Many times over the winter I almost quit figure skating.
I would go to a lesson and not practice.
I would practice and then push back an upcoming lesson.
I barely went to the rink hours for the MIT Figure Skating Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member last year and the year before.
In my head, I practiced quitting, crafting the excuse, and finding something new and safer to do, like tennis, which I played in high school.
I didn’t quit, although it seemed many times — when a week or even two weeks went by without skating — that I paused.
This was after a long year of being tired. Work seemed too hard, and it was tiring. I was always pushing myself to get it done in the time expected to meet important deadlines and not to let anything drop. I had pushed myself skating, taking the test and failing it. I joined the group fitness challenge at work, and for 12 weeks in a row I met the incrementally increasing time goals. The first week it was 150 minutes. By the end of 12 weeks, we were expected to be exercising and logging 300 minutes a week. A few of those weeks, I went beyond, and exercised almost 500 minutes.
I was proud. I was tired. I felt as if I stopped I would lose ground.
During my summer vacation from teaching last year I worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. I really liked the work and was successful at it. However, my life had little free time. I longed to sit on the couch and do nothing. I longed for an absence. My friend Jessie looks at this as a presence and calls it “rest.” I couldn’t. (I mean, I dreamed of rest, but the list of stuff to do called more loudly than the couch did.)
Last summer, I also took weekly skating lessons, but there was not enough time to practice in between. Yeah, I felt bad. Bad student. Not doing enough homework. But I kept going, half keeping skating alive.
I made no progress. It was like a review, remedial, over and over and over. The teacher was very nice and smart, yet I felt discouraged. I had hit the brick wall of my own ability. There is the reckoning that comes when you realize, and only adults over 40 can realize this, that it is not all onward and upward. There are limits. There may be back falls. There are ends.
I wondered what I would do with my time if I were not skating. It seemed to me to be a folly anyway, to keep taking lessons and practicing for *no* progress or even a backward progression. Once I talked to Alex, a pairs ice dancer, older than I, about these worries. He told a story about another adult skater we know in common; she tried many times to pass a skills test for a very complex move. She practiced and practiced between each test, which were several months apart. She took it seven times. Finally, she stopped. Alex told me, “She said you kind of realize there are diminishing returns.”
Yes, that’s it.
If there are diminishing returns, would it be better not to continue, not to try? This may be true of all things: our vocations, our love life, our art. There is something call apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Our cells can only last so long, and should only last so long. They die according to some time clock ‘programmed’ in them. You really can’t have all your cells living and reproducing without stopping. (That’s what a cancer or malignancy is.) Is progress and skill the same? We have this belief, as humans, that if you keep trying, and keep getting better at trying, you will make progress. But what if it’s just that you keep trying and… nothing? Is there something in us programmed not just to die, but to stop even before dying?
At the end of the summer, I was diagnosed with celiac disease after blood tests, an endoscopy, and colonoscopy. I was prescribed a gluten-free diet. No medications are available, so avoidance is the only effective treatment. Within two weeks of beginning the diet, I felt better, a LOT better. Two IV iron infusions improved my blood iron remarkably, and a vitamin B12 injection helped with absorption.
Oddly, although I was feeling really good, I also was realizing my fragility, my limits, my age. I tried to simplify my life. Skating became less a priority in the fall, even though I had made an arrangement with Anne Marie, the summer skating teacher, for private lessons.
Maybe I wasn’t quitting so much as experiencing a great inner conflict, a crisis of belief in myself, a tempering of optimism.
I may also have been stuck in what my friend and extraordinary writer/writing teacher Lowry Pei has described as as “the Middle,” when you continue to work on project, and it’s all plateau. You feel no recognition of progress or accomplishment after the burst of the beginning. In the experience of work on a story, it feels like this when you ease from the beginning into the middle, he writes:
The turning point comes unpredictably and maybe undetectably, but once deceleration sets in, you know it. It may seem at this point that the process is coming to a premature end, and that’s an understandable feeling, because when any natural cycle ends there’s a palpable slowing before it disorganizes altogether. So when you feel the initial exponential growth process of the story starting to slow down, that feeling can easily cause anxiety. You might start to worry that the story is abandoning you, that you’re not going to be able to write it. The leveling off is hard to deal with until you’ve done this a number of times, because at first it feels like you’ve lost your energy, your momentum, your forward drive.
To keep going, in my case to keep skating, it takes a lot of doggedness. And it’s weird how I would keep physically doing it even though my internal dialog was often involved in PLANNING HOW TO QUIT. (Does a writer in the middle of a novel have this conversation with himself? This I wonder.)
This seeming contrariness reminds me of something poet Gail Mazur, who taught fiction writing (!) at Wellesley College when I was there, told our class: “Sometimes you may feel down or depressed, and then you hear yourself whistling, as though the sound is coming from a different person, and you have to realize that some part of you is alive and enjoying the world.”
My mind was committed to negativity, but my body was doing its thing, as though it had to skate.
Today I had a lesson with Anne Marie. I’ve known her several months now, and she is tolerant and patient as a teacher, but she pushes me a little ahead of where I am. I’m not going to say to her, “I can’t do it,” because I know she won’t push me too far. If she thinks I am ready to try something, I believe her. For some reason, I confided in her my state of mind, my worries about skating, the feeling that I am stuck. She had a few words of understanding and encouragement, and then we moved on.
In today’s lesson, after we reviewed a couple of things I wanted some feedback on, she taught me three new moves, including a JUMP. And… I did it. I did it about eight times, in fact. I’m not ready to jump as part of a program but it seemed like a physical epiphany: yes, this is what it feels like!
There is still one move for people at my skill level that flummoxes me; I am stuck on the 3-turn. I have done it occasionally, mysteriously, but cannot do it regularly. Having pushed me to jump, I think what Anne Marie was doing was showing me that I can be stuck and still move on. I can struggle and still make skating progress.
She also reminded me that skating can be fun and said I should have things to practice on my own that make it feel that way. She didn’t say, “I am giving you some fun,” but that’s what she had done.
I trust that a good day like today will carry me for a while.