Monday, April 22, 2013
Four eleven-year-old girls stand on a sunny school playground. Three are in eleven-year-old bodies. One peers out from the decades-older body of their teacher. One girl, a happy healthy athletic bursting-with-happiness-and-energy long-limbed girl, does a cartwheel out of nowhere, for no particular reason beyond the invitation of the warm bright air and her own inner joy.
The three other girls watch and admire her form, and so she does another, also with perfect cartwheel form: First one hand on the ground, then the other, with legs going perfectly overhead, each landing in its turn, the torso perpendicular to the ground the entire time. Perfect 360 degree rotations. She ends each revolution with a victory stance, arms raised high, exuberant grin on her face.
The peeking-out girl says wow, that was amazing, I've never done a cartwheel.
One of the other girls laughs and says I can't do one either. She's about to show them her not-doing-a-cartwheel when the fourth girls spins out three in a row. Her audience watches in admiration. This is not someone who looks like she could do any cartwheels, let alone a beautifully executed series. Short of stature, short-limbed, solid, the best artist in the class with an artist's intense inner focus and no previously apparent athletic inclinations. She barely smiles at the applause and praise offered by her peers, but the blush pushing up from her collar reveals her pleasure.
The peeking-out girl asks how did you learn to do that. Thinking about her own short solid body that she could never coax into the light freedom of a cartwheel.
The reply from the artist: gymnastics, lessons from the time she was a much littler girl.
The peeking-out girl remembers a childhood where there was neither the money nor the parental energy for gymnastics or dance (she desperately wanted to be a ballerina) or piano even (let alone the harp she knew she was born to play). She recalls friends trying to show her the steps to a cartwheel, and her frustration at not being able to follow the simple instructions, and the shame voice saying stupid fat girl. She thinks she remembers being laughed at, although she's not so sure about that any more. She remembers the hot flush of humiliation, her fury at a body that would not bend to her mind's demands, her decision to never try again.
Do you want to see me try offers the girl who has said she's never done a cartwheel either. This girl is a soccer celebrity who plays whatever sport a season has to offer. A child of supreme confidence in herself despite a life where adults betray and disappoint her in heartbreaking ways. Without waiting for an answer from her audience, she spins herself awkwardly around, head down, her body moving in a twisted "u" shape, her limbs going every which way but where they should. She lands on her bottom, laughing, her face alight with joy.
Everyone claps for her, and laughs with her, and then the three in-time eleven-year-olds wander away, distracted by a kick-ball game. The peeking-out eleven-year-old, safely hidden behind the eyes of her sixty-year-old body, marvels at what she's just seen. Success by someone who wasn't a cool kid. Failure by someone who was. But failure that no one saw as failure. Failure seen as fun and not one bit of anything more.
She offers a question tentatively, inwardly, longingly. Maybe we could try again?
The sixty-year-old teacher stands watching her students frolic like wild things on a sunny spring playground, holding her own inner eleven-year-old close. You know it's too late for cartwheels in this body. But look, it's not too late to see that shame does not have to be a part of that loss. It's not too late to understand that not doing cartwheels never ever meant there was something wrong. It's not too late to finally realize that you are as wonderful, talented, and beautiful as any of the girls you watch every day with envy and yearning.
Together, they form a picture of a freckle-faced girl with braids and strong sturdy limbs, banged up knees and bare feet, doing a perfect hand, hand, foot, foot, perpendicular rotation in the long faded sunlight of a North Idaho summer. It didn't happen, but it might have, and they applaud the girl together. A girl no longer defined by an unaccomplished cartwheel.
Monday, April 1, 2013
The view from my office window is bookended by two trees.
On one side is my beloved red oak. The tree that a few winters ago was bent double by ice and now stands thirty feet tall, straight and strong. Its fall fire red leaves have faded to the apricot of age-faded red hair and thinned in the same way. A close examination of branches would reveal the new life waiting to burst forth, but from this vantage it still looks very much a winter tree.
On the other side is a big leaf maple that we transplanted from the edge of the yard just a few years ago. By the time the breezes of fall have escorted in the wilder winds of winter, its leaves are long gone. And it's one of the first trees in the yard to begin unfurling the new-green glory of spring.
I feel suspended exactly between the two. Neither winter nor spring, but yet both somehow.
Smoke floats across the yard, carrying the occasional oak leaf with it. Walt's burning last year's cuttings and brush - so much accumulates from a place with so many trees. It will take a couple of days before the pile is reduced to a gray circle surrounded by grass, the perfect symbolism from which cliche is born.
I wonder how long it will take for my deadwood, my dead leaves, to be replaced with new life, fresh hope, a lighter perspective.
Winter was hard this year. Not the weather of winter but the length of it, the death inherent in it, the darkness of it. It clings to me still, even as I soak up the sun of a new season. I wonder at its persistence. I worry that I won't be able to shed the last of the dead leaves, and that somehow, this time, the new growth won't come in.
Is this what being older does? Makes winter hang around a bit longer every year until there is nothing left but that? No. I refuse that notion. There will always be new green to counter the ashes. There will.
But in my suspension between seasons, I have a sense of transformation. Something that requires more than a planetary orbit to complete. Something that manages to include both winter and spring no matter what the calendar says. Something I can't quite yet name - or grasp.
That, I believe, is connected to being in the shallows of old age. The horizon I see is significantly different than at any other time of my life. My body refuses to be ignored. My mind ignores me all the time. My feelings are alien to me, much in the same way as those of adolescence. Death and the mystery of what lies beyond are real, and loom every so slightly larger every day.
This suspended space reveals my dreams in the oak tree. Some lived to their fulfillment and long off the tree. Others unfulfilled and still hanging from the branch, dry and dead. I see the possibilities of new dreams in the maple, but I can't reach those until I release the oak dreams. Until I accept and grieve the dreams of my younger life that will never come true, I cannot aspire to new ones.
The sun is out finally. Smoke and the occasional oak leaf continue to drift across my line of sight. The maple branches nod gently in a breeze that shows up every afternoon at this time. I will walk, pain-free and powerfully, into the vibrant air, on the lookout for expressions of spring and the songs they might sing to me, the secrets they might unlock.