Team sports are widely heralded as superb training grounds for the resilience and cooperation necessary in the grown-up world. We modern parents urge our children onto the field of play where excited onlookers cheer after every goal scored and every shot blocked. But, as Lao Tzu, author of Taoism, might have said, this is not the Way. Adulthood has no cheering section. A better path is to quietly perfect an obscure skill for which the child receives little acclaim. Now that’s real life, and here’s how I know.
I spent several of my formative years training as an artistic roller skater—figure skating on hardwood rather than ice. You are forgiven for not realizing that this is a thing. Roller skating is a B-sport. Excluded from the Olympics, roller skating swivels in the shade of its glamorous cousin on ice with its pony-tailed pixies jumping and spinning their way across the network television screen. Roller skaters are lucky, or maybe not lucky, if their parents have a VHS of their best performance stuffed in a drawer.
My dad took my brothers and me skating on rainy days when we were little to burn up our energy—and his own. For a long time, I would only skate if he held my hand, but over time, I glided away. One day, the coach approached me about taking lessons. I was already a budding ballerina like so many of my friends, but the idea of dancing on skates was irresistible. Years later, my dad worried that I was spending too much time on an activity that I most certainly would not continue as an adult. I have had that same thought about some of my own kids’ pursuits. We parents worry too much.
It’s been more than 35 years since I unlaced my skates for the last time, and it’s taken me that long to realize that so much of what I needed to know about coping with adulthood I learned at the skating rink.
If you’re an ice-skating fan of a certain age, you might remember the compulsory event where skaters etched figure eights on the ice and then traced those circles skating both forward and backward on one foot. Controlling a perfect edge is the foundation for all the jumping and spinning you see on TV. I think the compulsories have been dropped from ice skating competitions, probably because they are so boring to watch.
Artistic roller skating has this same practice of tracing figure eights. The skater must keep her wheels astride an inch-wide black line on the floor while changing edges and directions, all the time on one foot. It’s an exercise in distributing your body weight between your big toe and the outer edge of the arch of your foot. It’s about knowing exactly how much knee bend and raising of the hip will shift your weight from one edge to the other or turn the skate forward to back. Departing from the line or tapping your raised foot on the floor gets points deducted from your score.
Recently I searched “roller skating figures” on You Tube and watched a young girl who could have been me many decades ago performing her tracing and turns in an empty arena. I watched as the judges lurked over her so close, she could certainly smell their chewing gum. I felt my heart flutter as I watched her skates hug the black line, and I held my breath at her every turn. Why would anyone put themselves through that? Who wants to be judged on such exacting, unforgiving terms in exchange for no real glory or accolades?
And then I remembered my practice, hours upon hours, literally going around in circles focused only on that black line and my body’s relationship to it. Balancing on spinning wheels going around and around was soothing, and I realize now, a facsimile of the human condition. On a round globe, spinning on an axis, we circle the sun. We leave a starting point only to return and leave again. Around and around we all go.
I almost called Dad to relay the good news: I hadn’t wasted my time all those years ago. My skating practice was mindfulness training before mindfulness was cool. For a nervous sort like me, the competitions were brutal. I often made mistakes. But in practice, I was focused, calm and in control, and in practice is where I spent most of my time. I think of all those hours I spent in perfect peace, in the company of others but doing my own thing, going around and around. Skating practice taught me the power of perfecting a skill only for the satisfaction of being able to do it.
I wish I could go skating right now! I don’t mean on the sidewalk; I mean inside a cavernous rink where the floor shines with a high gloss and the air smells of burning nacho cheese, cotton candy and, just faintly, rubber. I want to sit on a carpeted, mushroom-shaped bench and lace up my skates just in time to hear a needle hit spinning vinyl and the DJ announce, “all skate.” With two freshly licensed teenaged drivers and a husband leaving for an overseas deployment, the chaos of life spins around me, but I remember my practice. Calmly focused on that place where my feet meet the earth, I am my family’s axis; the center that will hold as around and around we go.