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Skating Through Fear

I laced my skates and got my confidence on solid ground

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Roller skating, AARP, sisters, hobby
Christopher Vanderwal/HBO
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My entry into my first official roller-skating lesson wasn’t anything close to graceful. I’d spent a few comical moments just trying to get my rental skates on my person. As I plunged my foot into the left skate, the right one drifted away, and when I reached out a little too quickly to retrieve it, my leg thrust out in what would have been a neat trick if I’d meant to do it. I skidded off my bench and landed butt-first on the hard linoleum tile underneath. Sure, my tailbone cussed a bit. But I was OK, and I laughed at myself as I scrambled backward, this time using the stopper on my skate to hold my one wheeled foot in place. Learn from your mistakes, baby girl. Learn.

When the lacing was all done, I stood up and zombie-walked from the seating area, clunking with unbent legs for a few steps before I summoned the confidence to push off into a glide. I hadn’t been on skates in more than a year and I was pathetically rusty. My wheels bumped along on carpet that had been worn down in balding patches by skaters’ incessant rolling. A few feet ahead, a black transition strip introduced the smooth surface of the skate floor. I hadn’t accumulated enough speed to coast over that tiny hump. I know this now. I didn’t know it then.

My stride was broken, and I launched into convulsions, lurches and wobbles, flailing like one of those huge dancing inflatables at car dealerships that bend and sway in the wind. Small children instinctively scurried out of my path, and I pleaded “excuse me” to others who didn’t see their impending doom coming up from behind. Every effort to correct myself only made an inevitable fall seem even more inevitable. I clamored for the wall and stopped only when the side of my face smacked into its cool concrete. I hadn’t destroyed myself or anybody else. God was still in the business of saving lives.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to skate. I’d gone to skating parties since I was in second or third grade. When I got older, my friends and I would strategize where we were most likely to be spotted by boys we thought were cute in hopes that they would ask us to couple’s skate when the overhead lights dimmed and Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” cut through the speakers. I wasn’t a fantastic skater who could dance and jump and whip around other folks with speed, precision and soul. I just always loved to do it, mediocre as I was, and I never lost that love when I became an adult.

I can’t remember how my friend Chrystal and I decided we were going to start taking lessons. We could have chatted about it in a Facebook post or mentioned it in a passing text. It doesn’t really matter. She wanted to get back into skating and I did, too. She wanted to be a better skater and I did, too. I’d stopped skating because long gaps between sessions made finding and getting my groove difficult, and that depleted the fun. So Chrystal and I made an on-the-spot commitment to our sport and to each other as learning/accountability partners.

One Saturday morning in January, I pulled on leggings, a sweatshirt and a heavy coat, defied my detestation of cold air and wintry weather, and met her at Temple Hills Skate Palace in Maryland, just over the Washington, D.C. line. The instructor explained that there were coned-off areas designated for beginner adults here and intermediate adults there. I started from scratch, continuing the Saturday morning lessons and practicing at least one weekday.

Eleven months later, I’m still not a fantastic skater. You won’t see me bust any flashy moves because I’m just trying to get from point A to point B without incident. I’ll be doing great if I can pivot in one continuous motion without having to stop, scissor my legs without tripping myself or anyone else or maybe dance and bop a little when a good song comes on. But I have learned how to skate backward and I’m getting better at my crossover when I go around curves. Before I’d been too afraid to lift either foot off the ground, even for seconds. Now I’m conquering fears, those tiny, fractious impositions on my self-assurance that make me wary of attempting even small things so I, of course, never attempt big things.

But just as important as the actual skill-building, I committed to doing something I said I wanted to do, and I am consistent and faithful to it. I’ve had a spark of passion about sewing and photography and cooking and painting and shooting pool and yoga practice and reading more books and learning new languages, and I haven’t progressed in any of those areas. I’ve contaminated so many hobbies with the expectation of being excellent that they became weighted and tedious. In 2015, I registered for African dance classes after years of wanting to try them, and I quit in 2016 because I was awkward and felt like a disappointment to the ancestors. Skating makes me young and free and joyful. Maybe this assiduity will spread to other interests I just couldn’t infuse with this kind of stick-with-it-ness.

A few months ago, I did take a fall. Another one of those worrisome transition strips took me out as I rolled to the back of the rink and I landed on my left kneehard. I didn’t think about anything except getting back up and, in the urgency of the moment, I found myself crawling up the length of a leg that belonged to a stranger. I looked up and a boy, maybe 13 or 14 years old, was watching me use his calf as a crutch. “You alright?” he asked downward. I bust out laughing, and he was kind enough to help me scramble to an upright position. I stood like a newborn baby deer on uncertain legs that seemed determined to buckle or go in opposite directions or do just about anything other than what I wanted them to do.

I took my skates off for that day. But I put them back on the next Saturday. I don’t want to be controlled by apprehensions about failing or falling, in skating or anywhere else.