What Tennis Teaches

 

Return to the center

Meet the ball in front of you.

Forgive yourself immediately and get ready for the next shot.

Don’t watch your opponent, watch the ball.

Don’t analyze while you play.

Stay flexible and ready.

Finish the swing to full stretch.

Accuracy matters more than power.

Skill matters more than equipment.

Toss the ball higher than where you’ll be hitting it.

Let your partner handle her side of the court.

If you’re playing the net don’t look back.

Stoop to meet the low ones.

Don’t let points interfere with play.

Play is not performance.

Mastery is not anxious.

 

Though I love the feel of a solid hit and the racket in my hand, I’m not a particularly good player. But tennis has taught me some of my more durable spiritual lessons. Forgive yourself immediately, for instance, and wait for the next ball. It’s good to remember that as I make my way through the day’s tasks, trying to remember the adage that if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly. Don’t just swing with your arm–swing with your whole body. In other words, to quote a worthier source than my inner coach, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Be fully present, fully invested, fully awake and available. Don’t analyze while you play. Overthinking, one of my more persistent forms of self-sabotage, is like driving with one foot on the brake. Hit the ball and let go of the result. It’s on its way. It will do what it does. Physics has taken over. Tensing and watching won’t help it along its trajectory. Accuracy matters more than power. My brother taught me this when he noticed I was trying too hard. “You’re a girl,” he said, “you’ll never overpower your opponent, but you may outsmart him.” And as the shots come and the pace quickens and you run to meet the wild ones just this side of the line, Always return to the center.

This last instruction, reiterated with irritating frequency by my hippie coach (who also urged me to loosen up and “go for the yogic moment”) began to leak into the hours beyond the tennis lesson. After a mad rush to find keys on the way out the door, after a frustrating encounter with a student, after 20 minutes spent searching for an inexplicably disappeared document on an aging computer, the simple instruction, “Return to the center” comes like a whisper from the wise woman within—who keeps rather quiet a good bit of the time. I like her when she shows up.

So where is the center? It’s the place from which I can remember that most of my problems are “first world problems”—solvable, manageable problems of the privileged that are not life-threatening, and may be offering me lessons I need. The center is the place from which I can regroup and reframe and regain an inventiveness that makes problems into puzzles. It’s the place where I remember my deepest purposes. It’s the place where I breathe.

Breathing takes me there. Every meditative tradition I know teaches this: stop. Breathe. Breathe into your whole body. Receive, Release, Receive. We receive life and release it. Every breath is a new lease—life again. This time. And every serve, every shot, even the missed one, is a new opportunity.

St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that “All knowledge comes through the senses.” Our access to things spiritual, metaphysical, even mystical comes by means of what Mary Oliver called the “five rivers” of the senses. What the body knows makes its way to mind and spirit as we begin the long journey of learning, rising and falling our way to first steps, swinging and balancing and throwing and catching, grasping the pencil and the paintbrush, bending into “downward dog” position and stretching after a long run. Tennis taught me that a tiny change in the way I grip the racquet can make a lasting difference in precision and control. And that skill is rooted in trust. And that finding the sweet spot is worth the work. And that right-minded work is play. And that the moment of grace, when it comes, is always a gift.

(see also at www.medium.com)

 

 

 

 

Beyond Useless

My mother took care of people for most of her life—a blind father, orphan children in a South Indian mission school, children of her own, aging parents-in-law, generations of students, foster children, homebound church members, my father in his final years. I remember her declaring as she washed potatoes at the sink, “When I stop being useful, I want to go. I don’t want to live long enough to be a burden.” Later, in “assisted living,” she became for the first time a reluctant recipient of others’ help. Age and mild dementia required that she modify her utilitarian sense of purpose. She put together jigsaw puzzles, watched movies, let me read to her, and when her energy permitted, played croquet—a gentle sport that she had enjoyed decades earlier on our front lawn. Even then, though her own eyesight was failing, she read the news aloud for a woman down the hall and brought mail to an infirm neighbor’s room. And, as long as she could, she tutored a young man on the kitchen staff who was trying to pass an evening ESL course at the local community college. It was important for her to be able to help someone. Her sense of identity and her understanding of stewardship and Christian responsibility seemed to her rightly fulfilled when she was doing that.

