Category Archives: healing
Have you ever seen the entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades (from La Bayadere, one of the “White Ballets” of the classical cannon)? Or the first breathtaking appearance of the swans in a large-scale production of Swan Lake? Or the Snow scene from Nutcracker?
I mean, that’s probably a given. You’re reading this blog, and that means you have internet access and are probably at least a little bit interested in ballet, so that means you can at least watch them on YouTube, probably. (If you came via one of my bike posts, hi! and I’ve got a couple for you, too: a big group ride sweeping around a corner or a tight paceline swapping pulls).
These are some of the best-known scenes in ballet, and with good reason: they display the fundamental truth that there’s immense power in a group of individual people working together.
The entrance of the Shades might be the keenest example.
The dancers enter one by one, in a long line that will eventually double back on itself. They perform the same simple (not easy: simple), repetitive phrase over and over: arabesque (penché, in most versions), temps lié to posé tendu devant, step step, repeat.
They are not massed in a cloud, as the corps so often is. They are not aggregated in attractive little clusters, or in coruscating diagonals, or in opposing echelons. At least, not at first.
Instead, each of the Shades is essentially alone—and yet she’s also part of a whole.
The repeating phrase is nice enough on its own, but nothing you’d necessarily be transfixed by for minutes on end (or, indeed, for one minute on end, unless you’re busily analyzing technique, I guess).
The repeating phrase performed by an ever-lengthening (and eventually redoubling) line of dancers, on the other hand, is mesmerizing. It’s kaleidoscopic.
It evokes an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere even (or perhaps most effectively) when performed against a plain backdrop, with no set except a ramp upon which the advancing shades descend.
This simple phrase, without a single iota of elaboration, becomes a symphony. But it only works if the dancers stay together.
Indeed, it works because the dancers stay together.
At the height of the sequence, the redoubled chain of dancers (still executing the same phrase on the same leg) becomes … Oh, I don’t know: a restless sea; a moonlit, windblown fog racketing between two unseen hills; the very breath of the audience.
Choose whichever metaphor suits you: either way, it becomes one thing; one thing made up of a staggering array of smaller things.
But only if the dancers stay together.
This is where I am in my life. I spent so much of my life standing apart that I came to believe, on some level, that it was somehow better.
Participate, I thought, but don’t join.
Or, join, but not because it’s inherently good to be part of something.
Join because it’s how this thing works: but retain a measure of reserve about the very idea of joining. Remain aloof.
If you remain aloof, the unacknowledged subtext would have read, you can’t be caught off guard and hurt when, inevitably, you’re rejected. (Lessons learned in childhood die hard. When enough people have told you, no one really likes you and no one will ever like you, you come to believe it.)
And yet, as the company has transformed into a place where I feel welcome, bit by bit I find that I want to belong.
That the more I begin to feel that I want to be part of this group—that I like the people in it and the group itself and not just the work we’re doing together—the better I actually seem to dance.
When bikes were my life, I loved—loved—the incomparable symbiotic feeling of sweeping around a curve in a flock of bikes traveling at speed.
As a singer, I have always loved choral harmonies more than anything.
Even as a dancer, I love those moments of pure synchrony, especially in grand allegro (here are four separate bodies flinging themselves violently through space, and yet we are one thing because we are all doing this together!) or in partnering (the best moments, for me, are the ones in which each move seems to flow logically, even inevitably, from the last).
Why, then, am I still surprised to want to be part of something—to want, dare we breathe the word, to belong?
Ironically, I know I shouldn’t be surprised (my aloof, proud, defensive side feels downright affronted: “Of course I know that, man, what are you trying to say?!” …. to be surprised is to be less than omniscient; is to be vulnerable). Humans are social animals, and though I’m not always great at being a human, I am one anyway. Neurologically speaking, even I am wired for belonging.
Of course I want to be part of something, even if the something in question is so obscure that a great many people literally don’t understand that it exists.
(Seriously: there are a lot of people, right here in the First World, who have no idea that a professional ballet company is a thing; that we don’t just clean out the barn, rehearse a couple of times after work, and set up ticket sales).
But it surprises me anyway.
Not least, the knock-on effects: when you start cracking open the door to let people in a little—because, here’s the thing, that’s how you do The Belonging—you find that you try new things that the other people in The Thing to which you’re learning to belong like. It’s transitive almost: I like A and A likes Lizzo, therefore maybe I will also like Lizzo.
You discover music you’ve never really given a second glance before (or you discover who makes music that you’ve low-key liked for a long time but haven’t known who to ask about it). You take a risk and wear something ludicrously silly on Pajama Day—like a hoodie with a sparkly pug with antlers on it (I’ll have to get a picture; I can’t even begin to explain this one).
You say hi first once in a while.
You begin to listen without feeling like you might, at any moment, have to defend yourself.
