The refrigerated air from the ice rink hit my nostrils before it hit my skin. I steered Connor inside, him carrying two hockey sticks, me carting the bag. A line of eager young hockey players, already suited up and ready to go, stood wrapped around the glass. A friend from baseball saw Connor and waved.
It wasn't exactly an intimidating setting, but I felt my pulse quicken. I helped Connor sit down on the bench and lace up his skates. He pulled on his new helmet and gloves. He looked impossibly small inside all that equipment. I smiled and said, "Go get 'em! Have fun!"
But inside, I felt like I was sending him to fight lions with his bare hands.
Earlier this year, Connor decided he wants to play hockey. Part of me clapped my hands with delight at his announcement. Hockey is my favorite sport, a passion I share with most Minnesotans (and all of Canada). But he's 9. And he just learned to skate last winter. This is not a good-thing in our hockey-obsessed state, where a lot of kids are born in blades. (Not really, because ouch. But you know what I mean.) Kids skate year-round here, and many are on teams before first grade. All that to say: He's way behind the curve, and if he really wants to play, he's facing a lot of hard work, a fair amount of embarrassment and lots of initial failure.
Aye, there's the rub.
Growing up, I did many things well. I got straight A's in school. I was a fast reader. I wrote poetry, I was a good friend, a perfect student and I could clap a round of "say, say oh playmate" wicked fast. Those things came easy. I didn't even have to try.
Other things weren't so easy. Sports. Jump rope at recess. Failure.
In a twist of irony that's not unique with me, the more I excelled, the less I wanted to risk making a mistake. I liked the feeling of succeeding on my first try; I could get a perfect score on an essay test, even if I knew nothing about my subject, because I could make BS sound pretty. But I despised the feeling of trying and failing; math class, anyone? It was uncomfortable and humiliating and it made my face burn red.
So I started to live by an unspoken rule: I avoided hard things and stuck to activities where success was guaranteed. No risk? No failure.
As I got older, my strategy started to wear thin. I married Corey, a jock and extreme risk taker. I accompanied him on his adventures - keeping book at the softball games, waiting on the ground while he parachuted from planes - but I never participated, even when he begged me to join him. (In one infamous episode, his coed softball team needed a female player to avoid a forfeit, and I stubbornly, desperately, refused to bat even once, wildly choosing social exile over looking like an idiot at home plate.)
It wasn't just sports. I didn't ask for help at the TV station when I was behind deadline, because I didn't want to admit I was going under. I didn't learn to surf, even though I worked one block from the ocean, because I didn't want to struggle in public. I didn't introduce myself to new people who might have been friends because I didn't want to risk rejection.
I missed out on a lot of life. A lot.
Finally, sometime in my 30s, I decided: this is no way to live. I refuse to be hemmed in by fear of failure. I'm tired of giving up before I even start.
So I started to do hard things. I got certified to teach a fitness class. (Me! Doing sports!) I intentionally sought relationships with people different than me. (Me! Inviting uncomfortableness!) I had four kids. (Me! Losing my mind!)
I began to value effort more than ease. And I grew.
I don't fear failure anymore. I fear living inside of a box of my own making.
But that morning in the ice rink, I remembered its smell (and the smell of unwashed hockey equipment). It's one thing to no longer fear failure for myself. It's another thing entirely to watch my kids struggle. I fight hard against my instinct to rescue, to comfort, to gently steer my children toward those things that will come easy. I don't want to watch them fail.
But if I got my wish, how would they grow?
So that morning in the hockey rink, I sat on my hands as I watched Connor finish each drill a full 30 seconds after every other player. I watched him fight to stay upright when kids younger than him were skating laps around him, backwards. I gave the thumbs up when he fell down and I sighed with relief when the coaches divided the kids into skill levels. I cheered when he gained confidence in his hockey stop. I gave the thumbs up when he shot me those tentative, "I think I'm getting it" looks. And I smiled big when he walked off the ice after 90 minutes of solid skating and said, "That was so much fun. I can't wait to come back."
My heart swelled with gratitude and my eyes swelled with tears.
"You are doing a hard thing, Connor," I said as I tugged off his skates. "Don't give up."
We're getting there. We're getting there.