It occurred to me the other week that I’m rapidly running out of time to play the ingenue. This is true, but it’s also irrelevant, given that not only did I never manage to pursue that career in theatre that I’d vaguely dreamed of but that I don’t even do the Waiting for Guffman thing these days, busy as I am selling out. I guess I’d just always harbored the illusion that someday I was going to play Eponine and it was kind of jarring to realize that even though I’m carded on a semi-monthly basis, that doesn’t make me a passable sixteen-year-old street urchin.
I quietly retired from theatre and ballet as I was going through my eating disorder a few years back. Mirrors, as you might expect, were an obvious trigger, as were costumes; simply having my measurements taken is a surefire way to make me skimp on eating. All that aside, I’d also been considering quitting for several months. Ballet class had become increasingly hard to make as I rose the ranks at work and I couldn’t imagine myself existing in some kind of in-between state where I took class as my schedule allowed, feeling less and less capable as the weeks went by. It had to be all or nothing.
For a long time I was content. My decision to give up a time-consuming hobby paid off at work, and I felt at greater peace with my body than if I had had to stare at it in a mirror for hours every week. Eventually, though, I started to dream about dancing. Every so often in my dreams I am wearing ballet slippers or even pointe shoes and sashaying across the floor or spinning like a top. I wake with a start and my legs feel heavy and clumsy, and for a few days I mourn my lost agility.
One of the things I’ve been most disappointed to discover as I grow older is that moving beyond an urgent emotion is not the same thing as getting over it. As it turns out, “getting over” something — closure — is a myth. I always thought that I was simply bad at it. I tend to harbor feelings for far longer than seems acceptable. Old flames will appear in my dreams, or their names will drift into mind at the oddest of moments. I think sometimes about both the men and the roles I’ve lost to other women and I feel bitterness stir within me, as though it hadn’t been twelve years since the time someone else’s name appeared on the cast list where I expected mine to be, as though I can even think of my fling with H____ without cringing at how ill-suited we were for one another. You’re supposed to be past this, I used to think to myself, feeling betrayed by a gut that won’t obey my brain.
In recent years I’ve come to be more forgiving of how I engage with my memories. A few months back, I took my first ballet class in three years. I felt immediately at home again in the studio, where my muscles remembered just how to lift my leg into an elegant developpe. Of course, just because my muscles remember how to do it doesn’t mean they actually can, and I looked in the mirror to discover that I looked like a hunchback since I can’t lift my leg higher than my waist without my back bending in half anymore. (It was rough.) But I was thrilled to discover that even though I kept falling out of my pirouettes, the joy I felt in my dreams was now manifest in real life. I didn’t need to find closure with dance; I could create a differently shaped space than the one that it used to occupy within me, and I wondered whether I might do the same with my other memories.
I thought about this again when I finally got around to reading Turtles All the Way Down the other day, on a plane. I think the Venn diagram of “people who have read Turtles All the Way Down” and “people who read my blog” is basically a circle, but for the uninitiated, it’s John Green’s latest gut-wrencher about teenagers who are just a little too articulate to be real navigating trauma. I am almost over John Green at this point, which is probably for the best as although I still get carded at the airport bar I am borderline elderly. Turtles All the Way Down still got at me, though, partly because I was drunk on a plane and listening to Paul Simon but mostly because John Green articulates universal truths about the human experience downright uncannily.
The funny thing about the plane I was on is that it wasn’t the plane I was supposed to be on. I was supposed to meet my boyfriend at the airport in Denver after he flew in from San Francisco so we could fly together to Spokane for Christmas. It wasn’t the first time I’ve met a boyfriend halfway through a trip so we could fly together on the final leg to a family holiday. Bizarrely, it wasn’t even the first time I’ve done so in the United terminal in Denver (which is a bleak place for an emotionally significant memory. Although there’s a great Mexican food place in the middle of the B concourse if you’re ever stuck there and hungry, which, if you fly United often, you probably will be someday).
For days I, being me, had been expending altogether too much energy contending with the prospect of replacing a memory that I reluctantly hold precious. I wanted to blow it to pieces and create a new one to take its place, knowing that what followed that afternoon in 2013 was a disaster, but I couldn’t fathom relinquishing it. Of course, United, being United, delayed my flight from New York to Denver long enough that I’d miss the flight from Denver to Spokane, and so I was torn from my reverie by the more immediate task of figuring out how to get to Spokane at the same time as my boyfriend — who was traveling from San Francisco — so that he wouldn’t have to meet my parents for the first time without me there. (Are you cringing? I’m cringing. It didn’t even happen and I’m still cringing. Bless Tina at the Premier desk for getting my butt into a seat on an alternate flight.)
