Friday, May 28, 2010

Okay Is Alright With Me

"Fear thou not; for I am with thee:
be not dismayed; for I am thy God"
--Isaiah 41:10

Last Sunday had us all at the banks of the Jordan assessing the temperature of a willing soul. What would it take to walk into the river carrying the ark? The teacher asked, "What would you think, if that were you on the river bank? How would you feel?" The responses were cut from the same cloth: "Afraid." "I would wonder whether I was really up to the task. Whether there wasn't somebody else who could do it better." "How could I ever live with myself if the ark dropped into the water? What if I fell? Why me?"

I leaned to the young husband sitting next to me and said, "What does it matter what we feel?" He looked at me quizzically, as if to say, "You talking to me?" I sit by myself in Sunday School because Kevin's normally off somewhere, so I just chat away to whomever's next to me. But then he smiled the half-smile where the corners of the mouth rise slightly and the eyebrows lift up. Accepting the invitation, I went on: "It's not our ark. It' God' ark. If he wants it wet, it'll get wet. If he wants it dry, then it'll stay dry. Our job, if asked, is to walk into the water. I just hope that it's not too cold. I don't do cold water well."

Young husband cocked his head as if to say, "Um . . . I don't know why you're telling me this but I'm not going to shut you up." So I just went on, whispering in his ear. "We're asking the wrong kinds of questions: 'I' this, 'I' that . . . blah, blah, blah. They make us so preoccupied with ourselves, with taking our own temperature. God's made the children of Israel wander for forty years to teach them to look up, past the idol, past the leader ,up to Him. The children of Israel made the 'I' central. 'I'm hungry, I'm scared, I'm afraid.' He's trying to show them the 'I's' irrelevant. . . unless it is the I am. The I am takes care of the 'i'."

My ramblings stayed just between the two of us. It's not kosher to interrupt heartfelt sharings about personal inadequacy and about the fear of failure in comparison to others who haven't been asked to perform the task we have. (I understand why we do ask those "I" questions. Those questions keep us in the theoretical. They keep us from moving forward into failure. They also prevent us from actually finding out that we are inadequate.) But I went home thinking about fear and doubt, and about the rather irritating tendency I have to want to get it right all the time and how that hinders me.

Kevin and I have a comment we make when one of us does something that doesn't work out so well: "I was trying my best." It's funny now but wasn't always a source of humor. When we were first married, he would try and I would critique. His response to my criticism was "I'm trying my best." I would reply, only half in jest, "Well, your best obviously isn't good enough." I tried to explain that I wasn't saying he was a deadbeat, I was just saying that "that best" wasn't really working, so we needed to find another way to do things. He would look at me in disbelief with that hurt hardening in his eyes. What to do when your best is still not a passing grade? He struggled with disappointing me, with being found deficient in the face of his best effort.

It worked the other way as well. Morning intimacy was difficult for me. Kisses were out of the question. Nobody should want to share morning breath. No lover should realize the other produced morning breath. That sort of revelation is close to insurmountable. How can morning breath be loved? Nobody loves morning breath. It is fundamentally, at its very core, unloveable. To know that your body can produce such a smell and a taste and a furry sensation, and then to willingly pass that information along to somebody who's supposed to find your body pleasurable. Well . . .that whole concept was almost beyond me. I also didn't want to be measured, tasted, and found lacking.

It's that fear of failure, of being less than we dreamed we would be that stops us at the riverbank and makes us hesitate. What if, what if, what if?

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite voices, writes of giving a large, televised, presentation with Grace Paley, one of her mentors and role models. Anne suggested a more informal presentation style, sort of like a fireside chat, instead of the conventional reading of prepared speeches. The presentation failed spectacularly. Grace Paley's husband called it "a disaster." Anne felt the lifelong, deep fear of failure rise up to overwhelm her. After all, "if you are what you do--and I think my parents must have accidentally given me this idea--and you do poorly, what then?" In her hotel room after the presentation, she felt "stricken, and lurky and dark." She cried a little, then closed her eyes, bowed her head and whispered, "Help."

