Monday, April 28, 2014



When I was a student at Hess School of Dance, there were no classes during the summer. We were strongly encouraged to attend the West Texas State University (WTAMU now) Dance Camp. I probably begged to be allowed to go. The first year I went I was 10 years old. I was the youngest student staying in the dorms. Most kids would commute because the little town of Canyon, TX that was home to the university was only about a 20 minute drive. Now, in Seattle, I drive about 20 minutes to go places everyday. It's so funny now to remember that drive to Canyon feeling like it took so long. The two week camp (I only stayed for one week) was run and taught by Dance Department majors, and it was a blast. We had classes in things that I did not often get to do: tap, jazz (real jazz... not the stuff Mr. Hess choreographed for us), musical theater, and the very exotic (to us) modern dance. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that there were teachers and dancers in the world who were kind and encouraging. I learned that I really was crazy flexible because the teachers would always call it out. I wanted to make them happy and worked hard. I hope that everyone of them knows what a difference they made to all of us young “Hess Girls.”

I could not wait to stay in the dorms, but I was also terribly nervous. Going in to set myself up the first afternoon all my fears immediately dissipated when I laid eyes on Elise Carlton. She was a few years older than me, blue eyed and blond haired and only knew how to smile. I remember that she tucked me under her wing, assuring me and my parents that we would be together and that I would be fine. She was a star at the studio during the year. I first met her when I was 7 years old and performing in The Nutcracker for the first time. I was terribly nervous then, too, and Elise had the same effect: calming encouragement. That year, Elise was splitting the starring role of Clara with another girl named Tanny. I still had a Christmas ornament from each of those Claras this year when I pulled out the stuff to decorate. I tossed the one from Tanny (I just do NOT need that many reminders that Nutcracker is no longer a part of my life hanging all over my tree), but I kept the one from Elise. It's a wooden toy soldier whose arms and legs flail when the string is pulled. Her name and the year are written in Sharpie on the bottom.

Even at my very young age I could gather that some mommies gave lots of money to the ballet, some didn't, and some would have if they could. There was a definite presence of Texas socialites in the arts scene. Now, I'm not saying that the ONLY reason girls got to be Clara was because of money because in later years some of those rich girls were also my friends, were mostly kind, and were talented. I am saying that having your mother be active in the Guild and high up on the donation list weren't bad things. Perhaps my childhood impressions and recollections aren't right, but chances are they were more right than I knew. I do believe, though, that it was a rare thing for the child of a mom who was not in any obvious way connected and well-funded to receive the role of Clara. Elise fell into this category. She achieved a rare privilege, I believe, because she was a rare gem and everyone could see it. I hope never, ever to be disabused of this notion. She was beautiful, talented, but mostly had one of the best attitudes I've ever seen and pure kindness for days. She was a perfect Clara. I can still see her lovely little arabesque turn in the second act with her long blond, perfectly done sausage curls swinging out behind her. The blue of her bow complimenting her natural coloring perfectly. She was like a painting by Renoir or Cassat.

That summer at camp I got to know Elise even better. She was hilarious, and she had sharp wit and criticism for mean people which made her own kindness that much more obvious. She once burped the most awful burp I've ever experienced, and I will never forget it. The grossness made her human and so brave to be that unladylike without shame. I remember being in awe that she and her friends let me be a part of their crew. I ran into one of them this winter on a trip back to Amarillo. We said “hello,” and I learned that she was a 1st grade teacher. Of course. She had always been nice to little kids. One of the other girls was another absolute beauty with thick blond hair and big blue eyes. I have a picture of her somewhere holding up a picture of Christie Brinkley on a magazine cover next to her own face, a dead ringer at age 13. I felt like such a fuzzy headed, gangly spazz next to them all.

As years went on at the studio, I passed up those girls dance-wise. By that time, I was going away for up to 6 weeks at a time to study ballet at some of the best schools in the country. I'm so grateful that Elise and her pals made me feel safe that first summer. If it had been a bad experience, who knows if I would have been able to do all the "camps" I did in the future. They were all into high school, and dance just became their extracurricular while I danced 7+ hours a day. I still had such a high regard for them, though. Their behavior was proof to me that attitude really was everything. That there was more to being successful than raw talent and hard work. Elise is still a reminder to me of the difference that confident kindness can make not just to one person but in an entire school of people. Her mother is friendly and hilarious too- motivation to be a great example for my kids. 

