Dancing a Life

Becoming Who I Was is a 2017 documentary about a Buddhist boy in the highlands of northern India who discovers that he is the reincarnation of a centuries-old Tibetan monk. He and his godfather embark on a journey to discover his past. I saw the film this week, and the journey is truly a fantastic one. They travel on foot, with minimal supplies and no way to summon help, for more than two months, crossing the great mountains of India and Tibet. The scenery is awesome, and their relationship, already beautifully captured in the first part of the film, is the epitome of love and respect. I sat in the theater mesmerized, in love with the people and the place. Yet it was something more subtle, something I’m ever curious about, that struck me the most.

As I watched, I saw people who were dancing through everything in their lives. Their bodies were alive, in stillness and in movement, with the beautiful nuances the physical body expresses on it’s own, without intention, pre-conception, anticipation, or even awareness. We all move in our lives, frequently in ways that we’ve scripted for ourselves, ways that leave little room for the spirit to move us. And often we’re not even aware we’re moving, we don’t feel our bodies as they carry out the awesome tasks of daily living. We don’t acknowledge or find curious the way our fingers glide across the keyboard as we write, or the way our legs maneuver as we take each step. Many of us analyze our actions, and the shape and size of our bodies, yet fail to notice the grace and beauty in our unique contours and our unconscious gestures.

The dancing I witnessed in the film was a continual flow of individual bodies contacting other bodies, both physically and spatially, without body to body contact per se, but with powerful connections between bodies over the space that separated them. Bodies were alive and in communication – words and physical touching seemed secondary to the energetic and spirit connections. All of it seemed entirely spontaneous – there was no need for choreography – the bodies intrinsically knew how to dance their lives, solo and in relationship.

Celebrating the art, the beauty, and the profound wisdom of the body has been a growing passion of mine for many years. In my memoir, Joy Ride: My One-Legged Journey to Self-Acceptance, I write about the beginnings of that passion. I came late to an awareness of my body as a vessel for knowledge, beauty and joy, having spent the first half of my life hating, berating and abusing my body in oh-so-many ways. Gradually, I’m finding a home in her, and as that comfort grows, I’m aware of what an incredible creation she is. She not only performs a myriad of tasks without any hint of conscious input from me (something I’ve been trying to change by paying more attention, and thanking her more for doing so much for me), but she is my connection to the incredible world of nature and beings of all sorts. I find when I bring my grateful awareness into the realm of my physical activities, my body is more animated and more open to the limitless universe of human experience.

In the film, I felt that grateful awareness of all manner of experience emanating from the bodies of the people. Their words were simple and brief. There were no monologues or even anything close. There weren’t even conversations as we know them. Their bodies, like open vessels comfortably infused with spirit, communicated as if they were one with the all-encompassing universe.

I’m still entranced by the feeling of the film. I hope I can keep it alive inside of me. After all, life IS a dance, and I want to be dancing with my whole self.

Massage Magic

I spent the morning at the keyboard wanting to write a post but coming up blank. No inspiration. I had only a few hours before a scheduled massage and the time tick-tocked away with nothing to show for it. I left the house asking the powers that be to send me something – some kernel of something that might jumpstart a post.

My masseuse is a friend and my yoga teacher. We always spend the first fifteen or so minutes catching up. Although I didn’t mention my wish for an inspiration to her, I hoped that what frequently happens – the experience of being showered with positive energy and the movement of healing hands over my body – would open the channels for something.

