Monday, January 17, 2011

When the Goal is not the Point

In our front yard, we have a pond. It is an incredibly inspiring thing to look at, in all of the seasons, but it's really exciting in winter. The ranch guys come out with a snowblower and a buffer and they clear the pond every time it snows so that we can all play broomball.

There are lights hanging from the tree at the water's edge; in the summer, we spent a whole night swimming in the freezing water and playing on a friend's stand-up paddle boards under the lights. We built a fire and tried to warm up after being dunked off the slackline, and eventually the evening turned into music and oversized sweatshirts by the campfire in our front yard.

Things are a bit different, now, the gaggle of kids that lived here over the summer couldn't come down and live here permanently, bringing its own challenges to all of us, and the house and pond feel empty without them.

My mom moved back to California, and my little sister moved here from Salt Lake City. Mike is in Africa and in Whitefish with his kids, and the rhythm of a seasonal life goes on. It's a hard reality that we are dealing with.

The pond froze over finally, after a few unseasonably warm spells, and I happened to be home on a day while they were resurfacing the pond for broomball. I had pulled a backpack out of the gear closet the day before, and looked at my skates, out of the closet only four or five times since I retired from skating in 1993, and that afternoon, I thought...

What if I went skating?

While this may seem like an easy, silly question, it's one that has been loaded for me for a long time. Skating, for me, was about winning. It was about the medal. It was about my parents' pride, about finally being good enough at something that they would be proud of me, that I would finally be good enough. Good enough to love, good enough to respect, good enough. I thought that if enough people said I was good, or if experts in the field said I had worth, my parents would have no choice but to agree.

For that reason, skating for me became nothing but the goal. There was no pleasure in the journey, nothing but single-minded focus on an absolute which is ridiculously difficult to obtain. Along the way, even though my parents held up sporting prodigies as models for how we all should behave, I was told that Olympic champions are born, not made.

I remember the day I won a full ride to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, California, having a conversation with my step dad, in which he basically told me that I had no hope of achieving, that this was a waste of time and money, a dead end. That if I didn't come from a long line of sporting champions, I had no hope of cracking the top 10, let alone making it all the way.

Meanwhile, he had torn a photo of Katarina Witt out of a magazine and put it in his briefcase to remind him that hard work pays off.

I was determined to prove him wrong. I was sure that no matter the obstacles that I was facing, I could, indeed, work harder, smarter, stronger and longer than anyone thought, and the reward would be the Gold. I went to the training center by myself, embarking on a journey whose goal was singular. To win. There was nothing for me but the goal as a terminus.

He also told me that there was no point in putting all my energy into skating because the end result would be that while I might be very good, athletes die if they aren't in the top two percent, because they can't get endorsement deals, so they spend their lives using their bodies and not their brains, and when they are over the hill at 19, they have nothing to fall back on and spend the rest of their lives in poverty working in a coffee shop and not fulfilling their potential.

I looked out the window at the empty pond from our house here in Aspen, and I held my skates in my hand and I thought how differently I feel about life, now. I took my portable radio down into the deserted front yard and pulled on my skates.

There was no one around, the pond surface was bumpy and irregular, and I felt wobbly beyond compare. But there were no judges, there was no audience, there were no parents, and I stroked uncertainly out into the middle. I wondered if I remembered anything. I was worried about how bumpy the ice was, afraid to catch an edge, lose my balance and hurt myself with ski exams coming up.

I turned around and suddenly I was flying backwards, and the sound of my skates cutting into the ice felt so familiar, and so happy, that suddenly, I was free. I was skating on the pond, I was just skating because it felt good, good to spin, good to jump, good to play, good to glide over every bump and twig out there. I didn't care what it looked like, it was just for me. It was beautiful. It was free. It was fun.

My step dad and all his judgment melted away, the pressure of a life lived perfectly evaporated, and then my sister rode up on her bike. She asked me, "Oh, my god, are you SKATING?" and I smiled. I was shy to have someone catch me at it, I wasn't sure how I would feel, now would I need to perform?

Liat asked me if she could get her camera, she is experimenting with low light exposure, and the sun had gone down, the single light was shining on one end of the pond. I trust Liat in a way that makes me feel safe in the extreme, so I agreed, and she came out and shot some photos. Looking through them later, I realized how different it was, how different everything is, from this side of life.

It took a long time, a lot of thought and purposeful action, over 18 years in therapy and studying, to separate my understanding of self, self worth, and personal action. I no longer feel like I, as a person, am defined by my accomplishment, and because of that, I'm free to learn and play and experience the road to a goal, without the goal being the point of the whole thing.

I have peeled myself away from the idea that to have worth, I have to fit into someone else's idea of who I should be. And I feel free.


Unknown said...

Wow! Thank you for this one. It comes to me with perfect timing today. Such beauty in your words and actions! Thank you!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Aubrey! Thanks for reading and good luck in whatever you are working on today!