I’m not at SunTrust Park tonight.

It’s 8:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 2017. For months, I’d been planning on being on my feet at this moment, foam tomahawk in hand, at a brand-new ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia, for the home opener of this season of Atlanta Braves baseball. Instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, trying to grade essay proposals. The Braves game is on the radio, but I can barely hear the commentary because the Braves are up 2-0 in the first inning, and the crowd is so loud that Jim Powell’s voice disappears.

I’m frustrated.

I tried on multiple occasions to buy tickets for today’s game, but the Braves sold so many ticket packages early that few people were able to buy single-game tickets when they went on sale to the public. I didn’t want to empty out my savings account to buy tickets from third-party sellers, and when the Braves released individual standing-room-only tickets earlier this week, I didn’t buy one because I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t want to go to the game alone. The new ballpark is exciting, but it isn’t familiar, and between traffic and wondering if I would get lost and not having a place to park and being surrounded by people I don’t know, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been fearful instead of excited.

I should have bought the ticket anyway. I didn’t. And now, like so many other times, I regret not taking a chance.

I’ve got excuses. It’s two weeks before the end of the semester, and the grading has piled up. My parents need to see me. Atlanta traffic is the worst.

There will be other games. There will be more Opening Days. But I think I’ll always regret not trying harder to go to this game.

I’ve been thinking too much about regrets lately, about taking chances (or not) when I can (or should). Two months ago, my father was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemo so far. He hasn’t been too sick, but he’s been tired and weak. We won’t know for a little longer whether the chemo is working. But life has changed for all of us.

Two months ago, life felt like it was ending. It was hard to breathe some days. I set alarms for two hours before I needed to get out of bed because I knew it would take that long to convince myself to actually move. I broke down in front of students, in restaurants with friends, and especially in the middle of the night when nothing could penetrate the grief. I still do, actually.

But I kept counting down to baseball. Spring training games started two weeks after my father’s diagnosis. I occupied myself with arguing about who the Braves would put in their bullpen to start the season and guessing which minor league teams the top prospects would be assigned to and creating a spreadsheet for the players I would draft for my fantasy league.

At this point in my life, I’ve recognized the impermanence of things. Roommates and addresses change, sometimes more often than I would choose. Best friends move across the country or drift away, despite still living in close proximity. My favorite students graduate or transfer, and suddenly, the people who were so important to me for months are just gone.

The people I love the most are gone. Might be gone. Will be gone. Eventually, sooner or later.

No matter how you conjugate it, the loss is the same. Life is hard. Really hard. Even unbearable at times. So when you find something that gives you a real, true sense of fulfillment, you have to hold on.

The reality that I will one day, far sooner than I am ready, even if it is years from now, lose my father has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. But it has brought a sense of clarity about, as clichéd as it sounds, what is really important:

God is true and real and loving even when my heart is broken and the grief is overwhelming.

I will never regret spending time with my family instead of grading essays.

The people who matter the most are the ones who will be solid, faithful presences even when they don’t know what to say or how to help.

Baseball is the greatest, weirdest, most exhausting, most romantic sport in the world.

Some days, the stress of life is so much that my prayers are reduced to “Jesus, please just help.” Some days, I cry uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, who is stronger and braver than I can ever hope to be. Some days, I find solace in a good cup of coffee and a stellar defensive play by the Braves’ centerfielder. Some days, nothing seems to matter because the papers still need to be graded, and my father still has cancer, and the Braves’ bullpen loses yet another game.

But God’s mercies are made new every morning. And joy comes in the morning. And new batting order and opponents and games happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That is the best thing about baseball. For eight months out of the year, I have something to follow, something to invest in, something new and exciting and unexpected to hope for. The Braves might have a losing record, but players still hit home runs and make exciting sliding grabs in the outfield and make impossible 4-6-3 double plays look like poetry come to life.

The last thing I wrote about baseball was about hope and the Chicago Cubs, and when I wrote that in November, I had no idea what was coming. But I do now. And in a few weeks, when the semester is over, I’m moving home for the summer, to spend time with my dad, to help out my family as much as I can, to try to find hope and to make the time last as long as it can.

