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A Perfect Ten

by Stephanie Piper

The place where heaven meets earth

Let me say by way of introduction that I was always chosen last for Red Rover.

In the twilight backyards of my childhood, I was also chosen last for softball, Prisoner's Base, Kick the Can and team Hide and Go Seek. The most memorable moment of my field hockey career was the goal I once scored, red-faced and panting, for the opposing team.

I was athletically challenged back when people just called it clumsy.

So it's surprising that I find myself, night after night, glued to the Olympics. I never wanted to be a gymnast or a championship swimmer. I never watch sports on TV. Except now, when there is a chance of witnessing perfection. It's like true love. I know it when I see it. And like true love, it is rare and mystical and, at its center, always somehow the same. There is a unity in perfection that transcends external form. It's the "hidden wholeness" Thomas Merton wrote about, and it is present in Pavarotti singing Puccini and in Alexei Nemov dropping from the bars to the mat in a single, fluid arc. It's there in the ochre-colored bison on ancient cave walls and the soundless arrow of Laura Wilkinson's winning dive.

Perfection lifts the curtain on a place that lies beyond striving, beyond practice, beyond discipline and sacrifice and endless repetition. And perfection marks the viewer. Once seen, it is with you forever.

A dozen years ago, I saw Baryshnikov dance on the stage of the Knoxville Civic Auditorium. He seemed to sketch each flawless leap, each dizzying turn, on a canvas of thin air. Here is what it looks like. Here is what it is. Here is the definition of arabesque, pirouette, entrechat.

When I was 16, I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet on the New York stage. I sat in the third row and tried to remember to breathe. It was as though he was channeling Shakespeare directly to me. Here's what this speech means. Here's how this sounds when heaven reaches down and, for an instant, brushes the edge of earth.

When I was 18, I saw the cathedral of Chartres rise out of the French countryside. Later I would tour the dim interior, marvel at the rose window. But for me, the perfect moment was a sudden apparition of spires above the Normandy plain. Here, now. This is how faith looks. When I was 21, and 24, and 27, I gave birth to my sons. Each child was born in a different place, and each birth had its own drama. But the first encounters were all of a piece. I would look on the new face with a flash of perfect recognition, a millisecond of knowing beyond all knowledge. Here you are. It was you, all the time.

Rilke said that in the moment of creation, the artist hangs suspended between heaven and earth. In the rare moments of perfection I have witnessed, the realms merge. It never lasts long, and it always leaves me longing.

It's that longing that pulls me, Red Rover reject that I am, back to Sydney night after night. It might not happen this vault, this race, this dive. But if it does, I plan to be there.

September 28, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 39
© 2000 Metro Pulse