An athlete, like a writer, transfigures pain into power—or at least, into purpose. This is, then, a story of transfiguration; also perseverance, interiority, and a lake in Texas.
First, the lake. When I was fifteen, I convinced my parents to let me attend a Christian high school. We were Orthodox Jews: in exchange for this freedom, I promised to adhere strictly to the rules of our religion. This meant, for instance, that I’d attend prayer services at the local synagogue each day before school, wear my kippah at all times, and eat lunch only from the brown paper bag packed by my mother and not, like all the other boys, from the steaming buffet in the cafeteria.
Endeavoring nonetheless to fit in (or to give it my all, or, at least, to take full advantage of the new experiences this strange Christian universe would afford me), I decided to go out for the rowing team. Each day after school, we practiced on a long gray lake, slender bodies on slender boats, slicing the water. It was here that I discovered I had talent—strong legs; a knack for staying upright. I found I could propel myself at a speed outpacing my classmates. So, I began to dream of becoming the best, of winning races, to find glory in competition.
But this was not to be. The races, it turned out, were all on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest, and our rabbi, not too pleased that I’d eschewed the Jewish high school, would not grant me special dispensation to participate. Instead, I was relegated to the sidelines. I’d have to walk to the lake, or sometimes stay with my father at a nearby hotel, and cheer on my teammates from the shore. Worse still, because I couldn’t participate in the races, it turned out, also, that I couldn’t really participate in the practices. The other boys were all assigned to boats of twos and fours, and throughout the season, they’d row only in these particular boats, matching their strokes, getting used to each other’s rhythms, and competing as a unit. I longed to be assigned to one of these boats. To go out on the water with the other boys. But the coach felt it was a waste of resources. Why should I take up a spot in a team boat during practice, when on Saturdays I would have to abandon it? Instead, each day, while the others practiced in their twos and fours, he sent me out in my own vessel. So I circled the lake alone.
Next: the inauguration of an inner life. It’s years before the lake, before I escaped the Jewish school for the Christian one. I’ve thrown a tantrum, clinging to the banister, refusing to leave the house. But as usual, Mom and Dad have won out. Now I sit imprisoned in the back of the car with wet cheeks, my voice hoarse and snot running out of my nose. I feel suffused in an immense tragic grandeur. I am suffering one of history’s great injustices—the martyr hauled off to the guillotine. I am being driven to basketball practice.
Or—is it softball? Or soccer? Over and over again this same scene is enacted. (Other martyrs merely had to suffer this guillotine journey once.) My parents have decided that I should be involved in sports, and not just one, apparently, but many. All throughout childhood, I am ferried from practice to practice. The hope is that I’ll find my niche, that I’ll take to something and display a sudden talent. That the “right” sport, the sport I’m meant to succeed at, will become obvious—and if it doesn’t, the hope is that at least I’ll learn to make friends. But in reality, each one of these practices brings with it new sufferings and humiliations. I feel clumsy and uncoordinated. I’m also bored. In basketball, I can never seem to hold onto the ball; it slips and rolls and evades. In soccer, I stumble; I can never catch up. In softball, placed into the outfield, I get carried off in dreams and fail to take note of incoming balls until they plop down beside me and the whole world groans in disappointment. The other boys hate me. When given the opportunity, they ridicule and exclude me and call me gay. (I don’t know it yet, but they’re right.) And so it becomes impossible to disentangle the athletic life from the social one. I learn to despise sports because it is there that the theater of my exclusion is enacted. Physical exertion is where I inevitably live up to the theater; over and over again, forced to wield my body, I prove my detractors correct.
Inevitably, also, I begin to dream of escape. How is an inner life inaugurated? Through pain, through imprisonment, through a sense of injustice. Alone in my bedroom, I begin to read books. I’m drawn, particularly, to a certain type of story. That of gifted children who find themselves in exotic and unfriendly circumstances and must use their wits to survive. The children are marooned on an undiscovered island or on a mountaintop during a terrible snowstorm; or else they are poor and orphaned; or else unwittingly roped into a crime. I envy these children. And now, sitting in the back of my parents’ car with my cheek pressed against the glass, or on the sidelines of the basketball court in the basement of the Jewish Community Center (sneakers squeaking and skidding, smell of sweat, subterranean chill), or out on the softball pitch (dunes of red dust), or the vast soccer field (battle cries: oncoming hordes), my imagination becomes uncased. Inside myself, I escape into dreams. Out in the world, I escape one high school for another, envisioning a new beginning, and end up circling the lake.
Much later: an inversion, and a dive into the furnace.
I’m in grad school, a stranger in a small town. Years have passed, and I seek recognition, now, on the page. I’m becoming a writer, or at least I’m striving to be one, and in this quest I am again marooned. This time, it’s not an athletic inability that isolates me. (Nor is it the Shabbos: years have passed since I stopped wearing the kippah and keeping kosher.) What isolates me is the pursuit of perfection. I spend long hours in my room, circling a blank page, despairing.
One winter day, I’m at a stoplight when I notice a group of runners moving in single file around the snowbanks on the side of the road. The snowbanks are heaped as tall as trucks; one by one, the runners disappear behind them. I follow them into the parking lot. A cavernous door is open, leading into a sort of warehouse. Heat radiates from within, accompanied by the sound of clashing metals; things being lifted up and dropped. It’s a gym, but it feels like a furnace, like Vulcan’s workshop. Outside, the sky is pink and crossed with wisps of cloud. Before I leave, I inquire about a membership.
I do not realize, then, that I’ve found a sort of salvation, something I didn’t know I needed—long ago (years have passed, now, since that winter day), I would’ve given up on the dream of writing. The page is colder, and inhospitable, and it’s easy to forget the purpose at the end of all this struggling. But just when I’ve given up, or when I’m close to giving up, the furnace pushes me forward. It offers a kind of salvation, if not a solution: without it, I wouldn’t be able to work. For, in the furnace, I forget myself. I transfigure other types of pain, and when I leave, traversing from outside myself to in, I find I can reach farther back. I return to my room, to my desk, to my page, able to start again.
And therein is the trick: unsuspectingly, we are pulled through to the other side of a mirror. We grow up, and the dreams of childhood begin to look like ambitions, and ambitions begin to feel like shackles. Meanwhile, what once tortured us—sweat, strength, exertion; who could’ve guessed?—is now what sets us free! Leaving the furnace, I return to my desk, to my page. Somewhere inside of me, a boy still strives to make something of himself. And now, meanwhile, I keep circling the lake.