A Spike for the Ego

21 Aug

I gave up being a stellar young volleyball player when I was thirteen, because it no longer fit my budding rebel image. I’d been the hot-shot player on my team, because I loved it and therefore I practiced relentlessly. But I traded it in for tentative puffs of smoke, for dancing in the mosh pit, for spoken word poetry. Sports were for jocks and that wasn’t me, I declared, with all of my tentacles extended to speculate and conjecture about my identity. Little did I know that years later, volleyball would save my life, imparting me with a concrete expression of myself as a real human being, when nothing and no one else around me acknowledged me as a distinct and singular individual.

 
Volleyball as refuge for me started in the itty-bitty mountain town of Juquila, Oaxaca, during that year of my life when I was lost in the abyss. I was whisked away in the shock, in the wonder and delight, in the anguish and growing pains of becoming a mother. I was in semi-exile from my home, trying to clench my fist around some solid piece of myself. I was locked away in solitary confinement, with an infant who couldn’t talk, a very depressed partner who wasn’t talking to me, and a small town full of folks who acted like I was an alien species.

 
Then I found a place to play volleyball.

 
It was at the hospital, up one of Juquila’s many steep hills. Everyone else who played regularly was staff from the hospital, but a neighbor who worked at the hospital told me it wasn’t exclusive, and I leapt at the non-invitation as if it were a red carpet leading me to my very own party. They were mostly younger folks hired from other parts of the state, and they were mostly a little more open-minded than many of the locals in Juquila.

 
Usually Conan would come with me to bring baby Lucia- who refused to take a bottle- in case she needed to nurse. Even though I wasn’t 100% free of my mother role, at least I was somewhere in my own right. It was a place to go with a legitimate purpose all about me, as a person who played this sport, as opposed to being Conan’s partner, or Paulina’s daughter-in-law, or just “la gringa,” a strange specimen to inspect and marvel at. It was a respite from both being ignored and being a side-show freak.

 
Not that I found a new bestie or something from going to volleyball once a week. We never had deep or intimate or intellectual conversation, nor many other things that I was longing for. Nobody ever invited me for anything but volleyball- and there wasn’t really anything else to do in Juquila anyway, except perhaps have a drink. But I got to use my body for something besides walking to the market and nursing the baby, and I got to be  part of a team. Being accepted into the volleyball games was enough. I eventually even got invited to be on their team for a big tournament. That was the most recognized and autonomous I ever felt in Juquila.

 

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Proof of my existence: My shirt even had my name on it for the tournament! Thank you, hospital volleyball players of Juquila.

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An action shot

When we moved to Puerto Escondido, I started from scratch again with my search for a social existence. There are a lot more people and options, as well as a different attitude, in Puerto. People are so much more open- it’s palpable. When I talk about Juquila, when I describe things and some people there, my shoulders hunch up, I shrink in on myself, fighting off the cold. But when I think about Puerto, my arms extend like wings, or like the surfer I’m not, out, open, free. What a difference.

I was invited to a volleyball team at the university where I work, too, but my existence in Puerto doesn’t start and end with volleyball. Granted, I still don’t have the incredibly fulfilling social life I pine for. But I am recognized in so many ways and spaces. I have a house that’s all ours, with electricity and everything, where I can be totally me and blast my music at 7AM. I’m not a novice Mommy-in-the-making anymore; I’m full-fledged, parenting with my eyes closed half the time. I’m a teacher with more than 5 years spent in classrooms, including two years under my belt using a curriculum that I helped invent. I get along royally with my students and I’m generally pleased to be at work, enjoying what I do. I have fabulous coworkers who I love to hang out with, at work and beyond. I know some other really cool folks who I almost never get to see because of this busy life- but at least I know really cool people! They know me. We exist in this social universe!

And I play volleyball, every Friday after work. I play to be outside of my Mommy role, outside of my Teacher role, to just be me, me and my body, little autonomous Julia. My muscles work hard and I feel sweaty and strong and glorious. My laughter erupts time and again, like yet another oil spill in the ocean, uncontainable, uncontrollable, its effects diffusing into all the realms of my being. I feel so alive, every single week. I feel like I belong, goofing off with staff and students and thesis candidates, other people shirking their normal roles to have a good time.

