Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sixty-four Rond de Jambe

When I was in high school I studied ballet at the Minneapolis Ballet Center with a master teacher named Hy Somers. While I took many, many ballet classes from this teacher, and all were more than 35 years ago, there are few moments that stand out crystal clearly in my memory.  
One such memory involved a brutally long sequence of an exercise called rond de jambe en l’air. Which loosely translates as “circling the leg in the air.”  To do this exercise, you stand on one leg and have your other leg extended out to the side at 90 degrees.  You hold the thigh of the extended leg very still, and, moving only your lower leg, circumscribe a circle with your toes  (Okay it is more complicated than that but this gives you the idea.) Mr. Somers asked us to do eight rond de jambe en dehors (clockwise) followed by eight rond de jambe en dedans (counter clockwise) followed by eight doubles en dehors (making two quick circles in place of one slow) followed by eight doubles en dedans (the two quick version going the opposite direction) then, without lowering that leg press up in to relevĂ© on your standing leg (rise up on to the ball of your foot) and repeat the whole thing.  He was a demanding teacher, but this seemed way over the top even for him.  I hoped he was joking. He wasn’t.   Sixty-four rond de jambe en’lair without ever putting my leg down?  I knew I would never make it. 
The pianist played the introduction to the music began and I did the appropriate preparation and extended my right leg out to the side to begin.  Surprisingly the first two sets of eight were a piece of cake.  By the doubles I was feeling the burn in my quadricep muscles, by the time we pressed into relevĂ© I am sure I was putting a death grip on the ballet barre, and the last two sets of eight – well, let’s just say they were not pretty.  As I lowered my leg and started to envision the amount of pain I would be in the next morning, Mr. Somers said I what I knew he would say.  “Okay, other side.” So we all dutifully turned toward the barre, placed our right hands on the barre and repeated the entire sequence with our left legs now participating in the rond de jambe marathon.  After both sides had been completed Mr. Somers said, “I asked you to do more than you expected you could do.  And the first 24 were quite good.  Had I only given you 24 you most likely would have looked tired after 12.  You can do more than you think you can. “  I knew he was right and, in that moment, learned a valuable lesson about perception and pacing. 
I have thought a lot about that lesson and often tell this story to my students.  However, the lessons I learned in that ballet class have not always translated to my everyday life.   There are many times when I do not set my goals intentionally out of reach just to challenge myself but instead place them at a safe, manageable distance that I know I can accomplish. 
The past few days I have been feeling extremely anxious about the year ahead.  I have been questioning myself as to why oh why did I choose my sabbatical year to take on a hugely ambitious schedule of travel and uncertainty.  I have questioned if there will be any sense of Sabbath in this sabbatical.  Yesterday morning, while sitting in Shabbat services, I tried to find that sense of centering and calm that is so key to the concept and practice of Sabbath.  And somehow my mind wandered to the memory of the ballet class and the 64 rond de jambe en l’air.  I started thinking about pacing, perspective and persistence. 
I know that I will have to find the rhythm of rest and renewal while on the road for so long.  Perception informs pacing.  I can go farther and longer than I think I can when faced with an ambitious undertaking.  And persistence does pay off.  I know there will be melt down days where I am going to be ready to pack it in and head home.  But I also know that if I can just stick it out there are lessons to be learned and, in the end, a story to tell.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I rarely read a book twice.  Most of the time once I finish a book, I feel I have gotten everything I am going to get, in terms of enjoyment and enlightenment, and I am ready to send it out into the world.  Mary Pipher’s most recent book, Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World was an exception to this rule.  In this book, Pipher recounts how as her success as a writer soared, the rhythm of her life disintegrated and she had a complete melt down.  She needed to do some deep soul searching, process the residual effects of a fairly dysfunctional childhood and make some concrete changes in her day-to-day life to put herself back on track.

Summarizing her own situation, as well as a universal truth discovered from years of working as a therapist she writes, “For their own reasons, many people politely fall apart at some point in their lives.  How they regroup and move on determines what their future will be.”

Last night I fell apart, not for the first time and certainly not for the last time, and there was nothing polite about it.  It involved lots of screaming, swearing and door slamming. I finally said to my husband and son, “I am going into the new room and closing the door, and unless blood is spilled I do not want anyone to bother me for one hour.”   I then went up to the room above the garage (added twelve years ago but forever to be known as the “new room”), rolled out my yoga mat, lowered myself into “child’s pose” and attempted to quiet the demons that were twisting my intestines into knots and amping my thought process into hyper-drive.  At another point in Pipher’s memoir, she aptly characterizes this physical state to having battery acid poured into her brain.  Yep. Been there.

While Pipher’s life is different from mine on just about every level, I found myself indentifying with her, and reading and re-reading her book as if it contained the road map out of my emotional turbulence.
While most of the time only my immediate family witnesses this – My emotional balance has skidded in and out of equilibrium on many occasions in my adult life.  I remember a time about twenty years ago when I was seeing my regular doctor about some recurring illness and him saying to me I needed to find a way to better manage the stress in my life.  I replied to him earnestly and forcefully,  “I am trying VERY HARD not to be stressed!”  He chuckled a bit, and I seriously could not figure out what I had said that was funny.
So I breathe.  I do yoga.  I try to meditate.  And, as the punch line goes  - I still want to hit somebody.  Mostly I am just trying to survive the situation at hand.  Things like the air-conditioning breaking down in the van, on a 95-degree day with three teenage boys and a three-hour drive ahead of me.  Or spending what is supposed to be a relaxing weekend “up north” cleaning up after the mouse family who is obviously spending far more time at our cabin than my own small family.  It is the accumulation of so many little stresses that completely take me over the edge.  Which brings me back again to Pipher and to the idea of despair.

She writes, "Despair is the subjective state we experience when our inner and outer resources are insufficient to cope with the situation at hand.  At core it involves a breakdown in our trust of ourselves and the universe. It is a 911 call from deep within, warning us that we must make changes if we are to survive psychically.” 

And so I add that last part to the massive “to-do” list in preparation for this year.  Pack, arrange transportation and housing, prepare lesson plans and make necessary changes to survive psychically. 

I always encourage my students to study abroad for at least a semester.  I tell them that the distance will allow new perspectives to emerge, that they will have epiphanies and figure out lots about who they are and what they want to do with their lives.  Heading out of the country for the next eight and half months is about more than practicing what I preach.  I really believe it.  I need the distance.  I need to regroup.  I need to make some changes.  I need to clear the battery acid out of my brain and decide how I can live my life will less anger.  I will fill everyone in when those epiphanies emerge.