Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

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Breaking news! This blog post was recently featured on She Writes. Click here to read the same thing there.

Before I became a writer (or a wife or a mother), I was a ballet dancer. I danced in Europe for most of my career—in Iceland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. For nearly six years I stitched together gigs here and there, which required a mix of talent, timing, and connections. I thought I’d finally cracked the code when I landed three great jobs that would keep me employed for the next year.

But then, all in the same week, the three companies contacted me again. I sat on the couch with a letter from Austria, a fax from Germany, and a telegram in Italian—all informing me of the same news: they were rescinding the job offers. None of the companies was willing to file the paperwork to extend my EU visa. It had nothing to do my dancing.

This is the scene that came to mind this summer when I read email after email from the agents, editors, and publishers I’d come to know in the six years since I started writing the memoir about my identical twins boys who’d been born three and a half months premature.

“The writing is lovely,” they all said in one form or another. “But we don’t know how to market your book” (which, I realized, is code for “we don’t know who will read this.”) The emails wished me luck and sometimes even said that mine was a story that deserved to be told (after, of course, informing me that they would not be the ones helping me tell it.)

I had a choice. I could continue to fish for agents. I could send out a hundred queries to find the one agent willing to go to bat for me and hope that she would have the same persistence looking for editors and publishers.

Or I could take things into my own hands.

I didn’t have to go back to America all those years ago. I could have stayed in Italy and appealed the decisions. But I didn’t want to spend months writing letters in languages I didn’t quite know, filing papers and calling offices when I could just go back home and dance.

That’s how I feel about my memoir. These last six years I’ve learned a lot about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve learned a lot about building a writing community. I even helped found a nonprofit writing group for moms. Three years ago, we self-published an anthology of our essays. When I realized that I knew who to contact to edit my work, who could design the book cover, and who would be my publicist, the decision to publish my book myself was as easy as boarding the next plane for home.

Which brings us back to me crying on the couch with three rejection letters. The week after I flew home from Italy, I was offered a job dancing with a ballet company in San Francisco. Shortly after that, I met my future husband. The friend who introduced us is now godmother to my daughter.

I still wonder what might have happened if I’d tried to keep dancing abroad, just as I might always wonder what would have happened if I kept querying agents. But I also know that leaving when I did helped set the stage (no pun intended) for future accomplishments—a college degree, a family, a new career as a writer.

Sometimes it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. And when you recognize that the time is right, it’s up to you to make it happen.

 

 

Orphaned Post #638

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desk from a cottage in the woods

I am sifting through a very rough draft of a book I’ve been kicking around in my head for years—a book about ballet. This is from the introduction. It doesn’t fit anymore but it deserves to have a home. So here it is. A little nugget from March of 2011.

 

Dear Gentle Reader, (Aren’t readers are always gentle when referred to by their authors?)

            I imagine you curled up on your sofa, drink on the coffee table. Maybe it’s hot chocolate (I myself am partial to hot chocolate) or maybe it’s a hot toddy (perhaps you are partial to those). Or maybe you are sitting on the bus reading during your commute or maybe you are too young for a job and you are instead a budding ballerina, reading this book at night in secret because you are afraid that your mother would never let you read a book that occasionally makes use of the “F” word, which—and you may not be aware of this—is a very handy word when you work in the theatre.

Perhaps you picked up this book because you wanted to know the inside story on ballet—if it is like the movie Black Swan: all sex, drugs, Rachmaninov, and I can assure you that it is. The inside story on ballet, that is. Not necessarily the stories inside this book. There isn’t much sex inside this book. The drugs are limited to over-the-counter narcotics such as nicotine and Dexatrim and the occasional extra-strength laxative. And ibuprofen. Oh, how there ever were ballet dancers before Motrin, I’ll never know. But that’s the extent of the drugs and as for Rachmanianov, really, the only thing he has in common with Tchaikovsky is the fact that they are both Russian.

            But it is the inside story of ballet, the real inside story. Of hope and ambition. Of leaping and falling. Of little girls and grown women. There are shattered dreams just as there are shattered metatarsals. It is the quest for identity—artistic identity, personal identity. It is negotiation between dancing for oneself and dancing for others. After all, if all you do is run around trying to please others, you will never cultivate that one thing that people don’t even know that they want to see—that thing that constitutes your inner you. And yet, if your inner you doesn’t please at least somebody, nobody will offer you a job.

