Delivering Good Things, Over The Mountain

The sun had barely crested the horizon, hiding behind the mountain ridges, and gently prying its light through our barely-open eyelids. Brian pulled to the shoulder, and we left his black Jeep with the flashers activated. No doubt, we could afford a few minutes to stare into the valley below and to stand in the empty road, our silhouettes interrupting the striped yellow line. This was stopping to smell the flowers, winter edition. If Burt were here, he might stop to sketch, I thought of the Field Notebook in my bag. I snapped a photo with my phone, that under-utilized, over-criticized (thanks Burt!) device in my pocket, and we journeyed forward to Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

I know what I saw, I know what I thought, and I wonder what Burt would say with this view.
Thanks to Brian, for putting me in an uncomfortable place that he knew I could handle.

Just two days earlier, in the midst of training for my first marathon, I submitted my ankles and knees to foreign territory and clipped a ski boot into its binding for the first time. Brian insisted he’d teach me to ski without ski school; we would enjoy more twin-together-time, and he boldly promised patience. Reluctantly, I followed his lead, and on day two, he “accidentally” queued us for the Dipper Line run on the lift. His mouth opened into a smirk, revealing the lie. My pupils opened wider as I noticed the single black diamond on the trail sign: Advanced Skiers Only. The second most difficult trail marking sat stone-like in my stomach as the lift carried us to the mountain summit.

My mentor and late professor Burt Swersey learned to ski in his 30s, while on a business trip in Lake Tahoe. He continued to ski throughout New York — the Catskills and Berkshires — and Vermont. As Alice described to me, Burt skied slowly and methodically, taking time to teach anyone who cared to hear his approach to learning and practicing form and function.

In one episode, Burt’s younger cousin Lawrence sought the chance to learn to ski while visiting the Swerseys in upstate New York. A handsome Brooklyn greaser and the type of guy that exudes confidence in every column, Lawrence froze in fear at the top of the bunny slope, with his rental skis creating the furthest feeling from stabilization.

“Burt patiently urged him to do snow plow, bend his knees, breath deeply and learn to get up out of a fall,” Alice told me.

After exhausting the baby slopes, Lawrence felt ready to tackle the mountain itself. From the top, however, the bottom looked too far for comfort. Cold feet, again, in the frozen mountain air.

Alice continued:

But something happened along the way… with Burt nudging him, correcting him, cheering for him… then Lawrence got it! He became a skier that day and conquered the mountain! He came back to the farm several notches taller… he could go home to Brooklyn now in valor.
The wonderful thing about having a brother who’s a talented skier is that he can make photos and videos of you while you practice.

For those first two days, Brian was my Burt. Would I have jumped straight to the mountain’s steepest drop-in? Not of my own accord. I’d have missed the thrill of overcoming frustration and fear. The metaphor of growth often focuses on climbing mountains; note that the downhill descent carries equal meaning. Sometimes our personal summits are not the physical peaks, the highs, or the milestones. The leap of faith that carries us toward level ground is a moment of great opportunity.

As I train for my third marathon two years later, I’m fortunate to support these leaps for Boston youth who would not otherwise have the opportunity to push their boundaries. Youth Enrichment Services (YES) breaks boundaries by taking kids beyond city buildings into the outdoors, and introduces kids to college and career options through organized programs. In order to support YES, I’m putting in hours and miles of training, working toward crossing the Boylston Street finish line on my 26th birthday and a $10,000 fundraising commitment.

The work YES does, facilitating outdoor and sports experiences as means of character development, started nearly four decades ago. Partnerships with New England resorts enabled YES to introduce urban youth to skiing. By “urban,” I mean: the kids whose parents don’t have money to send them to camps and may not encourage extracurriculars. Downhill skiing is not cheap. Downhill skiing is not easy. Downhill skiing requires investment. Next time you have the privilege to ski, take a moment to admire the fearless speed and agility of the kids who whip down the mountain without poles. Most often with the financial support and thanks to their parents’ own interests, the kids that we watch with envy learn to pivot, to not give up, and to stop on short notice… Adults, take notice. Yes, even as an adult, clipping into skis and sliding down the face of a mountain will challenge your confidence. Downhill skiing is uplifting, and I’m proud to lift the lives of Boston youth.

Would Burt be proud? I like to think, “yes, he’d support YES.” He never knew that I learned to ski, and I never had the chance to ask Burt to explain his love of skiing firsthand; in fact, like many of his facets, I didn’t realize skiing meant so much to him until later. Still, I’ve learned through his family.

At his memorial service two years ago, Burt’s daughter Sarah Swersey spoke of their recent day on the slopes; her point eclipsed skiing itself: he was relentless and unfiltered in his feedback and encouragement. Sarah recalled that day wasn’t about skiing. Burt wouldn’t stop reminding her of the power she possessed as a teacher. Lawrence’s experience was no exception; Burt was a nudger (big, patient, yet unrelenting nudges) and a cheerleader. In Burt’s sketches, a mountain’s peak would be irrelevant; every student forgot about the roots when he asked his wide-eyed audience to draw a tree in each course’s first lecture. If we don’t start with our values, if we forget our roots, we’re not solving the right problems. Start from the bottom, then climb.

In wondering what he thought about mountains and skiing, Burt also left a nagging snippet of advice, in his unique typography, in my inbox:

How do we all learn to be better at embracing change, and teaching/ helping others to do the same? Going from “I don’t care”, to “Becoming the Little Engine that Could” .. and to “deliver all those good things to the people over the mountain who really need them.. “..To actively participating in the conversation and in the essential job ahead, in order to avoid the threats that surely are in the future? To learn to “be all that we can each be”
What can we say and what can we ask and what can we do, today, next week, next semester, for these students, and FOR OURSELVES as well as for everyone we have contact with?
What is the PLAN?
What Do we Do?
HELP please..

The little engine that could? Deliver good things to the people over the mountain, eh? The challenge of teaching a first time skier carries a powerful opportunity to empower a kid — or an adult — to be more than they imagined was possible. As a runner, changing into ski boots changed me. Look for your opportunity to be a Burt. Be a Brian. Be all that you can be.

And, please consider a donation to YES to “HELP please..” a kid in Boston to be more than they imagined.