I'll let her her tell the rest in her own words:
Out of nowhere I remembered something one of my priest friends had said once, that grace is having a commitment to--or at least an acceptance of--being ineffective and foolish. That our bottled charm is the main roadblock to drinking that cool clear glass of love. . . . I do not understand the mystery of grace--only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. It can be received grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt. I gobbled it, licked it, held it down between my little hooves.

The review in the newspaper the next day was not very good. But by then I'd figured out the gift of failure which is that it breaks through all that held breath and isometric tension about needing to look good: it's the gift of feeling floppier. One of the things I've been most afraid of had finally happened, with a whole lot of people watching and it had indeed been a nightmare. But sitting with all that vulnerability, I discovered I could ride it.

I do not know why life isn't constructed to be seamless and safe, why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations, and our hearts get broken and our kids do scary things and our parents get old and don't always remember to put pants on before they go out for a stroll. I don't know why it's not more like it is in the movies, why things don't come out neatly and lessons can't be learned when you're in the mood for learning them, why love and grace come in such motley packaging. But I was reminded of the lines of D.H. Lawrence that are taped to the wall of my office: "What is the knocking?/What is the knocking at the door in the night?/ It is somebody who wants to do us harm./ No, no, it is the three strange angels./ Admit them, admit them.

And by the time I arrived in the second city where Grace and I would perform, I understood that failure is surely one of these strange angels.
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, pages 142-144.

I suppose one of the most liberating truths to settle into my life is the idea that despite my efforts, I will fail. Despite my very good intentions (I do have a good heart I've come to recognize), there will be days where it does not work as I had imagined. I will not be good at what I do. I will offend. I will tell one of my best friend's mother that her quote "big hair" unquote is blocking her husband's face in the family picture I was taking of them. And I will realize that this comment was probably quite rude, but only the next day, when Joyce is on her way back to Idaho without my apology. Despite my failure, I would never intend to offend or to drop the ark. It's just that sometimes, I do. Joyce knows that, and so does He.

If, as I stand at the river's edge, I acknowledge the odds are 2:1 I will slip in the silt that lines the river, or that my arms will cramp and I might drop the handle despite my best efforts to cradle it in the crook of my elbows, then I have no arm of flesh to rely on. My eyes and heart have to rise up past the handle, past the river bank, past the horizon stretching out toward the Promised Land. If I acknowledge I might/will fall, then the only place I can look is away from myself, up and out--where, we are promised, there will be a shadow by day and a pillar by night.

Having the certainty of failure fall into place in my personal theology allows for grace to become a part of my everyday life. Knowing that I will fail frees me up to act, to just walk forward--ineffectively perhaps. But, because I have moved, God can step in to close the gap between my intentful stumblings and His desires. Ultimately, the whole point of the Jordan River crossing is not that the ark get to the other side. He has wings of angels for that. The point is that I walk into the water. The ark is God's ark. The river is His river. If it matters to Him that the ark stay dry, He will take whatever measures He needs to make me--the imperfect vessel--capable to the task. If He doesn't care whether the ark is dry or wet, He'll keep me company, standing on His promise that "when thou passeth through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee"(Isaiah 43:2) while I thrash around, flailing and failing my way to the other side. But I won't know that, I won't know that He does come to attend, until, hefting the weight of the wooden handles and feeling it settle into my shoulders, I step into the cold waters of my River Jordan.

Title: adaptation of Eric Hutchinson's, "Okay, It's Alright with Me." (I don't hear lyrics very well, so when I heard this song I thought he was saying Okay is alright with me. I'm keeping the malapropism for the title.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Such A Tired Game

“I love young people,” Harmon said. “They get griped about enough. People like to think the younger generation’s job is to steer the world to hell. But it’s never true, is it? They’re hopeful and good—and that’s how it should be.”

Olive Kitteridge, page 80.

