I left my home in Arlington, Virginia at age 16, traveling nearly 1,800 miles away to live in Houston, Texas to join the Houston Ballet Academy. I lived in a two bedroom apartment with three other dancers, each of us subsisting off weekly stipends paid through our Academy scholarships. I paid my own rent, bought my own groceries, and even learned how to make tuna casserole for my roommates.
They always wanted casseroles and spaghetti, the sorts of comfort dinners a mom with an apron and an oven mitt might make. And just as I’d have dinner slowing to a simmer on the stove, one of the roommates would set the table, the plates lined up in the center of a clean woven placemat, forks and knives resting nearby on top of a folded cloth napkin. We’d sit down together and hold hands and say grace and then start eating, asking each other about our day like grown-ups do. And then we’d clear the table, clean the dishes, and everyone would crawl off to their twin sized beds adorned in paisley pink bedding, the edge between faux-adult and child growing thinner as the night wore on.
Everyone’s assumption to this fact of my childhood is that surely, as a young teenager alone in a big city, I must have had some wild times. But the truth couldn’t have been more different. I was self-disciplined. Sheltered. Focused. Scared enough of losing my spot in the Academy to not experiment in any way with anything other than “BE A GROWN UP.” It wasn’t until years later that I let loose a bit. And when I went through that phase it was not rooted in a desperate reach to regain lost time as one might guess, rather it was realizing that the grown up world I had decided to enter so early was actually pretty absurdly saturated with really unhappy and ungrown-up adults. I wanted none of it. And I also felt a bit betrayed that anyone had ever taught me to surrender the play of my childhood in order work so hard towards all of it.
The grown ups I saw all around me were miserable and weighted. They seemed to be carrying the toxic burden of a stuck life in their skin, necks blazing with inflammation and bellies swollen with frustration. The young observer in me could see the farce. I was held tightly to the strict, mature life of a ballerina but with the vision of an imaginative kid who would have really rather been playing in the mud until my bones hurt from exhaustion and writing odd stories on scraps on leaves and trash. All the while, I denied that tender vision in the face of all the promises: Grow up and you’ll be free. Work hard and everything you want will be at your fingertips. The adult world is amazing and full and satisfying and put together.
Ha. Right? What a shock when you learn that this is not the case.
This is why I look at child celebrities and all their inevitable “rebellion” and “self-destructive behavior” a bit differently. We as a society tend to look at their sudden shift into unhinged sexual, artistic, and personal expression as being the fault of the unhealthy world of Hollywood and show business. We point fingers at neglectful parents and misguided managers for allowing these children to become so entitled. And while it would be easy to see kids like Miley and Justin - and, before them, Drew and River and and and and - as being in a phase of shedding a formerly squeaky clean identity in order to individuate, I wonder instead if they are acting out against the realization that a grown up life is not at all worth the sacrifice of play and recklessness as they were promised. Beyond that, they - more than anyone else in society - get to see the full glimpse of materialism and how very little happiness it truly brings. They feel, with their sensitive skin, the full weight of the fact that no amount of beauty or money or stuff will create a life of vitality or connection. And then they want to shake it all off and numb themselves out in the only way a teenager can. Boldly. Loudly. Destructively.
Here’s the point of all of this. I think we can learn a lot from kids who grow up too fast. They say and do what we, as grown ups, feel we cannot. Yet, we - grown up as we may be - experience the same frustrations, the same betrayal, the same affronts of absurd reality, the same stuckness, the same confrontations with materialism. But, because of how we have framed our lives with busy schedules and professional identities and gorgeous children to rear, we shut it all down. We tie our laces a bit tighter. We numb out more. And then, in defiance, we start to abuse a true, healthy, inborn right to recklessness by becoming terrible stewards of our own wellness. We say, eff it, I’m gonna eat this entire bag of fried butter. Screw it, I’m gonna drink a whole bottle of wine every night because I had a long day. Listen up, old body, I’m gonna pummel you at the gym by throwing giant tires down the street while carrying a bowling ball in a backpack tied to three hungry rabid antelopes. Or, nevermind loser body, I’ll just stop moving you at all because mushy is better anyway. Or simmer down brain, I’ll just watch these people on the tube so that I can vicariously through them. Or shut up tummy, I’m not going to feed you ever because deprivation is the only way.
It’s not entirely our fault. Most of us don’t go through childhood witnessing parents and mentors who are experiencing a grown up life AND a life of true freedom. And, on an even deeper more insiduous level, our society has become dependent on a system of numbed out recklessness as its main form of diffusing of the stress of being human. We think it’s the only way. We buy into and the we get it sold back to us at every corner, every billboard, every commercial, every pop song, and every product.
My hunch - and this is merely a hunch - is that behind our desire to be destructively reckless and to numb out is merely a desire to speak our minds and assert our physical presence. We are desperately seeking that experience, that type of recklessness, etched in a freedom of the spirit and a use of the human body that allows us to embrace our senses as consciously as we deserve.
And this where I will make a plug again for the notion that the perimeters and measures for women’s wellness are way off. We’re taught about finding security. We’re told that when you “develop” a positive body image you’re on your way. We learn that maintaining a natural, healthy BMI means we’re taking good care of ourselves. We absorb the idea that self-esteem equals forward momentum. We agree with the notion that we have to cut away our lives (and ourselves) in order to find *balance.* The reality? My theory? These perimeters are as the fat-free craze of the 90’s was to the obesity epidemic. They totally miss the root issue and, by doing so, we hone in on areas of women’s wellness that are actually not at the crux of what makes us vital.
What if security, positive body image, healthy (individualized) BMIs, self-esteem, freedom from nice-ness and martyrdom are all merely icing on the cake - the cake being this gorgeously delicious agreement with yourself that you are gonna take risks and you’re going to sign up for the adventure of life? What if the ingredients of that cake are physical, spiritual, emotional, and social strength?
It’s possible that if we drop the focus on all the perimeters of wellness that are truly external icing and in return we guide ourselves and our friends back into a recklessness of living then we can receive an experience nothing short of Mary Oliver’s poem below. What does HEALTHY recklessness look like to you? What would you do if you had those components of strength building you up in order to taste the icing you so deserve?
Screw the rules. Screw the paved path. What would you do that would do if adventure was the first component of your life? It’s doesn’t have to be fancy. It could just be waking up earlier. Or learning to run around the block. Or chasing your kids. Or traveling. Or adhering to only healthy relationships. Or writing. Or painting. Or becoming a black belt. or or or or or or or or or or. _________________________ (insert your adventure)
Strengthen yourself for that.
When Death Comes by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.*
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.**
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.