It all started last Spring when the school year was over and we were headed full-bore into summer. I decided that I wanted to start a tradition where I would read literature over the summer that shared a theme. Last summer, I chose baseball, a sport that I've loved since I was kid. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of baseball on the TV. It was always the Braves on TBS, so some of the players I grew up with were Dale Murphy and Bob Horner.
Last summer's reading included novels like The Art of Fielding and The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. But I also dove into some non-fiction as well. And that's when I found R.A. Dickey's book, Wherever I Wind Up. I had heard about Dickey and his skill as a knuckleball pitcher. The knuckleball has a bit of mystique around it in the baseball world. It's a bizarre pitch that only a few men have ever really mastered - even then, I'm not sure one can "master" it as much as "appease the gods" when throwing it. It's a pitch that has a mind of its own. It's a pitch that flutters and dips and side-passes. When it's good, it's impossible to hit. When it's bad, everybody and their brother can homer off you. The problem is, the pitcher doesn't really have much say as to whether it's good or bad.
RA Dickey throwing the knuckleball - notice how he has his fingernails dug into the ball
A pitcher throwing a knuckleball doesn't hold onto the ball tightly. Instead, he grips with his fingernails on top of the ball, and then he sort of "shoves" the ball at the plate. The resulting pitch has little or no rotation (unlike all other pitches in baseball), so the aerodynamics/physics of it are impossible to predict.
So, purely from a baseball point of view, I was interested in Dickey. And then I read his autobiography. Wow. I can't fathom the courage it must have taken for him to write about sexual abuse that he had hidden for years - and his honesty in looking at his baseball career was simultaneously heart-warming and frightening. Dickey came out of college (at the University of Tennessee where he was an English major...yay!) as a top pitching prospect. He had been offered a lot of money to pitch for the Rangers...until a routine physical showed that he didn't have the collateral ulnar ligament in his throwing arm. This is the ligament that literally holds the elbow together. Doctors couldn't believe he could turn a doorknob, let alone throw a fastball in the low 90mph range. Needless to say, the high-dollar deals vanished and Dickey ended up bouncing around the minor leagues for nearly a decade.
Last year, as I was reading all this and researching the knuckleball and watching YouTube videos of its strangeness (you can watch one by clicking here), Dickey just happened to be having the season of his life. He was in the big leagues, pitching for the Mets. And he officially became my favorite baseball player. I know I just committed some sort of sin, being a Cubs fan (we're supposed to hate all things Mets, especially since the disastrous 1969 season). But I couldn't help but root for him. And it seems like a lot of other folks liked what he did, too, because he ended up with the highest honor a pitcher can win, the Cy Young Award.
I was thrilled for him! I felt somehow connected to him, and I watched every interview with him that I could. I was struck by the way he reacted to winning the Cy Young, and it echoed the closing of his book. He said that he was learning how to enjoy the happiness, how to feel comfortable being successful. He had always felt like everything good was only a few moments away from being taken away from him (looking at his life story, it's not hard to see why he felt this way), so he was working hard on "staying present" and just enjoying this success.
Wow. That rings so true in my head and my heart. Even though I don't have the same horrible events in my past that Dickey does, I still entertain that kind of "catastrophic thinking." I still lay awake at night and get physically scared (increased heartrate and breathing, sweaty palms, the whole nine yards) at what MIGHT be - I'll lose my job; my horse will get hurt and die; Jim may die; everything I have and love will disappear.
In the past, I've translated that fear into drive. I am relentlessly driven to succeed at whatever I do. I don't just want to do something - I want to be the best at it. And yet, when success comes, it's so hard for me to accept and be happy with. Instead, I get scared that it'll disappear, or that I won't be "good enough" to maintain it. And then, everyone around me will know it was just by chance that I was successful in the first place - that I was just a flash in the pan - that I'm truly a fraud.
I know none of that last sentence is true. I know that those who love me would never think or believe such things. And so, like R.A. Dickey, I'm learning how to be present in success and in happiness. Life ISN'T something we can control (much like that fluttering knuckleball Dickey throws), but I can still rest in what I have right now.
And what I have right now is pretty darn special. I have an amazing husband who loves me and whom I love. I have great friends, some of whom I've known for decades and still feel comfortable and real around. I have a home and a job that I love. I have pets that I've wanted since I was a little girl - a dog and a horse. And....speaking of the horse....just look at her!
This was us about six years ago
And this is us last fall
She's so cool. What a good mare!