Keepsakes

When a bedroom became my home office, I chose the things I wanted around me. A framed black and white photo of a pier. Books on writing, memoirs, poetry, and journals. A particular copy of The Giving Tree. This book remained precious even after a Women’s Studies classmate destroyed the ending for me (it really is terrible — give your whole self away…and happily!). This Giving Tree represents something else.

At sixteen, I went to a summer high school theater and dance program at Northwestern University for six weeks. Six weeks that felt, at first, like forever. Homesick for my friends and family and California. Exhausted from hours of dancing every day. Not sure how to insert myself into the social life that everyone else seemed to know how to do. Not sure anyone would want me to. One night, pressing back tears, I told a dance teacher that all I wanted to do was sleep, but thought I should go downstairs where everyone else was hanging out. He encouraged the latter instinct. “Yes. Go down there.”

I did, certain it would be horrible. That no one would say hello. That all friendships had been formed. I knew how this worked; there would be cool kids and outsiders, and I was never in the cool kid group. Down the stairwell of Allison Hall, unairconditioned in the Midwest humidity, I could hear the hubbub and laughter and energy of the theater kids splayed out all over each other on the lounge sofas. I pictured entering and no head turning. Or worse, heads turning, and then turning back. I walked through the wide opening to this lounge, and stood still. Then I heard my name called from someone sitting in the middle of everything. There was room.

Every day we had “movement for actors,” where we learned to salute the sun and mean it. We felt a connection to something bigger, something remembered and still reachable from childhood. We could be open and unafraid and unembarrassed and unencumbered. One morning, our teacher turned on the Talking Heads at high volume and let us go, and we danced like wild things, playful and with abandon. That album still opens that space in me.

The day before we were to go home, our teachers woke us early and told us to come downstairs, no questions. This was a time before cell phones (let us recall with gratitude), and a space of trust and connection had been built. We moved down the stairwells and followed them to a green space. In groups of ten or so, we stood in circles centered around a sapling and a shovel. We shared how we had grown over these six weeks, then planted our tree and blessed it with our intentions.

Then, we each received The Giving Tree, personalized and signed by every adult who had nurtured and watered us over these weeks. They had stayed up all night signing every book. They told a 16-year-old girl who was not the best dancer in her group — not by far — what made me special, that I gave my heart when I danced and that it had moved them. One signature stayed with me most, a blessing and an admonition from the same dance teacher who had nudged me to go downstairs that night: “Your artistry shone brightly here. Don’t ever hide it.”

I pick up this book every few years, read what my teachers wrote and wonder if I am living up to it. Some years more than others, they have reminded me that I am more than the family grocery-shopper and appointment maker. I am that sixteen year old who felt the sun on her face and stretched her arms out wide without a sense of cynicism or shame, and danced in a space free of judging myself or others. It reminds me of the power of rituals and words, and the way a few generous words can send a young person into a future with a sense of their power, the impact they have on others, and what they can aspire to. That the right words can remain a touchstone decades into the future. We all have an artistry — whether it is dancing, or writing, or making someone laugh, or baking a cake, or tucking in a child, or caring for a parent. Whatever yours is, may my teacher’s words be my gift to you today: Your artistry shines brightly. Don’t ever hide it.