Today was the last day of the Christmas holiday for most of us; for me, was the best day yet.
Not only did I go ice skating today, I got to skate with my mom and also I got to teach someone to skate who had never stepped a toe on the ice. She did so well and it felt terrific to share something that I love so much but had never tried to teach to another.
Mark is my step-dad, as many readers know. Mom and Mark have been married for 16 years now, and though Mark didn’t raise me from a whelp (I came home from college for the wedding) I love Mark. He’s a good man. He’s also a grandpa, which is lucky because Mark does a lot of grandpa-like things, e.g., takes naps, gets grumpy about his knees.
Mark’s granddaughter Liberty is 12-year-old. This year, Grandpa’s big gift to her was a week-long visit to the continental United States. Liberty was born and is currently being raised in Hawaii. Mark’s daughter Alison settled there years ago for some strange reason that must have to do with the beautiful beaches, cuisine, and fascinating culture, but that’s just a guess. Liberty was flown all the way from Oahu and came to Chicago for three days here; tomorrow they’re all headed to Iowa for the second leg of the trip.
I loved having Liberty here. She’s smart, funny, interested in things — though I will speak at a later date about my feelings on The Youth and their Cell Phones — so when Mom put ice skating on the itinerary, the girl was game even though she had never skated before in her life.
Learning something new is so scary, especially when the new thing involves blades and ice. Liberty put on her skates and the first 20 minutes on the ice were just painful, and that was without a fall. She had a deathgrip on the railing and she moved inch by inch on the ice ribbon, her whole body rigid, breathless with anxiety that she was going to fall.
“You’re gonna fall a lot” I said, there right next to her. “But it’s no big deal, I promise. I will also probably fall at some point.” (I did.)
Though I’ve never taught a person to ice skate, I have taught lots of people how to make patchwork and I’ve taught a goodly amount of writing and performance, too. I realized today that at this point in my life, I have what you could call “an approach.” My approach — what I tell students — is essentially: “Give yourself permission to be wrong, fall, un-sew, and write really lousy first drafts. Then go from there.”
My approach deepened today, though. I remembered something my mom told me about how she raised me and my sisters. She read a book called “Between Parent & Child” by Dr. Haim G. Ginott and his thing was, essentially, that kids are who you tell them they are. So if you say to your kid, “You lied to me — you’re a liar,” or “You’re stupid,” or “You’re in big trouble! Why are you such a bad kid??” your kid is going to internalize all that. They sort of figure, “Well, I’m already bad, and a liar, so I might as well just lie and be bad.”
It works the other way, too.
“If you girls were fighting,” Mom told me once, “I’d think of Dr. Ginott’s method and say, ‘Now, Hannah. You girls love each other. Why are you being so mean to your sister?’ Or if you took something that wasn’t yours, rather than say, ‘You little thief, put that back,’ I’d say, ‘Mary, you’re an honest person. I’m surprised and disappointed that you took that. Put it back.'”
Personally, I think this is genius stuff and it came to me today on the ice when, thirty minutes into the skating lesson, I had convinced Liberty to release her death grip on the railing only to find her death grip was now on my right forearm. Hm, I thought…Liberty is an excellent swimmer at school. She also likes skateboarding and is generally athletic. Let’s try something.
“You know, Libs,” I said, “Swimming has given you such a great sense of moving your body through space, this is really kind of an extension of that. You’re such a physically capable, body-smart person. Ice skating is another manifestation of what you already know, in a way. Does that make sense? You’re doing great. I think your body just naturally gets this stuff.”
I swear, five minutes later, that girl let go of my arm. Oh, she fell plenty. She may not be slaloming or skating backwards by tomorrow. But she went from no-no-no-don’t-let-go to death grip to less death grip to “I think I can try it on my own” to “I’m doing it! Grandpa! I’m doing it!”
The takeaway here is not that I should get a World’s Best Ice-Skating Teacher Award. The takeaway is that it was true what I said to her: She did know how to skate. It was an extension of her other physical activities. She had the ability — she just needed the perspective. She needed someone to remind her that she was honest. I mean athletic. I mean kind. I mean powerful. I mean full of grace. I mean perfect.
The girl from Hawaii ice-skated today because she showed courage and got some encouragement.
And at the risk of dipping into serious Cheeseland, I just realized that that first word — courage — is embedded, nestled, wrapped and supported by the other one: Encouragement.