Hope Rises. Hope Falls. And I Adjust My Lapel and Say “OK.”

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I woke up this morning feeling the stillness of my neighborhood and I knew. I knew we had a new president. One I did not vote for. And I felt afraid.

I still do.

As a woman. As a Jew. As an American. As a being of light and love.

I realized that fear prevailed. And now I am the one afraid.

How do I not be?

How do I live in a place of love and light? How do I be a part of the solution and not the problem?

Yesterday, I believed we would elect the first woman president.

I was so proud to cast that vote. So uplifted by the photos and stories on #pantsuitnation. Unable to tear myself away from the words of people who had chosen to say, “I’m with her.”

The Muslim woman covering her head with an American flag scarf. The white, straight, self-proclaimed “Southern redneck” who totes guns and had voted Republican his entire life. Until now.

Recent immigrants who believe in the values this nation was built upon. Men in skirts. Men in heels. Women in pantsuits and Army fatigues.

People voting from hospital beds – their ballots brought to them, notarized and returned. People whose absentee ballots never arrived and flew back to their “home” states to cast their votes.

I sat on the bus. In the doctor’s waiting room. On my couch. Reading these stories of hope, struggle, strength and peace. And the cheers of support around them. Around us.

I want to believe in that America.

Four months ago, I returned to Chicago following a year abroad. People asked why.

Because my visa expired. Because I’m not Spanish. Because Madrid wasn’t home.

I believed I was meant to be here during this time. That it was important for me to be here during this time.

And now I am. Here. In this place that doesn’t much feel like home either.

I don’t believe “the answer” is somewhere else. I think it is inside of me. Inside of all of us.

Greater love.

But it is hard to believe when I am in fear. Hard to believe when hope rises and then falls.

And then I turn to the words and wisdom and stories of others. (The power of social media used for good.) Of a woman I dance with, who remembers having to drink from a “colored only” fountain when she was a kid. “Do not let fear cloud your judgement and reason … this country has gone through shit before; if you’ve never had to go through it, it can be terrifying … but you know what? That kind of shit got ended …”

Of a woman I’ve known since I was 12, whose husband is black and whose children think my baldish head is beautiful. “It is time for women to get barefoot and pregnant with new ideas and give birth to a new movement, mother it and take anyone down that tries to hurt it. We are just getting started.”

Of a mother on #pantsuit nation, a woman I do not know, whose six-year-old daughter put on her suit jacket this morning, the same one she wore to school yesterday, and asked “What do I need to do to become president?” And upon hearing, “work really hard in school, get in to a top college and then a top law school, and understand the law so you can change it,” replied “Okay,” full of confidence, adjusted her lapel in the mirror and went to school.

And hope rises.

Today, I will adjust my lapel, say “okay,” full of confidence, and go out into the world carrying love and light – knowing I am meant to be here, knowing there is work to be done.

Artist Date 5.2: A Rabbi Like Me

 

According to my friend Deb, one of the first things I ever told her was I wanted to be a rabbi.

I have no recollection of this conversation. However, I do not doubt it as this idea has danced around and inside of me for some time.

I’m not exactly sure where or when it took root. Best I can surmise is some time between my post-college, rabbi-to-be lover and coffee with Deb circa 2007.

Most everyone I have mentioned this to over the years thinks it an obvious next step. Perhaps, most especially, Rabbi Brant Rosen.

“In some ways, you kind of already are (a rabbi),” he told me during one of our monthly meetings.

And yet, each time I seem to be moving toward it … I step away.

Most notably, when my then-husband asked me for a divorce in 2012.

No longer did I have to consider his career path. The four years of medical school and four years of residency that had just earned him a lucrative job offer in Seattle. That rabbinical school was in Philadelphia. Or New York. Los Angeles or Boston.

Only that, suddenly I could go.

I bought Hebrew workbooks. Interviewed recent graduates. Secured the domain name “A Wandering Jewess.”

I availed myself of help offered by spiritual leaders in both Seattle and Chicago.

And yet, not long after my divorce was final, the desire fell away.

I didn’t want to cloister myself away studying ancient Aramaic for five years, I said. I took issue with the schools’ policy of not admitting seminary students with non-Jewish partners. Even though I didn’t even have a partner. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has since revoked that policy.)

I wondered about my aptitude for learning Hebrew. Was unclear about what I would do with my ordination. And feared, as a rabbi, I would never find romantic love again.

