We are so accustomed to the tensions we carry with us throughout the day that we rarely notice it. Yet it has a powerful impact on every goal we set out to accomplish. Often we have strong impulses and desires to do a task or a creative act and there is something stopping us. What is this something? And is it changeable?
The Alexander Technique provides a means for understanding what this is. By becoming more aware we then can experience a new sense of freedom, improvement in overall health, alertness and performance in all activities.
Martha Graham once said: “There’s a life force, an energy, translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open.”
Am I willing to step away from all that I’ve held as true? Am I willing to meet myself afresh, no matter how dangerous it may feel. Can I challenge myself that my feelings can be untrustworthy? Can I breathe into the next moment of absolutely not being sure of anything, only my breath, and to allow the space for the next breath to come, as if stepping into a wide-open and expansive yawn. A yawn that does not have to be any kind of right. (Deborah Weitzman)About breathing:
We breathe yes, to keep us alive, but we are also holding our breath in activity that frightens us. We may not, and often don’t feel what we are feeling, the sensations are mostly unconscious. There’s something about the letting go that is inherent in singing that is scary for the system. The central nervous system that manages us (like the operating system of a computer), doesn’t like change. Like a computer can crash when too many inputs are coming at once, so it is with the body and breath. To sing freely, many co-ordinations need to happen at once: a freedom is required in the tongue, face muscles, throat, vocal chords, hard and soft palate. If we think each part, or beg it to be free, we end up interfering, and tightening. So much needs to happen with a grace of consent, and for this grace of consent, one must feel trust. And if you have ever been shamed with your voice, ever been told to shut up, or that the voice sounds ugly and false, a protection mechanism is in place.
Above all else, the nervous system – the vagus nerve, the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’ rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. It basically undoes the work of sympathetic division after a stressful situation. The parasympathetic nervous systemdecreases respiration and heart rate and increases digestion. The autonomic nervous system comprises two parts- the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response during a threat or perceived danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system restores the body to a state of calm.
We aren’t all wired the same, in that we aren’t the same sensitivity to light and sound, and to harsh criticism. As if some of us really do have that ‘tougher skin’ – which in terms of the nervous system, means a difference in our reaction (of what can feel like life and death) to a certain stimulus – like having to sing or speak in front of people. And sadly, if we’ve had any negative experience with this can also mean that even on our own, we aren’t able to ‘let go’ and just sing.
When I was young, way before I ever trained with the Alexander Technique, I was convinced I had throat cancer, so painful was it to sing, especially in front of people. I wanted to be a professional singer-songwriter as songs poured out of me and it was the only thing I wanted to do. I hated the ‘real world,’ couldn’t imagine being a banker or lawyer, or any other job besides being an artist, a singer. But in order to earn money, I had to be in front of people – especially then in the 70’s (although now, the idea of doing zoom concerts still frightens me). I even went to a specialist who after peering down my throat announced that I was fine.
“I can’t be fine!” I recall shouting. “Why does it hurt so much to sing?” The doctor had nothing more to tell me, only that he saw nothing in my throat. I recall sitting in a chair back in my apartment in New York, in a state of shock. Actually, wishing the prognosis was cancer. If it was nothing, then what the hell was wrong with me?
I’ve started many a workshop with this story, and the looks of recognition I get from the participants is quite moving. Maybe not all of them went to the doctor for a check, but they surely wondered what was making it so painful, so impossible to sing, and to speak. As the same mechanism happens in both.
I have a good ear, have always had a good ear, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sing out of tune. It infuriated me (and still does), that me with good, relative pitch, can at times be very out of tune. I’ve since learned that it is the muscle coordination doing this. That without interference – the brain receives the tone and organizes the perfect amount of tension on a specific spot on the hard palate where the vibration – that begins in the vocal chords – can resonate, thus creating the correct pitch. Again, if you think or try to make this happen, it goes hopelessly wrong and the delicate vibration gets knocked out of its place and note is heard as false. You are more concerned, I know, about your speaking voice. We’ve begun the lesson with you telling me that when you get stressed the sound of your voice is harsh and strained, that it sounds ugly. It is the same procedure with the tone—if it is forced or interfered with (literally too much muscle action), the tone becomes uglier. We think and hear ‘beautiful’ when a tone is left alone to vibrate and resonate and move.
