Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Morning Thanks--Just a poem

I'm not only happy, but thankful too, to say that I can laugh at this Stephen Dunn poem. It came at me this morning from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, got me in the game with the first bounce of the ball--maybe even with the title--and held me thereafter.

Losing Steps


It's probably a Sunday morning
in a pickup game, and it's clear
you've begun to leave
fewer people behind.

Your fakes are as good as ever,
but when you move
you're like the Southern Pacific
the first time a car kept up with it,

your opponent at your hip,
with you all the way
to the rim. Five years earlier
he'd have been part of the air

that stayed behind you
in your ascendance.
On the sidelines they're saying,
He's lost a step.

Look, I'd be lying if I said that was me on the court. In the first place, I was born and reared Dutch Calvinist; I was never on a court on a Sabbath morning. Sunday afternoon?--sure. But Sunday morning?--never happened.

My football coach once told me that my problem was I ran too long in one place, so I never--not in ball-playing life--out quick-ed some body in another jersey. Didn't happen.

I do remember playing ball sometime when I was thirty or so, maybe a little older, in a pick-up game. I came across the lane, took a pass from the wing, and had in my mind pivoting and going up with a short kind of jump-hook. The hook was there, but the jump wasn't. I remember thinking I was up in the air but knowing I wasn't. Strange. Haunting.

I never played basketball again.

But quick?--that's was never me. I'm not the guy in the poem. Too often I ran with a piano on my back.

But there's more.


In a few more years
it's adult night in a gymnasium
streaked with the abrupt scuff marks
of high schoolers, and another step

leaves you like a wire
burned out in a radio.
You're playing defense,
someone jukes right, goes left,

and you're not fooled
but he's past you anyway,
dust in your eyes,
a few more points against you.

What I'm saying is I'm in this poem, even though I'm not. What he described never, ever happened to me. I quit ball the moment I realized my body would no longer play the game my mind expected it would. I was into my forties when, trying to be a good sport, I ran in a local 10K--not for show, for charity, to be nice. I'd become a jogger by then, although I never really deserved the image that goes with the word. I used to say I was a plodder, which had absolutely nothing to do with fiction.

I remember exactly where I was--coming up half-mile road from the Kuhl farm--when I got passed by a woman my age, slight-of-build, who didn't even nod, just blew past me. She hadn't been the first by any means; I had no designs on breaking tape. But she was the one that humiliated me. We had to be 6K in at that point, and my feet were strapped with bricks. She breezed by me as if I were standing still.

I don't think I ever ran in any of kind of 10K again, not even for hungry children. What I'm saying is, the guy in the poem isn't me.

And yet he is.


Suddenly you're fifty;
if you know anything about steps
you're playing chess
with an old, complicated friend.

But you're walking to a schoolyard
where kids are playing full court,
telling yourself
the value of experience, a worn down

basketball under your arm,
your legs hanging from your waist
like misplaced sloths in a county
known for its cheetahs and its sunsets.

I do have complicated friends--that much I'll admit. But I don't play chess or shuffleboard or bocca ball or board games. Just don't. Yet. My time will come.

But every day I stand up in front of 20-year-olds I feel just like the poet, even though it's been years since there was a basketball under my arm. Every day I see their eyes wander out of the classroom and into neighborhoods vastly more inviting; every day I watch boredom overtake them like a virus; every day I see how more and more unseen I get as I grow older; and that's why everyday I tell them--although I never say it out loud--that I'm vastly more important than they think I am. After all, good night, I've got all this experience. I know what I'm talking about. I been there, done that. They haven't. And what the heck is wrong with them for not listening, for not caring, anyway?

Every day that happens. And on the 10K of this job I've been at for 40 years, I'm not all that far from the finish line.

I get that last line, too--legs like "misplaced sloths"--because I don't dance down long flights of stairs, and I use handrails when I go up. I don't even try to run, even if I'm late. I'll take the heat rather than the breakdown. I sure ain't a cheetah. But then, I never was.

But there's always sunsets. So there.

Whatever running I was blessed to be able to do, it's over. But there are always sunsets. Check 'em out. There are always sunsets.

When eventually I leave the classroom, I'm going to be someone who regularly and devotely attends sunsets.

This morning's Writer's Almanac offering is a blessing, not because it's me. That's not it at all. It's a blessing because Stephen Dunn somehow gives me enough space in this little personal offering to find myself. That's not ego either--at least I hope it's not. He's just helped me know myself a little better, no small gift.

The best writing--for good or ill--almost always tells us about ourselves. And there I am, sitting in some chair somewhere, in a land of sunsets.

This morning I'm thankful for a poem.

"Losing Steps" by Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours. (c) W.W. Norton, 2002.

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