We’re two weeks into this, the new year of our Lord 2020, and already the newness is fading. We creatures of immediacy who love the New, craving its veneer of possibilities, feel the shine becoming tarnished, our resolutions and hopes and dreams–at best, some of them, at worst, all of them–even now beginning to elude us. With 352 days left before the next New Year, 2020 is passing by, waiting for none of us.
I am reminded of this as I reflect upon our recent experiences on Casper Mountain. I have written before about the allure of cross-country skiing, being surrounded by the beauty of Casper Mountain adorned with blankets upon blankets of snow, and the humiliating, exhilarating experience of learning to ski. We are still learning here, now with five children in the highly-popular Mangus lessons, a five-week Sunday afternoon course of intensive lessons put on by the Casper Nordic Club. This is the third January we’ve participated, and while skiing itself, the trails, and the entire preparatory rigamarole of the gear is beginning to feel familiar and more comfortable, we are still a long way from proficiency.
People say it’s the pursuit and not the destination that matters, and at least in terms of skiing, the cliche holds true. A critical mass of Olsons are transitioning to skate skiing, the “zippy younger brother” of classic Nordic skiing, and suffice it to say that, yes, it’s hard. I’m in an adult skate skiing class right now, with students ranging in age from perhaps late 20s to late 50s or early 60s. We are at different life stages, from young child raisers to retirees, but we are all old enough to have experienced life and hardship. When we’re sucking wind after climbing long hills, we can groan about soreness and laugh together. The camaraderie is an ancillary benefit of the lessons.
Unlike our counterparts in the kids’ skate skiing class, we adults are not striving for an eventual spot on a school team, let alone junior nationals. As Rick, one of our patient instructors explains, “Our goal as [skate-skiing] adults is just to keep moving, to keep going.” There’s a kind of satisfaction and confidence that comes from this goal, actually. Even a few years ago, such an ambition would have struck me as weak, a sell-out to loftier aims. But I cherish that goal now. It means we are here, and we are still breathing and moving. And we are together.
It occurred to me this year that January 1, what our secular world knows as New Year’s Day, is also and always the eighth day of Christmas. On the eighth day of Christmas, Jesus was circumcised in a rite dating back to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. This covenant, a painful, bloody, physical mark, continued generation after generation, over hundreds and thousands of years. As the note in Genesis 17:10 in the Lutheran Study Bible explains, “By removal of the foreskin, males received a visible sign of God’s promise to send a Savior, born of the woman (Galatians 4:4-5). No Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of the promise God had made long before, and every conjugal act between a husband and wife would illustrate the hope that God was working to restore creation and redeem all people.”
Aside from the inevitable squeamishness the above likely causes, it also explains the very routine visit to the temple Joseph, the guardian and adoptive father of Jesus, and Mary, His mother, make with Him eight days after His birth. One brief verse, Luke 2:21, squeezed after the well-known nativity account and visit of the shepherds tell us:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Several Christian churches mark the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, an appropriate celebration of this first formal fulfillment of the Law in Jesus’ life on earth. It is no accident that Jesus, whose name means “He Shall Save His People From Their Sins,” was both formally given His name and circumcised into the covenant of God. The note on verse ten in Genesis also explains, “Finally, the shedding of blood pointed toward our final redemption by the shedding of Christ’s blood.”
What does all of this have to do with skate skiing? We know that when babies are injured, they cry, and we instinctively recoil. These small, helpless creatures should not be hurt–we know this in our bones. And yet any injury, any cut, any drop of blood they experience is merely a foretaste of the pain and suffering these little ones will inevitably experience. The first drops of blood portend the rest that will follow. This, I think, is partly why we hate to see newborns hurt.
Yet we know the hurts and the blood will come and are coming. In our heart of hearts, we know pain is coming, for all of us. The evanescence of the New Year glow, the excitement of new goals and activities and friends will diminish.
And it is also why some of us attempt new things like skiing, not because we are sadistic monsters out for self-harm, but because we know this is our lot. We will experience pain. We do not intentionally seek it out, but neither do we fearfully hide from it–if it means we learn something valuable and edifying, more small signs that our mortality is not the only end ahead of us. We must learn, during our life of shadows, to trust that Christ really has us, that He really meant what He said and what He says, that He has done it, that it is finished.
