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Christmas Present

We have crossed over the winter solstice. The light will grow longer with every day and we will slowly start to move out of hibernation, leaving the bears to dictate when winter is truly over. And we are in the midst of the yule season and many people today are celebrating with family and friends. I am not a traditionalist, but the brumal, snowy weather gives me reason to feel cozy inside especially in the evening when the Christmas tree and candles are lit. I’m not particularly fond of turkey either but the smells are a comfort, surely reminiscent of Christmases past and holidays with family. And although Gilles and I are alone this year, I don’t feel nostalgic. I am happy for the memories I have of many beautiful holidays but I also just feel content, unencumbered by any longings or expectations of what this day should be.

People will ask me how I spent the day. We have no gifts under the tree, no visitors dropping in today, like it used to be, or might have been if we did not have cell phones that beeped and dinged all day long. I could be deep into the forest and you will still be able to reach me with some innocuous message. Not being much of a Facebooker, it does not occur to me to selfie my way back to the car, so all my friends can put a tracer on my day. Granted, it might have been entertaining for my farflung friends to know that we jumped in the car on Christmas Day to go cross-country skiing and forgot the skis. But fortunately we were so close to the house, we could still laugh about it before venturing into the snow on a day when only the ploughs were on the road.

I am glad to be with a partner who has no hesitation about driving in the worst possible weather, while not being foolhardy, as I get to see the most spectacular winter scenery driving through the Laurentians under a light snowfall on windy country roads against a backdrop of white-peaked mountains made for ski enthusiasts. I feel an intimacy with the giant fir trees studded with fresh snow, gracing our labyrinth drive through a winter wonderland. Through these sparkling snow scapes, I seem to recapture the mystique coming face to face with nature, raw and stunning at the same time. It brings me to a state of fullness; I can’t think of anything else, I have need of nothing. All I want is to share space with the majestic timbers, in close connection, weaving our way through a blanketed forest.

All the trials and tribulations of life which sometimes crowd the foreground of our social conversation lose their hold on me in the presence of these natural wonders. It’s not that the challenges we face, whether it be illness, financial troubles, relationships, or worse, are not important; but if I were walking around a shopping mall, they would return to me in full force. I generally avoid shopping until it is absolutely essential, yet when I go, I know I am not the only one indulging in a purchase here or there that I think will make me feel better about myself or the gift that might make someone else feel better. These are false palliatives most of the time, as my credit card will tell me later in the month. I am most acutely reminded of my own delusions when a sudden streak of breaking or losing “precious” material things takes over. They are all fleeting and none of them can bring me the same peace of mind and perspective on life’s trials as when I spend time, instead of money, in the mountains, the forest, or by a river. And they demand nothing of me, save for the delightful chirp of an overhead bluejay or the creaking of a nearby tree, holding steady in the frozen ground. Today, on our skiing outing, we paused for a moment to tighten our boots and a gust of wind came through blowing snow in our faces, a welcoming play of nature.

I am discovering another aspect to nature’s purpose, much to the benefit of my personal development and to my physical health. I had not quite been so aware of it until I undertook a new sport, cross-country skiing, literally decades after a skiing accident in the French Alps and long after I fractured a couple vertebrae tobogganing with college mates. I wondered if the new skis and boots would be wasted on me. I was quick to recall the fall I had hiking a couple years back that left my left ankle fragile. So with all my physical imperfections, I was about to meet my nemesis: my own out-of-proportion fears. Not losing your balance at 30 felt very different at 60 at the sight of my first real hill, contrary to accumulated confidence of the master skier I was with. I thought staying in the tracks full speed ahead would keep me steady but I wiped out, legs akimbo, at the bottom of the hill. Not too bad on the old bones, except I still couldn’t understand how you go from a reclining to standing position with a pair of skis on your feet.

Fear is not a bad thing in itself; it can get you places in life. But on the ski slopes, I understood that one fall planted itself in my memory just enough to keep me wondering about the next hill. This is the folly that fear plays on the mind, displacing the fun and carefree spirit that would otherwise define the moment. I made a concerted effort to focus on the fear, like an immoveable feast, to push it to the side or behind me, and yet visions of a broken bone and months of being unable to walk, travel or exercise invaded my entire experience. How many times in our lives do we color a potentially exquisite life experience by imagined dangers and ghastly outcomes? How often do I allow myself to rob the present of all its glory by the tales that unravel in my head, their bloody disguise ruining an untested adventure? I don’t think it is a matter of ignoring the fear that is creeping in; it is about stopping it before it even approaches. Being free, it seems to me, is being free of the memories of past hurts and great falls; being free of thoughts both past and future, that is, of what might happen to me and to my “precious” body. And true to my eternal obsession with time, I know that what takes the greatest courage is not facing a steep slope; it is respecting the moment that I am in with a total embrace, no judgment and no expectation, just pure openness. Just saying yes, just trusting, and then I will know what it means to have wings on a pair of skis.