You begin to talk. Just a little: but then one day you realize you’re having, like, a whole conversation. OMGWTFBBQ, IKR?
And you begin to learn that it feels good to be even a little bit on the inside of something.
You begin to realize that it’s okay to want to feel that. That being on the inside isn’t the same as being one of the people who, back in the day when you were a kid, did everything to ensure that people like you stayed out.
You begin to want to stay together because although you by yourself are just fine, the group is another thing, and it’s a really cool thing.
You begin to realize how much it helps to be a unit.
That (apologies to Kipling) the strength of the corps is in the dancer, and the strength of the dancer is in the corps.
I mean, not that it’s all roses and sunshine, etc. But this, for me, is a new feeling. Realizing that part of merging into the group is being willing to merge; is wanting to merge.
Just like the dancers in the Entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades, we do not surrender our individual strength to join the group.
Instead, we continue to dance on our own legs.
But we dance on our own legs together.
It’s funny: when we speak of someone being “unstrung,” we typically mean it in the sense that a harp or a piano that has been unstrung is usually having a pretty bad day.
We don’t typically mean it in the other sense—that a bow (the old-fashioned kind made from wood and/or horn and/or bone) should be unstrung regularly, lest the tension of the string ruin its strength.
I think I’m experiencing a bit of both right now.
It’s deeply unpleasant to miss a week of class. By day three, I begin to suffer from the sneaking suspicion that I’m losing my figure if I eat at all (please note, if you’re new to this blog: this a criticism I apply solely to myself—I’m not generally prescriptive about dancers’ bodies, unless the dancer in question is me). My history of anorexia is still, essentially, history … but I’d be lying if I failed to admit that its voice speaks louder when I’m forced to sit down for a while.
This is complicated by the fact that my internal mirror, my mental representation of my body, is updating slowly: that I’m starting to see myself as this rather athletically-built kind of boy, possibly the sort that runs to fat by current professional ballet standards (though perhaps not by any saner standard in the world).
Likewise, I begin to feel frustrated: I know I’ll have to work back into my body a bit; that ballet in particular is an art that demands constant practice. If I miss class for six days, I, my director, the audience, and even the spiders in the stairwell will know. And I’ll really, really know. My deep rotators are, by this point, slowly morphing back into deep potaters (though I am at least feeling well enough to do simple turnout exercises now, provided I do them lying down or in small batches).
And yet it would be impossible and unhealthy to dance through the illness I’ve had this week—I might have milked a few more classes out of myself, but it’s probable that for every hour I strained to charge forward, I’d pay back a day in interest. The show must go on, but at the same time it’s stupid to feck about with a fever and an aggressive infection that has already colonized your upper respiratory system and is eyeing your lungs. If you have to do a show and you don’t have a second cast, you do it; if you’ve got a slow week of class and rehearsals, for goodness’ sake, just take a minute and heal.
Now is no time to get sick—at least, not sicker than I have been. If there’s a good week to take a hit from North Tonsilia, for that matter, this was it: next week is PlayThink, then it’s tech week for Weeds. This week we had fewer rehearsals than usual, and none that were unusually demanding. There was time to sleep and recover.
Time to sleep and recover also means time to review video of Tenebrae and think about work and consider how to move forward.
It’s still a little weird to think about myself as a professional dancer and as a nascent choreographer. It’s really weird in this way that it’s not as weird as it once was. I’m starting to think about the long game; to consider strategies for working as much as I can for as long as I can. It doesn’t seem as ludicrous, anymore, to think seriously about choreographing projects and so forth.
In that light I should think about trying to avoid, say, choking to death. I sliced up some steak to eat with a salad today (now that I can eat salad again :P), but I failed to account for being pretty much unable to breathe through my nose, still. I wound up aspirating a longish piece of steak in the process of trying to bite through it, and D had to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Obviously, it worked: out came the steak, and after a few minutes I was able to go eat my lunch, which I’d literally just started.
Still, it gave me pause. I’ve managed to choke on things before, as one does, but never so badly that I couldn’t sort it out myself. It was less scary than one might expect: like, the initial feeling was, “Oh, I’m choking, I should sort this out,” followed by futile attempts to somehow dislodge this strip-o-steak, um, psychically or something?
The problem being that by the time I staggered into the living room where D was, I was kind of redlining and started to panic as I realized I couldn’t remember the universal sign for “choking,” which apparently is not instinctive :O
That said, I was still able to make a faint gurgling hiss somehow: apparently that, combined with the usual hand-waving that I do when I can’t find words, prompted D to realize that I was choking.
The actual experience of being Heimlich-ed was interesting: there was a moment of, “This isn’t worki—” and then all at once it had worked and I was holding a disgusting, slimy strip of meat in one hand. Weird. After that there was a brief episode of the physical rage that’s my universal response to physical threats, but in a particularly helpless-feeling fashion that made me sit down on the floor and say some colorful words.
