The Art of the Pivot

Me with a bat and ball – age 5

Despite my embarrassment at being a pretty decent athlete when I was growing up, I still wanted to be good at sports. Why embarrassment? In elementary school, I was teased a lot because I was better at baseball and football than lots of boys. Classic bullying, I suppose. They called me names, most often “moose,” after a left-handed baseball player (I’m a lefty) who was a big hitter for the Chicago White Sox at the time. I wasn’t thrilled. I got through that time as so many kids have to do, pushing through the pain.

Some sample messages written to me in my 8th grade autograph book.

In that time there wasn’t much support for girls’ athletics, at least where I lived. The only female teams I can recall at my high school were a swim group called “AquaDebs,” and the cheerleaders squad. An organization called GAA – the Girls’ Athletic Association, was tasked with supporting our school’s letterman. Title IX, enacted in 1972, was several years away. That bill changed everything. Here’s the simple version: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. In any case, although I didn’t get many welcomed accolades for being athletic, I was still an active participant in multiple disciplines. I dabbled in softball, basketball and pick-up football. I always loved swimming and volleyball. I was able to turn hurt feelings into aggression which was empowering. I always needed physical activity to balance the mental gymnastics in my very busy brain.

Me playing softball in my bellbottoms – 1973

I can still remember the gym class that focused on basketball skills, back about a million years ago. Well, not exactly a million years ago, but sometimes, I feel those days are kind of my prehistoric era. In any case, we spent a lot of time doing pivot drills, learning to keep one foot in place, while swiveling around, trying to find a way to take a shot, pass the ball or begin dribbling without breaking that central basketball rule – you can’t move your feet once they’re planted without pivoting. You have to be agile in mind and body to remember this rule. If you lift that foot, the referees will call a traveling foul on you and the ball goes to the other team. I’ve been thinking a lot about pivoting recently. How do you keep one foot in place while pivoting is a necessity in life, not just basketball. I’ve been working on that skill, thinking about staying nimble through different demands on me. Not fouling. Not giving up control of the ball. Metaphorical thoughts that have been popping up frequently.

Michael’s first moments as a dad – August, 1981
My son’s first moments as a dad – 11/5/22

Because of how quickly pregnancy can be discovered these days, I’ve been waiting for my latest grandchild with a combination of excitement, anxiety and wistfulness for what has been almost the full term of this baby. Back in the dark ages when I had my kids, early detection was not the thing it is today. We had kits for discovering the baby at a couple of months into gestation. I had no sonograms with my daughter and only one with my son. I didn’t learn the sex of either kid until their births. When my grandsons were born, eight and twelve years ago, we didn’t know their genders either. But there was tons of information available about my granddaughter which lessens the mystery but heightens the sense of knowing the baby before she arrived. A thought-provoking process indeed. I’d hoped to see my son in a strong relationship with a partner and to see his child, as it was always clear he wanted to be a dad. Yet, I had a lot of trepidation about the actuality of the whole experience. When I became a grandparent for the first time, Michael was with me. We were unrestrained in welcoming our first grandson, who was in our home regularly as I cared for him from 7 weeks of age to just shy of three years old. The next one arrived under much more emotionally charged circumstances as Michael had developed his wretched rare Merkel cell cancer, was in remission for over a year when it came roaring back, metastasized when our daughter was in her seventh month. Initially, we were told that absent treatment Michael might not meet the new baby. He was in the midst of chemotherapy when grandson number 2 arrived, living long enough to get past his second birthday.

Michael with our first grandson
Me with our first grandson
I remember when our daughter captioned this photo it was “how many grandparents does it take to change a diaper?”
No one was around to photograph me with my second grandson at the hospital,
Michael managed to get to the hospital later and I got this shot of him with both boys and our son-in-law.

I was nervous about what I’d feel, meeting our new granddaughter without Michael. I’d gotten tearfully through our son’s wedding and figured I’d respond similarly to this birth. But internally, I guess I’d already been pivoting to a subtly different position. During the long anticipatory months, I’d evidently been practicing navigating this event on my own. When the moment arrived, I didn’t cry or feel anything but the teeniest whisper of melancholy which didn’t diminish the joy of welcoming this healthy little girl. When I looked at my son, transported with happiness, I could fully experience that moment with him, despite knowing that he, too, dearly wished his own dad was with him.

The fact is, life is a spinning affair with issues big and small looming up, then sliding away, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. The midterm elections are once again front and center in my mind, baby aside. With the incredible divisions in this country, people diametrically opposed to each other on virtually every issue, I am on edge about what future will hold, not only for my new granddaughter, but the rest of my family, loved ones and the greater community. With so many wacky candidates, election-deniers, conspiracy theory spreaders and armed vigilantes wandering freely around polling places, I need to keep one foot planted in place. While I feint and move to dodge the almost impossible anxiety a necessity if I want to keep my balance. As long as I’m still here, I need to find the way through this mad time, mindful that I can still make positive contributions to what I believe will create the best possible world for the people I brought here, and theirs.

I need to clean my house and wash the dishes. Bills have to be paid. I have to continue culling books, papers and other unnecessary accumulations of stuff which I don’t want to dump on my family at the end of my life. I have to exercise, go to the eye doctor and have my teeth cleaned. I have to finish knitting the baby blanket for my granddaughter before she outgrows it.

A few days ago, in the midst of the baby event, big winds blew through my town, knocking off almost every pine cone and countless needles from the old spruce tree in my yard. In my spare moments, I clean those up as it’s time to put the garden to bed for the winter. On some days, I have optical illusions, imagining the lot getting getting broader and longer right in front of my eyes. I am still the gardener in this space. I have to stay strong so I can manage it for as long as possible. I want to continue getting rid of useless grass, putting native plants for pollinators in the ground instead.

I need to read books, watch movies and take classes so my brain stays alive. I need to converse, to have social contact so I don’t get any weirder than I already am. At some point, I’d like to travel again. I need to take care of my dog. I want to write more. I want to keep remembering and feeling Michael in my life.

The caveat to this strategy is that I have the option to deliberate about what comes my way. So far, I’ve been able to hold my ground and employ what I’ve learned throughout my life. That makes me fortunate. Deciding what to think about, or what to address first, is a privilege. I am afforded the luxury of time to pivot from the mundane issues of living to the ones that can forever change my world. I can use my skill sets, practiced over a lifetime, to shift my focus, to have agency and control. For those who are homeless or hungry, who have significant mental disorders and no support system, or for those who live in war zones, where violence and upended daily life has been thrust on them with no warning, there is a different story. No one knows exactly how well their best practices will work when challenged by the unexpected.

Homeless in California – photo by Getty Images
Kyiv, February, 2022 – Photo by Emilio Morenatti, AP.

So far I’ve been able to hang on to myself, primarily sensibly, no matter what traumas have been tossed my way. I always wonder what will cause my undoing. I’ve been bruised and challenged many times and am certain that I’m subtly different from who I was years ago. But along with the sports metaphor is this little tidbit my dad repeated to me over and over as I grew up. “You have to make a plan.” I always believed him when he said that. However, plans need to be elastic, to stretch, to respond to the unpredictable. In other words, to pivot. A worthy survival tactic to this point, at least in my experience. I hope that as I watch the election returns this evening, I’ll be able to hang on to this useful tool.

Leave a Reply