I am 47 years old; I am a novice figure skater; and on Sunday February 3rd I will take my first skills test: forward and backward edges, the waltz 8, forward and backward crossovers, and spirals.
Goals like this are clarifying. They simplify life. If my goal is to prepare for the test, other possibilities fall away. I look at the walls of my too-dark dining room and tell myself, “Painting can wait. Skate now.” I think of shoe-shopping and remember, “Skates.” Tired, I want to nap. I look at my GCal, and it says, “Skating, West Roxbury in 10 min.” I go.
I have built my plans for the last several weeks around this goal. I admit I have the luxury of time: there’s plenty of open rinks in the Boston area where I live, and I also can arrange my day, for the most part, to take advantage of their open sessions. I also skate at the rink at MIT, where I work.
Things were developing quite well until last week when I fell hard and hurt my right (writing) hand. I continued skating after one day off and trip to the doc’s for an x-ray, and a week later I feel better, but now on account of this fall my mind is getting in my way. It keeps stopping me in the middle of things I already know how to do.
This uncontrollable stopping — it feels like an arrest. I’m skating into a turn, for example, and something in my brain shuts it down, actually taking my body into its own mental hands. It’s hard to describe the feeling. Maybe you have had it.
Even writing this now, my heart feels palpable to me, like fear is coalescing around it. A buzzing cloud. It spreads up to my neck and I’m clenching my teeth; it spreads out to my elbows — not a pain, but a tension — and I want to wrap my arms around myself to reduce it, or maybe to contain this feeling of being on the verge of flying away or apart. A scream might be a relief.
My natural caution, which leads to vigilance, helps me in life. I prepare for things. I anticipate challenges and develop strategies for meeting them. I monitor my own actions; I reflect on them; and I imagine what I’d do next time.
Diabetes has given me lots and lots of opportunities to practice my gift for premeditation. And, readers, you know that the hallmark of diabetic health is control. Here I am, 20 years with T1D and no complications. My eyes are in beautiful shape, and my feet and kidneys are totally functional. My only medications are vitamins and insulin. I had three diabetic pregnancies, and I have three healthy kids.
And yet my caution, which can be a force for good, is standing in my way right now, and I have no tools to get over it. My inner voice is fluent at saying, “Be careful.” In fact, when my two older kids go out at night, I say to them: “Have fun. Be safe.” Are both possible? I must believe that they are. Or maybe I’m only saying the “Have fun” part to be cool.
Last summer, Jimmy and the kids and I went to Bethel, Maine. My sister Emily loaned us her house (thanks, sis!), and we went hiking or swimming every day. In Bethel and towns nearby are some swimming holes, scoured out by the mountain rivers, and you can jump from a boulder into churning water below. It seemed so fun in the guidebook, and I have always longed to be the person, like the characters in The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), who would do this: be an adult who jumped off a rock into a swimming hole.
Guess what? It’s one thing to fantasize doing it and another thing to let go and do it. In the home video above you can see me studying the water, thinking, studying the water, thinking, and trying to psych myself into doing it. I was holding back (and I did for almost an hour before this video was taken), even though my conscious, deliberate mind was telling my inner self: You can do this. You can swim, and hundreds of people have already done this today.
Still, I held back for the longest time. Jimmy and Eli did it. Eli did it many times. A man standing near me on the rock, sensing my hesitation, remarked, “The mind is a powerful thing. You know you can do it, and yet it is telling you not to do it.”
Eventually I did it (see the end of the video) by suddenly invoking an image of my father, as though he was standing behind me on the rock, yelling, “C’mon, just jump. Jane, jump!” We are inhabited by more than one inner voice; they hinder and help us in unexpected ways.
I made myself do it, filled with both terror and purpose. I knew the hardest part would be taking three steps on the rock and then jumping off into nothingness on the fourth step. After that, the rest would simply unfold, in a way beyond my power. Gravity would get me down into the water. My live body would float up, and my preternatural will to live and breathe would make me kick up.
All those things happened. I was barely aware of the plummet. When my head broke the surface of the water, my sinuses stung. Water must have been forced into them. I swam over to a flat rock and pulled myself up, shaking with triumph and the residue of fear.
Now I have to do again the things in skating that my mind is stopping me from doing.
It’s funny (funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha) because I’m not especially afraid of the pain. I sometimes fall in skating and hurt my bottom or a knee, and these seem to be par for the course. I get up, and my mind does not dwell on them for longer than it takes to skate out the vibration associated with falling hard.
But my hands! These I am so afraid of injuring permanently. What if I couldn’t write? What if I couldn’t manage my own insulin? I feel that underneath a usually sturdy self is my frail self, just waiting for a tiny crack in the shell to come out.
This morning I had a skating lesson. At the end, my teacher Fred said to me, “Your body knows how to do these things. Yet you seem less sure today.” He is very sympathetic about my response to falling and hurting my hand, and he says he is an “over-analyzer” himself and understands my inclination to problem solve, yet I don’t expect him to be a psychologist. He advised me, as I continue to practice on my own, to just work on one thing, not to break down a move into the many micro moves that go into it, which is what my mind is doing, furiously. Just work on one thing. This might be a better mantra.
There is something close to panic that rises when I think of doing this, and a small thing has become a big thing. Maybe there is only so much I am able to do. Maybe I have reached my predetermined limit. Maybe I tried everything, and will try everything, and it will only fall apart. Maybe it’s not only onward-and-upward. Maybe there’s a stop, and not a graceful one.
I realize that whether I pass this test or not does not prevent me from skating for fun or, in the future, taking the test again. I also realize that, in the scope of all possible fears, this is slight, and the stakes are low. However, caution has a hold on me right now, slowing me down and making me self-monitor and doubt every move. Sometimes caution is on my side; this time it’s sticking out its tongue at me.
iPhone video by Jimmy Guterman