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Skiing on Ash Wednesday

By Heather Millar

Skiing

I went skiing on Ash Wednesday.

For those of you who aren’t religious, or who practice a different religion, Ash Wednesday is a somber day on the Christian calendar. It’s the preparation for Lent, the 40 days of fasting and sacrifice before the festival of Easter. It’s a day when, in some denominations, a priest smudges a bit of ashes on your forehead. It’s supposed to remind you that you come from ashes and that, someday, to ashes you shall return.

I came to religion as an adult. Perhaps it’s my rebellion from an atheist childhood in wacky San Francisco. Before I started going to church regularly, I thought Ash Wednesday was a particularly ghoulish, death-obsessed holy day. But after the Ash Wednesday 11 years ago, when my daughter was born, my understanding completely changed.

Our Episcopal priest came to the maternity ward. He smudged the ashes on my forehead. He started to say, “Remember that you are dust…” Then he smiled and shook his head. “No, not today. You’re not ashes today.” My daughter came bawling into the light 12 hours later.

Since then, Ash Wednesday has become very special to me. I try each year to go to the “Liturgy of Penitence” and get the smudge of ashes. I don’t see it as ghoulish anymore, but as a reminder that life is fleeting and should be treasured. If I want to get flip about it, Ash Wednesday is my version of “In 100 years, none of this will matter.” So, don’t get bogged down with worry. Live!

Last year, on Ash Wednesday, I was too sick to drag myself to church, recovering from a second lumpectomy surgery the day before.

That year, the Sierra Nevada got record levels of snow. It was one of the best ski seasons ever. The snow lay powdery and lovely, perfect for skiing. So much snow fell that they re-opened the ski areas July 4, just so people could say they schussed in the summer.

I have skied since I was three. It is probably my favorite activity. I can’t really afford it—it’s gotten fiendishly expensive—but I do it anyway. I find deals on equipment and sleep on floors if need be.

But last year, I did not ski. I bemoaned my fate. I asked my doctors, again and again, “Do you think I could go skiing?”

“Well,” they answered. “It’s your body…”

In other words: “It’s your body we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep alive, but make your own decisions.”

In other words: “No.”

This year, a friend with a cabin near Lake Tahoe invited us up for a few days that included both Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday,” the last party before Lent) and Ash Wednesday. So, on Ash Wednesday 2012, I went skiing with my daughter and one of her classmates at Alpine Meadows. It was freakishly warm, there wasn’t much snow, and the snow that there was oscillates between ice and slush.

But, no matter: To me, the day was sublime. We admired the Mardi Gras beads that people have thrown into the fir trees near one of the lifts. The girls bickered about who was better on the last run. We enjoyed the sun, even if that sun was making this one of the worst Sierra ski seasons ever. We laughed at the guy who’s stripped to his boxers at the bottom of one chair. The girls improved enough to go to the summit in the afternoon. We took in the panoramic views at the top.

Sure, we are all dust, but not this Ash Wednesday. This year, we lived!

How do you manage to embrace life during treatment, and after? Let me know here or in WebMD’s Cancer community.

Photo: Heather Millar

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