            There is something very strange about the ten-year-old who can see the next twenty years of her life with perfect clarity and feels that there isn’t a moment to lose. It’s probably even stranger when she is right. And there’s something very exotic about teenagers on tour away from home, especially when they grow into long-limbed dancers who wear scarves and soak their feet and agonize over the varying slippage factors of different ribbons. But the real beauty of the stories, just like the real beauty of the dancer (or anyone, really) is what’s within. The real beauty isn’t in the shiny stuff; it’s in the grit and not because dirty is the new shiny, but because the dirt represents the humanness—the vulnerabilities. The falling down, the occasional humiliation.

A broken spirit isn’t inherently beautiful. But you know it what it’s like. You’ve been there. You have been to the place where you dance between what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself and how the universe actually operates. Sometimes the universe isn’t fair and sometimes things don’t happen for a reason. Life events do not have to have a meaning in order to be meaningful. In fact, the mantra “Be in the moment” (which I believe is the new “Just do it”) tries to illicit just that.

            Maybe this book is like fog. Fog always looks like it’s somewhere else. Even when you’re deep in it. You can’t hug it. You can’t touch it. But you feel it. It embraces you. It wraps around you. And sometimes it’s heavy and sometimes it’s light. But it’s not something to take; it’s just something to experience.

            I hope you enjoy the experience of this book.

Don’t-Call-It-A-Vacation Email Responder

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Layout 1Work so busy that you can’t answer your personal email? Try this handy “I’m too busy to pay attention” email response with bonus points for shameless self-promotion. 

Hello and thank you for your email!

If this message is Litquake-related, please contact me at my Litquake email address. If it’s not, please know that my response will be delayed until after October 18th, after the festival.

Until then your best chance of catching up with me is at the festival itself!

Check out our schedule!

I’ll be dancing here (but come for the charismatic poet) and reading here.

 

Writing Prompt: You Remember

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not this bus but one just like it

You remember the time in Ferrara, a town you only know because it’s the last stop in Veneto and because it has a theatre but no ballet company. If it did, you’d have auditioned here on your way to look for more stable work. Now it’s just a stop on the tour. The bus to Reggio Emilia is parked right outside the piazza and you know that in the daytime, it’s a pretty average piazza. If this were a smaller company, the poorly-managed kind without a lot of money, you’d mingle outside the stage doors waiting for the rest of the cast, smoking a cigarette under the “No Fumare” sign and then the group would wobble into town and eat at some local trattoria.

But this time you are with a more prestigious company and so there is no time to explore the town you’ve just performed in. The bus leaves 30 minutes after the last curtain call, the only vehicle in the whole boot of Italy that is punctual. You won’t eat until you get back to Reggio Emilia, and then not you make the final trek back to your tiny apartment. Not only will all the restaurants and trattorias be closed when the bus arrives, but you don’t earn enough to eat out after every performance. (Part of the reason that poorly-managed company never has any money is because they always treat the dancers to dinner.) But here at your new job, you’ll have to eat something at home, and with all the touring this week, there’s scarcely been time to go to the grocery store. There’s probably a bit of proscuitto and there’s always pasta and olive oil, if nothing else.

In a way, it’s no different than the bus that waited to take you from Uvalde, Texas back to El Paso when you were in 8th grade. Except perhaps, that you weren’t smoking then.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Junior High

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Billy Crystal in This is Spinal Tap

It’s 7th grade. I’m twelve years old. Our drama class is going to compete in a citywide speech tournament; all the middle schools are participating. And competing in the tournament will be part of our final grade. The individual categories range from oratorical recitations to prose and poetry readings. I would have recited a poem, (all the girls are reciting poems) but I also want to win. I’ll never stand out in the poetry category. Besides, I know my mom will try to pick out my poem, the way other mothers pick out their daughters clothes. And I know that as a former speech and debate coach, she’ll give me some geeked-out poem to read, like Vachel Lindsey’s “The Congo” when everybody else will be reading Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabbywocky.”

So instead I sign up for the pantomime category. It’s not the sexiest of categories at a school district speech tournament; it’s more like an afterthought. But no one else in my school signs up for pantomime; so at least I’ll stand out. I like that. And if few enough kids sign up across the district, maybe I even have a chance at winning.

My prescience pays off. It’s just me and five other junior mimes in the whole tournament. We have two rounds of competition before the final round, but it’s just a formality. We all advance to finals.

The first rounds test our fundamentals. We pick a scene out of a hat and have three minutes to prepare our gestures: pouring a glass of something to drink, raking leaves, walking a dog. Always looking for an edge, my beverage is something hot and on my mimed sips, I burn my tongue. It impresses the judges. I get a perfect score. But what I’m really trying to do with my pretend coffee cup that’s too hot to touch is hide the fact that I’m a terrible mime. I look nothing like the Shields and Yarnell shows I watched on T.V. as a little kid. When I lift the cup to my mouth I’m not sure how tall the cup is supposed to be or if I’m dipping my head right into the lip of the mug. So I pretend that the cup is too hot to pick up in the first place. I lean down and blow. It’s funny. I know I’m good at funny. And I know I’m good in front of an audience. This much I’m confident of after years of daily ballet classes and rehearsals.

