THE ENDLESS GRIP

Certainly you have experienced this feeling. If you are human, if you are equipped with a searching and hungry ego (and even if you think you aren’t– but then you’d be lying to yourself). Surely, if you have lived in society and not in a monastery your whole life, you have been discomfited in this way. An irritating seed of ambition niggles at your psyche like a raspberry pip in your teeth which your tongue can’t leave alone. This sprouting ambition, nebulous, nameless at first, doesn’t have a specific target, just the desire to achieve something not just remarkable but unlikely. Spurning more natural, inborn talents, this naive seed of ego casts about for a more remote even impossible option for greatness: an Everest, an Olympic Medal, or perhaps just breaking 100 in the game of golf.

In the summer of 2008, after a battle with cancer, as I labored to regain my physical strength, and vent the fighting spirit that cancer engenders, my husband, Ralph, took me golfing at Palmer Golf Course, Palmer Alaska. Strangely, in spite of the briefest of seasons for lush fairways and velvet putting greens, golf is a highly popular pastime in Alaska. According to the sales person who ushered me through the aisles of tees, gloves, hats, and golf shoes one Saturday, the Sports Authority in Anchorage is one of the chain’s highest sellers of golf equipment. With the long summer hours of daylight, Alaskans have the luxury of tee times well into the evening hours.

In pictures of those first few rounds, I look gaunt, slightly hunched over, a bundle of skin and bones sitting in the golf cart pretty much just along for the ride. As the summer progressed, the game got into my blood along with the strength to walk a full 18 holes. I would describe myself as a singer, a dancer, an artist, not the athletic type. But that all changed that year as I plowed my way through round after round at 14 strokes (or more) per hole.

I didn’t suspect the transformation that golf would ultimately demand. This is not just a sport. It is a mental breakdown in slow motion, round after round. The seed of my golfing ambition planted itself firmly as I looked forward with enthusiasm to punishing myself mercilessly on the course along the banks of the Matanuska River. Thorny emotions got tangled with the mechanics of the swing. Prickly weeds of confusion ran riot over the tender skills of chipping, putting, and keeping track of way too many strokes. My voice, made husky by radiation, succumbed to fertile expletives which had never before passed my lips. But given one terrific drive and a handful of well-struck putts and the strangling vines of frustration dropped away. I would leave the course happy and hopeful.

In the summer of 2011, my husband signed us up to play in a Cancer Society fundraiser best-ball tournament. This was a graduation day of sorts for me. I was healthier and stronger. The florid scars of cancer treatment had faded. The energy of my cancer battle had fully transferred to my improbable crusade to golf well. I am not competitive. I am profoundly self-conscious. I prefer not to have anyone see my pitiful golfing skills. Nevertheless, there I was playing in a tournament with veteran seekers of par. Ralph and I arrived at our shotgun starting hole before any other teams. I stanched my fear of being watched by jumping to the tee first. I planted my feet solidly and hit the ball with a satisfying ping. A well-timed rush of adrenaline sent my drive sailing high, straight, and long right down the middle of the fairway into the face of Pioneer Peak. My husband’s drive duck-hooked into the woods along the river. The other two men on our team sliced their drives into a grove of birch and highbush cranberry. My drive was the best ball. I marched proudly down the fairway to hit my second shot. I was captivated. I was also completely ignorant of the fact that my progress in the game up to that point was an illusion; a combination of tenacious will and pure naive luck.

In 2012, we moved to the Boise, Idaho area which is blessed with a wide array of golf courses from the mediocre to the deluxe. We bought a pass to River Birch Golf Course, a friendly and mildly challenging course with wide fairways and refreshing views. With the encouragement of our real estate agent, I joined the Boise chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association. At the opening chapter event of the 2013 season, the veil of my Alaskan golfing experience was stripped from my eyes. These women could really golf. They outdistanced my childish strokes by dozens of yards. I was in way over my head. By the end of that summer season, I was both frustrated to the point of nervous exhaustion, and still, even more serious about the game. Golf is a game of inches, not yards; of delicate body placement, not just crudely wrangled clubhead speed. Both the mechanics and the mindset require a humble assessment of things you thought you knew, and things you never supposed about who you are.

I dragged out every back issue of Golf magazine we owned and studied like a freshman hungry to get on the dean’s list. I developed a taste for viewing golf tournaments on television, which my childhood self would have found stupefyingly boring. I jealously examined the techniques of my fellow players. I drooled as I watched 11-year-old, 100 pound, Lucy Li’s 250-yard drives. It finally dawned on my brain, clear as the sunrise over the ball choked ponds at River Birch Golf Course: the golf swing is not about thousands of infinitesimal golf tips and the minutiae of equipment specs.

The golf swing is raw physics. The right movement of the body, in the right space, with the right rhythm, at the right pace. Grasp that firmly first.  Only then can you manage to keep the physics clean AND increase clubhead speed with the whipping action of the club. Swing with your body, not your arms. My mind was blown. Everything I had been doing to improve my game was all wrong. Just a random set of categorically unrepeatable actions.