Sound moves. And it needs to move. The good news is that by itself, sound moves rather easily. Just think of a noisy argument from a neighbor or someone you pass in the street. Think of a plane overhead or drilling in the next-door apartment. Or better yet – remember the last time a screaming infant disturbed a room, a plane, and event. That tiny being – how the heck did it produce so much sound! It’s funny, right, to think of that. Yet most of us at some point in our infancy cried hysterically and disturbed the room. We are created for our sound to be expressed and communicated. As an infant, the call to scream, to communicate is intrinsically connected with survival. We need something – and we need it now.
Let’s remember that we are all created as breathing and sounding organisms! To make a sound that matches a set tone – though also inherently in us – isn’t as urgent for survival. The infant doesn’t think of tone per se, but in fact the tone the baby will scream in, will be in a tone that can be heard above other sounds. But you get, I hope the point there, that there was something in us from the start that made sound easily and without interference.Around the age of 2, we become ‘self-conscious.’ And our reactions are no longer not interfered with. We start learning how easily we can get it wrong and lose the love of our parents. We also forget that we are ‘animals,’ and animals do not like to be away from the flock. If you watch any animal program, we witness how the animals stay together, that the unfortunate ones who stray are instantly in danger of being killed by predators.Once we are older, we have a host of reactions, habits if you will, instant responses in our nervous system that can trigger the reaction to flee, to close-down, to protect. Not for nothing, many a performer uses drugs: alcohol, beta-blockers, tranquilizers – anything to push away the first and powerful response of tightening the muscles.
I shall never forget my first lesson: the way my teacher’s fingers touched my jaw and head in such a delicate, penetrating way that all at once a voice –– surely not mine –– burst forth. If only I’d know this powerful sensation of ‘letting go,’ of letting the song sing me, it only I’d had lessons with her years before! But at last I found what I’d been desperately seeking. All my bumbling years suddenly made sense; even if I’d never succeeded in any apparent form, I could help another on the road behind me. This teacher not only taught me how to sing with a freedom I never even knew existed, but took me under her wings and prepared me to become a singing/Alexander teacher like herself. That meant training as soon as possible to learn the Alexander Technique, just as she had done.
There is so much in the body that is dualistic. Even the breath – which is both voluntary and involuntary. We are ‘breathed’ all night long while we sleep, but just ask anyone experiencing panic and they will feel they can’t breathe. This, sadly, is because the other mechanism – our nervous system is registering so much fear that the body is sent into its sympathetic response. Funny indeed to even use the word sympathetic, when it’s so connected to the fight of flight response!
If anything, the more I live and practice the Alexander technique, and continue to sing and move in some capacity, I become more and more aware of these dualities. My wanting to be seen and to hide at the same time, to live in anonymity and to be famous, to go deep into expressive communication – which has in that a sense of giving over, of trusting the whole system to give over – and a desperate need to be safe, very, very safe. That old feeling in me, who wants to crawl into a tiny drawer, or hide under the covers and never step out into life, and definitely not to be in front of people: harsh, judgmental people.
It is so easy, based on a ballet by William Forsythe. I’ve taken those first four words to expand upon.
It is So Easy – All you need is a pandemic to forbid you doing your normal work that makes you travel all the time, to have learned who your husband really is and that you love him, enough.
It is So Easy – After years of therapy and 12-step meetings, of kicking and screaming and wishing and wanting, to uncover that your biggest fear is that you are inherently unlovable; to challenge that and finally know that it’s only you who’s been unable to love you. Everything else is a projection, illusion or misunderstanding.
