Life Lessons from Roller Derby
Delivered March 27, 2011 at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
To put to rout all that was not life and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”
-Henry David Thoreau
“God went RollerBlading” by Cynthia Rylant
Introduction: Why Roller Derby?
Life is stressful. No matter what many folks may claim, there is no instruction book that answers all the questions we have as we live and learn and grow; as we suffer and celebrate; as we fail and succeed. Life is stressful.
So stressful, even 150 years ago, that transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau decided to go to the woods to see what life was really about.
These days, that’s not always an option. And still, amidst the day to day messiness of life, we need to find ways to answer YES to life. To embrace this amazing experience that, as far as we know, we only get one chance at.
How do we answer YES to life?
Even before I became a minister, I knew that ministry would be stressful. That it is not something that I can just put down as I walk through the front door – it is a vocation – a part of who I am, a piece of my general nature.
But when the New York times reported that ministers “now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at higher rates than most Americans,” it caught my attention. The report continued to share that “in the last decade [ministers] use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.” Wow. This was not good news – not at all.
I want to be the minister here for a good, long time. And I want to live a balanced, healthy, whole life. Reading the article brought home the fact that the only way to do all this was to find ways to take care of myself. To find a healthy way to answer YES to life.
When I saw the movie “Whip It,” I thought I might have found an answer. I have always loved skating. Growing up I would skate around my unfinished basement – round and round and round. As I got older, I took up rollerblading and I would take my dogs for runs on skates. But combine skating with physical contact and intensity? It looked like so much fun – and such a powerful release.
I dragged my family to a few bouts of our local team, the Derby City Roller Girls and began to learn more about it. When I went to last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, the team was there skating around. Just like out of a movie, a skater came right up to me “HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT ROLLER DERBY?” she asked as she shoved a flier in my hands. Why yes, yes I had. It turned out the information session for potential recruits was the next Sunday – a Sunday that I had off.
Fate? Providence? Happenstance?
It didn’t matter – I was about to find a powerful way to take care of myself, to get healthy, to give a resounding “yes” to life.
What is Roller Derby?
Demonstration!! Can’t really capture it in a blog post, but there was music, skating, and commentating. Very fun!
Lessons Learned from Roller Derby, pt. 1
Fate? Providence? Happenstance?
It didn’t matter – I was about to find a powerful way to take care of myself, to get healthy, to give a resounding “yes” to life.
The next Sunday, with my stomach all a’flutter, I drove to the skating rink. Would I be too out of shape? Too old? Not aggressive enough?
I watched one person, then another, walk through the doors. I gathered my courage and walked in.
“Yeah Rookies!” I heard as I walked in, and suddenly I felt better. Those of us who were interested spanned over a generation in ages and the whole gamut of fitness levels. I absorbed the information, the testimonials from other skaters, and saw with relief that were skaters even a few years older than me. I began to get more and more excited.
Then, my heart almost dropped. Bootcamp training for rookies was on Sunday mornings.
Y’all might not know this, but I have a job that keeps me busy most Sunday mornings.
I listened to the rest of the information session, simultaneously excited and depressed. Could I make it work?
Lesson Number 1 – Something I didn’t exactly learn from Roller Derby, but that was reinforced by my experience with Roller Derby. You won’t know if you don’t ask.
When I got home that first Sunday, I wrote an email to the appropriate folks on the team, explaining that I was desperately interested, but that my job prevented me from being there on Sunday mornings. I told them I would be very dedicated and was prepared to work extra hard if there was a way they could help me figure out the schedule situation. They did. I am so glad I asked. You don’t know if you don’t ask. Push a little, and the answer might just be “Yes.”
And now I would like to introduce the woman behind the “Yeah Rookies” that helped me get through the door that first day, and who helped figure out a way to accommodate my unique schedule. Jailbreak Jenny has been the rookie coach for a number of seasons. She is a co-captain on the team, is on the training committee, and holds a bunch more important titles that would probably not mean a lot to you. But at the heart, she loves roller derby, and loves the team, and her cheerful attitude and encouragement have sustained many a skater through times of self-doubt.
Jailbreak Jenny, Veteran Skater & Holder of Many Important Titles, gave a great motivational speech!
Lessons Learned from Roller Derby, pt. 2
Thank you, Jailbreak. You continue to inspire me. I’ve learned so much from you, from my teammates, and from my experience with the Derby City Roller Girls. Ever since that first day, I have been learning, not only about the game, but about life, and about myself. I have learned so much, in fact, that I have 13 things that I would like to share with all of you right now. Don’t worry! They are pretty short.
The first lesson that I mentioned a few minutes ago was something I already knew, but that my experience with boot-camp reinforced: You don’t know if you don’t ask. Connected to this is a second lesson, one that my Derby name is based on: Liv Fearless. Now, I’m not talking about going into dangerous situations as if there is nothing to fear – I’m talking about moving through the kind of fear that prevents you from doing something you want to do. The kind of fear that almost kept me in my car that first day. Live Fearlessly, because it is hard to embrace life if we are afraid to live it.
Living, even fearlessly, means that sometimes we are going to fail, we are going to fall. I would actually guess that the more we are living fearlessly, the more often we’re going to fall, since we are pushing ourselves more, challenging ourselves, taking more risks.. So we better learn how to do it. This is the third lesson I learned from Roller Derby: How to fall. In roller derby, we have pads on the front – our knees, elbows and wrists. That’s where we try to fall. But if you’ve ever been skating, you know that you are more inclined to fall backwards. In roller derby, in gymnastics, and in other sports, learning how to fall is essential. And it is in life, as well. We all fail sometimes – we all fall down. When we figure out how to fall safely, which is usually wherever we have the most protective padding, we find we are less likely to be injured..
Which leads to lesson four: when we do, inevitably, fall, get back up, quick. You’ve heard the saying, if you fall off a horse, get right back on. I actually fell off a horse when I was growing up, and I didn’t get right back on. I was scared!! And I came very close to never getting back on ever again. It’s much easier in the long run, when we do inevitably fall, or fail, to get back up quickly. Besides, in roller derby, if we don’t get back up quick, someone might run over us!
Now, this does not apply if we are injured. Sometimes, when we fall, or fail, we need to stay down for a little while. We need to assess how damaged we are. And we might need someone to help us. This is lesson five: We do best for ourselves when we accept help when we are in need of it – we heal faster. Sometimes, I think, we are tempted to say that we can do it ourselves, or to rationalize that someone might be more hurt than we are. We forget that we are all sometimes in need of support by our teammates, by our communities, our churches, our loved ones. When we are injured – in body, mind or spirit, we heal fastest when we learn how to graciously ask for, and receive, help.
In roller derby, that help often comes from coaches and teammates. Another area in which I have experienced deep learning is around what it means to be a part of a team. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t actually my first team experience. I played soccer and field-hockey growing up, I’ve done academic team activities. And much of the work I do, I can only accomplish with a team of paid professionals and lay leaders. It wasn’t until Roller Derby that I feel like I could actually put words to what it means to be a part of of a team, and now that I can, I can apply the learning in many different areas of my life.
Lesson six from roller derby is that part of being on a team means doing my part. If I am playing a blocker, I need to know what to do in certain scenarios. If I am playing a jammer, that means another set of scenarios. I need to learn the rules of the game, and then practice them. It also means that I have to do things outside practice that will make me a better teammate.
And being part of a team means that I don’t have to do everything myself, I just need to try to do my job the best I can. This is lesson 7. Thank goodness I don’t have to do everyone else’s job!!! Part of letting other folks do their job is to trust them. This can be hard for those of us who are control freaks, and absolutely necessary. Even if I were the best roller derby player in the world, I couldn’t play the game all by myself – I need teammates. Even if I were the best minister in the whole world, I couldn’t do it all by myself. In fact, not only is it necessary, it is sometimes easier (once we get the hang of it!) to trust others than to try to shoulder all that responsibility ourselves.
Connected to this is lesson #8: Being part of a team also means it is often for the greater good to let go of little things. Sometimes, when I’m practicing, I end up getting irritated when I continuously catch someone’s elbow in my neck, or when I’m are trying to trust a teammate and she isn’t living up to my expectations of her. To function as a team, I have to leave these petty squabbles on the sidelines, because carrying the hurt with me is bad for the team. So it is with life.
I know a woman who was queen of the petty squabbles. This woman and her friend Helen had been best friends for over 50 years. One day Helen did something this woman didn’t like. It wasn’t a big thing, just a little annoyance. And this woman refused to talk to Helen for 2 years. 2 years! Her best friend in the world.
Who does that help? No one. Carrying petty squabbles is bad for the team, bad for relationships, bad for family, bad for a community. Leave them on the sideline.
But I can’t stay on the sideline myself. Lesson #9 is that being on a team means showing up. Especially when I really don’t want to. My roller derby practices are in the evenings – after meetings, when I really want to go home and spend time with my family. But my teammates depend on me to show up, to be there. And so I go.
And there is another reason to show up. Jailbreak Jenny shared some wisdom around this not too long ago. She tells rookies that when you most don’t want to go is when you are most likely to have some sort of breakthrough. I suspect she is right. As Woody Allen wisely said, “90% of life is just showing up.”
Show up. I just might learn something. Or thirteen somethings! Four more to go…
I’ll tell you what, though. One thing I really didn’t expect to learn was about ancient philosophy. But I am – go figure. On a philosophical level, I have come to a better understanding of the harmfulness that dualism has committed upon our culture. Stick with me here for a minute. Dualism is the idea that our mind and bodies are completely separate entities. It is an ancient concept that is also echoed in the biblical scriptures, which teach that humankind was created with a body, and with a soul. Over the years, the body has gotten shortchanged, with the mind and the soul being somehow more important, more…elevated.
I am coming to appreciate that this is not a healthy, whole, way to live. Lesson #10 is that, it is when the mind, body and spirit are working together that we are able to most fully experience life. Our minds may be running the show most of the time (or so we like to tell ourselves until we experience something like chronic pain), but when we pay attention, we realize that we know things in our bodies that we don’t know in our mind. The muscle memory that I learned, skating in circles in my basement growing up, has enabled me to pick up the basics of roller derby faster than many folks who don’t have that experience.
Roller derby is driving home for me the understanding that, as human beings, we do ourselves a disservice when we begin to think of our bodies as less than other aspects of our human selves. Our minds, bodies & spirits are linked…inseparable. We are the whole package.
Connected to this the eleventh lesson that I have learned from Roller Derby: that it is okay, even good, to get dirty sometimes. I wouldn’t say that I was averse to sweat and dirt before Roller Derby, except, well, I pretty much was. Now, I put on my stinky pads and head to the rink, where, before long, sweat is pouring off me, the padding in my helmet is soon soaked, and, truth be told, I couldn’t be happier. And so now I find myself not hating getting dirty in other situations either – yard work, or chasing after the kids. Because now I know – get dirty, getting sweaty – these provide evidence that I am actively engaging in my world, not just along for the ride.
Not only am I actively engaging my world, I am strong. Physically. Lesson number twelve is a deep appreciation for my health, my physical strength. Up until now, my relationship with my body has been mostly “Yup, there it is.” Prior to having children, I never admired what my body was capable of. When I had kids, I was pretty amazed at what I could do – gestating a new human being and feeding her in her early months. After a few years, I didn’t feel that same admiration, same appreciation. I do now. I am healthy. Okay, yes, a bit bruised, but bruises heal. And every day, after practice, I am grateful that I have my health, because I know it won’t last – ideally I will live long enough to see things start to slow down, my capabilities decrease. And then I pray I will be able to appreciate my body for having sustained me all these years.
I am strong, and, finally, lesson number thirteen: I am beautiful, and so are you. What a wonderful thing to learn. Yes, I’ve probably always been strong and beautiful, just like the god in the poem [by Cynthia Rylant] is always invincible, but doesn’t always feel that way. I haven’t always felt that way about myself. And while I am quite adept at appreciating the internal beauty of people, I’d never really gotten the whole “beauty comes in all shapes and sizes” thing. Now, I get it. My teammates are gorgeous. Stunning. They teach me that beauty truly does come in all shapes, and all sizes. Roller Derby has given me deeper, more full understanding of what beauty looks like – bigger, broader than the images we are fed in the media, that tell us that we must be thinner, heavier, blonder, tanner, paler, taller, shorter, less hairy – that we are somehow not beautiful just the way we are. But we are – each of us. Each and everyone of us, each and every one of you, we are all beautiful in our own ways.
I didn’t know, when I walked through the doors of the skating rink that first time, that I would find something that would teach me so much, that would challenge me to grow in new and exciting ways. I was desperate, looking for a way to live more fully. I had no idea the rich experiences I would have.
May we each find our own ways to answer “yes” to life, because when we do, we can have faith that when our time comes to die, we will discover that, yes indeed, we have truly lived. May it be so.
When the spirit says do, you gotta do. You gotta take a risk, try something new, do what you don’t think you can do, do something fun, love, laugh, weep, mourn, challenge and be challenged, grow, learn, LIVE (fearlessly). And may we all find ways to answer “Yes” to life. Blessed be.