In high school I played tennis, for mostly unknown reasons. Back when my torso was about the size of my racket, a friend of my parents gave me lessons, so by the time I was in ninth grade I knew which end of the racket with which to hit the ball and not much else. Freshman year I was holding down the number worst singles position (on JV) like a boss. By senior year I had risen to second singles with an unheard of win-loss record for my three years on varsity. My coach and my dad attributed my bizarre success in the sport to a combination of soccer-built stamina, hobbit-esque lightness of foot, and a (vicious) competitive streak. I contribute it to momentum.

Racket sports are about momentum, and it’s usually easy to see who has more of it: the winner. Most of the players I beat were far more talented and practiced than I was, but because my serve was wretched and my service return worse, their natural rhythm was shot to pieces. I won stupid games, ridiculous points. I slowed down their rhythm and then, while they were in a vortex of self-recrimination for not splattering me against the cement as (quite frankly) they should have, they made mistakes and I won points as quickly as I could.

It was a sneaky, underhanded way of playing, I’ll admit, taking advantage of the game’s design. Tennis matches are split up into sets, which are split up into games, which are split up into points. You need four points to win a game (margin of 2), six games to win a set (margin of 2) and two sets to win a match. Unlike soccer (my real sport), tennis is a game of starting and stopping, serving, switching sides, chasing down loose balls, and waiting on your opponent.

Sans the fluidity of soccer, it’s easy in tennis to label some points, games, even entire sets as “throw away.” If missing momentum, a player might decide a certain game is a liminal game, time to blow off steam, relax for a bit and store up energy before jumping back in on the next game. The problem with that strategy is that it ignores the power of the period in between.

Liminal games are where you build momentum, where habits form, where mindsets are made. The liminal games were when I could draw strength from hearing my opponent mutter “love-forty” before smacking a double fault into the net, so that on the next game, my second serve barely dribbling over the net, there was never an option not to fighmomt for a point, however unlikely.

I reminisce about my tennis days partly because my arms are so noodle-like right now I can barely swing a racket for ten minutes before collapsing into a pool of wobbly forearms, and partly because I suspect all of life is liminal. I sometimes catch myself waiting. Waiting for a shiny vocation or, more likely, a milestone at which I’ll be able to point back and say, “Aha! That is where I became an Adult.”

Patience is good (though impossible). Momentum (more possible), though not an explicit fruit of spirit, is healthy. T.S. Eliot said it best,

Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation.

Perhaps your life is more fluid than mine, maybe you’re more of a soccer than tennis player—maybe you have lived in one place for longer than a couple years, or figured out how to have a relationship with someone you actually like, or maybe you’ve even discovered your vocation (I jealously wish you well).

But it is a great calling we have: to strive to be both “still and still moving” even in “the dark cold and the empty desolation” when you haven’t had a decent service return—let alone an ace—in a couple of sets. Our twenties might be liminal, but they are so, so meaningful.

 

East Coker: 

V

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I suspect all of life is liminal. I sometimes catch myself waiting. Waiting for a shiny vocation or, more likely, a milestone at which I’ll be able to point back and say, “Aha! That is where I became an Adult.”

    yup yup yup. The thing is that I feel like I keep reaching milestones where I should feel like an Adult — and yet a marriage, a mortgage, and a satisfying job in my field later I still more often than not feel like I’m some sort impostor pretending that I know what the heck I’m doing. Like an Adult should be by any time, really, to take over and fix everything I’ve mucked up and make the difficult decisions.

    This post is great.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Love this. I think it was Madeleine L’Engle who said that we are every age that we’ve ever been. So, right now, I’m the 6-year-old me, the 12-year-old, the 18 year old… I’m all those different ages, as well as this one. Which means that there’s a lot of non-adult years to contend with! Probably why I usually feel like a kid, and not even close to my actual age…

    I think most of our lives are about waiting. And yet, they are so meaningful. Great post.

    Reply

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