Back into Movement
I could say that I am here in my hometown for the first time in over ten years because I happened to be passing through. I could show you on my phone how the blue line Google Maps draws from our house in New Orleans to my final destination, a friend’s house in Roscommon, Michigan, strikes through the white dot of Saint Clair, Michigan. Paying a visit seems like a natural thing to do.
The part about happening to pass through would be a lie.
The truth is that I’m here to find myself. I dedicated my 20s to being a high school teacher, and while that came with undeniable rewards, it cost me. The more I dove into my students’ well-being, the less I cared about my own; the independent, accomplished, creative person I always aspired to be vanished. So I quit.
The truth is I stumbled into my 30s lacking something essential to who I am, something I struggle to name now that it’s gone. Sometimes I call it confidence. Swag. Other times I think it might be ambition, or an unidentified “gift.” I was raised to believe I have something unique to share with the world. I hang on to this.
The truth is being lost in my 20s was expected. It was necessary, almost required. Being lost in my 30s, however, is risky. Hazardous. I have a husband who loves me. We have a home to nurture and a family to build. I have too much to lose.
The truth is I am not entirely sure what I’ve lost. But I do know where to find it.
I did the math once. At the height of my 12-year-long figure skating career, I spent approximately 30 hours a week between two rinks: McMorran Ice Arena and Glacier Pointe. These hours consisted mostly of on-ice practice sessions, but there were also weight training sessions, ballet classes, Tae Bo, off-ice jump training, jumping rope in the lobby, and sometimes rollerblading laps in the parking lot. This doesn’t include entire three-day weekends spent in a major Midwest city somewhere in the Tri-State area to compete against other girls like me. When school let out for summer, the hours increased to about 40 per week, enough to call it a full-time job; but it wasn’t work to me.
It was my life.
After dinner at home with my parents, I drive two towns over to Glacier Pointe. The Saint Clair River slides by on my right most of the way, and I remember my repeated teenager daydream of the river slowing down enough to freeze so that I might skate from my house to the rink. I imagined a friend driving my shoes, music tapes, and skate guards over for me so nothing weighed me down and I could glide, and glide, and glide where no one could see, judge, or target. On the river, in this dream, I could be the skater I wanted to be. By the time I was a teenager, however, I’d learned to reconfigure myself so well it was hard to tell what was real and what was trained.
I dreamed the river never ended so I could skate on it forever.
My secret was that I wanted my last breath to fill, hold, then let go on that river.
I grab my phone from the passenger seat, and lock my eyes on the road ahead as my thumb opens my Spotify app and types “joni river” into the search bar. I think a soundtrack might do me some good, might let the things I am still too scared to feel wash over me.
I found Joni Mitchell in college when I was trying to understand who I was as anything but a figure skater. Joni shared my dream of having a river she “could skate away on.” The first time I heard River I Googled the lyrics to verify she indeed said “skate” and not “fade” or “stake” even though neither of those options made much lyrical sense. I couldn’t believe anyone else had the same wish that I did. Mine felt so private and specific. I hadn’t shared it with anyone. So I cut my bedroom lights off, set my iTunes on repeat and choke-sobbed so hard that my roommate tapped on my door and asked if I just got dumped.
In a way, I thought.
Joni’s first few Christmas-carol infused notes saturate my car with nostalgia and I think about family. I think about my mom and the story she tells about how I became a figure skater:
When you were five, you tried gymnastics for about a month. But you wanted to get on the high beam, and they wouldn’t let you. You were too young, but you didn’t know that yet. So on the drive home from what would be your last session you told me, “Mom, I don’t want to go there anymore. They’re holding me back.” I wasn’t about to argue with you, so I said ok and we never spoke about gymnastics again.
Then you tried dance. You stuck with that long enough to perform in one recital. On our way home from the recital you told me, “Mom, I don’t want to do dance anymore. They make me do all the same moves as everyone else.” This was true, but also, that’s dance. I didn’t argue with you, even though I didn’t like that you were only five and had already quit two things. We never spoke about dance again.
Then one night you came into the living room holding The Times Herald. You stood in front of the TV and opened up to an ad from the Port Huron Figure Skating Club and announced, “I want to do this next.” I told you we could try it but only if you promised to stick with it. You promised you would and we went and you loved it.
No one held you back. No one made you do the same moves as everyone else. You were free to do what you wanted.
I was free.
I didn’t need a river then.
I stop at a red light and look at the Saint Clair River chopping.
Red clicks to green and a car horn blares.
I move forward.
Joni and I pull into Glacier Pointe’s parking lot. No tears drop, but my heart keeps punching my throat while my hands shake. My quadriceps tighten and I know I will look weird in my jeans instead of tights, holding a purse instead of wheeling my skating bag behind me, my hair down instead of sealed back in a symmetrical bun. My body now fills out beyond its intended line in some places instead of staying small and safe within its frame, so I worry. I worry I will be a stranger in my own home and that someone might call me out as an intruder and I’ll have to deal with the fact that I am no longer welcome to exist in grace, exist in elegance, exist in a body that can make movement into sport, then into art, then into dharma, and back into movement again. I’m afraid I can no longer identify as a skater, that I can no longer call myself me and I’ll have to start all over again without blades, without ice, without a river. Maybe, maybe I could keep Joni.
