Peter Shelton

Ring the bells that still can ring

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on January 14, 2011

At one point on Leonard Cohen’s Live in London album he says to the crowd, “Thank you, friends. We’re so privileged to be here, while so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos.”

With so much darkness in the news this weekend, particularly the shooting in Arizona, finding a subject besides the descent of civilization seems not so easy.

It’s pretty clear that that tragedy, the spawn of an unhinged young mind, was also a result of a poisoned dish of American sacred cow – our right to buy and bear Glock semi-automatics, no questions asked, combined with our right to freedom of speech, which in recent years has mutated, fanned by cable media and the Internet, into a right to spew violent invective at any and all who don’t happen to agree with our politics.

What to say about the carnage in Tucson? Quote Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?” (And remember, that by a man who was beaten to within an inch of his life by white policemen.)

So, I come back to Leonard Cohen again. On the same album, in the song “Anthem,” he sings the refrain: “Ring the bells that still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There is a crack in everything./That’s how the light gets in.”

This speaks to me, I guess, because I’m feeling my age. I can’t do everything I want to do, or used to. And it helps a lot to realize that not only is the perfect offering impossible, but that imperfection can itself be beautiful.

(Cohen makes a joke of his own age during the concert. He tells the audience that it has been a long time since he’s been in London, “fourteen or fifteen years; I was 60, just a kid with a crazy dream.”)

I find myself humming this refrain while skiing. “Ring the bells that still can ring. . .” The lines have a skiable rhythm. It matches up especially well when I’m swinging arcs on easy, rolling terrain. Or when I’m stepping down through a low-angle aspen glade, each tree like a year, or a word, or a person standing in a pointillist painting.

The other day, Jimmy P and I went for a ski-skate on Lizard Head Pass, and I repeated Leonard’s lines to him. They were again apropos. We’ve both got aches and pains: hips, knees, shoulders, elbows. Lungs. Jimmy has yet to fully recover his after years in Florida. Ambition has waned. The descent from unconscious athleticism, a given for so long, is well along its inevitable way. But the skiing up there, together, on a well-groomed track, in the sun, reminded us how much we love it.

Back in the 1980s, Jimmy was a stalwart of Telluride’s Nordic scene, when the waxing and warm-up hut was a barn on the old Adams Ranch, before there was a golf course.

We traveled up to West Yellowstone, Mt., together one November to hang out at an early-season camp with U.S. Team skiers. That’s where we first glimpsed skating on cross-country skis.

Up until then it was all about kick-and-glide, diagonal stride, which could be beautiful but always, for me at least, included a healthy dollop of the unattainable. There was the black magic of waxing for both glide and grip. And there was the physical conundrum of generating forward momentum through downward force on a slippery slope.

With skating, we realized, the conundrums were solved. You waxed your skis strictly for glide. And, with the skating motion, you propelled yourself forward off an edge, a solid platform, as opposed to a patch of unreliable grip wax underfoot. We were transported by the speed and grace of it.

There was little speed or grace that afternoon on Lizard Head. But we were doing it. In short bursts. And then we’d stand in the sun and solve all the world’s problems from our perch on high.

The rhythms came back, the tick-tock, back-and-forth motion. The falling forward into the pole push. The search for flat-ski balance, where glide stretches seconds into yards down the trail.

Skiing may be a pure indulgence, without any pretensions to easing injustice or explaining tragedy. But it does lead in the direction of sanity. Maybe some good will come of the Arizona shock, some move toward collective illumination.

There is a crack in everything.


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