Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Out of my hands

Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC

It was August of 1999. I was 20 years old and newly engaged. I had a busy summer as a new adult. I'd saved as much of my meager earnings as I could to make two ballet-related trips, one to Jackson, Mississippi to attend Ballet Magnificat's summer intensive as a counselor and take class for two weeks, and one to Vancouver, BC to take a teaching exam for the Cecchetti Method of classical ballet. I drained my bank account to make those trips happen; I also maxed out my shiny new Discover card. But for the first time in my life I did something that was just for me, and I did it on my own.

For the Mississippi trip, I had company. My friend Sarah and a younger dancer from our studio traveled with me. Mississippi was life-changing, and I really should post about just that trip some time. I wasn't home for long, though, before I had to catch a plane to Vancouver by myself. You know, out of the country. Of course it's just Canada and this was even before passports became a staunch necessity, but that kind of independence had a little scary in it. Also having a little scary in it was the fact that I was going to be flying, alone, which meant being scared of flying, and being alone. I took a Benadryl on my flight to try to make myself sleep, but rather than sleeping I just felt drowsy and uncomfortable. And ultimately, still scared.

One of the most vivid memories of my short trip to Canada is the flight in to Vancouver from Seattle. I took a smaller plane, and I remember flying over the water just at sunset and something about all the logs floating on that blush-tinted glass was amazing. Vancouver is nothing if not beautiful. I made my way to the exit and hailed a cab for the first time in my life and did four hundred mental checks to my American/Canadian dollar calculations about how much I needed to pay in American dollars since I didn't have any Canadian money. It was no short drive to Simon Fraser University, where I was to take my exam--probably about 45 minutes. I remember being really scared to be alone. The cab driver was creepy. It was sad to go to an airport for the first time in my life and not see someone--anyone--waiting for me.

I definitely know now that in my panic I overpaid the cab driver by a ridiculous amount. Anyone who has been 20 knows that one bad money mistake will probably cost you your next meal. I started to get worried about my food funds, but I was happy that once I made it to the college I'd be on the predictable cafeteria meal plan. Or so I thought. I didn't get a real meal on the plane--just half a sprite and some peanuts, so by the time I landed, went through checks, found a cab, and took a cab up the mountain, I was starving. And I spent a good chunk of my money on my attempt to not look like a cheap American to a shady cab driver who had silently ferried me up the hill.

The first time I saw the Harry Potter movies I was struck by how like Harry's initial journey to Hogwarts this trip up the mountain had been. Simon Fraser University sits atop a hill above Vancouver, in Burnaby. The winding road seemed endless as the awkward silence between me and the cab driver. On and on and on, it stretched. By the time I reached the college, it was dark, the cafeteria had closed, and not another soul was there for the conference or exams. You see, the teachers' exams were to be administered before the student workshop began. Unfortunately all the other teachers decided to go to dinner that night. Without me.

I pleaded with the dorm receptionist. "There's not a vending machine around here, or anything? A grocery store? Nothing?"

"Nope. You can catch the bus down into Vancouver if you want."

Eep. I swallowed my trepidation like a golf ball. Great. I finally made it up the hill and to my destination and I was going to have to leave again, descending that snake of a road back down into some unknown (foreign!) city to look for food. And I was going to have to do math in my head to pay bus fare and I was going to have to eat alone and find my way back. I wanted to break down and cry but my hunger exceeded my worry. I had to dance for this exam and I couldn't go skipping meals.

I took that bus, and I'll be darned if I didn't get off at the first McDonald's I saw and swallow my two cheeseburger meal in three gulps. Only the finest international cuisine for me. Back on the bus I went, trying to avoid eye contact with shady characters, and I made my way back up the hill without event. I was scared stiff the entire time. I have no idea what kind of a neighborhood it was where I got off the bus--I didn't allow myself to take in any details for fear I'd realize the danger of the situation. I'm lucky I didn't get robbed or worse that night. I wouldn't do well to take a bus into Sacramento at 11:00 at night right now, let alone some city I didn't know in a country where I couldn't keep pace with simple monetary exchange calculations. I was so afraid and so lonely.

I slept like the dead that night, and the next day I found myself completely alone and still wondering where I'd eat. Eventually, I found the cafeteria. The campus was sprawling and ominous--but empty. I've never seen a college like that, even in the summer. I had a full day to "prepare" myself for the test, which seemed like a great idea when I booked the trip but translated to time alone in my single dorm room with only a book, a Bible, and my own fear.

Vancouver was where I had my first anxiety attack. Looking back on it, it's no wonder I had one--I was stressed about the test and my jaunt into Vancouver proper didn't help. I was sick about my test and I had no distractions from my own head--no computer, no iPhone, no TV, no other people. I ended up having to work through it because I knew that in order to complete my exam the next day--a solo demonstration class in front of an old lady examiner, commanding a musician, and demonstrating an entire ballet class (memorized) by myself--I was going to have to pull myself together. I spent lots of time in prayer in that little room, giving that test to God, trying to release the thing that had a hold on me from my courage. I thought if I could give it up, realize that it wasn't mine, realize that I'd prepared myself as much as possible, if I took it out of my hands, I'd take away the fear.

It worked. I had a wonderful exam. My panic subsided and I felt a strong sense of peace going into the test. I was able to talk myself down from panic in the way that has become the model for how I get through anxiety. Of course it doesn't always work but it worked for me that weekend in Vancouver.

I was reminded of this today as I sat on the couch today, frozen temporarily by fear and anxiousness as I waited for E to call on his lunch break. It's so hard to let something go when it isn't mine to begin with. I found it hard to ask for peace when it wasn't my own worry I was clutching. I don't wish I could take the test for E, but it shows me that my greatest fear and the place I feel most uncomfortable is when I'm out of control. I'd much rather be alone in that dorm room, lifting up my own trial or about to walk into the test, knowing that I am the one who has to face it. Be it Addie or Henry or my students or E, it's so hard to know that someone else I love is fighting a battle. I feel powerless. All I can do is wait.

My experience in Vancouver showed me so much about myself and how I am able to handle challenges. I prepare as much as I can, and then I try to let it go and let them happen. This is so different. My role is a supporter. I can't do this for E, nor would I want to. As I told his mom the other day, not much I can do for him this week except love him and make sure he eats.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Heather. I love how you bring it around to E's bar exam. Not being in control is frustrating. I feel ya.

    Your trip to Vancouver reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago to Boulder, CO for a writer's conference. I was the only journalist who flew in for it. Can you believe it? It was sponsored by Women's Adventure magazine and it was mostly attended by Colorado writers. I totally felt like a fish out of water.

    It was an expensive conference WITHOUT the plane fare from Tampa to Denver and the shuttle fare from Denver to Boulder.

    However, it was empowering and humbling. I was surrounded by fellow writers, some who had never been published, some who were very successful - magazine successful.

    I was incredibly nervous, paralyzed almost. I could barely converse and I'm a pretty gregarious person.

    Eventually I opened up. Actually, I opened up when it mattered – on the last day of the conference, when I was pitching stories to editors at Outside and Backpacker. Much like when you were about to take your dance test, I brought my A game when I needed it most.