Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blue Skies and Empty Ballfields: A Year-End Reflection

Here we find that we are still a nation of countless shades and shapes, heartening and hearty. Orwell’s fears have made little headway at the ballpark. There we still find it easy to remember where we are and why we came. – Thomas Boswell (Why Time Begins on Opening Day)
Winter has quietly arrived and a new year beckons. The temperatures are unseasonably warm for this time of year, which allows me to extend my daily walks and further contemplate the mysteries of time and space. “It’s coming on Christmas [and] they’re cutting down trees,” sings Joni Mitchell in River. “They’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace.” December is a time of year that invites quiet reflection.

Another year has come and gone. The years pass ever so swiftly that it is becoming harder for me to remember this year from last. It seems like only yesterday when I taught my girls how to ride bikes and kick soccer balls and helped with their homework; when we watched movies and ate pizza together on Saturday evenings. Now, Hannah is about to start her final semester of college before venturing forth into the great unknown. Jen has established her own independence and rhythm to life in Washington that requires less and less of my attention.  As the years advance, I must learn to stand back and allow my daughters to paint the canvases of their lives. If only the passage of time had not clouded the intricate details of memory that inevitably fade as we grow older; all of those little joys and rewarding moments of fatherhood trapped in time and the recesses of my mind.

On the Sunday afternoon before Christmas, the baseball field at Alverthorpe Park is at rest. Home plate is covered with a thin layer of dirt, patiently awaiting the arrival of spring and the caress of an umpire’s brush. The dirt is dry and unkempt; the grass cold and abandoned. And yet, there is something about an empty ballfield in winter, when the sun shines brightly on the outfield grass and the blue sky illuminates the long shadows creeping towards the pitcher’s mound, which directs me to the lost years of my youth.

The field is lonely and empty, yet graceful. It exudes a quiet peacefulness that allows my mind to wander onto the ballfields of days long past, when the simple act of swinging a wooden bat and solidly connecting with a pitched ball was the greatest feeling in the world. And when two hours on a ballfield every day after school, fielding ground balls and shagging flies, practicing cut-off throws and taking my hacks, was all I needed to erase the anxieties and pressures of life.

As a young boy, I found inspiration in the smell of the grass, the feel of Rawlings leather on my glove hand, the grip of the ball as I placed my index and middle fingers on the perfectly stitched seams. This is what occupied my thoughts, hopes, and dreams. To this day, I love to throw and catch a baseball on an open field. When no one is looking, I stand in the batter’s box, swing at an imaginary pitch, and run the bases. It is childish and silly, I know, but the world is a confusing and messy place, haunted by violence, betrayed by fear, imprisoned by intolerance. Sometimes, running the bases is the best I can do to recapture the lost innocence of youth.

There comes a time when we realize that we have outgrown the game, that the serious things in life must push aside our adolescent dreams. But that cannot last. Life is too short and precious. “Gradually we realize the sport is distinguished more by its contemplation than its action,” writes Thomas Boswell. And then, “one summer, the game grabs us again.” We suddenly realize that baseball is part of our being, that we need the game more than it needs us.

Standing at home plate, I can almost hear the crack of the bat and the smooth pop of the ball when it lands firmly in the webbing of the first baseman’s glove; I experience in my mind the cadence and rhythm of the game, of batting practice and fielding drills, the chatter and quick release of the ball as it’s tossed around the infield. Only the chill of the December air betrays my imagined spring game. I look around and see geese flying overhead. And I begin my walk back home.  

Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. -- Abraham Joshua Heschel

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