As she worked my muscles soft, I drifted to places mostly not remembered. Then, toward the end of the hour, I had an overwhelming sense of myself as “a being in a body” and sensed a connection to one of themes in my memoir, Joy Ride: My One-Legged Journey to Self-Acceptance. While still under the spell, I began to repeat the phrase “a being in a body” and add other phrases, like “two arms, two hands, ten fingers – last I looked.” All the while in the semi-trance state that frequently occurs when I succumb to the whole enchilada of a massage experience. I mused about how it might grow into a poem – maybe even story – and began to remember the various body-centered experiences I’ve had that slowly, over the course of a few decades, created the pathway that has allowed me to be “a being in a body.” Things like swimming, skiing, sailing, even painting, and fooling with clay – and most especially improvisational dancing, which I began in my forties. In my first few years exploring Authentic Movement, (a form of dance featuring eyes-closed movement that’s witnessed, then written about or expressed in some other artistic way, and finally shared verbally, in a specific structure, with the witness) I would sometimes just move into a physical shape and immediately begin sobbing. The outpouring would be a huge release, and a mix of pleasure and curiosity. I understood it to mean that some emotion was caught up in the cells of my body – maybe pushed way down by my inability or unwillingness to feel it. During the movement, my cells released whatever it was, and the space that had been clogged with it for who knows how long, was finally clear, and free to experience something else. I’ve been dancing in similar ways since – eyes open and closed, sometimes with choreography, though more often improvisational-ly inside various loose structures designed to provide a focus, while leaving the mover free to play around with whatever desire and curiosity arises.

This ties in to one of my most recent desires and fears. At the end of June, I’ll be a part of an event in Seattle produced by the North West Film Forum. Along with four fantastic, diverse dance films featuring creative, inspirational dancers, I’ll be reading from my book and moving solo, and with others, to my words as others read. I want to find my way to a place where improvisational dance performance excites me more than it scares me. In workshops and informal groups, I’m more than comfortable as “a being in a body” dancing itself silly and seriously, with all of it’s altered shape and quirkiness. Somehow within the workshop venue I feel I can hide – I’m not showing myself with an intention or specific purpose. But, dancing solo, to my words, in front of a group of people who have come to be entertained – YIKES! That feels scary – and I want to do it.

I told my masseuse pal about this before I left her place. One thing I said pops out as the truest in all of it. I want to feel this desire to move for others – whether to my words, or to some other inspiration, whether alone or with others – as coming from the heart and soul of the “being in this body.” The one it took so long to embrace. The one that shines when I allow it to, without censoring or restricting or judging. The “being in this body” who is connected to the universal body and all the other “beings in bodies” wherever they may be.

Here’s a link to the NWFF event in Seattle at the end of June. Take a look…

https://nwfilmforum.org/films/joy-ride-screened-alive-adventures-unavoidable-embodiment/

My Eating Disordered Life – How It All Began

My disordered eating journey began in the early days of 1994 following an appointment with our family doctor. I’d just been discharged from a three-month stint in Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children (our family doctor, a Mason, sponsored me) where I had a wooden leg made following the amputation of my right leg and pelvis to bone cancer a year earlier. I was twelve.

My mom and I were there to show him the new leg and thank him for his generosity. He looked things over pleased with the leg, but bothered by the weight I’d gained since he last saw me. I’d been more than skinny before the surgery (cancer will do that to a girl) and, during the three months away, I guess I put on some padding. My clothes still fit, and no one else had commented that my body size had increased. The wooden leg fit, but because of the way I had to tighten a thick fiberglass bucket around my waist (with wide, leather straps and buckles) so I could keep the leg on and take steps, a roll of flesh poured out between my growing breasts and the solid rim of the bucket. It may have been that roll that prompted our family doc to recommend a thousand-calorie diet – so I could lose a little weight and avoid gaining more, which he feared would make it impossible for me to walk in the fifteen-pound steel and wood “leg.”

He gave us a sheet with sample meals, foods to avoid, and healthy foods to eat regularly. Even though I was disappointed in the wooden leg (I was sure the replacement would be an exact replica of my old skin-and-bones leg minus the painful cancer), I felt I had to excel at using it, so after hearing that weight gain might prevent me from walking I took to the diet like a zealot. If a thousand calories was good, eight hundred, even five hundred, would most certainly be better. Soon I was eating a few bites of pot roast and lots of lettuce most days. I lost weight, my lowest weight was around 85 pounds, had irregular menses, but managed to function well on fewer and fewer calories all through high school. I was thin, but no one commented. My mother and I fought about how little I ate, but we disagreed on most everything during those years and I had no interest in pleasing her. At least not on the outside. I did, however, want to be seen as smart and well-adjusted to my “situation” (I was NOT disabled, crippled, handicapped and if anyone suggested otherwise, I’d just push harder to prove them wrong). I also wanted to be seen as pretty, and had dreams of being a model and a tap-dancer, but was successful in pushing those and any other seemingly impossible desires way down into the pit of my gut. I deprived them of my attention, just like I deprived my body of food. I had the makings of a very good eating-disordered young woman – skilled at denial, unrelenting, and determined to be in control.

