a feel for learning

When Grace gave up horse riding a year ago, we went through a period of mourning with a dash of trauma added for flavor. Who our child is, or was, or was going to be, all came into question. But more than this, maybe how we understood parenting and mentoring all crumbled a bit. Being the parent is hard enough when things are going as we’d expect; it’s completely unraveling when you explicitly face how very little you know about what you’re doing, and we were shaken. We thought we’d had Grace pegged as the animal loving, farm hand, horse-riding kid and wherever that would lead. And then one day that just wasn’t there. We felt unsure of ourselves and what we know about our own kid.

Of course, we wondered about our child, too. Maybe there’s something that she’s going through that we just don’t understand and that we need to try to figure out. Or maybe — and let’s be honest about how often it comes to this — it was really all about us and our feelings. We each liked being the parent of the horse riding kid. It’s expensive and time consuming, but it was character building, empowering, and unique.

What I’m trying to convey is that we don’t really know what to do with change once we feel like we have something well understood. I suppose that goes with anything, but I imagine that it’s especially apparent when we’re talking about our children. We’re trying to help them become, and when those targets shift, we realize that we understand even less about this process than we’d thought. Of course, how could it be otherwise? We don’t understand our own selves, so why should we understand others, even our own blood?

It wasn’t until this weekend, skiing with Grace, that I understood more about what we take with us from experiences like dressage lessons.

Let it be known that I’m only an adequate skier. Teaching another to ski is something I can only make up as I go along. It’s a treacherous endeavor. Fortunately, Grace has learned just enough that she can make her way down a slope, in control and in the direction that she aims. Our time on the lift is good opportunity for simply relaying my own pieces of advice based on my own experience. I can’t so much provide her instructions as give her goals and my own imagery of what it feels like to make a turn with parallel skis. Grace is comfortable on almost any hill, able to turn her toes inward and make the wedge, the pizza, the snowplow — whatever your parlance is for making the tips of your skis come together to control speed and navigate a turn with just the shifting of your weight. She’s happy, too, to point the skis in the same direction and let them run. But I was pointing out to her that as she works on turning with the skis parallel, she’ll be able to turn more confidently on the hills.

The thing is, I’m not able to give her very articulate directions. I can barely figure out my own physical presence, and most of what my body is doing seems to be only loosely tied to what my brain is telling it to do. I can just tell her how it all feels to me, what I have to mentally tell myself has to happen. The inside ski needs to turn along with the outside ski. I need to keep my knees bent. I need to remind myself to pick up that inside foot and then stand up on it to pivot around. There isn’t so much an algorithm for this as there is a feeling for it. So I can’t tell Grace much about what to do, only what the goal is.

Progressively, throughout the day, it dawned on me that two things were happening. First, Grace was actively working on her turns. She’d give herself a break and wedge the skis when she needed to, but you could also see, each run a little more pronounced, her skis coming together as she commanded one foot to line up parallel to another. As runs leveled out, she wouldn’t just bomb towards the lift, but actively work on this back and forth.

Moreover, when she was working on this, it wasn’t on a prescribed skill, but on a sense of the motion and what she was trying to feel. Halfway through the day I remembered where I’d seen this before: on a horse, working the transition from trot to canter. One of the magical things about seeing your kid working with 1000 pounds of equine is that cause and effect aren’t obvious. It looks a little more like magic, like witchcraft. Somehow, the horse and rider work together as one. You can’t program this. I think you have to feel it, firsthand. And to get to that point, you have to literally feel your way through it, to see what works.

So this is what I realize the horse riding was all about. Maybe Grace will go back and ride again, and maybe there will be some long career as a veterinarian or a wildlife biologist or a trainer of dogs or some such thing. None of that is the point, though. She could take away nothing from her horse except that she developed a feel for learning, for responding to another as they respond to you, a sense of how to adjust and persevere and adjust. As I watched her carve a turn and her ski coming around, I realized that this is in artwork she’s been doing and in music she’s been practicing. None of these is critical in and of itself. But they all point to evidence of a bigger set of skills and an openness to the unknowns that lie ahead. That feeling for learning is something she’ll have with her wherever she goes.