Let me read it to you…

they said

by | Aug 12, 2017



My uncle said, “Play to win.” We were playing a card game and he was my partner. The room was filled with Marlboro and Tareyton, interrupted by occasional shouting, anger or elation. I was just seven but had to learn to play because they needed even numbers. I was always my uncle’s partner because he was handsome and funny and a fine card player.

The game was 500, not a terribly complicated game. But there’s bluffing involved and at seven years old, I had not yet perfected deceit, although I was practicing.

“Play to win” was the phrase he used to send me a secret message: go ahead, don’t be afraid, I have some things that might help us over here. It would really irk my mother because it’s obviously cheating to give your partner any information that might sway their bidding. Yet, the subtle coaching continued and, to be honest, I’m not sure it ever gave us a true advantage.

These days, I muse about “Play to win.” I think about what it really means to me, what secret message it is transmitting now at almost 50 years old.

Don’t play small. Make your next move. Take the risk. People will help you. Commit. Do the opposite of your urges to run far away – lean in. Make a wave, make a loud noise, make a mess. Believe you can win it.

My mother said, “You can do anything.” I believed her. I especially liked the idea that I could do anything a boy could do. I was a feminist’s daughter in 1975 when doing ‘boy-things’ was novel and bold and not entire smiled upon. It was a time when feminism was radical, disruptive, counter-culture.

The question to most children is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That was always hard for me to answer because I had this notion that ‘anything’ was on the table. I can do anything, right? I remember thinking it might be wonderful to be a movie star, like Jodie Foster. Or an entertainer like Judy Garland. I certainly had no fear of being the object of applause or attention. But at the heart of it, I really just wanted to be a grown-up.

What does “You can do anything” mean to me now? Can I really do anything? I’m pretty sure there are many things I can’t do. Birthing children and being an astronaut are out. Being a grown-up might still happen.

Aim for what you really want. Let nothing stand in your way. Be relentless. Write your own permission slips. Crazier shit has come to pass. Don’t settle.

My grandmother said, “It takes more energy to frown than to smile.” I’m sure she read that as a motivation quote in some back issue of Prevention magazine and took it as scientific fact.

Even as an infant I had resting-bitch-face. When I’m totally relaxed and content, I look like someone has stolen my puppy. I have a natural furled brow, a ‘worried mama’ look that I share with all the Johnson clan, a boondoggle for the local Botox clinic. We are Scandinavian grumpy farmers. We work hard. We are usually pissed off.

I aspire to smile more, as grandma suggested.

Worry less. Let it go. Be friendly. Work hard, but not to the point of homicide. Smile at children, at strangers, at the checkout girl, at the mailman. Smile during meditation. Smile upon waking. Smile, win or lose.


Copyright Cynthia Berg 2017


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