The Sisterhood of the Purple Mesh Pinnies
Traveling Pants, whatever. The Purple Mesh Pinnies could trash ‘em.
By Dana Haight Cattani
The cure for anything is salt water:
sweat, tears, or the sea.
I like to get to the church gym a little early on Tuesday mornings to warm up, do some lay-ups, shoot a few free throws. It helps to shake out my muscles and test my joints before the duress of play. The other women arrive in ones and twos, some with babies on their hips, some holding toddlers by the hand. With their action figures and raisins and port-a-cribs, they caravan to the stage at the far end of the gym. A young ballerina plugs in a CD player, turns up the volume on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and begins pirouetting among the car seats and Tonka trucks. The place looks like a YMCA nursery.
With the children settled, the women begin to stretch and talk: qualifying exams, head lice or strep throat epidemics, job offers or empty mailboxes, forwarded regrets from those who can’t make it this time. In a university ward of a college town, the conversations are predictable but generally interesting. Better yet, the demographics can support a weekly Relief Society pick-up basketball game. There is a swift-moving but self-replenishing stream of women—post-Title IX women—young and active enough to field two teams week after week. Granted, sometimes the teams are small or uneven, but other times the gym is crowded with more than the ten players allowed in regulation games. No one sits out, ever.
That’s because it’s all about sweating. Other than that shared desire and our common religious affiliation, we are a disparate group of graduate students or wives of graduate students in law and business and music, mothers of newborn twins and high school students, a medical resident, a home-school teacher, people with part-time jobs or their own cottage industries. We play for the love of sport and of fellowship, but also to fend off depression or loneliness, process grief, get back into pre-pregnancy shape, and do the weight-bearing exercises our doctors recommend for bone density. We have, if not the full spectrum, at least a broad swath of body types: six feet tall or petite, quick or not-so-quick, substantial or slight, pre-menopausal and postpartum, with all combinations of freckles and pony tails and acne, crow’s feet and wisps of gray. At 43, I am one of the older ones. Osteoporosis permitting, I hope I’ll be playing for years to come. I know eventually I’ll have to do yoga instead, but I don’t want to go gently.
Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
We never keep score. Instead, we divide ourselves into teams, and half of us pull on purple mesh pinnies or scrimmage vests. The teams are fluid, of necessity. Mothers step out of the game briefly to comfort crying babies, break up toddler spats, or take a child to the bathroom. If a team is left short-handed or if there is an obvious imbalance, someone shifts. Since we switch up the teams every week—and often during the game—each person has a chance to play both with and against everyone else. The culture of this game and the transience of our roster allow no permanent or exclusive alliances.
The style of play is generous. We pass a lot before shooting, especially to teammates who have not scored much that day. We referee ourselves and enforce rules on a sliding scale. A clearly inexperienced player can travel or stay more than three seconds in the key without repercussions, but only until her shots start dropping. If a problem becomes chronic or flagrant, we may interrupt play for a brief clinic and demonstration. As we are women, we generally make decisions by consensus, apologize for fouls, and erupt in praise for any player on either side who makes a three-pointer.
Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid
of it or of what other people think of it. It is the greatest
instrument you’ll ever own. —Mary Schmich
This pick-up game is a place to teach the give-and-go and demonstrate the proper use of a pivot foot, but it is much more. It is an investment, really, in a culture of activity and fitness, of mental and physical health, of confidence, friendship, and joy. It is a play date, a scrum, a work-out, and visiting teaching efficiently packaged in sixty minutes.
How’s the caliber of play? Fair to middling, I’d guess. We’re nobody’s WNBA. On the other hand, we have quite a few women who have played extensively on school and recreational basketball teams. They set screens, make fade-away jump shots, throw no-look passes, and crash the boards. Then they teach the rest of us.
On vacation days, those of us with school-age children bring them to basketball. For the first half, they cheer for their moms, and for the second, we let them join in. They get more than their share of open looks at the basket. I can think of no better lesson for my children than cheering for women who, with respect and generosity, tower over them.
If you’re not making mistakes, then
you’re not doing anything.
Before we start, we put on the accoutrements of sport: a shoulder harness, lace-up ankle braces, gauze tape binding fingers together. A bag of frozen corn in the kitchen freezer, undoubtedly an artifact of some long-forgotten ward activity, is our all-purpose ice pack. A year ago, I jammed the knuckle on my ring finger, which swelled so much that I could not remove my wedding band for seven months. When I finally worked that ring off, I put it away. My knuckle is never again going to be the size it once was, and in the contest between basketball and jewelry, I know where I stand. The only consolation for a scratch over my cheekbone or a gimpy knee is the satisfaction of telling the tale, with embellishments, at the dinner table that night.
