Old Horace nailed it, didn’t he, in his Odes? The complete thought translates from the Latin: “While we’re talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future.”
Now and then as I’m rehabbing this new hip I’ve got I wonder if I’ll actually be able to do it again. And by it, of course, I mean ski.
Not just ski. But ski well enough to tap into the magic that takes over your being, obliterates past and future – except where it involves your line around that next tree – and delivers you completely into a pure present of vision and execution.
(Can you tell that as I write the peaks are white, and the first heavy storm of the season lingers overhead pushing fingers of gray cloud like slow-motion waves over the ridgelines?)
Most of the time I know that worrying about this – my future as an athlete – is pointless. Unproductive. And every once in a while, I get a good slap upside the head by some story that puts my ego trip in perspective.
Case in point: Yesterday old friends Bob and Karen Chamberlain came by for lunch, on their way home to Glenwood Springs after a fall-colors visit to Telluride. Karen is a poet and memoirist and has stayed with us at Boulder Rock a couple of times when she was over here reading or leading workshops. Ellen and I hadn’t seen Bob for about two years, a lapse made longer when we were forced back by several inches of sudden summer hail on our way to Bob’s 70th birthday party last year.
He looked great, tall and slim of hip, wearing as always straight-cut Levis and hiking boots. He has the bluest eyes I have ever seen, turquoise blue, Paul Newman blue. You’d never know to look at him that he had a major stroke a few years back.
When the four of us lived in Telluride in the late 1970s, Bob and I skied together a lot. He always teased me about my “short skis,” which were probably 203 cm long back then. He never skied on anything shorter than a 210 cm. In fact, I think those were his slalom skis. His soft-snow skis, a vintage pair of Head Deep Powders, were at least seven feet long. His boots were leather, custom made in Italy. He claimed he couldn’t flex at the ankle in plastic boots. And how the hell is anybody supposed to ski without flexing at the ankle?!
This all made sense when you remembered that Bob grew up in Aspen in the 1950s. And that, according to Bob, Aspen and the rest of the world started going seriously to hell in about the mid-1960s. Nothing he could do about it, of course, except become a charming curmudgeon. (He also became a very good photographer who documented those last, uncrowded powder slopes in luscious black-and-white.) And – one thing he could control outside of the darkroom – he could ski forever on the gear that suited him, that fit his elegant, feet-together style, and his doomed desire to preserve a certain time and place.
Then one day after the Chamberlains had moved back to Aspen, Bob found himself lying on the floor trying to call 911 as control of his limbs and his mind ebbed out of him. It took years of rehab to get his speech back, and enough balance and physical control to ski again. But ski he did, though further health challenges – heart problems and nerve damage in one leg – restricted him to the gentlest slopes at Buttermilk Mountain and Ski Sunlight. Sometimes his heart flutters wildly, and he’s reduced to a 210 cm snowplow crawl. If he falls, he knows he will not be able to get up by himself.
Slouched back on our couch drinking tea, he was still the curmudgeon we knew and loved. But there was something else, too, a new memento mori awareness. We are mortal, time is fleeing. And faced with these humbling facts, we’d best seize (or pluck, or gather, enjoy, make use of) the day, the moment, the present.
He talked about one of his first days back on skis. He was at Buttermilk, Aspen’s ski-school mountain. He felt like a complete beginner, fumbling and slow. He couldn’t trust his tips not to cross. But when he slid up to the lift, the operator saw the smile, a smile that Bob wasn’t fully aware of himself, and said, “Man, you look like you’re having the time of your life!”