And then I realized it was just that—the same reflex I always have—and that I was fine and D had basically just saved my life by correctly reading a particular form of interpretive dance that I do when my language coprocessor crashes.
Which, in retrospect, is really rather funny. So now I have another amusing story to tell at dancer parties, which are basically the only parties I attend, about how interpretive dance saved the day.
You guys, I swear my life is not normally this interesting.
You may now proceed with the obvious jokes related to choking on huge meat, biting off more than I can chew, etc.
Si vous parlez français, mes chers lecteurs, and/or if you speak Ballet, you know that “pas de problème” can mean either “no problem” or “problem step.” It’s one of of those puns that never gets old, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, class this morning began as an ongoing pas de problème in the latter sense, since I was still semi-disoriented (I probably should have skipped the sleeping pill last night) and oddly stiff.
Eventually, my body decided to bring itself online, although my brain lagged behind and kept asking stupid questions like, “Are you sure this Sissone travels right?!”
(Yes, Brain. It begins left foot back and travels sideways. Which way do you think it’s going to go? I mean, it could be a Sissone under … BUT IT’S NOT.)
Regardless, it wound up being a semi-acceptable class, which was good, because it was packed and a significant portion of the company came today. I wasn’t at my best—my body never quite finished organizing itself—but I wasn’t at my worst, either.
I’m debating whether HRT means I should actually devote some time to intentionally stretching on the daily. I’ve felt tighter the past week or so than I’m used to feeling, but I’ve also just returned to serious aerial training and done some serious sitting down in the car (we drove to Saint Louis again, this time for a fantastic dance festival).
I suppose it couldn’t hurt to be more intentional about mobility, anyway—especially going forward, with more partnering and so forth on the agenda.
After the Jessica Lang show, D mentioned to me that he thinks I should start strength training with an athletic or personal trainer who understands dance precisely for the purpose of partnering—especially lifting other guys. He rarely makes suggestions about how I should approach my life as a dancer, but when he does he’s usually right, so I’m contemplating how to move forward in that regard. Señor BeastMode is an obvious choice, if he has time in his completely crazy schedule to take on a client right now.
On a broader level, I’m experience the weird cognitive landscape specific to once again having to acclimate my mind to changes in my body. Obviously, I’m trying to work to avoid hypertrophy as much as possible, since I don’t need to be bigger, but at the same time the influence of hormone therapy is changing the overall shape of my body.
Sometimes I’m okay with that, sometimes I’m not. I’m trying to really internalize the idea that it’s okay to be someone who is a dancer, a bottom, and also rather athletically built.
Obviously, this is a refinement of my ongoing body-image weirdness … but it’s such an oddly-specific refinement, I guess. The dancers in Jessica Lang’s company (Jessica Lang Dance, ou JLD) made me feel a little less alien, since there are several guys in JLD who are small, rather pretty, and built like the proverbial brick …. houuussse (da-na-naaa-na … they’re mighty, mighty).
I felt that this occasion called for some Commodores. You’re welcome.
Given that JLD’s choreography skews strongly towards ballet (albeit contemporary ballet), and that ballet is my preferred idiom, it was nice to see boys whose bodies resemble mine (only better trained, I am forced to admit) working in a major professional company.
- …Which is fine, because it turns out that I lurve contemporary ballet.
I realize that, as far as work is concerned, this continues to amount to First World Ballet Problems. Several people who know me have pointed out that my body is not out of line with the standard for male ballet dancers; I’m on the small end and rather powerfully built, but not to such a degree that you don’t see similar guys in ballet in general. Mine is, K suggests, a Bolshoi body rather than a Balanchine body. I’m down with that. I like the Bolshoi better anyway 😉
On a different level, though, the way my body has changed, is changing, is forcing me to redefine my understanding of myself in accordance with my sexuality. I’m not a waifish little twink anymore, but evidently the kind of guys I find interesting (including my husband) are not interested only in waifish little twinks.
I don’t write a great deal about my sexuality, in part because this blog is really more or less about dancing at this point, and in part because my difficulties with it are sort of, like, Queer 452 difficulties instead of Queer 101 difficulties. This may not be true for any of you who read this on the regular or who are reading it right at this very moment, but I suspect that a lot of people who are less familiar with queer issues might not quite grok the source of my internal conflict (well, a significant portion of men might not: female aerialists, who sometimes wrestle with essentially the same problem of the disconnect between their outer Aerial Beast and their inner Dainty Girl, are likely to get it in one, so to speak).
At the same time, I get that it’s aggressively First World Problems-y to be like, “O, woe is me, I have grown up to be this ripped little mesomorph instead of a dainty little ectomorph.” Like, yeah, I get that there are bigger, more problematic problems by far.
And yet, we live with what we live with.