This weekend, I watched a sixty-three-year-old man shout at a sixteen-year-old kid in full public view. He wasn’t his father, he wasn’t his grandfather, he wasn’t even his legal guardian. Yet, by virtue of his position, this adult felt it appropriate to yell at this young man: “Skyler, are you ever going to make that shot? Does that shot ever have a hope of going in? You’ll make that shot one out of 40 times . . . one out of 40 times. What the hell are you doing taking that shot? And you haven’t made a free throw in two weeks. Not one in two weeks.” (A lie: Skyler was knocking down free throws with confident √©lan only two weeks ago in the Tenterfield tournament.) With those words of encouragement ringing loudly in his ears, Skyler stepped up to the line to try make his free throw in a tight game.

The gym was quiet during this explosion. Everybody on the bleachers could hear exactly what Skyler’s basketball coach thought of him. The parents who would never talk to their son this way heard their son being publically and viciously dressed down. And why, because this man is a high school coach and Skyler is one of his players.

The more games I watch, the more I am stunned by the sheer thoughtlessness, mediocrity and even cruelty that masquerade as paid high school coaching. Because our family plays sports, our children are subjected to adults for hours a day that I would not allow them to associate with in any other context. Yet, the school districts continue to employ these people because winning i.e., scoring more points than the other team, is apparently justification enough for behavior that would get a math teacher fired if it happened in the classroom.

One particular coach considers himself the master of reverse psychology. He will say the opposite of what he wants the intended action to be. Example: He will tell a player that he desperately needs for next year’s season because his very young, big man whom he selected last year to be the next star is not playing as “big” as he would hope: “I’ll sign the transfer papers for you whenever you want. You can go play for another school.” Imagine this sixteen-year old heart and mind hearing this. Does he know his coach needs him? Does he know that he is an integral part of the program and that he needs to work on his positioning under the basket, and his first step around the defender? No. Brig leaves the locker room thinking that his coach hates him, and that he must look forward to the season, where he will be treated to more of the same, with a liberal sprinkling of “ass wipe,” “retard” and “what the hell were you thinking, get out of my sight” thrown in for daily pleasure.

Another coach tells his players whom he is counting on to almost-win yet another state championship (He’s lost the last two years in the finals and semi-finals, with the best players (plural!!) in the state on his team), “I don’t have any players in my program right now who could play in college.” When I hear this, I just shake my head. Shouldn’t one of your goals as a high school coach be to develop your players so that, because of your program and through your tutelage, they are able to attend college with some of the expenses defrayed through an athletic scholarship? If that’s not possible, as it isn’t with most high school athletes, then shouldn’t one of your goals be to use your knowledge to enlarge their skill so that your players become as proficient as they can be. At the very least, if you’re not a good enough coach or a creative enough mind, couldn’t you let them dream their particular dream for as long as they can? They’ve spread their dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly.

It also causes me to wonder about the logic that tears down to ostensibly build up. I wonder at the emotional intelligence of this coach as he sets about to methodically destroy hopes and dreams that have taken root years before these boys ever heard of his high school program. I ask my son, “Did you tell him, ‘Lucky for us you don’t get to make that decision.’” The comment is flippant, and he would never talk back to his coach. But I see the hurt in his face as he struggles through the lesson that there will be times in your life when you have no other choice but to work for whom you work for. The only way out is through. I regret that his coach prides himself on being “a tough nut.” In my opinion, it’s his self-granted license to be cruel, to be thoughtless, to be whatever he wants to be, because he mostly wins. Tellingly, despite twenty-five plus years of coaching, there won’t be any babies named after him.

I appreciate that in the Marines, there is an approach to team building that tears down before rebuilding so that when the Mogadishu rebels open fire, the Marine doesn’t sink to his knees in terror. But, these boys. . . they’re not soldiers. They’re not defending America’s right to bear arms or to burn the flag or to import cheap oil from the Middle East. They’re just playing ball. They don’t need to be torn down or rebuilt. They need to be instructed, corrected, and instructed some more. They need praise; they need criticism. They don’t need to fear. (Fear as a performance-enhancing factor in the creative game of basketball is completely overrated.)