And so I was on this flight, from Chicago instead of Denver, having dodged something of a bullet but ashamed to be hung up enough on a four-year-old memory that it was a relief to not have to confront it. It felt ridiculous to me that I could be as thrilled as I was to be bringing someone I love home to meet other people I love and still harbor — regret? Bitterness? It wasn’t even clear to me what emotion I was experiencing, let alone why, but whatever it was, it was exacerbated by the fact that I’ve been struggling to negotiate with the contradictions of that earlier relationship.
Lately, memories long dormant have cropped up again and others have appeared to me in a different light. I can’t say I repressed these memories so much as I filed them away under “something that made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time,” but the zeitgeist is pulling them out of the filing cabinet and into sharp relief. Suddenly, I’m able to articulate what made me uncomfortable seventeen years ago in sixth grade typing class, thirteen years ago in the text messages a friend’s boyfriend kept sending to me unbidden, six years ago in the Downtown Cocktail Room off Fremont Street. Four years ago, in a relationship founded on a power imbalance.
I feel vindicated. I struggle with that word because it evokes celebration. Nothing about these memories is to be celebrated. I think many of us feel vindicated. That was wrong, we can say now, and we can’t do much about it but we can look at the men who wronged us knowingly, and assume that karma will get them someday, or it already has, and refile those memories under “something that made me uncomfortable because someone was reaping the benefits of patriarchy.”
But what of the memories themselves, which are hardly so black and white as to be definitively wrong? There are incidents that I’ve recast in my mind as wild, or flattering, or pleasantly unexpected, events that were as thrilling as they were discomfiting and I don’t know what to do now that I can locate them in the moral grey area. I thought I was past these memories and all that they represent and suddenly I must negotiate with them again, and consider whether they invalidate the precious things that followed.
It feels untoward to conflate my relationship with ballet and theatre or even my memories of being treated poorly or like an object with the horror show coming out in the media and my Facebook feed of late. My stories may not be black and white, but they bothered me, and they changed me, and that’s where I see the thread emerge. I had to acknowledge that the hobbies I loved so innocently as a teenager were destroying me as an adult. I decided to remember each of these incidents as positive in some way, because I didn’t have the vocabulary to say that they weren’t, and being forced to acknowledge the ways in which they were wrong is disorienting.
In everything, I’m learning to rearrange the ways in which I hold my passions and my memories. I brought up Turtles All the Way Down because there was a line that really struck me on a day when I was feeling overwhelmed by a memory that was cropping up when I didn’t want it to of a moment that was part of a pattern I now recognize as damaging. I’m sure you’ll see some version of it tattooed on today’s fifteen-year-olds in three years when they’re old enough to do that, but for now:
“You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in this world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person, and why.”
Love is how you become a person. It’s hardly novel to say that each of us is who we are because of what we’ve experienced, but it feels untoward to acknowledge the role that those experiences — long past — continue to play in our adult lives. But adulthood, I think, is a matter of learning how to hold truths that contradict one another, because each truth was at one point valid. Every truth, in its own time and its own context, is how you become yourself.
I was a dancer and I remember how it felt for my body to be an instrument, how it felt to be beholden to that instrument, how it felt to retire it. I loved someone who damaged me and I remember how it felt, at first, to be treasured. I love someone now who won’t damage me and we can create new memories that don’t obliterate or invalidate the older ones. I can hold old memories sacred and they can coexist with memories that are so, for lack of a better word, fucked that they only come out in those rare moments where I feel raw enough that I can share them. Love is how you become a person but so is ambition, and so is trauma, and so often all three of those are intertwined in ways that only become apparent long after you’ve negotiated with each of them.
I don’t have to get over anything. I only have to tuck it away in the back of my closet where I store my first pair of pointe shoes and my correspondence and my college dance company sweatpants that I cannot bring myself to throw away even though they’re a really heinous shade of purple (sorry, B____ H___). Knowing my catalog of memory by heart doesn’t mean I’m crazy — not being able to have my measurements taken without quitting bread for a week makes me crazy, but still being mildly annoyed that the guy I went on my first date with broke up with me via text message doesn’t! — or obsessive. Allowing memories to retain the significance they once held doesn’t preclude me from ascribing a new layer of significance to them. I’m a storyteller and I know the story of my own life intimately. It doesn’t unfold as neatly as a novel. It’s endless and multifaceted and illogical. I hold it sacred, since it’s how I became a person.