 After Elise graduated high school, she worked for the musical drama TEXAS down in the Palo Duro Canyon. She wasn't the star of the show- perhaps she was no longer interested in spending hours on dancing, but she was using her five-star smile as a member of the hospitality team. I saw her down there a few times and it was always such a joyful conversation. I remembered her in the awful, ruffle-necked, Little House style, pastel gingham checked dresses all the women on hospitality had to wear when I pulled out that ornament in December. My kids were playing with it. One son was being too rough with it and I snapped at him a bit too hard. I felt bad because he was just acting his age, so I took a moment to explain my strong reaction: “That ornament is really important to me! It reminds me of someone very special.” “Why?” my five year old asked. “She was special because she showed me how important it is to be sweet, and the ornament is important because she died.” Elise was killed in a dramatic car accident at age 19 when driving to TEXAS one night. A terrible, terrible loss.  

Saturday, April 26, 2014

My Memories

I love reading memoirs. They are so interesting to me. Mostly, I like them because I think: "Now, here's someone like me. Someone who is ok with other people seeing inside her head." The difference, though, between me and the She's is this: they believe their experiences are worth writing down for others. I belittle my own experiences. I truly think I do this because I never reached my goal of becoming a soloist or prinicipal dancer in a ballet company. Heck, I never made the corps. In that world, clout is based on rank and success. Ballet-wise, I never had much success, so I've relegated myself to a corner where I tell myself that the things that happened to me don't matter. People want to hear about the lives of people who made it, right? I don't know. But, I have decided this: I want to write it all down anyway. So, here's my first little installment:

Tendue. Tendue. We love to do tendue.

Miss Sharon was my first ballet teacher. In my mind she has the face of the actress who played Corky on Murphy Brown. I do know that she talked in a baby voice that I loved and had a blonde, Shirley Temple-has-become-a-teenager kind of hairstyle. It was the eighties. Leg warmers abounded along with high cut legs on the leotards and shiny, very shiny, tights. I only have impressionistic memories of my first ballet classes. I was three years old. An age that I only now, as a mother realize is so young. Maybe it was even a ballet/tap combo? Or ballet/jazz? The memories all have a sweaty warmth to them and that smell that is unmistakable: shoe leather, foot odor, rosin, and people. It kind of smells like old books. I think the only other smell I love as much is the smell of my mom's hair when she would lean over to kiss me goodnight after coming home post-bedtime from a night out- the smell of Dior Poison, fajita's from Chili's, and second-hand cigarette's from the adjacent smoking section. I can't remember any details as clearly as I remember that smell from the studio.

I remember being excited about going. I do remember crying when my mom left, but I don't think it was on the first day. I also don't think it was the screaming, tantrum, shameful (to my mind) crying of the little girl who clung to her parent and refused to be comforted. My sadness was just a quiet little bit of fear at being separated and challenged to do something I didn't know how to do yet. It feels odd now to think of a time when I didn't yet know the vocabulary, when plie, relevee, and tendue were still Greek to me- or, rather, French. I now know many, many french verbs in active form. If we are ever stuck among French-only speaking people, I will sound very bossy as we try to make our way. The records that Miss Sharon would play were as crackling as a campfire. I remember the song: “Tendue. Tendue. We love to do tendue. See the way we relevee...”

I'm not sure that I remember my first recital, but I do have the sense memory of hugging my dad's neck as he carried me up some stairs to a different studio on a different day than usual. It was an upstairs studio, and there were cookies after. Mexican wedding cookies, I think, with all the powdered sugar. That must have been a recital- would have justified the cookies and fruit punch. I do remember one recital when (a few classes under my belt already; maybe I was 5 or 6) I had the distinct feeling that Mr. Bruce was counting on me to remember the dance and lead my fellow students through it. Looking back, it was a terrible, boring dance. A real phone-it-in job. I've taught enough creative movement and beginner level classes to know. The record skipped, or maybe the song was just the wrong version? Or played a bit too long? Not sure, but I do know that it did not go well. I could tell by the panic on Mr. Bruce's face that it was his problem, not mine. It was the first of many times that I felt the pressure to carry the show.

