A festive, early summer’s morning atmosphere greeted Lizzie and me exactly one year ago, as we arrived at our community pool for swim team tryouts. For the week leading up to this defining moment, my seven-year-old would occasionally puzzle over the anxiety-producing concepts of “tryouts,” and “making,” or more specifically, “not making” the team.
Two weeks earlier, I researched this option, and was assured that my child would make the team if she could merely swim from one end of the pool to the other. I explained to the bureaucrat at our Rec Center, that like John Candy in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” I knew that Lizzie was fully capable of arriving at her final destination on the far end of the pool, but that her methods of getting there would not be orthodox. The administrator assured me that Lizzie would be “…just fine. It would be [their] job to teach her the proper strokes during the season.” Armed with this secret knowledge, whenever Lizzie voiced any trepidation over the impending swim test, I refrained from providing anxiety-reducing assurances. I figured that her success would taste that much sweeter if she interpreted the gathering as a real tryout.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but the week-long weather pattern just prior to our swim test provided a kind of refrigerator to chill the water down to the teeth-chattering, Wisconsin-cold-range on the pool thermometer. It took some coaxing, but Lizzie, and her other First and Second Grade cohorts finally managed to dunk their bodies, and then their heads into the bracing blue.
My first clue that things weren’t going to go as planned came when Gabrielle, a sprightly little Second Grader, launched herself like a miniature Michael Phelps, and arrived moments later at the finish line. When it came time to demonstrating proficiency in the backstroke (“The backstroke?!” “What happened to just making it to the other side?!”) Little Gabbie sported the most beautiful little smile that seemed to say, “Would you like me to balance a ball on my nose while I’m at it?” I wondered when the coach was going to throw her a fish.
The rest of the children followed a similar pattern of proficiency until it came time for Lizzie. With knowing little eyes, my blue-lipped daughter watched as her hopes of making the team diminished. When her turn finally arrived, she choked…both literally, and figuratively. By the time she made it to the end, she was in tears. The only momentary solace came when the last little girl, who nearly refused to get in the water, swam worse than my little girl. I listened in horror as her mother cajoled her with words like, “You know what’s at stake here! Now you get in that water, and swim to the other side!” After a prolonged poolside conference with this Tiger Mom, the swim coach walked over and informed me that Lizzie would not be on the team this year.
I suppressed the urge to point out the obvious discrepancy between what was advertised, and what had just happened. With the obvious gap between these children’s skills sets, and my daughter’s skill set, it occurred to me that it would have been a long, tortured summer for Lizzie if I somehow managed to twist the coach’s arm to get her onto the team. I turned to locate my little landlubber.
Lizzie stood like a solitary, towel-wrapped statue. When I approached, a single tear escaped her eye as she lisped through the missing teeth of her post-First Grade mouth, “I thtink!” (translated into English spoken with two front teeth: “I stink!”) Despite my protestations, Lizzie repeated her self-deprecating mantras. By the time we reached the car, she had turned her maledictions outward. “What a dumb sport! Just swimming back and forth in a line! I hate swimming! I never want to swim again!”
This Sunday, our tradition officially brings the Easter Season to its conclusion in the celebration of Pentecost. Since the time of my own Confirmation, I have always associated Confirmation with the word, “gifts.” “All good gifts around us,” the song goes, “are sent from heaven above.” One of the optional readings for this Pentecost Sunday (taken from 1 Corinthians 12) asserted that each of us has unique and differing gifts meant to be used by the Spirit to build up the Body of Christ.
Just about one Pentecost ago, Lizzie had to grapple with a logical corollary to this week’s second reading-and it was a realization just about as cold as a Memorial Day pool in Wisconsin. It goes something like this, the flip side of each having unique gifts, is that none of us has every gift. As much as she wanted to swim like Gabby, Lizzie swam like Lizzie. As much as I wanted to be a priest, twenty-six years ago, I came to the realization that I “thtink” at celibacy. To put Paul’s letter another way, “Despite what anyone tells you, you can’t be whatever you want to be.” At first blush, this doesn’t sound like a self-esteem builder. Or does it? Like my daughter, each mother’s child must eventually come to realistically accept his or her own limitations. Bumping up against one’s own limits is normally a painful process. But, paradoxically, an acceptance of the gifts we have, rather than the ones we wished we had, is one solid step toward a life rooted in peace and creativity.
Last Saturday, nearly a year after that miserable Memorial Day morning, I found myself remembering the events of the above-mentioned poolside fiasco. In the twinkling of an eye, I revisited that memory as I sat in an auditorium watching Lizzie take a turn, and then take a bow at the end of her violin recital. Since last year, rather than practicing strokes in a pool, she has been practicing the strokes of a bow on her violin. With the sound of applause still fresh in her ears, she strolled back to her seat, matter-of-factly. Along with her concert clothes, she wore a kind of casual, unconscious self-esteem that comes from sharing a God-given gift.
Here where the Easter Seasons meets Ordinary time-on the Feast of Pentecost-ask yourself: what are one or two of your signature gifts? How are you expressing that gift/gifts these days? Was there ever a time when you had to accept your own limitations? How did an acceptance of your limits open the door for new opportunities? At this snapshot in time, what limitations are you now confronting in your life? Can you imagine how a realistic acceptance of your current limitations could open the door to a further sharing of your creativity, and signature gifts?