Faith and Football

Growing up in my house, Sunday was sacred.

My parents met through my grandfather’s Presbyterian church in Lafayette, California. Our family is deeply rooted in ritual and tradition. My brother and I were raised to respect the sanctity of the last day of the week. One path of devotion. One house of worship. A single, spiritual force to believe in.

The San Francisco 49ers.

September through January revolved around professional football. I woke up every Sunday morning to my mom’s anxiety and a house buzzing with anticipation. For the morning game, powdered sugar mini donuts and orange juice. When the Niners were at home, pepperoni pizza and beer for my parents. Niners gear on, prayers complete, the four of us huddled on the couch holding our breath until kick-off.

Most weeks we celebrated triumphant victories. Screaming and leaping to our feet for a spectacular catch or defensive stop. We high-fived and hugged and cheered. My mom paced and mumbled the F-word when the game got close.

In the late eighties and early nineties, it was good to be us.

But as the nineties wore on, the red and gold glory faded.

Steve Young retired and Jerry Rice wore a Raider jersey. Sunday morning lost its spark and the joy seeped out of our weekly family gathering.

The Niners changed. Life changed. The pride and love that once connected the community of Forty-Niner faithful was replaced by frustration, angst and a nostalgic longing for a lost legacy.

I rarely stood up on my couch with both arms in the air yelling, “go,” repeatedly until the receiver reached the end zone.

But me, my mom, and the die-hards among us never gave up hope.

The Niner fall from grace made televised games hard to come by while I was away at college in Los Angeles.  But in the pre-streaming era, I followed every quarter on ESPN.com. “Gamecast” mostly brought disappointment and Sportscenter highlights rarely featured my favorite team. Through the rise of the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers and both of the Manning quarterbacks, the Niners struggled to bounce back from what was becoming a decade-long slump.

Still, every Sunday I wore my tattered “Team of the 80’s” t-shirt, my favorite wardrobe piece, stolen from my high school boyfriend.

I graduated from college, had more than one career and found my way back to school, and Southern California. Slowly, but surely, just as we’d always talked about, the 49ers started to “rebuild.”

In my final year of law school, the Niners came within a freak-fumble of the Superbowl.

After many years when it wasn’t, it was good to be us, again.

This week, my team heads to their second consecutive NFC Championship. In reflecting on my relationship with the Forty-Niners. I think about faith, patience, and unconditional love.

I think about all of the disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness felt by Niner fans over the last few years. I think about my forgiveness for their mistakes, my acceptance of a period of struggle, and my commitment to them, through it all.

I think about all of the other relationships and situations in my life through which I failed to demonstrate the same  grace and understanding.

In the dark days of 49er football, my brother struggled with alcoholism and addiction. He stole from my parents, manipulated his friends. He’d call me late at night to ask if I’d sneak away from my house to buy him a meal. Three years into his struggle, I gave up on him. I shut him out. Withdrew my investment. Stopped following his life on my family’s dysfunctional version of Gamecast. I surrendered any hope that he would ever look or act like the big brother I’d worshipped growing up.

More recently, I turned this behavior on myself. I created a negative inner-dialogue around what I believed to be under-performance. My inability to make my self-identified version of the late-twenties post-season. If my mom suggested I was “re-building,” I replied that I didn’t have the time, nor energy, for that.

Along the way, smaller issues and instances reflect a similar pattern. An unwillingness to accept what is. An inability to be where I am. Lack of contentment. A strong feeling of resistance. A desire for things to be different, or better, right away.

When I imagine my “best-self,” I treat everyone like the Forty-Niners. I feel deep sadness when they don’t live up to my expectations, but quickly let go of the feeling, looking forward to their next opportunity to shine. I want them to be the best, but accept that they can’t win every game. I defend them to critics, and try not to judge them out loud. I show up and cheer for them, with my whole heart, no matter what.

Love in Southeast Asia: One Last Thing

Five months ago, I landed in Los Angeles on a plane from Seoul, Korea. Twenty Eight days of international travel. Eleven flights. Four Countries. Nine Atavan.

Countless lessons.

Writing about my trip has been a way to relive it. To soak up the powerful moments and deepen their meaning.To share my experience, and my insight.  To feel gratitude for the courage (and everything else required) to spend an entire month abroad.

Writing my final blog stirs feelings from my last night in Cambodia: reflection, sadness, humility, love.

My deepest love is for my seven travel partners.

In Bangkok: the fearsome foursome. Parker, Edward, Werner and Me.

Werner, the storytelling, sarong-wearing, little brother I never had. The sweet and sensitive boy who is a compassionate, middle-aged man inside. Traveling together, I could picture him in the future, vacationing with his kids. Creating goofy traditions and friendships out of chance encounters. He will both embarrass and enlighten them. He will tell them about reading Steve Jobs’ biography on the Indian Ocean and how we almost died at sea. He will teach them how to say “we own the Green Bay Packers” in all the languages of countries they visit. He will make his whole family feel cherished and loved.

Edward, the center of our social universe, locally and abroad. The most considerate man I have ever met. Edward is part frat boy, part diplomat. In Sri Lanka, Edward taught us about “fan death,” the mythical child-killer of Korean-American parental folklore. In each new destination, he attended to our diverse group’s spectrum of needs. He balanced all the emotions, intentions, desires and quirks. He handled every. group. check. He indulged me in mid-Ocean heart-to-hearts as we dove through cresting waves (Phuket) and relished the glassy stillness (Phi Phi).