But my dad made me promise that, if I came home for the summer, I would still go to as many baseball games as I can. And that’s a deal I willingly made.

SunTrust Park, I’ll be there as soon as I can.

There’s Always Next Year

I’m not very good at hope.

I’m a worst-case-scenario kind of girl. (I can tell you 100 ways I’ve imagined getting a flat tire. I don’t need WebMD to tell me how the mysterious pain will kill me. I can sabotage a relationship before I even say hello.)

I have a hard time imagining life as ever being different than it is at this exact moment.

I haven’t always been this way. And I’m not this way every moment of every day. But the past 9 years have been hard. The daily wear-and-tear of living with diabetes and the loss of too many beloved family members and a volatile political climate and the sinking realization that a career in higher education is a difficult one to sustain…

Baseball has been teaching me to hope again.

I fell in love with baseball when I was 11 years old, but when I went to college, I found that it was difficult to keep up with the game. None of my friends cared about the sport, and it’s hard to devote that much time and energy when you’re the only person in your life who cares. (Plus, you know, I had to do all that reading…)

When I started following the game again, when I decided that I missed the game enough to figure out a way to fit it back into my life, my beloved Atlanta Braves were no longer the same team. Chipper Jones had retired, Bobby Cox wasn’t the manager, and the Braves weren’t even a .500 team anymore.

The Braves have been bad. Almost unwatchable at times (although the last half of this year was an incredible turnaround). My friend John suggested I start paying attention to prospects, and I started paying attention to what else was going on around the league, too. And I celebrated every single time the Braves did something good.

The 2016 baseball season could have been a nail in the proverbial coffin, a season that could have had me believing that enough was enough. At one point early on, the Braves were on track to lose 134 games…out of 162. But before the season even began, I  vowed to make it a summer devoted to baseball. And I have six months of incredible memories:

  • Three opening games in 10 days: MLB Opening Day in Atlanta, minor league opening day in Greenville, and the home opener of the inaugural season of the Fireflies in Columbia.
  • Absolutely incredible pitching: I saw Max Scherzer (this year’s NL Cy Young winner!), David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon (now a Brave!), and Justin Verlander (runner-up for the AL Cy Young) all pitch at Turner Field. And for the Braves, I saw Julio Teheran pitch four times this season!
  • I saw Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper and Adonis Garcia and Daniel Murphy all hit their first home runs of the year on Opening Day. In September, I saw a Matt Kemp home run fly above my head, out of reach because he’d hit it so hard there was never any doubt. That same game, I watched the Braves beat the Mets in the 10th inning, my first time present for a walk-off win. There was incredible joy that night.
  • Between Greenville and Columbia, I managed to see the Rome Braves (and tons of future Braves) five times. I can’t WAIT for these guys to be playing at the major league level.
  • I started the season at Turner Field, and I ended it there, too. There were a lot of tears that day. Turner Field, as we know it, doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure I’ll eventually grow to love SunTrust Park, but I probably won’t love it for awhile, and Turner Field will always be immensely special because it was my first ballpark, home of the first team I ever loved.

After the Braves’ season ended, I set my hopes on the Chicago Cubs. I spent a lot of late nights, coffee cup in hand, papers spread out on my lap, grading and watching baseball and crossing my fingers and praying for a miracle. I almost lost the faith a few times. But around 1:00 a.m., on a Thursday morning a few weeks ago, I cried my eyes out as decades and decades of waiting from the true, faithful fans were rewarded. I love the game so much that I wanted, desperately, for their faith to come to completion.

All this to say, baseball brings me hope. But if I had stayed the same fan I was when I was younger, that probably wouldn’t be the case. If I focused on win-loss records, on division titles, on home runs and batting averages, on All-Star appearances, I wouldn’t find much to bring me hope. The Braves just don’t have those things in spades, not now, not yet.

But changing the way I follow the game has made me more hopeful. I’ve started to understand that the future is not yet here, but I see glimpses of it: in a young, Gold Glove-winning centerfielder; in a hometown shortstop with really great hair; in low-A minor leaguers who can get lots of strikeouts; even in a ballpark that’s still under construction.