So it was a hard adjustment for her to become less able, unsteady on her feet, uncertain in her memory of daily things, and finally distressingly disoriented. “Uselessness” was the condition she dreaded most. One afternoon as I popped in after work for our evening visit and asked my usual opening question, “How are you, Mom?” she answered with a slightly baffled look, “I’m okay. I just can’t quite understand why I’m still here.” She was nearing her 94th birthday then, and was several months away from going gently, with characteristic grace and simplicity, into that good night.

It was a poignant moment. She had taught me that things happen in God’s good time, that God’s purposes are mysterious, and that we were not the judges of our own or others’ value. Still, her own sense of value was faltering. She was, as she put it in her darker moments, “not much good to anyone.”

My efforts to reassure and encourage her were a memorable exercise in practical theology. I realized how deeply I identified with her desire to be useful: I remembered singing at her side some Sundays a vigorous 19th-century hymn, “Work for the Night is Coming,” which may by now (perhaps for the best) have been excised from most hymnals. It purveys a rather insistent protestant work ethic, rooted in an eschatological frame of reference that still shapes much evangelical thought. I quote here the second of three verses that take singers through the arc of the day—morning, noon, and evening—urging work while the light lasts:

 

Work, for the night is coming,

Work through the sunny noon;

Fill brightest hours with labor,

Rest comes sure and soon.

Give every flying minute,

Something to keep in store;

Work, for the night is coming,

When man works no more.

 

There’s a lot to be said for the commitment the hymn urges to God’s service in the world; the work was, as I was given to understand it, laboring in “fields white unto harvest”—evangelizing, teaching, caring for the poor, the sick, the dying. Mom had been a missionary in India for nearly 14 years before returning to the states to teach and do long service as deacon in our church. Her response to the call of the Gospel was literal and faithful and full of authentic joy.

So it was a particular kind of pain to see a quiet sadness descending on her when there seemed no work left for her to do.

I gave her a pep talk. “You can pray,” I said. “You believe in the power of prayer, and you have time to do it now.” What she may not have been able to say in response was that it was hard for her to focus on prayer. Her mind wandered. She couldn’t remember the names of people she might want to pray for. The effort to pray was confusing. “You can be here for me,” I said. “I spent so many years living far away from you—it’s a real gift to me to be able to see you now.” I’m sure that mattered some, but I’m sure she also recognized that it was I who was going out of my way most days to come by and visit. She wasn’t “helping” me. All reassurances to the contrary, she felt like something of a burden.

“I just don’t want to be a burden to my children in my old age” is a fairly common sentiment, and one that I share. To the extent that we are able, my husband and I have taken out long-term care insurance and provided for the costs associated with our death for that reason. But as an adult child, I know that the anxiety may obscure another important fact about being an aging parent: the love we give our children may in fact inspire them to want to care for us as we age. They may be eager and honored to do so—or at least wholeheartedly willing to perform what services age and infirmity require as a free exercise of love. We may need to allow more generously for their generosity. Even now, when I go anywhere near the “burden” word, one of my daughters insists, “I want you with us, Mom. If you need care, I want to give it.”

My daughter’s generous reassurance offers a salutary corrective to my own fear of uselessness. The utilitarian idea of individual worth that troubled my mother is widely held, and accounts at least in part for widespread dismissiveness and neglect of the aged. Whether or not it is acknowledged, many otherwise generous souls find themselves bemused and impatient during the long lingering of elders ravaged by Alzheimer’s or other forms of mental and physical debility. What might reframe this last chapter of life when so many live beyond conventional ideas of “usefulness”? How can we help the old—and ourselves while we are not yet at that point—develop a deeper understanding of the ways they are, as the Amish believe, a gift to the community in focusing its caregiving energies? And how can we help those so inclined to consent fruitfully to turning inward, gathering, harvesting, reflecting—doing the “work” of old age?

