My Ohio: Thinking Time

Skating alone on a frozen creek helped a teenager listen to herself.

There wasn’t very much daylight left when I returned home from high school in winter. If I was lucky, maybe there was an hour or so. January is less stingy with light than December, but not by much. I had little precious time to grab my beloved ice skates (a Christmas present) and head for Tinkers Creek, a tributary of the Cuyahoga River, not far from my home. If it snowed overnight or during the day while I was at school, I carried a broom or shovel with me. 

Many of my friends skated at municipal rinks, where the most a skater could do was go around in circles. But I had a frozen ribbon of water all to myself. Sometimes I only cleared a long shovel-wide path of snow off the ice. But then I was a speed skater, setting Olympic records and falling exhausted into the snow-covered bank to catch my breath.

Other times I cleared a large circle at the widest part of the creek, and I became figure skater Peggy Fleming. My baggy wool jacket and leggings transformed into a sequined skating skirt that twirled perfectly when I tried a not-so-graceful half lutz.

I knew enough about ice to avoid dangerous dark, soft spots where running water was close to the thin surface. I stayed away from sections of the creek where the depth was way over my head. My mother repeatedly told me of a tragedy that occurred when a mother ran to save her son who had fallen through the ice on Lake Erie. Both perished, as did a younger child who followed his mother. I do not know if the story is urban folklore or true. But my mother told it with such chill and agony in her voice that I never took chances.   

I skated alone all winter during my high school years. The frozen creek was a sanctuary. My winter world was silent, except for the occasional sound of steel blades on hard ice and the swoosh and spray of white ice shavings I created coming to an abrupt stop.

Sometimes a hawk high in the sky would call in the distance. Or the limb of a majestic pine tree would drop a covering of heavy snow, creating a soft thud when it hit the ground. But all was usually quiet. Deep snow deadens all sound. I was left to listen to myself.

Maybe it was the pure cold air that allowed me to think more clearly. Maybe it was the solitude that forced me to face the decisions all teenage girls must make. But as I skated, I thought of boyfriends, school, my family and what I wanted to do with my life. There were no distractions. No peer pressure. No television, movies, Internet or social media telling me how I should live my life. My thoughts were suspended in air like my frozen breath, giving me time to study them. 
Sometimes I would sit down on the ice to rest, to think. I placed my hand, warm in a red mitten, on the surface of the ice. I watched layers slowly melt away, revealing the last of autumn’s fallen brown leaves, trapped in amber-like ice when the creek froze. I released the leaves when I could, sympathetic to their plight.

I did not make all the right decisions as a teenager. But I made more right than wrong. The times of cold solitude taught me the reasoning skills I needed to make tough choices throughout my life. Even now, I will wander outside on frigid days to let the cold cleanse my mind. Those are the times I am glad I live in Ohio with its challenging winters, instead of a state of just sunshine.

Maybe I was just naive as a teenager. Maybe youth is just abundantly optimistic. Perhaps I was overly confident that the conclusions I made on the ice were always the best. But I skated on, blissfully unaware of the thin ice we all skate on as adults.

Jill Sell, an Ohio Magazine contributing editor, is based in Sagamore Hills.