Let’s talk about despair for a minute, and then let’s get to joy.
There is a low-grade despair that alternates with joyful moments, a dance of emotion I’ve gotten used to over this period of isolation. But sometimes the despair piles on, and there is a giving up. I retreat to a dark bedroom, disengage, until I become impatient with my own desolation, annoyed by my stillness. Until I say to myself, I do not like this feeling, and I am not going to stay here. I set my mind to find a way out.
A friend once told me: The mind cannot hold despair and gratitude at once.
I start with a breath. I sit up in my sweaty, wrinkled t-shirt, and stand up on solid legs. I feel my feet connect to floor, every dutiful achy bone balancing me, and I thank my legs and feet. I take another breath, another step, and one by one I open the shutters over the windows that line the wall, like cells in a jail opening. When I feel despair, I start with light.
When I feel despair, I go outside. I notice the feeling of air on my skin of my face, my arms. I thank my skin, the air. I look at the wide sky, or walk to where I can see the ocean, anything that can remind me of my smallness.
When I feel despair, I turn on music and dance.
In this I am not alone. An NPR article on loneliness during the pandemic shared:
Dana and Jeanne say they’ve always been very social — Dana with her nightly salsa dance with friends, her mom with trips to the theater, ballet, bridge groups and two book clubs. Stopping those activities was difficult for Jeanne.
“It was very traumatic at first,” she says. “You don’t know what to do with yourself.”
The neighborhood had taken to banging on pots every night at 8 p.m., partly as an affirmation of community, but Dana and Jeanne wanted to do more. Dana said to her mom, “Why don’t we just dance?”
Jeanne, though she always loved to dance, says she initially found the suggestion “a little ridiculous,” but figured it was worth a try. So they put up a sign on their garage door saying they would play recorded music and be out dancing in front of their house every Saturday evening. The sign invited neighbors to join them in the weekly dance party — at a distance.
For the first seven weeks they danced alone. Then neighbors started coming, some to watch, some to dance, some to chat. “Dancing is healing medicine,” Dana says.
It has been more than six months since my Sunday morning dance class was canceled indefinitely. I’ve talked about this class before. It may be called “cardio funk” but it is actually group therapy, or “planned joy,” according to a classmate who once scheduled her chemo treatments around it. We enter the room, join this gathering of persistent dancers, greet our own reflections, leave our outside worries at the door. We enter our sanctuary, knowing we will be rewarded for coming.
Our teacher, our Moses, leads us out of our private thoughts and distractions with pumping music that fills the space, and with the outsized persona he dons for these two hours. We become different people from who we are every day.
I often wished my sons would come and see me dance, as if I wanted them to see who I really am. Not the person in the kitchen asking them to put their dishes all the way in the dishwasher, or who provides them dinner without their second thought, who helps with homework or plunges a toilet, the person they rely on. I am that person, but not only her. I am also the woman standing in the front of the dance studio, learning the steps, sweating and smiling, striving and messing up and doing it again, until the last measure of music. I want my boys to understand the whole of me.
I had tried zoom dance classes in March and April, but the medium shrank the joy, only reminding me of what was lost. But last Saturday night, in a quiet house where only three of us now live, I could no longer ignore the sense of despair slowly seeping into my marrow. I knew the cure I needed.
Christopher and Emmett were in the family room watching NBA playoffs, a welcome opium for our masses so needing of distraction and entertainment.
I took my phone into the dark living room and turned on music, turned the sound all the way up, and set it in a rounded glass to expand its reach, my own personal disco. I sang with Alicia Keys about being girls on fire, and we hit the drumbeats hard. Swirling and singing, legs aching toward exhaustion, a state I have not found these past months of plodding fearfulness, Lady Gaga and I proclaimed that we were born this way: born in bodies needing to move to music, bodies that cannot contain our longing for joy, that we are all of us on the edge of glory.
Christopher, hearing the music and my thumping jumping around, my adamant, breathless, off-key singing, wandered away from the basketball game and into my darkened dance hall. As I kicked and hopped and expelled the last cells of my despair, emptying my vessel and refilling it, he sat on the couch and watched.
I smiled an invitation. Get up and dance with me.
P.S. Stay tuned for the release later this month of a short and sweet e-book,
“Dance With Me: a love letter to my grandmother.”