On nice evenings the park two blocks away fills up with people enjoying the outdoors. They circle with their dogs, sit on benches, and spread out their picnics. It’s essentially a Norman Rockwell scene with every turn of the path. Or as close to Rockwell as gritty Portland, Oregon, will ever get.
There are daredevils at the skate park and high schoolers playing a pick-up game of sand volleyball. I sit on the hill above them to watch these youngsters fly up concrete walls and fling themselves into volleyball nets, reminding the rest of us what it is to inhabit a body so new it can still forget its edges.
Kids, I tell myself. Wild and wonderfully reckless youth.
The volleyball kids are divided by the net and also by experience. There are the tall, athletic guys with their shirts off, blinding onlookers (and perhaps their competition) in their attempts at a Pacific Northwest tan. There are the second tier guys, all shorter, and the girls, their hair gathered atop their heads and each of them frankly better than most of the guys because they have to be.
And then there is Milo.
I hear his name from my soft spot atop the hill. One of the girls calls it out as he joins them on the court. She says it a friendly way, sort of announcing him to the others. Maybe she was the one to bring him this evening, I think, or maybe they’d had a class together last year.
Milo stands at the back of the court. If I squint I can see his foppish head of curly hair. He doesn’t look athletic in the least. He looks more like a drama kid, if I’m going to typecast. And it turns out I’m right. It only takes half a minute of playing time to see he clearly knows about as much about volleyball as I do
“Not like that!” one of the guys says as Milo goes gamely in for whatever kind of maneuver they call biffing the ball with your forearms. The ball ricochets off Milo’s skinny limbs and careens toward the skate park where it bounces dangerously close to the slicing boards.
Milo lifts his hands, scoffing at himself. Playing it off.
The game resumes, and a tall blonde guy who is as practiced at sports as most of us are at chewing lands a few great … spikes? Is that what they’re called? The girls support, his team cheers, and they are given the ball to serve again.
It is another few minutes before the ball finds its unfortunate way back to Milo’s corner, forcing him to take another whack at it. This time he sends it boomeranging off a teammate before returning to take Milo down on its path of wonton destruction.
“Ohhh!” the chorus goes up again as Milo misses this second shot. This time he dips his head and my heart pings against my ribs. He is way out of his league here, ruining the game for everyone.
And then a girl from the other team calls out, “It’s okay, Milo. Try serving it again. Like this.”
She demonstrates like the sports goddess she is and sends the ball sailing back over to land at Milo’s feet. Milo’s teammates, the tall blonde Adonis and his pals, step back. Watching. One of them even mimes a serving motion to Milo again as they wait, quiet. The girl’s generosity has momentarily quelled them and Milo winds up, aims his best, and we all watch as the ball flies off into the ethers once again.
“It’s okay!” the girl from the other side says.
“Yeah, you’ll get it,” another voice, this time a male’s, joins in.
The moment is both unremarkable and extraordinary. They play on. The game resumes, and Milo returns to his corner. But his body language has visibly shifted. Instead of trying to make himself invisible he now feints this way and that with the ball as it bobs from person to person. He is tracking it, engaged where before he held back. Looser, freer, and for all the world looking like a person who has plugged in. Someone turns on some music, and of course it is Jay-Z’s “Forever Young.”
I turn my gaze to the skaters tracing their perpetual parabolas. The evening is like a deeply exhaled breath. When I return to the volleyball game Milo has removed his shirt like the other guys. I see him jogging back from the sidelines, bare chested and a shy decisiveness about him that gets my heart pinging all over again.
I love him for staying in the game. Love his teammates and the other team for bringing him in, however he may be cramping their style. And I love that girl’s warm, high voice calling out, “Try it again. Like this.”
I think of the coming of age I feel happening globally right now, spurred by a deeply feminine energy. This energy is gentle and massively powerful, and I believe it can turn the game around in a big way.
I believe we may be more clumsily tender toward one another today than we have ever been, even in the face of much conflict and negative press. We are divided, yes, but I believe we are also being brought together in ways we are only beginning to see.
The new energy feels like it is here, available for all. You don’t need to be good at the game to feel it. You don’t even need to know the rules. In fact, it may be more fun if like Milo you’re a total newb.