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joe merritt art-2

Some of Joe Merritt’s art

 

 

Yesterday at church I shared a reflection on resilience.

You can read it below, or watch the video of the service here (Click on archives and the service called What Freedom Is For) or watch it here.

Reading it is fine, but if you watch you’ll get to hear some cool theme music in the middle of my reflection. And there’s a wonderful baby dedication before my reflection. Also my call to worship sets the stage for my reflection, so you should really watch the whole thing. 🙂

Resilience

After Marine Sergeant Joe Merritt returned from his deployment in Afghanistan in 2009, his life began to unravel. Not surprisingly, he had experienced a traumatic brain injury on his tour and he was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, but neither issue had been officially diagnosed so he wasn’t yet receiving treatment. Then his wife suddenly left, so he was on his own caring for his baby boy and his two-year-old son with autism.

With the help of a visiting nurse from the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Joe found support for his family, received treatment for depression, and experienced catharsis in art therapy. He started participating in a program called Combat Paper, which helps veterans articulate their combat experience through art by literally turning their uniforms into paper. Once the cloth becomes pulp and is pressed into paper, veterans can do anything they want with it. “Everybody’s got a story about combat,” Joe told me. “Those stories are hard to tell sometimes. Combat Paper gives you a medium. You’re taking something you’re so attached to and breaking it down and making it your own. When you’re deployed, you don’t always have a say in what you do. Once your uniform becomes paper, you can have a say. You can paint on it or just shred it and throw it away.”

Joe made progress, but he didn’t magically get better. As he prepared to leave the Marine Corps so he could focus on caring for his boys, Joe’s mental state plummeted and he attempted suicide. Thankfully, he survived, and entered an inpatient treatment center, where art and writing helped him truly come alive again.

Now Joe is an artist whose work often explores the darkness of his combat experience. Joe also teaches art to fellow veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and helps connect them with artistic outlets in the community. He bought a home on the Eastern Shore and he and his boys have experimented with all kinds of artistic techniques to decorate it.

I’ve interviewed Joe several times and I follow him and his boys on Facebook. He is a long way from the edge of the abyss that threatened to claim him years ago, but his life is not easy. He still falls down and stands up all the time.

***

In my own story of resilience, I literally fall down. I get real black and blue bruises. And, slowly but surely, I stand up again.

When I was growing up, I did not play sports. My family is about books and music and plays and museums. It took me years to learn to ride a bike and to swim. I was accused, not unjustly, of being uncoordinated and clumsy. I could find no evidence to the contrary.

In 2003, I met my husband Randy, a lifelong soccer player. You know how you do crazy things when you fall in love with someone? I joined his soccer team. Because they loved

Randy, his teammates were generous in welcoming me onto the field, despite my utter lack of athletic ability or knowledge of the game. I was terrified before and throughout every game.

Twelve years later, after my daughter Zoe had been playing with her soccer team for a while, I learned about a summer soccer clinic for adult beginners. The class was primarily aimed at parents who had never played or had played as kids, but who wanted to learn or improve their skills because their kids were playing. I signed up. The clinic was fantastic. I had so much fun. Many of the people on the field with me had as little experience and as many apprehensions as I did, but we had a great time together. When it ended, we were encouraged to sign up for pickup games sponsored by the parks department, so I did. At my very first actual game, I was knocked down—twice—within the first five minutes of play. I did not return to the pickup games.

The following spring, a fellow freelance writer who had also taken the adult beginner soccer clinic, asked me to join the women’s soccer team she was forming to play in the 40+ division. She had never been on a team before but was willing to try. The team was called Ice & Ibuprofen. We were realistic.

The first game was rough. Playing left back, I froze as a striker from the other team blew past me and scored. I assumed it was all my fault. I felt slightly better when the same player blew past other defenders when I was subbed out on the sidelines. She scored three goals. I guess it wasn’t just me. Still, I felt clumsy and embarrassed. After that game I went home and cried.

But the next Monday I showed up again, and over the course of the season I got a little better. Our team got a little better. More importantly, I started having a lot of fun. I was proud of myself just for playing a whole game. Actually I was proud of myself for showing up. The women on my team were kind and encouraging and played with heart. Only a few of us had soccer experience, but it didn’t matter. I got knocked down many times. I bruised some ribs. A few of my teammates have sustained injuries on the field that required surgery. But every one of them has come back the next season, stronger and more determined.

