Who doesn’t have stories? I certainly do. Growing up in wartime in a family of frightened Jews, I took in their fear and anger with every breath. My child’s body was acquainted with grief, and I learned to swallow down tears until I could no longer feel the sorrow, and years of clamping down on my gut created an unattractive belly bloat that no amount of dieting has ever been able to reduce.
As sorrow determined my shape, so it determined my life, since all I ever wanted to do was dance, to twirl and leap on a stage wild and free! But those were the days of Balanchine’s stick-thin ballet dancers, and a girl with hips and a belly wasn’t even encouraged to take lessons, much less aspire to be a dancer. Even so, that was what this girl was born for.
I danced in my dreams – still do – and choreographed every daytime step I took, climbing stairs, walking down the street, bending over to pet a dog. This embarrassed my mother no end so when she caught me at it she would hiss between tight teeth,
“Stop making a fool of yourself!”
So my sense of self-worth was questioned from early on, and I’m still trying to heal that. The process is arduous, but worth it, I think, even at my age. I am at last learning to admire the plucky kid I was then and what my particular gifts are good for. Anything less than self-acceptance, it seems to me now, is a huge waste of time.
Gradually, I bring breath into my lower belly where that toxic dump of hard-packed shame lies. Breathing in from as deep down as my breath can go, I dislodge old emotions of self-hate and humiliation, examining them carefully and letting the tears come. How many uncountable years have I allowed that poison to reside in my blood? And why?
My lower spine has more room now and I let it flex and twist into longed-for movement as my dancer-soul spirals back into my limbs. Breathe. Hiding and habitual shame fade as I begin to shift into the comfort zone of my birthright.
This amazing healing process fascinates me! I feel like a detective tracking down subtle clues from bloodstains on the floor of my life. They lead me into old closed rooms of my body where assumptions of not being good enough morph into feelings of being better than everyone else! I am shocked by what I find hiding there – old mean-spirited envy lurking in corners all squished up against self-righteous judgment – the shadow sides of all my deep humiliations projected outwards!
How embarrassing! But I recognize how those feelings of self-doubt can lead to fundamentalism, Right or Left, along with the arsenal of guns in bedrooms for protection against perceived enemies. We who mistrust ourselves deep down cannot help but project it onto other people, not realizing that the ‘enemy’ actually resides deep within ourselves where we are too ashamed to look.
So our pain becomes blame, and then we vote those into power who fan the flame of our fears. As a society, we’ve gotten way too good at that. Perhaps to find our way out of this conundrum we might start digging deep into our own fears and see what may be lurking there. And then try and clean it up.
Nobody ever said it would be easy. We humans are well meaning as a species, but quite imperfect – we really can be a clumsy bunch!
Many years ago, during a trip to New York to see my publisher, I decided to hire a taxicab for a day to visit scenes of my childhood, especially places where I had experienced a child’s pain and humiliation: old neighborhoods, my grade school, the beach at Coney Island, and finally the “Home for Incurables” where my Grandma had sat out her life, paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, in a wooden wheelchair.
My driver, Kenny and I became intimate friends that day. He waited patiently at each of our stops, discreetly turning away when I stood on the sidewalks and cried. At every stop I found exactly the spot where I had once been shamed, and there felt again the pain of that long ago time. When it had faded, I took in deep breaths and blew them out, letting the negative energy dissipate into the ordinary air of the present moment. Like that, I went around New York City clearing one place after another of the sorrows of my personal past.
At P.S. 215 I stood outside my first grade classroom where I had once been sent in punishment for ‘losing’ a paper my father had actually refused to sign – I covered for him, saying I had lost it; in the schoolyard I found the place I had fallen on my face and broken my two front teeth. At my old house on Billings Place in Brooklyn I stood right on the spot my mother had once pounded me with her fists for rolling in the snow with a boy.
Kenny and I drove around until we found the restaurant in which, on my wedding day and in front of the guests, my father had slapped my face for disobeying him. It took awhile to neutralize that one. Then we hiked down the hill under the Whitestone Bridge where Herb had proposed to me, and we sat there quietly for awhile by the water.
Kenny listened to each story as we made our way through the Boroughs, nodding his head in sympathy and asking leading questions. In the Bronx around the corner of the Beth Abraham Home for Jewish Incurables where I knew in my cells every sight and sound and smell of the wasted souls inside, we stopped for lunch first at Weinstein’s Delicatessen, as the family had done in the past before going in to see my Grandmother. It was fortification then, and it was fortification now.
I ordered my old comfort food, a sliced tongue sandwich on rye with root beer soda, and a pickle. Kenny had a pastrami sandwich, I recall, and we shared two root beers while I told him, with shaking breath, about going to see my Grandma in this hospital every Sunday of my life, choking on the stench of human misery week after week until I learned to take it like a grown-up!
“Do you want me to come in with you?” he asked quietly.
“I think I’ve got to do this alone, Kenny,” I replied.
When I later emerged from the hospital, ragged and sad, Kenny took me to Howard’s Beach where he had played as a boy, and told me his stories, driving me to some of the scenes of his childhood and reminiscing about growing up Black in the Bronx.
It was a day of redemption for both of us, two people who had not met before this day and would likely never meet again.
Thank you, Kenny, and God bless you.
I find myself taking a similar trip now, as I enter this next phase of my life, going through letters and memories, making amends and seeking forgiveness, bowing to shades of people no longer here, apologizing and explaining, laughing and crying. I hope to leave as few negative traces as possible.
To all of you, living and dead, whose lives have touched mine, please forgive me if I have hurt you; I did not mean to do so. I also forgive those of you who have hurt me, whether you meant to or not.
I had a dream the other night that I was in the rehearsal studio of my favorite dance company, the LINES Ballet, hanging out with the dancers before a rehearsal. We were all improvising – just fooling around and laughing a lot – and when Alonzo King, the choreographer, came in to start the warm-up, I moved to the side of the space to watch.
“Where’re you going?” he asked.
“To watch,” I replied.
Embarrassed, I muttered the obvious. “I’m not thin, I’m old and I’m not in the company.”
“Says who?” he replied. “Of course you’re in the company! Get back out there!”
So I did.
Whatever was I thinking? Of course I am in the company!
As we all are, warts and bulges and all.