Wednesday, September 23, 2015

how to live with hunger, or what could have happened if i hadn't quit basketball

Because I am tall, people often ask me if I play basketball. Usually, I simply say yes. But I feel like a bit of an imposter when I answer that way. I know they are probably imagining me powering through the baseline with the ball in my hand, shoving my shoulder into the chest of a defender who's planted herself to get the foul. Then I fake and pass to a teammate, or take the hook shot, or fall with the defender as the whistle blows to call my trespass. Or they see me jumping for rebound after rebound, hungry for the ball. They are reading athleticism and aggressiveness into my profile. 

Here is the truth: I tried out for the team in seventh grade without ever having played a game of basketball in my life. The closest I got was probably shooting a round of Horse in our front driveway with my best friend or older sister. During those early practices, I felt clumsy during the drills. It took me time to get the hang of dribbling the ball in a figure eight around my spread squatting legs and the coordination of a two-step lay up (lift off the inside leg, pull the outside leg up). 

I made the team, which I guess I wasn't too surprised about. My coach may have seen some promise in my game, but I'm sure he wanted me on the team for my height. I was already close to my full 5'11" in seventh grade.

But here's the thing - I never quite felt like I belonged on the court. I can't jump high, I'm not that aggressive, I usually choked and passed the ball instead of being eager to take the shot myself. At game time, I was uncomfortable holding the ball in my hands. 

I played for a few years, had some fun and convinced my mom to buy me some really hot black nike high top sneakers (they were so cool). But after tenth grade, I quit.

Since then, I've played intramural games in college with a stacked team of really tall friends and a few co-ed pick up games. I'm still not that great, but I love the pace of the game and the slap of the ball on the ground and the arc it makes headed for the net. I've wondered many times what might have happened if I'd kept playing. Would I have found my groove? Would I have gained confidence? Would I have learned how to live with hunger, how to allow it to move me forward and jump high and act like the ball really should belong in my hands?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

one of my favorite poets gets long-listed, and crying during poetry readings

The week-long announcements of the National Book Award long lists was created for book nerds like me. (And yes, I realize 90 percent of my readers just stopped paying attention with that opening sentence.) Each morning, I've eagerly scrolled my feedly feed for a blog entry to show me a new list of stand outs. Monday was young adult literature, which I don’t really follow. But Tuesday was poetry, which promised some new-to-me writers to check out. And at the very top of the list beamed one of my favorite (if one of the only ones I read) poetry books this year. I might have fist pumped while yelling the author’s name. I was at home when this happened, just so you know.

You see, I’ve actually been wanting to tell you, to tell everyone really, about this writer. Meet Ross Gay. I first encountered his writing through an essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy. It was waiting unassumedly in a magazine I’d subscribed to, and in an evening of disciplined reading I opened the magazine and didn’t expect much. Then, I started reading and was startled and also drawn in by his tone, which seemed to communicate an incredible amount of grace — for the police who profile him as a criminal for the color of his skin, for his country that has allowed this behavior to remain the norm, for himself and the wild range of emotions he felt in response. And then the ending. The ending is what got me because he starts talking about his early attempts at bee farming, which at first seems an odd way to reflect on the intense personal experiences he shares. But then you catch onto the emotions he’s describing in his encounter with these bees is so closely reflective of how he responds to the world around him. I can’t do it justice, you just have to read him.

The emotional power and fresh use of imagery in including that scene should have told me this guy was a poet at heart. And he is. But I didn’t really get into his poetry until just a few months ago. The writer’s name had tucked itself into the back of my mind because I kept that wonderful essay as an example of the kind of writing I’d like to emulate. Then, at a writer’s conference, his name jumped out to me when I skimmed the program for seminars to attend. He was doing a reading from his new book. I earmarked the page and put it on my schedule.

The reading included five poets. The first read her over-serious poetry in an over-serious tone that nearly lulled me to sleep. But Ross sat at the end of the table, his long legs splayed before him, his grown out hair tucked into two small buns like martian, his impossibly wide grin spreading the length of his deep jaw. His graciousness was written all over him. I listened as the other four poets read. And then Ross stood up and the energy of the room changed. He smiled and bounced slightly. He set his timer for his 15 minute time slot, and explained he would read one poem from his book, the title poem: Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. And off he went.

This wasn’t a reading, it was a performance, a full embodiment of the feeling he meant to convey, which was a joyful thanksgiving for things that most consider quite simple, but in which he recognizes a deeper gift. It was for the words he spoke, and also how intimately and fully he felt them, that I started to cry right there in the brightly lit convention center room. I was a bit embarrassed at first. I feel deeply, but usually not publicly. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and overconsumption of sugar, I reasoned. But then I realized that this is what poetry is: an invitation to live fully and be thankful for all you receive.

I wish you could have been there with me, but second best is watching a different reading of the same poem for yourself. Go here. Minute 23 is the good stuff. (Well, it's all good stuff, but you know what I mean.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

how much i still have to learn


Near the end of our stay in Endoynolasho, I asked one of our translators how to say the word "beautiful" in Maasai. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it earlier, when over and over I'd searched for some way to communicate with the mothers and babies who had come to our clinics. If I had learned the Maasai word for beautiful earlier in our stay, I’d have used it many times more. It would have been circling in my head when I sat in a room full of thirteen and fourteen year old girls from the school in Endoynolasho. This was earlier in our stay, after a full morning clinic and then a round of health trainings with students and teachers. The women on our team – four of us – had decided to extend our training with one more session just for the girls. We would give them the chance to share their experiences of being girls in this community, and a chance to ask us questions. We would share our wisdom.

We gathered the girls in one of the rooms of the small clinic. The girls sat on the patient exam tables and in chairs pulled into the room. A few put an arm up on the shoulder of a girl next to her. Each wore her blue-gingham school uniform and had hair cut close to her head. The girls were shy, and, unprepared, the four of us stumbled with our questions, which were likely culturally skewed to our American understanding (or misunderstanding) of what being a girl in rural Kenya might be like. Still, we wanted to make up for an obvious lack of female leadership at their school and in their community. All their teachers are male. The government will not post a female teacher in this remote area for safety reasons. And while the local community also sponsors a few young teachers at the school - young people who had come from and still live in that same community - no female in Endoynolasho had ever continued schooling past class eight. That means no woman in the area has an education past fourteen years of age.

Eventually, a brave girl broke their silence and our awkwardness by telling us, “We need sanitary napkins.” A few more girls joined in. We pieced together the story: the school provides every girl with a package of eight pads each month. But none of the girls had received a package since the beginning of May. Now, it was nearly August. We didn't ask them what they did without the pads. I’m not sure that any of us had expected to hear such practical concerns. I nodded slowly as one of the other women promised to work with the local NGO we partnered with, who would be able to provide the girls with a regular supply of sanitary napkins.

Here is what I might have been expecting to hear from these girls: boys try to have sex with me against my will. I am worried my father will marry me off young. I want to keep going to school even though my family tells me I should marry or stay home. None of these are concerns I have had to address in my own life, and yet we – the four of us women, all of us now middle-class Americans who were either born in this country or to immigrant families who successfully settled here with reasonable ease – we all assumed these worries were tantamount to anything else in these girls' lives. Instead, the girls expressed needs that are practical, bodily, universal among women: I need something to absorb my monthly bleeding. Now, I am pricked by my ignorance and wonder at their faith in us.

After we had talked a little while longer, all of us stood on the porch of the small clinic to have our photo taken together. Now, when I look at that photo, I think of how much I still have to learn. When the translator had tried to teach me the Maasai word for beautiful, I'd botched it. A few hours later, I realized I'd been saying the wrong syllables and sounds. Unfamiliar with having the language in my own mouth, I thought I heard letters that weren't there, and made it one word when really it is two. Later, one of these young girls wrote down the words for me. And when I look at the photo, I always think of the Maasai words for beautiful: ira sidai.