When you’re five and you draw a picture of your family, everyone says it’s wonderful even if your family members bear no resemblance to people. It doesn’t matter. When you’re a kid you are heralded as a great artist or athlete or inventor whether or not you have any talent. You’re encouraged to try and allowed to have fun engaged in any activity.

Then at some point between that state of grace and adulthood, we stifle that energy and enthusiasm. People say, “Oh I can’t sing,” or “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not athletic” because somewhere along the line that’s what we felt or were told. Instead of standing up after that final insensitive blow, we simply crawled away.

It is hard to get into our heads as grownups that it’s ok to do something even if we’re not very good at it. We can enjoy it anyway. Even if we never get better!

Ice & Ibuprofen plays in the spring and fall, but I decided this year I wanted to keep up the momentum and get some exercise by playing in the summer. A friend from high school recruited me to play on a team in a different league in a different county. Once again, I was kind of terrified. I showed up and I didn’t know a soul on the field—my friend hadn’t arrived yet—but I jumped in the game. I did not play well. I was nervous and also everyone there was far more skilled than I was. And most of the women seemed to be 10 or 20 years older as well. It was tough. But I went back the next week, and I played with just the slightest bit more confidence. I fell down. I have a big bruise on my calf right now. But I stood up again.

***

My resilience role model is my daughter, Zoe. She is sensitive, but fierce.

Three years ago, when she was seven, Zoe was about to advance from a yellow belt to a green belt at her martial arts studio. She has practiced martial arts since kindergarten, and mastered many techniques, and under her bed she has a big box of boards she has broken. At this ceremony, however, when she was moving from yellow to green, she had to break a thicker board—a much thicker board—than at previous levels.

She had actually broken one of the thick boards before—during summer camp at the martial arts studio—and on the first try. But there’s no pressure at summer camp. Nothing at stake.

At the growth ceremony, however, all the students are there. Hundreds of parents, grandparents, and siblings are there. Everyone in the room counts down 3-2-1 while pounding the floor when it’s time for each group to break their boards.

Understandably, it’s not uncommon for a kid to not break the board on the first try. It’s hard and it’s nerve wracking. Everyone is watching. But the instructors at this school are wonderful, and they give the kids many chances, and coaching, and opportunities to practice. Usually, everyone gets it within a few tries, or in some cases, a dozen or two.

For whatever reason, on this day, Zoe just wasn’t connecting with the board with enough force to break through. The instructors gave her extra chances and then eventually had to move on to the next part of the ceremony. They took her into another room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. Master Emerson asked her if she thought she could break the board. She said yes. He asked us if we thought she could break the board. We said yes.

They gave her another opportunity back in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. She bowed. They took her into the next room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. They gave her yet another opportunity to break it in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. They said after the ceremony was over she could try again.

The ceremony ended and most students and families filed out. A few dozen people stuck around to watch Zoe make her final attempt. Master Emerson explained to her that this was her last chance, and he couldn’t promote her to green solid if she didn’t break the board. Her instructors continued to coach, reminding her to use her heel instead of her toes, and to fall forward toward the board as she kicked. They let her try different kicking techniques to see where she could draw the most power.

Finally, somehow, she gathered her strength and power and hit it with her heel and the board broke. At last.

Zoe told me later that she was embarrassed—NOT that it had taken her so long to break the board—but because I jumped up and down and screamed and picked her up and spun her around after she did it. Everyone who had stayed was cheering wildly for Zoe and taking pictures.

Throughout the whole ceremony, Zoe never once said, “I can’t do it,” or “This is too hard,” or “I give up.” She didn’t cry. She just kept trying.

I took her to lunch after the ceremony and asked how she felt and she said, “This is a great day!” She was smiling and happy and in no way discouraged. That’s what I always remember when I fall down. She just remained standing. She wouldn’t let that board keep her down.

May we all have the resilience to keep kicking until we break that board, even if it takes all day. And then at the end to simply be proud of ourselves for not giving up. Fall down and stand up for the millionth time, and say, “Hey, I stood up again. This is a great day!”

IMG_8357Our fourth grade class had just returned from recess or PE when a classmate–nominally a friend–looked at me with disdain and said, “Betsy, you sweat too much.”

