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Show Up and Play

I never played sports as a kid.

This is maybe not a surprise for someone who grew up to be a lover of words in all forms—but I certainly fell into that category as a child as well. I made straight A’s, I attended the gifted program, I was allowed to make up my own vocabulary words because the regular ones weren’t challenging enough. I was, for all intents and purposes, a nerd.

However, the real reason I didn’t play a sport was because, having grown to my adult size by third grade, I was uncomfortable in my body, awkward and uncoordinated. By the time I had grown into the height and bulk of my body and learned its operating instructions, everyone else seemed to know the rules of the game, and I was too embarrassed to risk not knowing those rules in front of the people that appeared to be experts.

And so, I chose to stick with activities where I was the expert—where I could “win” by appearing perfect, by being cast as the lead, and by earning straight A’s.

I mean, people want a winner in their lives, right?

Recently, my daughter, a dancer, told me that when I dance, I look like I’m “waiting for someone to give me permission.”

Having led creative writing groups in the past, I’m aware of the ways we do this as adults, waiting for someone else to name us—a dancer, an athlete, a writer—to acknowledge our gift in an area, to give us the right to jump in and participate.

We forget that participation, connection, authenticity, belonging, is our birthright, that we become the thing by doing it—dancing, playing, writing—by finding childish joy in it, by letting it grow us, and by not being afraid to fail because each failure teaches us so much more than any win ever could.

My youngest daughter, Charlotte, signed up to play basketball this year. She is not tremendously athletic, and she has never played basketball, but she is nothing if not authentic. I felt so worried that she was going to find a team full of girls that had been playing club basketball since they were four—that she would be trampled physically and emotionally.

Instead, this season has been the most incredible learning experience for the entire team, none of whom seem to have played before. While we cheer them on, they play with gusto; they take their losses in stride; and under the gentle, loving guidance of their coaches and the most patient referees in history, they are learning how to play the game. They belong not because they’re the best basketball players in the world, or because they have the sharpest gear, but because they have the courage to show up and play.

Author Brene Brown says, “I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Maybe we can be both at the same time.

Maybe it’s in my imperfection, my willingness to be authentically, humbly myself, even if that person doesn’t know how to play basketball, or feels ridiculous dancing in public, or is writing creatively for the first time, that I find true belonging.

And isn’t that what we’re all looking for anyway?

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