It may be that for my mother, and perhaps eventually for me, one of the important lessons of age, with its progressive losses and dependencies, is to learn to receive with gratitude and grace, to relinquish the role of giver and consent to being rather than doing. Maybe the final assignment for those who live long enough is to open heart and hands and body to the simple grace of receiving the breath of life, the light of day, the kindness of others—sometimes of strangers—in patient consent to the terms of this journey. Maybe there is goodness in play, so long neglected for work and family–the pleasure of a jigsaw or a game of checkers–or a slow walk in the garden to see which flowers have bloomed. Maybe we need to foster our own delight and our elders’ in those pleasures, slowing into praise, laying aside our preoccupations. Maybe we need some hymns that bring to our human living a wider range of acceptable verbs: open, hold, enjoy, receive, wait, notice, listen, be, love.

My mother’s father, 62 years old when she was born in 1913, was, in his early years, a pioneer pastor in the Minnesota outback where conditions were rustic at best and winters often life-threatening. A letter he wrote during one of those winters has survived in our small trove of heirlooms. After describing the blizzard that kept his family snowed in for many days while supplies dwindled and the pile of firelogs shrank, he concluded his letter with these words: “How precious it is to wait on the Lord.” I am convicted by that kind of faith. And I think how good a word that is to keep close when life drives us into “uselessness” by age or accident or illness. Waiting may be our work—more precious than we know in the sight of the Lord.

 

 

“Hear me.”

I found all three speeches given on the first night of the Democratic National Convention—Michelle Obama’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, and Bernie Sanders’—moving, consoling and reinvigorating. For Sanders and Warren, both of whom dwell further left in the liberal territories than Hillary, it was a moment of publicly relinquishing something they publicly hoped for—of regrouping, reframing, reiterating, and redirecting. They’re not giving up pursuing what they (and I) believe matters; they both went through the list again, in case we’re inclined to remove it to the back burner: meaningful immigration reform, healthcare for all, corporate responsibility, overturning Citizens United, living minimum wage, a tax system that reduces income inequality, equal rights and protection for marginalized groups . . . . They kept their eyes on those prizes, and rose memorably above personality politics. They made it more possible for me to do the same from my own small corner of our embattled constitutional democracy.

I was especially impressed by what they didn’t say. Though they made some important points about Trump’s incompetence, ignorance, insularity, and egomania, they didn’t mention the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, committed multiple breaches of ethics to try to insure that Hillary won the primary. They didn’t yield to whatever temptation the moment offered to point to troubling evidence of election fraud and tampering. They chose to unify.

But neither speech was a mere capitulation, and in that, I am stirred to particular admiration for what they exhibited about leadership. Sanders’ concession was generous and gracious; I believe he has thought long and hard about supporting Hillary, and that it wasn’t an easy decision. He taught me something about what it means to compromise with integrity: he gave her every benefit of the many doubts he’s raised and shared about her political positions and uses of power. He will keep challenging her and the party. He’ll stay in the conversation. And he helped me want to do that, too, and to keep finding ways to have it that don’t degenerate into mere complaint.

I was moved in other ways by Michelle’s speech. She had a different kind of fine line to tread. She is acutely conscious of the hostilities that have met her husband’s administration at every turn, but she, too, spoke from a place beyond the pain and resentment and defensiveness she must often have felt. I was stopped, near the end of her speech by this: “We cannot afford to be tired, frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me – between now and November we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago . . . .”

