Margot Fonteyn as Odette in Swan Lake
I’ve lost count of how many times I have given up ballet.
Every time there has been a bend in my road, it seems, ballet has been the thing to go, flung off the back of the wagon with the sudden turning. Weeks, months—and in this latter case, years—have intervened. But it keeps coming back, like a faithful retriever that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And I have made room for it in my life again. Again.
Isn’t that just the way with the things we love—I mean deep-down love till they are a part of the very essence of our personalities? They keep popping back into our lives with a persistence that can be downright comical. And sometimes, as in my case with ballet, utterly humiliating. It has been seven (seven!) years since I pulled on my Blochs and walked into a ballet studio. Seven years since I’ve sunk gratefully into the deep stretch of a plié or thrown my leg up on a barre without a thought for the morrow. Seven years since that inglorious tumble that destroyed my right ankle and brought my weekly ballet classes to a screeching halt.
Away those seven years have flown: into travels and tramping, the new adventure of a barn-full of animals, the opening of a shop, gardening and beekeeping, and, more lately, the serious and sustained effort of writing a novel. They have been years of great growth and change, and my soul has been stretched in ways I could not have imagined. In many ways, I am not the same person I was seven years ago—and that is a good thing. We are not static creatures; we were made for ever-broadening horizons, for lands beyond the boundaries of the little maps we’ve sketched for our lives. I believe that we shouldn’t be too comfortable, reaching only for that within our grasp. As wayfarers in this world, we were literally created to reach for the stars.
All that said, I do believe, and firmly, that there are things which make us up as individuals that are unique and irreproducible—things that do not change. Leanings and loves and insights that are as distinct as there are human beings to divide them among. I love how George MacDonald put it:
As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father.
When I was a child, there was a framed watercolor on my wall that an artist friend of my mother’s had painted for me, illustrating an Eve Merriam poem which she had rendered in gorgeous, sweeping script. It hung above my bed through all the room-swaps and re-arrangings over the years, from the time I was a baby until I left home as an adult. I have always loved it, and felt it to be a special charge never to lose myself amid the hurried homogeneity of the world:
Isn’t it strange
that however I change
I still keep on being me?
If I say “yes”, or If I say “no”;
If I go fast, or If I go slow;
When I’m at work, or when I’m at play:
Me I stay.
The greatest artists have always tapped their childhood obsessions and passions for inspiration, whether they emerge as recognizable in their work or not. And it is always a very grounding experience for me to remember where I came from and all the loves that have combined to inspire me to live creatively and joyfully. To remember my own name, as it were; to circle back, in all my wide-eyed exploration of God’s potential in this life, to the things that make me…me.
Ballet has always been one of those things. And, on a much more fundamental level, so has writing. When I was a little girl I used to make my own business cards by pinching a couple of my dad’s (they were, after all, just the right size) and writing on the back, along with my name and a rather unimpressive doodle of a pointe shoe:
Over the years, of course, my passion for words trumped my love-hate relationship with pirouettes. Writing is how I interpret the world; how I make sense of my own life and reach out to other people. Sometimes, even, how I pray. Black words on a white screen are my love language, and can produce in me an excitement (or despair!) like no other endeavor. But there will always be a place in my heart for pink leather slippers and raggedy leg warmers. For the heart-melting loveliness of a grande pas des deux and for the joy of seeing a prima ballerina achieve that fairytale weightlessness that dancers have been pursuing from the first origins of the form.
For the satisfaction of utter exhaustion at the end of a thoroughly challenging class.
This past Saturday, I did it. I can’t say exactly what forces conspired to tip me over the edge into a decision to resume my ballet classes; all I can say is that it suddenly occurred to me that it was time to go back—that I wanted to go back—and before I knew what had happened, it was a done deal. Seven years kept haunting me like a refrain: I knew it was not going to be pretty after all that time. I tried to prepare for the coming ordeal by stretching out every day during the week leading up to my first class, but it did little to assuage my fears. For, you see, I found a warning my teacher had given me years ago to be all too (painfully) true: if once you walk away from ballet for any significant portion of time, all those muscles and ligaments and tendons you’ve fought so hard to lengthen will actually end up shorter than they were before. (Your body’s snarky little way of saying, Take that for treating me this way, perchance?) I was, um, horrified, at how much ground I had lost.
Natalia Makarova as Odette
It’s amazing the parallels to be drawn between physical rustiness and the mental lethargy that creeps over any absence from one’s craft. At the same I was deciding to throw myself headlong into the ordeal of a ballet class, I was wrapping up what proved to be a surprisingly arduous writing challenge with my beloved friend and partner in words, Laura. (Which will explain, perhaps, my long silence around here!) We had set apart six weeks, from mid-January to the end of February, to write like the wind on our current manuscripts. I was excited and motivated and starry-eyed…
…and shocked to find how out of shape I was.
I hadn’t so much as glanced at my story since before Christmas. It took me a good two weeks just to relearn how to sit quietly in a room by myself for hours at a time, and longer than that for my characters to start talking to me again. (I think they wanted to make sure I was in for keeps.) My heart was literally pounding when I pushed that last ‘save’ on Friday afternoon—whether from the exhilaration of crossing our defined finish line, or from the massive infusions of caffeine that had sustained me over the past few weeks, I can’t really say.
But it felt good. Good in the way it felt good when I staggered out of that ballet studio the next day on trembling legs. Even the glaring flaws in this wildly, unapologetically imperfect of drafts could not diminish the bone-deep satisfaction that it was done. Eight more chapters in the bag.
Likewise, the fact that my body didn’t seem quite inclined to do the things my brain was telling it to in ballet class could not detract from the delight I felt in recovering this piece of myself. The muscle memory, though corroded with disuse, was still there; the tactile satisfaction of that barre under my hands and the floor smooth beneath my feet was intact, unabated since I was eight years old, studying at that same school, executing my tendus and relevés and glissades for the formidable (and exquisitely ladylike) ballet mistress to the accompaniment of an elderly Russian woman at a piano in the corner. Thirty years, and still that very same joy. It was like meeting an old and trusted friend.
The morning after my class, I could not move. Getting out of bed was a nightmare; putting on my socks literally brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t know I could hurt like that. It would have been supremely tragic—if Philip hadn’t kept making fun of me.
“Don’t make me laugh,” I’d groan. “It hurts too bad!”
For three days I was a wreck. I crept around like I was about 1000 years old; the simplest of household tasks elicited a string of groans and whimpers. On the evening of the third day, I knew what I had to do—the last thing I felt I ever wanted to do:
I got my aching bones down on the floor and started stretching out. And it hurt…good.
While I’m taking a few days away from my novel to recover from the mental exhaustion of our challenge, I’m trying to keep my mind and fingers limber, as well. And I’m replenishing the springs with other things that I love, feeding the muse with long walks and moments at the piano and poetry.
I read somewhere that writers should be sure to cultivate other interests and challenges in their lives that don’t involve words. I’m so grateful for the chance to rediscover the language of dance again.
I may lose many things and
I never lose me.
Does that happen to you?
from Me, Myself and I by Eve Merriam