Forging ahead or just forging?

Nadia ComaneciDuring a gymnastics workout when I was thirteen years old, my coach sent me away from the larger group on the uneven bars to practice on my own on the balance beam. I was trying to perfect my side aerial (cartwheel with no hands), by starting out on the less-terrifying floor beam (before making my way to the totally terrifying high beam).

On the floor beam, I attempted aerial after aerial but was completely unable to stay on the beam after the landing. I’d get my left foot on solid, then my right foot behind the left, just as solid. But as I lifted my chest up, arms over my head, I would lose my balance in this very sudden, jerky way, and fall off. It was such an irregular pattern of movement you’d think it could not possibly repeat itself. But each time, after each landing, my body would do the same motion, and I’d fall off on the same side of the beam every time. Watching it must have been like rewinding a video and hitting play, rewinding again, hitting play. Same thing with no variation.

I did this until my left leg was weak, until my face was red with frustration, until I was flipping in mid-air with tears streaming down my face. I was appalled with myself and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to forge ahead, to not stop, to go and go. I was determined.

During this whole episode which lasted about 40 minutes, my coach would yell over now and again, telling me to “go work on something else,” “go to floor, work on your standing back flip,” “get some water, practice your leaps.” I ignored him. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. He finally walked over, took me by the forearm, and led me to the water fountain, then sat me down. “You need to learn when to take a break,” he said, looking right into my eyes. “Now go practice your leaps. You can come back to beam after that.”

I am now forty-two years old and on day #9 of my writing residency. It was only yesterday, after toiling away at a chapter in my memoir that I’ve been toiling away at for almost an entire week, that this memory surfaced. As I organize and reorganize, copy and paste, move this paragraph there and that one to the end, I know that I’m not getting anywhere. Yet I want to keep forging ahead (which really means I just want to keep forging, there’s no “ahead” about it), to go and go until I have devolved into a mess behind a desk (or maybe curled up under the desk).

I have not yet devolved, but I have been nursing a ball of anxiety in my stomach every time I sit down at the computer and open the file. Another resident and new friend here at VCCA calls it “the sick place.” Here here.

As counter-intuitive as it feels, I know I need to take my coach’s decades-old advice. I need to take a break. Get a drink of water. Go practice my leaps. If I’m not careful, I could spend my whole month just moving paragraphs around, never finding a stance solid enough to stay on the beam, so to speak.

Incidentally, when I returned to the balance beam back in 1985 and tried my aerial again, I stuck it the very first time. I glanced over at my coach who was setting up mats for our end-of-work-out tumbling passes to see if he’d caught it. He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. I half-smiled. Only half because I was embarrassed he’d been right. Again.

I don’t have a coach anymore, but I have creative friends and mentors who I talk to in times of distress (and success). And they have to remind me that we can get into unproductive grooves that are impossible to get out of except by simply walking away, distracting ourselves with something else, returning to the task at hand only after we’ve had some time to find ourselves again. Do what feels good, they tell me. Enjoy the views of the landscape where you are. Read and rest and rejuvenate. Whatever I produce, they remind me, however many pages this month turns out, will be just fine.

Pictured above is, of course, the Romanian legend, Nadia Comaneci.

The Post about How an Arabesque on a Balance Beam Saved My Life

I love this picture. You can’t tell from the image, but under my right foot is a balance beam, four-inches wide, four feet high. I have other more spectacular pictures, mid-air, mid-flip, at the apex of a no-handed cartwheel. But when I look at this one, I remember, really remember, what it felt like. To be in that body, to be thirteen—having all the horrible and complicated feelings that rain down on a girl as she walks through that gate into her teen years. All the inner conflict. Too many vices to choose from. Too many awkward longings and cravings. To have all of that. But to also have this. This near-perfect arabesque on a four-inch beam that I felt like I could hold forever (and would have if I could have).

Once I stretched my leg back and up toward the ceiling, locked my standing leg into balance, and found a spot on the beam on which to rest my gaze, my insides stopped: My mind’s worried mess. The anxious tug in my chest. The guilt that choked my stomach back then. All of it, all of me, floated in a silent, immense, kinesthetic pause. I was both purely me and not me at all. I was arabesque, I was beam, I was leg and air and chalk and muscle. I wasn’t girl but body. I wasn’t brown-haired and blue-eyed, but serious, wise, perfect.

When presence becomes an escape, you know you’ve hit the mark.

My daily life as a grown-up, as brown-haired and blue-eyed and utterly imperfect, is spent in search of more and more instances of this—in someone or something, in some sound or flora or fauna or song, in something bigger and braver than me.

Last Friday I met a painting—bigger and braver than me to be certain. I had just turned my back on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” too familiar to be impressive, and there it was. No crowd. No camera flashes. Just museum air between me and the painting. I’d never seen it before. Not anywhere.

Because I was new to it, the escape came easy. The pause. The presence. When I look at it even tonight, several days and degrees of separation later, it still happens:

Gustav Klimt’s “The Park”

I can’t explain it any more than that. And you might not feel it. It takes what it takes for each of us. And last Friday, this is all that it took. Certainly a painting is not an arabesque on a beam. It’s not exertion of the body. But it’s still a body of a sort—it still stills the body, the body experiencing it well before the mind.

This Saturday, it may be the bins of greens at the farmer’s market, the pints of peaches and plums. Or just a rare moment when the vents outside my apartment window stop their hums and whirs and rattles, and all I’ll hear is the silence that is out there, and the quiet that is in here. And I’ll breathe it in. I’ll pause.

Note to Self: Do Not Ignore the Spark

I’m inspired this morning by reading writer Wendy Rawlings’ new blog, The Agnosticator. Her posts are personal, heartfelt, brief, and make me want to write. Lately, when I feel that spark, I see it out of the corner of my eye and tell myself—sinfully—that I’ll respond later. But it’s called a spark because it’s quick and if it occurs at the right place at the right time, a whole house could go up in flames. If a piece of writing is a house, and fire is what we’re hoping for, I better stop turning away.

Circa 1984

In today’s post, Wendy writes about her early attempts at writing, one of which when she was twelve. When I was twelve, I was doing many things at once: discovering the benefits and defecits of combining THC with Bartyls & James wine coolers, attempting (fruitlessly it turns out) to maintain the possibility of becoming if not an olympic gymnast at least one with a scholarship at an NCAA school, and I was making early attempts at writing—I kept a journal over which I cried often.

In my head, and my headphones, David Bowie (the David Bowie who sang “Rebel, Rebel,” and “Changes” not so much the one who sang “Let’s Dance”) is the only one who truly understood me.

I am no longer a gymnast, pot and alcohol have fallen away, but writing (as well as Bowie) remain. I think my writing is better than it was when I was twelve. I don’t cry over my journal as often as I did then, and I’m glad to be forty instead of twelve. But the spark…the spark needs my utmost attention.