Over the past several days, I’ve only been able to see bits and pieces of the Winter Olympics, partly because of my work schedule and partly because I’ve chosen other things. I’ve let my knowledge of what’s going on be fed, mostly, by the highlight reels and news blurbs. I’ve heard enough of Joannie Rochette’s story to be moved by what I read about her performance, even though I didn’t see it: she skated two days after her mother’s death in Vancouver. Tonight, the over-riding theme appeared to be near misses, or perhaps I would do better to simply say living with mistakes. Sven Kramer, a Dutch skater who set an Olympic record with his speed skating performance, was disqualified because his coach told him to change lanes at the wrong time. The South Korean women’s short track team, who had won four straight gold medals, was disqualified because one of them grazed a Chinese skater – after they had won the race. Lindsey Vonn, an American expected to medal, fell in the Giant Slalom while her teammate, Julia Mancuso, was on the course. They stopped Mancuso in the middle of a great run and made her re-ski; she ended up eighteenth. For every medalist, there are any number of stories of those who fell short of what they hoped to accomplish at the Olympics.
I was back into Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music this morning, reading the chapter, “What Makes a Musician?” The short answer is practice. Though he was willing to admit some of us have more affinity than others when it comes to playing and singing, the way one becomes an expert musician (or anything else, for that matter) is by practice.
The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – anything. In study after study, of composers, players, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years . . . It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery. (197)
No doubt, everyone of the athletes I mentioned above, as well as everyone else out there with them, have put in their ten thousand hours and all the practice and expertise in the world doesn’t guarantee a gold medal, or even a mistake-free performance in the moment when it appears to matter most. As sit and watch their performances, framed by the announcers in a gold-or-nothing value system, its hard not to think of those who didn’t make it as failures. And we mean it as a bad thing. Levitin, again.
We also know that, on average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. This seems counterintuitive. How could successful people have failed more than everyone else? Failure is unavoidable and sometimes happens randomly. It’s what you do after the failure that is important. (207)
Though he goes on to make a case for sticking to it, whatever it is, the reality of life is a string of courageous failures does not necessarily end in a triumphant medal ceremony at some point. In one of my favorite movies, Miss Firecracker, Holly Hunter plays Carnelle Scott, a woman in the last year of her eligibility for the Miss Firecracker Contest in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her sister had won it years before and Carnelle is sure she can do the same, even though the odds seem insurmountable. When her name is called, she places fifth. In the midst of her disappointment, she gets up to march in the parade. Her sister condescendingly tells her she doesn’t have to go and Carnelle answers, “When you come in fifth place, you have to march behind the float.” Later, Mac Sam, the come-and-go love of her life says to her, “I’ll always remember you as the one who could take it on the chin.”
Not long after, she says, “I just want to know what I can reasonably expect out of life.”
“Not much,” he answers with a laughing cough.
“But something,” she persists.
“Eternal grace,” comes the reply.
If we could all sit down together and share, each of us would have some sort of “what if” or near miss moment that felt as cataclysmic as life looked to those failing Olympians we saw today. Looking back, perhaps, some of those moments proved to be life-altering and some didn’t. Tonight, though, I’m thinking more about the little failures and defeats that wear away at us the way feet have worn down the stone steps of the Boston Public Library over the years: the daily wear and tear that makes life feel as though that’s what life is. Mary Oliver says it this way in her poem, “The Wild Geese”:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Yes, it does, and it calls us not to be defined by the little collections of failures anymore than we want to be remembered by our big mistakes. Everyone of the failers tonight in Vancouver had someone they went to, someone who held them, or cried with them, someone who reminded them they were not alone. My lead in to the Olympics was Patty Griffin’s song, “Little Fire,” from her new album, Downtown Church. At the end of a day that held a failure or two of my own, I’ll end it with her words and music.
my friend come and stand beside me
lately I’m feeling so along
a flood came and washed the stones of the path away
and a hot sun turned the mud to dust
calling the sheep in for the evening
there’s a voice that calls above the howling wind
it says come rest beside my little fire
we’ll ride out the storm that’s coming in
my friend you know me and my family
you’ve seen us wandering through these times
you’ve seen us in weakness and in power
you’ve seen us forgetful and unkind
all that I want is one who knows me
a kind hand on my face when I weep
and I’d give back these things I know are meaningless
for a little fire to warm me when I sleep