This is a guest submission from Mike Bernos, a writer, essayist and public relations professional. Though it is inspired by true events, it is a work of fiction.
“Moonlight floods the sky from horizon to horizon; How much it can fill your room depends on its windows.” — Rumi
It had been 21 years since I sat on this bench perched on a levee at Audubon Park overlooking the nearly mile-wide Mississippi River. I lived on Magazine Street during that long-ago summer of 1970, not far from the park and its golf course where I worked as a caddy. During those days, the river’s fog seemed to settle around my head as I drifted, nearly lost, after the loss of my mother one month short of my 12th birthday. Following her death my father went absent, too, hanging out more often than usual in the backroom gambling dens and 24-hour bars of New Orleans.
I remembered thinking about a lot of things, “working on mysteries without any clues” as the song goes. But that would change, including the arc of my life, one Friday morning in late July. I arrived at the club just after 6 a.m., which even at that hour the humidity drew sweat like a sauna. I waited only 30 minutes before being assigned a foursome and in particular the bag of the Irishman, Cullen. A wiry man in his late forties with slightly hunched-over shoulders, he kept no close friends, and members regarded him as an enigma since joining the club three years earlier. No one knew where he came from; rumor had it that he had been run out of his hometown in Ireland for embezzling a small fortune.
That story stuck as he had no visible form of income but appeared to live comfortably. Some attributed his mystique to the transcendent way he approached golf. Most just thought of him as odd. Whatever his mindset, he carried a 1 handicap and rarely lost a match. He displayed a subtle, nearly sublime mastery for the game. His drives carried no longer than 250 yards and he possessed a precise iron and short game. But the deadly dagger he wielded could be found in his hands on the green. Like the sound of thunder following lightning, the ping of his putter would always be attended by the rattle of the ball in the cup. That day would be the only time I looped for him. He disproved nothing about his character or his links’ prowess during the round. He said very little and struck his irons crisply while displaying a dart-like short game. But with the outcome of the round riding on an 18th hole “press,” Cullen sank a 10-foot putt for a winning birdie to add considerably to his bankroll. His focus is what I remember most — nothing distracted him. I’m certain that had a gun been fired from the next hole he would have not even twitched. After he collected his money in the parking lot and the other fellows headed to the clubhouse for beers, he retreated to the putting green. He practiced alone with a near-monastic discipline.
I approached him. “Mr. Cullen,” I said, his name barely escaping my larynx.
“What is it?” He asked without looking up from his putter. “Did I not tip you enough?”
“Oh yes sir, you did.”
“I want to be able to putt like you.”
More than a few seconds passed before he stood up and turned his eyes on me. At that moment fear nearly crumpled my legs as though I had confronted a bear awakening from hibernation. His eyes seemed to look through me as he took my measure. Perhaps, he had nowhere to go, or he saw in my guileless face a glimpse of himself at an earlier time, but I will never know why he said, “Go stand astride of that cup and face me.”
I walked over to the hole to which he had been putting, nearly 12 feet from him. He stood over his ball, looked at me, then at the cup. He gazed downward at the ball for a long moment before turning his head toward the cup. He putted. The ball left his club softly and rolled true. As it approached me, it curved slightly to the left before diving into the hole.
Stunned, I stared at him. “You didn’t even look at the ball when you putted,” I blurted out with the amazement of a kid who witnessed a magic trick.
“You think looking at the ball is an advantage?”
“Yeah.” I said automatically.
“Looking at the ball just makes you try harder.” He smiled coyly, “Now, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure.” I turned, nearly stumbling, as I hurried away certain that his eyes lingered on me for a few moments.
I caddied for another foursome that afternoon. The entire time I kept repeating to myself what he had said earlier, looking at the ball just makes you try harder. I found myself disappointed not to have received a more rational explanation or even a few pointers; but certainly nothing as cryptic as that.
Everything in my upside-down world begged for direction. At nearly 12-years old, I had been desperately trying to figure out how life worked; how to gain control of my acne, how to get a handle on impulses exploding within me like Fourth of July fireworks.
