As I fretted last night about our upcoming trip to see the relatives, my possible lack of preparation (meaning gifts), and then, invariably. about the whole meaning of our wildly commercialized holiday season, I decided to take advantage of our recent winter storm here on the east coast, and headed to our local sledding hill.
It was the best idea I’ve had in weeks.
My wife and I didn’t realize it when we were buying our home in suburban Washington, D.C., but one of the major perks of this particular location is the middle school a few blocks down the road, and in particular the hill on its north side. The D.C. area is not known for snow, and even less so as our climate changes, but when we are lucky enough to get it, the middle school is transformed into one of the best sledding hills in the world.
The hill stretches a good 150 yards wide. Neatly bisected by a single line of stairs, the western half of the hill is a series of large earthen terraces, made to provide seating for the games in the soccer field beyond, while the eastern half is a long, smooth slope. On a good day after a snowfall, you will find literally hundreds of local residents sledding here. Even at midnight on a weeknight you will still find a couple dozen folks, usually teenagers, hitting the slope.
Conditions were excellent last night, dangerously so for a man of my age and injury history. The two feet of snow that had fallen a few days ago had been packed hard by a innumerable sled runs, and as a result of daily melting and refreezing, the surface was icy slick. All those runs had also created a series of mogels, or small hills on the side of the long slope, not unlike ripples of sand left by waves on the beach; each of them offered the inattentive or foolhardy a chance to go flying through the air.
Like my lunatic godson who wants to learn the skeleton, and who was recently seen going headfirst on his skateboard down a local street (he had to promise his mom he wouldn’t put the video on Facebook), I decided to go headfirst myself, as it seemed to offer at least a small margin (or was it an illusion?) of steering control as I raced down the hill. The night was crystal clear and not too cold, and as I lay at the bottom of the hill, laughing and catching my breath, I gazed upon a panorama of twinkling stars.
But the best thing about a good sled hill is the people, and as noted above you are never alone even if you come by yourself. It occurred to me that being on the sled hill is not unlike being in a community garden: everyone is happy, friendly, and wanting to share the experience. It wasn’t long before I was asking one of the teenagers if I could borrow their (obviously superior) sled, and it didn’t take long after that for a couple of them to convince me that the best way to go was with the two of them piled on top of me. We made it halfway down before spilling off the sides, yelping and shrieking as we did. They then tried to convince me to go over the jump some of them had built. I told them how much my chiropractor cost.
Run after run, and standing in groups at the top, it was wonderful to listen to the teenagers that evening. In other circumstances, these could well be what we older folks would call sullen or cynical youth. But on that sled hill they laugh and cavort like, well, like kids. For that matter so do the young adults. So do I.
There was nothing particularly Norman Rockwell about this tableau. Plenty of cell phones and Blackberries were in evidence, and plastic sleds had largely replaced the trusty Flexible Flyer. It was just a group of people having some simple fun.
And also, probably as a direct result, a profoundly good time. With no money, with little or no equipment (some sled on pieces of cardboard), people of all ages come together to enjoy themselves in nature, and for a time, it becomes as peaceful and as joyous as any scene of a bygone America Rockwell ever painted. It is such moments that can transform us, and it certainly transformed my surly demeanor. It reminded me of the powerful joy that can come from being with our fellow beings – and of what these holidays should be about. It was a wonderful blessing, and a great way to start my trip.
May we all be revitalized by similar blessings in the year ahead. With my best wishes for your holiday season, and the new year, Gordon