For after dinner, Ellie had got it into her head to play cards. She knows that Mary and Brian are card players, and thinks it might help keep the brain cells active--aside from all the obvious social benefits. So we sat down with a double pack and got going with a game whose name I have already forgotten...
I have a history with cards. Remember the storage bin I mentioned a couple of days ago, where I found my grandmother's album? I found, at the same time, the leather case where my mother kept her two decks of cards. She was a great player of solitaire, and taught me many versions of this quaint occupation; there were even games, I recall, that we could play together, whiling away many hours in the Rectory or Vicarage when I was a lad. Good memories. My mother was a rather distant person in many ways and this, curiously, was one way in which we managed to be close.
Cards played a role in village life, too. For the "toffs," there were evenings of bridge, with a glass of sherry or port. I have never wanted to play bridge. For the villagers, there were the "whist drives" in the village hall, with prizes. My father once had to give away our goose--actually a gander, misnamed Sarah--as a whist drive prize, all stripped of feathers and trussed up. We had raised Sarah from an egg. My sister Flora (we were Skype-ing as I was writing this, and she jogged my memory) and I were each given a goose egg at one of the local pubs, and we insisted that they not be eaten but hatched out under one of our broody chickens. Sarah emerged with his sibling, Susan--actually a goose--and they in turn produced a tribe of goslings. Sarah was an exemplary father, parading his family in line behind him through the garden--and, on occasion, through the house! We grew rather fond of him. But unhappily for him, he turned out to be an aggressive creature, chasing visitors away from our front door (not a good greeter for the Vicar!) and invading the neighboring farmer's fields to steal his crops. So he met his fate, and was plucked and trussed for this whist drive prize. I think my father was genuinely upset.
But I digress. I was writing about my history with cards. I may have been a good solitaire player, but I was always an awfully bad card player. In my card playing days, I was always a sore loser. At the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, the poets were all poker players. Wanting to be one of the guys, I tried--but I was hopeless. I lost. They liked to play for money, which brought up a whole different issue for me. Money. Spending money is bad enough. Losing money is intolerable. It roils the stomach. It puts me in a panic. I soon stopped playing poker with the guys.
There was Canasta, too, in the sixties, kind of a fad at the time. Everyone played Canasta. In the seventies, there was Crazy Eights. Ellie and I played Crazy Eights with our friends Morrie and Evy, and I always lost. I was still a sore loser, and I was not good at faking the appearance of having fun. I was not having fun. I was losing. And I took it all much too seriously, much too personally. It seemed I needed to win in order to have fun.
So I'm trying to understand all this in retrospect. What was I clinging to, that I felt so stressful and unhappy? Some ego fabrication, that I had to always come out on top? That I couldn't tolerate the thought of others being better than me? The thought that I somehow deserved to win, deserved better luck? That the fates were conspiring against me? That I could not control the outcome?
Anyway, we played cards after dinner last night. We had not played at all since those Crazy Eights days, so I was interested to watch myself, to see whether those old feelings would come up--or whether my years of meditation and study of the dharma would have mellowed my experience! I lost again. And yes, I did notice moments where the old feelings began to stir, at some deep place inside. I did notice that little surge of indignation when my pick of cards betrayed me, when the other players had luck on their side, when the numbers piled up against me. The difference was that I found myself taking it much more lightly than I used to; it was okay to simply act out the role of being the bad loser and grumble vociferously at my cards, without actually being it. We all had a good laugh as we played, and the evening was a lot of fun.
So losing, I discover, is a kind of winning, too. But my brain is too frazzled to work that one out this morning.