Some End of Year Thoughts

As published in Le Figaro

A confession: I love to ice skate. It’s a sport I only took up during the past year. In fact I had my first ice skating lesson on 10 January 2009 while spending a week in Quebec City. I go to Quebec every January – as I am something of a masochist when it comes to cold weather and don’t seem to mind minus twenty temperatures. I am also a fanatic when it comes to cross-country skiing and there is a ‘station du ski du fond’, Mont Sainte Anne, which is twenty kilometres outside of Quebec City and is among the best in North America. And being someone who writes well in hotels, there is an establishment in Quebec City – the Auberge St Antoine – which is ideal for a novelist in search of a quiet haven in the frozen depths of a Canadian winter. It is, in short, a place in which I always work well – and just a few hours’ drive from my home in Maine – so I keep going back to it, as I know I will get much written while sequestered there.

At the gates to Vieux Quebec there is an ice skating rink which the city opens every winter and which is free to anyone who wants to use it. This being Quebec the entire population was brought up on ice skates. And having never mastered the technique of staying upright and vertical on two thin sharpened blades of steel, I always watched with envy as ninety year old Quebecois sashayed gracefully around the rink, dodging druggy teenagers and pregnant housewives and businessmen still in their suits – in short, a broad spectrum of the local citizenry, all swirling around the rink with an ease and precision that struck me as a most elevated and elegant form of urban choreography (especially when compared to such inelegant and quotidian aspects of city life, like traffic jams).

Now, on the day in question – 10January 2009 – I was in the middle of a profoundly virulent divorce. Every day brought a fresh new bit of hell via email – as ‘the other side’ had decided to make this process as severe as possible. ‘Sheer vindictivness’ as my lawyer put it – and she kept telling me, ‘Keep your nerve – as it will all finally end one day’. Whenever things go astray in my life – or I am edging towards melancholy – I have a simple solution: I double my quota of words and keep writing. Just as I also keep active. So that morning I had already written one thousand words of my new novel and then cross-country skiied for twelve kilometres and now found myself watching the skaters of Quebec City and thinking: I really should know how to do that.

So I asked the concierge at my hotel if she knew of someone who could teach me how to skate. She made some phone calls, I bought a pair of skates, and the next day I met a chubby man in his thirties named Benoit at the ice rink at 18h00. If my memory serves me, Benoit was a schoolteacher, married with kids, and one of those rare individuals who seemed genuinely at ease with himself. He was also a damn good teacher – and by the end of the first lesson I was able to negotiate the rink without falling. By the end of the second lesson I was starting to master the push and glide rhythm of skating. By the end of the third lesson I was able to execute turns without losing my balance. By the end of the week I could, quite simply, skate. I had learned the basics. I could take to the ice without fear. And I could lose myself in the simple pleasure of circling a rink in bracingly cold weather, momentarily outside all of life’s attendant and frequently difficult complexities.

Jump cut to 3 December 2009. I was meeting a Russian writer friend named Vitali for a drink in London. Vitali is a long-time resident of the UK – and a great friend Like every Russian I’ve ever met, he is very much attuned to a ‘life as monumental struggle’ perspective on the human condition. We hadn’t seen each other in months – I had been relentlessly travelling this past year – and we caught up on each other’s news. My divorce had been, by this point, finalized since the end of March – and it was truly in the past now. But just a week before seeing Vitali I had made a decision to end something that had been very important and precious to me; a decision which I made with immense sadness, but with the knowledge that it was the right call. I told Vitali a bit about what had happened and why I had finally passed the point of no return. His response was to tell me about a moment early on in his relationship with the woman who became his second wife.

“We were living together and I remember catching sight of her one morning while putting on her makeup. Her face was as hard as stone – and all I could see was anger in her eyes. At that moment I knew I was walking into a disaster. But I kept telling myself, ‘She’ll change, she’ll change’. But we don’t really change, do we? And though I have never regretted the two children I subsequently had with her, I wish I had listened to my instincts at the time. But we so often talk ourselves into lives we don’t want”.

After finishing my drink with Vitali I wandered over to Somerset House – a magnificent Victorian structure right next to Waterloo Bridge. Once upon a time it was the headquarters of the British Admiralty. Then it became – rather infamously – the main bureau of the British Tax Office. And now it houses a famous centre of art history – the Courtauld Institute. Yet every December the proprietors also open a skating rink in the middle of its superb courtyard. And as I was nearby I thought: it’s about time you get back on skates again.

As it turned out, an hour-long session was just starting as I arrived there. I exchange my shoes for a pair of skates. And after a few uneasy moments on the ice I established the push-glide, push-glide rhythm that I had been taught and was sailing pleasantly around the rink while Tchaikovsky played on the loudspeaker system. Of course my head was filled with thoughts – about the pages I would write of my new novel tomorrow; about the time I would spend with my son and daughter this coming weekend; about the density and pain and exhilaration of the past year, and the quiet, yet profound grief that accompanies the goodbyes we all must make in the course of our lives.

But perhaps it was the crispness of this early December day, the rare sighting of sun in the London sky, the sublime theatricality of this Victorian courtyard, the endorphin rush that accompanies a physical activity like ice skating, and the two glasses of wine that I had drunk while talking with Vitali. Whatever the reason, a quarter-hour passed when all I could think was: so this is what it means to be happy. A moment when you can detach yourself from all the entanglements of your existence and simply

Of course I could use the act of ice skating as a metaphor for life itself: managing to stay upright while dancing across a tricky surface; finding a way of maintaining an equilibrium amidst the ever-changing intricacies of the story that is your existence. But what struck me most that afternoon was the following thought:

Unless it involves death or catastrophic illness, most crises are finite, and there is a moment when you will start to glide again. No doubt there will be other moments when other crises cloud your field of vision. Life is never simple, after all. But that’s the price you pay for being here – and for taking the risks that constitute an interesting life. And all any of us can do is keep trying to push-and-glide, push-and-glide. Because as I discovered over the past year, there is a reassuring lightness inherent in that most primal of all human actions: the business of forward momentum.

  • Maggie Roche

    One word; INSPIRATIONAL.