Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Third Person

Over the Christmas break, I went back to New York. It’s where I’m from. Technically. (The Atlantis thing can’t be proven.) My mom still lives in Queens and my oldest friends are there. Having grown up in New York, I didn’t realize for a long time how special it was. Didn’t every city have skyscrapers as far as the eye could see? Central Park. What about it? Macy’s, Lincoln Center, Harlem, Times Square, Soho, Brooklyn, The “Village.” Yeah. I been there.

Only after extensive travel during my dance career did I start to appreciate New York. After a few stints in Lubbock and Fresno, you start to look at things a little differently. I met nice folks in Lubbock, no doubt. But they also made me pay before I ate at Denny’s. (I am a colored person). The dazzling places, Paris, St. Petersburg, make you miss the big apple in a different way. Make you miss its charm and its ugliness. The well-worn pavement that fits like an old shoe. The way everything is oh so glamorously falling apart. Its smell of garbage, exhaust, and nuts-about-nuts. The relief of gasping that fetid air after surfacing from a long, crowded summertime subway. And oh, to be a woman in New York! How we are free from the bondage of coquettishness. We can wear sensible shoes and go without makeup. To the theater! Many are the times I’ve lined up in standing room at Lincoln Center wearing jeans and a backpack.

I no longer live in New York, but when I go home, it’s sort of like watching a movie. You can really get into the movie. Even have a vicarious experience, but you know you are separate from it. You know you can check out. There’s no pressure. It’s sort of like living life in the third person. I naturally tend to slip into that perspective when I go home to visit, and I wondered if I had stumbled upon some sort of spiritual truth.

So, stay with me here, to look at the third person, I had to go even higher. Let’s call it the fourth person. I think eventually, you just stop counting. You take on a whole new appearance, and then you’re there, and you start from one again. Anyway, what I saw was that to live in the third person means that you are grounded, centered in your beingness and that you act and experience things from there. You don’t get caught up. That doesn’t mean that you are indifferent to life’s goings on. I think it means just the opposite. You can more easily experience emotions because you don’t identify with them. Is this what spiritual traditions mean when they say to identify with the one who is watching?

Of course it’s not always easy to maintain that perspective. Like anything, it has to be practiced. Riding this wave of perspective, I took a ballet class. There is nothing like the energy of a dance studio in New York. For one thing, there are a lot of open classes taught by great teachers. An open class means simply that anyone can pay their fifteen bucks, strap on a pair of tights and go for it. Like yoga, there are varying levels of difficulty that may be applied to a step, so an open class might accomodate dancers ranging from super stars of the ballet world to a housewife that’s doing it for exercise. But there is something more to the open class in New York: it actually has a spirit of openess.

When I was dancing and training in New York, I was a bit of a snob about these open classes. They were watered down, unprofessional, etc. But now, living in the third person, I loved it! It was just a room full of people dancing. So full of life. So exciting, and dare I say it, fun.

Crystal Baby

(No, not crystal meth).

I am often teased about my metaphysical interests in astrology, tarot, crystals, q-links, channeling and the like. It’s fine. I even laugh at myself with regards to it all. I don’t pretend to understand any of it. Nor do I  feel the need to convince anyone of the efficacy of various modalities. It just makes sense to me that everything is energy and for certain things to work, like crystals for example, you have to interact with them. You have to build a relationship with them. Work is the wrong word really. In my experience, the crystal doesn’t perform a specific function (shazzam!) like a printer or a coffee maker. Let’s just say that if you’re in its field of resonance and are open to it, it may stimulate something within you, be it healing, creativity, a hard-on, or whatever.

I wasn’t always so open though. Several years ago, I went to see an acupuncturist. I had just rejoined Dance Theatre of Harlem after a few years’ hiatus. I was not in the best shape and was extremely sore and overwhelmed. My system was a wreck after over a decade of struggling with eating disorders. Anyway, the therapist started putting the needles in and I felt wave upon wave of energy passing through me, quite forcibly, as meridians opened.  I became light-headed and asked her to slow down. After a short rest, she resumed poking and for a horrible moment, I felt as if every cell in my body would explode. I managed a feeble, “Whoa Nelly!” before passing out.

I’d gone into needle shock which is very rare. I don’t want to scare anyone who’s considering acupuncture. Now that my system is a lot stronger, I get acupunctured and love it. But back then, I freaked out.  I didn’t blame the therapist who was experienced and highly recommended. I blamed myself for being such a hot mess. She recommended more treatments because my system was so weakened, but this was out of the question. I came close to crapping myself and didn’t want to experience that again. (Oh, the shame!) So, she left me with this parting piece of advice: to meditate with a rose quartz crystal in my left hand.

