I went to a dance pageant recently, a holiday performance of ballet, modern and jazz with local girls age 6-16.
Actually, I have no idea how old the dancers were. Some were clearly 25, which is amazing, since I know for a fact they were in 5th grade with my son just two years ago.
What a range of emotion watching these elegant not-quite-women, the pixies with flying limbs. Some were stunning, graceful and acrobatic in their unsettlingly mature bikini bodysuits. Others were still in the throes of growing pains, coltish and vulnerable. And they knew it; you could see it in the frozen smile of a girl trying to hold her quivery leg overhead, and struggling not to drop it a half-beat too soon.
God, I felt for them. All of them: the ones flailing awkward jazz hands at the outer edge of their ability. The ones so gorgeously at ease in their skin that I couldn’t help wincing, knowing the world would treat those bodies as commodities in a few short years. And the ones somewhere in the middle, hoping their smidge of talent would blossom into something like the big girls.
Artistic growing pains. It’s so true of so many expressive arts — and yes, of writing too, only it’s the young heart and mind that are quivery and vulnerable instead of the body. There are flying limbs to rein in. Oh, the big words and emotions! Themelodramatic poems, the handwritten middle-school novel hidden under a mattress. Sentences with such inappropriate metaphors they’re like heaving bosoms in the middle of an engineering textbook. The need to SAY THE THING IN THE MOST UNIQUE WAY IT’S EVER BEEN SAID IN THE HISTORY OF THE WRITTEN WORD. So much to trip over in order to get out of your own way.
I remember my first great assignment working on staff at a travel magazine you’ve never heard of. At 22, I was sent to write about dogsledding in Canada’s Yoho National Park. In a lyrical frenzy, I described the dog’s baying while harnessing up as a “cacophony of canine enthusiasm.” And no one stopped me. After it was published, I sent a clip to the editor of Travel & Leisure (whom I’d met in passing at an industry event) with a note about my passion for travel writing and hopes of working for her someday. I mentioned that I’d even done my own photography for the piece. Yes, I wrote that as if it were a good thing.
The editor, God bless her, wrote back with something kind that amounted to, Keep at it, kid.
Years later I buried the piece at the bottom of my portfolio, and somewhere along the line I must have torn it out altogether. But now, 20-odd years later, I look back with a fondness for my flailing jazz hands. We all have growing pains. So important to be large of spirit about that awkward phase, whether you’re the one in it, or guiding someone else through. Because it’s part of the process, and has to come first. You crawl, you walk, and eventually run, or dance, or whatever your joyful form will be as you keep growing. I assume that if I look back, in a few years or thirty, at the work I’m doing now, I’ll see quivery legs. But I hope I won’t want to throw it away.
There’s a Rikki Lee Jones song I love called Stewart’s Coat. It was used, I think, in the closing credits for film “When A Man Loves A Woman,” in which Meg Ryan portrays a woman emerging from rehab. “Just give me time to learn to crawl,” Jones croons against an acoustic guitar. Every time I hear that line it evokes a wistful sort of patience. A plea for understanding when we fall short, and generosity with our imperfections.