A black woman saying to an audience so full of white men and women, “hear me” made me suddenly aware as if a bolt of electricity had shot through my body of how huge a thing it is for her to utter that little imperative with such command and confidence. “Hear me.” She has to know, whenever she rises to speak, that one constituency she represents are those who for generations remained painfully, humiliatingly unheard and invisible. To have mentioned that she wakes every morning in a house built by slaves testifies to that abiding awareness. “Hear me” seemed to me a moment almost as stirring as the moment Obama’s election was announced. That she was heard—and with enormous respect, attention, and gratitude—that her authority was recognized and honored with such applause, and that she could speak as a wife and mother about raising and protecting children as an essential focus for our collective efforts to live rightly—restored for me what had been waning. I have been getting tired, frustrated, and cynical about political process. But though I still believe it is a deeply flawed process, and that in other things than politics lies the salvation of the world, I feel summoned again to citizenship. I’m grateful to be an American insofar as it means working alongside these three and others—Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges, Joanna Macy, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, . . . and others in my personal hall of heroes—to work locally and think globally and listen hard to those who deserve at long last to be heard.

BOOK CLUB CONVERSATION BOOSTERS

I was talking the other day with a book club participant who mentioned the familiar problem of predictable conversations that lack surprise, even when they’re about rich and exhilarating books. I think prompts help. These are some that help me when I’m reviewing, talking about, or just thinking about a book I’d like to share. It occurred to me others might find them helpful.

BOOK CLUB CONVERSATION BOOSTERS
Some prompts to move us all beyond “I loved the scene where…”
©Marilyn McEntyre

— One of the most distinctive features of this writer’s style is . . .
— One of the writer’s main objectives is to . . .
— Basically, the writer’s strategy is to . . .
— The opening paragraphs already lead me to . . .
— The kinds of detailing I remember are . . . and they work to . . .
— One lovely bit of characterization is . . .—effective because. . .
— The images that remain with me most vividly are . . .
— One line I remember verbatim is . . .
— One of the most (surprising, unusual, provocative) insights this author offers is
— One of the troubling aspects of this work is . . .
— This writer’s approach is noticeably different from . . .
— I wish the writer had developed . . . further . . . because . . .
— I found myself in disagreement with the writer about . . .
— One question I am left with is . . .
— Reading this I had to reconsider . . .
— I wonder why the writer . . .
— This is, among other things, a work about . . .
— The work’s evident limitations are . . .
— I hadn’t before realized that . . .
— I am still of two minds about . . .

— The writer . . .
explains . . .
argues . . .
describes . . .
questions . . .
discloses . . .
assumes . . .
reframes . . .
criticizes . . .
elicits . . .
distinguishes . . .

— The writer makes me . . .
rethink . . .
wonder . . .
appreciate . .
critical of . . .
uncertain about . . .
want to defend . . .
want to learn . . .
want to look harder at . . .
delight in . . .

I’LL HAVE WATER, THANKS.