My act is so funny and so original to the judges they don’t even notice that I haven’t actually mimed anything.

The final round is an act choreographed to a five-minute piece of music. During the weeks before the competition, I shut myself upstairs in my bedroom, choreographing to 70’s instrumentals (elevator music hadn’t been invented yet, but that’s what these albums would become). I was painfully aware of how little I could pantomime anything. So I choreographed a magic act. My hat turned into a bird. I rolled a ball that suddenly started bouncing off the ceiling. I perfected my facial reactions to reflect something mysterious or unexpected, but again, there was very little pantomime.

The judges loved it. My whole class came to watch my round, since I was the only person who made it to the final round of anything.

I won first place and snagged a big trophy, back in the days when they were just for winners. I was the best tween mime in all of El Paso—maybe even all of West Texas—an early brush with fame.

The trophy went straight to the trash.

Maybe because I didn’t think I’d earned it. Maybe because I was twelve and mortified easily. Or maybe because—hello? A mime. Ain’t no respect to be had for mimes. They are the lowest of the silent stage performers.

I wish I could say that I never performed as a mime again. But alas, the taste of success was sweet, even if its fruits made me want to hide under a rock. It’s hard to say “no” to the easy win. Especially when your grade is riding on it.

Too bad I didn’t stick with it. I coulda had a career.

Post Script: I’m not sure what I danced to, but it was something like this:

T is for Thank You

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TBack in a past life, I was a ballerina. Only I never called myself that. No dancer uses the word “ballerina.” I sort of like the word now. There’s a lot of stuff I grasp now that I had hated in my previous life.

My entire dance career felt like a fight. That’s part of being a perfectionist. You have to keep the struggle alive. You can’t just be satisfied with something. You have to tear yourself up because you are yearning for that satisfaction and at the same time are terrified that you only have success because of your drive.

I was thinking about this today because I’m in the midst of writing all these emails to people—we’ve got a book launch party! Can you come? And just a few years ago, it would have twisted me up inside to ask people to come.

When I was dancing, sometimes I wouldn’t even come out for my bow. I could do this because many of our bows were ensemble bows and no one would have missed me except for the people on stage. Somehow I’d talk myself into a frenzy. A bow was self-indulgent. It seemed needy and insincere.

I don’t need those people’s approval, their applause. And let’s face it, they’re not clapping for me or even for us. They’re clapping because that’s what you’re supposed to do at the end of a show. Well! I for one will not participate in this farce!

I only sat out the bow once or twice. Turns out directors find that more selfish and self-indulgent than just bowing to the crowd.

I know, you’re wondering how I’m going to bring this back to the book launch party, how I can possibly justify these shameless plugs.

Part of this has to do with the fact that my identity as a person is not as a writer. I’m ok being a lousy writer or a novice writer. Or an amateurish writer. I’m also ok with the idea that someone might think I’m a pretty good writer.

I was never like that as a dancer. I wasn’t ok with the idea that anyone would think I was a lousy dancer and at the same time, I balked at the idea that I could ever be a pretty good dancer. I had to keep the fight. No wonder if felt insincere to invite someone to see me perform.

By contrast my writing isn’t about me (even though all I do is write about me!). I know the two people on staff at the NICU who ask about my writing will genuinely want to know about this book event, even if they can’t go. So I’ll invite them. I know my neighbors are curious and the moms in Chiara’s classroom are supportive, so I’ll invite them. They’ll be too busy to come or they’ll want to come but can’t or who knows, maybe they are secretly hoping I’ll fail, although I don’t attract those sort of people the way I did when I was dancing.

And none of it will have to do with me.

Here’s what I didn’t get as a dancer: that the bow is the time when the dancer is face to face with the audience as a person, not a character, and she has the opportunity to thank them. Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoyed the show. Not, “I hope you liked me.” That’s what I didn’t get.

That’s what these parties are. A chance to celebrate. To say “thank you” to the people who have supported us and “look!” to the people who have been curious. They might not be able to come. They might not be able to buy books. But that’s not the point. The point is that I can thank them and I can thank them in the invitation to the dance.

If you’d like to be thanked in person, come join us tomorrow night at Diesel Books in Oakland at 7pm. Or Sunday, April 27th at the Bookmine in Napa. Or May 4th  in Corte Madera at Book Passage. How about May 8th in San Francisco or May 17th at Copperfields in Sebastopol? (See what I did there?)

