Tennis Ball Girl

5:58 PM

Serious tennis tournaments hire uniformed ball boys and girls to kneel at the net and watch the action of the game closely, rushing in at the first evidence of a ball out of play. Their task is to collect the ball for the players, and clear it from the court. This requires a particularly tuned level of hyper-vigilance, watchfulness directed at the game as it is played by others, the role of a servile facilitator. Although these kids are probably highly trained and rehearsed at their role, a role that is perched at the cutting edge of the game as it is played by the best of the best, they are not in the game themselves. They spend their working hours watching, waiting, supporting. 

With three sisters close in age, my family culture was a like a K-12 sorority made up entirely of Cherry, Lindy, Debby and Laury. Hoping to fit in as one of the girls, I would lurk around them, needily looking for opportunities to prove myself by entering into an unproductive series of hazing rites for which there would be no reward. My sisters weren't mean girls, taunting or excluding me on purpose. On the contrary, I think I was a bit under their radar, surfacing in their awareness mostly when I was being particularly annoying, or when I volunteered for a mission to amuse or entertain.

These are tough stories to remember, and even tougher to tell as I have spent decades attempting to create emotional distance from this little girl, Laury, a self with no boundaries. If I had any boundaries at all, they were undetected throughout the ritual initiations during which I squandered my self-esteem in order to build credibility with my sisters. 

It seemed worth it at the time.

Originated in the creative imaginations the girls, these challenges were like auditions for a show, the Big Time. I was sure that one day, these tasks would usher me into the club, and I would be able to sit in the bushes and laugh while someone else survived the humiliation of the spotlight. I didn’t have the foresight to read the writing on the wall; I was the youngest, and there would be no graduation. This was no audition; this was my role.

Naked exercises happened more than once, but most of the moments blur into this one iconic image: I'm riding a bike down Beverly Drive toward Sunset Boulevard in broad daylight. I am 8 years old, naked as the day I was born, and even though I can’t actually hear them laughing, I know my sisters are in the bushes, or watching from an upstairs window, peeing their pants in hysteria.

Another classic: I am asked to collect our German Shepherd Heidi’s ample, fresh shit, place it carefully into my underwear, and run inside the house to confess to my mystified mother that I have crapped myself. Oddly, as if this is the element that was most important for my brain to log and file, I can only remember with clarity the moment that I said a bold “YES, I’ll do it,” and the act of stuffing it in, as if the willingness to suffer humiliation and degradation for the tribe was a noble choice worth remembering. The road less traveled. 

I thought I was being brave, and in some sense, I suppose I was. 

Oddly, these acts of nobility were to leave me lonely, but I think I have always held a misplaced respect for what I perceived to be the art of sacrifice...

I get that these stories are funny, but I am also aware that these strange rituals imprinted some peculiar ideas onto my very young mind, ideas that dictated behaviors for years to come. Hoping to become integrated as a respected fellow, a resident in the upper echelon of my sister-tribe, I couldn’t have predicted the disappointing outcome. These pranks were supposed to work, to give me the keys of the kingdom. Of course, rewards earned through self-deprecating, even humiliating behaviors, are rarely lasting. Once the hilarity was over, I still felt isolated. 

Oddly,  my inner tennis ball girl is still running the same drills, occasionally expecting the same results.  I know, now, that the equation, longing plus sacrifice equals belongingdoesn't work,  but old habits are hard to break. 

The good news? Being willing to look at these stories, to pull them out of the shadows and allow them to be seen, shepherds that insecure, shamefaced part of me out of the shadows along with them. In the light of day, it's easier to forgive that daring ambitious little girl, along with the sisters who welcomed her offerings of entertainment without assigning too much meaning, or seriousness to them. 
The way my sisters and I related to each other as children bears little resemblance to the current closeness we enjoy today; we share a deep, lasting respect for each other. And now, I can at least notice when I am giving too much, or when I am abandoning myself to make someone else a little happier. 

We certainly don't get to design our original family relationships or the roles we played as kids, but we can accept responsibility for the faulty assumptions that continue to echo and influence the way we relate to others. If feeling less-than inhibits our ability to be present with others, or to offer an authentic and heartfelt contribution, then we may need to let go of it like the bad habit it is. 

Let someone else chase those tennis balls for while.

                           We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
                                                                   Thich Nhat Hanh

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