I heard an NPR interview recently with a mother in Flint, MI who was getting donations of bottled water to bathe her three-year-old. She was one of many. Amy Goodman did an hour special in which other adults, many of them mothers, were doing the same things. Strategies for living in a state of acute public health crisis range from those who are organizing free distributions, sharing their own resources, and going house to house to make sure people have enough water for the day to those who are hoarding. One particularly compassionate organizer, asked to comment on the evident fact that some people were hoarding water, said generously, “I don’t want to blame them. If it were my family at risk (this was a white organizer who didn’t live in the most severely affected area) I’d be tempted to hoard, too.
I’ve heard with some regularity since 2003 that our next wars won’t be about water, but about oil, and they’ll be here. As I follow drought statistics and watch the American River dwindle and read about the salmon die-off, I think about this prophecy—more so when I read about ranchers in the Central Valley actually engaging in water wars—poaching, spying, litigating, threatening each other, often with a good measure of righteous anger about the fact that it’s in the public interest for them to have the water. No water, no farms, no food, as the signs say, posted along the length of Highway 5. What the signs don’t say, and what slogans always elide, is that it’s more complicated than that. How Agribusinesses irrigate, what distribution measures have been legislated and by dint of whose lobbying, why we don’t have water rationing that applies both to individuals and to corporations are questions that need to be asked more frequently and answered more adequately.
Flint holds a magnifying mirror up to all of us who inhabit an infrastructure in which clean water (and other resources needed for survival) is unequally tested and distributed. TV specials like Goodman’s put a face on poverty, outrage, and take some measure of the loss of a sense of the common good. Recently my husband and I led a five-week series of discussions called “Reclaiming the Common Good.” We began by offering a little history of the term (one which goes back to ancient Israelites, among other communities. There farmers were expected to leave part of their harvest for the poor to glean, to contribute to shared stores, to care for widows and orphans, to extend generous hospitality to strangers, to forgive some debts every seven years, and all debts every 49 years. These were not matters of generosity, but of law and common culture. When Jesus famously said, “The poor you have always with you,” it was not a dismissal of the poor, but something more like “Duh. Of course. Of course you care for the poor. That’s not even in question.”
I am increasingly troubled by how deeply even those of us who think in systemic terms and understand institutional racism and exclusion (here I’m talking about myself) literally buy into the philanthropic model. We feel good about contributing “our” money to good causes. But one economic historian pointed out, in those traditional cultures where care of the poor was an axiomatic responsibility, supported by law and the teaching of elders, no one even thought it was “their” money—not in the sense in which we use that pronoun in a place where capitalism verges on a point of logical absurdity.
What can I do about Flint? Contribute, obviously, though I don’t want to support the companies whose bottled water are a huge part of the problem. So educate myself about where to contribute what I can. Consider which part of the chorus I want to add my voice. And in the meantime drink my own water with more mindfulness. I’ve stopped saying, “I’ll just have water.” I’m trying to remember to say instead, “I’ll have water. Thank you.”

UPON

Today’s lectionary reading included one of my favorite phrases: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The slightly antique preposition, “upon” offers its own particular vision of abundance. Where “grace after grace” might be a more familiar idiom, and testifies to the steady stream of forgiveness, opportunity, and gift that keep coming from the hand of God, it doesn’t quite get at what we hear in “upon.”
One grace upon another; it’s not a stream, but a tree with new rings or a rising pile of shining stones or the layers of story in a palimpsest. The old graces remain and become frames and foundations for the new ones, renewed by every occasion when we are, once again, surprised by joy.
Easter is a good day to hear that phrase again. God’s gifts came and then came again and keep coming—risen and rising and shining in “every riven thing.”

SIMPLICITY

I’ve been thinking about SIMPLICITY. As an idea and an ideal it has appealed to me since I first read Walden at 16. It still becomes a near-obsession when I feel overwhelmed with clutter. I long for it when I’m tired and the idea of moving things around is exhausting, and when the things I love to do seem inordinately postponed because I’m doing other things with things—moving stacks of paper, reorganizing the utility drawer, taking cardboard to the recycling center.
I invest deep hope in T.S. Eliot’s vision—which I take to be a prophecy and a promise—of an ultimate “condition of complete simplicity” a blissful state, which, he adds, will cost “not less than everything.”
This week I’ve been rereading a good-humored and blessedly readable book about the basic principles of science by two generous, good-humored physicists (Hazen and Trefil) who laid aside their own copious research long enough to produce 345 pages on what those of us who don’t live in labs or split atoms or study the lives of lizards need to know about science in order to buy, vote, and listen intelligently to controversies about deforestation, radioactive waste, FCC regulations, and drugs. It is helping me remember how many great scientific discoveries have come about because someone peered into complex or even chaotic systems and discovered something simple: a reliable “law,” a pattern of motion, a type or category or behavior that could be stated in a sentence: “All living things are made from cells.” “Force equals mass times acceleration.” “You can’t measure anything without changing it.” These are huge ideas whose implications and applications have taken lifetimes to explore, but they are “simple” truths in the sense of being irreducible and true. They are “core” truths that ripple outward. A little like “God is love.” Or “In the beginning was the Word.”
We honor people who find their way to the heart of things—both scientists and saints. We learn in their biographies something about what the journey cost them—say, Galileo or Mother Teresa—something close to “everything.” In my admiration for them I begin to understand the longing for elegance and simplicity that drove Einstein on toward the unified field theory he never discovered, even after he had filled many pages and blackboards getting to E=mc2. It’s not unlike what led St. Francis to strip off his robes in the public square and live in a cave.
Silence and centering prayer both evoke and fulfill that longing for what lies at the heart of things. When I enter them undistracted (on a very good day) the reward may occasionally be a sense of breathtaking simplicity—a sentence that is also a truth felt in my bones and in a place of awareness beyond the brain. “Heart of my own heart,” my favorite line from an old Celtic hymn, is that place. If God dwells in us, it is there, calmly containing and sustaining all the quarks, black holes, falling apples and sparrows, gamma rays and quantum leaping electrons. A simplicity so spacious it can absorb it all and turn it into light. Somehow, remembering this enables me to relax into the comings and goings of a complicated day.

