The Door to Joy
Diary of a West Coast Swing Dancer, part 1
I have spent most of my life making plans, obsessively and exhaustively for a life I have not actually lived.
In my late 20s, my first long term relationship ended, I was in graduate school, finishing two graduate programs simultaneously and the center of my world, my sense of security imploded. I dealt with my grief by working, piling work upon work. I didn’t fall apart. I kept moving, faster and faster, as if to outrun the loss.
I lost my home, and with it intimacy and faith in love.I replace it with work. I believed if I achieved, I could feel the emptiness I felt, and one day, if I worked and achieved enough, perhaps, I could regain a sense of being worthy, prove myself, if not lovable, or at the very least, worthy of respect — competent, smart, worthy of respect.
I didn’t feel respected, or loved or welcomed and I thought it was because there was something wrong with me — something I hadn’t done or needed to do to prove myself.
I put my shoulders and whole body into the effort of moving that stone up hill, of jumping through the hoops I was told I needed to jump through and then, on my days off, of putting myself through the paces of the goals I set for myself, all of which involved more work, more effort, more trying.
Even when I did achieve things, I did not feel a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. There was always more to do, and someone else who had already done it much better, and it seemed to me with much less angst. Or, more likely, they were just naturally more talented and worthy and deserving.
I couldn’t outrun or outwork my grief and the feeling that I had been somehow permanently rejected from the life that other people seemed to be living without having to prove themselves.
Other people had relationships, and were professional accomplished and bought houses and had children and had real lives apart from work.
I stood always on the outside and no amount of effort or planning or proving myself would let me back in.
I became a dweller at the periphery, someone who watched with envy and longing, the lives of others.
I choose to self medicate — supplementing workaholism with sugar and alcohol and a steady diet of self- improvement projects.
But whenever there was a moment, a lull in my obsessive thoughts, an overwhelming grief was right there, waiting.
Therapy didn’t help. I could name it. I understood where it came from. I could anticipate and out analyze every therapist. Talking about it didn’t make it go away.
I couldn’t work harder enough. I made plans but no amount of thinking and analysis lead me back through the door to my heart. A place some people call home.
There were, of course, moments of happiness.
I remembered the bright purple tree lined streets and the smell of Jacaranda trees in the spring day in Jacaranda.
I remembered the dusty marble stairs dented the middle, and the polished wooden banister of the staircase I clutched as I made my way up to my first painting class.
I remember the sounds of laughter and snatches of salsa, tang of a lime in the cool coronas we sipped inside brown paper bags on the soft summer grass knoll over looking Inwood Park.
None of these moments had anything to do with what I thought would make me happy, and none of them had anything to do with what I was striving to accomplish.
In these tiny moments I was present, felt truly alive and in my body.
All these years I’d been trying to get to joy through my mind.
But the path to get there was through my body.
In the fall I went with friends to a country line dance but found myself drawn into a room where they were teaching West Coast Swing.
There was something about the style — improvisational, playful, and sexy, completely connected, bodies flirting, as if engaged in a delicious witty conversation.
. I saw in each pair of dancers a sense of discovery, of exploration and pleasure. Technique was clearly present but was not the end. I noticed that what made a dancer skilled was what they inspired in their partner and what their partner allowed them in turn to express.
This year, I thought what if, instead of making plans, I showed up, as I am, without knowing what I doing, and let my body lead me, teach me, how to be present, show me the way back to joy.
What have you found that brings you a visceral experience of joy?
P.S. Here’s the multimedia version: