you’re witness to that moment when winter light fades through shades of lavender Crayola will never re-create, or an old friend visits for the holidays, or you have the chance to pause and make a connection with a new one.
I just wish it wouldn’t take a ski pole to the kisser to teach it.
Jenny Neyman is the editor and publisher of the Redoubt Reporter, and is glad no one was around Saturday to see her demonstrated lack of concentration and coordination. But also kind of sad no one was there, because she bets it would have been damn funny.