Aside from injuries, we have other problems. Basketball isn’t always blissful camaraderie. Some days we’re dragging, the shots aren’t falling, someone is coming down with a cold, or someone was up half the night with a sick child. Occasionally, we’ve had testy exchanges over fouls or rule enforcement. Every once in a while, someone goes home in a huff and in the best womanly tradition, denies it. Usually, everyone comes back the next week, eager to play again. The most difficult part of basketball, as anything else, is managing the human relations. In a transient group with ever-shifting participants, it is an endless task; the chemistry changes every time one person leaves and someone new comes.
Like most organizations, even informal ones, we struggle with the twin problems of recruitment and retention. At first, I watched for tall, trim women to move into the ward so I could draft them. I have discovered, however, that pick-up basketball requires willingness more than height or athleticism. Desire qualifies people for this work. Retention is easier than recruitment. The people who stop com-ing generally fall into one of three categories: injured, pregnant, or unable to be two places at the same time. One third trimester woman wanted to play so much that she strapped on a hernia belt and came in as a point guard. We gave her a wide berth so as not to induce premature labor.
The worst of doing one’s duty was
that it apparently unfitted one
for doing anything else.
I should be a Title IX girl, but I am not. Not really. Reading was always my sport, followed closely by violin and piano, and the revolution in girls’ athletics happened around me without much notice or interest on my part. I did play junior varsity basketball in ninth grade, and I was half of the fourth-ranked doubles badminton team my sophomore and junior years, but this experience no more made me an athlete than finishing a novel makes someone a reader. So how do I come, in early middle age, to basketball?
For me, Relief Society happens on Tuesdays at 9:15 a.m. I wear men’s gym shorts, a gray T-shirt, and New Balance shoes that cost as much as my last four pairs of tennis shoes combined but make a satisfying squeak on the court. I don’t worry too much about saying the wrong things; I just play.
In this Relief Society, I’ve learned lessons that do not appear in any manual from Salt Lake City. I’ve learned to beware of that sweet and mild Primary secretary who will drop her shoulder, drive to the basket, and bowl you over in the nicest possible way. I’ve learned that in the mind of a two-year-old, a poster of Michael Jordan can look “just like Mom.” I’ve learned that it is a fine idea to square up before shooting. I’ve learned that if you play regularly, you can run and not be weary—or at least you can gasp less. I’ve learned that the sound of women’s feet thundering like wild ponies on the gym floor to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky is a wonderful oxymoron. For that matter, Relief Society basketball itself is an oxymoron: communion through unabashed competition and conflict.
The Tuesday game is a vote with my thundering feet for something more authentic and encompassing than Sundays of scripted, stilted lessons. It is an antidote to defining women in terms of inadequacy, justifying contingent and auxiliary roles, and taking silent exception. It is a rejection of an ethos of deference and timidity in favor of self-assurance, competence, and action. The game is a proclamation that humility and meekness have a place in this world, but so do fist-pumping, back-slapping, and high-fiving. It is an argument for sweat as a feminine noun and verb. It is a relief.
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time….
The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned
is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you
do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.
You open your safe and find ashes.
Last fall, I inherited the role of basketball coordinator. No one called me to this position, unless you count the women who moved away in the annual springtime exodus. Several of them told me that basketball is the thing they would miss most. “I’ll think about you in this gym on Tuesday mornings,” one said. “You better be here.” Another woman, preparing to leave for a three-year assignment overseas, took me aside one day. “Keep it alive,” she said. “I want to play when I come back.”
I want her to play when she comes back, too. So, since our regular basketball was driven away in a moving van last summer, I headed down to a sporting goods store to buy a new one. I was overwhelmed. There were so many sizes and colors and textures and prices. Then I saw one in a box labeled “For the Serious Female Athlete.” With a slightly smaller circumference and lighter weight, it was sized for women. Sold. I took it to basketball the next Tuesday to try out with this year’s new recruits.
We’ve been using it ever since. It fits.
(Originally published as First Place Winner in the Eugene England Memorial Personal Essay Competition in issue 150 of Sunstone.)