Tuesday, July 05, 2005

I'm Your Venus...

Saturday was one of the best days of the summer so far - at least it was for me. Why? Because the #14 seed, Venus Williams defeated the #1 seed, Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon. I was thrilled that it was an all-American final match. I was thrilled that Lindsay was able to come back after her back injury and play very well despite her pain. But I was beyond thrilled, bouncing up and down in my bed, cheering, yelling and screaming for quite a while when the match ended and Venus had won. I was sad that Serena wasn’t there to cheer on her big sister and to celebrate with her that night. Even though they are divorced now, Venus’ parents were there in her box, both cheering her on, both groaning whenever she missed shots or double-faulted. But they were all vindicated; all of us, her loyal fans, were vindicated when the match ended and she was crowned victorious. It was as though the Venus had arisen from the ashes, defeated the enemies of doubt, criticism, and cynicism, and proved that there is still fire in those 25 year old bones. Although she is profoundly and embarrassingly inarticulate at times when she is interviewed, Venus didn’t need words to express her joy this time. As the tournament officials prepared for the awards ceremony, she stood up. She sat down. She laughed. She covered her face. She looked up at her family. She looked down at the grass beneath her happy and hopping feet. Her joy was inexpressible and uncontainable. Congrats to Venus, the three-time Wimbledon Champion. May you have many more!

Later I took a few minutes to try to figure out why it meant so much to me that she won. It didn’t take long to find the reasons why.

Like Venus, I often find myself in the position of underdog, written off, dismissed. When we moved to Charlotte, some skeptical friends thought we were making a foolish decision to leave Connecticut for North Carolina. Several of them posited that it was downright dangerous to move to a segregated South with our integrated family. Long before that, many had advised against our marriage; after all, they said, interracial marriages don’t usually work out. With the divorce rate in this country hovering just above 50%, I wondered which types of couples had any greater or lesser advantage over any other. Proudly and happily, I can report that last week we celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary. Several years before that, there were friends and neighbors who said that leaving New York City for a tiny college in a tiny town called Williamstown Massachusetts was nothing short of idiotic. Those ended up being four of the best years of my life thus far. Millions, it seemed, have been sitting on the sidelines shouting advice and jeers and taunting me for nearly four decades.

The good news is that there have always been a handful of dear friends in my box who have cheered me on. Like Venus’ parents, some of my loved ones won’t speak to each other for unknown reasons, but they watch out for me. They call out words of encouragement. They travel with me from tournament to tournament. Usually when one cannot attend, someone else will take their place. There are photographers in the crowd, writers, artists who have rendered images and words about me that have shown me just how much they love me. Those are the people who have never doubted that I could come back after injuries, downfalls, and even when I have inexplicably quit in the middle of the game. There are the trainers who follow me into the locker room, rub balm into my aching spirit, put ice on my rage, and help me stretch out the tension in my heart. With my eyes and ears and heart open for all the love that never stopped spilling over from that corner of my life where my friends gather, I have been able to stay in the match even when I am down two sets and two breaks. For every one of them, for all of you, I am profoundly and inarticulately grateful.

There was another reason why Venus’ victory touched me so deeply: even with all our supporters in the crown, this game of life is a singles’ match. In the dark moments when no one else knows what I’m thinking and worrying about, in those quiet times when I am afraid and overwhelmed, and even in the midst of the busyness of life, family reunions, extended vacations, getting together with friends for dinner and holiday celebrations, and soul-jolting conversations, I am alone. There is simply no way to avoid the fact that I single-handedly must do the work of soul building, face the fear factor, fight for every point against the onslaught of despair, and eventually receive the prize that awaits me when this match called life is over. During the toughest times, when churches I attend explode and fall to pieces, when friends and family fall ill and die, when job loss happens, when loneliness forms a thick curtain around me and no one is able to rend the veil, that’s when I am forced to tune out the noise of the madding crowd, focus on the single task at hand, the single ball that is hurtling towards me with impossible spin and unstoppable force. When my father died in March of 2001 and then September 11th happened six months later and my brother got sick at the end of the same year and my husband lost his job six months after that, I had one simple goal every day: get out of bed. After that, the rest was easy. Getting dressed, making breakfast, teaching the kids, keeping the house clean, boosting Steve’s spirits during the job search, teaching a Bible study, keeping up with my writing group assignments, maintaining friendships by phone, email, and in person – all of that was much easier once I got out of bed. One shot at a time.

Maybe the tennis analogy has gone too far now, but the truth never goes too far. Venus came back and won last Saturday because she never gave up on herself. She never allowed her many injuries and defeats to prevent her from playing on. Her critics never got closer to her than her loyal supporters. She never allowed the reputation or ranking of her opponents intimidate her. She played as hard as she could every game of every match. She learned from her faults and gained the determination to reduce their frequency and their import. The cheers and groans of the crowd had no bearing on the outcome of the tournament. In the end, she alone had to play. She had to serve when it was her turn, and she had to return serve when it wasn’t her turn. The court, as large as it is, is a solitary place. No one else can play the match in her place. But the good news is that no one else’s name was written on the check she received either.

It’s uncanny sometimes how closely sports imitate life.

No comments: