Saturday, January 31, 2015

Personal Statement: One Medal—The People, Experiences and Events Behind It

I was recently asked to complete a statement entitled "Personal History." Here is the prompt:
What has helped to make you the person you are? This may include a description of the people, experiences, events, etc. that have had an impact upon you. You may describe anything from your earliest memories to events that occurred yesterday. Space is not limited.

I thought to myself, "you're joking, right?" That is a task that, although important, relevant and poignant would require a response that would fill as many pages as my age. I immediately thought of what Mark Twain once wrote: I wanted to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have the time.


Anyone can write a lot and wax poetic, but it to say what you want and to say it succinctly is no easy task. Brevity requires great effort. Precision demands practice. But the truth of the matter is that I am in some sort of "writing shape." So here is my response, which true to Twain, took some time to keep brief.  I offer mine only because it might get you to think of your own....enjoy

Personal Statement:
There is a piece of jewelry that I wear that reveals quite a bit about the people, experiences and events that have shaped my life. It is a small gold medal, about the size of a fifty-cent piece from 1920. On the back is engraved: Irish Athletic Championship, 880 yards, 1920.
M. J. Naughton.

My mother gave me that medal for my 35th birthday. She didn’t have to do that, but of course she did. That’s my mom, and Michael John Naughton was her father.

My grandpa died in April 1981, months before the release of the film “Chariots of Fire.” Had he lived to see the film, perhaps we would know more about his life; regardless, I wear his medal today to honor his legacy.

The fact that I am the grandchild of immigrants is an important and special part of my identity. While I know all about my grandmother’s childhood, her experiences and her family—in fact, I have visited them four times—I know very little about my grandfather’s. When he left Ireland, he left everything. He talked very little about “the who, what, and the why.” The “what” I want to know about is his experience of running. Did he love it? Did he run against Liddell? Did he run in the US? on Ocean Beach where I do? 

My grandfather always looked at runners with an understanding that comes with experience. He knew good form, he understood how a runner must push through the pain, and he even knew what it took to win and how to do that. But he never revealed “how” he knew that. We never knew that he was a successful runner until his death. My mom and her sister found his medals—evidence of his feats in his sock drawer.

His successful ventures encouraged my older brother, younger sister and I to run too. I joined the cross country and track team in grade school and have run ever since. Running has cultivated and sustained more friendships than I can name. The seniors on varsity track in high school were my mentors and wonderful role models. I had no idea that my cousin looked up to me in a way that inspired her to also run “three marathons before thirty.” She now has many more; I'm so proud of her! I have coached girls cross country at St Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco for 10 years. Running has kept my physical and mental health in check. In her book The Spirituality of Sport, Susan Saint Sing writes “When I run...the body and the spirit become one.  Running becomes prayer and praise and applause for me and my Creator. When I run, I am filled with confidence and the faith that word contains.  I can face unanswerable questions, certain that there are answers.”  I agree. I thank my Grandfather for encouraging me to consider the gift that is running.

But the story doesn’t end here. I have taught in the Relgious Studies department at SI for the past 12 years. The courses I teach feature a “person of conscience” and an “inspiring life. That person is the Scottish missionary and Olympic champion runner, Eric Liddell. He is one of my spiritual heroes. His words ”God made me for a purpose. He made me for China, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure” inspired a new outlook on all that I do. His words helped me understand spirituality in a way I never had before. They have underscored the class that I created and the blog that I write: Sports and Spirituality.

My grandfather probably ran against Eric Liddell. When we speak about reuniting with loved ones in eternal life, I think of what it will be like for me to ask them about running and who bested whom. It can be difficult to look forward to life after death, but in this case, it's not.

My dad has always said my maternal grandparents were “underrated.” I grew up 25 miles east of San Francisco where they lived (and where I live today), so I was able to see them regularly. My grandmother made it possible for my siblings and me to attend Catholic schools. She extended her love for her culture to us; I competed in Irish dancing for many years. One is rich when they have family, friends and faith. To have that in with a cultural twist is that much sweeter!

I love it when people ask me about the medal that I wear. I wear it when I give talks about “Sports and Spirituality,” I wear it on the first day of class and tell them about how it all came to be. Heck, maybe it will be the "something old" that every bride wears with something new, borrowed and blue. It says more about the people, experiences and events that have shaped my life that anyone would ever know.

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