We need the blood. Not of ourselves, for that would be nothing to God. The best we can hope for, then, is in another’s blood. It is in One who put Himself into our mortal state and wasn’t content even there. As one pastor preached,
The Lord God, who needed no law, was not content to become flesh and blood. He went beyond that and subordinated himself to the law, shedding his blood in obedience to the law, so that the whole world that was condemned by the law would be set free. Jesus’ name tells us who he is: the Lord. Jesus’ name tells us what he does: he saves sinners by taking their place under the law. He is our substitute. He alone met the requirements of Sinai. He fulfilled man’s part of God’s covenant with Israel. He alone could do it and he alone did it.
We do not crave suffering. And yet Christians endure it, knowing what is to come. We come together for skiing and falls, for companionship and empathy. We come together to receive Christ’s body and yes, His blood for us. Just as the eighth day of Christ’s life on earth marked out His path of redemption for us, we also step out each new day, looking in faith to the eighth day of the New Creation. The new fades, yes. But the New that will never end is ahead of us. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This year has brought record lows and snows to much of the continental United States. Here in Wyoming, we’ve gotten more snow than usual, and what we’ve learned in three winters here is that more snow means more skiing–cross-country skiing (XC) or Nordic skiing, to be precise. We’ve grown to love cross-country, which might seem trivial, in the face of all the mess going on in the world. But hang with me, and learn why loving XC improves our lives and broadens our world.
1.XC is a sport that began with a practical outdoor purpose–and its history combines ingenuity and courage.
Not many people lay claim to loving frosty weather for significant portions of the year, let alone finding fun ways to navigate mountains–and mountains, and mountains–of snow. Cross-country skiing is, in fact, one awesome invention beget precisely for humans otherwise torpid, shivering, and probably half-crazy from cabin fever. Basically, XC began as a way for one snow-bound guy to get to his neighbor’s house more easily. Later, it evolved into (what else?) a strategy for military maneuvering and eventually made its way into the sporting arena in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originating in Norway–I know, you’re shocked–Nordic skiing is unsurprisingly dominated by Scandinavian athletes at Winter Olympic games. Think about it: if your great-grandfather had to go seven kilometers to his buddy Sven’s place, or find something fun to do in the white wilderness that lay in his backyard for eight months out of the year, you’d appreciate and probably master cross-country skiing, too! (Especially if your great-grandfather ended up marrying Sven’s sister. Which he probably did. Hey, a romantic motive for heading out into sub-freezing temperatures makes a lot of sense.)
Though it may seem a bit silly, we like that cross-country skiing has a history. It’s an activity that ties us to our forebears–hey, our last name is Olson!–and to people who knew exactly how to make do with long winters in frigid and avalanche-prone climes. Links to the past remind us that we aren’t the center of the universe or somehow better than our ancestors. Our technology-improved skis might be better than the retro wood ones of Sven and his immediate progeny, but I doubt our abilities to ski, or understand the intricacies of snowfall and weather, or how to navigate the unrecognizable outdoors are. Our forebears set the bar, and with the resources they had, they whittled it so they could perform controlled slides downhill at heart-stopping speeds. That’s chutzpah, and they’ve got our respect.
2. XC allows us to cherish our local environment–and in the winter, no less.
We still can’t believe that we live in Wyoming, for many reasons. One of the big ones is that we live just a fifteen minute drive from the world-class cross-country trails on Casper Mountain. It’s an easy, scenic drive well before we reach the Casper Nordic Club Lodge. Just yesterday, we spotted about a dozen wild turkeys hanging out in a copse at the base of the mountain right next to the road. A mule deer was standing with them, like they hang out all the time–which they probably do. We’ve also seen antelope on many occasions. On the trails themselves, we find rabbit and mule deer tracks, and sometimes the scat that tells us we just missed meeting our furry friends face-to-face. Witnessing wildlife in their home, in a place we also call home, makes us want to conserve and protect our mutual habitats.
And the views on the trails are breathtaking. I loved snow as a kid, and it never stuck around long in Ohio or Kentucky. The closest I got to consistently experiencing the magical sight and feel of whirling flakes deep in a forest happened during the Dance of the Snowflakes in productions of The Nutcracker I danced in. But when we ski, we glide through a winter wonderland every time. Sparkling, glittering, unbroken hills of white meeting a cerulean blue sky; evergreens towering and clustered, weighted with blankets of heavy white; silences so still we can hear clumps of softly falling snow on the mountain–we experience this every single time we head out on our skis. Many trails criss-cross the top of the mountain, and up there we can admire the prairie three thousand feet below us reaching to the horizon and the white caps of the distant Bighorn Mountains. With these kinds of viscerally moving views, can you blame us for becoming skiing regulars?