It is So Easy – It only takes 35 years of practicing Alexander Technique to understand how it’s not about the goal but the getting there, that to become aware is in itself the prize, and to feel in the gut that the longing for home is what keeps you from realizing you are home; that home is in you.
It is So Easy – It only takes a pile of miserable relationships, years of banging your head against the wall begging the wall to love you, to find out the patterns of your youth don’t really keep you safe; that finding people who confirm you aren’t worth it is a futile exercise; that in the end no one really knows much more than the other.
It is So Easy – All you need is trust. But now, finally, you begin to understand that you’ve never trusted; that your parents never trusted and neither your grandparents…who should you have learned this from?
It is So Easy – All it takes is years of singing, performing, trying to find beauty in your voice when the beauty is in the communication with an open heart, and a heart can’t open when it fears being judged.
It is So Easy – To feel happiness, if you know that it will pass and return and pass and return…that you don’t need to endlessly prove your worth to be one among the tribe, even if that tribe continually changes.
It is So Easy – If you don’t try to be chosen or special, that to give love and attention to another, and the hurt child within, to be of some kind of service, even giving a smile behind the mask to a stranger, is more than enough.
My intention with this essay is not to shame or laud over anyone. I have struggled with depression, I know how insidious it can be. Each time I can rise above my default setting of being hard on myself (the foreplay of depression) is a great day. Even a tiny bit! It’s when my idealized version of who I shouldbe glares unforgivingly at my actual current self, that I’m prone to the demon of depression.
I travel for my work, partly because it’s the nature of being a musician and workshop leader, but also to compensate for not really ever finding home in the land where my husband lives. If I want to see him, I must return here sometimes. And that here is Oslo. Hugely grateful on many counts for this green and rather sane county (the details won’t be covered in this essay) still, I’ve been very lonely here and prefer to be anywhere else.
Then the Coronavirus hit the rails, the end of everyone’s plans. Never had John Lennon’s words felt more potent. Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. On March 14, I had to return to Oslo, where I am a resident, have healthcare and a permanent home with my husband. At first, he was happy to see me, that we’d be together during this very unique lockdown time.
If ever I had justification to feel blue, it was now. Never was it part of any plan for me to get stuck in the country where I hardly know anyone. Yet from March 14 – I was stuck. Day one, even day two, I did really well. Stayed positive, thought of all kinds of activities to keep me busy. My job of teaching Alexander Technique, the creative arts and breathing, all using my hands, came to a sudden halt. No paid work, no reason to even get up in the morning. My husband panicked. His mood grew dark and sourly.
“What’s going on?” I ask. My husband is from the north of the Netherlands. He’s a good man but not overtly expressive or communicative. It took some time to prod out an answer.
“I’m worried,” he said, “that you’re going to fall into a dark depression. You won’t be able to leave, as you usually do and might be stuck here for months.”
“But I haven’t fallen into that dark place,” I said, defensively.
“Not yet,” he said. “But I’m afraid you will, and that I won’t be able to manage it.”
I took his concern seriously, and later when we went on a long walk in the forest – an activity we’ve been able to continue during the lockdown – I thought about what usually triggered me, and I realised it was my expectations. The idea of what my life was supposedto be like would take over. When not on the trajectory of what I thinkmy life is meant to be, when I fear lagging behind, I get very blue and miserable.
What is depression? Simply said, it’s anger turned inward. Most of us, including myself, won’t feelthis anger, or even if we do, we can’t stop it. For me, it’s as if all the judgment and disappointment from my parents, teachers, etc. over the years comes together and starts simmering on a hot flame and cooks me through with negativity. Maybe there’s some odd pleasure in it that at least I’m in control of this beating, but it’s a dangerous, destructive habit. And it is a habit. Brain patterns set so long ago too easily follow the same familiar paths, like rain drops down a window. We can’t help it, so it seems, so it feels.