The correct principles of motivating players include the following: Young players perform exponentially better when coaches use a ratio of 5 praise comments to 1 criticism; critical instruction is best delivered some time after the moment of infraction when the player is already aware that he messed up; hard criticism is best delivered privately, not in front of team mates or fans; players assimilate instruction better when they are able to talk about what they did and work out ways to improve; players play for fun and when they’re being shouted at like they killed somebody, it’s not fun.

All players, even professional athletes, need to know their coach believes in them. Players need to know they contribute something important to the team, whether it’s their drive, their energy, their defense, their speed, their three-pointer, or their leadership. Phil Jackson, coach of the Lakers knows that “"Deep within the NBA heart, there are still some insecurities where they still need to have a lot of compliments about how much they mean to the team, how their energy is important, how much they're doing for us, and what they can do better.” If this need is still present in these demigods of basketball, how much more needy are these teenage ball players.

In my better world that I construct in my head, this is what I wish for: A coach who, when he sees my son, thinks, “That’s a great kid”; a coach who likes teenage boys or teenage girls or preteen soccer players, whatever age group they actually coach; a coach who tempers himself in consideration of the tender feelings that sit along his bench; a coach who continues to learn, to read, and to rework what she does in light of whom she has on her roster; a coach who knows that soccer isn’t war.

A coach is somebody who sees what you possibly could be and tries to think of ways to allow you to become that; who thinks of ways to explain, to teach, to make concrete what is only theoretical. A coach allows a greater horizon and causes you to lift your eyes, to see more than you had actually imagined, then shows you the way. A coach is the arm around the shoulder during the long walk back to the locker room. A coach is the bigger heart, the clearer voice, the kinder eye. It’s the calm, centered voice from the sidelines that says “nice shot . . . get your feet under you next time.” A coach is the consistent, persistent correction until muscle memory unites with cerebral processes and the foot follows through the ball on a pendulum swing every time.

A coach can be all those things. What coaches should never be, unless they cannot help themselves (which is when they should be helped out of the building or off the field) is the deliberately erected obstacle through which a young heart and mind has to struggle to find its way to play what is, really, just a game.

Title: from “Crying Shame,” by Jack Johnson.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hey, Soul Sister

Not all things are worth measuring, especially when you use those measurements to determine your worth. It's probably best to use the guide who knows the metes and bounds by which we will ultimately be measured and uses those real, eternal measurements to help us see the actual bounds in which we live out our lives.

God measures the cleanliness of our hands and the purity of our hearts. He assesses the change in our countenance. He notes our actions toward his poor, his fatherless and his widowed. He records our gifts given with willing hearts, our talents multiplied, and our tithes and offerings--comparing us always to the widow's mite. Those are real measurements, eternal measurements of actual consequences.

We do however live in a physical world with physical dimensions. Still, we can recognize the good and real measurements and choose to be measured by those. Some physical measurements have actual consequences.

It is, for example, worthwhile knowing that your hips actually measure 44 inches, instead of the 38 you insist they are--especially if you're bidding on the 35-inch hip Anthropoligie Marimekko skirt on eBay. There is no sense lying to ourselves about our physical dimensions. It just results in really tight clothing and an irresistible urge to pick. It is also useful to know one's body fat percentage, or where we are on the obesity scale as used by the National Center for the Chronic Disease Prevention. It is also probably more useful to know that percentage than your inseam in Gap's Hip Slung pants. Those measurements are an indication of our overall health, which is part of our stewardship. The numbers of those measurements have actual consequences, ranging from heart disease to diabetes, to system failure. (This does not mean I will stop closing one eye and tilting my head when I get on the scale. Eyes wide open is sometimes too brutal.)

Other less valuable physical measurements are those that impose a value on a person's weight, size, or height. I can think of very few occupations where your body weight is of such importance that it needs to be tracked and measured. Perhaps a jockey or a wrestler--but then only to make the playing field fair. All cultural pretensions aside, dancers and cheerleaders and volleyball players and gymnasts don't need to be measured; neither do they need to be under 100 pounds. The human body comes loaded with talent in different packages and there's enough lycra on this earth to cover all of them. (Case in point: Beyonce and her two dancing beauties who shake the roof in the music video, Single Ladies.)