I should note that this isn’t a question of consciously hanging on to some kind of ideal that I know isn’t going to work with me. It’s a question of some really outdated conditioning disrupting what might otherwise be a very natural process of being like, “Oh, okay, this is where my body is going, and this is the stuff I like to do with my body, here’s where I fit. Cool.”
I feel like ultimately it will take a while and a kind of re-conditioning … maybe even some very conscious de-conditioning. That’s going to be a challenge, since the source of the conditioning in question remains my life’s most significant trauma and one that I’m still working to address.
Either way, I should stipulate that I’m grateful for my body and what I can do with it.
I should also stipulate that I’m encountering some of the typical, boring adolescent problems: acne and, um, errr, ahh, wow, there are an awful lot of very freaking hot guys in the world, did you know that? (Actually, just, like, hot people in general.) Seriously. HOW DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY LEARN ANYTHING IN SCHOOL between the ages of 13 and 18, or what have you???? Thank goodness ballet requires so much focus it’s like wearing blinkers (except sometimes, between exercises, when you’re standing there watching and your brain drifts off and is like DAMN HE LOOK GOOD, WHERE YOU GET THOSE CUTE TIGHTS BOY, oh crap was that piqué-piqué-rond or what?).
I’m not sure how to address the latter problem, and today I was really disappointed when I went to the ONLY STORE IN TOWN that reliably stocks Queen Helene’s Mint Julep Mask, which is what I use to address the former problem (acne), and discovered that they were fresh out. I got some other mask that is reasonably acceptable, but it turns out that Amazon carries Queen Helene, and it comes in a tub. The tube version is fine, but a little hard to manage one-handed when you’re languishing in the bath with a good book, so since the price is right and so forth I think I’m just going to order it from Amazon from now on.
On the upside of the whole acne thing, my skin has decided to be way oilier than it used to be, and not to be as ridiculously dry as it has been for basically my entire life. That is a welcome change, to say the least.
So it’s been, heck, like seven months or whatevs, and I haven’t updated the Topless Boys Live series in a bit.
Anyway, here’s where things are, with the new glasses as well (no special reason, just hadn’t put my contacts in yet).
I am also finally getting some definition back after several months of feeling podgy.
The most interesting thing about these scars is that the scars themselves are now thin, whitish lines–healing of some kind is still going on simultaneously alongside them, so my skin is a little pinkish there, especially when I’m cold.
I’m used to the way my body feels, but maybe not to liking the way I look. It still surprises me how much I do like how I look most of the time.
Long day tomorrow: class, rehearsal, different rehearsal, performance, different performance. Class starts at 9 AM; second performance ends at 11:30 PM.
Tonight, though, I’m going to go review choreo for an hour or so, then come home and crash.
Yesterday, I crammed in two acceptable ballet classes and a fantastic acro workshop with a guy who’s here with Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo.
We expected partner acro, but it turned out to be basically floor exercise. As it turns out, a lot of my floor exercise repertoire is still very much intact. I got as far as back handsprings before I had to jet off to ballet. Aleks seemed pleasantly surprised (even impressed) with my technique and power, so I left his workshop floating on a cloud of happy.
I was, in fact, as happy as my cat in an empty bathtub. Also rather better at floor exercise.
Perhaps that’s why I spent today feeling pretty decent about myself. I’m occasionally floored by the capability of my body—simultaneously like, “Wow, cool!” and like, terribly grateful at my body will apparently do almost anything I ask of it.
Either way, during modern class I found myself staring into the mirror and kinda liking what I saw. I was wearing a racerback tank that makes me look as much like a gymnast as I do a dancer (and leaves acres of skin exposed to stick to the floor in modern class). For a few minutes what I saw was a broad-shouldered, graceful boy; strong and lean and vital; gleaming with a light sheen of healthy sweat. I saw an athlete; a rather magnificent animal, close-coupled and powerful. I saw, I suppose, what men sometimes see and admire in me. I was reminded of the time that I asked Denis what he saw in my calves, which he all but fetishizes though I have almost always disliked them, and he said one word: “Power.”
Last night, when I was feeling uncertain about doing round-off front handspring on our rather short mat, Aleks said to me, “You can do this. You have power.” It was exactly what I needed to hear: I gave the sequence more vertical punch and less horizontal travel, and there it was, just like when I was ten or thirteen or sixteen.
G-d alone knows what I’ll see when I’m staring down the barrel of the barre tomorrow morning. But it was refreshing to see what I saw tonight.
In related news, I evidently failed to inform my cirque company that I tumble, and they teased me (pleasantly) about that throughout the whole workshop. They were also impressed with how clean, graceful, and powerful my tumbling skills are. Needless to say I’ll likely be using those in upcoming cirque shows 😛
I continue to be terribly grateful that I can still do all this stuff.
Sometimes my body, like all bodies, is a giant jerk—but more often of late it seems like an old friend who’s just been waiting for me to drop by; one who has kept all my favorite games and can remember all the places I like to run and bike and walk. When I dust off a physical skill that I haven’t tried in years, it’s always with a sense of homecoming mingled with a sweet relief.
But looking at myself tonight was something else: the experience of having seen, bit by bit, a thing I somehow missed for many years, and then suddenly seeing it whole for just a moment.
Also, I’d rather forgotten how good it feels to launch yourself into a dead sprint, punch down into the center of the earth, and soar. (I mean, I that in ballet, too, but it’s in a different way.)
It’s good to have that back.
We got the first 30 or 40 seconds of our dance last night.
I like it—it’s completely different in feel from last year’s, very Tango-influenced, rather than neoclassical. Both TS and I are videoing everything from different vantage points, so I was able to see that I dumped my shoulders and core on this wee en dedans turn with the working foot just brushing the ground. It’ll be better next week!
On the whole, though, rehearsal was good. There are 13 of us thus far, and I’m still the Onliest Boy.
I also had a good night in class. Beginner 1 is right before rehearsal, so we arrive in masse and take B1, which means some of us might be a wee bit intimidating to some of the B1 regulars. Still, I enjoy B1, because I don’t have to think about any of the steps at all ever, so I can concentrate on dancing beautifully instead.
Today I hooked up with my friend CP, who is a photographer, to get some headshots and dance photos done. We shot outside, which was interesting: the temperature was okay, but the ground was damp, uneven in places, and (of course) hard, so adjusting was challenging at times.
I got to see the on-camera previews of a few shots (CP shoots on a DSLR), and some were really cool.
One of my favorites, though, is a mostly-beautiful pas de chat Italien with ridiculously effort face. It’s hilarious and honestly pretty cute. (In related news, TIL that executing pas de chats from a standstill often evokes effort face!)
I’m looking forward to seeing the finished pix. They should be pretty cool.
I also snagged a few pix to update my Topless Boys Live! series (even though I don’t go back to Modern ’til next week).
So, there you have it.
I’m at that phase, fitness-wise, in which one says to non-dancers, “I’m still pretty out of shape right now,” and they give you this look:
But dancers will understand, probably.
We’re back in class this week. I’m three classes in and hating, hating, hating everything about myself (except for the fact that I’m no longer dancing with moobs) in class and out.
I recognize that it’s deeply irrational, but that doesn’t seem to make me stop hating myself.
Maybe it’s time to break out the Stare-Into-The-Sun therapy lamp. Maybe it’s time to accept that it’s winter and this always happens to me in the winter.
I’ve found myself on a kind of unintentional and intermittent social media fast, and I think that’s okay. None of my social media streams are terribly stressful, I’m just running on zero alone time, since D is home recuperating from rotator cuff surgery.
Regardless, this is where the ritual of class means the most. I get up; I go to class; I put my hand to the barre and don’t look back (looking back at barre is a good way to fall over and need your own rotators cuffed).
On the upside, I finally installed the heated mattress pad, which probably wasn’t invented to coddle winter-weary dancers but does a reasonable job of it nonetheless.
Next month I’ve got an endocrinology appointment. I’m going to give hormone replacement therapy a try, since my tanking endogenous sex hormone levels are almost certainly not helping. Also going to get my thyroid levels checked, since hypothyroidism runs in both sides of my family and can contribute to depression (and feeling cold and tired all the time).
Even in the midst of this, I’m forced to admit that my petit allegro is improving. When I relax into it, it no longer feels (or looks) like a bunch of ham-fisted hopping.
I keep saying I need to get serious about conditioning, but thus far I haven’t. I’m as afraid of training the wrong things as I am of being unfit. It’s a legacy of childhood gymnastics training—the idea that we must never, never so much as glance at the gym unless a qualified trainer was present to help us not feck up our bodies has lingered long past its expiry date.
BG is a personal trainer in his spare time, so I might do a few sessions with him to get a sense of what I can do without overdeveloping my quads (among other things).
So that’s it. No advanced class today; it’s open house, though, so I’m taking 1:00 class, which is free (though we now have an unlimited tuition plan that has halved my monthly ballet expenses).
Edit: PS—Killer Class is back to being nominally intermediate. It’s still Killer Class.
It’s Monday afternoon: late afternoon, really. I’m feeling restless and lonely. I have all these thoughts in my head and I’d dearly like to have a conversation about them, rather than writing into the ether, but I’m not sure where to begin.
The time of day is a problem. At this hour, in this long, recurring air pocket in my weird freelance life, other people with normal jobs are responsibly working. I’m … you know. Washing the dishes. Debating whether I should eat something else. Doing a mental inventory of the laundry (Do I have a clean dance belt? Yes. Is it one of the good ones? Too late to worry about that now…). Letting thoughts arise and simply go on their way.
