Old Stuff

Few things will chip away at your happiness than the thought that you should be happier.

This morning I moved a Word file from my “In Progress” folder to the “Old Stuff” folder. Most of the time, when I move such a file to such a place, it’s an occasion for mourning. It means the project has been abandoned, along with an idea that I’d once been excited about–one that I’d spend hours trying to shape into a coherent narrative that other humans might derive meaning and pleasure from. But whether by my own judgment or by a a string of rejection notices, these pieces have been deemed lacking and so relegated to Old Stuff. Alas, most of the words I write end up in this file, never to see the light of day. Most of them never should.

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The first page of my essay in Sport Literate. It’s a thrill to see your work in print, but also a reminder of all your work that sits unused in the files.

Today, however, I had a much more auspicious reason for opening Old Stuff.  I moved an essay called “St. Anthony and Buddha Bike Through the Desert” into a tiny subfolder labeled “Wins.” With its appearance in Sport Literate‘s fall edition, it joined a dozen or so non-church related pieces that I’ve published in different venues. The Wins folder is my modest literary trophy case, and “St. Anthony” is the newest and highest quality entry to date. I should be ecstatic.

I’m not.

The problem is that my Wins folder pales in comparison in both size and scope to the rest of Old Stuff. The other subfolders represent various categories of failure. Novels ranging from partially written to fully polished but not in print. Columns published as a pastor, dating back to the era when I thought–naively, as it turns out–that determination and well-formed ideas were enough to steer my religious tribe away from self-destruction. Short stories and essays that were never any good to begin with, but which help me trace my maturity as a writer, such as it is.

If my estimations are close, I think I have in the neighborhood of 500,000 words of material in the Old Stuff file, representing about 25,000 printed pages and untold thousands of hours of work. When I add up the old church-related columns with the Wins folder, I can see that about 10% of the words I’ve written have been read outside of my immediate circle.

With numbers like that, no wonder most of the writers I know focus more on their failures than their successes. I’m no better. But I’m trying to be. Ironically, the clan that has made me more determined to celebrate the wins is not literary, but athletic.

As it does in much of American life, sports has an outsized place at the university where I work. Since most of my students are also athletes, I’ve had to learn a fair amount about what makes them tick. And one of the clearest and most overwhelming lessons is that athletes on almost every level hate to lose more than they love to win. This trait, called the Krauthammer Conjecture by the late columnist of that name, is every bit as evident in an NAIA cross country runner as it is in Max Scherzer or Lebron James.

In fact, I’d go so far as to postulate that most of us spend far more time thinking about our regrets and failures than our successes. If I tell a student she did a great job at the choir concert, she’ll talk about the notes she missed. If I tell an actor he nailed a role in a production, he’ll inevitably mention the lines he dropped. Something in us is wired to remember the negative and to confess our failures, even in the face of success.

So it’s my mission today to let the Old Stuff go. The failures of the past will collect their dust whether I mind them or not. In the meantime, I have a new story out in the light of day. That may not represent wild success, but it is an accomplishment. The Old Stuff isn’t going to get in the way of my enjoying this victory.

I hope you can find a similar happiness today in your own successes. And I hope you are surrounded by people who care more about those than any failure you might also carry.

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Catch

Call it living a dream, even if it’s only in my head.

My Father’s Day present was a trip to the ballpark to see the Memphis Redbirds play, like we’ve done a dozen times every summer for the past several years. We know the team and the stadium inside and out, and have watched games from virtually every perspective.

Zachary and I play a Father's Day game of catch on the field at Autozone Park.

Zachary and I play a Father’s Day game of catch on the field at Autozone Park.

This time, however, we got to see it all from a different angle. After the game, the Redbirds welcomed families to come onto the outfield grass to play catch. My two boys and I claimed some grass in left-center field and threw the ball around.

Jonathan, the younger, made it about twenty minutes before deciding to call it a day. Zachary and I, baseball junkies that we are, stayed on the field. As the crowd thinned, I positioned him by the outfield wall and threw pop flies, as though he was Oscar Taveras going after a long fly ball. Ten minutes later, he wiped sweat from his forehead and rubbed his shoulder.

“I think I’m done, Daddy. “

“Oh,” I said. “Can we stay a little longer?”

“My arm’s getting sore.”

“I know, but how often have we gotten to play catch on a real professional field?”

“I guess so.”

We looked around. Fourteen thousand seats, now empty, but only an imagination away from being filled with fans. A glorious field peppered with other fathers and their sons, throwing baseballs to one another through all the dreams between them. Spectacular plays and errors. Home runs and strikeouts. Cheers and boos.

I reached out to put my arm on Zachary’s shoulder, but I missed low. He is taller than I remembered. I reached my hand up. He squirmed away.

“Ready?” he said.

But he didn’t back away toward the exit. Instead he ran past me, turned and tossed the ball my way.

We went back to playing catch, and kept at it until last call from the stadium personnel. If we weren’t the last ones to leave the field, we were close to it.

By that time, I had stopped my daydreaming too, at least for awhile. I may still envision alternate lifetimes in which I patrol center field for the St. Louis Cardinals. I may picture my son doing the same. If I do, I will certainly not think of the pain of the losses. I’ll imagine his success, even though I know that at his age he understands more than most. The game itself is his reward. It’s a privilege just to play.

For the moment, that truth was, if only barely, within my grasp. It was enough just to play catch, a game with no winner or loser, nor with any substantial purpose. We didn’t need cheering crowds or menacing opponents. We had grass and sunshine, the pop of baseball into leather, the pleasure of feeling the seams of the ball against our fingers. Releasing it to flight. Watching it go. Trusting it would return.