It’s true, I do sweat a lot. From what I’ve heard, it’s the body’s ingenious way of keeping itself cool while exercising. And at the time, it was perfectly reasonable that I’d be sweaty. We’d just been outside–exercising. But of course I didn’t point that out to her. I was just stunned by the way she’d taken a natural human bodily function–which of course I had no control over–and made it–and me seem disgusting. Thirty-two years later I can still picture the look of revulsion on her face.

Add to that my addiction to books as a kid (which happily continues) and aversion to sports, and that I was made fun of for years for being uncoordinated and lacking any athletic skills. I never joined any teams. I didn’t even learn to swim until I was 12, embarrassed by so many years of taking beginners lessons with five-year-olds.

So what am I doing on a 40+ women’s soccer team now?

Loving it.


When I first met my husband, I joined his co-rec soccer team because I wanted to challenge myself and because I was in love. His teammates were friendly and welcoming but I was consistently terrified at every game because I didn’t know what I was doing and everyone else did. Sometimes they would shout across the field, “Betsy, I’m passing to you!” just to give me the chance to participate (I’m looking at you, Chris Newton), but whether I would make contact with the ball was anyone’s guess.

My husband left the league because too many opposing players were trying to knock him down as if they were in the World Cup, so I joined a women’s team. They were, for the most part, insane. Everyone had played soccer in college and I was WAY out of my depth. I only lasted one season. I had kids. I wished I would someday find a team that was basically soccer moms, who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing, but who maybe had a coach or someone kind and patient to offer guidance.

A year ago I signed up for an adult beginner soccer clinic sponsored by the parks & rec department. Aimed at soccer parents who wanted to be able to keep up with or play with their kids and get a little exercise, it was tremendous fun and no pressure. I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn and play and the fact that I was surrounded on the field by other novices and there was nothing at stake. Not scary at all!

Unfortunately, after the clinic ended I signed up for a parks & rec sponsored pickup game, where I was knocked over twice within the first five minutes by giant steamrolling men who left me with a bruise on my leg that lingered for weeks. I took a hiatus.


This spring a friend who I knew from a freelance writers group told me she was putting together a women’s soccer team to play in the 40+ division and she wanted me to join. No one has ever wanted me to join a sports team. Also, she had never played soccer on a team either. She had also participated in the adult beginner clinic, in the session after I did, and loved it. I was ambivalent and nervous and actually pretty reluctant because what if it was a disaster? She persuaded me to join.

During my first game I messed up two throw-ins, prompting the referee to blow the whistle and award the ball to the other team. Playing left defender, I froze as a striker from the other team blew past me and scored. I assumed it was all my fault. I felt slightly better when the same played blew past other defenders when I was subbed out on the sidelines and scored three goals. It wasn’t just me. Still, I felt clumsy and unfocused and embarrassed. After that game I went home and cried. My soccer-loving husband reassured me that everyone has good days and bad days and that I hadn’t humiliated myself or cost the team the game or done anything terrible, really. I decided to go back.

And I got better, and our team got better, and I started having a lot of fun. I was proud of myself just for playing the whole game. Actually I was proud of myself for showing up. And  I wasn’t terrified. It turns out these women were extraordinarily friendly and kind. Most, if not all, of the opposing teams told our team that we were nice to play with and that they were glad we had joined the league. Everyone on the team–to a person–was encouraging and patient with everyone else. Only a few of us had serious soccer experience, but it did not matter. Those of us who were new gratefully took direction from those who had more expertise, always offered in the most helpful and constructive way. When players got injured, everyone else rallied around to offer support and see how the person was doing. After one game we celebrated someone’s birthday. We had a family night where all the kids and some husbands and even a dog or two came out to watch us play. We went to a Legwarmers show and got our 80s dance moves on and afterward half the team stuck around to keep me company while I waited for my Uber to arrive. I got knocked down (maybe tripped? Who knows?) a couple times, bruised a rib, but I recovered. I looked forward to playing every Monday night and felt exhilarated afterward.

At the end of the season I wrote an email to my team telling them a little about my previous fear of organized sports and utter lack of confidence in my abilities. One of my teammates–who I’d seen in every game run hard, kick well, evade opponents, and generally play fantastically–said this about her own history: “I was the scrawny, skinny kid who was picked last EVERY DAY on the playground for our daily kickball game.”

Our goalkeeper, who thankfully came to us already armed with mad keeper skills, said this: “I don’t think there are many things more powerful (except for perhaps your faith and your family) – than the sisterhood of a TEAM. You meet, from all different paths, and you work TOGETHER. You figure it OUT. You celebrate each other. You laugh. You help. You are a cheerleader, you are a grinder. You sweat. You hustle, and you try to shine and you try to make you teammates stars. Why?
So that you win together.
You grow together.”

