My sister-in-law brought me along to her roller derby practice last night. She’s been doing the derby thing since March of this year, and I have been hella jealous. If there was ever anyone who was meant to be a bad-ass lady who roller skates, wears short skirts, body-checks other women and has a hilariously punny name. I mean, COME ON. That sounds like heaven to me.
Given all of that, why have I never tried to join a derby league in Toronto? Oh, I don’t know, because of Reasons I guess. I work a lot of evenings and didn’t want to have yet another night away from my family. I wasn’t sure how to find a good league, and was kind of freaked out at the thought of starting a new activity by myself with people that I don’t know. I’m not sure that I’m cut out for team sports; the idea of being yelled at by a coach makes me want to cry.
Most of all, though, I was afraid.
I wasn’t even sure that I could roller skate, for one thing – the last time that I’d tried was something like fifteen years ago at the now-defunct Forum Roller Rink in Cambridge, Ontario. I was there to celebrate the birthday of this dude that I had a huge crush on, by the way, and let’s just say that my roller-skate-skills did not exactly win me a place in his heart. As I recall, I fell. A lot. Embarrassing, sprawling falls, the type that cause people to point and laugh. Eventually I just sat off on the side, nursed a Dr. Pepper and tried not to cry. Story of my life, am I right?
Another problem was that I typically don’t enjoy participating in activities that I am not already good at, especially activities that involve me failing publicly. I have a very low threshold for embarrassment. I’m also a perfectionist, and I get frustrated with myself very quickly if I don’t master a new skill, like, immediately. Given all of this, it’s kind of amazing that I ever try anything new at all, although if I really think about it I can see that all of the new activities that I’ve tried over the past few years have mostly been things that I knew that I was sort of predisposed to be good at. For example, I had a feeling that I would be awesome at yoga because I’ve always been really flexible. Blogging didn’t intimidate me because, all modesty aside, I knew that I was a half-decent writer. I knew that I would be good at drinking scotch because it’s no secret that I’m a pretentious, snobby asshole.
I am not really good at any of the skills necessary for roller derby, other than a love of short skirts and the fact that I’m a hilariously scrappy fighter.
Finally, the biggest fear holding me back was that I was afraid of falling. I was afraid of falling because of my bad knee. I was afraid of falling and being run over by other, faster, better skaters. Mostly, though, I was afraid of falling and looking stupid.
Imagine my surprise when my sister-in-law told me that the first lesson was going to be learning how to fall. Because, she said, I was going to fall whether I liked it or not, and learning how to do it properly would help prevent injury. Being a good skater wasn’t so much avoiding falling as knowing how to do it in a safe and controlled way.
So after wobbling pathetically around the rink a few times on my borrowed roller skates, I let her teach me how to fall. I learned how to fall on one knee. I learned how to fall on two knees. I learned how to do a four-point fall on my knees and forearms. I learned how to get up safely and quickly after each type of fall. Amazingly, after a good solid half hour of falling, I suddenly felt much more comfortable on my skates.
I had a sort of epiphany last night, skating around and around that open-air arena under the darkening Alberta sky. I realized how very much I need to learn how to fall in basically every area of my life. I need to learn that it’s possible to make mistakes and even fail and then get back up again and keep going. Right now, the thought of making mistakes in just about any arena – work, being a parent, my interpersonal relationships – makes me want to throw up. I feel like making a mistake is the end of the line, that there’s no going back, that whatever I’ve done will colour that relationship or work environment forever. The funny thing is that it’s almost never other people who make me feel that way; I make myself feel that way. If I inadvertently say something hurtful, or if I forget to do something or get something wrong, I have a really hard time forgiving myself and getting past it. To me, making mistakes feels like the world is ending.
But you can’t live like that, you know? You can’t just not make mistakes – that’s an impossible goal. Even if you are living the safest, most risk-free life ever, you’re still going to make mistakes. And anyway I don’t want to live that life – I want to take risks, I want to try new things, I want to push myself. So I think that I have to learn how to make mistakes, by which I mean how to react in an emotionally appropriate manner to my mistakes, and also how to work to quickly fix them instead of diving under the covers and crying for three days. I want to learn how to have arguments or even fights that don’t end with me apologizing profusely (or sobbing incoherently) because any kind of conflict makes me feel sick.
Most of all, I need to realize that if I want to succeed at something – anything – I might have to fail first.
There’s a theory by mid-century child pediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott that says that one of the many reasons why play is important for children is because it’s a safe place for children to make mistakes. In play, children are able to explore the world and themselves without fear; they are able to try new things and make mistakes without serious consequences. Winnicott says, “It is playing and only in playing that the individual child is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
I think that maybe I need to re-learn how to play. I need more spaces in my life that feel safe enough to fall and fail in. I need to find activities that help me feel more comfortable taking risks in the rest of my life. Maybe roller derby is the perfect place to start.
And for the record, the rest of the practice was fantastic. I learned how to skate on one foot, how to stop and start, how to turn corners. My sister-in-law taught me how to “get a whip,” which involves skating up behind someone, grabbing them by the hips and pulling yourself forward and past them. I got to watch the more experienced derby ladies skate up to thirty times around the track in five minutes. I got to watch the “benched” players practice skating formations, jamming and taking hits. I watched people fall over and over again, only to get right back up and keep going.
It was amazingly great.