Not that long ago, baseball brought me great anguish. I despaired at a losing record, at the trades of so many of my favorite players to far-away teams. Baseball hasn’t really changed all that much. But the way I follow the game has, and that’s made the difference.

If the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, then the Braves can be good again. And I can find hope again, both in the game I love and in the rest of my life. After all, there’s always next year (and next month, and next week, and tomorrow).

Spring training starts in just 96 days. I’m already ready.

The Fragility of Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers–
That perches in the soul–
And sings the tune without the words–
And never stops–at all–

And sweetest–in the Gale–is heard–
And sore must be the storm–
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm–

I’ve heard it in the chillest land–
And on the strangest Sea–
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb–of Me.

-Emily Dickinson

‘Tis the season of Advent, of waiting, of expectation, of hope. This is a time when hope seems, paradoxically, both to abound and to seem so hard to grasp.

I love this poem by Dickinson because I think she captures this paradox beautifully. Hope is birdlike, described as having feathers, ephemeral, fragile. A storm could–but doesn’t seem to–destroy this fragility, but hope manages to hold on even in the fiercest condition, never demanding, just always existing.

Hope doesn’t demand. We don’t actually have to work for it. It’s always there, always available, simple and steadfast, abiding side-by-side with faith and love.

Waiting and hoping are not natural for me. For example, I’ve been fighting and struggling in my attempt to make a decision about what to do after I finish my Master’s degree. I have myriad options–a long list of schools to which I plan to apply. I also have the option, of course, to wait, to rest, to take time off from school for the first time in years. And even though I know that waiting and resting and seeking God’s will is the right decision, that knowledge has not stopped me from trying so hard to plan and make lists and DECIDE my future. I have been clearly resisting patience and rest in favor of a plan that I cannot grasp yet. I have been tense and frustrated and lost in hopelessness at times because I don’t know what my future looks like. I have a strange peace about knowing I’m supposed to wait, but that peace is often shattered by the voice in my head that’s telling me that I need to know, that I need to decide. In that tension, hope seems to fly away.

And, because I’m fortunate to be an emotional female, when one major thing in my life feels upended, so does everything else. Suddenly, I’m not hopeful about much of anything, and the assaults keep coming:

Sure, it’s Christmas, and you’ve always loved Christmas, but it’s never going to be the same, is it? Your grandmother’s been gone a year now, and Christmas will always be tinged with her loss. 

Yes, your friends and community are wonderful, but you’re always going to leave them and go home alone, aren’t you? You’re always really going to be alone, aren’t you? 

Of course your family loves you, but they don’t care anything about what you care about. Try talking to them about school and the books you love, and just see how much they really don’t care.

Interesting: hopelessness appears in the face of loneliness and overwhelms with the thought of being alone. Damn you, lies. When one comes, they all come, a legion of hope-destroyers. Suddenly, the Christmas lights and cheer seem taunting, and the dark, cold night seems welcoming, and the hope and Truth I celebrate starts to slip away, just when I need it most.

Hopelessness is not something I can actually fight. I can’t work hard and suddenly have hope again. This is when I have to stand still and remember that the fight has already been fought and won. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome. If I grasp and fight and struggle, the little bird flits away. But if I stand still, waiting, holding my hand out, she comes back to rest and delight.

Now is when I need hope more than ever. In 8 days, I’ll be on a plane to Haiti, a trip that I’ve waited a year to take. The darkness I see now is nothing compared to the darkness that I know exists in that country. Haiti is a place for which I have cared and prayed and mourned for two years now, and I will finally experience it. This next week, I will spend with my family, which will hopefully be a restful, peaceful time of preparation for my trip.

And if you’re reading this, if you’ve made it this far in my, once again, lengthy blog, I ask for your prayers: for peace and hope for my team members and myself as we prepare, for unity among the six of us traveling together, for the people of Haiti who’ve experienced so much darkness, and for light and Truth that overwhelms all else in our lives.