My View

Jesse James DeConto: Nearer, my God, to ski

December 24, 2013 

When I was a kid, I didn’t have the word for it, but beauty is where I felt closest to God, especially singing Christmas carols.

I was a big brother (Marco was born when I was 3 and Katie when I was 9), and I knew babies were something special. But all the power of the universe wrapped up in those swaddling clothes!

A star shining just for Him, beckoning those Wise Men from a faraway land! The angel choir! Mary’s love, Joseph’s devotion. The gentleness of “Silent Night” or “Little Town of Bethlehem.” The high, sustained notes of the human voice on “O Holy Night.” The exuberance of “Joy to the World” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

God appeared at Christmas like no other time of year. I guess that’s why we call it the Incarnation.

Mom’s faith and Dad’s music came together in Christmas carols like nowhere else. The only thing that compared to Christmas was skiing.

Dad had gotten into real estate by the mid-’80s. When business was good, he’d take us to the New Hampshire mountains a few times a year. He’d always tell us how he’d first gone skiing when he was 17, and his friends pushed him down a black diamond trail at Loon Mountain before he knew what he was doing. It took him hours to creep his way down, slow turn by slow turn.

Dad let us learn on the green-dot trails, but it wasn’t long before I conquered that same black diamond. When I raced down Loon or Cannon or Bretton Woods, wary of the trees and chairlift towers and other skiers who could kill or maim me with any wrong turn, there was fear and power, anxiety and excitement, frostbite, adrenaline and sweat, all wrapped into a singular experience of the present.

It was uncomplicated: You were riding on the back of something much bigger than yourself, just trying to hang on.

My favorite part, though, wasn’t the speed, or even the movement. It was sliding to the top of a trail, after the slow, boring climb up the lift, where you saw the mountain up close and only a little bit of it at a time, only to turn and face downhill, across a valley to the opposite wall, miles away yet so close you could reach out and touch it, a vast forest cascading far below the end of your own sight line at the near ridge and looming high above, touching the sky, a mass of earth taken in one big gulp, like God was a kid in the sandbox saying, “Look what I made!”

When the weather was cold enough and the snow fresh enough, it clung to the balsam firs, a diamond crust coating the verdant needles, still green with life even in the middle of a five-month winter.

God spoke most audibly when new powder silenced the swish of my own skis, like I was riding wind through the clouds.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. He is author of the spiritual memoir, “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World” ( thislittlerlight.com), Cascade Books, 2013. He is releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with music videos of songs that help to shape his story. Find a recording of the Christmas carol “Go Tell It on the Mountain” at bit.ly/1eu4B7F.

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