The first full day of spring, 2020, is a white meringue of snow under a blue sky, sunglasses essential. Four of us meet at a course groomed for Nordic skiing, snap boots into bindings, and take up our poles. Volunteers have packed new and winding trails this year, wide and smooth for skate-skiing. We’re either climbing, descending, turning, or doing two of the three at once. My tibialis anterior muscles, along with half a dozen others I can’t identify, say, Can you feel me? My breath is huff and puff, and after the first fast couple of hills I feel a fine sanding in the back of my throat.
As a kid, I was inept at nearly every sport. (I’m not sure ping-pong qualifies as athletic.) I once took a hard fall on my hip in order to be excused from broomball. At least once I spent the hour of gym class at the nurse’s office for no good reason. I wasn’t half bad with a baseball glove, but my strategy at bat was to swing at the first three pitches no matter what they looked like—not that I knew how to look—just to get it over with. What I mean to say is that the rhythm of intense physical effort followed by a flow of sweet reward—this joyful dance that is so much a part of my life in recent years—is a pattern I was very late to learn.
Temperature fluctuations, more common and more extreme in prairie winters than they used to be, have rendered the trails icy in places and exposed the grass in others. Focus, focus, focus. We take an occasional break at the top of a rise, neck warmers pulled up over mouth and nose, impromptu masks. We measure out our distance from each other with a horizontal ski pole at the end of an outstretched arm. Two days ago the province declared a state of emergency. Safe distancing is a new idea, and sometimes we forget until one of us repeats our new little joke: “Poles apart!”
A man we know arrives with a camera and asks, can he snap a few photos for the club newsletter? Skiers enjoying the newly configured trails. We’ll show up well against the snow, he tells us. We look down at our sleeves, our mitts, our neck warmers. Red, blue, magenta, turquoise, black. Okay, sure. We ski the same small hill we’ve only just now climbed—descend, slide-step a quick U-turn, skate up. Three times we do this, so he’ll have a choice of shots.
Once he’s on his way, we zip open our waist packs and pull out tiny flasks to celebrate sunshine, effort and reward. Not three months ago, we happily kissed off 2019, horrible year, and now look: this still-young year will ask for efforts we can only guess the shape of, we can see that. But this pause on a hilltop under the sun is a fleeting glory earned. Cheers, all, and happy birthday. Today I’m sixty-five, officially a senior.
Night takes hold of hours that used to be folded in sleep and opens them wide for me. Beside me, my husband’s breaths are long and deep. “See you there,” I said earlier as we turned from a kiss to our separate sleeping postures. “Meet you at the second set of lights.” Now, much later, he’s long asleep, and I’m wide-eyed, silently reciting the loving-kindness meditation, the few lines I remember, into the darkness. May I be filled with loving-kindness, may I be well, may I be peaceful …. The meditation begins with the self. Yes, find a foothold, then move outward. I’m calmed, though wakeful still. I begin to count backwards from five hundred, slowly, hopefully. But restless thoughts kick sideways at the numbers. My nighttime questions range from trivial to large: What’ll I cook for dinner tomorrow? Do I earn my place at the table?
Half-past two. There’ll be no escape, now, from tomorrow’s insomnia hangover, so I’ll take this spread of night and make it mine. I steal downstairs to the kitchen, warm a cup of milk, ease the lid off the cookie tin. Down another set of stairs to the television. The house is dark, the street as well. In the pale glow of the basement it’s only me and the BBC and two hours with Planet Earth, close-captioned (birds twittering). In hour one, the myriad species that live in the jungle negotiate the upper hand for harvesting, hunting, courting (grunting), (shrieking), (whistling). I wonder afresh at the beauty and insignificance of a single living creature among the trillions through time and continents. In hour two, the Himalayas are forever thrusting higher, as they have done since India collided with Tibet, and all the while they’re also scoured by weather and washed away to sea. How long, the reach of time (thunder rumbling).
At dawn I climb back up two flights and slip along the hall to the spare bedroom and the welcome of its cool sheets. My mind floats along some plane beyond or below consciousness, untethered from questions of life and love and the always disturbing news of the day. The curtains at the open window rustle. There’s a chance that answers will blow in.