Or, what we can learn from going uphill
You know Sisyphus, right? The guy pushing his rock uphill every day, only to have it roll all the way back down again just before he gets it to the top? Turns out, this was his punishment for the hubris of thinking himself smarter than Zeus. More specifically, he had outsmarted Zeus by cheating death twice—as in, literally tricking Thanatos (who is Death) into letting him escape. Twice. Zeus’ punishment for poor Sisyphus seems to have been perfectly designed to make him feel like he was dying not just one time but forever. Do this one thing until you’re almost finished with it, and then start over and do it all again. If only Sisyphus had been allowed to do more than just push the rock uphill. Then he would have had infinite life, sort of like the characters in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life who die over and over (but live over and over, too)—and thus become, in my view, among the most compelling and human characters in all of literature.
So, Sisyphus. I thought of him the other day as I was doing a few laps of a local ski hill, skinning up the prescribed route before the chairlifts started, and then skiing down the same route. Skiing uphill laps at a resort before it opens does have certain Sisyphean qualities. Unlike backcountry skiing where you are out there in varying degrees of wilderness, and where you make your way down through glades and chutes, this type of skiing is repetitive and limited. You have to stay on the prescribed route going both up and down (or risk losing your uphill privileges and ticket, or risk being run over by a snow-grooming vehicle). You are skiing on groomed terrain. There is almost nothing unpredictable about it.
But I can’t get enough of it. Every time I go, I regret not having woken up even earlier to get more skiing time in before the chairlifts start and uphill skiers must descend. The snow at this particular resort not far from me is generally very good, and the pitch of that route is full of little drops and swales and turns that make the downhills fun. The morning sun lights the snow in beguiling ways, and the views from the top may not be very elevated but they are expansive. Plus it’s great training, and a lovely way to get some skiing in before the workday. For someone like me who has a weird love of ski boots and helmets, it makes me feel like a weekday hero as I tromp back to my car with my skis over my shoulder and my backpack on, done with my ski day, as the rest of the world is just arriving.
Most of all, the repeated trudging uphill—actually not trudging but sliding my skis up and up—offers an opportunity. I’m always looking for the ways in which what I do for sports can teach me something about the rest of my life—especially my creative life—and so I have found something in this repeated uphill travel too. This kind of uphill requires focus. Maybe some of the other folks doing Dawn Patrol, as it is called, are listening to music as they go. Some are definitely chatting in groups as they go up. But I’m not alone, I think, in, well, skinning up alone, with nothing to distract me but my own breathing and the sound of my skin-equipped skis against the snow.
The fact is, though, that it doesn’t distract me. I find that, unlike running or rowing which invite or require you to keep your eyes peeled for traffic or obstacles, uphill laps inspire instead a focus on the act itself, a focus on the effort, the sensations of fatigue or soreness. Not even the intensely monotonous activity of indoor rowing on an ergometer offers this kind of concentration. On an erg, you can watch a movie. If you’re doing uphill laps, you can see only the snow up ahead. The closest thing to it I can think of from my own sports experience would be lap swimming, known for the “black-line fever” it can produce during long workouts. But doing uphill laps, you don’t even have the buoyancy of swimming. You’re pushing against gravity; you’re fighting resistance every step of the way, and you are singularly aware of that and only that.
You do it for the downhill, of course. Every time you reach the top, you’re only going to stand there for a couple of minutes (or less) before you ski down in a movement that can feel a lot like flight. Thank goodness, we are not like Sisyphus whose repeated efforts offer no reward at all. Sure, the ratio is out of whack: the downhill often lasts just a fraction of the uphill time that earned it. Still, the very fact of its rhythm is something to remember. You work hard, with concentration only on that work, and then you reap a brief but exhilarating reward. You can keep doing this over and over, setting your own cadence in the switch from work to play.
I never miss an opportunity to find a guide to living in whatever athletic endeavor I engage in. It’s efficient! It’s a way to get a kind of two-for-one on everything. So, with this ratio of up and down, work and play, you could think of it as drudgery. Thinking of my experience as a writer, I think we writers know all too well the seemingly pointless effort of starting a new story, trying again to get it out into the world, often to have those efforts not go the way we want. It makes us want to just give up. I bet if he had had the choice, Sisyphus probably would have. But you could think of this work/play pattern as the very thing that frees us. Frees us to keep trying, to keep restarting. To keep closing out everything but the mere fact of our existence, and then finding the joy of it over and over again.
I’d love to hear how others respond to the monotony of their pursuits. How do you find rewards in what might be drudgery?
And speaking of efficiency. . .
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