A Sunday homecoming

In the nearly 12 years of my career, I’ve been able to embark upon excursions that had me crossing the continent, bounding over borders, and peeking behind all kinds of curtains. Doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to go through have opened to me time and again all because I wielded the appropriate combination of a press pass, a camera, and an editor title.

But this past weekend was the first time my professional life had me milling around an ice rink—and one that has been the backdrop for everything from my 13th birthday to a run-in with a long-lost friend to nearly every Saturday lesson I’ve had since July.

I’ve spent such a significant portion of my formative years at ice rinks up and down the northern East Coast, from Vermont to Annapolis, for after-school jobs and for skating lessons, for public skates and my brother’s travel hockey leagues. Just like everything else about adolescence, there’s a whirlwind of general feelings and oddly specific memories that accompany those years. But I never really stopped to consider the roles that the rinks of my youth played as the quiet stages where each of those individual moments were set.

I’m so consumed with getting on the ice now that I don’t always focus on my surroundings or the particulars of getting there. In the early days of rediscovering skating, there was so much magic in a long drive that rewarded me infinitely more than the workday commute that dominates my behind-the-wheel hours. I marveled over every drop of potential that was in each pull of my laces. These days, all those feelings are crystalized into the finely honed anticipation of crossing that threshold where rubberized floor mats meet the ice. There is so much excited expectation in that moment when I have nothing but flying on the immediate horizon that it’s almost as satisfying as that first glide of contact that whispers “I’m home I’m home I’m home.”

So it was a strange reconfiguration of perspective to be at my rink out of pure, emotionless obligation. There would be no soaring that day, and the only ice time I was getting was not accompanied by the sound of my blades slicing through the ice but rather taken with the tiny, tentative steps of winter’s omnipresent boots gingerly trekking to a photographic vantage point. I was there to capture someone else’s claim to my haven, and the selfish envy I fought back was not one of my finer inner battles. I resented being so close to where I always want to be without doing what I love.

But there is always salvation in solitude, or as much of it as I was getting in a rink primed for a hockey tournament and thrumming with that peculiar pre-game energy I hadn’t witnessed since high school. It might’ve rocked me back to memories I hadn’t visited in well more than a decade but it also softened the feeling of being a visitor in my own house: It made me take in “my rink” on a solo tour of its own merits rather than the utilitarian means to an end I had been taking it for granted as. I roamed floor to floor and room to room of the twin-rink facility I’d unknowingly reduced to its dedicated figure skating side, enjoying the opportunity to explore it beyond the typical confines of my Saturday lessons and sessions that I barrel past with the tunnel vision of a focused skater.

Anyone who’s spent any considerable time in a rink can wax eloquent on the scent alone. There is a fragrance to the ice that lingers far beyond the wind-whipped cheeks and the chilly thighs I usually drive home with. It mingles with sweat and coffee and blade-friendly floors to varying degrees dependent upon location, but it sticks to every article of clothing in a way that proclaims itself well beyond its point of origin.

Being surrounded by such a uniquely homey smell and having little else to focus on—no stream of mental admonishments to keep my head up, my balance precise, my arms and shoulders positioned just so, my takeoffs timed exactly, my extensions seemingly effortless—calmed my nervous soul. Typically, when I’m playing photographer or covering an event, I’m looking for every opportunity to retreat to the nearest bathroom just to gather my thoughts, refocus, and eke out a few minutes of centering silence. I can only schmooze and make small talk and feel alone in a crowd for so long before I just need to breathe in some peace however I can get it; turns out, breathing in a scent that my entire being recognizes as one signifying a sense of belonging is what I needed all along. No introvert pep talk can equal the powerful, palpable reminder that this is the same place that welcomes me weekly and makes the oddly shaped peg that I am feel like I’ve finally returned to the space carved out just for me.

I trekked the perimeter of a rink I intimately know the surface of but had never thought to explore as a part of something bigger. I watched the Zamboni resurface the hockey rink that must carry an equally poignant sense of belonging in someone else’s personal narrative that I’ll never know. I rested my hands on plexiglass and barriers and walls and railings and felt the sturdiness of a place that is packed with my own history and waiting to observe a future I’m still discovering. I got a whole new perspective of and appreciation for a facility that I didn’t know meant so much to so many different versions of me.

In the end, I spent maybe an hour of my Sunday working in the place where I go to escape the noise and frustration of daily life and adult responsibility. And I came in grumbling and fretting over the sacrilege of turning my refuge into a responsibility, but damn if I didn't leave with my perspective not only turned around but also vastly, irrevocably improved for the better. And I can't think of a more fitting way to celebrate a relatively newfound love of skating that was built on the foundation of finally being in the right place at the right time.


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