On Monday night, Jack and I attended the American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake at the Met Opera. It was my first time seeing a professional ballet, and the evening was long-awaited, the tickets a very thoughtful birthday present from Jack.
I was a dancer for the majority of my childhood. Although I left the shoes and leotards behind for headier pursuits like writing, debate, and advocacy work, I have never lost my appreciation for the deep, enduring beauty of dance in all its forms. Ever since, I have had to work harder to grow confidence in my physicality and to feel at home in my own body. The nature of this struggle is a story for another time, but the endurance of this discomfort simply added a layer to my reverence. And further, to watch a South Korean woman, Hee Seo, impeccably dance the principal role of Odette, when I remember as a child looking self-consciously at my singular brown skin in a sea of peaches and cream in the studio mirror, was something else entirely, some form of deeper relief for which I do not yet have the words.
These were the memories that anchored me walking into the Met. After Jack and I found our seats, I waited in quiet expectation. The show began, and the music, the costumes, the dancers’ precision, floored me. My eyes, in childlike wonder, widened, and I felt delighted by it all.
But then, as these things sometimes go, there were other people around me who were evidentially delighted, as well. “Oh my god. They are SO GOOD… They are SO GOOD. Look at her legs!!” a group of young women behind me began to shout-whisper to one another, during both the performance and the following applause at least thirty times. It took every ounce of self-control in me not to turn around and shout-whisper back, “YES. They are ‘so good.’ We ALL know that. That’s literally why we are ALL here – to watch their legs and arms move in such a stunningly professional manner awe is inspired!!” Instead, I clenched my jaw and Jack’s hand in mine.
Halfway through the second act, I began to wonder, “what is that high pitched echo I keep hearing?” Only to realize seconds later, that the woman seated to my life was humming along to the best-known sections of the score one octave higher than the orchestra. My eyes then widened for a different reason; wonder was swiftly displaced by extreme frustration, especially when said woman’s husband decided it was appropriate to talk at a normal volume between the acts, as if applause was just a casual break. “Everyone, shut up! Don’t you see this is supposed to be a transcendent experience for me! It could be for you, too, if you would just be quiet!!” I wanted to shout, but I did not, though the thought crossed my mind multiple times throughout the night.
Instead, against the heavy pull of emotional impulse, I gathered the strength to ask myself the question, “How can you find joy despite the discomfort, in spite of the upset?” This was a rare and special evening. Soon, Jack and I will no longer live in New York, and it is not every day that one gets to go to the ballet with a willing husband on an early summer night in the city and watch some of the most talented classical dancers in the country. The discomfort and upset were not necessarily minimized, but by directing my attention to what was worthy of my attention, I found more grace within myself and therefore, the peace that makes enjoyment possible.
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Today, Jack and I rose early to board a flight out of New York, to search for a new home in Los Angeles. We are on the cusp of new beginnings. In a new place, we will learn to grow and unfurl in new ways. Like any living thing, new environments force adaptation, for the sake of life.
We flew out of Newark. As any New Yorker will tell you, going through security at this airport is hellish. Three signs placed next to each other will tell you three different things about where you need to go. You get in the security line, thinking, “Oh the line is moving, not too bad.” Only to find out that the line snakes around the entire length of the terminal in such a non-sensical pattern that you have no idea when you’ll be through. You round one corner to find out you actually need to wait in yet another line. The persistent lack of clarity, which feels at times intentional, brings out the worst in people. I imagine even the most devoted monk would be flustered, at least once, in line at any of New York’s airports.
This morning, Jack and I were exhausted. It has been a week of stressful coordination, including but not limited to, his work, new job interviews and assignments for me, interviews with moving companies, organizing donations and furniture listings, cleaning out closets, scheduling house tours in LA, preparing for this trip, et cetera. Our patience reserves were low, especially because we were running on little sleep, but we did the best we could to be gracious letting a family and three elderly people cut in front of us. Our flight was already delayed, and by the afternoon, we were expected to be touring houses and neighborhoods. Internally, however, I felt overwhelmed, overheated, tired, hungry.
As we neared the security belt, I turned to my left, and several lines away, I witnessed a remarkable thing. A mother, with four children, was unloading each of her children’s backpacks. Calmly, she asked the TSA agent, “He has a video game device. Should I take that out?” One child, in her stroller, was screaming her little lungs off, tears streaming down her face “I DON’T WANT TO GO TO SLEEP!!” Another little girl was pulling at the end of her mother’s shirt. The oldest child was trying to be helpful, but he was dropping things and struggling to get his shoes off. And the fourth was standing right in front of his mom, making it harder for her to pull things out of the bags. She moved him aside and kept working.
What surprised me was the image of her composure. She didn’t look the least bit flustered. Yes, one child was screaming, one child was clinging, one child was too tired to move, and another was trying terribly to help but not being very effective. I think any monk would have been proud. She was the epitome of grace under pressure. By her example – and the reminder that I have no children and far less stress, thank God – I felt calmer, too, graced with more patience, so I let the teenager who took her phone into the scanner with her get back in line in front of me.
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The word “grace,” derived from the Latin word “pleasing,” has many meanings, but the primary definitions are: poise, goodwill, and the free love of God. While we may use this multivalent word in differing contexts, the spirit of the three are connected, in my experience. To be graceful means to act in a refined way – to allow someone to go in front of you, to give someone else her moment of delight, to speak calmly in moments of acute stress – is a manifestation of goodwill, and vice versa: to spread goodwill, in even the smallest forms of acknowledgement, makes you poised, graceful. Grace-full, as in filled with the grace of God. As Anne Lamott says, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.” Grace is both interior and exterior. We know it when we see it. We know it when we feel it.
I was waiting in line for the bathroom on board the aircraft, after being delayed for over an hour at the gate and another hour on the tarmac. The flight attendant rubbed some eucalyptus oil between her palms and inhaled. She turned to me and moved her hands in a circle near me, “Doesn’t that smell good?” It did. I smiled and laughed inwardly.
People, people, people. How difficult and strange and beautiful and wonderful we are together.