Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Art of Holding On, Letting Go and Learning to Golf

I didn’t expect to fall in love during a global pandemic.

On Dec. 31, 2019, I turned to my husband as we readied to ring in the new year in our hotel room in Cairo and asked him about the months ahead. “Maybe this year will be the year I travel a little less?” He smiled. “You have, what, 10 trips between now and May alone?”

As Egyptologists, my husband and I regularly travel to Egypt. We had come this time with our 7-year-old son to plan our next excavation season. Travel was work for us, but for me it was also a way to escape from my personal problems, a way to hide from myself and my midlife ennui. The next day, over lunch with Egyptian friends, I laughed, ate and enjoyed a fresh start. “Twenty twenty — it’s our hindsight year,” I said, forgetting that the gods listen more closely in Egypt.

February coronavirus worries led to a March lockdown, and bit by bit, everything I had anticipated for 2020 disappeared. I saw trips canceled and major projects delayed indefinitely. Early April was a cacophony of disasters: On top of full-time child care and a rapid shift to university online teaching, our basement flooded, a project with a collaborator imploded, and I lost a close friend. I felt helpless and hopeless and as desiccated as a mummy. I could no longer hide in the denial of repacking my carry-on.

In the depths of my despair, I remembered an outing with a friend in B.C. (Before Covid) times at a covered driving range. “You could be a good golfer,” he’d said. The sport was socially distanced, and with a cheap driving range a short distance away and inexpensive clubs purchased online, it seemed like a perfect new way to escape. A new form of carry-on: a golf bag.

There was one problem though: A complicated family history with golf. My grandfather Jack — my dad’s dad — who had died of a heart attack at 56, was an outstanding golfer who regularly won regional tournaments. Jack was so skilled that local businessmen wanted to sponsor him to turn professional. He and my grandmother had seven children in 10 years, resulting in a stressful home life where money was very tight, even though my grandfather was a respected pharmaceutical salesman. Jack spent many hours on the golf course after work and on the weekends. My uncle Phil told me his dad would play 18 holes and then find someone for another round of nine. It was clearly his way of escaping from his life and living out the fantasy of his alternative one.

My grandfather died long before I was born. I knew he was a devoted family man, however, I had long harbored a deep resentment toward him both for the time he seems to have spent on the golf course, away from his wife and kids, and for neglecting his health. His heart attack was, we think, a result of stress combined with his habit of smoking unfiltered cigarettes, and it had radical repercussions for my family. My uncles and aunts all struggled, my dad had to work to support his family, and my grandmother toiled long hours to make ends meet. Dad barely discussed his father, so I pieced together bits of his life at family reunions, like remnants from my excavations. I knew I was built like him, and like him a good athlete, but otherwise, I refused to acknowledge the 25 percent of my DNA that came from him. I was better than him.

Until I found myself drawn to the game he loved so dearly. I started in late April with a golf net, which led to trips to the driving range and eventually, by mid-June, playing. I got obsessed, and my husband let me know that he knew it was a coping mechanism, but that maybe I needed not to golf so much.

Golf, when played well, is a form of meditation. It’s a perfect balance between intensity and relaxation, the irony being the more relaxed you are when you swing, the better your shots will be. Out on the range, nothing mattered but physics and sunshine.

I finally understood why my grandfather golfed so much and why he loved the game as much as he did. It wasn’t just about escaping from problems at home. It was about being outside, seeing birds, being with your friends and hitting the perfect shot. I realized through golf that like me, my grandfather must have been a perfectionist, hypercompetitive, strong and focused. I wasn’t becoming my grandfather; a part of myself had always been just like him. I had just not seen it before. My broken fragments fit together, after all this time. Fitting for an archaeologist.

But by late summer, my husband’s words began to ring true. I worried about the damage my grandfather’s obsession with golf might have done to his family, and I thought I should do better. I had spent too many years on the road, missing things I can never get back. So I started taking my husband and son to the range and using our yard net far more.

I have been calling the pandemic our “great marination,” a time to sit and stew and absorb the important things we ignore when we are moving nonstop. It had taken months of quiet for me to see, finally, a lifetime of escaping, first with the endless travel and then with golfing.

Staying in situ forced me to redirect my excavation trowel inward. I’m used to reconstructing the histories of other places and peoples from layers of dirt, and the irony of exhuming a part of my own history that I had long buried has not been lost. I never expected to discover illumination.

I thought I’d fallen in love with golf. The feel of the clubs, the sound of driving the ball, the thrill of sinking a putt, are all amazing. However, the love I have found is the profound one I have now for a man I’ve never met. Like a perfect golf swing, somewhere in between holding on and letting go, there is endless grace, for yourself and for all the pieces of the past you see that can make you whole, when you finally stop long enough to dig deep within.

Sarah Parcak is an archaeologist and author of “Archaeology From Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

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