For my daughter, I have tried to keep her out of those cultures which are dangerous to a woman's soul by placing undue, unnecessary emphasis on size and shape. These are so physcially demanding, even unrealistic, that the pressure to be something almost physically impossible causes delusions of size, of strength, and most importantly, of worth. When pre-pubescent 6th-graders, not yet menstruating, spend five hours a day dancing, and skip school lunch because they're on a diet--it's the beginning of a potentially dangerous cycle. Soon they will not be able to see themselves as they are, only as they are not and what they could or should be. As the mother of my particular daughter, I refuse to value her or to let anybody else value her in inches and pounds.

There are some numbers which are really, wounded pride and visions of aesthetic perfection aside, irrelevant. Case in point: my life-long disappointment with my short femurs--the shortest of all the girls in our family. What can I possibly do to change my fundamental, Shetland pony-like attribute? Nothing. It's bothered me my whole life. There is the possibility of a femur implant . . . . ! But, even I could not go that far. After all, a 19-inch femur can still take me across the Appalachian trail. Just not in as much style as I would like. More of a stomp than a stride, you know. My legs are, alas, perfectly functional; they're just not perfect.

Most dangerous of all, there are some measurements that are patently false because they combine the best of each to create an average most of us cannot hope to obtain. The perfect creature obtained from combining all the supermodels; the perfect woman obtained from combining the best of all the women in the neighborhood; the airbrushed perfection of seventeen-year-olds who have the genetic combination desired by Madison Avenue. Even the measurement of parents, expressed in years of disdain, control or pressure to succeed, can be false--a figment of their own imaginings, and nothing remotely connected to one's real worth or value. These measurements can be discarded. They're not worth the pain nor the effort to try reach them.

I suppose no matter how old we get, we still face the woman in the mirror; and we carry her with us. We also carry with us the woman we wish we were, after years of smoke and mirrors, and Victoria's Secret. The struggle is to see clearly, as we really are, not as we think we should be. The beginning of faith is the ability to see truly, to come to a knowledge of things as they are.

For what do we need this body?

We know what Satan does with women's bodies: it's all around us. He constructs a world that celebrates an almost prepubescent female body as the ideal norm. So, whenever most of us look in the mirror, we are reminded of what we are not. I could hate this body of mine. I could rage against it, and the hillock of belly fat that hovers along my C-section scars. The fact that I could have made a bundle if I had been born and willing to pose nude for Rueben is scant consolation.

The master of darkness would have it just this way. He would have us think, every time we look in the mirror, of what we are not. He would have me think that because my body does not look a certain, supposedly desirable way, it is not worth having at all. Thus, we enter into a war with our bodies, hating the very flesh that makes us potentially divine, despising the tabernacle our Father has given us. If we lose ourselves in fixating on our bodies, either vanity or in self-loathing, then the deceit is complete and the power of our bodies remains untapped.

Again, for what do we need this body?

So that, slipping through holy water, we may covenant to follow. So that we may feel, in a real, physical way, the promptings. So that we may learn, through our physical senses, how our God speaks to us and thus learn to recognize his voice. So that we may know pain and the blessed relief that comes with healing. So that we can actually feel, in the absence of pain, the grace of God--a physical process of healing that echoes perfectly the spiritual process our souls must also undergo. So that the sun on my cheekbones after a long winter that lights a column of warmth to my center can foreshadow Him.

So that we may join with another in an expression of love and intimacy that binds hearts and minds together in a marriage. And, especially for women, so that we may learn, in a physical way, the Christ-like sacrifice of offering our bodies for the salvation of others. So that we can participate in the great act of creation, of making physical that which was only spiritual. So that we can have stewardship over a temple, can learn to care for it, to prepare it, to make it ready for the work that He would have us do.

From: Hey, Soul Sister, by Train.