“That was dance!” said the couple, who knows that my daughter has been taking dance much longer than she’s been playing basketball. “That was all because of dance!”
As a person who has almost always felt athletics and the arts at considerable odds with each other, I couldn’t have been happier with that comment.
Even though she’s fourteen, I still can’t help but feel like we’ve thrown our daughter into athletics the way I imagine some people throw their newborn infants into water: because we have heard the instincts are there and we want to put our children in touch with those instincts, force them to adapt so that they’ll be stronger and better in the end.
However, I choose this sink or swim comparison for another purpose as well: the water imagery. In general, athletics engages time differently than most art forms. Athletics is about the moment, the immediate; it’s about instantaneous perceptions and reactions; it compresses weeks and months and years of training into moments; it “squeeze[es] the universe into a ball.” In my daughter’s basketball game, she was thrown into the stream of time and the score measured her team’s reactions—valuing reactions certainly over reflections—against that stream as compared to the other team. Even clockless sports, such as baseball and golf, boil down to instantaneous reactions of the smallest fractions of seconds that make for achievement or defeat.
Art engages time rather differently. Often, art means to give us perspective, a wider view from which individual moments get their meaning. Art might attempt to create or recreate or freeze a moment in time, as in the crisis of J. Alfred Prufrock alluded to above, but even then the point is often that moment’s relationship to history or to the forces or character that produced that moment, preserved for us in art where it might impact history for hundreds of years.
We can see this time difference clearly in art works about sport. Sports films do better with story than they do capturing the sport itself: Rocky’s neighborhood and character are interesting; his fights are anything but “the sweet science.” Even “The Triumph of Death,” Don Delillo’s fictional retelling of “the shot heard ’round the world” that opens his novel Underworld, succeeds not because of the way it captures Bobby Thomson’s homerun but because of its wider vision of the event, more for the way it takes the variegated experiences of American life and coalesces them into a timeless moment than for the way it recreates the homerun itself. DeLillo himself knows this. Before the event, Russ Hodges, the actual radio announcer and DeLillo character who will himself momentarily call a piece of history, reflects on a Jack Dempsey fight he saw as a kid, “When you see a thing like that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history” (16).
Then again, maybe time is exactly what art and athletics share. The sweetest moments in both are when time seems to fall away, when time’s shallow stream yields to transcendence, or when we simply become aware of ourselves in relation to time in a way that puts everything back into perspective.
Both can do this. Yet my fear for my daughter, ballet-passer, is that, as the pressures of a sports culture loom on the high school horizon, the immediacy of athletics will predominate, that the slower truths and wider picture of the arts will get shoved to the sideline.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishin’ in,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
In this month that attempts to house both March Madness and Lent, this is my prayer for my daughter: that she both swim in the stream, the whitewater of time that is athletics, and crawl out to the banks of the arts and know that eternity remains.