Saturday, December 10, 2011

Early Doors

The night began with two of my "woods" going clear off the indoor lawn mat. Usually, at bowls, I can manage to get close enough to the jack--the tiny yellow ball we're all trying to sidle up next to--to make the game interesting. This particular night, though, I was all over the place, unable to find that groove and bowl with a sense of peace.

Tony, a man in his early seventies, comes beside me and puts his arm around my shoulders. He smiles big. We're on opposing teams tonight, though that doesn't stop him from sending a little encouragement my way.

"We have an old saying in South Yorkshire, Luke." He smiles even wider and squeezes my shoulders again.

"Yeah?" I ask, glad for anything to take my mind off my egregious bowling tonight.

"Early doors." Then Tony tilts his head back and laughs like those two words unlock some kind of deep secret of the universe. I laugh, too, even though he might as well have said pumpkin pie for all I can figure.

He notes the quizzical look on my face. Tony always wears a sweater with a collared shirt beneath. As do most of the guys who bowl. They wear ties, ironed and pleated khakis and shoes that shine like the moon on a night that is the purest black we know. I think momentarily of my grandfather, Harold Fenton, who spent his own life building houses all over Bloomfield, Connecticut. Worked from sun-up to sun-down and held a hammer as if it was a permanent appendage. Now, Grandpa wears a shirt and tie every day of his life.

"I never had to wear one in all my work, now it's nice to do so," Grandpa once told me.

And I look at Tony, wondering what he used his forty years of work to do--building, teaching, banking, doctoring, parenting? All the bowling men come dressed like it's a banquet; they bowl ready to meet the most important audience of their lives.

Tony's smile warms me. It welcomes me in like Grandpa's, like grace.

"Early doors simply means that it's only the beginning, Luke. It means, don't worry about it--the game is long. Things change." Tony winks at me, straightens his collar, and collects his next wood to roll it down the mat.

It stops leaning against the jack. He smiles wide.

With my next wood, I end up alongside him, a measure for who's closest to the jack. "There you go, kid," he tells me.

Another wink.

As we walk to the other end of the mat, I take stock of my own sweater and collared shirt beneath it. My own khakis. Granted, mine are un-ironed, and purchased from a charity shop for about four pounds in total. But these guys are rubbing off on me. It's a long cry from when I came to bowls dressed in my pajama pants, a T-shirt and hiking boots.

Something about them suggests that every moment is important--and why waste a single one not preparing for the banquet, not preparing for the finest introduction you might ever have?

Early doors.

And throughout the rest of the evening, each time a wood rolls away off the mat, it's all I can think. Early doors. And the truth is that it's all early doors. Even late in the game, there's still time. It's something a guy like Tony--in his seventies, knows.

It's something I imagine all these bowling guys know: that's it's never too late. Never too late to turn the game around with a wood that saunters up to the jack and hangs close. Never too late to become the kind of father you always wanted to be. Never too late to write the kind of book you always hoped you had inside of you. Never too late to start believing that the mistakes of our pasts don't need to be imbibed for the duration of our future.

Or, as George Eliot put it, more eloquently, "It's never too late to be what you might have been."

As I consider the wonder of whether a book I write will ever make it out into the big wide world, doing well enough to help support our family, or whether I'll learn to be the kind of father who discerns those two poles of love, grace and truth, with great clarity, or whether this journey we're on is more logic than craze, more faith than fear--as I consider all these possibilities, I know Tony's words are true. Early doors.

No matter how much time passes, the thing is to keep playing, to keep believing that this next time down the mat, you just might dance with the jack. And if not, there's always another bowl inside of you. Inside of me. No matter how many chances we've squandered before.

Each time down, hope beckons us to consider the possibility anew.