Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Season Not Lost

Soccer season, like so many other things over the past seven months, did not go quite as planned this year. On the day that would have, in a non-pandemic world, held the annual Halloween Cup, we woke up to four inches of heavy wet snow, with more falling fast. I guess the silver lining is that we didn’t need to worry about cancelling due to bad weather and slick roads, since Covid had already canceled the event for us.

In the grand scheme of things, whether kids get to play soccer or not may seem trivial. But any semblance of normal these days is a big deal for them – for all of us, really.

For most of the summer, we weren’t sure if the kids – high school, middle school, kindergarten – would get a soccer season at all. While my older children have had something like a regular season in middle school, my 6th grader’s team (which I coached with a friend) was restricted to practices and intra-squad scrimmages. No games against other towns. No joyfully-past-their-bedtime Under the Lights tourney in Littleton. No Haverhill Cup.

But for a few hours each week the kids were on the field, together, kicking the ball around and learning the game a little bit better. Two days a week, they made their way through stretching and wind sprints, skills work and tactical talks, all without the potential reward of earning a W or raising a trophy. They listened and worked hard. And out there on our home field, we all smiled. A lot.

In this year of so much weirdness, I think soccer was a happy highlight for the kids. I know it was for me.

One player showed up to the first few practices in a cast-like boot to protect a still-healing broken foot. He did as much as he could, so hampered, then jumped in full steam as soon as the doc cleared him to lose the boot. Another kid arrived one day complaining, in a charmingly happy manner, that he hadn’t had time after school to change out of his restrictive “school picture day shorts.” A few of them boogied mid-scrimmage one afternoon to music playing from a nearby field. Once, a quick, furious downpour left the kids soaked – and scrimmaging under a brilliant double rainbow.

At different times throughout the season, my daughter and I lamented some of the differences of this year compared to other soccer seasons. She missed the challenge of competitions, the power of playing good defense, the thrill of scoring goals. I missed thinking about which lineup would work best on any given day and watching the kids figure out this “beautiful game” little by little.

Last October, her team made it to the Halloween Cup final only to watch the opposing team’s players lift the candy-filled cup at the end of the day. It was my third time in five Halloween Cups coaching a runners-up team. Maybe next year, I told my daughter then. This year’s tournament would have been her final Halloween Cup, and mine, too.

Alas, this October there would be no penalty kick shootouts and dedicated fans, no games played just after dawn and just before dark, no triumphant wins and disappointing losses. This October, there was no gathering of teams from throughout the region, no gaggles of kids running around the Dow and swinging through the playground between games, no concession stand stocked with baked goods and crockpots of warm food, endless pots of coffee and countless volunteers.

Instead, our season finale was just 15 kids and two coaches who love soccer, on the field together. We ended the season with a long scrimmage session. The kids passed the ball and made some moves and scored a few goals. They took some hard knocks and helped each other up. There was less intensity than the normal end-of-the-season competition, but more laughter.

Probably, if someone asked, I’d say I wish it had been a normal soccer season. I wish these kids who are moving on to middle school next year had their chance to be the big kids on the small field. I wish I’d gotten to coach them through one more tournament. But in a year that has often involved seeking out silver linings, we still managed to find plenty of them on the soccer field. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 29, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.    

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Sunrise Solace

On most days, I am a morning person. This is in part by nature and in part by habit. When my now-teenagers were babies, I started rising before the sun to have an hour of time to myself – to work or read or simply sit with a cup of coffee and the quiet of early morning. Lately, though, I’ve become a weekend morning slouch. While I’m still up-and-at-’em early through the week, I’ve taken to lazing around an extra hour or two on the weekends.

So when my youngest asked if we could go for a sunrise hike this weekend, I weighed the luxury of sleeping in with the idea of pre-dawn trail time with my daughter. The second choice was the clear winner. This daughter – like youngest children everywhere – has been dragged along on many adventures at a younger age than her older siblings were.  

When they were already toddling along gentle trails, she was carried in a kid backpack. When they were scrambling over rocks as preschoolers, she was working hard to keep up. When we hiked our first big mountains together, they were 9 years old, and she only 7. And on our inaugural backpacking treks this summer, she carried the same gear and weight in her pack as her two-years-older, several-inches-taller siblings did. (My older kids will point out that the youngest also benefits from certain perks – like getting a phone, or staying up later – at a younger age. It’s a balance.)

Sunday, though, was an adventure just for the two of us. With the pre-dawn sky at home cloudy enough to block our view of Franconia Notch, we weren’t sure how much of the sunrise we’d see. But the moon was clearly visible high in the sky, and the hot cocoa was already packed in the thermos and ready to go, so we took a chance and headed down the road toward one of our favorite little hikes with a big view.  

There were a few cars in parking lot at Baldy, and several more at the Echo Lake lot. I’d seen a slew of photos from the day before of bumper-to-bumper lines of cars streaming through the notch, presumably filled with people looking for foliage that was already past peak. But we’d spent the summer successfully avoiding the crowds, and I hoped we’d be able to find a quiet spot up on Artists Bluff so early in the morning.

Alas, there were close to a dozen people there when we arrived, including two photographers with tripods already in place and a couple of 20-somethings continually posing for Instagram shots (much to my tween daughter’s combined amusement and disgust). Still, we found a spot away from everyone else and took in the colorful scene around us. The sky was beginning to lighten in a prelude to the big event. The trees below still held lots of color. And Echo Lake was like a giant looking glass, reflecting the mountains on either side.  

After about 20 minutes of relative quiet, though, the crowd had more than doubled in size. And although drone use is prohibited in Franconia Notch State Park, three of them buzzed annoyingly just off the ledge. Our peaceful sunrise adventure was turning into a rowdy circus. We decided to move.

Back on the trail, it was quiet again, and bright enough now to hike easily toward what my family calls Mt. Baldy. “Will the sun already be up when we get there?” my daughter asked as we rounded the last corner of the trail and emerged at the base of the familiar rock scramble. We soon had our answer. 

Climbing above the gnarled trees, we looked toward the big mountains across the notch. There, from behind a cloud cloaking the tip-tops of Lafayette and Garfield, the sun was just peeking into the sky. Patches of fog dotted the landscape below us and made the valley toward home seem a sea of white. The moon, just past full, glowed in the western sky. We spent the next several minutes delighting in the golden hues of fall, discussing how glad we were to have this low rocky summit to ourselves, and taking pictures.

At one point, my daughter, on a ledge below me, exclaimed, “Mom, stand right there!” and snapped a shot of the dog and me silhouetted by the rising sun. I think that one gets the artsy award from the morning. But my favorite images from our sunrise adventure are of my daughter standing quietly on the rocks, looking out over the hills and peaks of the place we are lucky enough to call home – from a spot where we managed to get away from the crowd. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 8, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.