Mother Teresa Plays Tennis
It's hard to play tennis and be Mother Teresa at the same time.
the killer instinct
take no prisoners approach;
as my wrestling coach would say,
Punish your opponent, make him hurt,
push his face into the mat.
Once in tennis class
I hit the corners so beautifully
with every shot, my opponent, angry
as if I'd stolen his girlfriend
or keyed his new car,
frustrated at being yanked from one side
of the court to the other, yelled,
It's only practice, you can't learn
anything if you do that—he meant
succeed at playing the game of course.
So I let up and we didn't learn anything.
Another time, playing squash, I had
an opponent who said, being English,
he was at a disadvantage with the American ball,
could we play with the softer English ball, slower
than ice melt on Pluto and, of course, my timing was off—
might as well have played with a nerf ball—
and when he won he regarded me
with such venal disdain, because the game wasn't that close,
or, more likely, because I'd fallen for his ruse.
I imagine Mother Teresa having a wicked
backhand, topspin keeping the ball
low, as if the net weren't even there—
seldom an unforced error,
her white habit flowing across the court,
opponents kept back of the baseline,
her game played like a prayer.
Christy Mathewson would not
grant interviews to sports writers
who cheated on their wives.
Today he'd have to take a vow of silence,
novitiate nuns in a convent permitted to talk more.
And Walter Johnson never threw
the brush back, chin music not the way
to play his game, so when a batter,
say Ty Cobb, crowded the plate
Johnson threw outside; Cobb took
advantage and whaled on Johnson's kindly nature.
Carl Mays, Ty Cobb, Albert Belle, all mean
and disagreeable, hot tempered,
spikes high, bean ball, forearm to the throat,
a Machiavellian philosophy of sport.
Might as well watch wrestling on TV, though
there the meanness at least is fake.
Mother Teresa admitted she had doubts;
those who don't are the ones
to worry about. My daughter tested faith
playing soccer, outfoxing her opponents
she was tripped when about to score:
then a girl—schooled in meanness—deliberately
stepped on her outstretched hand, twisting
her foot as it came down hard. The coach
said her finger wasn't broken
despite the bone angling crazy in all directions:
of course it wasn't broken; if it were
there would be paper work, or maybe the coach
was consumed by faith, good works
merely a niggling concern.
It's all right I used to say—scraped
knee, bruised feelings, tibia fractured
on the playground, gym teacher never throwing her the ball
despite the fact the boys couldn't catch it.
It's all right, I'd say, It's gonna be all right.
I'd sing over the years adding a bluesy note
to growing up. After the bones were set,
after months of physical therapy,
her finger still juts at crazy angles
and she did lose faith, at least she didn't play
Maybe that's the wrong lesson,
maybe that's what you have to learn.
Nixon voiced it best:...that is the time
to get tough, to kick the guys in the balls!
That's what they won't do. That's
what I always do. Lefty Grove
wrote that book before Nixon; during
batting practice he threw at his own teammates.
Reading the morning paper as a young boy,
I'd turn to the sports page looking for
the box score that told me
what Joe Adcock, first baseman for the Braves,
had done the night before, and I was stunned,
let down because he charged the mound,
chased Ruben Gomez into the stands. But
this wasn't Cobb on a racial rant,
this was Adcock, thrown at constantly
to diminish his threat, his power,
his standing in the record books.
It's a good thing I didn't catch him, Adcock said,
though at times, over the years, I've wished he had.
When Gomez died I felt no remorse.
But that is the wrong lesson, the wrong
reasoning, a wicked parable of loss.
Better to recall running back on a long fly,
that instant the ball is captured in the glove
like some Zen satori awakening,
or the enlightenment of a fade away jump shot,
moving back from one's opponent, a moment of
nonresistance, something St. Francis would espouse.
My wife was an all-city guard
back when girls were seldom allowed
on the court. (Still there are men who say
court time is wasted on women.)
We used to go to the playground
and shoot buckets, an easy game
of H-O-R-S-E. Maybe that's all it's worth,
play for the sake of play, like Mother Teresa
caring for the poor, little comes of it,
all those needs can never be met, there will
always be poor, though we keep trying,
playing hard, making mistakes,
the ball on an easy return
slammed hard into the net.