EAT

A word that’s come into new focus over the past few days is EAT. I was invited to speak at a Seventh Day Adventist college, visit a few classes and share several meals with them. They are a denomination that pays close and specific attention to eating practices as a dimension of spiritual life and health. Continue reading

DISCERN

DISCERN is a word that keeps coming up lately in new contexts. It precedes deciding. It’s a patient, prayerful, humble process of separating out or teasing apart the various strands of a problem or situation in order to determine an appropriate course of action—not indiscriminate nitpicking but careful attention to those factors that might not be immediately apparent.
Quakers have “clearness committees” to help members of their community discern when they are facing big decisions. Each goes into a quiet, receptive place and sits with the others and then offers whatever insights, images, words, observations came to them in the quiet that might be pertinent. Often those who receive a thought or image don’t really know how relevant it might be, but offer it in trust that the one who needs it will know how to assess and apply it. It’s a generous process.
The word reminds me, whether I have the privilege of sitting with others in reflection or do it alone, to lay down the “pro and con” list, to let go for a while of my efforts to “figure out” or plan, to postpone the urge for closure and to listen inward for whatever comes, holding my concern with an open hand and an open mind, trusting that what I need will be given.
I don’t always take the time for it. When I do I can go down the path that opens with gladness of heart and confidence. Though this Lenten season is a busy time for me, or perhaps because it is, the desire to take time for discernment involves me in the paradoxical effort to take a step back when the day’s momentum urges me forward. It’s challenging.
It helps to think of the people I know who seem most discerning. They take their time; even small pauses before speaking seem to give their responses a weight and their conversation a spaciousness that seems generous and hospitable.
The image that comes to me as I think about this gentle process is brushing and braiding my little granddaughter’s hair, separating the strands, carefully untangling, trying not to hurt her, smoothing and finally binding the braid, putting in her barettes so loose hairs won’t fall into her eyes. I love the process. I enjoy the cornsilk feel of her hair. And when it is finished I love how she can forget about her hair and go play.
That, I guess, is where a good discernment process should leave me—able to lay down the burden of decision and go play.

GIVEN

Today I’m thinking about the word GIVEN—accepting what is given, being grateful for what is given, recognizing the given as gift. Wendell Berry chose this word as the title of one of his recent collections of poems which focus on attentiveness and care for what is. The line in the serenity prayer about accepting what we cannot change invites us to distinguish between what is given us to accept and what is given us as a challenge to act for change. Poverty, for instance, is not a given; it’s a condition largely created by unjust systems and unbridled self-interest. Health is given, but dependent on choices we continue to make. Family is a given. We get who we get, and they are part of our story, whether we remain in intimate contact or flee for the sake of the lives can’t lead among them. What is given is the frame within which we work out our daily salvation: “Given these circumstances . . . ,” “Given these limits . . .,” “Given the budget constraints, or the political climate, or the fact of a Supreme Court vacancy in the midst of a campaign year,” what then shall we do? “Given” acknowledges assumptions and we work from there. What is given is the gift—or the assignment, as I sometimes think about challenges I would not have chosen. My prayer for this day is to welcome and learn to work with what is given.