Truth be told, I’ve been a bit stuck lately.

The winter season mirrors my inner state these days. I feel frozen, inertia running deep. Or is it exhaustion? I can’t tell the difference anymore.

Which may be why I can’t stop thinking about the Metrozoids.

“The Last of the Metrozoids” a New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik about a team of eight-year-old football players in New York City who are coached by Kirk Varnedoe in the spring of 2003. Varnedoe was a well-known art historian and former college football coach and he and Gopnik were longtime friends. Luke, Gopnik’s son, was a member of the infamous Giant Metrozoids.

Perhaps more to the point, that spring Varnedoe was dying of cancer. But there were no grandiose gestures or dramatic plans in his coaching. Week after week, he simply led his young team through the basics of the game. “You break it down, and then you build it back up,” he’d say, and then proceed teach the boys the finer points of a three-point stance. “The hardest play you learn is just steps put together.”

I have needed this no-nonsense advice lately. There has not been a day in the last month when I haven’t found myself thinking, OK girlfriend, you break it down, and then you build it back up… The hardest play you learn is just steps put together. This is the best pedagogical advice I know when faced with an afternoon of teaching Debussy and Brahms, Bach and Chopin, “The Happy Hippo” and “Lightly Row.” Or when confronted with the 2021 tax folder for that matter. Or the hours required to prune and tend the garden for the next season. It is the voice to heed when overwhelmed by my own stack of music to learn or my overambitious to-do list. Open the Rachmaninoff. Play the first movement hands separately. Work the second movement with the metronome, the third outwards from the middle section, the fourth in sections backwards from the end at half-tempo. You break it down, and then you build it back up.

Lately, however, these words have become my mantra to get through these sluggish, unmotivated days, my prayer to keep one foot shuffling in front of another. Forget lofty goals or idealistic dreams. Just do the next thing, and then the next thing after that, I tell myself when the clouds gather and the darkness sets in. “Generally, a thing cannot freeze if it is moving,” wrote Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run with the Wolves. “So move. Keep moving.”

Keep moving. Maybe the secret to pushing our various rocks up the hill day after day after day is to make each stone very small. Very, very small. You break it down to build it up. Thread the next piece of yarn for the needlepoint project. Put the bin and the gardening gloves and the sheers right next to the flowerbed that needs clearing. Set the collection of Schubert waltzes that needs playing through before Tuesday’s lesson on the back of the piano. Sweep the kitchen floor. Read through an old half-written essay, long abandoned. Spend five minutes sorting the receipts in the tax folder. Address one envelope. Fill one birdfeeder. Throw away one pair of holey socks. Prune one rose bush. Play one page of Rachmaninoff. Only one.

In their long friendship, Gopnik and Varnedoe had watched many football games together, but they somehow missed the notorious 1984 Boston College-Miami matchup that Boston had won in a famous Hail Mary play. The Saturday before Varnedoe died, ESPN Classics aired the old game on television from beginning to end. As they watched the last few minutes of the game, Kirk exclaimed, “That’s no Hail Mary. Watch it again and you’ll see,” and he proceed to take the final play apart. Gopnik writes, “Turning to us, he said, ‘That’s no Hail Mary, friends. That’s no miracle. That is just the play you make’…We had been waiting twenty years to see a miracle, and what we saw—what he saw, once again, and showed us—was one more work of art, a pattern made by people out of the possibilities the moment offered to a ready mind. It was no Hail Mary, friends; it was a play you made.”

Perhaps it is too easy and convenient for us to call out a Hail Mary when we witness the ordinary acts of greatness around us. The parent who stays up all night with a sick child. The teacher who gives up her lunch hour to help a struggling student. The doctor who wears a N95 mask hour after hour without complaining. The priests that attend to the dying; the volunteers who feed the hungry; the musicians and artists and writers and thinkers and religious leaders who have keep our souls alive and our spirits lifted in these tough months. We want to call these extraordinary acts because it lets us off the hook of our own accountability. We like drama and fuss; we chase after busyness, claim the outlier narrative. But most of our lives are not made up of Hail Marys as tempting as it might be to think so. Mostly, we are called to simply show up and create our art and our lives out of the rubbish of our days and our hours. In these troubled times, it might be almost a political act to keep on rolling our small rocks up the hill in the face of all the brokenness around us. The meaning is in the doing.

There were no heroic Hail Marys in the Metrozoid season. In fact, there were no actual games at all, just weekly practices and regular scrimmages among the young enthusiastic players. They learned this defensive play and that offensive one. They learned to run and to throw the ball. They learned to be a team. It was nothing at all really. And everything.

Gopnik writes, “[Varnedoe] loved the Metrozoid practices, I came to see, because for him they weren’t really practicing. The game would never come, and the game didn’t matter. What mattered was doing it.”

Do the next thing. And then the next. Keep moving. You break it down and then build it up. It’s no miracle, friends. It’s just the play you make.


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