Life


I remember when I was first starting as a dancer, hideously insecure, longing with all my heart to be having the kind of dances I could hear in the music. I knew that it was possible to dance that way, so connected to the music and your partner, making the music come alive through the way you moved your body, through the way the two of you moved together on the floor. I watched others, the good dancers, having those dances, losing themselves in the moment, their partner, and the melody. They styled and improvised, and every once in a while threw in a swingout so pure and clean it could make an angel cry. I wanted to dance like that almost more than I wanted to breathe, and I was sure that I would never, never be that good.

When watching, I noticed that one of the ways you could always tell when it had been a really, really good dance was by the hug. The two dancers would end the song with a flourish or a pose or a dip, and hold it for a long moment as the music faded. Then the tension would be released, the partners would come out of their position with a smile or laugh, and give each other a big hug full of spontaneous affection. It was all there in that hug: the joy of the moment shared, the gratitude for the gift the other person has given you and allowed you to give them, the satisfaction of knowing that you have done something well.

I watched these dances with despair in the pit of my stomach. I had hit the point in my dancing when I started to realize how much I didn’t know, how much I wasn’t following. I was so frustrated with myself, my limitations, my body that just didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I could hear so much in the music, but I couldn’t seem to get it out on the dance floor. I felt lucky to finish a dance feeling that I had followed everything correctly. Every once in a while I got a “Good job.” or “That was nice.” I treasured those moments and kept working. One day…

Then came the first time I lost myself in the music. It was only five seconds during a rotation at a workshop, but it was… dizzying. When I looked up at my partner I saw the same half-stunned look on his face. That was when I found hope. I kept working hard, practicing, getting critiqued, taking lessons, pushing myself to get better. Then I had a whole dance like that. I can still hear the song: Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford, though when I was dancing it was almost like I didn’t hear the music, or I did, but it was as if it were coming through my lead. At the end my partner held on to me for a long moment, and we looked at each other. “That was…” he said, “that was…” and then he gave up and hugged me.

That was over a year ago now. I’ve had more dances like that since, though I’ve learned never to take them for granted. They’re rare moments of serendipity when you, your partner, and the song all line up in fleeting synchronization. But I’m no longer surprised when they come along. Last Wednesday a good guy dancer from another city showed up at our weekly dance. We had a really fun dance, playing with the music and off one another. There was styling, improvising, and fancy footwork. We laughed and had a good time together. At the end of the song he led me into a big, flourishing pose, which we held as the music faded. Then we both laughed, and he pulled me into a big hug. As I walked off the floor I realized that I’d made it – that for all of the ways I’m still far from the dancer I want to be, I’m now one of the “good dancers” I used to watch with such hopeless envy. And I have the hugs to prove it.

So the other day Liv plopped herself down in the desk chair in my room, gazed up at the many shelves of books which decorate the walls, and told me that I should lend her some books. We’ve been talking about this since I and my library moved in, but she’s been pretty busy until recently writing her Master’s thesis. I looked around at my collection, and asked her what kind of book she would like. “I have history, sociology and biography over here. That big shelf over the dresser is all poetry. Over the desk is sexual ethics, reference books, and foreign languages. That shelf is fiction hardbacks, and the small shelves by the bed are the fiction paperbacks, except for the science fiction, which is on the bottom shelf of that book case. And those shelves over the chair are theology and philosophy.” She processed this for a few moments, and then said that she would like about half a dozen books with a mix of fun and make-her-think. So this is what I picked out:

  • Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my favorite books of all time)
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (more pure, wonderful silliness than ought to exist in one book)
  • The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (solid entertainment all the way through)
  • The Art of Loving God by St. Francis de Sales (a book that has had a pretty big impact on my spiritual life, also easier to get through than some of the other stuff by St. Francis)
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (all about the small things which change the way we live our lives)
  • The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim (another interesting book about the ways we use fairy tales to explain/understand our lives)

Liv started on Cordelia’s Honor right away, and is devouring it gleefully (“I didn’t know science fiction could be like this!”), which makes me so glad. I identify so much with that book; it would have been very hard if she didn’t like it. (I remember how anxious I was when I lent this book to Trey last spring, and how relieved and thrilled I was when he loved it.) The other books aren’t as crucial, though I would wonder what was wrong with her if Cold Comfort Farm didn’t make her laugh.

Anyway, yesterday I told my brother Larry about this, and he asked me to make a list for him of twenty or so books that he should read. It made me think of all the books I love that I wish everyone would read. Most of them aren’t the books you’d find on traditional Must Read book lists. For instance, I don’t think everyone should read War and Peace, and while Jane Austen is a supremely wonderful author, I can acknowledge that not everyone would appreciate her charms. My book would include such works as the above mentioned Cold Comfort Farm, and Gentlemen Prefer Blonds by Anita Loos, and maybe Stephen King’s Carrie.

It’s a lot to think about, and I’m not sure which books I should put on the list. Therefore, I am now officially opening the floor to suggestions. What books would you consider Must Reads, not because of some high cultural value, but simply because they make the world a better place?

This is a sketch I made this winter, sitting in a thoroughly boring class, daydreaming of gardens and color and sunlight, doodling on scrap paper instead of taking notes. I planted the lavender (which is much more lush and flourishing than this somewhat scanty sketch) last year, and was playing with ideas for extending the garden along the low, crumbling concrete wall that lines the back yard. I wanted hollyhocks and asters, cosmos and zinnias. The added flower beds wouldn’t be the small things illustrated here, but long swaths overflowing with bloom. It was ambitious, but I was starved for flowers, so I didn’t care.

This past weekend I made this a reality. Months ago Liv had started aster and cosmo seedlings for me, but that was just the beginning. First they needed someplace to go. That was easier said than done. It was most of an afternoon’s work to carve the beds out of the lawn, standing on the shovel to force it down through our dense, clay soil. Then the beds were double dug, with bone meal, dried blood, and a little sand to improve the drainage. After that I could finally set out the seedlings, some beginning to get root bound in their cells. The hollyhock seeds were planted first, then dwarf zinnias in front of the cosmos, and lilliput zinnias at the end of the bed. On the other side of the lavender I planted Chinese forget-me-not, money plant or innocence in between the asters, white eyed susan vine (a vine with white, daisy-like flowers with black centers) to grow up over the wall, and snapdragons at the end of the bed. Already the hollyhocks have started to come up, the asters and cosmos are doing well, and some of the cosmos have even begun to bloom. It will take about a month for things to really get started, but it already just looking at the beds fills me with such satisfaction.

It’s also satisfying to feel how much good working out in the garden is doing me. This weekend was the third time I’ve done a marathon gardening day. Always before I came away with excruciatingly aching muscles, blisters on my hands (particularly where the ring I always wear rubs against the base of my right pointer finger), and more often than not, sunburn. This time I was sore, but at an ok level, didn’t have any blisters, and only got sunburned on one small patch of my back where the spray-on sunscreen somehow didn’t reach. I was exhausted at the end of the day, but it was the good kind of exhaustion. Little by little, I’m toughening up.

Today as I was heading out to lunch, I saw the most beautiful thing. Across the street from where I work is a large-ish, block like apartment building with a green lawn stretching down a hill in front. They haven’t mowed the grass in a while, so it’s tall, and thick with puffy, white clover blossoms. Toddling through the grass and clover was the most wonderful baby, maybe a year and a half old, with white-blond dandelion puff hair and a pacifier firmly fixed in her mouth. Just behind was her mother, who was kneeling in the tall grass, plaiting the long clover stems together to make a garland. As I waited to turn the corner, she rose to her feet and headed toward her daughter, holding what she’d made. I saw that it was a wreath of clover, just the right size to put on the little girl’s head. Just then I made my turn, so I didn’t see any more, but the image was so lovely: the mother and daughter together in the clear, golden sunshine, the quiet love between them, and the light outlining both of them against the green grass. Beautiful.

It seems like a very long time ago that I used to make clover garlands too. I was in southern Louisiana at the time, my second year with NET, a traveling youth ministry team. It was spring there, and the grass was thick and lush with the biggest clover blossoms I’d ever seen. I love their sweet, grassy scent, and would pick huge handfuls of them every chance I got. Most of the grass hadn’t been mowed yet, so the stems were long and sturdy, perfect for braiding. I don’t know how many garlands I made. I left them behind at host families, at the foot of saints’ statues, and hung them from the seatbelt supports in the team van. One time I got my whole small group on a retreat into it, and we returned from our time away wearing necklaces and bracelets and thick anklets of clover. I wrapped the dried wreaths in paper, and took them home with me. For a long time I kept them in my drawers with my clothes. I still run across them sometimes – odd little paper packets folded up around dried memories.

