5: Magic

The local news can’t stop reporting about El Nino, an alleged, rare, extreme weather pattern that is supposedly responsible for three straight weeks of storms in Northern California.

My soccer team is preparing for our first visit to the association cup championship, the highest level of tournament play in our league. All season, we are unstoppable. Undefeated. No one can touch us.

But heading into the most anticipated, high-stakes weekend of competition in any of our young athletic careers, everyone is worried.

The fields are hopelessly muddy and every night, the forecast is for more and more rain. The altered terrain changes the movement of the ball and the speed of play. The bitter cold and relentless drops of water, in our eyes, and on our backs, make us more vulnerable to mistakes, and aggravates the plague of fatigue.

We are an unconventional powerhouse.

We are not exceptionally fast, or big, or otherwise spectacularly talented. Less than five percent of us will go on to play in college. Most of us maintain straight A’s and juggle a host of other extra-curricular activities. We are swimmers and volleyball players and school and community leaders. As grown-ups, we are career-minded professionals, with high-paying jobs and impressive degrees.

We joke about not having matching warm-up suits or fancy, embroidered bags.

We are full of heart and determination and because our coach believes in our greatness, we work incredibly hard in practice, and never let up during games.

Our chemistry and team work is like nothing I’d ever experienced, and nothing I’ve been a part of since.

When the morning of our first game arrives, it’s still raining. Our parents, who have only ever had to endure an entire weekend of soccer games through November, are faithfully huddled on the sidelines, after the first of the year. They are clad in REI ponchos and squeezed together under four or five umbrellas. Looking on through a blurry sheet of rain, they can barely tell us apart.

Before halftime, we are caked, head-to-toe in mud. It’s the kind of cold outside that makes your fingers tingle and your skin sting. The intense sensation seeps into your bones, lingers, then unexpectedly evaporates as your whole body goes numb. Our legs are burning, constantly. With each stride our feet sink into the deep, unforgiving muck.¬† The ball is sticky, our shoes are sticky, everything is a sticky, wet, mess.

Each moment is a battle, each play is a battle, each game feels like another war we barely survived.

In the end, we win the whole, damn, thing. The final whistle blows and we are, suddenly, light on our feet. We sprint towards the center line and triumphantly dive, head-first, through a gigantic mud puddle, four games in the making.

We hug and holler and celebrate. We are giddy, and teary-eyed and so, so, proud.

My coach is beaming.

The moment is instantly an eternal memory in my mind

During eight years on the River City Magic, I learned more lessons than, maybe, the rest of my life, combined. I learned about leadership and work ethic.  Straight talk and disappointment. I learn to stand up for myself, stand behind my teammates, and stand back, eventually, when I got out of line.

Where I lacked natural talent, I learned to struggle, and persist, and succeed.

My greatest lesson, though, is in the miracle of our collective achievements. Our three year winning record. Two state championships. More trophies than my parents could find space to store in my childhood bedroom. All of it came in the brilliance of how we operated, together. I used to think someone like John Wooden should write a book about us called “Teamwork over talent.” We were, as they say, so much greater than the sum of our parts.

It’s a mild winter and my adult soccer team is undefeated, for the first time. These days, I play with less fear and more muscle. I play defense, not midfield, now, and do my best to channel my inner Heather Hall. We called her, “the animal.” She was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood and on our team, was the only person we could say that about. She could have easily felt out of place and totally alone and quit after just one season of it.

But she didn’t.

She played every season, and started every game. She shared in our hugs and sleepovers and trips to Hometown buffet.

Because who we were and where we came from never mattered.

All of us, were a lot of things, without each other.

But together, we were Magic.

Bad Skier

“I can’t do it.”

I’m paralyzed in the middle of an intermediate ski run yelling helplessly at my dad, eight feet below me. My skis are completely sideways and I’m trapped by the sensation that if move in any direction, I’ll plummet to my death in a tumbling ball of wet, sticky, snow.

I see my dad pause to evaluate his response before giving it. I can tell he’s skeptical about the gravity of my peril.

“Get parallel to the fall-line, Boney.”

I heard that phrase countless times growing up on the icy slopes of Northern California, but am still uncertain what it means. I imagine it’s something like: point your skis down the mountain like a normal person and let’s get on with it, I don’t have all day. My dad is practical, scientific and ever attentive to accuracy and precision. He taught me how to ski the same way he does everything else.

My heart rate quickens as the initial distress intensifies into full fledged panic. If my dad can’t help me, I’m doomed.

Twenty years later, I am still a terrible skiier. Inexcusably bad. I’ve skiied almost every winter since I was five years old. My progress feels equivalent to the time scale of evolution. I’m convinced I’m entitled to some unusual and dubious honor as the world’s most experienced beginner.

Skiing, even more than my yoga mat, is an oversized magnifying mirror for my worst traits. Most notably, my inability to relinquish control (of everything) and (not unrelated) the way fear interferes with living my fullest life.

At the top of each ski run, I breathe in a fresh gulp of mountain air. I am relaxed and energized. I am inspired by my surroundings and excited for the opportunity to begin again.

As soon as I am moving, my energy shifts. My body is tense, my jaw muscles tight. I feel my elbows lock against my rib bones, bracing for  imminent disaster. I am suddenly without balance or coordination. The loss-of-control feeling overwhelms the entire experience, rendering me hopelessly unskilled and pathetically flailing.

At the bottom of the ski run, I let out a deep sigh. My face softens and my arms relax.

Between the tension and relief is a moment of confusion, “who was that up there and why did she do that?”

In the aftermath, I promise myself to do better next time.

It’s not all angst and discomfort. Sometimes I take three or four turns in a row feeling light and effortless. Occasionally, I find just enough calm to make contact with what it’s like to really ski. I let go of the need to control it: the snow, the other skiiers, the conditions, the outcome, and find the freedom to move gracefully, with purpose and ease. Each glimpse of my potential, fuels hope for my future as a downhill enthusiast. So far I’ve had just enough of them to prolong my inevitable resignation to failure and retirement from the sport.

In my life, I am similarly skilled and capable, but frequently blocked by fear. I want to be assured of a result before I am willing to explore the unknown. The voice of risk silences the allure of reward. I have the tools to navigate, but am frequently dragged off course by my resistance to letting go. I battle anxiety at the top of every new run, and beat myself up at the bottom for what I didn’t do right.

Recently, I resist pursuing my biggest dream in the face of paralyzing fears. I know what I have to do, but get bogged down in swampy, self-doubting thoughts. I have everything I need to move forward, but hesitate each time I start to take off.