Can we make it through life without our gifts intact? Can we can get by, hold on, cling to life, to a decent job, a family, a mortgage, two cars and a dog? But was that the dream to get by? Was that the goal to survive? Is that our gift to the world? To not matter.
I leaned in after the crack of the bat and dove to my right, snaring the blazing low line drive for the last out. It was the Little League State Championship and the last inning, now last licks. We had been up 9-2 before our pitcher’s arm gave out. Quickly it had become 10-9.
Jogging in from first base I was calm with everything on the line. I was due up fourth so someone had to get on base. I got into the dugout and pounded the fence with the rest of my teammates, cherishing the moment, hoping for a miracle.
It shouldn’t be a problem with Brian Clifford stepping in. He was batting .920 or some ridiculous percentile. He was a scrawny blond haired blue-eyed kid. Swing, swing, swing: before we could cheer him on he had gone down hacking at air. Now Kevin Delaney, a giant Irish kid, who must’ve eaten his grandparents and the house they grew up in, because he was well over 6’4’’ by age 13. He swings at the first pitch and nails a pop up 200 feet in the air. 2 outs. I have to get up.
“Come on Harry. Save my ups!” Harry was the coach’s son, who over the year had maybe three hits. The pitcher goes into his wind up and lets one fly nailing Harry dead in the arm. He was too slow to move.
“Yeeeaaaahhhhh!” a collective scream rang out from our dugout. Not nervous, I grabbed my bat and headed out to the plate, taking a few cuts on the walk. There was silence, except for the quiet humming of the PA system. I dig in. The pitcher lets it fly. “Strike one”. I swing hard and miss. He winds up and throws again. “Strike two”. I swing hard and miss. I step out of the box, now conscious of my coach yelling at me to be patient, but what did I know about patience? I get back in after taking a deep breath and wait for the right moment, the right pitch, if it would come. “Ball one”. Outside corner, relaxed. “Ball two”. High and tight, in the moment. “Ball three”. Low and calm. I think nothing with the game on the line, once up 9-2, now down 10-9 in front of my family and girls from school. God might have been at that game watching from the rooftop of the house behind the fence. The next pitch came smoking down the pipe, down the center. I quickly turned and Crack! I crushed it over the left field fence to win the game. It was a laser line drive, smashing through a car window on the far side of the parking lot. We won. In that moment we won. I excelled. The coach ran out and kissed me as I crossed home in my calm, focused daze. Everyone loved me, yet I simply focused and swung the bat that I loved to swing.
I loved baseball. To me it was the purest form of expression extending from one’s body and spirit. There was joy diving for a grounder, getting dirty, or throwing out a runner, or the immediate satisfaction of ripping a line drive into the gap and watching the ball skid across the well-manicured lawn. That year I led in doubles, triples, homeruns, and was the best first baseman around. I could pick anything off the ground or out of the air: a gnat if I needed too.
That next spring I entered the 14-17 year old league. I was maybe five feet tall and shy. I didn’t know anyone on the team. It seemed most of the guys I had played with the past several years had either quit or decided to play another sport. I remember walking out my first practice and seeing this full-length adult baseball field and thought, I won’t even be able to hit it beyond the infield, and if I do, that outfield never ends.
After a few practices I wasn’t performing up to what standards I was accustom. I struggled for the first time. I had a bat I could hardly swing and didn’t understand why I was no more than mediocre at the plate. I didn’t ask why. My mind was not able to catch up to the unfolding events, not adapting or learning what was necessary to move forward and improve.
I could still pick it at first base, but distrust of my ability to play well entered my thoughts. Maybe I wasn’t who I had been. Maybe I wasn’t me after all. After those first few days, the familiarity, the calmness, had left me.
My first game I faced one of the best pitchers in the league, the sadistic Michael McKinney, a 17 year old who threw hard and hit me twice. The second time he hit me dead in the abdomen with an 80 mile per hr fastball. I couldn’t get out of the way and fell choking and gagging on home plate, in front of my team, in front of Michael. After several agonizing breathless moments curled up with all eyes on me, I finally stood, with tears in my eyes due to a lack of oxygen. I slowly began my walk to first base. Michael seemed to be smiling, the god-damn asshole.
There was a fight nearly every game, sometimes our players with each other, sometimes our players with players from other teams. The camaraderie was obviously not there, nor the joy. I kind of wondered what these guys were playing for, why they even showed up. When the team didn’t win my coach would yell and scream, as if screaming at everything that had gone wrong with his life. This had never been baseball as I knew it. This had never been life as I knew it.
