Monday, March 22, 2010

Round and Round. Over and Over. Again and Again.

This morning I didn’t need my usual little cheat sheet with Mary Oliver’s The Journey. As I walked through the park, my feet careful to keep their balance in the sludgy snow turned ice, I recited the whole poem without a single stop. I have read the lines over and over, I have whispered them, visualized them, walked them, talked them. By now I know them by heart.

There is something about repetition. It makes for a more frictionless thinking and doing. For better or worse. I know all about bad habits.

But good habits are also the product of repetition. For how many times can you say “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began”, before you start taking notice? Imagine a poetic washing machine. You throw in a slightly stained idea, and give it the the full cycle: soap, water, rinse and spin. Round and round and round. Till it is tumbled dry and ready to wear again.

I am probably somewhere in the soap cycle, stains still there, but One Day I Finally Knew What I Had to Do. The more I repeat the words, the more I understand what they mean. Practice has a voice of its own.

In the book “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talents and IQ Is Wrong”, David Shenk talks about genes and talent and nature and nurture. The old story. Yet with a twist. “It turns out that the genetic instructions themselves are influenced by other inputs,” Shenk writes. “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.”

So what is pure genes, and what counts for the effort you put into developing whatever you want to develop? Shenk tells the story of baseball legend Ted Williams who was “one in a million, widely considered the most “gifted” hitter of his time.” Yet it turns out he practiced hitting that ball morning, midday and evening till his hands were bleeding. "His whole life was hitting a ball," recalls a boyhood friend. "He always had that bat in his hand.”

I have kept a poem in my hand and my mind for some time now. Does it change anything? Is it like hitting that ball? Will practice help me reach the target?

“Ted just had that natural ability,” said a fellow sportsman. “Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive,” said another. Williams himself insisted otherwise. “Nothing except practice, practice, practice will bring out that ability,” he explained. “The reason I saw things was that I was so intense....It was (super) discipline, not super eyesight.”

The mystery still exists though, for where did all that determination come from, the dedication, the discipline?

I will keep walking. I will keep breathing Mary Oliver’s lines. I will practice, practice, practice.

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