“Who will I meet?” I asked my rabbi, in earnest. “Another rabbi,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted that either.

So I returned to writing — following a 15-year hiatus — instead. I pursued other work. Fulfilled a life-long dream of living in Europe. (And dove head-first into a delicious three-month romance with a delightful not-Jewish man before leaving the country.)

I applied to the School of Divinity at Yale University.

Anything but re-open my consideration of rabbinical school.

Until recently.

I’ve heard my own voice whisper in possibility, in surrender. Words like “Maybe” and “Really? OK …” But have said little. Until Friday, Artist Date 5.2 (or 121, depending on how you count.)

I ride the number 80 bus to the number 47 and walk about 10 blocks – arriving just a few minutes before Shabbat services at Tzedek Chicago, a new congregation founded by Rabbi Rosen while I was living in Madrid. The congregation is (somewhat ironically) meeting a couple of streets over from the home my ex-husband and I once owned.

There is music and poetry, prayer and politics. Many familiar faces. Many not – like Leah, who plays the guitar and sings. I am reminded of Passover seders and other holiday gatherings … watching Jews sing with unabashed joy, Jews who not only embrace but roll around in their faith as if it were a cashmere blanket.

I am not this kind of Jew. And up until now, I have seen this as proof that I am not “rabbi material.”

Up until now.

I hitch a ride home from services with my friend Elaine. A young woman from Kalamazoo is in the back seat. She has come to Chicago for the weekend, her 22nd birthday, to attend services at Tzedek Chicago.

Her father is Jewish, her mother – Chinese … and she is all Jew. Like me, a Jew (at least to some) who converted to Judaism. But unlike me – an adoptee raised by a Jewish family but not born into one – has only recently claimed this faith as her own.

She plans to apply to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this fall. And she has spent a summer at Middlebury College learning Hebrew – signing a statement agreeing not to read, write, speak or listen to a language other than Hebrew during the seven-week semester – in preparation for the entrance exam.

She is, in a word, serious.

She believes there is a need for a rabbi like her –a Jew of color, deeply committed to social justice, a supporter of Palestine.

I have no doubt.

But under that, I have another thought.

That I am white. Not terribly political. Older.(Old enough to be her mother.)

Faith does not come easily to me. I am a practitioner of what works. There is a mezuzah in my doorway, a batik of Ganesh on my wall, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous on my shelf.

I gather stray Jews and others for holidays. And say “thank you” when a guest brings a dairy dish and I have cooked meat.

Two of my great loves were not Jews. And when one ended in divorce, I found it necessary to have a Jewish dissolution of marriage, as well as a civil one.

I am doubtful and uncertain. Even now as I write this. Yet I keep returning to it, to this place of Jewishness again and again.

And that, perhaps, there is a need for a rabbi like me.

 

Because The Universe Still Speaks in Whispers

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A year later…in Lisbon, with a typical Portuguese man.

It is one of those days when I wonder what I’m doing here. And how I got here. How this “happened” to me.

Nothing particularly bad has happened. Nothing particularly good either.

It is cold. And I am tired.

My bedroom feels small. My lesson today on gratitude felt flimsy and flat. The mother of one of my students is once again making unreasonable demands.

It is the week of Thanksgiving and I am an ocean-plus away from “home” – which I loosely translate as somewhere in the United States, most likely Chicago.

I am talking to a friend who is going through a divorce, telling her everything that I know about divorce. And I admit that at least part of the reason I am here and not in Chicago is financial – that I wasn’t earning enough and couldn’t seem to find my way to more money.

I feel like a failure.

I am riding the train home and I look at my phone. Facebook, tells me I have memories with Nikki Nigl today. It is my blog from a year ago today — Artist Date 94: Do Something(s).

I click on the link and begin reading.

“A month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy.  It feels like forever ago.

Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad.  The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone.  My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.”

I laugh. My face has look pinched for weeks, possibly months. And the wrinkle between my brow has deepened into what appears to be a permanent groove.

“The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of ‘all talk.’ “

To live overseas?! I live overseas!

“I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying.  I get it.  I understand.  I wish I didn’t.”

But I am trying.

“…Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, ‘Do something.  Anything.’

I write an email and send it off.  (Two somethings.  Write — one.  Send — two.)  A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years.  I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.”

I remember that coffee. It led to dinner. And then lunch. And then another dinner. Where I gathered not only information, but a new friend too.

 “…meeting with my rabbi …we talk about … my desires and deciphering the will and whim of the universe.  Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.

It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.

Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.

‘Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?’

Scrolling down, I am tagged.  ‘Lesley Pearl, could it be you?’

My heart swells, leaps.  Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable, ‘Yes, Lesley, it is possible.’ “

Yes, it is. Because I am here now. And because I was in Lisbon just a few weeks ago.

And somehow I feel like less of a failure. Facebook has actually made me feel better — by reminding me of where I was, and allowing me to reflect on where I am. Helping me to see that this was all part of the plan…even if I still don’t quite understand it. Because the universe still speaks in whispers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Date 98: What Sylvia Says

Image.  Moira Whitehouse, PhD
Image. Moira Whitehouse, PhD

My alter ego’s name is Sylvia.

She’s about 4 feet, 10 inches tall, wears coral-colored lipstick — a little bit outside of the lines — and sandals with stones in between the toes.  She likes pedal pushers paired with a cropped mink coat.  And now 80 something, has recently taken up smoking again.

I’m not exactly sure when Sylvia came into my life.  However, I distinctly remember when she came into the lives of others.

I was 25 and living in San Francisco.  A single girl.

My friend Teresa was performing a one-woman show, The Life and Death of Stars, at The Marsh.  And Sylvia appeared in a cameo role.

“Men are not magical beings,” Sylvia said through Teresa, taking a long drag off her Virginia Slim 120.  “They’re just people.  With penises.  And problems.”

She appeared again when I was dating Alex, who Teresa fixed me up with.   He was a foot taller than me, from my home town and said he couldn’t wait to get old because he was going to wear “Sansabelt pants up to my tits and the biggest fucking gold Chai I can find.”  He seemed like a good match for Sylvia, if not for me.

He wasn’t…for either of us.

Sylvia was wise.  Loving.  Kind.  Funny and to the point.  A straight shooter.

I had not thought about Sylvia in a long time, until last Thursday — watching Birdman at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 98.

Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton’s) alter ego, reminded me of my own.  Except mine is more gentle and far less destructive.  And I found myself wondering what she might be whispering to me right now.

I do not even have to ask.

“Honey, go!,” she says, in a voice much louder than a whisper.   “Why are we even talking about this?

She is referring to my noodling — or, as she calls it, sitting — on TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification and moving to Spain or Italy or Portugal, to teach.

She reminds me that I am husband-boyfriend-booty call-child-pet-plant-mortgage free.  But that I might not always be.  That my parents –now both in their 70s — are in good health.  That they do not need me.  That I have no obligations or responsibilities.  And that this may not always be so.

But what about finding work as a trainer and facilitator?  What about making money?  Being fully self-supporting?

What about sloughing off the title of chronic under-earner?  About being a responsible adult?

She brushes me off —  literally waving the back of her liver-spotted hand dismissively as if I were a waiter asking if she’d like more decaf rather than her uncertain, 40-something self.

“All the time in the world for that…” she says, adding that the two are not mutually exclusive.

It seems that what I know if my head, Sylvia knows in her heart, in her bones.  She’s lived it.  And then some.

She knows there will always be jobs.  And, God willing (She puts up her hand again, this time her palm out as if testifying.  “Preach.”) there will always be Italy, Spain and Portugal.  France too, she adds.  But that time and ideal conditions are not similarly static truths.

She knows that security is an illusion.  That the work will come.  That the money will come.  And yes, and even though I didn’t ask, that the man will come too.

It always does.

So what am I waiting for?

Looking for Ladybugs

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My friend Kerry told me to look for ladybugs while I was in Italy.

He was referring to the part of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, when the sexy, older ex-pat from London tells Frances, a recently divorced American reinventing herself in Italy, that looking for love is like looking for ladybugs. That when she was a child, she would spend hours looking for them, eventually tiring and falling asleep in the grass.  And when she awoke she would find herself covered in them.

I wasn’t sure I was looking for love in Italy. Or even a romance – although I assured him and others that my heart was open to the possibility.  However, as the days to my departure date grew more near, I was more than certain I was here to do something.

I saw my first ladybug when I arrived in Umbria, 24 hours after arriving in Rome.

After I nearly took the wrong bus from Arezzo to Cita de Castello – twice – and a young man named Leonardo approached me, offering help in English. After we spoke for nearly 45 minutes – talking about writing and language and being “black sheep” – and friending one another on Facebook.

