by Tim Sweeney

Children are the best at it. They don’t need a silly guide like this to tell them how to play such a simple game. For them it comes easy, as life hasn’t yet tangled them in the hoopla of doing and planning and regretting. But their mastery is unearned — rooted in newness and innocence. We have so much more to forget.

When you play catch as an adult, especially after a long hiatus, you may at first feel inept. Your hands will feel alien, and you will look at them as if they have somehow betrayed you. The ball may stop and turn at right angles in mid-air. Or, like a cartoon who’s run off a cliff, it will realize it was never meant to fly and fall flat on the ground. A pass will sail perfectly through your hands, and you will feel foolish and look around to see who was watching. You may feel that this moment will be described by the epitaphs of the onlookers. This is all to be expected. With enough practice, you will be foolish without worry. In similar fashion, you may throw a perfect pass, and look to see who will cherish this moment forever. You will hope that every pass will be like that one. The art, I’ve been told, is to let that go, too.

You will see various types of passersby. Children will join in your game without asking, as if picking up where they left off. You may not see some onlookers, but you will feel their presence leering at you from the dark windows of buildings — surely there are better ways you could be spending your time. Some adults walk by and gaze at you like a picture of some faraway place that they could swear they’ve been before. They may even stop and scratch their chin before they move on with their day. Some will see you playing, and there will be a subtle stutter in their step; a hesitation of the heart nudging them to join. Of course, they haven’t had a formal invitation, and they might look silly … and there’s so much to do, and the dishes at home have been piling up and they should really call the auto-shop about that nagging light … And they move on. The fact that I am writing this paragraph should tell you that I still have much to learn. The great masters of the game simply don’t notice outside entities at all.

A famous story among the catch culture involves two players, a master and a journeyman. The journeyman sails an errant pass far behind the master, and the ball lands at the feet of a casual passerby, who then politely tosses it back to the master. The master catches the ball and looks to the empty-handed journeyman and remarks, “You’re quick today.”

To the great masters, outside conditions don’t matter. There is of course the story of the hurricane and the ball that never came down. Those masters are still patiently waiting, as if time hung with the ball. When you begin though, it’s easiest if the weather is pleasant. Warm and with very little wind. You see, all these external things will allow you to distract yourself from focusing. You will be talking about why the ball went this way or that way, or complaining that your hands are turning to stone from the cold. You can play through these stages, but not without great effort. It is too easy to mention the obvious things around you, to try to connect with one another that way. Let the ball do the talking. The ball mimics the wind and hardens with cold, and so you don’t need to speak of them. If you let it happen, a rhythmic hush should creep in like fog. The best parallel I can think of is microwaving popcorn — the nearer it gets to perfection, the longer the spaces between pops. It often happens naturally; the talk dies down, words become sparser and the silences longer. Eventually, there is nothing left to talk about, and the quietness will only be broken by occasional laughter, though no joke has been told.

This external calm is an admirable achievement, a milestone in your game, but much of it is a natural byproduct of fatigue. For most of us, it is silencing the internal din that proves most difficult. Duties and desires and regrets stay in excellent shape running around our minds all day. They rarely tire like the body. You find yourself thinking of unpaid bills and the phone calls you promised to make, your looming work-shift and the foolish thing you said yesterday that made you blush, or your love who is far away.

Letting go is, obviously, a basic tenet of the game of catch —  it’s no fun to play “hold”. It is both the simplest concept of the game, and the most difficult. A ball is easy to toss away, but thoughts don’t roll off our fingers so easily. A thought is a sticky thing. The ancient wisdom tells us to use this stickiness to place them on something easy to let go of, like a ball. The masters effortlessly surrender their thoughts unto the ball and watch, completely removed, as they fly back and forth, coming and going. This can prove a difficult task, glueing your thoughts to an inanimate object. They very much like the warm space inside your head, and when directly told to leave, they burrow further in. The trick is to lull them to sleep. This takes time, skill, and luck. The key is to ignore them completely, which is easy to say and hard to do. You can’t pretend. It’s easy to pretend to ignore something — to act aloof, but inside you’re so bent on ignoring it that it’s all that you can think about. Focus on the ball and don’t try too hard, just play. If you can genuinely immerse yourself in it, then slowly the pendulous motion of the game will induce a sort of hypnosis. Your thoughts will nod off and on … off and on, like an exhausted boy fighting sleep. Be patient, keep playing, let gravity win. No ball nor pair of metaphorical eyelids can fight it. Thoughts arise, and silence falls. A welcome rain. One moment of peace stitched to the next, ball threading the needle. You don’t feel a remarkable lightness. You don’t feel love or hate. You don’t feel much at all. You become a hollow of movement and breath.

Something strange happens now, and I suspect it happens like a dimming light — though I can’t be sure. The device in your mind that measures the passing of time is turned off, and you begin operating under the arc of a new floating body. The path of the spinning ball will mimic both sunrise and sunset, and days and weeks will pass you by if you let them. Things beyond the field of play melt into the white noise of yesterday and tomorrow. You will be alert and only aware of your heartbeat and staggered breath in the noiseless pursuit of a falling object. It is impossibly difficult to stay for very long in this place, this Bermuda triangle of clocks and watches and cares. It is where most disciples falter, and understandably so. It is right when you are about to sink in that the engine light and the dishes and the people and papers pull you back. You check the time and go.

They say the masters never leave this place, even when the ball is put back into the car or locker. It is only a brief pause in the game. For all they care, the ball is still hanging in the air. And like children, their hands are soft and open — should something wild or lovely fall from the sky.