I say “percolating” rather than “thinking” because so much of what I’m doing isn’t thinking, exactly. Thinking implies some kind of volitional exercise; it is a thing one opts to do.
I am, instead, doing other things, and “…thoughts,” as the song says, “arrive like butterflies.”
Only, well, not exactly. It is very much a sense of bubbling up rather than descending from above. Not that it matters—either way it’s all a metaphor, really.
Often, it’s uncomfortable. When you’re busy doing something else, and as such not policing your thoughts, it’s really quite startling what floats up from the murky depths. At the moment, for me, it’s a lot of self-hatred and memory and sudden flights of insight into the harshest segments of my own past which I hope to retain but sometimes don’t.
This is, now that I’m thinking about it, not unlike the difficulty a great many of us run into with zazen. You just sit, and while you’re just sitting, everything that’s In There Somewhere finds its way to your consciousness to feck about with your ability to, like, just sit.
- The trouble I run into is the whole sitting bit. If I can sit still for five minutes, it’s basically a minor miracle. I struggle to make it long enough to get to the point at which the Monkey Mind pipes up. I do fine with walking meditation and stuff like that, though.
Which, of course, is part of the point.
As it is, I suppose, part of the point in Just Washing Dishes. You find yourself accidentally meditating, as if Thich Nhat Hanh has teleported in and is standing at your shoulder, saying to you, “Breathing in, I am washing this dish.”
Oops, I guess?
Ironically, whilst ballet is an exceptionally fine way to enter a flow state as far as I’m concerned, it requires so much presence of mind that there’s not really much room for the percolation of stray thoughts.
I used to think that, for this reason, it constituted an ideal form of meditation, or at least that it did for me. Now, I’m not so sure. One of the strengths of zazen (and of its cousin, kinhin, and similar exercises) is precisely the fact that things bubble up from the depths in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.
I constantly run from uncomfortable thoughts without realizing that I’m doing it. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of the time, I don’t even realize it: if I did, I suppose my self-respect would plummet. I believe in trying to face things that scare me.
(Then, I suppose I also believe in choosing my battles, and I could perhaps regard this automatic deflection of uncomfortable thoughts as a kind of unconscious method of doing exactly that.)
So I stand at the sink washing dishes, because our dishwasher is an ancient beast that is both inordinately loud and almost entirely ineffective, which means that if you choose to use it (which, generally, I don’t) you must first wash the dishes anyway before allowing the dishwasher to think it’s doing its job.
I am uncomfortable, but I can’t just plow them back under before I’m aware of them. Nor can I, it seems, usually bring myself to attempt to find someone to talk to in the middle of the afternoon.
The curious thing is that this has, in many ways, been the best thing that could happen to me.
For many years I lived my life on high alert; constantly hypervigilant. Invading thoughts and emotions could and often did provoke a five-alarm response.
For many years I felt that I would, I don’t know, catch fire or something if I neither spoke to someone about the thoughts or did something in response to the internal klaxon.
Yet, so often, talking made no real difference. In fact, I suspect it often made things rather worse.
I wasn’t therapeutically processing thoughts and feelings and memories; I was simply externalizing them as a way of avoiding really wrestling with them. Sometimes, rather than deflecting the thoughts, it only made them shout louder and stick faster. I became caught in storms of fight-or-flight level arousal. Talking about the source of the arousal (or what felt like the source) often seemed only to crank up the perception of danger.
And yet, somehow, uncomfortable as it is, as I persist in attempting to wash the dishes (or just this dish, as is so often the case—when I’m in that place, it’s too much to focus on anything but the immediate thing), I learn that if I remain in place, eventually the alarm bells will subside.
I’m pretty sure this has had a remarkable effect on my overall anxiety level—if ‘anxiety’ is the right word. Who knows? It seems good enough. Anyway, I spend less time than I used to in states of profound vigilance; less time with the warheads armed, as it were.
I become alert, aroused, because something inside me perceives some invisible danger: but the danger passes, and nothing really terrible happens, and each time my brain learns that perhaps the danger in question isn’t real in the immediate sense. My unconscious mind ratchets the Security Alert Level down just a little bit.
This is a thing I’ve learned through necessity. I have left behind the phase of my life in which most of my friends were other college students with giant gaps in their schedules. I now mostly know people with jobs and responsibilities. I have been forced to simply live with very, very wildly uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, I have thus far survived.
I don’t know if I’ll ever live without the klaxons. I am still as wary as a wolf.
If you’d asked me ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of the way things are now, so it seems reasonable to think that, say, ten years from now things will once again be quite different.
There’s another thing, too.
When I don’t divert the thoughts, sometimes they give rise to creative work. I’ve struggled, recently, with the sense that nothing I’m doing as an artist is in any way actually original or creative (then again, how many minds over the millenia have given us some variant on the maxim, “There’s nothing new under the sun?”)—but I think what I’m really struggling with is that trying to create from whole cloth doesn’t work very well for me.