Things began to change during my first few days in college. My roommate was a cute, thin blonde with a body made for cut-off short shorts and skimpy tank tops. I saw lots of other girls who were just like her and, hard as I tried, couldn’t push the “I’m so ugly and disfigured” self-talk out of my mind fast or far enough to keep me centered. Before college, everyone knew me and my story. Even though I never really accepted myself with fully open eyes during those years, I wasn’t triggered as much by stares and the skrunched faces signaling others discomfort and confusion about how to interact with me. In college, I saw only beautiful, slinky bodies next to my big, clunky, wooden-leg clad being. I covered everything up with loose-fitting tops and long-legged bottoms, hoping no one would notice my distorted body. Feelings welled up inside at every turn and I felt overwhelmed, like I was losing control of my mind. Like all good control freaks, I quickly came up with a solution. I left college and a full scholarship which rattled my parents, who warned me there would be no money from them (rightly so, they had no money to give) to get me started again when I was ready. I made no mention of my panic. “It’s not a good fit,” I told my mother after a week. That was it – no more panic. I’d done it – taken charge and survived.

I worked as a nurse’s aide that year, and secured another full scholarship to a college nursing program. The summer before college, I found a position as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged kids with muscular dystrophy. It was more than an eye-opener of the kind I wished I’d not happened upon. Surrounded again by the beautiful bodies of late teen-aged counselors, many who knew each other and had ongoing summer romances. A repeat of my college experience a year earlier, although this time I knew I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t/wouldn’t go home again. And, at the camp, it was not only my beautiful-bodied fellow counselors poking at me, but there were disabled counselors who were eager to get to know me. I had to find a way to get away from both while quieting the panic and staying put.

It happened at the opening barbecue, before the kids arrived. There was a generous spread of picnic food, a male counselor in a wheelchair who wouldn’t leave me alone, and a dozen or so other counselors flirting their little butts off. I was stuck at the buffet table and, without weighing in on my behavior, I began furiously eating everything I could get my hands on. Stuffing my face to avoid seeing and feeling, until I panicked, imagining my body ballooning into a thousand pound blimp overnight. Then out of nowhere, a distant memory of a Seventeen magazine story about models who throw up to stay thin popped into my mind. A godsend – I could throw up. And I did. And it was like a miracle. The relief was unimaginably divine. I went back, ate some more, threw up again, and I was on the road to bliss!

To be continued…

 

A Few Details about Joy Ride

I’ve been wrestling with whether I’m doing enough to promote my recently published book, and so I thought I’d post a short synopsis and excerpt here. Sometimes just doing something helps settle whatever restless beast is stirring things up inside.

Joy Ride: My One-legged Journey to Self-Acceptance tells my story of losing my right leg to cancer at age 11 in the 1960s. This was an era when “cripple” was an accepted word to refer to someone like me, and the choice for the disabled to live either as a “cripple’ or as “normal” was a difficult one either way. 

I chose “normal” and how my life unfolded after that is my story.  I would look for love in all the wrong places, and it would surprise me in the right places, too. I would meet generous people of all abilities along the way, ski, sail, and swim with self-referred “gimps,” and create opportunities for career and travel. 

And yet I kept important parts of myself hidden from those around me, and especially from myself.

When I discovered improvisational dance and began work with Karen Nelson and later with Alito Alessi, I found my inspiration and the life I was meant to live, one without secrets.  I found the courage to shine the light on those hidden and terrifying places.

I wrote Joy Ride to come to terms with the secrets I kept. I wrote to remember and embrace all the things I tried so hard to forget. I wrote to celebrate finding a relationship with my body, soul, and spirit through movement and share its extraordinary gifts of joy and freedom.

And I wrote because I hope others would find something in my life that would remind them of their own bravery and their own joy ride.

Thanks for reading. I leave you with this. I’m following Mary – heading out to dance! XOIMG_0264

 

 

What is it about Retiring…?