3. XC keeps us in shape–and in the winter, no less.
Many so-called winter sports take place mainly on indoor rinks and are not actually very lay-friendly. Take figure skating. It’s fantastic, if you’re a teenager with great knees, rock-solid tendons, and crazy dedication to mastering airborne spins. Curling is fun, but it won’t exactly raise your heart rate. But cross-country skiing? Few other sports combine upper body athleticism, core strength, and cardiovascular challenge quite like it–and it always takes place outdoors. It’s one of the best full-body workouts that we can get. It requires herringboning up hills and double-poling down, not to mention the constant muscle work required to maintain balance. As a decades-long study of cross-country skiers showed, while genetics can sure help us reach old age (thank you, great-grandfathers!), skiing is an excellent way to improve our chances of relishing our golden years (and cut down on our risks of heart disease and cancer).
But most anyone who’s tried cross-country skiing knows that it’s a simple concept but also just plain hard to actually do. In other words, it’s an activity most people would pursue, or even watch, like they would a root canal. “Cross-country skiing is the least glamorous, least pyrotechnic, least watchable of the major Olympic sports. … [It’s] where the elegant majesty of winter sports goes to die an excruciatingly drawn-out death,” writes Sam Anderson in this must-read love-hate essay to cross-country skiing. “So why would anyone do it?”
I know, I know–the skeptics among you are currently echoing the top entry in Urban Dictionary for cross-country skiing. Only “people who like the cold, hills and exercise induced asthma” go for this. “Some find it fun, but for most it closely resembles some form of personal hell.” Believe me, I get it. The physical exertion is no joke. For the last two winters my husband and I have ventured out with both patient and encouraging friends and formal instructors to try ourselves at what is distinctly not an armchair sport. XC can be exhausting and humbling, especially with all the falling down and getting back up–which all by itself is a challenge. (Imagine wearing long skinny poles on your feet on your rear on slippery snow. Now imagine getting up. Yeah, I’d laugh, too.) There have been times, particularly in long, grueling climbs, when I’ve wanted to lay down in the snow and just stay there.
And the cold can be brutal, too. I learned the hard way a few months ago that I have Raynaud’s Phenomenon–a circulatory problem where the ends of my fingers turn white and get icy when my body feels too cold. I actually got a mild form of frostbite, despite my two pairs of gloves and handwarmers, while Jon and I were skiing in sub-zero temperatures in late December (hey, the sun was shining and the wind wasn’t blowing! Cut me some slack). Skiing requires a modest attitude and cold-weather preparation–and a hefty amount of persistence (see below). And with that persistence comes the reward. Both Jon and I have said that after skiing season is over, we’re usually in the best shape of the year, if not our lives. That’s not a little accomplishment.
4. XC is an activity our entire family can enjoy.
Before you start believing that we are uber-athletes or that only crazy Wyomingites ski, let me remind you that our kids can ski. Our three-year-old started strapping on his little L.L. Bean boot-adjustable skis this winter (okay, we do it for him), and now our oldest three kids (seven, eight, and ten) get everything on and leave down the trails before we can get our own gear on. It turns out that having a low center of gravity and malleable ability to learn really helps kids master XC–especially when they don’t use poles, which is the best way to learn.
Their confidence comes in large part from two winters of Mangus League Ski lessons, hosted by the Casper Nordic Club. For six weeks on Sunday afternoons, kids as young as four all the way up to retired adults learn how to and improve at XC. The instructors range from teenagers to retirees. In fact, Vicki, one of my instructors last winter, told me how she started skiing in her 30s, and now she’s been doing it for thirty years. Dan, another instructor, has a prosthetic leg–and no, I’m not joking. He’s been skiing for decades. The fact is that there’s an entire range of difficulty in the sport, and that’s good both for beginners and for advanced skiers alike. We can stay near the lodge and ski the maze–a criss-crossing weave of easier groomed trails–for miles, or we can do the three-mile Bishop’s Loop. There are endless options for distance and difficulty. We can gradually take more difficult trails, or not. To be fair, our oldest kids already love to ski down Good Luck (appropriately named), a moderate to difficult hill from the top of the mountain down closer to the lodge. The hardest part now for them is getting up the hill!