She was intelligent and successful. Nothing about her screamed “freak”  so I figured, what the hell. I had nothing to lose and I desperately needed some healing. I dizzily wandered down to St. Marks Place in New York City and found a rose quartz orb that fit nicely in the palm of my hand. I was not a very experienced meditator at this point and kinda just sat there waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. Bupkaz. Feeling gipped, I forgot about it, but not quite…

We had unfinished business, the crystal and me. Even though I moved a dozen times since then, the rose quartz was never left behind with the salvaged coffee table and the chipped plates. Gradually, I developed a meditation practice. One day while sitting, my inner voice chimed in and informed me that I had to interact with the crystal. I had to have a relationship with it. Duh. The therapist told me this, but I didn’t really get it until then. Maybe I had only just become ready for it.

Now, like most people, I am stuck in my head a lot of the time. But there is something unsatisfying about those endless rounds of thoughts, like a carrot perpetually dangling in front of your nose that you can never… quite…get at.  This is another thing I am sometimes teased about. The way I want to know things that I cannot know but never cease searching for, as if the answer lies hidden in the crevices of my mind ready to spring out when the right note is sounded, like a secrets to the universe Jack-in-the-Box. He’s a petty thief of a deity, really, that Jack. Jack Ass in the box of my mind.  It’s really annoying.

My early meditations with the rose quartz were mostly cathartic, but today, I sat with it and realized that the path, for me, through all this life I have to live, through all the questions about the nature of existence and of consciousness, must be lived in the heart, not in the mind. I realized that the mind is never going to deliver what I hope it will. The heart’s truth is the way. The questions themselves are not to be understood, or the answers known. The questions are to be felt in the heart. The task is to feel into the question itself, not to avoid the feeling with the mind’s knowing. It’s like I’ve been looking in the wrong place all this time. It makes sense, though, to avoid the heart, because it’s awesome. How much the heart can hold. How much pain.

You may wonder, after such a revelation, if the crystal had anything to do with it. And, well, the answer is, I don’t know.

And that’s the point.

Ritualizing the Beast

Someone once likened ballet to a Japanese garden. It takes many years of consistent, meticulous work to create the illusion of naturalness, the illusion that a body, or a bonsai, was born that way.

Though I acknowledge that certain things were innate to my dancing, many things like line, rotation, flexibility and articulation were not. They had to be worked. I have a hard time convincing some of my teenage students that at their age, I was scarcely more flexible than they are now. When I confess that I too once struggled to do the splits, they look at me, wide-eyed with disbelief, as though I’d just confirmed the existence of the chupacabra. They cannot grasp how I got from there to here.  I assure them that the secret to flexibility had nothing to do with talent or grace. It had to do with discipline.

While some teenagers feel supported and guided by discipline, many are rebellious. They don’t yet understand that  you can’t fly free of the form until you’ve mastered the form. When given a stretch during class, they moan and groan and blame me for ballet’s standards as though I created them. I can still hear my own teacher, Madame Darvash, shouting “Don’t get mad at me. I didn’t invent it!” after I offered my own teenage resistance to a difficult movement she required of us. I try to reassure my students that discipline doesn’t have to be a dirge. What helped me, and what I encourage them to do, is to create a ritual out of it.

We usually think of rituals as marking endings or beginnings, like weddings and funerals, but it may also be used as the thing that carries someone through a prolonged change. It is a way of finding acceptance and can serve as a sacred space-holder in which to work on the thing you want to change, each day, or however often it is appropriate to do so.

It is also a way of finding out what is really important to you. Quite simply, if the new thing doesn’t stand up to the demands of a daily or weekly or so ritual, then maybe it’s not really in your heart. So in this way, ritual helps us to find clarity as well.

When I speak of creating ritual, I don’t mean lighting candles or incense or religious trappings of any sort, unless of course, that stuff has meaning for you. It can be something as simple as taking a few moments to go inward, to state an intention, to ask for and allow guidance. I think, perhaps more than ever in human history, we feel empowered to form an individual spirituality free from any church or dogma, so a ritual can be anything that works for you. Maybe a deep breath is sufficient.

I personally love the smell of burning sage but I know it’s not for everybody. I notice that people are very afraid of being labeled “flakey.” We are afraid of the vulnerability that comes with personal expressions of the heart, of infusing a ritualistic act with love. Nowhere is this more apparent these days than in a lot of the contemporary dances I see. Everyone looks so fierce and defiant. They seem to want to let me know that they can kick my ass. There is so much thrashing around and yanking of women across the stage with their legs spread open. The kids are very seduced by all this fierceness. They have a word for someone who is dancing hard: they call that person a “beast.” It’s no wonder that patience and meticulous work seem anathema.

Nevertheless, I remain undaunted in my efforts to get them to dig deeper. I find that the ritual of stretching is a good metaphor for anything we want to change: there is a place where you come up against your limitation and it is extremely painful. You breathe into that place and move back. Breathe and release. The pain subsides. Eventually, you move past it and you are not the same.

Now, I have spoken about mastery in an earlier blog, but I want to clarify something about the will.  I don’t think the will is supreme. That a strong consistently and positively applied will can change anything. I think for change to happen, it has to be in flow. It has to be aligned with other forces. But without the work, what is already there cannot be born. And the ritual is like the boat, the vehicle, the motor-cycle for all you beasts out there, that helps us across.

The R Word Part II: Giving Up the Search

I don’t mean to dwell on it, but, ok, I’m dwelling. The issue of retirement for dancers, like professional athletes, is a big one for us, so please indulge me a second entry on the topic.

A good dancer friend of mine said it took her four years to land on her feet after she called it quits. Well into my second year of transitioning, I still sometimes struggle with it all. Besides, I finished reading Middlesex on my Thanksgiving break and it got me thinking about my own need to recreate myself. I wanted that change to appear dramatically, forcefully, phoenix-like. I wanted a new hair-do, a soft wing to be under, a new dragon to slay.

But none of those things mattered.

What mattered most was the way I thought. See, I thought the new phase would in many ways resemble the old one. I would have an intuition about some new goal and pursue it voraciously until I could stand on the chest of the bloody beast with its severed head in my hands. But no new passion came. And that victorious vision was mostly fantasy. A fantasy of the past and of the future. The only blood shed was my own, usually mixed with a little green pus from and infected corn. And, I rarely felt victorious during my career. Fear and humility were more often the dominant emotions. Being honest with myself about this, I wondered if a new passion would only bring more of the same.

If I did manage to find something that I was at least curious about, as was occasionally the case, I would easily become discouraged. I just didn’t think I had the strength or talent to master the guitar, for example, and if I couldn’t be a master at it, what was the point? The threat of mediocrity hung over my shoulder like a devil and devils were all I had when it came to trying something new. The thought of doing something just for the fun of it seemed absurd. I knew that this line of thought was ridiculous. I knew I needed to lighten up, but I didn’t know how. I had been a ballerina after all, which was sort of like a cross between being in the military and being in a convent.

But over vacation, I saw an old friend. Her mother has cancer. After a round of chemo and radiation, the cancer went to sleep for a while, but then it came back. She has to do another round of chemo, and after that, who knows? My friend said that her mother’s cancer has taught her to take life one day at a time.

I know this is a common lesson in the presence of death, but it’s one thing to give lip service to it and another thing to really live that way. To enjoy the moments you have. And as she was speaking, something clicked for me.

Perhaps this part of my life is about learning to take things one day at a time. I used to wake up in the morning with a laser-like focus upon my career and all the things I had to do: sew pointe shoes, class, rehearsal, break in pointe shoes, hair and make-up, perform, ice my broken parts, try to get to bed before 2 am so I could do it again tomorrow, better than I did it today. Always, this unquenchable thirst for improvement. Having fun and eating were not part of the list. I did occasionally have fun and/or eat, but not without a twinge of guilt. Even though this to-do list was well etched, I wasn’t necessarily happy. I just liked knowing (or thinking I knew) where I was going.

Now, when I wake up, I try to see the day before me as an opportunity, a gift. The question is not what do I have to do, but what do I want to do. How will I enjoy this day? The only goal is to make a little work of art out of what I currently have in my life: family, teaching, yoga, friends, laundry. It’s sort of like making a sculpture out of found objects. Making something special out of what is all around you. Maybe this was always the goal.

I am no longer searching for the next big thing. I’ve given up my addiction. I guess I felt burdened by the thought that there was something really important that I had to do! And, well, there is, but the thing is right here. It is to live, to be, life itself.

And maybe the phoenix doesn’t fly off in a blaze of glory, leaving flames in its wake. Maybe it just stands up, wiggles its butt like a good little duck and takes the next step.

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