Just over two weeks ago I was in Sunday ballet class, feeling wonderfully strong and lithe, like a musical note brought to flesh. Sometimes, as all dancers know, there is a moment in class in which the mind finally recedes, and the purity of the body intermingling with music takes over: this is the Joy that knows no linguistic description, aside, perhaps, what one might call a mystical absorption.
I have known this Joy in some manifestation almost my entire life. I remember feeling it for the first time as a small girl when I first discovered ¨turn-out:¨ I simply reveled in the sensation of my small legs rotating (flopping, really) like a tired frog. It is this happiness, this physical, indeed almost sexual, marriage of limb to note that keeps most dancers in class far beyond their youth or performing years.
On that particular Sunday I remember feeling the grand allegro music was out of sync with the combination. The combination was both light and huge; the music was just huge. But I didn’t care, I only knew I wanted to jump in my old way of jumping. Big, carefree, high, happy. So I did. And for those moments of release I am now paying a dear price.
From a high grand jete I landed hard on a weak and already traumatized knee. This joint has gone through three surgeries as well as years of dancing, running, and intense yoga asana. As my heart sang and lifted like a child, my knee joint revealed the reality of my current physical being: vulnerable, wounded, fragile despite all the work on strength and stability. Aging. Aging and easily damaged. I suppose my knee is a bit of a mirror to my mind, despite the soul’s protest.
I could not walk the rest of the day. The following day, and in the days since, I have been working with the injury, noting its ¨bad¨ and ¨good¨ days. But the swelling has not really receded, and today my trusted orthopedic surgeon told me he suspects I have ripped whatever was left of my meniscus.
Asana helps. Listening to the pain helps. Touch, even painful touch, helps. But this wound is an agonizing and constant reminder that life changes irrevocably and quickly, that transience is our only state of being, and that while it is lovely and necessary to plan out one’s time, one must be ready, as quickly as it takes to (badly) land a grand jete, to accept changes one neither welcomes nor planned.
Exactly two weeks from now there is an audition being held for a modern dance company I yearn with every ounce of my soul to be a part of: the choreographer is gorgeously musical, and her movement is sensual, cerebral, difficult and profoundly thoughtful. When I move with her direction I simply feel more alive, as though I am a part of some organism that pulses with a collective and sensual breath. Her dancers are beautiful and her pieces endlessly interesting.
I have been working intensely toward this already difficult, perhaps impossible goal. It now might be out of reach altogether. The devastation is almost wordless, and the metaphorical meaning of perhaps having to bow out almost more than I can bear. However, beneath this grief, or beside it, or perhaps under it – it surrounds me like cold water – there lives a hesitant curiosity. What would my existence feel like without dance? What would it consist of, what would it look like, taste like, what parts of my body might close, or even open, without ritualized movement? Certainly my mind, my soul, my heart, would be altered, but how?
And why is my ego so very attached to dance? It has been my refuge, my great love and passion, and has led me to love with equal intensity other forms of creative engagement, particularly music. But it is also an ¨identity.¨ I am ¨this form,¨ and that creates inflexibility, mental stubbornness and, ultimately, great suffering.
We all practice this attachment to identity. Identity is a pattern, and a necessary one; it is also an element of existence that must change, that will change, whether we want the pattern to remain the same or not. The great meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often tells stories about Ram Dass and his many manifestations. In his early years he was the Harvard genius, then the loudest cheerleader for dropping-out and LSD; later the healing mystic, the yogi, the community activist. His body, like a morphing god or Patanjali with his hood of many thousand serpents, has taken on many lives, many forms.
Most of us have not lived with the bravery and intensity of Ram Dass. But we all take on many different forms during the passing of our time in a particular body. Sometimes we are not even conscious of the differentiation, or the shifting pattern, but the change is constant.
So I suppose I am not ¨a dancer.¨ Or a yogi. Or even a mother. Well, maybe I am a mother – I certainly cannot see for now beyond that pattern, especially as my infant daughter clings and fusses at this very moment. We are rivers of illusive form: sometimes a rock will live for a long time in a stream, and will change the shape of the eddies and waves. But when the rock moves the waves move too. I think we are something like this river and rock, undulating to time’s passing.
The impediment of my knee injury is a horrible affront to my body and my ego and my plans. Maybe it is also an unwelcome but fine teacher. And don’t we all wish our teachers could come to us with more palatable lessons? Would, then, we listen?