Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Manic Moment

Sometime in May, the clouds of spring at last are drawn back, and the days, yawning, lengthen and stretch. The sun, emboldened by the nearness of the earth, tugs us closer still, and everything responds to its light: budding and blossoming, greening, burrowing and building, mating, birthing, nesting and hatching, planning, delirious with virility, vitality, and strength.

It feels good after months of clouds to be juiced up on sunshine, flush with boundless energy. I can feel it in my gut, like a caffeine buzz run amok, a feeling of overstimulation. It’s almost time to remove the full-spectrum bulb from my lamp at work, which wards off winter depression. But I’m not yet ready to switch. Nevermind the signs that it won’t last long, this phase of pedal-to-the-metal and second winds. Nevermind that it’s likely to end with a crash. Right now I’m into the skimping on sleep and getting away with it. I like keeping the motor revved up high. I want to nurse this sense of well-being, even though I know it’s just a sham.


It was under the solsticial sun—that angel of light—that I had my life’s one manic moment, or at least its strongest hypomanic episode. When I was in eighth or ninth grade, we lived in a large Craftsman-style bungalow. The back door was fairly high off the ground—not a whole flight of stairs up, but more than just two or three steps. The way the ground fell away from the house, the door felt even higher than it was. The back porch was small, not much wider than the door, with stomach-high railings that ended in pillars at the top of the steps. The pillars were a couple of inches taller than the rails, each topped by a circular platform big enough to hold a large potted plant.

On a sunny summer day after a string of sunny days, I noticed as if for the first time that the platforms were big enough to stand on, and so I did. I climbed up on one of the pedestals, despite my fear of heights. I stood there, fully erect, feeling reckless and impossibly high, trying not to be afraid. My younger brother was the monkey in the family, not me. I was the one who was always falling when we were little—down the stairs, off the slide, out of the top bunk. So when we got older, he was the one in the topmost branches, swaying in the breeze, while I was the one frozen with fear on the lowest limb. As I looked at the ground from my perch on the pedestal, giddy and a little queasy, it crossed my mind that if I fell and fractured an arm or a leg, it would be all right. Even if I dove and broke every bone in my body, any doctor could set the bones and they would heal and I would be as good as new. I could do whatever I wanted, and really there wouldn’t be any consequences. I looked up, away from my feet, away from any point of reference that would help me to keep my balance. I stood on the pinnacle and surveyed the world and was tempted by the promise of invincibility. I became perfectly calm and relaxed.

Then I remembered how much it would hurt to break every bone in my body and, abruptly I came to my senses. Shaken, I carefully got down, afraid of myself.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Worst Thing about Sharing the Ice

“Sir, can I get you to slow down?” If poetry, as Samuel Coleridge once wrote, is the best words in the best order, then as far as I’m concerned, this combination of words is anything but poetic, the worst grouping of words in the English language. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes they’re spoken to me during open skate after someone complains to the monitor about how fast I’m going.

After Thanksgiving, the closer we get to Christmas and the colder and snowier it is outside, the larger the number of people who decide to come to the rink for some seasonal fun. I have to make it a point to get on the ice right away during the winter months. People typically don’t arrive early, so for the first few minutes of the session, I can get in some laps, forward and backward, and some circles, forward and backward, before it gets too congested to stride and work up a sweat. But as people trickle onto the ice and space disappears, the trouble is that I don’t always gauge soon enough when it’s time to slow down. It might take a close call to get me to realize how crowded it has become.

Even when I’ve backed off, though, another problem is that parents who don’t skate well or who don’t skate at all have no idea that I’m the safest one on the ice. All they see is my speed and have no idea that I’m under control. They don’t know that I’m going no faster than will allow me to stop or turn to avoid a kid who falls or veers my way. They don’t get that I’m paying attention to everything that’s going on and that I know how to stay out of trouble. They don’t understand that it’s safer for me to go faster than slower, because a little bit of speed allows me to react more quickly than an inexperienced skater can make mistakes, keeping us both safe. They don’t realize that their kids are the dangerous ones, not me.

It’s hard not to take it personally, as an insult to my judgment and abilities and willingness to get along, when the monitor asks me to slow down. I feel awkward and stupid as I skate afterward, self-consciously wondering if I’m going slow enough. I begin to stew, trying to figure out who complained. Then I feel like an idiot for reacting this way. It takes the fun out of it for me.

