Dancing Lessons

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Christmas Prom 1960

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Just before hitting the “Publish” button for my last blog on the importance of music in my life, I heard this voice in my right ear, “Of course, your next blog is going to be about dancing.” Music and dancing are intertwined, sort of like going on retreat and making a pilgrimage. My feelings about dancing, however, are more complicated than they are about music. I have always loved music; I have not always loved dancing.

I want to blame Arthur Murray, who, it has been said, taught America to dance. In the 1950s, when I first discovered rock ‘n roll and girls, there were over 3000 Arthur Murray dance studios in the United States, one of which sent instructors (I remember him as 30-ish, with thinning hair, wearing a wrinkled tuxedo, and her as blond—bleached?—in a black strapless dress that showed off her legs and the run in her stocking) to Yarmouth, Maine to line us boys up on one side of the room and the girls on the other, leaving a no-man’s land between the sexes that I spent years trying to cross.

Apparently, Murray, whose given name was Moses Teichman, felt that dancing was how people could become more sophisticated and move, as he had, into a “better” class of society. So, along with the steps to the waltz, the foxtrot, the jitterbug, or the cha-cha, the instructors also taught etiquette. Young men, for example, were instructed to walk across the floor to the young ladies, bow, and say, “May I have this dance?”

I have to say, however, that if the aim at the Masonic Grange Hall was to teach refined behavior to seventh and eighth graders, it was not a good idea after having taught us the steps to blow a goddamned whistle. The scene turned to something resembling the kickoff of a football game, as barely-pubertal males raced across the floor, elbowing each other in an effort to get to the four or five girls with breasts, the fastest and dirtiest fighters skidding to a stop in front of them, yelling “My’vethisdance!” while the chosen ones stood giggling and the rest of the girls stared at the floor, waiting for the losers to get to them.

My first experiences with dancing, then, taught me to divide the world into us and them: boys and girls, fast and slow, winners and losers, all engaged in a fight for survival of the fittest. (Which was underlined the evening my partner and I won a dance contest. I can’t remember how we won, but it certainly wasn’t because of my dancing ability. I think she and I must have been standing in the spotlight when the music was stopped or something. Anyway, my prize was a switchblade knife, once the weapon of choice used by street gangs.)

When I reached high school, the record hops in the gymnasium at first perpetuated my sense that dancing was a battle, first with myself to get up the nerve to cross the no-man’s land between the guys standing along one wall and girls standing along the other, and then with her to find something to say or how close to get or where to put my hands.

Until one night, dancing suddenly became unlike anything I’d ever experienced: losing myself in another’s embrace, looking into the eyes of someone and seeing both her and myself for the first time, forgetting my adolescent self-consciousness in our interaction with each other and with the music. (I think the song was “Dream” by the Everly Brothers.)

Fast-forward twenty-five years. I’m in Princeton, New Jersey, evaluating high school essays for the College Board. The last night of the reading, a bunch of us teachers are in a bar, bouncing our middle-aged bones around the dance floor to a collection of golden oldies played by some kids in ripped tee-shirts.  When the band switches from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” the woman I’ve been twisting with says, “Do you dance slow?”

Thirty-four years later, we still try to get in at least one slow dance a week.

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I wonder if the reason I feel called to write about dancing is to make me more aware of how the secular and the spiritual intertwine, and to reveal how my relationship with the God of my Not Understanding has changed and where it might be going.

When my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I thought my belief in God had died with her. But after a year of raging at my family, friends, students, the driver in the next car, and Boston sports teams, I realized, no, I’m really pissed off at God, which means I think God exists. Focusing my anger at God became the first step in what I think of as my pilgrimage through grief and grace. And almost thirty years after Laurie’s death, I still often feel like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestling with, if not God, then with God’s angel.

On my desk, I have a copy of a Rilke poem, The Man Watching, in which the speaker praises those “wrestlers of the Old Testament,” who, “…beaten by this Angel/…went away proud and strengthened/and great…” Winning, Rilke writes, is not important to such a fighter, because

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

 By constantly greater beings.”

And yet during the last few years, as I’ve become more and more aware of having received the grace not only to survive Laurie’s death, but also to have lived, all in all, a happy life surrounded by love, I’ve started wondering if I’ve really been wrestling with God, or whether I’ve been engaged in a sort of dance, where all along, God has been trying to embrace me, take me into loving arms. And if it hasn’t been during those times when I have surrendered—let God lead, if you will—that I’ve received the grace to sustain me.

Both scientists and modern writers on spirituality tell us that everything in the universe —animals, vegetables, minerals, living and dead—is interconnected. Everything exists in relationship. The question for me these days (and I wonder if it isn’t a question this country is struggling to answer), is whether this relationship is going to be in the form of a wrestling match or a dance—whether when I look out my window at tree branches in the wind, I see the trees struggling against the elements or dancing to them; whether when I see someone of another color or another life-style coming toward me on the street, I see an opponent or a partner; whether I still see the world as us and them lined up on opposite sides of the floor, or whether I see just us, moving in harmony to the music.

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Prayer flags and daffodils, dancing—I like to think—in the wind.

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Scars

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For fifty years, I’ve been facilitating writing groups of various kinds. Participants have ranged in age from fourteen to eighty. They’ve been students, white-collar professionals, blue-collar workers, unemployed, and homeless. Over that time, I’ve begged, borrowed, or stolen certain writing prompts that always seem to work, no matter who’s there. For example, when a group meets for the first time, and I want to avoid the standard introductions and at the same time establish an atmosphere of trust, I’ll have us (since I always write, too) write about our scars.

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Almost everyone begins by at least mentioning physical scars. Men, especially, seem proud of them. The other night, I was watching a Netflix series called Longmire, in which Sheriff Longmire has been stabbed and his female deputy Vic is helping him bandage the wound.

“You’ve got a lot of scars,” Vic says. “How many do you have?’

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Come on. All men know how many scars they have.”

Silence. Then, “Twelve…thirteen now.”

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that women are becoming less reticent about their physical scars. Last October’s Cosmopolitan magazine ran a series of photographs of women proudly showing their mastectomy scars. Photographer Ami Barwell said in the press release, “These photographs show that, despite what they’ve been through, these women are empowered. They are strong, happy, and sexy.”

Scars are part of growing up, and in many cultures children are intentionally scarred when they reach puberty as part of sacred rituals to celebrate their becoming adults. Richard Rohr, whom I often reference in my blogs, wonders if the popularity of tattoos and body piercings these days isn’t a secular substitute for what young men and women once gained through circumcision, scarification, shaving of heads, and knocking out of teeth.

Our scars tell a story of our lives. My most unusual scar is the one on the inside of my right elbow that looks like a burn. I like to show it to people to see if they can guess what caused it. Most can’t, because the scar tells not only of my past but also of an era long ago and far away. When I was four years old, I was in the cellar with my mother one day while she was doing the weekly laundry in our wringer washing machine. Fascinated by the rotation of the rollers, I stuck my hand up to touch them. The next thing I knew, I was screaming as the wringers went round and round on my arm— the first of what we in my twelve-step program call our “goddamned learning experiences.”

wringer washer

As I moved into something resembling adulthood, I scarred the back of my head when I fell down some school steps onto a broken bottle. I garnered several knife scars from working in a market garden cutting lettuce, spinach, and beet greens, and a black scar when my friend Jerry and I were sword fighting with pencils in a high school chemistry class. (The lead is still in my hand.) Recent X-rays of my scarred lungs remind me of the years in college I worked fighting forest fires, inhaling wood smoke for hours until I could take a break, get away from the smoke, and light up a cigarette.

As an adult, I have a two-inch scar on my back from a fusion of L-2 and L-3 vertebrae, which kept me out of Viet Nam. I have two hernia scars (I’ll spare you a photograph), and two longer scars from bi-lateral hip replacement that I’ve always thought of as resulting from the time after my daughter died, when, like Jacob, in the Old Testament, I wrestled with angels.

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But if we’re proud of our physical scars, we tend, I think, to hide our emotional ones. I’ve spent seventy years hiding the scars of shame, rejection, and fears of confrontation and failure caused by growing up in an alcoholic family. And the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie has left a scar that feels more like an amputation, one that, even after thirty years, gets ripped open every time I visit someone in the hospital or read in the newspaper about the death of a young person. (That scar has been ripped open a lot lately.)

For some reason, our physical scars, which almost always are signs that we’ve failed at something, make us proud, while our emotional scars, which often aren’t the result of anything we’ve done, but have had done to us, make us ashamed. Maybe it’s because our physical scars say: “I can take it. I’m not a victim. I’ve survived,” while our emotional scars say, “I should be stronger, more in control.” When Laurie died, I felt weak and powerless. I did not go to her funeral. I refused to run her obituary in the local newspaper. I had recurring dreams about old high school basketball teammates making fun of me for being uncoordinated and slow. In other words, I was ashamed of myself, not because of anything specific that I’d done or not done, but because of who I thought I was: a loser.

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As I reach the seventy-sixth year of my earthly pilgrimage, one of my goals is to become as proud of my emotional scars as I am of my physical ones. This Easter has helped. As a practicing Christian, I believe in resurrection. But this year, I realized that even the risen Christ carried the scars of his death. In fact, in one of the most famous of these stories, his disciple Thomas will not believe that Jesus is risen until, as Thomas says, “I see the mark of the nails in his hand, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side…” Only when Thomas is able to do so does he cry, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s Jesus’s scars that show his disciples who he is; I need to realize it’s my scars—physical and emotional—that reveal not only who I am, but also the ways in which I’ve become resurrected.

Or, as Bill, living in the local homeless shelter after losing his construction career because he’d broken his back and become addicted to pain killers, but who, nonetheless, was trying to put his life back together by taking on on-line course in computers, wrote for one of my writing groups,

“Scars are the ledger of life. The reminders of when we lacked experience. Wounds are due to ignorance and inattention, apathy, and sometimes poor coincidence. Some we hide from others, some from ourselves. Some are shared with only a few. Some we display proudly. You would think scars are grievous things. In truth they are wondrous. Scars are badges of life’s ills and trepidations…healed.”