Memories can be mixed blessings. You don’t get to pick and choose what you remember. Associated with the clover wreaths isn’t just the hot Louisiana sunshine on my arms, the taste of cherry limeades at Sonic, the total security of having my NET Team around me. At the same time it’s also inextricably tied to the total exhaustion that comes at the end of a second year of NET, the fight I had with one of the guys on my team right before my birthday, the way the whole world went surreal when one of the girls on our team got sick and had to leave us for a while. But there’s also the memory of sitting at a picnic table in the shade on the side of a bayou, feeling the breeze against my skin as I looked around the table at the people I loved, the memory of walking arm and arm through a Wal-Mart parking lot with Isabelle, belting out “L Is For…“, and the taste of Zapp’s Cajun Dill potato chips on my tongue. I can’t have one part without the other. I guess I’ll keep it all.

I was planning this very happy-go-lucky sort of blog post, all about the gardening I did this weekend, and my new summer job working one and a half days a week for the admin of another division in addition to my regular job. (They have windows! Windows, I tell you!) I was maybe even going to mention the continued, almost-sickening cuteness of Justin and Lori as they venture deeper into mutual gooey-eyed-ness. If I’d been feeling particularly open, I would have shared about Rocco’s latest (and hopefully final) intrusion on my life. It would have been a good post. And then yesterday I got the message that Zeke is dead.

Zeke’s family went to the same small parish as mine, and attended the same Catholic schools. They live a few houses down from my sisters, a block away from my parents. However, he was seven years younger than me, so I didn’t actually meet him until he showed up one night at the Wednesday night swing dance. This was when I was just starting to learn how to teach, so the Powers That Be decided that I should get some teaching practice by teaching the Free Beginner Lesson to him, his cousin, and their friend. They picked it up quickly, and it was a lot of fun, assisted by the fact that all three were pretty darn cute. Except Zeke kept staring at me, and it was starting to creep me out. Then at the end of the lesson he said, “You’re a [Family Name], aren’t you!” I looked at him warily, very weirded out, and admitted that I was. He laughed. “I’m a [Other Family Name]!” And then I laughed too and relaxed completely, because that explained everything.

We were friends. He could make me laugh like no one else, especially when we were dancing. He would make these faces – it was like you could see every panicked thought that went through his mind as he led. It was awesome. One time I laughed so hard I came perilously close to peeing my pants. He took my odd-ness in stride, which made me want to be even a little more odd just to provoke him. It made me sad when he eased away from dancing, and then moved to another city an hour away, but I was sure I would see him again sooner or later. We still talked from time to time, and I reminded him that he had promised me a ride on his motorcycle one day. He always told me not to worry, that I would get my motorcycle ride.

And, well, no I won’t. He was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in Florida, a hit and run accident. Although he was wearing all his protective gear, the injuries to his head were so severe that he was pronounced brain dead. His whole family had flown down to Florida to be with him. They’re making arrangements to donate his organs. They think that he might save eight people’s lives.

It’s selfish of me, but I’d rather have Zeke back.

A few weeks ago I skipped the Study Days right before Exams to go to the NE Girl Jam up in Rochester.  I had an utterly lovely time not only dancing, but completely ignoring my impending finals.  It was great.  I learned a lot, not only in the Class of Five Million Swivels (the girls were doing them in lines across the floor while the guys made jokes about zombie swivels), but in all the classes.  I came away with lots and lots of ways to dress up my Lindy basic, some killer Solo Jazz moves, and a few good reminders about basic Lindy frame technique (information which, ironically, I first learned in a Westie workshop).  Since I came home, however, opportunities to put my new skills into practice haven’t been as abundant as I would wish.  It’s been a little sad.  Here I am wanting to glitter, to shine, to show off all the cool new things I know, and my leads haven’t really been giving me the chance.

Then last night I danced with Pierce.  He’s not a hugely imaginative lead, although he has nice connection and is learning how to hit the breaks.   Also, he lets me have room to play, which I appreciate.  He’s still learning, so he doesn’t have a lot of moves he can lead comfortably.  This means we ended up doing a lot of Lindy basics.  I loved this.  I got to go through pretty much every variation I learned at Girl Jam – the six different kinds of swivels including the backwards swivel, the kicky 6-8 variation, the ronde’s, plus my favorite slides.  It was wonderful, particularly since it was a bouncy, bluesy song just made for swivels.  I even hit a thing in the music dead on with this leg variation on the 7-8.  I was in heaven.  Pierce liked it too, making appreciative noises, and giving me a big hug when we were done.