Later that night as I lay in bed, I remembered the first time my father placed a putter in my hands. I had just turned eight and we were on the same putting green where I approached Cullen. He had cut down an old Ping putter and placed it in my hands. He fashioned my tiny fingers into a solid grip as he stood behind me to demonstrate how to make a smooth putting stroke. Cigarettes and alcohol lingered on his breath. He then placed a ball four feet from the hole and showed me how to line it up with the cup. Before I hit it, he said, “Now think about all the things I told you … a slow, pendulum-like take away with your arms and not your wrists.” My brain flooded with all his instructions as I moved the putter back and through. The ball spurted forward before coming up woefully short. “Were you thinking about what I told you, or were you daydreaming?” He asked harshly. I fell asleep thinking how different Cullen’s and my father’s words had been. That lesson turned out to be the last I had from my father as he left soon after to serve two tours of duty in Vietnam.
During his one-month leave each year, we never played any sports as he became a different man while overseas. With each passing year he grew more distant and more agitated. My mother and I spent most of our time around him trying to anticipate what might set him off. When he returned after his second tour, he drank constantly, which led to him and my mother separating. Since her death, I returned to live with him which meant I spent a lot of time by myself.
I saw the inscrutable Cullen one more time that summer, again on the putting green one late afternoon. With not as much trepidation, I approached him daring to interrupt his near-meditative practice.
“What did you mean about ‘trying harder?’ Isn’t that what you should always do, try harder?”
He turned to face me, lifting his putter from the ground, and cradling it in his arms. “How old are you?”
“He looked at me for a long while. “Let’s go for a walk, Henry.”
My jaw slacked. I didn’t think he’d remember my name, especially since there were many caddies at Audubon Park, and I had only worked his foursome once.
I nodded. “OK.”
We started walking down the path that weaved through the live oaks lining the avenue entering the golf club.
“Word is you are going through a tough time. Your mother died and your dad prefers to spend more time with a bottle than his boy.”
He must have sensed my shame.
“Tis only a stepmother would blame you,” he said nearly underneath his breath.
I looked at him confused.
“Just an Irish saying … but what you are going through is nothing to be embarrassed by,” he said looking down at me from his nearly six-foot frame. “You just have to make the best of it. If you blame your father, you make him responsible for you. You want no one responsible for you but yourself.”
I looked at him and felt a weight lifting from my shoulders for the first time in a long while. Not only because of what he said, but also the way he spoke, in a tenderly manner which I had not heard from him before.
“No one is saying life isn’t hard and painful. But you have a choice to either give up on yourself and blame everyone for everything or accept yourself and life just as it is. The ugly stuff is a part of you, and you can no more run from it than you are able to escape your shadow.”
“But you lose yourself gambling on golf,” I ventured.
“Most people think I play for the money, but in fact, I don’t play golf any more than you play at drawing the breaths that keep you alive,” he said looking at me with a certain amusement. “You breathe without thinking about it. If you thought about each breath. you couldn’t make it through breakfast. You just know that your next breath will be there. Trust is everything. Without it you are bound to fail.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The ultimate test of anything you do is not success or failure but if you are willing to let go of the outcome. That is when you know you are awake and aware of each moment, and not shackled by expectations or a prisoner to your past.”
Darkness descended upon us. Bull bats squawked and darted overhead. We turned around and headed to the clubhouse.
“So that’s why you don’t look at the hole when you putt because you don’t care about the outcome?”
“More or less. And because the body is wiser than the mind, it’s best to not think too much otherwise you get in its way.”
We walked the remaining distance in silence. At the parking lot, we stood together for a minute; I wanted to ask him more questions but only managed to say goodbye. I started to walk away.
“Henry …” he said as I turned to look at him. “Good luck.”
A year later, my father took his own life; the demons born from war eventually overtook him like hyenas do an antelope. My mother’s grandparents took me to live with them in their New Orleans suburb. They were loving and caring as they had been throughout my life. The loss of my father did not eclipse how much I missed my mother.
During middle school I took up a new sport, baseball. I spent all my time at the school’s ball field. It served as a good distraction from all that I had gone through. The coach of our team realized my talents and worked with me as I drove myself to be the best. After classes in the fall and spring, I trained with my 7th and 8th grade team. At the end of our workouts, coach threw additional batting practice to me for another 20 minutes. He served up curves, sinkers, sliders, and fastballs that reached 80 m.p.h. No matter what he pitched I hit them —to every field. My hand-eye coordination bordered on extraordinary. Swinging a bat and hitting a baseball became as natural as breathing.