From the New Yorker April 21, 2018

Immanuel Kant noted a connection between the sublime and terror. When I think of retiring I can relate to exactly that. I’m a former psychiatric nurse currently working in a medical center as a utilization review nurse, reviewing charts for insurance purposes and writing appeal letters for insurance denials of care. Eight hours a day, four days a week on the computer in a small office with two other nurses doing much the same thing. The work is tedious, the company enjoyable–there are four of us who’ve been together for about fifteen years, all most likely retiring within the next year.

My co-workers are psyched for retiring–counting down the months, weeks, days. I am too–sometimes–and other times I’m fraught with an inexplicable fear–a hollowness in my gut, an unrelenting voice in my head warning that I’ll be alone with nothing to do 24/7. I’m single, an introvert, and although I have plenty of friends and lots of interests, I also have a history of addiction (bulimia, which I’ve thankfully been free from for over ten years thanks to Twelve Step programs) and I worry that too much time to languish and obsess could just do me in.

Unlike the sun, my current job is not life supporting in any way. He dutifully, and I hope, proudly, keeps us warm, helps us mark the passage of time, and brightens our days. I am easily replaceable, don’t even like my job that much, and when I allow myself that clarity, I know it’s time to retire. Except that I do like the twice monthly paycheck and the daily banter with my co-workers. So it’s a constant back and forth.

A year or so ago I decided I’d become a dance gypsy in retirement–finding workshops taught by my favorite dance teachers around the world and taking myself to those places to indulge in one of my greatest pleasures. I still find that a compelling idea, but I need other things. Writing, sewing, art-making could be other regular activities, maybe even another book, but I have to regularly convince myself that making art of all types is a worthy endeavor. I’m certain it is and I even embrace it, but at these times when I think about letting go of my day job–the one I’ve brainwashed myself to believe is the ‘real’ work–my certainty is suddenly on shaky ground. And what about the pleasure of being free of schedules and responsibilities? Is there ever really such a thing?

Happy I wrote about this today, and I hope sharing it will take the dilemma out of the dark recesses of my private sphere and expose it to the light of the early rising Mr. Sun. I’ll end with another New Yorker cartoon…

IMG_0260

I am.

Those two words are true–I am . Simple, and yet enormously difficult to comprehend. I want to add words that describe me, or what I want, or what I’m working on, or hope for. Essentially, how I want to be different from, or apologize for, or know, right now in total, all of who/what I am.

I ran into one of my DanceAbility friends at a local event last week and asked him what he’s been up to . He’s a man with cerebral palsy who rolls around in a wheelchair, and has aides who help him with activities of daily living. His response to my question?

“I live,” he said with an enormous smile. Nothing more, nothing less. In truth, he thrives: he makes music and art on a computer; he rides a bike more than ten miles most days; he always has at least one dog who is devoted to him; he’s loved at the yearly Oregon Country Fair for the Flamingo Taxi he pedals around after hours, picking up those who had a little bit too much fun partying. But he never tells people what he does, or what he is, or thinks. He just is – himself. I’ve danced and been in DanceAbility workshops he’s taught many times over the years. His words of wisdom to all participants and spectators always are: “Have fun!” He utters them with a wide grin as his body involuntarily contracts and spasms.

Another friend I met at a Diverse Dance workshop in 1994 uttered the same “I live” when I asked her what she did. She’s a paraplegic, dancer, bike rider, world traveler, a fantastic cook, and vibrant party hostess. She’s always impeccably dressed and ready for the next adventure. She is herself, lives her life, and feels no need to embellish her existence.

I mention these two friends because, like me, they have altered physical abilities – sometimes referred to as disabilities – and I’ve been thinking about something I heard at the amputee event I attended last week. Could it be that having physical challenges opens people to other abilities that are not so readily visible? Maybe empathy and compassion are more keenly honed in folks with altered bodies. Maybe we’re more skilled at improvisation, or seeing things for what they are. Maybe we’re less concerned about what others think, and more willing to pursue what matters to us. Maybe we know we’re lucky to be alive, and that makes many things easier to bear.