Another player, who ruptured her achilles tendon in the last two minutes of the first game, but nonetheless cheered us on in person or virtually for the rest of the season, offered this: “I am also in awe of the courage all you newbies have shown, and not just because of the, ehem, element of danger involved. I thought it took guts to get back out there after 17 years, but it’s nothing compared with the guts it took to get out there for the first (or nearly the first) time after 40. Your ferocity was a joy to watch.”

Did I mention the team is called Ice & Ibuprofen? And that we had jerseys printed up with nicknames on the back? A self-described intense and perfectionist teammate called Sparkles said this, which I would never in a million years have guessed after watching her energy and tenacity on the field. “I decided to take a risk and play soccer for the first time since college intra-murals. And I was scared.to.death. What if I sucked (I did)? What if it was too hard (it was)? What if everyone was better than me (the majority of you are!)? What if I wanted to quit (sometimes I do because of all the reasons listed before this)? But five minutes into that first game I knew it was exactly the right place to be and this group is like a warm, cozy blanket of positive energy, support and crazy-ass enthusiasm.”

Which reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about and struggling with for a long time–this idea of not being good at–or good enough at–something and therefore not doing it. This is an idea that we grow into as adults. When you’re a kid, you’re typically encouraged to try everything and (until or unless you have teachers or parents or coaches who unintentionally destroy your little developing ego) it’s ok to do something that’s fun even if you don’t excel. But then we decide that if we’re not excelling at it, we can’t do it. Maybe we’re told that or maybe we just turn our back on a thing that may have brought us joy because we’re not the best at it. I was taught to excel, and be the best at whatever I did. In my mind that meant, if I wasn’t the best, I might as well move on to another arena where I could be.

In one of our games late in the season, my teammate Jonisaurus said I’d played the best game of my life. While the bar for me may be low, she was only commenting on what she’d observed and that she’d seen me working hard and playing Big_Hero_6_Baymaxwell. I have to say that felt pretty good. I know I am not going to become some kind of all-star athlete. I am not fast, as Baymax says in Big Hero 6, and I am overweight and I love junk food. But I am also strong, fierce, and determined. And it is so much fun to play soccer with these women.


For the past couple years I’ve been trying to change my definition of myself from the kind of person who…always returns calls and emails, always gets things done by the deadline, always remembers birthdays, always does the right thing, etc etc etc. The more mistakes I acknowledged making, the more I thought, “oh no, I’m not the kind of person who…” I didn’t give myself permission to make mistakes until pretty recently. I am working on eliminating this idea of being a certain kind of person from my identity. I am a human who tries hard to return calls and emails, get things done by the deadline, remember birthdays, do the right thing. But because I am human–and the mother of two kids and an entrepreneur and a daughter and a friend and a volunteer–I don’t always do it right. Things slip through the cracks. If you look closely at the cracks, you’ll find a lot of stuff stuck in there. And that is ok. It does not mean I have failed or am failing as a person.

Since I’ve been playing soccer this season, several women who I’ve mentioned it to have said similar things to what I thought before I played–they’ve never been athletic, they’re out of shape, they couldn’t keep up. Basically they’re not the kind of person who would play on a 40+ soccer team. But they could if they tried. I know it.

In celebration of the Summer Solstice, on Sunday (and Monday at a special service) at church we had fire communion, where we symbolically let go of something that was holding us back by lighting it on fire and throwing it into the air. You might think this is dangerous and a fire hazard, but Rev. Aaron has all these tricks up his sleeve, including using flash paper (technically nitrocellulose) in church. This is a little square of translucent paper that burns into nothing after you light it on fire. It’s used in magic tricks and theater. What we did was write down the thing we were letting go of and burn it up. I am letting go of this script that I am a certain kind of person, that there’s any reason to deny myself the opportunity for fun and joy and to try something I might love and never excel at. I am letting go of the absurd notion thatfront I can avoid making mistakes.

The mantra on this t-shirt runs through my head a lot.

Yes, I sweat a lot. That has not changed since fourth grade. I get stinky. And so does every other woman on my team. Because that’s what you do when you work hard–you sweat. My sweat is hard-earned and I am proud of it. I can’t wait to get back on the field.

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