I tell you this, so you don’t beat yourself even more because of how hard it is to avoid these pitfalls. So, I understood my husband’s fears. He knew me; he knew how I get whenever I stay too long in Oslo.
I got stubborn with myself, and I asked him to help me if I slipped up. Any of you out there who might read this blog who are living alone during this time and recognise this pattern – contact someone, a friend who may be going through this as well, or contact me. Make a plan with each other to be kind and compassionate first and foremost.
Here’s my plan:
- TO NOT BEAT on myself it I’m not completely be free of negative thoughts.
- TO MOVE: and even more so when the dark juices start flowing – those dark juices that feel like ropes that tie me to the bed – I still have to move. ESPECIALLY if I don’t want to. Jumping in place, flailing my arms and legs, not caring what I look like, going for walks in the forest, doing online yoga, gaga classes, 5-rhythms, grieving rituals. Bark like a dog if necessary. ANYTHING. The science of brain chemistry is that once oxygen flows more to the brain, the mood will improve.
- TO PUSH MYSELF A TINY BIT and do one thing I resist, and then give myself some nice reward later. For example: vacuuming; writing a blog (like this one) despite my steady stream of critic inside telling me how bad a writer I am; to practice my singing (even if I get angry that I still sing out of tune); to do an online meet-up even if my teeth are old and yellow and my neck looks like a turkey (I sometimes use a scarf). Later, as a present, I can watch some
- TO GIVE PERMISSION THAT I CAN BE BAD AT SOMETHING and still do it. There’s many things I love to do, like my writing and music, but have punished myself over the years for not being good enough at it. I’ve gotten better at this – have discovered that the best way to get better at anything is to practice it and challenge ourselves with classes and teachers to improve. The idea that I have to be genius at something or not do it, is just not true. It is possible to enjoy doing something without being perfect at it.
- TO GIVE MYSELF A LOVING kick to get started. It’s the hardest with any activity, even the things we like, to get started. The dark voice of depression wants us to stay a blob, is most comfortable doing nothing but beating ourselves. Because then there’s no chance of getting it wrong. We think we can’t mobilize the energy to do anything, but that’s because we’re using the most of our energy (unconsciously) to beat ourselves. It’s a hard pattern to break, but not impossible.
The less we move, the less the breath moves, the more compressed we get, thus creating the perfect setting for depression. The opposite of that – moving, doing some activity with no expectation – is what depression hates.
This is from live interview.
New York, 1976 Bronx State Mental Hospital
I’m drowning in a sour-soup of disillusion, here at Bronx State Mental Hospital finishing my internship. Distracted by my misery, a good healthy finger gets squeezed in the hospital door. I shriek in pain, fearing the tip has been severed. The aides rush me to another ward and the doctor stitches me up. He drugs me to a stupor and promises I won’t lose my finger. He also treats my other finger cut badly the other day, now hopelessly infected, and re-bandages that. Now I’m wounded on both hands, like a soldier.
My supervisor is not pleased, how can I lead the drumming circle or play the guitar with two bandaged hands? Meanwhile, the young emotionally-challenged boys on the ward seem thrilled with my bandages, like I’ve come straight from a street fight. Usually they’re reluctant and squirrelly to begin but now they’re witch-doctors of importance who want to heal me. Their power brings another world into existence and they pound the drums with purpose. I start to dance and they play even stronger, louder. So strong the supervisor comes rushing in. Startled by the intense focus, she turns all shades of purple but says nothing. She’s threatened by the thing she cannot name. It’s new on the ward, this music therapy, and what’s happening with the boys is therapy at its best. This noise, this thunder, this tribal abandon, seems dangerous to her yet she can’t help see how responsive the boys are and nods a tentative approval. Once she’s gone, the boys squeal like they’ve slayed the dragon. They whoop and holler and slap each other high fives though I quickly get them drumming again so we don’t lose this grace.
