Rolling

A gaggle of girls, eight-year-old saplings to coltish teenagers, swept cautiously around the roller derby rink, blocking and passing each other in packs of day-glo orange and turquoise. Each had personalized her uniform, layering team shirts with dyed tulle skirts, patterned leggings and face paint to create a band of diminutive ruffians, ready for battle.

It was hard to pay the young Amazonians their ferocious due, they were so adorable. Even their names, like Pepper-icka, were more sweet than snarky. They reminded me of the kind of girl I wished I had been, athletic and physically assured. They linked arms in solidarity, falling, wobbling and righting themselves with an inner confidence that it takes many of us decades to engender.

As the pack swung around a corner, a girl in turquoise went flying. Her skinny third-grader limbs splayed out, spread eagle, drawing her chin to the floor like a magnet. The crowd gasped as the announcer called for “medics and mommies” to scoop her up. She sobbed a little from the shock of it, but got to her feet and skated around the rink to the bench, holding the hand of someone’s big sister as the crowd cheered her on.

Suezie and I clapped our encouragement. “Jesus, I’d cry, too, if that happened to me,” she said. “I don’t like falling.” I felt relieved to have found another member of my tribe.

For as many athletic friends as I have, I’m loathe to accompany them on outdoor sojourns due to my fear of heights and falling, and my general state of uncoordination. When I do, I spend the day feeling uncomfortable as they try to convince me that what we’re doing is fun. Strapping anything to my feet —skis, snowboards, roller skates, ice skates— ends the same way, usually with a bruised tailbone. My friends glide by, checking on me once in a while as my muscles struggle like a class of D-students, sputtering to understand the way they are supposed to work together. It feels like each of my limbs belongs to a separate human being rather than a single body.

One might think that this would create an immense space for jealousy, but these shortcomings actually increase my enjoyment of others’ prowess. When I see them fly, I feel like I can. From the X-Games and the Olympics to the Rat City Rollergirls, I love watching people who can do what I physically cannot (at least, not yet), like skate backwards smoothly into the penalty box without knocking out the folding chairs like bowling pins.

This condition has made me a watcher all my life, honing my powers of observation and reflection instead of my golf swing.

Where the young Tootsie Rollers were endearing, the Rat City Rollergirls were savage—especially the DLF, Derby Liberation Front, who dominated the second bout against Faster Pussycats from Vancouver, BC. Led by Coach Ida Slapter, their players include the ferocious Yoko Onoudi’nt, Raven Luna C and Avihater, women whose prowess and derring-do inspired Suezie and me to conjure up tough grrl monikers for ourselves. (I still like Sleeping Booty and Cinda Hella.)

It’s tempting to wish that I had grown up fearless and physically active, but I doubt it would have changed who I am. Though my mother raised me like I was made of glass, the way I respond to my upbringing, then and now, is up to me. Each of us controls what we let take root within—anger and fear, as much as self-assurance and love. Like Beth said at yoga yesterday, our bodies are houses with open doors and windows; just because something comes inside doesn’t mean that we need to serve it dinner and invite it to stay.

The DLF, with their rockin’ fauxhawks and Courtney Love make-up, brought a curling sneer to my lips, as if I had absorbed a bit of their facility from my stadium seat. I walked home from The Key feeling powerful and potent, unafraid of someone accosting me as I strode uphill in the darkness. My legs had grown lean and muscular from all the squats the Rollergirls did during practice, my biceps pumped from blocking lithe jammers all night. I could take on the world.

The feeling lasted through this morning as I again approached yoga, which has become my personal arena for facing the challenge of organizing my body in motion.

When we approach a new pose, Beth tells us that observing others is as vital a step as our own physical practice; learning begins through the eyes and our muscles follow. Perhaps that’s why I’ve chosen the friends I have as I’ve grown older—wise women who sport both affection and confidence, the kind who dodge uppercuts and ski black diamonds, sing on stage and strike out on their own to start businesses. I’m not there yet personally, but I’m absorbing lessons from the sidelines.

If what Beth says is true, then there’s hope for those of us who watch and write about the things that we will do some day, gaining muscle memory by believing in ourselves word by word.

The upside is, it’s never too late to pull on our skates.

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