I remember that the teachers would always say to go home and practice. I did. I didn't know at the time that I was probably the only one, or maybe one of a couple, that did. I would practice a lot. I would stretch and run through the dances with my body and then just in my mind. I remember swinging on my backyard swingset and chanting/counting through the movements to my dances. We did a jazz dance to “Electric Youth” by Debbie Gibson; and, thanks to the home movie that was made, I still remember most of it and remember the chanting of the steps. I've had people be surprised by the fact that we dancers are speaking the movements in our heads while we dance. How else would we remember?

All those little courses at the Amarillo College gave me something vital to my future in dance: the sense that I loved to perform. I wasn't screaming and begging to be taken home. I felt early on that this was serious work. WE LOVE TO DO TENDUE. No messing around. People want to see some serious ballet performance. And I'm going to give it to them. As a firstborn child with a bent towards arrogance, I would not probably have kept on if I didn't think I was good at it. Miss Sharon, Lou Jean (like “Blue Jean,” she'd say), Mr. Bruce, I could tell that they were giving me more attention than others. They were impressed with my flexibility and attentiveness. I found my favorite thing at a tender age, and, thankfully, those teachers at Amarillo college made me believe I could do it.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Every time I round a corner in our new house it's like the first time all over again. I hope this, "ahhh, I live here!" feeling never goes away. Now before you start thinking that we must live in some mansion, know that we don't, but it doesn't matter because it feels that way to me! God had this spot in mind for us, and I know it because of how our home-purchase story unfolded. In a crazy, competitive market, we experienced neither crazy nor competition and got the place for slightly under market value. The only reasonable explanation is that God wanted us to live here (and provided us with an excellent agent!). It is a 5 star hotel compared to the fleabag we just left. Thankfully, fleas are one type of vermin we did not experience at the former address (Watson is the most thankful), but there were plenty of others. It is only now in this safe and serene shelter, that I realize how much stress the old house caused me every day. I started, but thanks to the backspace button you (and future me) don't need to endure a list of those stresses. Suffice to say: rats were a presence at the homebirth of one of my children, and termites once interrupted a family movie night by suddenly streaming into the room from under the carpet. The little hostess that lives inside me has emerged from the fall-out shelter I stuffed her in and is still dazzled and blinking in the sunshine of her new digs, squinting and filling her calendar with guests much faster than anyone with POTS should even think of doing.

I have been reminded again of how I need artistic outlet and opportunities to be creative to flourish. Coming into this space and being able to arrange furniture and hang pictures and curtains has been so refreshing. I've even taken up pirouetting in the living room again. The creative energy has been the only energy as the move was completely draining to my poor body, but boy has it felt great to feel that lose-track-of-time, get-lost-in-my-ideas type of enthusiasm again! It has been a long time. I suppose the artist who lives in me was in that basement shelter too, and she is reveling in the startling feeling of breeze on her skin while arranging flowers and placing posies that aren't being wasted to dress up a pig.

So, yes, I've been thinking of the promised land and how one day I will feel all these great rejuvenating feelings for eternity where there won't even be POTS. I can find out just what use he always had in mind when he gave me love for people, parties, posies and pirouettes (and even POTS). God never promised me a dream house, of course, but Canaan has been a picture of the loving, specific plans God makes for his people.

Most of us have a spiritual life's story punctuated by a few big "ah-ha" moments and many small ones. My big moments were mostly sad or hard, and I began to treasure the gritty challenge of finding God's work in my most difficult circumstances. I was sort of becoming a glutton for punishment. The side effect of that was the development of a belief that God only would give me lessons through pain and I began to expect things to go wrong for me. Then Ivo was born; and, even though the rats were there too, I felt for the first time true shock and overwhelming joy that God was teaching me through lavish gifts (the birth was a dream-come-true type experience for us natural birth junkies). What a wonderful Ah-Ha that was! God gives good gifts! Duh! It's not as though that was God's first big gift to me; it just was the first time I noticed spiritual growth in a time of fat rather than lean. I've been reflecting on that moment because this whole house thing feels the same way. I'm tempted to feel guilty about living in a beautiful, spacious home, and I am tempted to cringe and worry about what people think of me. Joy-robbing thoughts these are, and I have to quiet them. This is God's gift to us. It feels like the land of Canaan. And good news: it's not even inhabited by people I have to route out! That would just be very unnerving indeed. Our family challenge now is to not forget where this house came from: straight from the hand of God. Yes, we saved money. Yes, Brendan works hard. Yes, we lived in the decrepit house for a long time. But that's not how this house came to us. And, Lord! Don't let us run after other gods.