Each day I fall more in love with the patients who’ve rejected reality, or rather live in another dimension, and they in turn seem to love me more maybe because I see them and understand their suffering, their courage. Their smiles leap large when I arrive with my bandaged fingers, guitar and sack of instruments. If only the doctors didn’t medicate them so much. The sessions before the round of meds are animated but right after, they’re like zombies. I mention this to the head nurse.
“Better they sleep,” the nurse says,“than have a fit and destroy your instruments.”
Is there no middle ground? It kills me to see the patients like captives during the music sessions, strapped down, tied up, immobilized by medication. Tiny slits for eyes and expressions on their faces that seem to cry for help, though they hardly make a sound.
The supervisor expects me to waltz in like Houdini, unlock these heavily-medicated patients for the half-hour session, get them moving and singing and feeling someemotion – but not too much. Her favorite words: Don’t over-excite them! What is she afraid of; an in-house revolt? The patients are so drugged they can barely hold, let alone play the light percussive instruments I hand them. The more attentive ones (who must trick the nurses and not swallow their medication) grab hold of my hand at the end of the sessions like starved children begging for more. I feel for them, but must be careful to not care too much or I shall cross that tiny line of sanity into their world.
I can’t imagine that in our secret hearts, we’re not all starved for real attention – to be alive and seen and loved. Even my supervisor, who’s always talking of dieting but only gains more weight each week, perhaps she also aches for someone to hold her. Maybe once she had that but that person went away and she’s shoveled down those feelings. Maybe she also takes one of those multi-colored pills. Better not to think – that’s what I mostly learn with the other therapists in the cafeteria, or at our meetings. Just keep it all going, like a machine.
Every morning, half-asleep, I drink my coffee, then rush out the door to join the masses. Everyone on the subway with heads down, crammed like sardines for the harsh rumble and shriek to Pelham Bay Park. We’re all crushed by the non-stop mantra keep moving, keep moving. I can’t help wonder if the mental hospital is worse than prison, for the patients have no idea what crime they’ve committed besides feeling and wanting too much.
When I catch a glimpse of sky between buildings, I think of beauty and nature and wonder why we’ve stripped so much of it away. I’m thinking of this as I enter the ward. Maybe the patients feel it, that I’m different, for they rush towards me – the ambulatory ones – to stand beside me, to touch my shoulders, my bandaged fingers. I let them, and gently touch them back. The look in their eyes is like the gorilla’s sad eyes at the zoo. Pleaseunlock the cage and let me run free in the trees and the green. There is no green at the hospital and barely a thread of sky beyond the barred and narrow windows. Their eyes tell me they’re here because they were too slow and the cup fell from their hands and shattered on the ground of the perfect world, the world with no patience for breaking things. They’re here because they refused or could not keep the charade going. Gave themselves away by their confusion. The unprofessional side of me wants to run into the big depressing room where they waddle, or are wheeled in, for the music therapy session and scream: This is a human zoo. Get up from your chairs and dance and sing, loud and strong. Don’t take the medicine they give you. Look at what they do to you, because they’re scared of you, you who are closer to the real nature. They are scared that you know this is wrong, even if you haven’t the strength nor the words to express it.
Yes, I want you to like me. Yes, I wanted my mother to like me, to love me, to be proud of me. And sadly, she obsessed her whole life with not being okay. It worried her terribly, the last days of her life. My brothers called repeatedly saying she’d gotten stuck on the chord of having been a terrible mother, especially towards me. The one who left the US, who saw her far less than the others, the designated black sheep in the family. Though I prefer to think of it as the colorful purple sheep.
We’d worked through so much the last years. More than enough, so I thought. Apparently, she hadn’t felt as relieved. Or perhaps she’d forgotten. One of the last weeks of her life, visiting her in her new apartment in a retirement home in Lennox, we sat in a circle, my brother Peter, my husband and myself. Her face compressed in, her shoulders pressing forward, desperate for love. After she died and we all went through photos, there was one of her as a little girl, maybe five, with the same expression. Please don’t send me away. It shocked me to realise my mother, my great and wonderful mother that everyone loved, carried this her whole life.
