Lately I've been watching people skate. I watch them from the safety of a small white table as I eat a lunch of steamed pork buns and Szechuan chicken. These delicacies, in turn, come from a wacky little cafe perched on the edge of an indoor ice skating rink, all of it just a five minute walk away from my office. I come for the pork buns, but I stay to watch the skaters.
They come in all ages and in all shapes and sizes. Some of them careen around the edge of the rink, grasping for the railing like drowning swimmers. Others leap and pirouette like dolphins or skim across the surface of the ice with such serenity that they become almost invisible: a breath of wind across a frozen lake.
I look upon all of this with my usual bewilderment. What ARE these people doing? They come out of their sun-drenched suburbs to this unlikely oasis, strap absurd and rather dangerous looking contraptions on to their feet, and pay money for the priviledge of sliding around in circles. Why?
Some of them seek grace, some of them seek speed, and some of them seem to have given up seeking altogether. But as I study these curious ice creatures, it strikes me that all their varied performances have one thing in common: they are intensely private. They are so personal, in fact, so intimate, that I begin to feel illicit in watching them: a voyeur. Each one is so lost in himself, so unaware of prying eyes, so childlike.
Consider this balding, bespectacled man twirling before me. He enters his spin slowly and then begins to pick up speed. He tucks in his arms, hugging himself and then almost sensuously begins to raise his left leg off the ice. Something goes wrong! For an instant he wobbles and then flails, grabbing pockets of air. And then he is down, his body a kind of splat on the ice. He picks himself up a little too quickly, blushing, trying desperately to appear inconspicuous. For just a moment he remembers that he is in a public place. His eyes dart around the rink. His expression is so plain I can read it from here: "Did anyone see me?" But the other skaters glide past uncaring, each lost in a private world. Safe in his own world, the twirling man slips away and begins again. I am the only one who saw him. I can see them all.
It's as if I am watching them think. When they enter that magic circle they stop thinking with their minds and start thinking with their bodies. There are no words anymore, just movements. Unlike words, which form in perfect silence behind our eyes, these movements cannot be concealed. And most of these people are just learning to move. The ice turns them all into children.
The only thing like it is dance. All of us dance as soon as we can. We dance and we babble. As children we delight first in our ability to move and then in our ability to speak. As we grow older we are taught not to shriek and giggle, and not to turn sommersaults at PTA meetings. We take our words inside and use our bodies for sensible things. And then those bodies become so familiar that they start to fade. We become floating minds interrupted only rarely by headaches and heartburn and the occasional stubbed toe.
But all of this changes for those who enter the rink. Skaters are floating bodies interrupted only rarely by a complaining mind. In this way the ice makes them new. So maybe the reason they come to this unlikely oasis and strap on all that absurd footware is that they want, or even need, to become children again.
When the lunch hour fades I rise from my table and turn away. I become a man walking back to work. But in the privacy of my mind, on some quiet sheet of moonlight, my feet have blades and I am cutting figure eights.