Dreams Lost and Found
When I was a very young girl, my mother took me to see Swan Lake. I'd never seen ballet before, and afterward, all I could dream of was becoming a ballerina , a prima ballerina.
Though I loved school throughout my early years, and was particularly fond of reading and writing, I was equally inclined toward athletics. I eagerly looked forward to playground recesses when, flying past my playmates in footraces or swinging energetically across the monkey bars . I would imagine myself in tights and leotard , time and space in my grasp as I soared effortlessly through the air in some achingly beautiful "pas de deux ".
My father, a self-made businessman, had enormous faith in what he saw as the unlimited potential of each of his children. He had drilled into my brothers and me from early on the belief that we each had the ability to achieve any and all of our dreams, as long as we kept them firmly in our sights. I believed with all my heart that he was right and spent part of every day seeing the reality of my becoming a ballerina in my mind.
When, in about the fifth grade, I began tripping over my own feet more and more frequently. But as a small child, I didn't realize that something might be wrong. But when my older brother, who had been experiencing similar problems, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy , I knew what was wrong with me. Even so, the fact that muscular dystrophy can be a slow-moving disease caused my initial symptoms to be minor enough that, with the ignorance of youth, the possibility that it would completely change my dream never occurred to me.
It wasn't until my middle school years, when my legs looked undeveloped, different somehow, from other girls in their first stockings, and my first grown-up pumps had to be replaced with orthopedic shoes, followed by leg braces, but I finally became conscious of some hard facts.
At that time in our yard, there was a huge old oak tree in a secluded corner that I'd always loved climbing. I'd sit up there and daydream, fantasizing about this or that. The oak tree was the automatic choice for me to run to at a time like this, but at the same time, it was becoming more difficult to do so. I went there anyway, though, clumsily hoisting myself up to hide among the branches, trying desperately to will away all fears.
One of my most powerful fears, of course, was that the day would soon come when I would no longer be physically able to perform the simple act of climbing a favorite tree - clearly, ballet was out of the question. While I didn't want to face it, I rarely thought about anything else. On one particularly tough day, I went to my hideout straight off the school bus, backpack on my back. I was especially miserable that day. I'd tripped, again, and had a spectacular fall at school, this time right in front of the boy I'd had a secret crush on during the last year. Though those classmates that witnessed my disgrace had not laughed, had been kind, even, all I could think about was that this was my fate for the rest of my life.
I'd been crying hard, and I wanted a little moment to myself before going into the kitchen and letting Mom see my tear-streaked face. Desperate to calm down, I grabbed my notebook out of my backpack and started writing a poem about the feelings I was experiencing. We'd been studying haiku that semester, and I was taken by the simple purity of words that could bring forth strong images with great economy .
The writing calmed me, setting free the harmful thoughts that had had me in their grip such a short time ago. Having achieved this relatively tranquil state, I decided to try another poem describing my agonizing fears of physical deterioration . Once again, it worked; it was as though the simple act of writing set free the demons that seemed to have taken up permanent residency, allowing me to step outside those thoughts and see them in a different, more detached perspective.
The next afternoon, I went straight to my tree, wanting to see if what had worked once would work again. As soon as I'd climbed to my perch, however, it seemed that all I could focus on was the fact that this hideaway was physically slipping out of my grasp. As if to hang onto the mental imagery of these moments, I began listing every detail I could think of, describing the rough bark against my back, the creaking sound of heavy limbs swaying in the breeze, the dappled afternoon sun splaying across my hands as it worked its way through rustling leaves. I wanted to capture the feel of it. By writing it all down, I felt I'd be able to keep these feelings close to my heart always, regardless of whether my memory or my body failed me.
What began that long-ago afternoon was to become a lifelong love affair with worlds. I realized, as early as that first time I wrote a poem up on the oak tree, that the power of those words would help me remember the things I'd been lucky enough to experience and keep them safe within me for as long as I needed it. It was much later when I realized that those same words would help me let go , help me put one well-lived experience behind me in order that I might move on to something new and equally important.
Now, I'm well beyond those youthful years and a full-time free-lance writer. It seems that those long-ago afternoons will always stand out in my memory. The act of writing always takes me back to that initial, willful act of faith, a way to look, touch, and savor all life's moments while they are happening, to make each of them count and not to take any of them for granted. It is a prayer, of sorts , that continues to help me attain and conquer my life without, in the end, being conquered by it. When I put thought on paper today, whether it be for a particularly compelling piece of fiction or a more mundane news piece, there is always the memory of that first thrill of capturing each moment as it happens, of knowing that, no matter how far distant it becomes in memory, the simple act of writing will keep it forever safe, forever authentic .