I close my car door, walk through the rink’s entrance, and find my footing in the lobby first: It is too late for skating practice, so none of my coaches or teammates who became coaches will be on the ice. Deep inhale…long exhale…It’s not that I don’t want to see them. I just need to see myself first, my past self; I want to find that free little girl who existed in grace and didn’t need a river yet. She’s young, but I sense she has the answers, that she knows why I fell out of love with the sport or why the sport fell out of love with me and why we haven’t entirely forgotten one another yet. That little girl hasn’t been with me since I quit, since I left, and I wanted her to come away with me but she stayed in this rink. She’s stubborn that way. But I need her now—I need her with me now so we can be whole again.
Somehow I need to convince her she doesn’t need the ice anymore because we are enough.
I am enough.
I step into the rink like it’s a funeral and bow my head.
I take a slow, long, deep inhale.
Once I am full I hold it. For just a beat.
Then I release.
The chilled breeze wipes the interior walls of my lungs clean. The noises inside of me hush to a kind whisper. My eyes close because this feels good. This feels familiar. I am safe.
So I take another deep breath in. And I let another deep breath out. My chest and shoulders fall slow like snow and settle into their resting place. My knees soften. My jaw loosens. My teeth part. Gravity surrenders just enough for my heels to hover.
I open my eyes.
I am here.
We aren’t together yet, and all the lights are off except for one that’s hovering and buzzing above the corner of the ice where she’s working on her axel. But I can see her. She’s about ten years old with an overgrown bowl-cut she’s excited is finally long enough to sweep back into a half-ponytail. She’s wearing her favorite practice dress, the one with the deep purple skirt, floral bodice, keyhole back and high neckline. It even has ¾ length sleeves. She exaggerates perfect posture whenever she wears it, even if she’s sporting it under her street clothes at school like Super Man but less secretive, because shorter sleeves are a big deal; only skaters who know what to do with their arms may graduate out of long sleeves, her coaches tell her.
The dress is her favorite, but Glacier Pointe is always three or four degrees colder than McMorran, so the girl layers it with a white turtleneck and her club jacket. The jacket is mostly turquoise, her second favorite color, with one thick purple stripe wrapping around the chest. The stripe does not match her skirt perfectly, she knows this, but she figures the more purple the better because someone once told her it’s the color of royalty, something she thinks she needs in order to protect her throne. She also loves this jacket because she can wear it to school and stand out from her classmates. Whenever she makes a new friend and they ask her what she likes to do, she spins around on her heels and points to the back of her jacket with both thumbs. Port Huron Figure Skating Club, she says. She turns back around and presses her palm on her heart. I am a figure skater.
I sit on an aluminum bench on the opposite side of the tall glass that wraps around the ice like a palisade. The metal shocks the back of my thighs with a familiar cold-damp sensation I know from a history of jumping and falling and jumping and falling and jumping and falling. Unforgiving.
She gathers speed around one of the dark corners and looks at me. She wants to make sure I am watching because if she lands this, she’s going to need a witness.
I give her a nod. She hurls herself in the air, attempting this jump for what is probably the hundredth time today. Her kick-through is strong, but she doesn’t swing her arms and neglects to grant herself the height she needs. She only completes 1¼ of the 1½ rotations necessary for the axel to count. She senses this and releases her arms and legs, surrendering her body instead of cheating the landing so as not to form the uncomely habit of hopping on her toe picks for the last ¼ rotation. She lands on her butt instead of her right foot and her body slides across the ice and out of the light.
She releases the breath she’s been holding this entire time, the same breath I’ve been holding this entire time. She picks herself up, brushes the clumps of snow and icy shards from her hamstrings, hips and hands. She tries again. Unstoppable.
I know she hasn’t landed her axel before because she’s missing the scar we have under our chin. She has no idea how much things are going to change once she does land it, the axel, the first “big-girl jump,” the gateway to doubles and triples and sleeveless dresses and gold medals and, eventually, a pilgrimage back to the singles for answers as a grown woman. I think about tapping on the glass to get her attention and beckoning her to join me in the bleachers so I can warn her about it all. But that’s pointless. She won’t listen. She won’t listen to an intruder on the other side of the glass. I am not enough for her, yet.
So I stay. I left, but I am back now and I am going to stay.
I’m stubborn that way.
Nora Seilheimer is a Michigander and nonfiction MFA candidate at University of New Orleans. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and two cats where she is the Associate Editor of Bayou Magazine and teaches a weekly yoga class to female inmates at Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. She is a proud double Scorpio with a figure skating past that she writes about often. Her work is published or forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, Longleaf Review, and Memoir Mixtapes. You can also find her on Twitter @nslhmr.