Lucy's Newspaper Columns

Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers.  Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.


Spring skiers just off an aerial tramway above Chamonix in the French Alps choose their downhill slope, some before putting on skis.

"Ski" outside the circle you see

This column appeared on March 12, 2002

 

I sit in a ski warmup station high in the French Alps, on the peak  Le Brévent, near Chamonix.  It's early March, and I have just skied  while enjoying an awe-inspiring view of the nearby Mont Blanc.  It's midday, and skiers stream into the small building.  My husband and one of our sons are about to join me.

This is an international place, and I am surrounded by conversations in many languages.  As I listen I realize that for me, as for anyone else, languages fall into several categories.  First there's one's native language, in my case American English.  Then,  using myself again as an example, there's a language that I read regularly and in which I am moderately fluent:  French.  Then there are two languages that I have studied and of which I understand fragments but in which I have minimal speaking experience:  German and  Spanish.  There are several that I recognize but don't understand at all, including Italian, the Swiss-German dialect (because, some years ago,  I spent time in Lucerne), and Swedish.  Then, for me as for anyone else, there are innumerable languages that I can neither identify nor understand.

While enjoying the musical sounds of these multilingual voices I realize that each of us lives within circles of comprehension, linguistically and otherwise.  We could diagram this on paper; that is, we could represent the language in which we are most fluent as a circle closely surrounding us, and other languages, of which we understand less or nothing, in larger concentric circles at increasing distances.  We could obviously apply this schematic to any area of life, in that there are people, subjects, and situations that we understand very well, moderately, or not at all.

Let's look at just one example of circles of comprehension within which we all live:   those arising from age differences.  Generally we most easily understand people whose ages are closest to our own.  As time passes our understanding grows, and older people become fond of sayings like, "Old too soon; smart too late."

On this midday in March, outside the ski warmup-and-restaurant building people are skiing in many directions.  Some float down the mountain while others move toward lifts that will take them to other parts of the peak.  We can consider people's varied approaches to skiing as a metaphor for learning at various stages of life.  A very young child may ski in the shelter of an adult--we see this at family ski areas rather than at places like Le Brévent--and move, on tiny skis, inside the sheltering, V-shaped, "snowplow "position of the adult's skis.  Don't you think that this mirrors other learning at that age level?.  At the next stage, a child skiing independently likes to slide straight down a slope without turning.  Whereas an adult skiing this way could reach treacherous speeds, a young child can do it safely because of his or her small skis, short legs, and flexibility.  Isn't there a parallel between this and the straight-on way in which children approach many areas of life?

Adolescents turn and weave quickly among others on the slope.   As in other arenas they may consider themselves more proficient than the adults who surround them.  They, like adults, may also choose to learn special techniques such as telemark skiing, often at times of life when they are pursuing specialized areas of learning and work.  The ski world also offers the excitement of competition;  ski racing in some form is available to people of practically any age.

Elegance appears, on ski slopes anywhere in the world, in the movements of experienced older skiers.  These individuals may have skied for decades, and their graceful turns on snow parallel the grace with which they express other knowledge.  Some still use their older, longer skis, and move with the rhythms that these skis create.  Skiers who are healthy and fit can pursue this sport into their seventies or beyond.

Are these life/skiing metaphors important?   People are living longer, and there is an increasing age-span among people in the workplace.  Inter-age understanding is essential if we are going to get along well and produce.  In addition, what we learn from those in other age groups can enhance our lives.

The high peaks surrounding a town like Chamonix can suggest to us the wisdom of age, as they reflect the first and last light of the sun.  Their high jagged summits and eternal snows reflect the pale gold of early dawn while towns below are still in deep shadow.  Likewise, at sunset we see the "Alpenglow" while streets and houses below are once again in semidarkness.  In midwinter many towns in steep Alpine valleys receive only a few hours of direct sunlight each day.

Just as our three days at Chamonix offered us a series of brief international conversations, life itself is a series of encounters.  As at a ski area, people gather and then disperse.  During those March days we talked briefly with people whom we will never meet again but who added to our enjoyment.   If we expand our circles of comprehension to people of all ages and nationalities, we can bring from these encounters new kinds of understanding.

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