March Madness

1996 was my first experience of this thing called “March Madness” having moved from Scotland late in 1995! Living in Kansas City certainly introduced me to the local rivalry between the Tigers and Jayhawks – University of Missouri and Kansas University! Two of my three sons graduated from KU and so obviously I have become indoctrinated into all things Jayhawks! March Madness, for those of you who live beyond the USA, is when the 64 best college basketball teams play off in a win or lose knock out tournament over three weekends. Madness in terms of rivalries, madness in terms of alum loyalties, madness in terms of shock defeats, all captured on TV! Oh and there is also amazing basketball in both the women’s and men’s tournaments.

Mary Karr is the author of three award-winning bestselling memoirs – The Liars’ Club, Cherry and Lit. She teaches at Syracuse University NY. I heard her read the poem below at a workshop at Yale University. Mary’s journey has not been all smiles and success. “Loony Bin Basketball is not strictly about basketball, it’s more about that latency of the soul, buried in even the most inoperative-seeming people. It describes a gym class at the McLean Hospital, where Karr checked herself in to keep from committing suicide. ” writes Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post 2016. The poem is dedicated to Phil Jackson, a good friend and a great teacher of the game of basketball. I enclose a link to a Washington Post article which goes into more detail about this basketball poem which is not really about basketball.

Pause and ponder and read again and again.

Loony Bin Basketball
(for Phil Jackson)
The gym opened out
before us like a vast arena, the bleached floorboards
yawned toward a vanishing point, staggered seats high
as the Mayan temple I once saw devoured by vines.
Each of us was eaten up inside — all citizens of   lost
and unmapped cities.

Frank hugged the pimply ball
over his belly like an unborn child. Claire
dressed for daycare in daffodil yellow and jelly shoes.
David’s gaze was an emperor’s surveying a desiccated
battlefield. Since he viewed everything that way, we all
saw him the same.

The psych techs in cloroxed white
were giant angels who set us running drills, at which
we sucked. The zones we set out to defend were watery
at every edge. We missed close chest passes, easy combos.
Our metronomes run different tempos,
John proclaimed.

Then Claire started seeing
dashes stutter through the air behind the ball.
Then speed lines on our backs, and then her own head
went wobbly as a spinning egg. She’d once tracked
planetary orbits for NASA and now sat sideline
by her eyes’ projections.

Only Bill had game.
Catatonic Bill whose normal talent was to schlub
days in a tub chair — his pudding face scarred
with chicken pox — using his hand for an ashtray,
belly for an armrest. Now all that peeled away, and he
emerged, clean as an egg.

He was a lithe
and licorice boy, eeling past all comers, each shot
sheer net. He faked both ways, went left. Beneath the orange
rim his midair pirouettes defied the gravity that I
could barely sludge through. He scored beyond what even
Claire could count,

then he bent panting,
hands on knees as the orderlies held out water cups,
and the rest of us reached to pat his back or slap
his sweaty hand, no one minding about the stench or his
breath like old pennies. Then as quick as that
he went.

Inside his head
some inner winch did reel him back from the front
of   his face bones where he’d been ablaze. He went back and
back into that shadowed stare. Lucky we were to breathe
his air. Breath is God’s intent to keep us living. He was
the self   I’d come in

wanting to kill, and I left him there. by Mary Karr from Poems: Tropic of Squalor

Holy God,
for this gift of life we thank you.
At times though
life itself can threaten us,
filling us with apprehension, caution, confusion.
Help us hold steady as winds blow and waters rise.
Calm the storm we find ourselves in.
Calm the fears that hold us hostage to ourselves.
Calm our hearts and our breath. Amen.

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