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Bedside Pilgrimage

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High School Graduation 1988. I can see the cyst on the back of my daughter’s head.

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For the last few months, up until his death from cancer, I regularly sat in a nursing and rehab center by the bed of an old friend. The long corridors, the smell of disinfectant, the sounds of TV sets, the charts on the walls of Scott’s room, the nurses with their clipboards, brought back memories of when my daughter Laurie was in the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, and what I would now call my six-week pilgrimage through strange, often surrealistic landscapes.

A little background: From the time she was twelve years old, my daughter had a cyst on the back of her head. Her pediatrician said it was probably harmless, but that if it got larger, she could have it removed. During her senior year in high school, the cyst doubled in size, so during February vacation, Laurie went for surgery. In March of 1988, a routine biopsy determined the cyst to be malignant.

Suddenly, my daughter, her mother, and I were picking up the pieces of our lives and trying to put them back together. The diagnosis forced Laurie to withdraw from an American Field Service program to spend a year abroad, but that summer, when the tumor disappeared after radiation and chemotherapy, she applied to The Portland School of Art, planning to continue her treatments while taking one or two classes. Then, less than a week before school started in September, her leg collapsed while she was walking along a beach. She began physical therapy and made plans to reapply to art school in January. Confined to a walker at home, she found a job painting murals and designing menus for a new restaurant in town. When physical therapy did nothing but cause her more pain, she went into the hospital, at first for more tests, but after she developed a fever, her primary care physician decided to keep her there and begin another round of chemotherapy. That was when I took a leave of absence from teaching and moved into a Ronald McDonald House, less than a mile away from EMMC.

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Summer, 1988, when we were hopeful. It’s hard not to see the irony of her tee-shirt.

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Every morning and evening at the Ronald McDonald House, strangers on a journey none of us wanted to take would sit down together in the dining room to share stories. I’ve forgotten names, but I remember a woman—square and sixtyish—moving in slow motion in and out of the morning shadows cast by the light coming through the window over the sink, as she fried sausages for her husband, getting radiation for prostate cancer. I recall a five-year-old girl who was being treated for a brain tumor, and her stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair beside her at meals. And a man whose nineteen-year-old daughter’s transplanted kidney, the one he’d given her twelve years earlier, was failing and no one knew what to do next. “I can’t help her this time,” he’d often say to me. “What the hell do I do?”

At no time in my life have I ever felt more like a stranger wandering through an alien land. I had no control over the day’s events, no say in the final outcome. Every day, I would enter Laurie’s room and see that the morphine level on the gizmo intravenously feeding pain medicine was higher than the day before. Contractions in her throat and pain in her esophagus made eating more difficult, until Dr. Brooks made decision to stop the second chemotherapy and to feed her through another IV.  She experienced pain in her leg, ankle, and foot. “I only want it to be over!” she told me. Yet, with each new setback, she’d ask, “What’s next?” What’s next was pneumonia, and test results that revealed her pelvis to be riddled with cancer. Soon she could only sleep for half to three quarters of an hour before contorting with pain. When Doctor Brooks prescribed an epidermal catheter put in so that the morphine could be administered directly to the nerve endings, the doctor who put in the catheter told me Laurie was now receiving as much morphine as anyone had ever received at EMMC.

I recall the morning she opened one eye at me while I sat by her bedside, holding her hand. She was on her back, but her head remained turned to the left, so her left eye was swollen. She reached up and touched my beard. “You need a shave,” she said. Those were the last words she ever said to me. Soon, her breathing became a combination of moaning and gargling. A nurse brought in some kind of suction device to clean out Laurie’s throat. The next night, when I walked into her room, all I could think of was the sound of my mother’s old coffee pot percolating from Laurie’s bed. That morning at 12:15 a.m. my daughter died.

I wish I could say that being with Laurie when she died was some kind of mystical experience, but all I remember was holding her hand and trying to keep her mouth cleared of mucus while tears and snot ran down my face. There was no feeling of the transcendent, no sense of having arrived anywhere. During those weeks, I read books on spirituality and theology. I spent time in the hospital chapel between visits. Yet I have to say that I never felt anything like the presence of God during that time, never felt comforted, experienced nothing except numb emptiness.

Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blogs it’s that pilgrimage is an interior journey that continues long after the external one is over. As I found out in the months and years after I came back from the Ronald McDonald House, what I now call the God of my Not Understanding had been there. There had been a purpose to each of those days that I’ve never had since. I knew in the morning where I was going and why I was going there. No matter what else was going on, the great mysteries of life and death were always present. I learned more about courage, grace, and strength in the face of suffering from my daughter than from any coach, athlete, or soldier I’ve ever known. The reading I did, my experience with the silence of the hospital chapel, my giving up of control and entering into the unknown, all became the foundation for my life after Laurie’s death.

There were many times during November and December of 1988 when I wished Laurie’s doctor would just give her a shot that would end her suffering, but today, I treasure those last weeks I had with my daughter, They have become a sacred time, and my chair by Laurie’s bedside a sacred place, turning the experience into a pilgrimage— the most arduous of my life, and one I’m still, at some level, making.

Laurie
1987 Self-Portrait

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