“When you were a little girl,” Peter said, in a caring tone, his body leaning towards her, “your mother told you that if you weren’t good enough, they would give you away.”
My mother’s eyes filled with tears. She shook her head, her lips turned-down in a disgruntled curl. Soon eighty-nine years old, soon dead, and still that little girl aching inside, the little girl never good enough. Her eyes now turning to my brother, tears falling down her cheeks.
“Youaregood enough,” Peter said.
“But, I…” my mother had lost her voice. It was just a croak that came out.
“I know,” my brother said. “You think you have been a terrible mother to Deborah. That’s why we’re doing this. She came back to be with you, to let you know that she is okay and she loves you and forgives you.”
I didn’t wait for permission from my brother, who was leading this ritual. Instead, turned towards her, taking her hands, saying the same. She was crying more now. “It’s okay,” I kept repeating. “I love you, and you are good enough.” Then my husband and Peter echoed the same, like a Greek Chorus.
My brothers told me how she kept talking about a birthday party she wanted to make for me at the end of May. We knew she’d soon die, but as her first (blood) granddaughter was getting married June 8, we thought she’d live for that. My birthday was the week before and my original flight would be in time for this birthday brunch.
She died six weeks before that date. Alone in her bed when she passed, not with any of her kids or step-kids. Peter thinking this was her last wish, to not show favourites as there was no chance for me to be there. My brothers and father met anyhow to celebrate my birthday.
I was able to make it back for the funeral April 12, and stayed for the wedding. The longest period spent in the US since moving away, and the longest time with my family since childhood. At times painful but also liberating to discover how I’ve carried this legacy of my mother – of not feeling good enough. So many choices made due to this need to be confirmed, to assure no one gets rid of me. Though sometimes it happened, because of this, this unquenchable need.
For whom? For what?
This essay could go in another direction now, towards the political decisions currently being made here in the US, based on ignorance, incompetence or even worse – a distortion of facts and scientific knowledge. Our environment is one of the states were such wrong decisions are made, with disastrous consequences. None of them thinking perhaps they’re not good enough. Wish they did.
Rather I shall continue on the personal note. For my mother, that early-planted need was not so easy to let go. Or she’d not have carried it for most of her life.
In the journey of my life, I’ve gone in many directions. Often judging this as too many directions; if I’d only followed one trajectory and poured all obsessive energy into that, I’d have ‘made’ it. To make it: the most important thing for my mother. In her case, that meant money. In my case, fame and recognition. In my yearning to be loved, to be good enough. To have permission to indulge in activities I love, an indulgence I’ve often felt foolish for.
How sad for my mother, that no matter how much money she earned or how many people phoned her, loved her, it was never enough. Those pits carved out in our early years rarely do get filled without some arduous work (that she seemed to have no time for), and she suffered that aching hole. My brothers and I hope we helped release her in the end, and she died in peace. Yet how much better if she were able to release that earlier?
Mom, I feel you teaching me now, that even if no one tells me so: I can be okay and more than enough.
My husband came with me for a Tango festival on the Costa Brava, in the Catalan town of Sant Feliu de Guixols this early September. It seemed a good way to start our exploration of the Barcelona area, it’s northern coast, a place we’re considering relocating. The weather was unseasonably hot, a steamy hot, not the dry heat one associates with the north of Spain. My husband, not a big tango fan, is fine with heat. He’s from the north of Holland, where the wind blows to make you mad, so whatever the weather, as long as there’s no wind, he’s fine. Me, on the other hand, since menopause, find oppressive heat claustrophobic, strangling.