In Sri Lanka, our group swells to seven:

Diana, the source of an unexpected female friendship. Within hours of being together, I wanted her to be my best friend. I fell in love with her the way women of my generation attached themselves to the fictitious Carrie Bradshaw. She is soft and confident, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and is visibly present in each moment the way I can only struggle to be while meditating. I will cherish connecting with her on our trip long after the memories of our moments together fade.

Manal, the would-be mean girl who isn’t. She is open-hearted, loving and accepting. She is one of the most gorgeous women I have ever met, effortlessly stylish and flawless. She was the President and social chair of our law school, a woman who could easily be catty and exclusive, but instead is warm and inviting. She gives me hope that we can all be good to each other.

Priyan, our tour guide and native host. A man with a perfectly executed hairstyle, even in ninety-percent humidity. Priyan educated us about Sri Lankan culture and history, occasionally exaggerating for dramatic effect (“that’s Pride Rock, where The Lion King was filmed”). He is brilliant and sophisticated, high-brow with a social justice sensibility. A rare combination of elitism and a lightweight sense of humor. I adore him from the depth of my soul. I could make a life as his partner if only our gender and sexualities aligned in a more practical way.

In Southern Thailand, Fred made a triumphant appearance. He is a survivor of monsoon-season jungle trekking and under-vaccination. Fred gives the best hugs of anyone I know. He wraps everyone up like a treasure, holds them firmly against his heart. He has easy-going energy that relaxes everyone in his presence. He is sincere and genuine, thoughtful and smart. He made us laugh and surrounded us with love.

And of course, Parker.

Every day. Every meal. Every flight. Every hotel room. Every night and every morning. Every, single, minute.

Parker was there.

He is both my alter ego and my other half. We are simultaneously soulmates and adversaries. He is relentlessly practical and efficient, I am whimsical and disorganized. He is fearless and task-oriented, I am anxious and easily distracted. He is worldly and well traveled, I was brand new to every experience on our trip.

To him, my biggest thanks. For planning every detail of our incredible adventure. For his patience with my fear of flying and picky-eating. For looking out for me like a big brother, and for telling-it-how-it-is like a best friend. For listening and understanding. For talking about feelings, over and over again.

Even early in our friendship, I knew I could trust Parker with everything. There aren’t many people who could get me on a twelve-hour flight to spend a month away from the comfort of familiarity and my compulsive routines. Parker lives his life saying yes to opportunity. Yes to change and newness and progress. He dives head first into everything, without hesitation. With him leading this way, I found the willingness to follow. Following him, I was able to take the most incredible journey of my life.

Bad Skier

“I can’t do it.”

I’m paralyzed in the middle of an intermediate ski run yelling helplessly at my dad, eight feet below me. My skis are completely sideways and I’m trapped by the sensation that if move in any direction, I’ll plummet to my death in a tumbling ball of wet, sticky, snow.

I see my dad pause to evaluate his response before giving it. I can tell he’s skeptical about the gravity of my peril.

“Get parallel to the fall-line, Boney.”

I heard that phrase countless times growing up on the icy slopes of Northern California, but am still uncertain what it means. I imagine it’s something like: point your skis down the mountain like a normal person and let’s get on with it, I don’t have all day. My dad is practical, scientific and ever attentive to accuracy and precision. He taught me how to ski the same way he does everything else.

My heart rate quickens as the initial distress intensifies into full fledged panic. If my dad can’t help me, I’m doomed.

Twenty years later, I am still a terrible skiier. Inexcusably bad. I’ve skiied almost every winter since I was five years old. My progress feels equivalent to the time scale of evolution. I’m convinced I’m entitled to some unusual and dubious honor as the world’s most experienced beginner.

Skiing, even more than my yoga mat, is an oversized magnifying mirror for my worst traits. Most notably, my inability to relinquish control (of everything) and (not unrelated) the way fear interferes with living my fullest life.

At the top of each ski run, I breathe in a fresh gulp of mountain air. I am relaxed and energized. I am inspired by my surroundings and excited for the opportunity to begin again.

As soon as I am moving, my energy shifts. My body is tense, my jaw muscles tight. I feel my elbows lock against my rib bones, bracing for  imminent disaster. I am suddenly without balance or coordination. The loss-of-control feeling overwhelms the entire experience, rendering me hopelessly unskilled and pathetically flailing.

At the bottom of the ski run, I let out a deep sigh. My face softens and my arms relax.

Between the tension and relief is a moment of confusion, “who was that up there and why did she do that?”

In the aftermath, I promise myself to do better next time.

It’s not all angst and discomfort. Sometimes I take three or four turns in a row feeling light and effortless. Occasionally, I find just enough calm to make contact with what it’s like to really ski. I let go of the need to control it: the snow, the other skiiers, the conditions, the outcome, and find the freedom to move gracefully, with purpose and ease. Each glimpse of my potential, fuels hope for my future as a downhill enthusiast. So far I’ve had just enough of them to prolong my inevitable resignation to failure and retirement from the sport.

In my life, I am similarly skilled and capable, but frequently blocked by fear. I want to be assured of a result before I am willing to explore the unknown. The voice of risk silences the allure of reward. I have the tools to navigate, but am frequently dragged off course by my resistance to letting go. I battle anxiety at the top of every new run, and beat myself up at the bottom for what I didn’t do right.

Recently, I resist pursuing my biggest dream in the face of paralyzing fears. I know what I have to do, but get bogged down in swampy, self-doubting thoughts. I have everything I need to move forward, but hesitate each time I start to take off.