Rather, I do better to let whatever’s in there filter up and appear on its own, and then to build and refine from there.
I have never been a composer of music: when I try to compose, my compositions turn trite, bathetic, even schmaltzy. I play them later and they make my skin crawl.
When I just sit and play, or when I record the stirrings of visiting muses, things work out quite differently. I won’t say that anything I’ve set down will ever be great, but some of it is in fact quite good.
The same happens when I attempt to compose dances without reference to an internal vision. There’s nothing as depressing as the little passage in a half-baked ballet in which you can tell that the choreographer was thinking, “Rats, how on earth am I going to get the prince over to the punch bowl? All right, tombe, pas de bourree, something, something, just need a few more steps…”
That’s how essentially all my choreography feels (to me, at any rate) when I try to wrestle it into being instead of allowing something to surface, then building on that.
And writing is and has always been, for me, an exercise in hearing and recording the voices and stories of people and worlds that speak from within; a kind of visitation rather than an actual act of creation. The formal, authorial work generally comes after: I’m more of an editor, really.
Perhaps, then, it should be no great surprise that the same basic process allows room for healing of a kind that is, while it’s happening, very uncomfortable, but remains nonetheless crucial.
So I suppose that’s something to think about.
There’s a great deal more, probably, that I could and should say about this, but at the moment I need to put clothes on and go to class.
More, then, at some point in the future.
I’ve probably come to this conclusion before, so my apologies if this is tiresome.
I make the same mistake over and over again (what was that definition of madness, again?)—deciding either:
- …that I will somehow throw the neurochemical round-house punch to end all neurochemical round-house punches and knock my depression right TF out.
- …that I’m feeling much better and that, as a result, my depression is just about over and I’ll be fine any old minute now.
Then I find myself flummoxed when I don’t magically turn into … well, not a normal person (as D always says, “Average was never the goal!”), but a not-depressed person … overnight, or when I overextend myself and just can’t even for the next five days.
As such, I’ve decided to adopt a motto that some might call “strategetic” and others might call “cowardly.” In short:
When all else fails, run away
And live to fight another day.
(Coincidentally, this exact phrasing is the motto of Daniel D’Aeve, a semi-cowardly knight [he doesn’t like loud noises, for one thing] and accidental pirate [he doesn’t like boats, either] and the semi-hero of a musical I’ll probably never finish, but who knows. Miracles do happen.)
I’m not going to wrestle my depression into submission. That’s not how this works.
If I keep engaging it head-on, this gorilla will always, always wrestle me into the ground. Depression is like … I don’t know, wrestling some kind of mutant alligator that has gained the ability to steal your strength and make it its own as long as you keep fighting. (I feel like there’s almost certainly a Japanese monster movie about this already, but if there isn’t, there should be.)
As such, I’ve decided to adopt a more conservative tack. I know that I’m too impulsive to entirely avoid wrestling the alligator—sometimes I don’t realize I’m doing so until the alligator is already doing death-rolls at the bottom of the pond—but I’m going to try not to, like, walk up and pick fights with the alligator … even if that means letting it live in my house for a while.
In other words, for a little while, I’m going to try not to do as much.
I’m not going to stop doing everything, of course, but I’m not going to push quite as hard for a bit.
Instead, I’m going to revert to the best strategy I’ve ever found for keeping myself afloat in the midst of one of my moderate-but-grinding depressions: Do Two Things.
Oddly, I thought I’d written a post about this strategy before, but I can’t* find it, so I’m writing it now.
*Which is to say, I ran a search, devoted exactly 30 seconds to looking
for it, and then I gave up because I realized that if I kept it up I’d
start reading old posts and never finish this one.
So, in case you’re wondering, here’s how it works.
First, you get depressed. This makes living seem like a tedious uphill grind, and causes you to write poems empathizing with Sisyphus, and generally makes every single little thing that you have to do in order to continue to remain semi-afloat seem like a hideous impossibility.
Second, you own up to the fact that you don’t want to do anything. You don’t feel up to doing anything. You drag yourself to class because some part of you dimly recognizes that things will only be worse in the long run if, on top of recovering from a depression, you also have to get yourself back in performing shape or auditioning shape or what have you in the span of 3.4 days somewhere down the line. But other than that you feel like you just can’t even.
Eventually, you begin to feel slightly better, and then you look around your house and you realize, Holy Hell, it looks like a tornado crashed through a paper mill, a diner, and a thrift store before chugging right through your door. And also the cat has somehow contrived to get maple syrup on his head (which he doesn’t mind in the least, but you do). And you are out of Kleenex.
Some part of you thinks, “I should do something about all this,” while the rest of you just gazes around at the chaos with the proverbial thousand-yard stare and no idea where to begin.