And while it’s not easy, and we can’t do five or six mile workouts (yet), we can actually take the baby along, too. Ski trailers or pulks enable skiers to pull up to fifty pounds. Our little cupcake is barely twenty-five pounds soaking wet, and we have awesome friends who loaned us their trailer, so she gets to slide along with us. The last time we went, she was so warm and cozy by the end of our time that she actually fell asleep.
And can somebody say hot cocoa? We so enjoy sitting around together with steaming mugs of chocolate bliss, topped with swirls of real whipped cream, after we’ve all finished a good ski workout in the woods, faces pink and muscles burning. That sugar really perks us up after we’ve burned off thousands of calories. And marshmallows are awesome.
5. XC encourages us to persevere.
The last month or so has been challenging for me, personally. The frostbite diagnosis, and exhortations to not get my hands cold, effectively ended my chances to ski during January. (As an aside, do you know how hard it is to prevent cold hands when you use water, reach into the fridge or freezer, move wet laundry to the dryer, or any number or regular household tasks? I now have renewed respect for people with extra cold sensitivity in their hands.) And the New Year, with all the positive exhortations to start over with a blank slate, emphasized again to me that I am, physically, empty–I am not pregnant when we had expected last fall that I was. I was surprised to find myself grieving again early in 2019.
But skiing has been a gift this winter–an experience I enjoy immensely, with my husband and with my children, and with friends, and a reminder that silver linings always exist. Right after my molar pregnancy, our caring and optimistic seven-year-old daughter told me, “Well, at least you can go skiing, Mom.” If an adult had told me that, I probably would have slapped him. But my girl knew how much I loved the outdoors, and being out in the snow, and she had put together that pregnancy effectively ends Mom’s opportunities to ski. If we were expecting a baby now, I would not be skiing. And that would be okay. But since we are not, at least I can enjoy XC. And that’s something I cherish.
And there’s this, too. Remember Anderson’s question “So why would anyone do [XC]?” Here’s his loquacious answer (warning: some language).
“Because cross-country skiers are existential heroes in goggles and tights. Instead of offering us distraction — the glittery melodrama of figure skating or the quirky novelty of curling — cross-country skiers lean right into a bleak truth: We are stranded on a planet that is largely indifferent to us, a world that sets mountains in our path and drops iceballs from 50,000 feet and tortures our skin with hostile air. There is no escaping it; the only noble choice is to strap on a helmet and slog right in. Cross-country skiing expresses something deep about the human condition: the absolute, nonnegotiable necessity of the grind. The purity and sanctity of the goddamn slog.”
We’re not existential heroes–that’s kind of funny, actually. We’re regular people who have tried something new and enjoy it. But there’s no doubt cross-country skiing embodies the kind of discipline and self-control that encourages us to remain faithful under hardship. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do not ski as those skiing aimlessly, for our ultimate hope lies in an imperishable prize. It would be hilariously tragic if, say, by skiing God deemed us righteous. What kind of a God would judge us by our works–even by our XC skills? Instead, we know that
[Since] we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Personally, it’s been really fulfilling for us to learn how to ski–to not only stay upright consistently, but to be humbled and challenged, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When we started skiing last November, I took two of our kids out for the first time in about eight months. They completed three miles–and they were exhausted. They were also thrilled at what God enabled their bodies to accomplish.
And it’s not just the kids who are energized by perseverance on the trails. When Jon and I skied part of the Biathlon course the other day, we stopped briefly at the top of a steep, curving hill. “Do you remember this one?” Jon asked me. I sure did. Last year, I attempted to ski down the hill three times without being able to make it without falling (more like spectacularly wiping out). I hesitantly tried it, following a safe distance behind Jon, but I didn’t dig in enough on the turn and made a whirling, ski-in-the-air spin as I landed on my tush. My direct intrapersonal quote as I descended was, “I think I’m going to make it! … And I’m not.”
But I didn’t get bruised or at all, so Jon asked if I wanted to try again. The next time, I went first, carefully pizza-wedging my skis to slow myself down and zig-zagging carefully as the hill grew steeper before the sharp right-turn plunge. I reached the spot where I’d fallen the first time, dug in extra hard, and all of a sudden, I knew I was going to make it–and I felt exhilarated. I couldn’t stop myself from jubilantly yelling, my voice echoing through the quiet trees.
We will never be great skiers–or at least, I won’t be. But we want to enjoy skiing, and our kids to enjoy it, for a long time. It ties us to the past, connects us to this particular place, keeps us physically fit, strengthens our family, and encourages us to persevere–and all in the winter, no less! May you find a way to immerse yourselves in something similar as you trek through life.