I’ve been sitting in this coffee shop for 2 hours, and I’ve done 15 minutes of work. But that’s ok. I’m trying to process the history of my life and figure skating.
I was a very serious competitive figure skater until mid-way through my Junior year of high school, when I decided I had other things to do with my life. Did you know that? You may not. I don’t seem to talk about it. At 17 I walked away, stepped into a new life, and left that person behind. Or at least, I thought I did.
Except, every 4 years or so, I had a crisis. After stumbling over the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics, I sat mesmerized and crying while my friends gave up and went on with their evening; I fought for control of the television in the Lowers Commons lounge in 2006. In 2010, I woke up to find Evan Lysacek in second after the men’s short program, and sobbed all the way to Albuquerque and back for a midterm. In 2014, I started to notice the pattern. I bought cable for two weeks in February and tried to imagine reintegrating with the person I had been – the person who cares (cared), passionately, about figure skating. I didn’t even know that person anymore. But it turned out she had dreams, loves, pains… and she’d been sitting around in cold storage, waiting, while I went off to college, fell in love with Plato, then a trinitarian God, and then math.
Last fall, I had a crisis of epic proportions. I thought it was about finishing graduate school, the looming uncertainty of a future career, and a fear of what I could handle. Turns out… it’s become increasingly clear that it’s about figure skating. Or leaving figure skating. Or the demands of figure skating, having to leave figure skating, and loosing it. Or perhaps loosing it, in the very pursuit of it.
I thought at first that I just needed to grieve over figure skating, as something that I had loved, and lost. For there was certainly grief involved. But it was complicated. It was dark. It was grief, fear, jealousy, hurt, despair, more fear. Regret, but not for my choice to leave. Love, but not that brought any vestiges of joy. Loss, but of what? A terrible fear both of loss and of involvement. I couldn’t seem to let it go – take the positive, leave the negative, and go on into the rest of my life as an integrated person.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried to sit with the grief of my younger self, not just sealing it back up again and going about my life (but with only 2/3 of myself?). It’s been good. But the longer I’ve sat, the more gnarled it’s seemed. It hurts, it’s deep, it’s a mess, and I don’t understand. I worried the knot from all the angles I could think of, and just got more angsty.
Yesterday, a friend asked me, “What happened inside you when it got intense?”
I scrabbled around, and came up with, “In order to get to the Olympics, you have to be willing to give up everything and train. And there’s a place for that, if you want to go to the Olympics. But I didn’t really plan to sign up for that.”
I love figure skating, and I believe in excellence. I got on a train labelled “excellence”, and it took me to beautiful places. But eventually, I found that the rules excluded control over your schedule, extracurriculars, ice shows, normal life, control over your diet, and in some cases school, friendship, and health. (I was lucky, in that my parents put their foot down on some things. I also had the sense not to pound on moderate injuries until they became debilitating. )
In a moment of insight, I said to my friend, “What I really liked was to perform. Ice shows were my favorite thing ever.”
She said, “You’ve never mentioned that before.”
Hunh. Perhaps that was my deep, dark secret. Maybe I figured it was obvious: ice shows are more fun. But they’re not the important thing; in a serious figure skating world, who has time to bother with ice shows? It’s not done.
So here’s what I think. Maybe I gave up everything in order to lose what I loved. Or, the more I gave up, the more I pursued someone else’s goals – which looked enough like mine that I couldn’t put a finger on the problem. I skated beautifully. What I am most proud of is that when I skated, people noticed. That when I missed two elements in my technical short program, I found myself in 7th place; to me, that means that the judges said, If you would just land that triple, we would be pleased and happy to send you to sectionals. (I didn’t. I had won my nerves game, but I didn’t have a plan for the event of being in reach of sectionals.)
A month later, I had a clear conversation with my coach about goals. She said, we work this year on those triples, and next year we head to sectionals. And inside my head I heard… That’s not my goal in life. Or at least, I don’t want it that hard. Not enough to spend a year falling down, or to make up for all the things I’m missing. To put off thinking about college, to risk doing enough damage to my knees to be unable, as a young woman, to run around with my kids. To live in a world populated with eating disorders, and increasingly empty of the people I had looked up to as a young skater.
That was true. I got up my nerve, I communicated it to my parents, and we to my coach. And it was a good decision.
But where was the thing I had loved? I think it had gone by, like a ship in the night. It was there, but I wasn’t moving towards it. There was perhaps not enough of it left for me to miss it when I left.
And so, my grief is not for the leaving, but for the loss. And for the pain, for a goal that wasn’t mine. That something I loved became an instrument for injuring myself.
(The people I envy most are those who can look back with unsullied fondness, with perhaps a healthy touch of loss, at their time in figure skating – for whom it is still “fun”, “cool”, inspiring, and prized.)
P.S: I actually felt much more optimistic about all this after that conversation yesterday. “Performing” is something one can do in any number of contexts. And the whole thing feels less twisted now.
There are other chapters to follow, I’m sure.
What can I perform now, beyond 30, with broken sesamoids, a PhD in mathematics, and a miss-spent? youth. But great costumes; it should have great costumes. (= (And music!)
What about the things in my life that I have chosen not to pursue seriously, because I “knew” that to pursue it seriously was to lose the joy?
When you “retire” at 17, there is a lot of life left to live. I would like to see that as a blessing, rather than the necessity to go back to work to support yourself, in a world from which the joy is missing. (After unaccountably failing to provide for your retirement, by winning the Olympics and acquiring lucrative advertising contracts and a pro career??)