When I was in my first year of high school, I took part in the school variety show. I am not much of a performer in that sense: I loved acting and directing and did a play or two each year as I moved through high school. But singing and dancing were never my forte. I can only just hold a tune, and as for my disco moves – those once prompted the brilliantly funky bassist, Meshell Ndegeocello, to comment: “Man, you are the first person I ever saw who dances to the words.”
Jaques Theron disagreed. He was the Drama teacher at Bergvliet High. A wonderful, warm, kind, flamboyant man who infinitely impacted the way I see the world. He needed a front-of-curtain act to camouflage a tricky behind-the-scenes reset and he had something unique in mind for me. “You’ll be a bird in a gilded cage”, he told me: “Perfect but trapped by her choice of money over love.”
We worked out the routine between us – he came up with simple moves to suit both the gawky me and the large golden cage he had built. We practiced after school, after rehearsals; just the two of us. He didn’t want anyone to see the whole (2 minute) piece “before the night”. My outfit was glorious – a blue feather extravaganza that Jaques put together. Very Vegas show girl, and perfect for a flat-chested, ungainly 13-year old. I have never worn anything like it again, and more’s the pity: because I felt fabulous. He even did my make-up himself, having sketched it out with grease crayons first.
I wish I had that piece of paper still: Jaques did me proud. What no-one knew, but us, was that Jaques has put a wobble into the routine. As I reached the end of my dance – I was to stretch beautifully, then teeter as if I had stumbled. As I fell against the bars and realised that I had been trapped by a cage of my own creation, I was to slump to the floor, covering my head with my blue wings. We practiced until I had the stumble down pat. Jaques had tears in his eyes: “it says everything”.
On the night, everybody gasped in horror. The next day at school – they whispered. I was devastated. Jaques was thrilled – “don’t you see”, he said “you executed it perfectly, they just didn’t get it. But we know, and that’s what matters.”
A friend of mine is wrestling with authenticity at the moment – wondering if she is the best version of herself that she could/should be. Another is experiencing constant anxiety – she cannot fathom how things have worked out the way they have. camparigirl is having her own encounters with creeping disquiet (which is making her, typically, crabby), and, over the weekend, I found myself questioning and re-questioning a simple purchase I had made. One that I needed, that I could afford. That I had sold other items to make way for.
That second guessing is always a sign that I feel overwhelmed. And tracing it back I recognised that fears around money were (as ever) the trigger – “I should be saving for the future … will I have enough to outlast me?”.
I think it goes with the turf, this generalised anxiety: we are getting older, time is shorter. Leaping without a net is more scary now – especially if we are tethered to an old idea of ourselves. If we let them, our “shoulds” will trap us in the past. Putting a wobble into any real possibility of having a happy future. Yesterday I found these pictures, and they reminded me of the man who saw a stumble as success not failure. Who felt that doing what you had set out to do was enough. That there was no need to meet anyone’s expectations. Even your own.
So I went through to my office and sat at my new desk. Admired it and congratulated myself on my clever purchase: it’s well built … will last forever (I can’t help myself). And, later on, Facebook offered up this quote by the great Willie Nelson: “There’s nothing I can do about what happened last year, or yesterday and there’s not a lot I can do about tomorrow, but right now everything’s good.”
No more cages.
(The images in this post are by French street artist JR. This time, instead of painting on bare walls – his canvas was wheatpasted to storied shipping containers at Le Havre Port. Read more about “Bird Ballerina” here.)