Like all creatures, I am and I live, until I die. “Who am I?” is an open question, a curiosity – maybe ever changing, maybe something I’m awakening to in each moment, consciously and unconsciously. I am, and I live are realities that I can relax into, words I can say to simplify.

Here’s a quote from Marcus Aurelius (AD121-AD180):

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive–to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

It’s enough to be, and to live.

I Show Up – Good Stuff Happens

Yesterday, I set up a table hawking my book, Joy Ride: My One-Legged Journey to Self-Acceptance at a Discover Your Potential local event, hosted by PowerOnWithLimbLoss.com, for folks with limb loss and other physical challenges. The program included personal stories shared by kids and adults with physical challenges, vendors with information about health and healing, prosthetics, accessible vans, bikes, archery equipment, adaptive yoga, wheelchair basketball, and rock wall climbing. It was the first event of this sort I’d been to with the hopes of not only promoting my book, but meeting others with stories similar to my own. I was excited, yet didn’t want to get my hopes up – what if it was a bust? Gotta be ready for anything, I told myself.

As I got out of my car wondering who I’d find to help me carry in my table and box of books, I was greeted by two beautiful young men, one of whom was sporting two above the knee, mechanically-slick protheses. The guys were brothers with a business aimed at designing prosthetics, and tools to repair them, hoping to give their clients maximum input in the building and maintenance of their mobility aids. The bionic one of the duo also had a flesh-and-blood hand with fingers permanently bent in toward his palm. He effortlessly picked up the table in that hand and amazed me as he strolled in to the venue, loaded down with gear and smiling, as I wheeled in my chair and his normie brother carried his own load. We laughed and joked about our situations and shared excited hopes for the day ahead. I later learned he was an Afghanistan IED explosion survivor, and filled up with tears–of sadness yes, but mostly with that full heart feeling of amazement at the human spirit’s ability to thrive despite horrific circumstances–as he recounted the story. If nothing more happened that would’ve been gift enough for having made the effort.

Not so fast, though. During the program part of the day, I heard the stories of three amazing kids, all amputees, all under eighteen, and all triggered that same joyous full heart feeling. One young boy had two half arms with rock wall climbing abilities, a personality and presence bigger than life itself, and a desire to be DJ. The middle-school boy had been legless since birth, a medal-winning and NIKE team wheelchair basketball star who performed hand stands on various surfaces, and professed his intention to become a medal-winning skier this year. Lastly, we heard from a teenaged girl who lost her entire right leg to cancer at age five. She’s a NIKE team swimmer, hoping to make the paralympics, and a successful half-marathon finisher times two. Already, I’m over the top in gratitude and inspiration.

I sold a few books, got many compliments on my cover art, and the pictures I displayed of my own dinosaur prosthesis from the 1960-70s. I met and chatted with people with new limb loss, seasoned amputees, family members, professionals dedicated to making life easier for those of us with altered bodies, and recreation enthusiasts eager to share their innovations in adaptive equipment of all sorts.

So much had come of the short day, I was content. It was way more than worth my time. And then–the rock climbing began. I watched, secretly wondering if I could do it. Would my arms come through for me? Would I get halfway up and lose strength, feel embarrassed and have to retreat? Could I even make it up one hold? Would the sling hold me? So many questions and a big fear of failure and humiliation. As if trying isn’t good enough. I have to remind myself that trying is much more than good enough when I get out of my own way.

So I tried. Kristen, the lovely young woman from the local university Adaptive Sports program, was encouraging, gentle, supportive–a true delight. She strapped me into a special harness designed to provide more support for the back and prevent me from tipping to the right where my leg and pelvis are missing. I was belayed, and Kristin climbed along side me. We made contact with the wall and immediately I was climbing. I had to help lift my foot with my arm onto the outcroppings at some points, but, with what felt like minimal effort, I ascended–all the way to the top. I’m delighted, proud of myself, and just maybe I’ve found a new challenge to keep me inspired and fit. We’ll see if I keep to my promise to myself to attend the two upcoming adapted climbing workshops at the university. I’m pretty sure I will–they’re on my calendar!

Here’s a sneak peak thanks to the photos of a sneaky pal: