A Girl Plays Football

“Hey, the Packers are going to beat your Cowgirls!” a student said.

And I corrected the student, “Don’t put down a team by calling them girls.” See, I believe in gender equality. I am a follower of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who believed that everyone should have equal access to opportunity.

Last year there was an ad on during the SuperBowl. It was about running like a girl. Did you see it?

The commercial spoofed the stereotype that girls could not run well. But they can. The ad showed that many kids thought the phrase, “run like a girl,” was an insult. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. Run, fight, throw like a girl. That takes courage. We all must do things that require courage. We all must be unconventional.

I’m going to tell you a little story.

This is the story of a girl who played a lot of two-hand touch football with her brothers and cousins. Her Uncle Tom N. was a great coach in Park Ridge, Illinois. One boy who went on to play college football and become a coach himself said Mr. N. was the best coach he ever had. Uncle Tom was patient, kind, smart. But he made one big mistake at a family party.

See, at this big party with lots of cousins, Uncle Tom was throwing a nerf football around the dining room to only the boys. But one girl jumped up and caught it. An interception. Yes. the girl.

“Hey, you’re pretty good. Too bad you’re a girl. And you can’t play football.”

“I can play,” the girl said.

“No you can’t. But just to prove it — If you want to try out tomorrow for the team, you can. But I won’t give you any special consideration because you’re a girl or because you’re my niece,” he said.  “Don’t feel bad if you get cut — Only half of the boys who try out make the cut.”

So this girl showed up with her little brother John to try out for the Mighty Might football team, the Vikings. She was very scared. But she did not let on.

She did her very best. There were tires on the ground and she hiked up her knees and hopped in and out of the tires. And there was a catching practice. And she caught it just like she always did when playing with her brothers or her cousins – one hand on top, one hand on the bottom and she hugged it to herself and ran fast. Faster than the boys.

And during the scrimmage of the touch football – they didn’t have their equipment yet — she was so scared of getting tagged, she ran even faster. She played her heart out. She even got to throw the ball and she jerked it back next to her ear just like she always did. ‘Cause see, she played like a girl – a fast, athletic, capable girl.

After the tryout, when her father picked her and her brother up from the tryout, she told him that she and John had done well. She felt proud. She felt like a winner.

And that night they got a phone call. The girl made the team, but her little brother John didn’t. (In fairness to John, he did not make the age cut off. It had nothing to do with ability.) But she never went on to play in a team. She just wanted to prove that she could make the team. And she did.

And that girl was me. So, never say, a girl can’t play football, because she can. She just might not want to.

When I was a girl, schools did not really implement Title IX yet. You know what it is, right? It’s a law that says public schools have to give equal funding to girls’ sports as boys’. And there were other ways that schools, when I was little, weren’t fair. I loved wood shop, but I could only take shop one quarter of the year and three-quarters of the year, I had to take cooking and sewing.

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That didn’t seem right. So in middle school, I ran for and became the first girl president of Lincoln Junior High. I’m not sure if I made much of a difference. But there was an article in the local newspapers and maybe some minds started to change through my small acts of resistance about what girls could do.

Although women are not represented very well in the government in the U.S., in many countries half of the elected officials are women. In churches too, we have come a long way but we have a ways to go. As a girl, before Third Grade, I attended Saint Joan of Arc school in Skokie, Illinois and I could not be an Altar Boy. In Communion class in Second Grade, I asked the priest, Why can’t women be priests? And I’m still asking that.

So my message is: we must judge one another on the content of our characters and not on the way we look.

We can do better. We must do better.

  1. Girls are just as good as boys.
  2. Do not judge a book by its cover.

In English class we talked about how cool it is when a character is not how they, at first, appear. Take Chewbacca in Star Wars. How does he look? (Wait) Big, scary, mean. But you couldn’t have a better friend — a gentle giant.

Dr. Martin Luther King talked about we need to do in a sermon that is often called “A Tough Mind, A Tender Heart.” He talked about a creative solution to resist inequality. Thank you to Rev. Andrew Stehlik of Rutgers Church for his sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, which inspired me.

Dr. Martin Luther King said:

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the political officials and protectors of the old order.  He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.”

And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

That was what he said. We must have soft hearts. We must give everyone a chance and we must be aware of the potential in everyone. We must encourage everyone. We must ask, Why? Why can’t we all be equal? Why should we put someone down for how they look? Or whether they are a boy or girl?

What can we do? Resist the status quo. Do not become lazy or timid when you hear someone put another person down. Or when you hear a boy call another boy, ‘a girl’ as an insult.

And this goes for ourselves too. Do not put yourselves down.

I tell you:  be more loving. To each other and to ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that. So did Jesus. Dr. King said we have to love everyone, even those who were hating on us. He said, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”

In other words, love the hater but reject the system that encourages hate.

At the end of his sermon, Dr. King said,

When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance.  When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in God’s nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

I want to end with one more upshot to my brief career as a football player. After that Vikings football season, between fifth and sixth grade, I took a summer school class on newspaper reporting. I wrote about my experience playing football. And a lot of other students, and even teachers and parents, said they saw my article in the school paper and they liked it. It made them think. And that summer school class probably inspired me in high school to work on the school paper, and, years later, to become a professional writer.

I saw that writing might start to change people’s minds –and I would not have not known that, had I not tried out for the football team. So take a risk, try something new. Just because everyone says you’re good at football doesn’t mean you can’t knit too. In fact, when I was a girl, there was a football player named Rosie Grier and he was a writer too, He wrote a book, Needlepoint for Men.

He was unconventional. So was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So was Jesus. You should be unconventional too.

This is a slightly revised version of a chapel talk I gave to elementary school students after Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Why?

One of my daughters asked, “Why did he have to take her?”

The kids’ Sunday School teacher, Joyce Mwanalushi Landu, died suddenly while visiting her family in Zambia a couple of weeks ago. We learned the news last week. And it hit us very hard. I think Joyce was probably near 50 and the cause of death was heart-related.

Joyce was a beautiful, creative, spiritual person.

In a tribute at church yesterday, Laura talked about how Joyce never raised her voice or was physically affectionate or demonstrative, yet the kids were drawn to her and knew they had her respect. And she had theirs.

I believe Joyce truly loved my kids. Losing someone who loves you and whom you love is always crazy. It calls to mind all those people you’ve loved and who’ve died. A death makes you wonder about your own death and what kind of legacy you will leave. I would like to be remembered as someone who loved unconditionally, as Joyce did.

Australian hospice nurse Bronnie Ware, in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, said that a top common regret from every dying man she tended was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” I know I work very hard, sometimes too hard. But then, I play hard too. (This book was quoted in that Atlantic article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All)

I understand nothing of God’s plan. Why did Chris have to get Parkinson’s? I am tongue-tied when my kids ask “Why?”

the kids at Rutgers Church during prayer time

All I know is that I have to love the people I’m traveling through life with. I have to make art and love my peeps.

I have to remember:

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that — but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself.  –Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet (1903)

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Day of Rest

I rode my bike very fast across the walkways in Central Park to get to my day of rest. (I note the irony.) I thought I’d take a short cut behind Belvedere Castle. But I hit Shakespeare’s Garden and endless steps. Shoot. I had to slow down. I had to bounce my bike up and down the steps.

I do not like being late. Yet I am frequently late. 

I got to 95th Street and Fifth Avenue but felt lost. I’d expected a church. Instead, I got a mansion, a beautiful retreat center, the House of the Redeemer, just off the park.

Our small group from Rutgers Church talked about times we’d felt refreshed. We reported that we’d felt relaxed during a storm with the lights out, while laid up in the hospital, on vacation in the Caribbean, or pausing for a moment when we ran near the ocean. I felt relaxed just talking about relaxation.

But I could not rest long. At lunch time, I had to bike again back across the park to meet the kids at the post office to renew and reapply for our passports. (I avoided the gardens.) I don’t know where we’re going, but I know we must be ready to go.

We will probably be late for wherever we are going. We will probably go the wrong way. We will probably hit steps when we least expect them. But I bet the place will be better than we had imagined, once we do arrive.

Becoming a Stricter Parent

On one of the first days of Middle School, my twin daughters did not return home. It was 5 pm. Then 6 pm. My attitude moved from mildly worried to wildly apoplectic.

I walked over to their school, wondering if they’d stayed after drama class for some show in the auditorium. The police officer at the front desk (yes, NYC public schools have cops at the entrance) told me that all the school kids were gone from the building.

It started to rain. I walked down Amsterdam Avenue peering into the Jewish Community Center, wondering if they’d stopped in the café there.

I called home. My son told me they hadn’t come home yet. My phone rang. It was the pastor from Rutgers Church. I do not remember why he called.

But I blurted out, “My girls are missing. I can’t talk. I have to find them. I’m sure they’re fine.”

“Strict yet loving,” he told me. “As a parent, you must be strict yet loving.” I loved that. I especially loved how he said it – with his Czechoslavakian accent.

I have the loving part down. The strict part? Not so much.

My phone sang. My son reported that the girls had wandered into the apartment, unaware that they were late. The girls had stopped at Cosi’s café with a new girlfriend, keeping her company until her mother came to pick her up.

I got them on the phone, “Thank God you’re safe. But you are not to stop anywhere but home after school. For any reason.  Without asking me. Got that?” They agreed.  “Okay, I’m stopping in at the JCC for the support group. I need it. You kids make me crazy.”

I aim for “strict, yet loving,” yet actually deliver “make you feel guilty yet loving.”

***

This post is partly a response to my previous post — about how I feel sorry for my kids so I let them off the hook in terms of chores. And then I feel resentful and exhausted because no one but me does any damn housework. i.e., just yesterday, I worked all day, hosted the kids at the cafeteria for lunch, then came home and worked all night, including packing their stuff for today’s 7-hour train ride to the Adirondacks. (Fun! http://mybeautifulnewyork.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/trains-are-better-than-planes/ ) Then last night at 11 pm, they wanted to wrestle on my bed, where I had finally settled in for ten minutes of Me Time with a book.

“I’m sorry I’m done for the day, my friend,” I told my littlest darling. “You are too. Go to bed.”

I suck at setting boundaries.

That reminds me — I have gotten into some conversations after that post on making my kids do more housework. I know I have to make them work harder around the house. It is not easy for me. I have to try. I have to be strict yet loving.

The Labyrinth

I really had a lot to do. I had to finish writing two stories. But as I was dashing out of the Experience Hall, I bumped into my friend, Rachel Harvey.

“Great to see you!” I said. Rachel seemed even calmer than usual. “Love to stay and talk but I gotta’ get to the Press Room.” That’s me — busy, busy — but good busy.

“Wait. First, check out the Meditation Room. I just came from there. You can wear a prayer shawl, walk a labyrinth,” Rach said.

I’m a sucker for labyrinths. So I took Rach’s advice and visited the Meditation Room.

There were shawls draped on almost every chair. There were small gardens and a trickle of a waterfall. Women chatted quietly in pairs. Some sat silently by themselves. Some knitted, some quilted, some wrote and posted prayers on a wall.

The labyrinth was in the back. I slipped off my sandals and set off on my path. I was a little leery. Perhaps there were six people ahead of me. That seemed a little too crowded for a meditative walk.

But I walked quickly. I had to hurry. Deadlines loomed. My bare feet liked the feeling as they hit the canvas. My feet slowed down.

I remembered another time I’d walked the labyrinth. Ten years ago, I’d been with my women’s Bible Study group in the basement of Rutgers Church. It was right after I’d given birth to my twins. I’d been feeling ashamed of my body as I walked that labyrinth in the church basement. It wasn’t returning to its shape after my daughters’ birth.

At the center of the labyrinth then, I’d received a gift — a small rock sculpture of an elephant. “That’s me,” I thought. “I have a sagging once-beautiful body and a sagging once-buoyant spirit.” I had to admit to myself, newborn twins were an incredible joy, but also draining. (Literally, too, for I’d breastfed them for a year.)

I’d felt like a humongous mammal. After walking the labyrinth that day, some of my shame lifted. I’d whispered to my friend Holly at the edge of that labyrinth, “The elephant in the center of the walk was a perfect symbol for me. That’s how I feel. And though I know it’s wrong to call myself an elephant, elephants are beautiful too. Even though they’re saggy, they’re strong. Like that elephant, I can go far. That’s me, the elephant,” I said, smiling.

“It’s not an elephant,” Holly said. “It’s just a rock. Look.” And I looked back at the empty labyrinth and she was right, I’d made up the elephant in the center of the labyrinth. It was only a rock.

So, at Assembly this weekend, I wondered in this crowded labyrinth how I’d feel when I reached the center of the labyrinth. What gift awaited me in the center of this walk? It was the word Peace. I knelt down and ran my fingers over the smooth lines of the small sculpture. There was a small bird in front of the letters. (By the way, it was clearly a bird, I didn’t make it up this time.) I loved that little bird. That animal symbolized me too — darting, flying, hurrying, perched.

‘Great, now that I’d had my spiritual experience — Peace, I really have to get to the Press Room. The stories won’t write themselves,’ I thought.

I encountered an obstacle — a slow walker ahead of me on the labyrinth. I debated passing her. She was exceedingly slow. I had to go.

Then I remembered the Meditation Class I’d had at St. John the Divine with Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein. He had told us to walk in the St. John garden mindfully. To be aware of each foot as it hit the pavement. I tried this at Assembly as I waited for the woman ahead of me to hurry up.

I became aware of my breathing. With one step, I inhaled. With another, I exhaled. I slowed down. I felt relaxed as I walked. I tried walking with my eyes closed. I was aware of my breathing with each foot fall — heel, ball, toe. I contemplated nothingness.

Then, I realized something — I was now the slow one. A woman behind me seemed slightly impatient with my tempo. The woman who had seemed so slow was now way ahead of me.

Finally, I left the labyrinth.

I sat cross-legged on the floor. I took my time. I made a quilt square, wrote a prayer on the wall, prayed for others.

Ready to leave, the woman near the exit asked if I wanted to receive an anointing. “Yes,” I said. She put oil in my palms. We hugged.

I walked slowly back to the Press Room. Along the way, I bumped into another friend, Joanne Reich. I took my time chatting with her. I did not rush. The stories I was assigned to write could wait. They would, in fact, write themselves. I had my own story to tell. I advised Joanne to walk the labyrinth.

Peacemaking and War

Yesterday, I woke before the family and attended the 9:30 am class at Rutgers Church on War. Rather than looking at whether churches should support or resist war, the group thought about what we can do to make peace.

I love small-scale solutions. Thinking small is big right now. Small is hot!

Here was one of my ideas:

Offer classes for kids on conflict resolution. At our local public school, all three of my kids in fifth grade were trained as conflict mediators. They patrol the schoolyard to help the littler kids handle fights.

Conflict mediation totally works. When family members argue in our house, the kids remind us and each other to follow rules and help family members adhere to these rules during arguments. The rules include listening well during conflicts. Do not interrupt.

They’ve learned to restate each other’s opinions, to hear the other side, to work together to common ground. It is a beautiful thing. Of course, they’re not perfect angels, but they have mediation and diplomacy skills which will benefit them their whole lives.

Here’s another cool idea from the Rutgers Church class — allow a new structure to grow within an old structure. The new structure will take over like a flower sprouting up within a garden. Peace is like that too. Work within a church for peace and peace will bloom.

I want to write more about conflict resolutions, but I have to get to my exercise class. That is another way to peace – getting physical. Breathing.