After Giulia and Elide – my contacts for the AltroCioccolato, the “other” chocolate festival I came to volunteer for – picked me up at the bus station. And after bringing me to Roberto’s house – one of the festival’s founders – where I sat in the sun while he plied me with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes – shiny with olive oil, and espresso.

It was a few hours later, driving to pick up groceries at a biological food co-op. A large ladybug graced a sign announcing that our destination, The Happy Worm, lay ahead.

The next day, I saw three more. One embellished a pizza parlor sign.  Another, actually a mess of them, covered a car steering wheel.

The final one landed on another of the volunteers – Duncan, the youngest of the group and the only other American. He asked me if I wanted it, knowing nothing of Kerry and our conversation.  I told him I did.  He put his arm next the mine and the ladybug crawled over to me without any prodding.  And refused to leave.

That night, I found myself in the city’s hospital. What had merely been a health nuisance while I was in the states had escalated enough for me to make contact with healthcare professionals back home at .99 a minute.

I was fairly certain I would have difficulty getting a live voice at Northwestern Hospital, so I called my physical therapist to ask her advice. She told me to call my doctor.  That she wasn’t comfortable giving advice on this matter.  When I told her I didn’t have an internet connection, she looked up the number for me.

Several holds, disconnects and phone calls later, I was advised by a medical assistant to seek attention.

I knocked on Giulia’s door and told her I needed to go to the hospital. As she dressed, my roommate Ingrid, from the UK, offered to join us for moral support.  In the piazza at midnight in this sleepy village Giulia – a native of Italy – asked around for a cab.  A stranger offered to drive us, dropping us off at the hospital and wishing us buona fortuna — good luck in Italian.

Ninety minutes later I was warmly assured by a doctor that I was in fact, ok.  I received a bill for 25 euros which I was instructed to pay the next day.  And Elide – whom Giulia had called – drove us home.

Earlier that evening, in the hospital, I broke down in tears. Overwhelmed.  Afraid.  And aware that my ex-husband, a doctor – was no longer “my person.”  That I was “alone.”  Giulia responded, wrapping her arms around me and saying, “We are your family.”

And I realized that ladybugs weren’t just on signs and steering wheels and the arms of volunteers. That ladybugs – that love – followed me everywhere.  All the way to Italy.  To Umbria.  Just south of the Tuscan sun.

 

Rising Up Into Warrior

Drawings -- icedteaandlemonade.blogspot.com
Drawings — icedteaandlemonade.blogspot.com

When I was a child, my mother did yoga.

I have a vivid image of her in black tights and leotard, trotting off to our swim club – where lessons took place in the “party room,” in front of the fireplace.  She took a towel with her.  It was 1976.  There were no yoga mats.  She boasted that the teacher said she was doing well as she often fell asleep at the end, during Savasana – corpse pose.

I do not do yoga.

I have written about it before.  That I wear this like a badge of honor.  That I am the massage therapist who does not do yoga.  Who wears red lipstick, tailored clothing and heels.  Ever the contrarian.

Until last Thursday, at 6:30 a.m., when I am.

My friend Jeanette is to my left and a little bit forward, so I can watch her out of the corner of my eye.  She is tall to my short.  She knows what the poses are as they are called out.

I know many of them too.  It is untrue that I have never done yoga.  I have dabbled, and not liked it.

Sometimes because I wanted a more vigorous workout.  Sometimes because I felt intimidated.

Mostly, because it made me cry.

My last attempt at yoga was in Seattle.  One of my last efforts to bring my then-husband and I together.

He had found a studio on the top of Queen Anne Hill that he liked.  Small – with just enough room for six mats.  The students were fairly consistent each week, and none of them looked like “Western Yogis.”  Most came to heal a physical or emotional wound.  He liked the teacher.  And he thought I would too.

I did.

But every session I found myself on the verge of tears, wondering when class would end.

The poses were not terribly difficult.  But we held them for what seemed like forever.

I felt my chest rip open – my beating heart vulnerable and exposed.  Too much.  I told her that.  She said it was good.  Everyone said it was good.  That I needed more of it.

Savasana. Yogaflavoredlife.com
Savasana. Yogaflavoredlife.com

It did not feel good.  And while always one to push myself toward more growth, I did not feel like I needed more of it.

So it is a surprise to find myself here on the first day of spring, in the front row of a hot studio, not quite heated to Bikram temperatures, but more than warm.

I committed to it during a Weight Watchers meeting I was leading.  We were talking about accountability.  Partnering.  And stepping outside of our comfort zones.  Jeanette mentioned her class at Om on the Range.  I blurted out, “I will meet you there.”

It is snowing outside.  Big, fluffy flakes.  It is March 20 and the room smells like men’s body odor, which is different from women’s.

The room is darkish.  At times, even darker.  The music changes.  At moments verging on electronic dance.

We begin the session with a collective OM.  I feel the words resound in my ears and bounce off the walls around us.  I think of my synagogue in Seattle – the meditation congregation, Bet Alef.  Rabbi Olivier began each Friday night service with several collective ShalOMs.

The instructor’s name is Veronica.  I have shared my yoga trepidation with her before class, as I was the first to arrive.

She gets it.

The movements are faster, fluid — Vinyasa.  It feels better to me.  And I can mostly follow along.  Veronica makes adjustments to my body.  Uncurling my toes.  Instructing me to bring my feet closer together.  To lean into the edge of my foot for balance.

Warrior 2.  Yogaflavoredlife.com
Warrior 2. Yogaflavoredlife.com

My mat gets wet from sweat and I run a towel along it to keep from slipping.

And it all becomes too much.  Too hot.  Too fast.  Too challenging.

I am too open.

I drop into child’s pose and sob quietly.  Tears mixed with sweat.  Damn it.  My broken heart has seeped through the steely concentration of my mind and body.  And I allow myself to weep.

I stay in this position for what feels like a long time.  I remember Jeanette telling me about a man who lied on the floor with his legs on the wall for the entire hour.  I feel permission to do whatever it is that I have to do.  That I can stay in child’s pose for the entire session if I feel like it.

Veronica puts per fingers on my tailbone and gently pushes it towards my feet, curving down to the earth.  It feels good to be touched just a little.

But I do not stay in child’s pose for the whole session.  I rise up again, into Warrior.  Warrior II.  Warrior III.

We end class with a collective OM.  Jeanette high-fives me.  Veronica reminds me I have a week of unlimited classes.  I slip a schedule into my bag.  A calendar of possibilities.  A reminder.  I can do anything for an hour.  I will rise up again.

Artist Date 66: Risk It. Sell It. Consider It.

I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.

I had two.  One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss.  The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.

Before Class.  "I am here!"
Before Class. “I am here!”

I didn’t win.  But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.

I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.

I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows.  The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.

Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment.  I am in.

I am over the moon.

And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am.  But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck.  Please sit down.’ ”

I can live with that.

Inside I meet Kristen.  She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”

“To Dance.  No matter how badly.”  I scrawl.

Today I will get my opportunity.

There are about a dozen of us here.  I am the oldest by at least 15 years.   Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.

We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd.  He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties.  I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.

He moves quickly through the warm up.  Much more quickly than I am used to.  I breathe and do what I can.  So far so good.

He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture.  “Widen your legs.  Go lower now.  Keep your balance.  See.”  “Jut your hip first.  Muuuch more movement.  Excellent.”

He comes to me.  I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong.  I smile at him.

“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings.  I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes.  Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching.   My legs are shaking.  I struggle to balance.  “Good,” he says.

Before class begins.
Before class. One of the “significantly more trained” dancers.

The other dancers have had significantly more training than I.  It is clear.  Ballet.  Jazz.  Modern.  They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out.  And more importantly, they can execute them.  I am in over my head.  Kind of.  But I just keep moving.  Smiling.  Trying to mimic the other dancers.

I notice that I am not frustrated.  I am not angry.  I do not stop.

I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level.  I do not burst into tears.

I have done all of these things previously.

I am not jealous or envious.  I notice the beauty of the dancers.  Their bodies.  What they can do.

I am amazed by my response.

I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”

Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step.  Hips wagging.  I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!”  “Sell it!”

I am “selling it.”  And I know it.  Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes!  That’s it.”

But the final movement has me stymied.  Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump.  Or something like that.

I am not even close.

No one cares.  No one is watching me.   They are watching themselves.  I am free.

And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion.  Give me my momentum.  Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.

After class.  All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
After class. All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

“Yes, better.”

It is.  But I still don’t have it.

A couple more times across the floor and I might.  But it doesn’t matter.  I risked being “the worst.”  And by all accounts, I was.  But I don’t feel like it.  Not even close.  Just less trained.

Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different.  My pelvis is open.  Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open.  I like it.

It is the ballet, I am certain of it.  The one type of dance I never consider.

I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself.  I don’t even know what that is.  It is an excuse.

And I am out of excuses.

I consider it.