catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Mouthwash, midnight and a monologue

Learning how to dance in spite of myself

As long as I've been conscious of having a self, I've felt much more reconciled to being a soul walking around on this earth, than I have been to being a body.  A mind, a heart have places to hide from seeing eyes, but a body's shape and movements can't escape any kind of gaze in company.

I've heard that one of the keys to speaking a new language well is being able to think in that language, rather than mentally translating every word before speaking.  I've spent years figuring out how to honor the impulses of my soul with my body—how to embrace, kiss, dance—without having to awkwardly translate love and joy into action.  I long for consistency.

As this has been a journey, I decided to re-visit a piece of writing from nearly five years ago that serves as something of a milemarker in this struggle.  The good news is that, even though I remember every detail of this place in which I stopped to mark the trail in 2001, I feel I've made progress, a few small, but significant steps.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, somehow I was given the gift of being able to silence the voices of fear and self-doubt to kiss many of my relatives in greeting or farewell, with lovely results, and to hold them tightly a  little bit longer in embrace.  And today—today, I danced with my co-workers.  In the middle of the afternoon.  No big deal?  Read on…

I stepped out of the shower this morning and realized something: I do not know how to surrender.

Now, this realization came on the heels of a couple of other happenings, but the most immediate evidence was all around me in the bathroom.  I have lotion to control the moisture of my skin.  I have faucets to control the flow of water.  I have Listerine to control my breath and the number of germs in my mouth.  All of the things around me in my bathroom, my apartment, in my life are about controlling some little thing or bit of space.  While mouthwash and indoor plumbing are not inherently evil things, this morning was the third time God had to shout directly into my ear in order to make a point.

The first shout came about eight months ago in my last semester of college.  I was taking an acting and directing class to complete my theatre major and our last assignment was to perform monologues chosen for us by the professor.  My character, Sabine, was a professional psychologist who had done her thesis on how advertising affects women.  She spent her life convincing herself not to be concerned with body image because it would mean bowing to a plastic corporate ideal.  However, after thirty loveless years as a slightly overweight overachiever, she decided to surrender by getting liposuction and getting laid.

Having noticed a pattern in my professor’s criticism that I was too controlled, I figured she had given me this monologue to make my weakness my strength.  When the time came, I performed my monologue the way I had planned, self-aware and perfectly in control of the ironic decision I, as Sabine, was making to have the fat sucked out of my butt and thighs.  However, this was not the portrayal my professor had in mind.  She proceeded to ask four guys in the class to each grab one of my limbs while I struggled to get away from them and said my monologue over and over again.  Sweating, frustrated, but outwardly undaunted, I finally asked what the point of this humiliating exercise was.  “Do you see how controlled she is?  She’s cool as a cucumber!” she said, speaking not to me but to the class.  “I swear, she could be on fire, but still say every word of her monologue exactly as planned.”  And without explaining further, she asked me to continue.  So I did, and only after realizing that she wanted me to break down did I almost break down.  I could feel my eyes start to water, but I fought, physically and mentally, to win.  And I did win.  In a way.

I left class with that sour feeling of regret in my stomach.  I felt angry at her smugness, but was feeling sort of smug myself.  Instead of accepting me the way I was and telling me that perhaps I was a better director than actor, she was trying to make me a better actor.  I decided I had never really connected with her, which was true, but I also decided that this meant I could disregard my experience with her as a lesson in what NOT to do as an actor, as a teacher, as a human being.  However, here I am, eight months later, being forced in light of a second realization to accept her criticism as painfully true.

I had a dream last night that I was someone else, or, more correctly, a different version of myself.  I had gone away to a boarding school and the whole student body and faculty had gathered in a large sanctuary to open the year with a worship service.  The anticipation was electric, such as I had never felt before upon entering any church.  As a group of African-looking musicians entered, we all stood up and moved ritualistically into the aisles.  Then, the men slowly began to play a lilting rythym on their variety of beautiful hand drums.  And we slowly began to move in time with the beat.  As the music swelled, I danced higher and bigger, I was more and more joyful, I was laughing and worshipping with all of my physical strength until I had come full circle back to where I had started.

And that was it.

To understand the impact of this dream, you need to understand a couple of things about the nature of me.  I don’t dance in public unless I’m buzzed, either on adrenaline or on a couple of drinks.  Also, the only thing we ever did in the aisles of my church as a kid was walk silently.  The only music we ever heard was played on organ or piano, or later by a stuffy middle-aged praise band or taped accompaniment.  So in my dream, being myself as a different version of myself who grew up in a different version of my church, I felt wonderful.  I didn’t feel self-conscious or imperfect or so totally white.  I felt like my heart and my mind and my body were all in the same place, all focused on the one task of worshipping God to the sounds of strange, beautiful, earthy music.  Heaven was where I was.

And it was these two things—the acting class and the dream—which came together this morning with the third: my bathroom.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies right now and, aside from her purely coincidental story in which she discovers that God is in the bathroom, she tells a story about learning how to eat.  From the time she was fourteen until the time she was thirty-three, she was bulimic.  She “ate, starved, binged, purged, grew fat, grew thin, grew fat, grew thin, binged, purged, dieted, was good, was bad, grew fat, grew thin, grew thinner.”  Finally, she realized her need for help and began seeing a therapist who specialized in eating disorders.  After she began eating without purging, the therapist asked her if she was hungry when she ate.  She didn’t know how to answer, didn’t understand the question at all.  She didn’t know what it felt like anymore to be hungry.  So the next step in her recovery process was to learn what the physical sensation of hunger felt like and then to eat when her body felt hungry.  For her, it was a miracle.

So here I am, feeling as though I’m on the verge of having to learn how to recognize a feeling I haven’t known since I was a young child, a physical sensation I’ve forgotten.  Here I am having to admit a number of things: that I am definitely white, that I am definitely Protestant, that I have been routinely and artificially purging myself of the need to surrender.  I have to admit that all along I have been trying desperately to rescue myself from something that is very, very good, something that can teach me many lessons about many parts of myself.

And I have to admit that sometimes, God can be revealed through people I dislike.  My acting professor drove me crazy, from her artistic elitism and to her vague concept of the “single mind” of an acting ensemble—which my class became very skilled at faking.  To top it off, instead of accepting my weakness and suggesting I try something else, she attempted to make me better.  And there’s that incessant shouting again.  Doesn’t God, instead of suggesting I crawl into a hole and decompose, soul and all, because I’m such an arrogant, ignorant human being, suggest that I fall into his arms like the prodigal son being welcomed home?  Doesn’t God want me to empty myself of my need for control to be filled with freeing grace?  Doesn’t God want me to dance?

While I don’t think I’ll be whooping it up in the aisles tomorrow in church, maybe I will be able to recognize the instinct to do so.  And maybe I’ll turn up the music sometime when I’m alone.  And I’ll probably be keeping my body lotion and my mouthwash, but maybe such things will be less important in the light of the lessons I am learning.  The process will be long, but undoubtedly one of healing, one of remembering what it feels like to be hungry and discovering, finally, how to be filled.

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