As I was leaving the floor, Trevor came up, one of the young college kids I’ve been nurturing along.  “Wow, Bernadette!” he said, “You were tearin’ it up!” I laughed, and accepted the compliment.  Then he asked me to dance.  I had hoped that I would be able to throw in some of my fun stuff since he had particularly liked it, but this time it didn’t really happen.  Part of it was that he doesn’t know how to give me the connection I need to make a lot of those moves work, but the other part was that he hardly led a single Lindy basic the entire dance.  He was leading turn after turn, the same four or five turns that make up his basic repertoire.  Plus, like a lot of newer leads, he sometimes didn’t let me stay out for the whole eight count of the move.  I think they get nervous when the girl’s out there away from them, and pull her in early, making the 1 on 7 or 8, or even 6.  So in order to be ready to do whatever he was going to lead, I had to let most of my stuff go.

Later Trevor and I were talking about his dancing.  He has plans to work hard on it this summer in order to wow the rest of the swing club when everyone comes back in August.  He said that he’s especially frustrated because he doesn’t know very many moves.  He feels like it must be boring to dance with him because he doesn’t know very much.  We discussed a few ways he could learn more moves and combinations (taking the Wednesday night lessons, coming to Practice Session on Sunday, seeing something cool on the dance floor and asking the lead who did it to explain it on the sidelines), and then moved on to other topics.

Later I was thinking about what he said.  His complaint is very common with a lot of beginning guys.  They get bored with the same four or five turns, and want to learn more moves.  They want to expand their dance vocabulary, and sometimes develop insecurity complexes about girls getting bored dancing with them.  Part of the answer really is to learn more moves, but part of it is also getting over themselves.  Yes, only knowing a few moves can be boring, but only if the dance is really all about the lead.  The dance in general is very lead-centered, but I think guys get fixated on the idea that they’re the only one who can make the dance fun.  They’re the ones who have to lead cool stuff, they’re the ones who have to listen to the music, they’re the one who has to show off what an awesome dancer they are.  They forget that there’s someone else out there on the dance floor with them, someone who is equally capable of listening to the music, someone who could maybe take those three or four moves and turn them into something spectacular… if they get the chance.  When the lead thinks the dance is all about him, he’s not dancing with his partner, he’s just showing off.  (What makes it worse is when he’s not even showing off for the person he’s dancing with, but for someone else on the sidelines, or for the imaginary audience in his head.)  And that’s when it’s boring.

So I had a birthday last week.  In the swing dancing community it’s a tradition that when a dancer has a birthday you give them a Birthday Jam.  This is a kind of exhibition dance in which the birthday girl starts out dancing with one guy in the center of a large circle of the other dancers.  As the song plays, the other guys present take turns stealing her.  If it’s a birthday boy, then the girls take turns stealing him.  I, in particular, always seem to have very interesting birthday jams.  They’re good fun, and can be the source of a lot of hilarity and/or showing off.  Showy steals, flashy moves – who knows what will show up?

This year my family showed up.  Well, half of them (I am one of eleven siblings).  It was Dad, Larry, Michelle, Heather, Lisa, and Gabe.  Liv was the Mastermind who got everyone there.  This was a big deal.  My family has never come out to see me dance.  When I was in my first competition, Liv came to cheer me on, but my family didn’t even ask me how I’d done.  Just the week before I’d been whining about this.  Trey’s family came all the way from Maine to watch him dance.  My family couldn’t go across town?

And then they showed up at the regular Wednesday night dance.  I had no idea, not the shadow of a suspicion, nothing.  I had dropped the swing club kids off early for the lesson (it was Shim Sham, which I already know how to do), and gone to chill at Barnes & Noble until the dance would start.  Of course I got caught in a book, so I was late to the dance.  I walked in, and there they were.  I was utterly flabbergasted.  It was awesome.  What made it even more awesome is that both Dad and Gabe jumped in during my birthday jam.  Gabe did a little swing dancing a few years back, so he sortof knew what he was doing, but my Dad had absolutely no clue.  He was so cute.  His idea of dancing was bouncing very energetically opposite me.  I thought, “Well, ok.” and turned it into a kicky-Charleston sort of thing.  Then he ran out of breath (my Dad bears a striking resemblance to Santa Clause, complete with white beard and rosy cheeks) and called for someone to rescue him.  It was so much fun.

With all this love, I don’t mind being another year older.

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