I dared not moan of the heat, or how clammy my skin was getting. To be at a tango and get to dance as much as I was, you will be struck-dead by the tango police if you dare complain. In truth, there is no tango police, just the eyes of the waiting un-danced women, hating you silently that it’s you and not them on the dance floor. When I first began dancing, twenty-years ago, there were actually more men. It was the men who puffed themselves up, and we women had our glorious pick. Not sure when the switch happened, but I do remember entering a dance hall, a Milonga, and gasping at the row of women eagerly waiting, their breasts heaving forward like melons ripe for the picking. This sadly has become the norm. And once you start sitting, it’s not long before your dance-cells sag, and you look like a desperate dog hoping to be taken for a walk, let alone a dance.
I don’t mean to brag, but there’s a sort of thing I do that helps. I hadn’t even realized I was doing this, until a tango friend pointed out to his then girlfriend to watch me and to do exactly what I did if she wanted to dance with anyone besides him. It had started innocuously during my first visit to Buenos Aires. Always forgetting to reserve a table and arriving too late to get one, I was lucky to sneak a spot by the bar – the place reserved (and the unspoken code) of where the Milongueros (the great male dancers) sat and drank and eyed their next conquest.
Not just that I wasn’t meant to hang around the bar between dances, but I’ve never been good at keeping still: I was one of the kids at school forever sent out of the room for disrupting the others (the dreamer, the hyper-active dyslexic who in the early sixties teachers didn’t know what to do with). Still can’t sit to meditate. I have to move, like there’s ants in my pants (the song we sang as kids in New York) with or without a partner. Using a nearby chair, a pole, a wall, anything to bounce against, I make my own tango dance, in between the real ones.
When this trend of too many women began, I was already an experienced dancer and quite good at my little game. Not only do I keep in subtle but constant movement – a thing even more crucial in my 60’s; if I don’t keep moving it’s instant hardening of all moveable parts – but if a leader happens to pass by and likes what he sees, he just takes me by the hand and leads me straight to the dancefloor. A thing already in motion is easier to keep moving, than a static waiting blob. And I try to stay in the ‘flow’ of movement.
One young woman at the festival danced non-stop, just as I used to, with boundless enthusiasm, rubber flexibility, and a face smeared with ecstasy, like she was falling in love with each and every man she danced with. Before menopause, I used to get into heaps of trouble with all that love dripping from my face. If a man, especially in Buenos Aires, felt and saw that on you and wanted more and you said no, you never got to dance with that man again. Simple as that. I thought I’d feel jealous of this younger woman, as the older women in Buenos Aires used to years ago loath me. But I didn’t. If anything, I was relieved the dance was no longer about sex (though there’s always a sensuality); the ones who want that no longer bother with me. Yet at this festival, while I danced and sweated across the floor, I realized that the dance still made me as happy as it had always done. Like a magic potion, all troubles vanished. So what if my husband and I have been looking for ages, and still can’t find a common country, it didn’t matter a hoot. So what if Trump is president and the world of kindness has exploding, nothing matters for the delectable three minutes of the dance. So wonderful it is to dance – I’m convinced if everyone danced, there’d be no wars (but I don’t want to be the one to dance with Trump) – it’s the same if I were twenty or thirty, or one-hundred and seven.
The last day of the festival the heat was stifling. With no air-conditioning, it felt like a Finish sauna. We were all soaked through. Even the ladies in waiting had fans like it was a bullfight in boiling Madrid. I felt for some of them who had sat and sat until – as the Argentine so crudely say – the crack in their butt had long disappeared and had to be re-drawn. I wished everyone could be dancing all the time. The final hour, the DJ put on non-tango music like Salsa, and Meringue. Just to move other muscles, I began to dance by myself on the dance floor. I signaled to a few of the un-danced women to join me. No one dared. But when I returned from the restroom, the floor was filled with many of these women, who now smiled at me, encouraging me to join them. Who cares if the younger women were dancing with the few remaining men, we wild and ageless women were having the time of our lives.
