21 May 2021
It was a brilliant May midday: cotton candy clouds in a crystalline sky, restorative rays, and a pranayama breeze…meditative. Perfect track meet weather.
I sat on the silver bleachers at Duane Carlson Stadium – book open in my lap – waiting for Grant’s next event. My mind kept slipping in and out of the present moment intermittently, as sights, sounds, sensations clamored for attention. My left arm grew warm in the sun, so at times I would twist in my seat to give it some shade.
As a 200-meter runner blasted past my seat on the bleachers, a leaf blew along the black surface behind him. The leaf tumbled, scraped, and scuffled at his heels, carried by the Minot wind, turning him into The Flash.
The Minotian crowd was the essentially same as most of the kids’ sporting events. You had the mothers of untamed toddlers – frazzled but heavily armed with goldfish and sunscreen. You had grandparents who toted contraptions designed to turn the hard metal bleachers into La-Z-Boy recliners; usually, Grandpa’s head lolled as he began to doze (I watched with envy: the wait between events seemed interminable). And then you had entire families who came out as a unit to commandeer four rows of bleachers, toting everything shy of the kitchen sink: coolers, sodas, lunch, sunshades, blankets, seat cushions, and noisemakers. These were the rowdiest of the spectators and therefore the most entertaining. Even when their beloved progeny was not participating in an event, these groups created a ruckus, chittering and laughing, howling and snickering. Clearly, the track meet was an event in their lives – and perhaps rightly so, I mused…that’s how to live.
I sat alone on the bleachers – not to be confused with lonely. I had Alan Watts to keep me company if company was wanted.
Before me, a sea of red and purple-clad athletes hauled hurdles out from the sidelines and lined them up on the track, yelling back and forth about the height settings: “It should be one click from the top!”
After ten minutes of clanging cacophony, the hurdles waited with subversive malevolence in their pretty perfect rows to perform their one function: bar passage. This is the most treacherous of the track events, for sure. My interest was piqued; with all these underdeveloped bodies lunging and springing, who would stumble first?
Earlier that morning, Grant and I had chatted about the track meet to allay his anxieties: “Just try to do better than you did last week,” I said, “That’s how you know you’re improving.” Thankfully, he doesn’t run hurdles.
Track is a strange sport to spectate, for sure. What you see on the field is not technically representative of success. What matters is not who is in front of or behind you on the course. What matters is whether you are in front of or behind your own personal record. This is how we always help Grant to manage his competition butterflies. He is young for his grade; other runners his grade level are frequently taller than him. Yet, he is fast. It is unreasonable to think that he’ll medal every time until he grows into his body. Yet, he is fast. So, we recommend (insist?) he focus on personal records instead of winning races: “Did you do better today than you did last week?” we ask. If he does, he feels accomplished and hopefully gains confidence. He should be confident. He has earned the right to confidence.
My attention faded back into my book…
Over the loudspeaker, a man’s voice boomed and startled me to attention: “Next up, 7th and 8th grade girls 100-meter hurdles.”
Eight girls lined up at the starting blocks.
“RUNNERS, TAKE YOUR MARKS.”
A thin trail of smoke lifted from the nose of the gun, which the officiant held pointed at the sky.
The girls were off, but many proceeded with (understandable) hesitation. The hurdlers’ legs were all types: long, short, husky, lean, quick, slow. For some girls, especially the younger and smaller ones, each hurdle was a mountain, and indeed, one runner succumbed early. As her ankle snagged the top of her second hurdle, she and the metal frame crashed down together to the rubberized surface; the athlete rolled to her back like an overturned beetle, clung to her lower leg, and did not rise…but the race carried on and carried the crowd’s attention with it.
In the lead, golden hair flashing in her wake, motored a Bishop Ryan student. In her purple and yellow, what made this girl stand out was not necessarily that she was in first place – or even that the hurdles created barely any obstacle for her. No; what demanded the crowd’s attention was her face: she beamed. This girl was not afraid of the hurdles at all. In fact, to her, there were no hurdles – they did not exist because beside her lane, upon the emerald turf inside the track, ran two of her teammates. As they paced with her, arms flailing, they cheered and cajoled, laughed and squealed, engaged and encouraged. All three existed within their own plane: theirs was a world of fearless delight. Within this event they experienced no trepidation; instead, they found festivity and camaraderie. Those cheering for their hurdling friend recognized the effects of their efforts, which then engendered more energetic encouragement – in a self-feeding and self-fulfilling cycle of support.
What a happy hurdler! She finished first, of course, and beyond the line she and her friends, finally able to connect, bounced and bubbled in one-another’s arms, overflowing with shared elation.
My heart soared with their contagious energy, and then, smile still playing on my lips, I returned to my book.
A few minutes passed, and I was jarred back into awareness of my surroundings as our hurdle champion and her two besties wandered by me on their way back toward Bishop Ryan’s section on the bleachers. Pausing before me, our hero waved bodily, breathlessly, at her family above me in the stands (two parents and some surprisingly alert Lay-Z-Boy grands); the light had not yet faded from her face…
Then it dawned on me: what ever happened to the girl who fell at the second hurdle?
The truth is that I’m quite insulated, in my world, from negativity. I avoid humans with nefarious intentions – humans with toxic or narcissistic ambitions – as much as I avoid upsetting situations…and my deliberate focus upon the positive in this moment at the track meet’s hurdles event makes me wonder: how has my brain become this way? Why would my consciousness be captured and carried by the smiling girl instead of the falling one? I mean – of course, my heart breaks for the girl rolling on her back grasping at her ankle. Of course, I noticed as soon as the race was over how many coaches and teammates came to her aid. Certainly, none of this truly escaped my attention. However, it was not my focus. Something within me wanted to stay with our happy heroine instead, and so it did, in spite of our underdog’s perfectly reasonable appeal to my absent empathy. Where was my empathy in that moment – for her?
What flavor of selfish does it make me to dismiss someone’s pain so effortlessly?
What would our fallen girl say when her parents asked, after the meet, “Did you do better today than you did last week?”