“A woman at 20 is like ice," famed Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida once said. "At 30 she is warm and at 40 she is hot.”
So, by that logic, at 50 or 60 she must be red-hot. In fact, the only characteristic she may still have in common with ice is how solid she is — how she reveals her inner self and the degree to which she's had to contend with people trying to walk all over her.
Yet the obvious depth and shimmering emotional intelligence that many mature women possess may not always be enough to let them keep their footing on thin ice.
There will be times when they’ll still feel as if they’re slipping and sliding across a frozen pond, trying to outpace the cracks opening up behind them.
I was feeling like that a few weeks ago, just as the chill of winter set in. Crucial things that had lent definition to my life were shifting and despite all the “practice” I’d had in negotiating big changes, restoring a sense of stability was proving to be a bit of a challenge.
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Right around this time, I found myself at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, where I paused to watch the ice skaters. That place is always magical to me and it's especially captivating at holiday time.
But this day, it was a whole lot more — it served as a reminder that when pathways get slippery we may need to learn new ways of navigating them.
My eyes drifted to the center of the rink where a middle-aged skater traced the motions of her apparent instructor — a radiant woman whose long, gray hair sliced through the cold air as she spun around. The two women whirled in perfect synchrony, their torsos taut and erect and their arms stretched out elegantly to their sides.
I imagined myself not as a southerner who had always done her best to avoid treading on icy surfaces, but as an Olympic figure skater — steady on her feet and able to traverse the terrain with grace and confidence.
Truth is, marble tile is the only slick white substrate I’d ever set foot on that hadn’t scared me. Texan-tall with creaky knees and a long way to fall, the notion of balancing on thin blades to cross frozen water always seemed impossible and inadvisable.
But now it seemed to be just what I needed. A few days later I signed up for a skating lesson with the instructor with the great hair and spent the first 20 minutes squeezing the life out of her hand.
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My teacher (I’ll call her Heidi), a former top competitive skater, quickly sized up her mission: She needed to make a sizable dent in my fear before I’d be able to make any real progress. It was also important that I learn to stop, that I feel as comfortable falling and getting up from the ice as walking onto it.
She devoted the first lesson to communicating basic techniques while I held on to her for dear life. I’d only committed to taking one lesson, but she convinced me to take another. By the end of the second session my fear was all but gone and I was skating — really skating — gliding on one leg with bent knee while smoothly lifting the other out behind me.
After the lesson was over, I continued skating alone for a couple more hours to the mental prompts Heidi had provided: “Bend and glide, bend and glide, bend and glide.” I kept my gaze fixed on where I wanted to go and had a great time.
Heidi’s other instructive phrases went on reverberating through my mind long after our sessions. “Let loose,” she’d urged. She meant of her hand, but her guiding words have helped me release other inessential emotional "props," like frustration and worry. “Glide it out,” she’d said, reminding me that coasting is a legitimate means of progress, especially on the heels of conscientious effort.
Over and over she prompted me to stand upright but make myself soft, find the fun and skate around problems like ruts and people. And that’s exactly what I did — on the rink and off — and it’s made a world of difference. The old status quo that fueled my former sense of stability now seems far less necessary than moving forward (with at least one foot on the ground).
Interestingly, Rockefeller Center was never supposed to have a skating rink. To quote the landmark's official site: "The Sunken Plaza, as the area was originally called, was lushly landscaped and boasted high-end shops and restaurants, but few people could be enticed down the stairs leading from the Channel Gardens. In the winter of 1936, in an effort to attract attention to the Plaza, Rockefeller Center’s managers contracted an engineer from Cleveland to build a temporary rink. It became a permanent fixture.”
Which just goes to show — when life feels like a deep pit or you find yourself standing on uncertain ground, a bit of willpower and creativity can go a long way.