We yearn to be whole, mostly unbeknownst to ourselves, but still we do. The part of ourselves we most hate will often reappear in one of our children. Depending on our awareness and commitment toward growth, we can embrace this challenge and grow to love or torment this child for showing us what we hate and refuse to see.
While watching the second season of The Crown, I was deeply moved by the ninth episode: the story of young Prince Charles and his education. Having struggled to be in a regular school, the Queen was advised to send her sensitive and not quite the sporting type son to Eton. His father, Philip was adamantly opposed. Eton, he felt, would turn his son into everything he hated. He wanted Charles to be toughened up, just as he had been. In the end, he won the struggle and the Prince was sent to the frigid and frightening Gordonstoun, where (according to the series) he suffered terribly for six years.
What struck me in this dramatization was the degree in which Philip rejected who his son was – the sensitivity and hurt Philip himself had been forced to push away in his own life. His shadow. If Philip had had another upbringing himself – as the episode revealed the hardships Philip endured at this Gordonstoun – perhaps he wouldn’t have had such a severe shadow. The denial of sensitivity, replaced by the need to ‘toughen up’ is not an unknown story.
Today, this element is acute in the United States. Trump, supposedly, was. tormented by his own father growing up. A year before the election, I was having tea in Berlin with a German friend. He warned that the rise of Trump (similar to the rise of Hitler) would be very much about the shadow. “If only America,” my friend said, shaking his head sadly, “could rise to the challenge and embrace their shadow. But I fear the country is too invested in its mythology and will miss this chance, just as we in Germany missed ours and there will be some very dark years ahead.”
What does that mean to embrace the shadow both on an individual level and a broader societal level? And what kind of maturity does it take? Obviously, in the case of both Germany and the US now, that degree of maturity doesn’t seem to exist.
In my own life, I had a terrible time growing up. My parents couldn’t accept that I was sensitive and moody and more interested in creativity than in their conventional and materialistic practicality. Unfortunately, being the first born, the same as Charles, I came to represent the shadow in my family. I can see that now from the distance of years but as a child I had no clue, only suffered miserably trying to please my parents. Just as Charles did. The only way to please a parent who refuses to see who you are, is to deny who you are.
Years of therapy, Alexander Technique and 12-step support has aided my cause in becoming more my ‘authentic’ self, but even at age 63 I still struggle with this element, still can more easily toss myself and my deepest convictions away, suffer terribly bouts of insecurity and self-hate, before climbing out of the darkness when realizing I’ve yet again chosen first to throw myself away. Especially, in the growing arena of social media where one can be constantly tormented with comparison and not measuring up, it is a challenge to be in your own ‘axis,’ to be your own person, to have healthy self-regard regardless of what other’s think.
People seem to be afraid of what they cannot see: that what they cannot touch and eat and feel doesn’t exist. When all the while they are being controlled by a far greater force than they could ever imagine. The force of an ideal and the power of how we think others see us. It is a dangerous illusion that a sense of noisy might – a Tomahawk missile sent in the night – will make us strong and keep us safe.
And it makes me wonder, as I walk long and hard in the hills outside Oslo (in a land that used to only feel boring, before I knew the wonders hidden in quiet and the great gift of having time to think), if the whole essence of the American Dream is deadly. That George Carlin was right when he jokingly said in performance that the American Dream can only happen when you are sleeping. Living abroad, living far away from America, has given distance from this killing notion of the American Dream, of the devouring demand (on each of us and the planet’s resources) of this illusion. I’ve finally recovered from the potent effect of my mother’s phone calls, to wherever I happen to be living, informing me in her loud and shrill voice how so and so has “made it.” It used to leave me bleeding and struggling for breath, with her unspoken assumption that I hadn’t done so and if I hoped to stay part of the tribe of the acceptable I better rush to do so, to make it. But now, with the epitome of this American Dream as so-called President, in front of our face no matter how far you travel away from America, makes me see ever so clearly how the powerful sorcerers at work have created a most dangerous and devastating myth.