It’s not as if there are other times to skate. My hockey team doesn’t hold practices, and I can’t buy private ice time. If I’m going to skate, it has to be during the open session, like everyone else. Even when it’s crowded, though, it’s better than not skating at all. I suppose I could go to drop-in hockey during the busy season. But you can’t really work on specific skating skills during the game. And you’re stuck with puck hogs and guys who take five-minute shifts and jerks who act like drop-in is the NHL. No one wants to organize by positions or in lines, so confusion reigns when people lose track and no one knows where they’re supposed to be playing. I suppose I might get a better workout than at open skate and maybe even fit in some drills if people leave before the session’s over. I suppose I could look at it as a chance to work on my hockey skills. Still, I hate to lose the edge on my conditioning, an edge you can’t get by playing the game.

At open skate, the thing that’s hard for me to remember is that despite the fact I’m skating within my limits, inexperienced skaters get thrown off when they look up and suddenly, from their perspective, I’m coming right at them or I’m speeding past. They sometimes stiffen and lose their balance and fall. No matter how much room there is between us when I skate by, the perception tends to be that I almost hit them. The worst thing about sharing the ice isn’t people who get in my way so much as admitting that sometimes I’m the one who’s ruining the fun for others.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

These Are the Best Days (2)

Note: This is a continuation of an earlier post. The first two paragraphs are from the earlier post.

These are the best days—August, September, and even into early October; autumn by the Celtic calendar—the good days before the earth turns its back on the sun and we descend into darkness, before the planet finally goes too far for the tilt of its axis and our part of the world falls into shadow, underexposed to the light.

It’s not paradise, but the way I feel this time of year is closer to how I should feel. The quality of my life is closest to the way it ought to be, to the way I imagine it first was for Adam and Eve. I cope better. At home, I’m nearly the picture of patience and kindness. Relaxed. Engaged. In the morning, I manage to pray and to exercise to strengthen my core and to fit in everything else I need to do before work. In the evening, I still have energy; I am ready for rest at bedtime without exhaustion or irritability. I bring more enthusiasm to my job. For the most part, I feel even and stable and in a good mood. Almost human.


The best days at the rink are the first days of school. Almost no one comes to lunchtime open skate. During the summer, no one’s in school, and I have to fight for space on the ice with figure skaters and kids dropped off by their moms or brought by their sitters to give them something different to do. There’s not much room to work out when there are so many other people around—especially people who don’t know how to share the ice or, worse, those who know how but won’t. Sometimes a whole day camp shows up and the rink is choked with kids, not a single one of them watching where they’re going, making it nearly impossible to skate. But the first day of school, the rink is always empty, or nearly so. And for the first couple of weeks, it’ll be light like this, until everyone’s into their school routines and the adult skaters and preschool kids make their reappearance, along with homeschooled figure skaters, who, after a short break from summer skating, return to gear up for the competition year. Even then, there are much fewer people on the ice, and usually I can fit in my workout routine, even skating with a stick and a puck on occasion. Those are good days. The very best day, though, is any day when no one else shows up and I have the whole rink to myself.

It’s not that I’m always against having other people around. It’s cute and flattering, though also a bit embarrassing, when little kids, impressed with how fast I can go, want to know if I’m a Detroit Red Wing. I don’t mind giving new skaters tips when they ask; experienced skaters helped me when I started out, and it feels good to turn around and do the same for others. And even when the rink is too busy and I have to abandon my workout plans, it can be a lot of fun to weave in and out of crowds of slower skaters, reading gaps in the shifting patterns of people around me. It’s almost wholly vanity, but knowing that people are watching me, judging my ability and sometimes even admiring my skills, has a positive effect on my workout, giving me extra jump in my legs, a little more edge to my concentration, spurring me to a better level of effort. But if there have to be others on the ice, I’d rather they be the right sort of people—people who pay attention and don’t get in the way. And I’d rather not have too many of them around.

Often I wish for days when I have the ice to myself. When I’m alone, I don’t have to share space or sacrifice my goals or watch out for others. I can do whatever I please, take up as much room as I want, practicing skills I rarely get to hone because there are too many people on the ice. But sometimes when the rink is empty and I feel heavy and tired and the day is cold and grey, I wouldn’t mind a little company, if not someone to pass the puck around with, at least someone else just out on the ice while I’m skating my laps. As Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “Hell is not other people; hell is myself, cut off from others in self-centeredness.”* As often as not, though, I like it just fine.


When you frequent a place, eventually you get to know a little about the others who are regular there. At first you don’t know anyone’s name, so you think of them as Hockey Girl and Figure Skater Mom and Speed Skater Guy. Then after a while, you actually say hi and introduce yourselves.

Figure Skater Guy, it turns out, is Ron, and he’s an electrical engineer. Tall and spare and approaching middle age, he’s a modern-day Ichabod Crane in his grey V-neck sweater, bluish-grey plaid shirt, and slim jeans, topped off by an iPod, large-framed glasses, and little white gloves. People snicker at his stiff-legged style and expressive hand gestures, but you admire him for enjoying himself anyway, and after a couple of conversations with him, you think he’s an interesting person. You like him.

Figure Skater Mom is Ann, and she’s lost a lot of weight through skating. Her daughter, Caroline, who must be about ten and is homeschooled, is a figure skater too, though she seems more enthused about stuffed animals. She’s always bringing a new one to the rink and will talk your ear off if you let her. Ann has a teenager too, and sometimes you compare notes on parenting.

Hockey Guy turns out to be Joe, though for the longest time you call him Rob because somehow you managed to get it wrong and he is too polite to set you straight. He’s also an engineer and is trying to get back into shape after years away from the ice.

Middle-Aged Ice Dancing Couple are the Gattis, and they help you jumpstart your Jeep one day when the battery dies.

Athena, whom you’d known only as Figure Skating Woman, looks familiar, and for the longest time you don’t know why until you finally realize she’s a new member at your church. She’s recently moved to the area with her husband and teenaged kids.

Hockey Girl, whose name is Tina, has just joined the league you’re in; Speed Skater Guy, who is in high school, turns out to be a Brian too; and there is a host of Figure Skater Girls whose names you slowly learn and whose competitions you follow from afar, secretly rooting for them.

You marvel that Maddie, the little girl who started skating the same year you did, looks like a preteen now, and when she lands her first jump, you feel something like parental pride even though she’s not your child and for all these years has been too bashful ever to say hello to you.

When you congratulate Brittney on qualifying for midwest sectionals on her way to competing in her first senior national figure skating championships, she’s so excited that you can’t help feeling happy too.

And the frosty demeanor of the figure skating coach who gives lessons during open skate, despite its being against the rules, slowly thaws as she comes to realize that you know what you’re doing and are willing to share the ice. She doesn’t object when you skate with your stick, which is also breaking the rules, because she’s learned you won’t endanger her skaters with it, and she even tolerates your bringing a puck out once in a while. She’s not so forgiving with anyone else who brings hockey gear onto the ice. Along the way, you get comfortable enough with each other that you’re sharing pleasantries when you meet at the rink. It’s just chit-chat, but you’ve accepted one another, even though figure skaters and hockey players are rivals when it comes to space on the ice, and it’s a nice familiarity, a pleasant acquaintanceship.

It can be a real pleasure, too, sharing the ice with experienced skaters. When you skate often enough with others, you get to know their routines. You know what they’re about to do, and you almost seamlessly adjust to accomodate them. Whenever a Figure Skater Girl is carving an S-shaped pattern on one skate down the length of the ice, switching between the inside and outside edges of her blade, you know that’s a good time to work on your crossovers around the faceoff circles at one end of the ice. When she reaches your end, you know that she’ll stop her pattern and skirt along the boards to the other side of the rink, and so, timing it just right, you switch circles without stopping, opening up the other side for her so she can start her pattern again along the length of the ice to the other end. Neither of you is interrupted or forced to skip any part of your routine. And you find it very satisfying to get along in this way.

It’s not community that we regulars at the rink have. It’s more of a fraternity, an affinity group, a mutual generosity toward people brought together by a common interest, but its good to be a part of it, to have this place where you feel you fit in, where no matter how far you have yet to progress, you know you belong.

* Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, rev. ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 28.

Monday, November 10, 2008

November in Michigan

Cold. Heavy. Dark. Feel like crawling off into some hole to die. Couldn’t care less about anything. Feels like we’re on the approach to solstice. Feels like November in Michigan.

Friday, September 19, 2008

These Are the Best Days

These are the best days—August, September, and even into early October; autumn by the Celtic calendar—the good days before the earth turns its back on the sun and we descend into darkness, before the planet finally goes too far for the tilt of its axis and our part of the world falls into shadow, underexposed to the light.

It’s not paradise, but the way I feel this time of year is closer to how I should feel. The quality of my life is closest to the way it ought to be, to the way I imagine it first was for Adam and Eve. I cope better. At home, I’m nearly the picture of patience and kindness. Relaxed. Engaged. In the morning, I manage to pray and to exercise to strengthen my core and to fit in everything else I need to do before work. In the evening, I still have energy; I am ready for rest at bedtime without exhaustion or irritability. I bring more enthusiasm to my job. For the most part, I feel even and stable and in a good mood. Almost human.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Day After Hockey-Day

I love Day After Hockey-Day. No matter how sore or bruised or deprived of sleep I am the morning after a hockey game, I always feel good—positive and charged, possessing energy far superior to what comes from sleep. All day long I ride this high and have to be careful not to go too hard, because I really am tired and need to recover. Day After Hockey-Day is way better than Hockey Day, with its creeping anxiety and waves of adrenaline and finally fatigue by the time the puck drops that night. I have to play games with myself to relax. It’s just another workout, I say. Have fun. Just show up and don’t worry about how you’ll do. You’ll be glad you went. And I always do fine. I always have fun. I always am glad I played. But I enjoy Day After Hockey-Day even more than I do the game itself.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Seasons and Cycles (2)

Note: This post is a continuation of a previous post. The first three paragraphs are from the original.

Our lives are marked by seasons and cycles, ebbs and flows and pendulum swings. Even our progressions are circular, spiraling around a line.

In August the earth hurtles toward equinox, the equanimity of darkness and light. The planet has traveled enough in its orbit that the mornings are laden with dimness and dew. The birds, triggered by the glimmering of dawn, are at this time of year in the midst of their singing during my morning prayers. When I get up, the world is still heavy with dark, heavy in the half-light of dawn. When I drive to work, I need the visor to shield my eyes from the risen sun.

The earth keeps spinning on its axis, the moon continues to orbit the earth, and these two, together with the other planets and the bodies within their influence, go on wheeling around the sun, the fixed point in all of this movement.

On September 1st, the church year begins, the cycle of feasts and fasts. On the eighth, we celebrate the first of the twelve major feasts—the Nativity of Mary, the Mother of God. The story goes that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, were unable to conceive a child. In ancient Hebrew culture, this was a great disgrace, a sign of God’s displeasure, because it meant that Joachim’s line would die, that they could not through childbearing participate in the continuing work of creation, that they would not be able to bring the Messiah into the world—for certain, Israel’s promised deliverer would not come through them. Into their old age, these servants of God prayed for a child, but their prayers were not answered.

One day, Joachim went to the temple to make his offering and was turned away by the high priest, who reproached him for his lack of descendants and humiliated him by turning him away. Bitterly Joachim fled to the hills to sit in his despair and hide his shame. Praying there, he was visited by an angel, who at the same time appeared to Anna in their home in Jerusalem. The angel announced that Anna would bear a child who would be blessed by God, whose name would be known throughout the world. In her gratitude, Anna promised her child to God, and Joachim, more than a little uplifted, hurried home. They met at the city gate and embraced, full of joy.

And we rejoice. Out of the barrenness of the aged curse of brokenness and death comes life. With Mary’s birth, the womb foreordained to bear God—to contain the Uncontainable and make possible the union of God and man—enters the world. God’s incarnation, the basis of our faith, already is set in motion at her conception.

The year begins with so much promise. New clothes and school supplies, new classes. The approach of the autumn harvest. The beginning of sports seasons, Sunday school, book clubs and other groups. After a summer of recess and recreation, we welcome the return of routine and structure and purpose. Everything is fresh and new. And with the earliest hints of color in the trees and crispness in the air, with the blue skies and clear light of September, with the better rest that comes with cooler weather and earlier sunsets—with so much transformation in the air, it’s easy to believe that the birth of Mary, the Theotokos (Mother of God), as we sing in the kontakion hymn on the day of the feast, is not just the promise of goodness but even its accomplishment:

Your holy birth delivered Joachim and Anna from the reproach of childlessness
and delivered Adam and Eve from death’s corruption, O Pure One.
Thus freed from the stain of sin, we your people honor your birth, crying out to you:
“A woman thought barren brings forth the Theotokos, who nourishes Christ our Life.”*

(to be continued)

* “Kontakion for the Birth of the Theotokos,” in Kevin Lawrence, Apolitikia and Kontakia (Greensboro, NC: Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church, 1993, 1997), 128–29.