That’s where Do Two Things comes in. You tell yourself, “Okay. There is no way I can do all of this right now, so I’m just going to do two things today.”
Then you turn to the thing nearest thing—or the nearest thing that feels like you have some hope of accomplishing it—and you do that thing.
The whole strategy hinges on this one truth: that sometimes “Do The Dishes” counts as one thing, and sometimes, “I’m going to wash this one dish” does. Sometimes, getting out of bed counts as one thing, and sometimes completely unmaking the bed, rotating the mattress, and remaking the bed counts as one thing.
It doesn’t matter. You judge yourself by the standard of where you are now. You give yourself permission to wash this one dish and that one fork.
The funny thing is that usually once you get started—once you wash the One Dish—you’ll usually find yourself thinking, “Ah, well. I might as well wash this entire stack; it’s not going to take any longer, really, and I already have my gloves on.”
So often Doing Two Things turns into Cleaning the Kitchen—but you have to remember not to look at that fact too directly, or your motivation might catch your scent on the wind and bolt. Wild motivations are flighty like that.
In my worst depressions, sometimes my Two Things are as simple as getting out of bed to get a drink, then eating a bagel while I’m already up.
When I’m well into recovery, they may be as complex as making the dining room ready for company and re-organizing the closets.
Either way, I give myself permission to feel like if I’ve done my Two Things, then I have done enough for the day.
It is, of course, totally okay to do more than the Two Things. It is pretty much impossible to do less: even in the pit of the kind of depression that keeps you confined to your bed or the sofa, it’s fairly likely that you’ll have to use the bathroom at least twice on any given day. If you’ve been in that place, you’ll understand why that counts. You just start with whatever Two Things are in reach.
Do Two Things acts both as an accessible goal and as a limiter.
If I’m having the kind of day that starts with “I am going to wash this One Dish,” then I know that, no matter how significant an uptick I might feel, I probably shouldn’t tackle rearranging the closets (which always sounds like a good idea, but turns into a nightmare because D has lived in this house for 20 years and almost never gets rid of anything).
Even if Washing the One Dish turns into Washing the Dishes, the knowledge that the first of my two things began as “Wash the One Dish” keeps me mindful of the fact that I’m not yet fully recovered, and that I shouldn’t start burning tomorrow’s matches today.
So there we have it. For the time being, I’m going to Do Two Things. This will help me get through the current slog without overwhelming myself (at least, without overwhelming myself as often).
Anyway, I don’t know if this strategy will work as well for anyone else as it does for me, but feel free to try it if you want to. It’s also good for getting started when you just plain feel overwhelmed, whether you’re depressed or not (this is a key feature of Adulting with ADHD).
Good class tonight (technically last night, at this point). Back to accidental private class mode, but instead of the pyrotechnics, we focused on the details. This meant a very, very long barre in which I did something like 24 super-slow grand pliés in first whilst BW rebuilt, cleaned, and polished my port de bras and épaulement and the coordination of the same with the legs (which know their job fairly well). I keep forgetting that the Swiss have precision engineering in their blood.
This resulted in me actually looking like the danseur I aspire to be (at least while doing grand pliés in first). BW’s patience and precision are the perfect foil for my impatience and impetuousity. He is not at all afraid to make me do the same thing a million times until I really, really get it.
At one point, he said, “You’ve already got more of this than a lot of people. You’ll notice it when you watch people dance.” That’s quite high praise coming from him, and so indicative of something fundamental about him: he never gloats about his own precision and technical prowess; he seems to be frustrated that not everyone has it. But I love him for that, and for taking the time to impart precision and sound technique upon me.
After, we carried that lesson into a deceptively-tricky rond de jambe (relevé lent devant [“Higher!”] with arm in 2nd, allongé as you tendu, arabesque with arm in 2nd, tendu allongé, 4 ronds without port de bras, allongé, cambré into the barre and down the front, tendu allongé, reverse, cambré in and down the back, tendu plié allongé passé balance, sus-sous, allongé, detourné, second side—not complicated, but he wanted it absolutely precise), a lethally-slow fondue with synchronized port, and even the grand battement.
Amidst all these allongé, I discovered that the bones in my left shoulder are clicking. Later I mentioned it to D. Turns out I’ve separated my left shoulder somehow—mildly, but it also explains the ache in the morning.
I may, for all that, have actually done this to myself in my sleep. It could have happened at literally any point. As such, I’ll be working on shoulder stability (read: pumping up the delts, evidently) going forward. My wonky connective tissue probably played a part in this development, and the answer is always “strength training.”
The right shoulder only grinds when I do certain kinds of push-ups, these days, so I’m sure the left will sort itself out. Curiously, I haven’t noticed the left shoulder grinding during push-ups, so it might not even take much to correct it.