I suffer from a seasonal illness that was once very common in Britain but is now rare. It still afflicts the Dutch, though, in the thousands. It strikes me like delirium, when the lakes nearby freeze over and the ice issues an imperative: Carpe diem! Get your skates on! Love, yawns, and suicides, they say, are all infectious. So is play, and skate fever is a highly contagious form. The industrious, beware.
In the Welsh hills where I live, years can pass without the waters freezing, but this one and last were both skating winters—a few precious days of frost and rapture. If joie de vivre could be distilled to one image alone, it would be a skating party sliding down the hill to wake the lake. Last year on a clear night, I skated with friends by moon- and starlight, lanterns scattered around the edge of the lake like fireflies, and we wore full evening dress plundered from charity shops: feathers, fascinators, and fake furs. Wrapped up and amazed, the wrigglers and rugglers (small children and puppies) stayed at the edge, near the soup and the wood fire on the lakeshore. Though the “ecstasy”—in its root “standing apart from”—comes from skating out to the lake’s center and farther to its far and silent shores, across the Zuiderzee.
This kind of joy is superfluous and therefore absolutely necessary. It is the deep meaning of revelry and play, as the historian Johan Huizinga wrote in his masterpiece Homo Ludens. Culture itself “arises in the form of play.” “Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.” Flemish paintings of ice merriment depict lovers and children and horse-drawn sleighs; the Dutch still hold carnivals on ice. In homage to Homo Ludens, we skated in the time between Christmas and New Year, honoring the play ethic rather than the work, the ludic revolution rather than the industrial, racing one another and improvising a new form of hockey with a skinny, squeaking rubber chicken. A local farmer came on skis, someone else tried to fly a kite, puppies slipped comically on the ice, and children slid and pushed each other over.
Skating oscillates between the twin arts of conviviality and of solitude: you can join up with the carnivaliers for hot chocolate laced with brandy, then swing away on a trajectory of glorious freedom, a world apart (“All, alone, together,” wrote E. E. Cummings in his poem “skating”). One skating day this past year, I was circling the center of a lake and found my movement mirrored in the sky, as a bird of prey, similarly alone, was curious and circling overhead.
Wild skating, as opposed to rink skating, always suggests this twofoldness: the water which freezes and thaws, the crisp breath in and the steamy breath out, life above in the air and death below the ice. You swing a long arc out to the left and a curve back to the center; a long arc out to the right and a curve back to the center, each skate leaving slender S’s, cut into the ice like cold calligraphy. The twofoldness is an image of balance, a balance which, skaters know, comes best from movement.
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