My epiphany about the physics of the golf swing focused my attention on the science behind how my body should move. However, my mental state was as out of sync as my motions. I was too tightly wound. My heart raced. My thoughts shot about wildly resembling the wayward hooks, and slices of a crowded driving range. My hands gripped the club like it was the edge of a capsizing canoe sinking in a deep water hazard. I would run from ball position to ball position as if an Alaskan grizzly was chasing me. Quite simply my head was not in the game.

A bit of luck gave me the opportunity to attend a seminar on irons by a well known Boise golf pro. This man is the embodiment of ease and grace. He languidly moves through the golf swing with relaxed focus. His first instruction:  make no exclamations of dismay for bad hits and applaud every good one. His second instruction: never go out on the driving range and feverishly hit ball after ball after ball getting more and wound up and out of breath with every stroke. He encouraged hitting four or five balls, then stepping back to rest, slow down, and establish peace of mind.

The swing is physics, the mindset is calm. The pros don’t jog from position to position as if they are in a race with their opponent. They saunter. When tempers flare, they quickly shake off their nerves and irritations or they lose. The LPGA pros are even more collected.

No more racing, no more ranting, no more unwelcome worries on the course. Play one stroke at a time with full attention. This is the ultimate triumph of my crusade to break 100. I am fascinated by the physics of golf, but more importantly, the game has changed my inner life. I am learning to saunter, to slow my heart, to shake off anxieties, to move away from my ego. My golf ambition propelled me into a new phase of self-discovery: the peace of mindfulness, the endless grip of now.

 

 

Autumn and Sleepy Hollow

At my childhood home in Rancho Palos Verdes autumn came and went in California with only the sycamore tree dropping its leaves on the front yard.  I have since moved all over the country:  Utah, Wyoming, New York, Alaska, Washington, and Idaho and thankfully have more fully experienced the treasures of fall.   Because of that experience I can confidently assert that upstate New York is the capital of autumn.

We lived in the small village of Dryden, New York  and enjoyed two spectacular fall seasons.  The sticky heat of summer giving way to crisp mornings is the first hint of the season.  Pops of fiery color appear in the woods gradually envelope the hills, valleys, and farms. It seems every small village has its own river, stream, or waterfall along with a picturesque white steeple punctuating the blazing skyline.  At Cornell University Orchard store we tasted apples – Empire and Cortland varieties which I still crave – and filled our empty gallon jugs with fresh pressed apple cider.  On many Sunday drives we traveled country roads lined with produce stands, pumpkin fields, and corn mazes.

Our autumn color drives led us to Windham Mountain overlooking the Hudson River Valley where my husband’s ancestor, Peter, ran an inn back in the 1700’s. This is Sleepy Hollow country. This is where our American version of Halloween comes to life in the bounties of Squire Van Tassel’s harvest party and the terrors of the Headless Horseman. In our New York travels we saw many “Sleepy Hollow’s”: quaint towns festive with cornstalks and scarecrows. We witnessed the crumbling turrets of old mansions and mossy ancient cemeteries sinking into leafy soil. Tipsy pitted stones carved with R.I.P. and skull motifs show death dates going back to the early years of New York’s settlement. Halloween seems particularly authentic in the mystical countryside of the Hudson River Valley.  In the shadowy evocative hills and hollows of upstate New York I began to appreciate and savor the beauties of things neglected, spooky, and in disrepair and to follow the eerie allure of that which has been forgotten.

The mysteries and terrors of Halloween occupy miles of store shelves and hours of costuming fun but my favorite part of the fall season is the harvest.  I adore, and I do mean adore, the neat rows of bottled fruit in my pantry and the frozen gems of raspberry and strawberry jam in my freezer. The practice is labor intensive and not always a frugal practice still I find growing, harvesting, and preserving food to be deeply satisfy.  Perhaps I crave a hedge against insecurity and some future apocalypse.  Surely, home grown and home preserved food is the most delicious.  From Utah to Wyoming to Alaska to Idaho, I’ve  engaged in some large or small effort to preserve from my own garden or the local harvest.  In Utah, Wyoming, and Alaska that harvest included fishing and hunting:  deer, antelope, moose, salmon.   But as I contemplate writing about that particular harvest I realize it would take an additional essay for each adventure to be adequately detailed. I will save hunting expeditions for some other post.

Here, now,  in my home above Emmett, Idaho the buff colored hills are punctuated by spots of orange, yellow, and red.  The valley below is a patchwork of orchards and farms where we thankfully observe the the cycle of planting and harvesting. Last Sunday, we enjoyed a feast of autumn dishes with family: pork roast, potatoes, gravy, and apple-pear tart. This morning we turned on the gas fireplace to drive off the morning chill. Halloween is just a few days away.  My grandchildren will re-enact the yearly costume ritual redolent of  the road to Sleepy Hollow where their several times great grandfather, Peter,  served freshly harvested foods to weary travelers taking shelter from the terrors of the night on Windham Mountain in in upstate New York.