My prodigious talents followed me into high school and then, to college where I excelled.
During my first three years at a small Jesuit liberal arts school in upstate Georgia, I led my team in hitting with a batting average of .425. Academically, I performed slightly above average with a 3.O GPA. Socially, I strove to be accepted by everyone, seeking to please so much that my nickname could have been “chameleon” as I adapted to whatever environment I found myself.
One day, during the spring as I drove across a high-rise bridge near my college, I panicked. My hands sweated, my heart raced, and I hyperventilated. I became overwhelmed with the sudden fear of someone about to be thrown off a cliff. My body revved like someone had stepped on the accelerator in my brain while I remained stuck in neutral. Shaking and disoriented, I pulled over to the emergency lane on the side of the bridge. I eventually made it off the bridge and back to my dorm room. But the damage had been done. Little did I know that my defense mechanisms to control a life filled with fear and insecurity had collapsed. The anxiety I struggled so long to suppress burst like flood waters through a dam. It now surged through me like an electrical current. I overanalyzed everything and became hypervigilant, sleeping with one eye open.
On the baseball field I went into a slump. No longer did I enter the batter’s box with confidence. Instead, my head became crowded with thoughts, frozen by overthinking what the pitcher would throw next. Did I have my left foot too far back? Had I unknowingly dipped my shoulder? My batting average sank like a thermometer during an arctic blast.
Other areas of my life suffered also from an extreme case of paralysis by analysis. I told no one about my panic attack. In the early seventies, psychology had not unlocked the secrets of neurochemistry and its understanding of “fight or flight” as regulated by the amygdala. I feared people would think I had a nervous breakdown. The fact that I believed I had one fueled my anxiety.
One afternoon about a month after my panic attack I remained in the dugout alone after practice worrying, among other things, about my paltry .258 batting average. The sun sank below the tall pines that bordered the old brick left-field wall. In the outfield, a student-volunteer hurried to finish mowing the fast-growing spring rye. During those anxious times the ball field served as my refuge with its smell of cut grass and oiled leather gloves providing me comfort.
As I sat there, a figure walked towards me in the penumbra of dusk. I struggled to make him or her out but before I could, he spoke.
“You’re thinking too much, Henry,” the man said in an Irish accent.
“Cullen?” I asked as he came into view. I could not mistake his wiry figure and sloped shoulders. Shocked, I stood up as he walked towards me. “Wh-What are you doing here?”
“I came to give you another lesson,” he said. “You are old enough now to understand. You were not the last time we met.”
The eight-year absence had touched his short-cropped hair with more gray; his stoic demeanor remained the same.
“But how did you find me here?”
“Let’s just say I kept up with you through the guys at the club. I heard about your dad’s suicide and read about your baseball talents in the newspaper. It said you made All-State.”
I nodded, still dismayed that he stood in front of me.
“One of the guys told me you got a scholarship here and I thought one day I would come up and watch you play, and maybe try one of these elevated courses. I’d like to hit a drive over 250 yards even if it is downhill.”
I thought I saw a grin on his face.
“I asked around the athletic department for you and the student manager said you would not be hard to find, you were always here. He wanted to know if I were a relative and I told him ‘No,’ just someone who knew you from your days as a caddy. He let mention that you have been down on yourself lately and in a terrible slump.”
“Yeah, I have been.”
“Been thinking too much, have you?”
I sat down on the bench. “I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m falling apart.” I started to cry, sobbing like someone who tries hard not to. I collected myself.
“You’re handicapping yourself with anxiety by trying to control it all,” Cullen said. “You’re never going to figure it all out. Life doesn’t work that way. We only are given our next breath and sometimes we are not even guaranteed that.”
I looked at him. “So, I should just be happy for what I have right now and everything else be damned,” I said unable to hide the sarcasm.
“Yes, that’s pretty much it. You can’t think your way out of this. There is no there. You’re always here.”
“So, I should … just stop worrying,” I said with my words catching after a good cry.
“Worry and anxiety are just the mental part of trying to be in control.”
“Trying harder ain’t what it’s cranked up to be,” I said with a smile.
“You remembered.” He paused, looking at me. “Trust that you have all the answers. And those that you don’t will come if you remain here, not trying to get there.”
I found his words as comforting as I had the last time we met.
“As far as your slump, your thinking mind is interfering with the wisdom of your body. The skills are there. Focus and let go.”
The final fingers of sunlight slipped behind the pines. But for a few security lights above the dugouts, we sat in darkness.
“Why did you come?” I asked. “You hardly knew me as an acne-faced kid who caddied for you one time.”
“A fair question,” he answered, turning his head towards the darkness covering the outfield. “I had to learn to let go, too. My son…he just turned eleven when he and his mother died in a car crash with a drunk driver.”
He continued to stare into the darkness. I couldn’t find the words to answer but only thought of the supreme irony that my father killed himself leaving me without any one to turn to, and his son and wife died leaving him bereft. Now, we sat together finding a small amount of redemption in our tragic circumstances.
“I’d better go,” he said.
“Aren’t you going to stay for tomorrow’s game?” I wanted him to.
“I’ll wait for you to rise out of your slump and come back then. Besides, I got a tee time tomorrow at a nearby course I hear is demanding.” He got up and bid me goodbye the same way he did eight-years ago. “Good Luck, Henry.”
“See you, Cullen.”
I watched as he walked away, leaving through the infield gate, and disappearing.
I went back to my dorm with a sense of reprieve from the depression that draped around me for who knows how long. I flew up the stairs to my second-story dorm room. When I got to the top of the steps, I remembered that I had to get a book at the library. As I turned to go back down the steps I kept thinking about Cullen’s words: “Focus and let go.” I stopped at the first step and looked down. Suddenly, it hit me what he meant. I realized that if I tried to run down the steps thinking about putting one foot in front of the other, I would tumble and fall. I could not consciously command my feet quickly enough nor think how to perform the exact cadence to navigate the stairs. Sure, I could do it slowly as if I were learning to put one foot in front of the other for the first time, but to run down the steps, I must only look at them for a moment — focus and let go. My body already knew what to do. The only thing that could interfere with my task would be if started to think about it — if I worried about it. Cullen had been right!
Within a few weeks, I rose from my slump. In a doubleheader against Auburn University, I went 8-for-8. I also became less of a chameleon and more assertive without worrying whom I offended and who would like me. I liked myself; the brittle limbs of my persona softened to bend in any wind.
After college, I took up golf again and eventually competed on a secondary professional golf tour. Within two years I earned my PGA TOUR card. I ranked among the top five in putting for three years before I quit golf to become a writer and to spend more time with my wife and son.
During my abbreviated professional career, my putting stood out for one reason: Cullen. He became my coach and mentor. Other professionals petitioned him for his services, offering much more money than he could make in his Nassaus, but he always declined. He had no time for those who pursued golf with less than a metaphysical mindset.
Not long after I turned 33, Cullen passed away from cancer. It ran through his body quickly, leaving him but a few months to live. During the journey down his final 18th fairway, he handled it as he did everything else — with grace and stoicism. I had been certain that he accepted death with the same equilibrium as he did life.
Over the years he became a father to me, and I a son to him. We understood each other, and although we never expressed it in words, we loved one another. The most profound life lesson he taught me will always be the paradox of putting. Compared to the physical effort demanded from the large muscle groups, putting seems like it should be the easier skill, but a professional golfer lives or dies by his or her putting. And while that is just a metaphor to most people, Cullen understood we live or die each day in everything we do. Putting provided him a path to his spiritual awakening that allowed him to embrace all of life and not succumb to judgements regardless of outcomes. And he faced the most bitter. He remained stoic winning or losing at golf and life. In his metaphysics whether the putt dropped or remained on the lip proved less important than the greater gift afforded him of living in a moment that could not be hijacked by anticipation or fear. To him, a world of difference as well as the firing of a billion synapses lie between trying a task and doing one. “What’s that popular line? ‘Free your mind,’” he once asked me. “Well, it is better phrased, ‘Free yourself from your mind.’”
As a large freighter slowly pushed up the Mississippi, I turned and looked back toward Audubon Park where in the distance through the ancient oaks, I could make out its putting green. I almost see Cullen standing with his head down looking at his ball. But only for a moment.