Giselle in Three Acts of Life

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“And then the Willis make him dance

(thank you wikipedia)

until he’s really tired and then they throw him in the lake.”

This was Chiara explaining the story of Giselle to four young boys under the age of four.

I was sixteen the first time I saw Giselle. American Ballet Theatre had come to San Francisco and Eddie Ellison (whom I was so sure had stolen my Walkman but to whom I said nothing because Eddie Ellison was really hot) snuck us into the Opera House and we watched from the standing-room-only area. Baryshnikov and Alessandra Ferri were dancing the leads. I was so star-struck by Alessandra Ferri that I waited at the artists’ entrance and got my first-ever autograph. Duncan Cooper snuck into the dressing rooms and stole what he claimed was Baryshnikov’s shoe.

The second time I saw Giselle, I was in it. As Giselle’s double in the second Act. The night before I’d boarded an overnight train that left Verona at midnight and arrived in Graz, Austria at 8 in the morning. I made my way from the train station to the ballet studio, took company class and afterwards the director said, “What are you doing today?”

Uh, going to Vienna to see what their ballet company is like?

“Because we need a dancer with brown hair for tonight’s performance of Giselle.”

So I stayed for rehearsal, “danced” in the performance, (which really meant being strung up in a harness and being floated across the stage), stayed in a B&B paid for the ballet company. I stayed a week (included one return trip to Verona to get fresh clothes, also paid for by the company), and sat in on a boatload of boring Act I rehearsals. I actually still have a small Austrian pension since ballet dancers are government employees.

The third time I saw Giselle was today sitting next to Chiara in the balcony of the San Francisco Opera House.

When Daddy Dances

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I danced my last Nutcracker in 1996, but my husband is still performing, year after year, as the Sugarplum Fairy cavalier. He has known some of the ballet students since they were soldiers in the Battle Scene.

Every Saturday from September to December, my husband rehearses and coaches the girls he will dance with. As an extra bonus for me, he takes our children with him. Our daughter Chiara has been attending Nutcracker rehearsals since she was seven months old. She loves it. For the past three years she’s been right beside him onstage.

Her first Nutcracker as a spectator at just under two years old, however, was a little different. By the time she was a year and ten months, she was sitting through two-hour dress rehearsals without incident. So I thought nothing of taking her to an actual performance to see Daddy dance.

As soon as she saw him jete’ onstage at the beginning of the second act she yelled out, “Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Not in a “bravo” kind of voice, but with the voice you use to warn someone that they’re about to be hit by a bus. All the dancers onstage smiled a little harder. One of the candy canes suppressed a giggle.

When Matt made his first exit into the wings, Chiara burst into tears.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!”

I think she thought he fell off the face of the earth.

“Where Daddy? Where Daddy?” she kept asking. I’d tell her: first there’s the Spanish variation, then Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Merlitons, Mother Ginger, Waltz of the Flowers, and then Daddy.

After the last flower waltzed away, the lights lowered and the soft music of the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux began to twinkle.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Chiara yelled when she saw her father escort the Sugarplum onto the stage.

“Shhhhhh. . .” from the row in front of us. They were the ushers.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!”

An usher hissed at us again.

I scooped my daughter up in my arms made a hasty exit. With the secret toddler ninja wiggle that makes kids both slippery and brick-like, Chiara broke free and ran to the doors leading back into the theatre.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!” She pounded her tiny fists on the door, doing her best Brando from Streetcar.

She was even more hysterical there in the foyer, so we went back in.

Even in the dark I could feel the ushers’ steel glares. Would we be asked to leave? It is a kid’s ballet, after all.

Chiara stopped sobbing, but she continued to call out from time to time. On stage my husband gracefully promenaded his lovely partner. He was beaming. He’s dancing for his little girl. Why should we leave?

Every time Chiara called for him, Matt and the Sugarplum smiled a little broader, sharing this inside joke with everyone else in the theatre who had seen our daughter at the front of the rehearsal studio next to the mirrors eating her morning snack and watching her Daddy dance.

Chiara is a fixture at these Saturday rehearsals in the ballet studio, but the real fixture is my husband. If you are a parent of a kid in this show, you know him. He entertained your daughter backstage when she was an angel in the prologue. He taught her how to do finger turns and supported lifts during pas de deux class. And if your kid is a boy, my husband taught him fart jokes. If you are remotely involved with your child’s pre-professional ballet career, you adore my husband. And you probably know Chiara as well.

So if a little girl crying for her daddy is ruining the show for you, maybe you should lighten up.

Which is more or less what I told those ushers.