I am reading the novel Trick, by Domenico Starnone (New York: Europa Editions, 2018, trans. Jhumpa Lahiri). The original title, in Italian, is Scherzetto (Rome: Giulio Einaudi, 2016). The novel is told from the point of view of an aging artist who fears he has lost his edge. My own version of that feeling has been having a starring role in my life.
May 30—Memorial Day each year before it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May and became a national holiday—was Lower School Field Day at Wilmington Friends School. I liked Field Day, on which classes were canceled and the whole elementary school took part in races and other competitions. I have a vague sense of having participated in burlap-bag and three-legged races, but the clearest recollection I have is of taking part in the long jump. We had a sand-filled long-jumping pit that I can still see in my mind. I was good, that is for a small grade-school girl.
My friend Lee was better, but she was taller and a year older—and anyway, I was a close second. Other children must have taken part in the long jump, but my memory houses only Lee and me, jumping away and feeling good about the results. I liked being good at things. Long jumping, dancing, playing Becky Thatcher in our fourth-grade production of Tom Sawyer, and beating the boys in math were an antidote to ostracism by the class bully and her court.
All these decades later, I continue my mix of feeling socially inadequate but hoping to win notice for some physical and intellectual skills.
May 30, 2018, brought the first of this year’s three performances of The Follies, our community’s annual talent show. For the sixth time, I am tap dancing as part of a small group. This year three of us are dancing to “I Got Rhythm.” I always get nervous when I dance or act in front of an audience, and now I have let my nerves unbalance my confidence even more than usual. The root of the problem is my reputation for dancing competence—I’m afraid of not being able to live up to this reputation. (The syncopation in “I Got Rhythm” adds to my fears because it makes timing the steps somewhat more difficult.)
Each year, of course, I am a little older and a little more tired. I think to myself, “I may not be able to do as well as I did last year. And [here’s the key] people may talk about me and say, ‘Winnie’s slipping; her dancing isn’t as good this time.’” Do I think my right to a place in the world demands that I never lose a step, literally or figuratively?
That is exactly what I’ve been thinking. Not surprisingly, I let my nerves sabotage me during the two full-cast rehearsals for the 2018 Follies, experiences that then added to the pressure I felt for the opening show. The mistakes I made during the full-cast rehearsals did remind me that audiences pay more attention to the overall pizzazz in a performance than to the exactness of the details. Nevertheless, I was worried. I knew I could do the dance when no one was watching, but my close friends would be in the audience for the opening show, and the production was being filmed for our community television.
On May 30, 2018, I awoke feeling good, in spite of the ongoing sleep problems I’ve been having—largely from agonizing over the focus and purpose for my writing. For a show day, I was even reasonably calm. Showtime came, and the dance went well. The timing was a little suspect at a point or two, but the three of us were together and the steps were solid.
Did I love the compliments that followed, including a kind woman’s saying, “You could be on Broadway”? You bet I did! My confidence roared back into life.
But how am I going to use the fact that I got through the May 30 show? Am I going to ratchet up the pressure for the remaining Follies performances? I hope not: I have evidence now to tell me, “I can do this,” and the performance with my close friends in the audience went quite well. More dangerous is the effect on me for next year’s Follies tap dance—and for all other future public displays of whether I still have it or not.
Really, am I going to live the rest of my life the way I’ve lived it since second grade: believing that I can hold my head high only through prowess in the skills by which I define my acceptability?
It’s long, long past time for me to live—and not just give lip service to—this principle: The reasons for doing something such as acting in a play, learning a language, writing poetry or prose, dancing, participating in sports, studying literature, or playing music include personal satisfaction and growth, the desire to create, and the wish to share aspects of ourselves and the things we love with others. The reasons do not include proving our worthiness to take up space in the world.
I do think that enjoying congratulations for something done well or in a manner that is pleasant for others is okay: We naturally value another person’s appreciation of us and prize our own skills. But if we are performing in order to impress or prove ourselves to others or to keep ourselves from sinking into the despair of not counting, we are probably addicted to praise. Praise addiction brings with it the suffering of withdrawal when praise doesn’t come. Praise addiction also brings a suffocating fear of aging and all other reasons for “losing a step.”
Okay, I get it: It’s in my power to stop letting the false gods of approval, expectation, and judgment trample my joy in self-expression, and any good my self-expression may do for others. It’s a lot more important for folks to see an aging person who is still dancing, creating, and learning—and having fun doing so—than for them to see me getting every one of the steps right.
Update: During tonight’s Follies (the second of the three shows), I didn’t entirely live up to my newest resolution. I intend to keep working on it.