Crowded in the small building, bleary-eyed from an early morning wake-up call, we waited, jumpy as cats, to hear our beloved state called, and to do battle. The organizer, Helen, Tibetan-monk cheerful, commenced the roll call.
“Tennessee. Mississippi,” she crooned.
“Sounds like a political convention,” I quipped.
But it wasn’t. If anything, it was the complete opposite. Instead of a cavernous arena filled with delegates, there were only rime-crusted clay courts, and a determined group of women tennis players vying not for a political platform, or candidate, but a regional championship.
Getting to Alabama and the Southern Sectionals, as they’re called, is an arduous task. It requires first a league, then a state championship. Our team represented North Carolina, had represented them two years before as well, a rather remarkable feat given how enormously popular amateur tennis is, especially for women of a certain age. But we did it, primarily because of our captain, who scours the countryside (well, less dramatically, the Triangle) for the very best tennis players. Relentlessly. The result has been teams over the years that cross party lines, races, religions, and, yes, even preferences in a certain college basketball rivalry.
But all of that–and I mean all of it–means nothing compared to our common goal. Even given the addictive allure of daily political firestorms (like the road kill that we vow not to, but can’t help but look at), we rarely discuss, though we are certainly aware of, our political differences. We sport liberals and conservatives, probably a few Tea Party devotees, and one Libertarian, who a few years back was her party’s nominee in North Carolina for governor. It’s not that we are indifferent; several teammates are quite active in local politics. It just doesn’t matter. After all, in the heat of a tennis match, who the heck cares if someone trends red or blue? When my doubles partner drops a shot over the net, the likes of which would get props from Serena, or I watch breathlessly from the sidelines as another teammate fearlessly slams a winner between her opponents to pull out a third-set tie break, the very last thing I’m thinking about is who they voted for in November.
And off the court? At the tournament, between matches, we catch up with each other’s lives. Nearly all on the team are mother-women who tend to their husbands, children and grands. They share stories both joyful and heart-breaking, the likes of which reveal a profound level of sacrifice and care they just seem to take in stride. Most are current or retired professionals, in high school and college teaching, nursing, real estate, and business. Occasionally, politics will creep in, but ever so fleetingly and ever so briefly. Perhaps, some may argue, we should have a conversation about HB2 or the Muslim ban or so-called Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces. But that would leave time for little else, the chapters in our lives that do not make the evening news, or the 24-hour news cycle, or, like an infectious disease, go viral.
The real magic for us happens on the court. We, this disparate group of women, do, as Toni Morrison says, something “appropriately and well.” We win. And win. And win. Though we did not take the Sectionals trophy back to North Carolina this time, we were runners-up. We set aside our differences when doing so has become for our country increasingly pie-in-the-sky, even shockingly prohibitive. Perhaps therein lies the nature of our success, of a championship team, or, by extension, a truly great nation.
Dr. Seuss blew it. Missed an opportunity. That’s hard to swallow, I know. He is, after all, one of the most beloved authors in all of children’s literature. Still, there was a moment. He could have capitalized on his instantly recognizable and enduring creation, the Grinch. Instead, Seuss ended his reign of nastiness in one book, with an explosive and literal change of heart.
After that, the Grinch was finished. Mean, greenish (mottled?) thug morphs into Mr. Nice Guy. Game over.
Unless. There’s a sequel. Let’s call it something like “The Grinch Returns.” No. Better: “The Grinch Reverts.” In this book, the Grinch, as many of us do, suffers a post-holiday funk. His Christmas spirit, so bright it powered all of Whoville, has evaporated. Though he has become the model Who-sier, generous and kind, he finds himself alone, without a hint of a love interest, and Valentine’s Day only twenty-four-hours away. Feeling duped, his bitterness returns, like a tsunami. He vows to take down the celebration that mocks his loneliness. The night before, dressed as cupid, he sneaks around and makes a clean sweep of florists, chocolatiers, and Hallmarks. Not finished, he slithers into homes, snatching anything in the shape of a heart. But then, at his last stop, he runs into–you guessed it–little Cindy Lou Who.
Well, not quite. This time, Cindy Lou is in bed, fast asleep. But she has left on the table, amongst dozens of other hand-made Valentines, one for the Grinch himself. It is the biggest, gaudiest, and garishly red of all. In that moment, it dawns upon the Grinch that Valentine’s Day was not intended as a cruel reminder of what he does not have. It is an undying expression of what is given, the unrelenting beat of the heart through the ages. As it had on Christmas, the Grinch’s own heart nearly bursts with largess and gratitude. But this time, in the sequel, on a day that honors love in all of its guises, there’s no going back.
When I was growing up, the middle child in a pack of eight, I remember my mother saying to us “You don’t have to toot your own horn.” How quaint and old-fashioned that sounds today, in this age of self-promotion, so like those raucous frogs on Emily Dickinson’s lily pads who are relentlessly “public.”
My mother’s words stick with me still, as does most of my impossibly happy childhood. There wasn’t much need back then, to wrangle for position or attention; my brilliant, intuitive parents made sure of that. Out in the Michigan countryside, surrounded by farms but not part of one, we grew to appreciate each other’s unique talents and gifts, without fearing we might get lost in the shuffle.
But how to square my mother’s lessons in quiet humility with my own efforts now to launch a blog, a website, a cyber “presence”? Uncomfortable at best, a traitor of sorts at worst.
And yet. Here I am. Because I realize my mother did not mean for her children to mute their trumpets. Rather, she taught us to focus on becoming our best selves. That way, we would be too busy expressing our humanity, to have to endlessly prove it.