After a few games of sub-par hitting I felt like I was participating in a charade. Now I could barely hold my own. A doubt of my gifts and goals to play forever and professionally was taking over the beauty with uncertainty and confusion, leading to my distrust and eventually to a dividing of myself. The coach weighed on my thoughts, the bat taunted me, and my performance was that of someone else. Yet I had talent. I had love and talent and passion. I must ask you, what else do we need in our lives? But success.
Within a year of my triumphant homerun I had given up baseball as a dream. I had given up the gift, the love, the beauty, and what flowed through me as a dynamic release of cosmic energy. I gave it up for doubt and pain. And it destroyed me for doing it.
I didn’t learn to adapt. I had talent but not intelligence or understanding. So I walked away from the gift. It became painful to fail at something I cared so much about. It made sense to avoid pain by letting go of the dream. I don’t blame the kid I was really, just trying to understand him.
I gave up my gift and love, because to hold on seemed too hard. My grip slipped from everything around me. My grades slipped. When young I didn’t know what I was giving up. I only knew I no longer had obvious pain.
I didn’t know what I had lost until it was gone, until I was gone from it, until I was no longer happy. I never made it onto any professional team. With my neighbor I still played on our road in front of our houses, pressure free, but now in a sanctuary, hiding. I shied away from the dream and told myself I didn’t want it anymore. The truth is I blamed the coach, the league, the bat, and a desire to only be great. The truth is I did it to myself. I dismantled the dream and myself with it. No one else did. What happens to us when we give up our gifts?
Pain and fear can be more influential motivators than love. That is, if we can’t uphold the love. When pain and fear are better trusted we fall into a life of “quiet desperation”.
My joys took a back seat to the drudgery of high school, trying not to be consumed by the newest clicks and fads, while avoiding getting my ass kicked by the local bullies, yet consumed by it all nevertheless. I was a quiet kid with a bad haircut and bad shirts. Often I sat alone during lunch breaks, holding on for life, for some life to follow. A lurid orange and green butterfly within compelled me to be patient. Life is worth it. I listened and waited, yet was out of place everywhere I went, every conversation I had, and every class I attended.
After years of uncertainty and unhappiness I began walking the woods near my home in one of the few tufts of undeveloped land in the suburbs of New York City. I felt protected by the canopy of oak and maple. I was embraced by the nature that mirrored my own. I had time to think and feel and listen.
After months of visiting after school, I found a new gift walking those trails, breathing in the fresh air of the moment. I found fluid thoughts in my patient reflections. Increasingly I was feeling life again, a life within: no pressure, but the desire to excel at that feeling, at being, at touching the air and leaves. Perhaps it was a new understanding of what life could be: no judgment, no walls, just me in my own nature, and I within the larger whole, excelling in the moment.
I would walk down the trail to The Pipe, which was a pond and a concrete pipe that carried run-off from the street a hundred yards away. It was more than suitable for my quiet needs. Words began coming to me, increasingly and distinct. Ideas rushed up to me in short staccato breaths.
Lost in these unencumbered free flowing moments, I found the freedom of thought and living a life of meaning. We must pursue what it is that we are. Because we are each granted individual gifts like an enormous maple leaf I had found on those trails that I framed and still have on my wall. The veins were raised. I was immediately taken in by this naturally crafted structure lying in my hand. It was a photosynthesized gem and there wasn’t another one like it on the planet. And so I write now, knowing my gift and holding onto it closely, protecting it, while eliminating people and ideas from my life that attempt to condemn me for my “hobbies” or “grand” notions.
I don’t want regrets, but to see the simplicity of my gifts and motives and creations. In school the next day after finding ideas with words, I was still alone, still hurting. But I had somewhere to go that day, back to the woods, with a pen and paper in hand.
I began writing about human nature mostly, the daily struggles I had in school and what I thought I understood about the world. With patience, something had become mine again. There was no coach to worry about, no one to impress, and no bat to swing. I was dreaming again. My new gift was in words.
Over the years I kept writing, more intensely, more insightfully, until I realized once again I was breathing for my own sake. Now excited, I want to help people, to show that there can be another way to live. We don’t have to give in and become nobodies, that our thoughts do matter, if at least only to us.
And that is how the world moves forward because of the ones who dare push out the walls of convention. And in turn by pursuing these gifts it is our sparkling offer to the world. And the world moves forward because of it.