Saturday, September 27, 2008


Growing up I didn't dance. This was not because I didn't like to dance. It was because I was shy and had been told by a more assertive cousin that I was without rhythm. I rarely danced in public until I went away to college. During my freshman year I took a modern dance class to fulfill my P.E. requirement. In that class I discovered that not only could I dance, but I was fairly good at it. Over the next four years I developed a dancer's body and a dancer's sensibilities. I continued to perform with a small regional company after graduation and even took classes during graduate school.

There were problems from the start. I had been a very thin and extremely sickly teenager, and my physical problems continued throughout my twenties and thirties. In my late twenties I had to stop dancing altogether because I just didn't have the stamina for it anymore. Meanwhile I married a man who couldn't dance and didn't like to embarrass himself, so even my social dancing days ended.

Over the years I had surgery to correct my chronic health problem. I developed a thyroid problem that caused me to gain and lose weight capriciously; I adopted a child and changed careers several times. The career changes necessitated my going back to graduate school twice. All this led me to where I am now. Looking at me you see an overweight middle aged slightly frumpy Black woman. No one would ever believe that I used to be a dancer.

I remember reading years ago about a therapist in New York who specialized in helping dancers get over the trauma of ending their careers. I remember thinking how silly that was. Life goes on. People who use their bodies must realize that they can't go on forever. I didn't think about dancing again except in passing.

But this afternoon in a moment of idleness I engaged in a very dangerous pastime. I googled a long lost friend. Therese was a dancer with me in college. She had had an interesting life even then. She was in her mid twenties and I was 19 when we met. Like me, Therese came to dance without a lot of prior training. But she was really good. She was also strikingly beautiful with pale skin and masses of curly red hair. When I typed her name into the Google search box, she came up immediately. I clicked on the link and there she was. She is still dancing. In the pictures she looked as if her body had barely aged. There were beautiful shots of her soaring through the air. She does aerial work now. She looked strong and graceful and completely at home in her body. As I looked at the pictures and read about Therese's life, I found myself overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and loss. I remember what it felt like to be able to move that way. I remember being able to rise off the floor and fly across a room. Sometimes, when I dream, I still can.

These days I take Zumba classes. I follow along with the class leaders and ignore the fat lady in the mirror. I spend a lot of time on treadmills and elliptical machines. I fight against my endocrine problems trying to hold the line against morbid obesity. Most of the time I'm okay with this, but sometimes I'm hit by just how much I miss that other version of myself -- the one who was light and strong and graceful; the one who could fly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Becoming 50

It's My Party

by Tina

I am about to turn fifty. With my students and friends, I joke about being old, but alone, in the eerie silence of dawn, I find myself agonizing over where I am in the span of my life. My anxiety actually has nothing to do with being x-number of years old; other than a handful of minor complaints, I don’t feel that I’m at death’s door or any such morbid thought. Instead, what I find myself anxious about is what I am not doing at age fifty. My anxiety is little more than unfulfilled expectations.

Looking back over the span of my life, I have to chuckle at myself for dragging this cloud of disappointment around with me. If I am honest, my life has been a series of unfulfilled expectations, almost from the beginning. Why I would choose only the latest in the series to go into a major decline over probably bears some contemplation.

If we are honest, most of us would probably find that our childhoods, no matter how idyllic, were a series of unfulfilled expectations. It is in truth the nature of the beast. Children can imagine almost anything and usually do. This, in turn, leads them to expect almost anything. Few if any of those childhood expectations will be realized. At six, I truly expected one day to discover within myself the mental and physical ability to fly—without benefit of machine. Needless to say, that expectation remains unfulfilled. On a more prosaic level, I expected to be a brilliant, awarding-winning doctor—didn’t happen. It is normal for us to go through an entire gamut of expectations as children—about our futures, our families, our own abilities. It is equally normal to have the majority of those expectations unmet, unfulfilled. It’s not considered a tragedy; it’s growing up.

Even as we leave childhood, however, and venture into adolescence, the threshold of adulthood, we have expectations which more often than not are never realized. Whether they be meeting and marrying prince charming or having an award-winning career, rarely do the road maps envisioned in adolescence hold up to reality. There are always unmarked obstacles and detours. In high school, I was overwhelmed by offers to attend colleges such as Bryn Mawr and Northwestern. I ended up at a local public university. By late in my teens, I envisioned myself on a quest to achieve fame and fortune as an award-winning writer. Two years out of college I was married to a local airplane mechanic, trudging along his chosen path to fame and fortune.

While in retrospect, the results of many of these unfulfilled expectations may sound dull and depressing, in reality we are very adaptable creatures. We compensate and adjust and most often try to carve out the best niche for ourselves in whatever pond we land in. I created an entire universe around family and children. Idyllic it was not, but it was for the most part busy and full and interesting. I still found time to write, and I still entertained notions of one day being a nationally-recognized author. Along with that expectation, however, I had discovered an entirely new set of expectations—watching my children grow and thrive and succeed, growing old with my mate, achieving enough financial security to sit on the back porch and watch the sun set in peace and tranquility. Those expectations fell victim to betrayal and divorce.

Now on the precipice of fifty, I sit contemplating the plethora of unfulfilled expectations that have adorned my life. The crotchety old woman in me wants to wag her finger and shout, “See, see! Just one disappointment after another!” There are moments, days, that it is not only easy to hear her, it is impossible to shut her out. I sigh, I sob, I fret over how I got to be where I am now. I blame life, I blame my ex, I blame myself, and I wallow in despair. I can throw an absolutely brilliant pity party.

Fortunately for everyone, however, my optimistic super-ego comes to the rescue. It picks me up, dusts me off, and gives me a firm whack on the back. “You’re not dead,” it points out. “There’s life in the old girl yet!” Despite everything, I find myself chuckling over my own doom and gloom. Everyone has unfulfilled expectations; they are a part of the human condition. They go with the territory, like birth, death, and spoiled milk—they happen.

So I reexamine this anxiety I have about what I’m not doing at age fifty. It’s true enough that I’m not doing what I expected to be doing—not what I expected when I was ten or twenty or thirty or even forty. But, then, neither was I doing what I expected when I was any of those ages either. Life truly is an unfolding mystery that most often defies game plans and road maps and even simple expectations. What can I expect as I turn fifty? Who knows? What do I hope as I turn fifty? I hope that I can greet each day with joy and curiosity and the energy to tackle the unexpected.