My volleyball skills are not what they used to be, although I’ve still got a surprisingly wicked underhand serve on a good day. More importantly, I feel legitimate and whole and right when I’m on the court: secure in my body, sure of my identity and place in the universe.

So I found myself getting pretty irritated with a small group of new students and their hot-shot egos who found their way to our games. See, in August and September, the university has a special introductory semester for new students while everyone else is on vacation. So right now there are just a few of us regulars and several enthusiastic new students. Bless their little hearts.

There is this group of those guys (almost always male, especially down here). We all know them: the guys who are confident that they’re more important than you. In volleyball, they are rampant, unapologetic ball-hogs. They’re flagrant court stealers, trying to play every position at once. They’re not only sexist (if you’re good, you’re good for a girl) because they also steal the ball from other men who aren’t as good/aggressive as they are- they’re equal opportunity in their discounting of all us “inferior” players.

They’re not amazing players in reality, though. At least half of these boys’ skill is brute force. They lose the point at least as much as they get it. Sometimes they blow the point because they hit it way too hard. Often they blow it because they’re so busy making sure some less-skilled player doesn’t mess up that they abandoned their own position and can get the ball when it lands there. And sometimes they just mess up, just because they’re human. But because they can spike, because they’ve got great hustle, because they’re overzealous, they’re really impressed with each other and uninspired by the rest of us. They’d like to think that it’s they’re game and we’re just there for show.

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Conan captured perfectly this ball-hog in Juquila stealing the ball from right in front of me. These guys are international, after all.

I am not there for show, however, thank you very much, chicos. I’m not a star volleyball player, but I’ve got thirty two years of budding and blooming personality under my belt, and no one can diminish that in me now. When I call the ball, I’m going to hit it, even if they get in my way. When they scoot in to my position before the ball’s even been served, I politely tell them to scoot on back out of my space. “I might miss it, but you might, too,” I told one of them this past week. Or when one of them tried to switch into the setter’s spot without asking me about it, I told him nicely, “Sorry, I like this position, too.”

I was feeling all irked about their presence, until I realized that those boys and I both have our egos all tied up in this game. Their stake is all about performing well for their buddies, whereas my stake is all about having a space to “perform” myself. I’m old enough now to not pen myself into a category. I can be an avid volleyball player and not worry about being a jock. I can be a devoted Mommy and still be a wild child rebel in my own ways and time. I can just be all of who I am now and most days I don’t give myself any complexes about it, thank the universe.

These poor boys, though, are not even having fun! They’re so busy trying to prove that they’re bad-asses that they can’t even laugh when they mess up. They either try to put the blame on someone else or they beat themselves up over it. Granted, it doesn’t make their behavior any more acceptable. They still need to learn that we all have a right to play, regardless of sex, regardless of skill level. But it does give me a little more  compassion for them. Here they are, many of them, separated from their old friends, out of their parents’ house, in a new town, for the first time in their lives. They’re trying to hang on to and continue recreating their own social identities. It’s hard. I get it. Maybe, with time, with more of us insisting that we all belong equally on the court, they’ll get that part, too. Maybe they’ll even learn to respect themselves more when they learn to respect others. Maybe they’ll even have fun during volleyball someday. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep holding space and pushing back at their infringement on my territory. For myself, for the other women who play, for the other not-so-aggressive players, and even for team macho themselves. It’s what my more-grown-up ego demands of me- to keep claiming my right to exist, to respect other people’s right to exist, on the volleyball court and elsewhere. Thank you, sports, and fellow players, for helping me rediscover my place.

P.S.   Semi-related bonus story: Recently Conan found out how it felt to live in the shadow of someone else and I don’t think he cared much for it. Some students of mine came up to him and the baby outside of my work and asked, “Is this the teacher Julia’s son?” (in Spanish). He said it was and they smiled at each other, said something between themselves, and walked off. “It was like I didn’t exist,” he complained to me.

My ego is too mature these days (maybe) to gloat about something like that, although it was kind of nice to feel understood. Luckily for him that’s not his whole existence in this town, because it’s no way to live. Love and solidarity, folks. Take care of each other, and hold space for yourself, and for others. xoxoxo, Your Humble Gringuita in Oaxaca

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