What You Do When the Room Goes Still


Written by


The other day I was at my younger daughter’s volleyball game. She’s taken up the game in the last couple of years and enjoys competing. She’s particularly good at serving. At this game, her team was losing the match when she rotated around and took the serve.

She managed, one ace, two, then three and four.

Resounding exclamations of glee from her teammates filled the gym. Encouraging chants were shouted. Her team started to pull back within striking distance of their opponents.

After each serve, she smiled, giggled, and chatted with her friends before returning to the back of the court to serve again. She likes to keep it loose when she plays. But just before she serves, her seriousness increases. She focuses on the paneled white leather ball in front of her and goes through a routine of bouncing, striding, flipping her wrist and stepping up the line before she whacks the ball over the net with fury.

With every successful serve, her team became more excited. Her opponents’ team became more nervous. The crowd tittered and whispered.

By the time the fifth service presented itself, she was well aware of her streak, but she was sliding away from her routine, gliding further from the bubble of her team’s encouragement and becoming increasingly aware of the moment and the emotions of the room.

Like me, she is an empath, one who easily and automatically intuits the emotions of the people around her.

The gym got quiet, and then it got silent.

All eyes were on her, everyone in the gym focused on her performance, on her ability.

As I sat on the sideline, I saw her absorb it all, watching as the mantle of expectation and anticipation and hope descended on preteen shoulders.

She went through her usual routine, but there was nervous energy in it, and her face was tighter, heavier in the silence and stress of the moment.

Her serve easily sailed over the net, but outside the court lines.

She shrugged it off with the encouragement of her team and carried on in the game.

But the moment stayed with me.

I wondered how I hold myself in those moments, what comes to me, what I rely on.

It reminded me of those moments in life, the silent and still ones. The ones in which I’m doing my thing, I’m making my way, I’m having success, I’m practicing life the way I really want to practice it, and I’m feeling like time is passing as it should and the universe is unfurling at just the right tempo. Good things are happening in this space.

And then a curtain is lifted — between me and my cozy world of flow and the bigger world, with its sharpness and edges and chaos and demands and expectations. I see then that the moment is big, that the potential accomplishments are significant, and that what lies ahead of me is even grander than I have known.

That’s when the room inside me and around me gets quiet.

As much as I love to kiss life on the mouth, this is a frightening moment for me.

My heart beats quicker.

I feel my feet slip from the ground and I float in lazy lunar gravity, unmoored.

I peer out from behind my curtain of safety, into a spotlight I am supposed to be in. I am carrying with me the feelings of all of those around me or working hard to gently and respectfully bounce them back so I can carry my own, which are vast and overtake me regularly, like now.

In these spaces of quiet, focus and swirling potential, it’s not that I think I am not enough to measure up.

It’s that I am highly aware of where I am, who I am, what is there with me and what might come next. If there is a sense of inadequacy in me, it is only because in the vastness of this world, I realize and take comfort in the fact that I am a small speck.

In these spaces, there is grace.

As the butterfly returns to the flower, a snippet of a Lakota prayer by Chief Yellow Lark comes back to me from the time and place when I discovered it in childhood. Now, as then, it is a lifeline mantra that helps me remember where and who I am.

“O Great Spirit,

whose voice I hear in the winds

and whose breath gives life to all the world,

hear me.

I am small and weak.

I need your strength and wisdom.

Let me walk in beauty

and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.

Make my hands respect the things you have made

and my ears grow sharp to hear your voice.”

I am saved again, my magical words, by luscious language, by the wisdom of one who endured far more than I ever have. These are the anchors of my life.

This is what I need to hold myself in these moments. To take the ball in my hands, to go through my motions, to rely on my practice, and to try my best to thrust the ball into play.

Inbounds or out, I realize what matters more is continuing to play.