Picture this: You’re sitting on the dock finishing off a can of lime seltzer when a ball whizzes past your face. You look up, and in front of your eyes a gaggle of brawny athletes plays a game involving rakes, old bottles, tennis rackets, and an inner tube. What do you do? Where do you go? What are you made of? What do you care about? These are the questions I ask every time I step up and play an Ellis family game.
I have a love/hate relationship with sports, made-up or otherwise. On the one hand, in my fondest memories of JV soccer I sit on the bench with hot chocolate. On the other, I stayed up until midnight to watch the Red Sox win the World Series. In middle school, I took gym every day of the week and actually had a good relationship with the gym teacher (who, it turns out, was sexist, racist, and homophobic… who knew?). In high school, lacrosse practice made me cry.
The half of me that loves sports doesn’t really make sense for someone with questionable coordination and an aversion to competition—and yet I cannot join the ranks of the artists around me and eschew all athletics, because rejecting soccer, Nordic skiing, baseball, basketball, and track means rejecting the backbone of the Ellis family.
Still, the raw athleticism that courses through my relatives’ veins lie dormant in mine, and however often I whisper to myself, “but you can sing,” the consistent losses sting.
But since when should stinging stop you from playing the game? Last Sunday I went to my fourth afternoon of pick-up volleyball. I left last week with bruises tattooed on my forearms, and this kind of badassery propelled me past my anxiety, into my car, onto the interstate, and into the Smith College gymnasium. Now I know to climb the stairs all the way up to the third floor, past the pool gallery and into the open gym with blinding wooden floors.
When I got there, I did a little lap around the gym and pretended to know how my body worked. I did high-knees and butt kicks and grapevines and lunges. I did drills and forgot over and over how to bump the ball to my teammate. When the game began, I wanted so badly to impress the people around me that I failed to hit the ball over the net once.
It was embarrassing and I wanted to run to the bathroom and lock myself in a stall. But over and over again I had to bring myself back to the point of it all: I was not there to become a great volleyball player. I was there to put life in my Sunday afternoon. I was not there to be perfect. I was there to have fun!
I came to the volleyball court as a hopeful member of the Ellis clan, with a fear of competition and a love for a team. And I think that might be what runs in my veins: beneath all the rakes and inner tubes and tennis rackets is the desire to put life in your days. When I can hold onto that mission, the rest doesn’t matter.
And one day I might even hit the ball over the net!