It is odd how, when all around you there is crisis and loss, you find yourself focusing on something small and seemingly unimportant, assigning greater meaning to it than the tangible thing merits.Your reaction to a small loss may be out of proportion, but understandably so.That small object has become a metaphor for your life.
Such was the case for me this week. In the last few years, I’ve have had to deal with losing my career, my home, my life savings, my marriage, my retirement plan, many dear friends, my integrity, and in the worst blow of all, my children. But it was losing a stupid picture that thrust me into a seven-hour crying jag this week. The human spirit is a delicate thing. Weird and delicate. Considering the magnitude of loss I’ve been dealing with, why care about a picture? I guess because it is easier to process this than bigger issues.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a dancer more than anything in the world. As soon as I was old enough, I got a job working at McDonalds and I saved and saved until I had enough money for a trip to New York to study with a teacher that was my inspiration and my hero. I remember that trip to New York and my first professional dance class as if it was yesterday. I remember the promise and excitement I felt in my gut, and the way that trip lit a fire in my heart and mind. I had found my calling in life and it was that very day I took my first step along the path that would become a life journey. I was 16.
After several days of taking classes, I returned home to finish out school, save more money, and await my 18th birthday when I planned to move to New York to pursue my career officially. That came to pass, and two years later I found myself in a tiny studio apartment in Manhattan,supporting myself as a waitress at night and studying dance in the daytime.
About two weeks after I had become an official starving artist in New York, a man walked up to me and handed me afolder filled with pictures of me dancing at the very studio where I was now studying. Milton was just an amateur photographer, a nice man who took pictures of dancers for a hobby. He was a familiar face at the studio because he was always hanging around, trying to capture images of students in class. He did this at his own expense and always passed the pictures on to the students with admirable generosity of spirit. He was an adopted member of the dance community and much beloved because of it.
Milton told me that he had taken the pictures of me over a year prior and he had been looking for me ever since to give them to me. I was confused at first, because I didn’t believe his pictures could be of me.I had only just moved to New York. “The pictures must be of someone else –one of the regular New York dancers,” I insisted.
“It’s you”, he said. “You are not easy to forget.”
I wasn’t sure my being memorable was a positive or negative thing. For all I knew, I was memorable because I danced like some green kid from the sticks, but I do remember thumbing through the pictures,amazed and delighted to see myself all sweaty and focused in my first week of dance in New York. Those pictures, while not all that impressive, meant the world to me because they captured what was one of the most prominent and life altering experiences of my life. More importantly, in the background were images of people that were significant in my life as well – my beloved teacher, peers I studied with and shared history with, and even a few dancers that I considered my competition, thus they were important in a different way because they motivated me to work harder.
I put those pictures away for safekeeping.They were not fancy pictures, the kind you’d display in your home, but I loved having them nevertheless.
I left New York twelve years later and moved to Sarasota to open a studio. I was desperately broke at the time, but I wanted to set a tone and create ambiance in my school, and that meant I had to be creative. One night, I thought of those pictures stored away in a file and I decided perhaps I could do something with them. So I spent the evening cutting them out and turning them into a collage. I added a few extra pictures I had on hand, my first headshot and a few pictures taken by a friend one afternoon in what was my first studio in New York, a place called Jazz East that I ran for about a year. The images in that collage were not fantastic, professional shots one might have if they hired someone to capture their likeness with intent to impress. They were just everyday pictures of me dancing… but whenever I saw them, I knew they captured a bit of the spirit and heart of the young dancer I was at 16. And they made a nice collage- it was a conversation piece.
I hung that collage in my new school, FLEX, the day I finished painting the walls as I got ready to open. It was the first (and for a while, the only) artwork I had in the school.
As FLEX prospered and grew, a lot of nice pictures found a place on the wall. I bought postures and artwork for decoration and in time the students became dancers of merit and images of them graced the walls,which was way more appropriate. We had a huge posture size image of Mark in the lobby that was very special. My representation as a dancer was just that silly collage, but I was delighted it was there. Thanks to digital technology and the controlled environment that comes with setting up a dance shot, the pictures of all my students (Mark included) were far superior in every way to my silly New York collage. Yet, I kept that thing hanging somewhere in the studio anyway. It wasn’t there to impress others (because, face it, the shots weren’t impressive) but every time my eyes landed on it, I felt connected to my roots. I hung it for me. And as the years went by, it took on a different meaning… it was a symbol of FLEX that stuck in the student’s minds too. Students learned to turn spotting that dumb picture, and they often made fun of me for some of the stupid poses – so it was a part of their dance journey too in away.
Every time FLEX expanded or moved, I found a place for that picture. When we sold the business, it was the first thing I packed up to remove from the premises. When I opened a new studio in Blue Ridge, I hung it again – this time in the back of the studio because I recognized that the collage was dated and wouldn’t serve as inspiration to anyone anymore, but it was still inspirational to me. It was the one stable thing that followed me through my dance career.
When I left Sarasota and passed the Blue Ridge studio on to my daughter, I noticed she had removed the picture and had propped it up in a corner of the storage area. I told Mark I wouldn’t dream of taking it off the wall myself if my daughter wanted it, but since she obviously didn’t, I would like to keep it. My car was filled with personal items and I couldn’t fit the picture into my vehicle at that moment, so I told him I’d pick it up on my next trip. Mark said, “It will fit in my car… I’ll just bring it to the house for you and you can put it in the truck.” He loaded the picture into his car.
That afternoon we had an argument, your typical divorce conflict, and though my family had made plans to meet me and help me pack up the rest of my belongings, they didn’t show up. Emotions were running high. I ended up packing a small u-hall with the remainder of my belongings and I drove back to Sarasota crying all the way.
A short time later we sold our home and Mark and the kids moved to a lovely new log cabin home with a view. Our former home was finally cleared of everything that was ours. About two months after that, I got a message from Ben, the new owner of our former house, saying that he had found a picture of me that he believed I would want. He said it looked as if someone intended to throw it out, perhaps because it was old and worn,but to him a picture like that appeared to be something with great sentimental value, so he wanted to be absolutely sure I didn’t want it before he did anything with it. I greatly appreciated his thoughtfulness, and his insight.
He sent me a picture of the collage so I knew what he was referring to, and I was shocked. How did it get to the house considering it was at the studio last – then in Mark’s car? I had left the home for good by then with all my belongings, so I couldn’t imagine why Mark would unload it there, or if he did, why he would leave it when he finally removed every other thing the family owned. We no longer had any personal possessions at that home, and he knew I wanted the picture so the least he could have done was stick it in storage with all the other pictures, he took, pictures that had no significance or meaning. Still, he bothered to move and stack these in his basement.
I told Ben that I indeed wanted the picture and asked him to save it for me. The next time I had Neva for a visit I asked him to put it in the barn so I could pick it up and I opted to drive her home rather than fly her just so I could retrieve the picture. I truly wanted this last vestige of my former life and I felt it was worth a 22-hour drive to get it.
After driving 11 hours to Blue Ridge, I drove the extra half hour to the house to pick up my picture, but when I got there I found the thing was damaged beyond recognition. The collage hadn’t just been left at the house; it had been left outside by the trash and for several months it had been battered by the elements – abandoned to the rain, sun and heat.There was water damage, mud and mold all over the picture and it had faded where the sun beat down on it.
I cried. No. I actually wept. I ran my hand along that old picture and sobbed. I know, this is an out of proportion reaction to a mere picture, but I had crossed my threshold. I didn’t have the resilience within to face losing one more thing, and seeing the only remnant of my former life that had meaning being needlessly ruined just broke my heart. I guess it wasn’t the just the loss of the picture, although I will forever regret losing the only images I had of my teacher and friends from New York, but the idea that Mark could so callously destroy something that he knew I cared dearly about hurt more than I could describe. I couldn’t imagine myself ever purposely ruining any of his artwork or destroying or discarding the few pictures he has of himself when he was a young dancer. These are the kinds of things you want in your old age, something uniquelly your own for your grandchildren to make fun of. No matter how angry I might be with him,I just couldn’t destroy anything that is a part of his history, but clearly, I was had not been given the same respectand consideration. I know I shouldn’t take it so personally – in a divorce, people often act badly due to the intensity of emotion. But to me the ruined picture was a perfect example of the long-standing dynamics of our relationship, a revelation that continues to be very painful for me to witness.
So, instead of staying in a hotel that night,I decided to drive home without taking a break. I simply had to get out of dodge. I cried for 7 hours as I drove home with that moldy mess in my backseat. Eventually, I feared I’d crash because I could barely see the road since my eyes were puffy and I was going on 24 hours without sleep, so I stopped at a dingy hotel and slept for four hours. At 4 am, I got back on the road and cried an additional 5 hours until I got home. As you can see, I haven’t been exactly on top of my game of late.
After a good sleep the next morning that allowed some sanity and perspective to return, I decided that there was nothing to do but try to put the pieces of my life back together the best I can, and if the picture was a metaphor for my life, I could start there. So, this morning I dragged the damaged collage into my living room along with a smaller picture frame with intentions to save what images I could and perhaps create a smaller version of the collage for prosperity. I am getting ready to open a new yoga/dance studio and I thought it would be special to hang this small symbol of my dance journey someplace personal, – perhaps in my office for my eyes-only. But when I pried open the back of the picture frame and tried to remove the photographs, mold made them all stick to the glass like those annoying price tags attached to new glasses – the kind you have to soak off and scrape with a knife. I couldn’t save a single picture from the huge collage. The images of my past ripped and fell apart, disintegrating like everything else in my life. So… I cried some more. … Then I took the entire thing to the trash and watched it slide down the shoot to oblivion forever. Yes, that damn collage truly IS a metaphor for my life, or so it feels like today.
There is a yoga philosophy that says, “You must loose everything to gain the world.”
I keep trying to embrace that, keep reminding myself that rebuilding a life is a process and I just have to get through the dark period with trust that things will get better. I keep reminding myself that there is nothing tangible in this world that is truly important, certainly not a dumb, outdated picture. A person’s history is theirs no matter what, and it doesn’t need to be documented with visual proof nor do you need to assign symbolism to a silly personal item to create inner drama. I will always have the memory of my New York years and the people who were so special to me. But even so, I mourn the loss of that personal trigger, that tangible thing that served as a reminder of who I am and where I came from. It only meant something to me, because it was seeped in memories of a rich and interesting life of dance, but the fact is, I cared about it. That picture symbolized my journey as a teacher and businesses owner because it was a part of the backdrop of growing that businesses and losing that businesses and starting over.. . again… then again…
There are so many far more important things I can mourn, and here I am broken up over a picture. Funny, how our minds work.