Today I went skating at golden hour alone. I went knowing, or thinking at least, that I’m not a good skater. In almost every instance I can remember I’ve felt the whole time like I was about to fall, wanting to leave after ten minutes of wobbling around in pain somewhere around my ankles, bracing myself for impact. I don’t think I’ve ever before skated by myself. It’s one of the crazy graces of this year in the woods, this strange, singular year that we have found ourselves in (since we have decided that we will not be staying for the three we originally thought), that I can quite literally walk one minute from my door to an idyllic frozen lagoon of my very own. Or I can cross-country ski on untouched snow through well-loved wilderness any day of the week. I grabbed my skates on a whim today, practically running out my door, a sudden impulse to try again. It’s too beautiful here, so much that it doesn’t really compute. All the snow, the pines, the sun in all seasons. I hardly know what’s beautiful anymore, what’s real, where my body really is, how to move through it all. I live in these woods, this is where I am, there are other people here too, now in 2018, but I am alone within my own woods, cavernous, different with different light. My own lagoon, not even borrowed, owned.
I took off my mittens to strap on my skates. Cold hands. The way down the bank of the lagoon to the ice was slippery and uneven, treacherous, I’d call it. I fell right away, the sort where both feet fly out from under you at once. I landed squarely on my tailbone. It felt like a bad omen, it made me sigh and think myself silly. I was thankful every minute that no one was anywhere near the lagoon, greedy for silence and space, the romance of it, the chance to fall and not be seen. I expected to fall more, to not stay very long, to change my mind and go home.
Once on the ice, I just began. Small steps, just practice, my mind graciously clear. Short, slow glides, one foot then the other, finding where the ice was the most smooth, thankful for Greta who had cleared some of the snow off the lagoon yesterday when she wanted to practice her hockey. I found a little lane to stay in with a few clear cracks shooting across it, ominous but seeming to be relatively sturdy. I skated, rocking my arms back and forth, surely looking clumsy but with no one to see.
What amazed me was that I didn’t want to stop. Never once. I just kept skating, back and forth, back and forth, up and down, always deciding to double back and go again. Time was gone, my phone dead in my pocket within moments of stepping out on the ice. Me, be-mittened, wearing a sweater I had knit myself, favorite blue jeans, vintage parka from the Rhinelander goodwill, Isaiah’s hat, perfectly-fitting skates saved from the lost-and-found, radiant in the golden hour sunlight, absolutely alone.
At some sort of midpoint in my practice, I recalled figure-eights, remembered they were a thing to try, a thing skaters did sometimes. A circle that goes round about itself. I made one, a slow, lazy loop around and around, then another, then another, with the curves as the best part, but maybe also the straights. No clear place or reason to stop. Infinity to trace over and over again. I noticed my skating getting more sure, my body relaxing, my heart softening behind the zipper of my coat as I looped.
I thought of nothing, and when I did think I thought just about skating. Simple thoughts. I imagined myself a different person entirely, Hans Brinker or Jo from Little Women or a girl with a pond that freezes over every winter in her backyard throughout her childhood. I thought of professional figure skaters and their mothers. I felt like I was doing, suddenly, something I was born to do. A body made to glide, to spin when she chooses, to stop and look. Someone weightless, cutting, making lines on the ice. A beautiful woman alone. I looked as the tracks multiplied, as I cut through fresh snow straying further and further, making perfect curves around, right and left. Pure comfort, joy.
I was in the middle of something I knew I would remember, the sort of thing you think about when you’re sad, thinking “if I could only go back there, to the figure-eights on the lagoon.” I thought of another time like that, a time under a willow once in Chicago, when I didn’t want to leave, felt almost like I couldn’t, like there would never be a right time to leave that place, that moment. Another infinity. It happens to me sometimes, rarely but surely, getting caught in loops of grace. It’s almost a sort of mania, a wonderful kind, where there is no better thing than the thing I’m doing, no happier thought, no reason in the world to stop or leave. I become a sort of madwoman, skating or sitting under a willow, back on my island of madness which is a sheet of ice or a shelter made of leaves. Trapped and happy, arrested by the moment, pinned down by something outside of myself, playing out something planned long ago, an ancient thing. Being in exactly the right place, making loops, in motion. It’s possible that I am making something big out of something very small, but that’s what makes it so cutting, so deep. It is a feeling that absolutely cannot be manufactured or chosen or created by me. It is a feeling that is entirely a gift, a gift preceding all action. That is not a small thing–eternal life suddenly on earth, gently, carried for a minute by me, a clumsy girl alone on skates. Incarnation.
It is a frequent grief of mine to feel out of place. It’s been plaguing me often lately, a thorn in my flesh. The feeling that something is not right, that I am not right, that I shouldn’t be where I am but there’s nowhere to go. That something is cosmically wrong, that I have nothing to say, no choices to make, no doorknob to turn. Friday night that is where I was, feeling very, very anxious, absolutely trapped, like I was caught in a bad loop, one I couldn’t get out of, seeing weeks stretched out in front of me full of things I didn’t want to do, places that weren’t the right ones. If only someone could have told me, “but you’ll do figure-eights on Sunday.” If only I knew of the grace to come, of the way it always, always ebbs and flows. It is a flaw of mine to continuously doom myself to things I’m not doomed to, forgetting that there is both doom and glory, that one is my inheritance and one is just a sometimes-place, a momentary affliction, a byproduct of something in me that isn’t actually mine, not anymore. Glory is mine, eternal, doom is just sometimes. This is what I always forget. This is what I need to be reminded of.
It takes me to this, to a psalm, to “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Lines cut into ice, walking on water, heart full of light, mind full of peace, clothed with the sun. That is who I am, who I was created to be. I started 2017 in Rwanda, of all places, sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in front of forty kids, saying those words out loud to them, with them. “The lines have fallen for me…” We lay on our backs and traced lines through the sky with our feet, we practiced closing our eyes and looking at the blackness, making symbols out of the things I wanted to remember, hoping it would be good for them too. Then I said those words at Annie’s wedding, shared them with Margaret and Jessie, the four of us joined together in declaring hope for ourselves and for Annie’s marriage, for each of our lives and the ways they were changing, feeling tears leaking from our eyes, speaking the truth with full voice in front of other people. I have carried those words in my body through unbelief and fear and sadness and shocking anger, through long days that didn’t feel right, that made me want to run away and never stop. And now it is a new year and I see now that the lines are figure eights, always have been, pure grace, my body gliding, unearthly. It is the answer to the question I shout at the sky over and over again, “where will I be safe???” In the figure eights, under the willow, right in the middle of the grace, its endlessness. I’m knocked over by the gift of feeling it, of knowing it to be true, of finding myself caught in the best sort of loop, a strange mirror to the loops of anxiety I have come to know better and, sadly, to expect. Feeling myself somehow right within lines drawn by God, heavenly eights. The shock of promises actually being kept. This is a sign, this is a wonder, skating in January in Wisconsin. What wondrous love, where the thunderous things are silent, where the mystery is what is true, where time stops and shifts, where the doom is momentary but the grace goes on and on and on, round about itself, infinity. The sort of thing you didn’t even know to yearn for.
I stopped skating when some other people came to skate. I think it had been an hour, maybe more. I wasn’t angry that they came, I just knew it was time to go. I did one or two more loops then I waddled off the ice, made small talk, felt quietly transformed. I went home and grabbed my computer to write. I knew exactly what I wanted to say.
I know that I spend more time thinking I am caught in doom than reveling and breathing in grace. I know that one day’s skating will not solve tomorrow’s fears. I am not out of the woods yet, nor will I ever be. But now there are the figure-eights to remember, to revisit when I need to. A new holy thing, a new thing to practice, a brand new sacrament belonging to me, something so ordinary turned into fire. Something I couldn’t forget if I tried. I have it in my mind now to try to skate every day while there is ice on the lagoon, which I am sure I will not do. I will definitely decide not to go, be tired, sad, misremembering how it felt, living in doom instead of light, thinking a big thing small. But the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I was made to glide in grace. I am in infinity. This is what is true. This is what my body knows, and can now remember in a new way, forever.
Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been my favorite song since the moment I heard it. I discovered it in high school, used to listen to it over and over. It is the one song I would keep if there could only be one song to listen to for the rest of my life. If you don’t know it, the refrain is, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” In a strange sort of fever-dream, I made a theater piece about it in college, a sort of dance piece where I wore roller skates and made for myself a path made out of light. I performed it only a few times, chose it as my final farewell to the theater that had meant everything to me, to a place that felt something like heaven. That theater piece is one of my favorite things I have ever made, something that carried its own sort of holiness, something entirely without rationality, a thing created by my spirit instead of my mind. For all my loving “River,” I never knew why. I couldn’t articulate it, except that my body knew it somehow, that I carried that song in my soul, that it somehow belonged to me. Prophesy, strange and ordinary! Now I know why. It makes me shake my head to think of it, the uncanniness of it, that clear connection years in the making, something so simple, so almost silly. A deep, personal promise planted in me long ago and now fulfilled, still so cloaked in mystery. Small things made big! Towering! Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? I cannot attain unto it! I’m suddenly at the peak looking out, but only for a tiny moment. What does it mean, except that everything is connected and I am a part of that? What does it mean except that I have a river, a beautiful inheritance, and the lines are in pleasant places, loops of eternity? What does it mean except that the earth is mine to skate on even though grief is all around, and I am made of golden light?