Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Light and shade

I gathered my breath awkwardly, my lungs catching air faster than I could take it.

"I..." gasp "um..." gasp, exhale. Pause. "Epaulement means shouldering." Exhale, secretly. I drew my hands through fifth front, supporting my arms from my back and across my chest, then into an almost mathematic demonstration of the position.

She gathered the papers up like leaves under her pale fingers, her elderly skin stretched over feminine hands, unintentional ends of arabesques. "That is correct," she proclaimed; but the lines in her brow belied her satisfaction with my answer. "May I see your dance for this Grade?"

I mustered every atom of politeness and decorum in my being. "Of course," I breathed through my smile, trying not to show that it took air to accomplish any of the feats of ballet and academia I undertook. I aped my best ballet walk to the back corner, smiled, pressed down my uneven shoulder, widened my collarbone, tucked one leg behind the other and set my fingertips at the edge of an imaginary tutu.

Ready, AND....

I pressed technique into each note and each muscle in my sixteen-year-old body with the force of a car crusher. Turn out, chin lifted, smile, keep to the music, and a one, and a two... It was over like lightening, my one chance to show off all the hard work I'd done for the year and test out of my Grade under the ISTD's Cecchetti Society of Classical Ballet. This exam represented every enchainement I'd studied that year, every bit of french translation I'd committed to memory. It ended with little flourish. Just me, trying not to breathe audibly.

The small English woman cocked her head to the side like a boxer. "My dear, are you familiar with the term, 'light and shade'?"

"No, ma'am."

"'Light and shade': an artists' term. Meaning that you cannot paint an entire picture in one color. You must use darks to show the highlights. I would like to see you use more light in shade in your dancing."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

In that moment I did not have one clue what light and shade meant. It wasn't until years later (one art class with Wayne Thiebaud, and several conversations with my ballet teacher about what the examiner meant) that I even began to understand what it could mean to have light and shade in one's dancing. Juxtaposition. Contrast. Demarcation of borders between things. I don't believe I was able to even approach application of this in my dancing until I'd lived enough life to feel true light and shade.

Today I felt light and shade as I sat in the pew of the standing-room-only funeral for my former student. The opening hymn was "Amazing Grace." Grace, in the face of such a tragedy. Grace when so many of "my" kids were trying to answer questions without answers. My heart tore at the lyrics of the song. I am thankful for God's amazing grace, and I believe in it wholeheartedly. But the shadow was so dark. I couldn't sing. Praise was so far away.

I listened to the young man's father speak and was unable to remain detached. Every story about kids is, to me, a story about the what-ifs in my own life. This was so not about me; I get that. But my mind went there. I felt such pain for the family. And there, also, interrupted awkwardly my feelings of thankfulness for what I have now--that I have such beautiful kids, that they're healthy and safe--and I felt guilty. Light and shade came too close together. It was jarring.

In English class today we read Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz-- when I died--". My thoughts of gratefulness for what I have, juxtaposed against the sad, difficult eulogies I heard were like Dickinson's "blue uncertain stumbling buzz." Over and over I flipped between thoughts of my own mortality, that of my kids, and that of the young man who we honored.

The ceremony was beautiful. Every person who spoke brought a special perspective on this young man's life. I was particularly moved by the remarks of a teacher from our school, the young man's friends, his brothers. It was emotional and sad. It was difficult. It was beautiful. It was filled with light and shade. Humorous highlights and dark, heartfelt mourning.

It takes pain to show us how lucky we are. It takes others' suffering to remind us of what we have not yet suffered--to show us the fragility of man. It takes death to remind us of life. I wish it wasn't that way, that gratitude, love and expression of feelings were constants. But a picture painted all in yellow is not interesting; a dance of repetitive movement is not inspired. We need contrast to remind us of what we have, to remind us that its beauty is in its unpredictability. Life uses cutting edges, deep shadows and uneven gradation to give meaning to the light. Sometimes it takes hurt to show us joy--whether it's in what we have left or in what we had once.


  1. I agree. I felt my head was going to explode from the emotion. Singing seemed almost like a contradiction. A voice in my head just keep screaming "WHY?"

    another teacher