Outside the Lines

At the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong learning Institute (OLLI), I’m co-teaching a course called Weaving Your Legacy. My colleague teacher designed the course. It provides a setting and encouragement for class members to work on substantial projects, projects that weave life experiences into meaningful “tapestries” for the benefit and pleasure of current and future generations. While most members of the class are focusing on written work such as memoirs, blogs, fiction, or poetry, projects using other types of creative expression—for example, photograph collections, oral histories, needlework, or drawings—are equally at home in the class.

A lovely part of my father’s legacy is the beautiful collection of drawings that he created. His pen-and-ink (here: Birmingham Meetinghouse, West Chester, Pennsylvania, by Mason Hayek) and pencil drawings express his vision and values.

One of our texts for the course, Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom, by Daniel Taylor, includes a chapter on the “spiritual will,” a document that explicitly or implicitly shares what the author has learned about living a meaningful, satisfying life. A spiritual will can take many forms—among these, a short list of the author’s “truths” (as of that point in the writer’s life), a letter, an essay, or a complete book. The short essay that follows is an example of a spiritual will.

“Outside the Lines” expresses some of my truths, however limited or subject to change, and tells a little bit about how I learned these life lessons. The essay also provides an example of a piece written in the second person (“You. . . .”). I find that writing in the second person, imagining—or perhaps hearing in my mind—what a friend, a mentor, or the wisdom living within us all would say to me, can help me be more objective about challenging topics.

Outside the Lines[1]

When you were four, your Sunday school teacher asked, “Why don’t you color nicely the way Chrissie does?” You stopped thinking about how you wanted to color the picture and instead scribbled all over it in black crayon.

A couple of years later, your elementary-school classmate criticized your shoes, your voice, your answers to the homework, the way you ran in gym class—pretty much any fodder she could find. You thought the lesson was that people didn’t like you, and you learned it well for life.

Beginning in fourth grade, your flute teacher talked a lot about intonation, breath control, and accidentals but never mentioned your expressive sense of melody. You no longer wished to take flute lessons because they were filled with unmet rules. You understood only what you still did wrong, not the musical strengths already your own.

I do still play my flute from time to time–I was teaching high school in Maine at the time this photo was taken.

Not only childhood but all of life is filled with such teachers. To move forward and find your peace, you must release these damaging teachers now. Most have done their best as they knew how. Retain the good they have given you, but then no more.

In nearly every facet of life, we all are teachers, as well as students. When we share our knowledge, we can contribute much. When we encourage others to nourish their individual gifts, we contribute vastly more. You, led by your Inner Light,[2] are the wisest teacher for your own talents, vision, and possibilities.

Also take as your teachers those who have kept their courage in spite of life’s buffeting. After editors tampered with her poems to make them fit the poetry rules of the day, Emily Dickinson no longer published her work but continued to write prolifically. Most would instead have tried to write for the market or given up entirely, but Emily valued her own voice above pleasing those who saw themselves as experts. Think of what the world would have lost if Emily had succumbed to meeting others’ expectations.

My mother was a gifted storyteller. Her stories–many of which are collected in her book Paint Lick, by Doris Burgess Hayek–both recreate the life she knew in her small childhood village and share life lessons she learned in her early years.

Whether your gifts are in dancing or painting, cooking or planting, inventing or healing, solving equations or easing suffering, being cheerful or being kind, you give most to the world through what makes you different: your unique voice and ways of being. If you believe in others’ dictates while denying your own, you will spend your life seeking to fill gaps and fix flaws with borrowed wisdom, rules, and ways. Learn from others, but recast their lessons to match the best of who you are and are becoming, from youth through oldest age.


[1] Part of this post appears in A Woman in Time, by Winifred Burgess Hayek.

[2] The “Inner Light” is a Quaker term for “that of God within.”

Why Dance?

“Why Dance?” grows out of some of the memories in “Snapshots of the Mind,” a collection of random recollections that came when I allowed my mind to float by free association from memory to memory.  The essay below expands the recollections about dancing.  A quick read of “Why Dance?” may give a few ideas for exploring one of your own lifetime passions—its roots and history, its highlights and byways.

Dancing designs a new reality
Within but apart from the old.

Dancing is motion
Inside of rhythm and melody.

Dancing releases everyday rules of being
To follow the reign of music.

Dancing aligns the life force
In all the muscles and organs of the body,
Especially the heart.

The patterns of the dance
Invite my spirit in
To paint a scene
And describe a dream
Made of feeling and flair
Enveloped in music.

At supper one evening when I was four, as we sat at our table in the kitchen of our little white house on Nichols Avenue, Mother and Daddy asked me if I would like to take ballet.  I couldn’t believe such a magnificent possibility was mine.  I rose from the table and spun around the kitchen, spinning my joy that I was now a ballerina.

My ballet teacher was Miss Peggy.  Her mother played the piano as we little girls in pink leotards crossed the room with our small grands jetés, as we stood at the bar for our pliés in the five positions, and as we practiced our routines for the recitals we gave for our families.  Before the recitals, our mothers basted short net skirts onto our leotards, and then more than ever we were real ballerinas.  I wished I could wear my pink ballet slippers every day, and not just once a week to dancing class.  We carried our slippers to class in little cases with felt dancers glued to the front.

Miss Peggy also taught us to tap dance.

For Christmas when I was six, Santa brought me a recording of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty along with a little blue record player, which could be snapped together like an overnight case.  Sometimes I put on my ballet slippers, rolled up the rugs in my bedroom, and twirled to Tchaikovsky’s music playing on my record player.

Beginning in first grade, Friday afternoons brought ballroom dancing lessons: the foxtrot, waltz, cha cha, and Lindy Hop.  I especially liked the cha cha and Lindy for their turns and speed.  At the end of each class, we marched around the room to the Grand March from Aida.  We little girls wore our party dresses and white gloves, which covered the eczema on my hands and joined the music in giving me confidence.  The boys wore their Sunday suits and seemed happy to be dancing and to dance with me.  I remember that a friend’s mother told my mother that I was graceful.  I wasn’t a particularly vain child, but I was proud of the things I could do well, and so I kept the compliment in memory.

Mother and Daddy took dancing lessons for many years at the DuPont Country Club, to which any DuPont employee could belong.  I felt relaxed and happy hearing their bossa nova and tango music floating up from the basement, where they practiced while their dance records spun on my little blue record player.  Mother was exceedingly graceful, and Daddy, like me, had most enjoyed gymnastics in gym class and so also danced easily.  In the kitchen, when I was grown, Daddy sometimes taught me the steps to the Latin dances; that night, I‘d go with my parents to the Saturday dance at the country club.  Not only Daddy but also a couple of my parents’ friends would dance with me.

Boyfriends who could dance were scarcer.  Karl was a top-of-the-line jitterbugger, and we polkaed together at the rollicking German House parties at the University of Delaware.  But then until Fred, with whom I only danced on three occasions, all the other men of my generation with whom I danced did the shake-it-all-around and make-it-up-as-you-go moves that went well with “Proud Mary,” “My Guy,” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”  I liked the self-expressive, free-for-all dancing, too.  It could even be done alone, if necessary.

Fred had evidently gone to childhood ballroom lessons, also.  We danced together briefly the night we met and then during a visit with my parents, when we attended a Saturday-night dance at the country club.  As we stood in the middle of the floor, Fred and I had words over the correct execution of the foxtrot.  But then on New Year’s Eve, a couple of months before we’d utterly and completely had more than enough of each other, we whirled on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center as National Symphony musicians played Viennese waltzes.

Other opportunities to ballroom dance with a man have been scarce.  I’ve spent a couple of evenings at dances with guys who needed to be steered around the dance floor as if they were lawn mowers.  One lovely evening in Massachusetts, I attended a singles’ dance with three friends—interestingly, they were all former nuns.  An Italian man who was a miraculous dancer (and quite beautiful himself) danced with me much of the night, but only because my skills were the best he could come up with on that occasion.

I have always loved to move my body, even before the time of swinging on the jungle gym that Daddy built for me in the backyard and of showing off my handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults.  In motion, then and now, I am cleansed of shyness and self-doubt.  In some adult decades when dancing was scarce, ice skating was my happiest way of moving.  Ice skating felt like dancing with extra speed, a lovely combination.  In recent years, as I danced around the apartment after an episode of Dancing with the Stars, I thought how fine it would be to find enough fame to join the show for a season, to dance hour after hour and day after day.

In my earlier years, I could not have imagined that the greatest outlet for my grownup dancing drive would come after I retired: tap dancing on Mondays and line dancing twice a week.  Then at a recent Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program in Kentucky, I was probably the most enthusiastic participant in our daily square-dancing and line-dancing lessons.  In retirement, I can once again dance as often as I did as a child.

I do still sometimes dream of dancing with a willing partner:
Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.

The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Turned-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Again-two-three.[*]

But my life is full and happy, and I don’t think I have time for a dancing boyfriend just now—even if a man should decide he’d like to fill that role.  When our dance groups perform, I seem to give some pleasure to audience members, and I am grateful for that blessing—it and the joy inherent in dancing are treasure enough.


[*] From my book A Woman in Time.

Snapshots of the Mind

When the urge to write is not accompanied by a promising subject or theme, one possibility for answering the writing call is to begin with an image, a scene—any image, any scene.  Then free associate, letting one image, one scene, lead to the next, no matter how circuitous the path through memory.  Taken together, the seemingly random recollections create a sketch of the past and suggest ways the past has led to the present.  Here’s a short example of the approach that does, in fact, help to remind me of who I was, and still am.  If I choose, I can mine these memories for subjects to explore in more depth.

I carried my pink ballet slippers in a blue case decorated with a felt ballerina.

I liked spending school lunch hours in the clearing under the weeping willow beyond our playground.  I wove bracelets from the long willow branches, but I don’t remember wearing or even keeping the bracelets.  The act of braiding the pliable thin branches was the pleasure, much as with making clover chains in the front yard at home.  With my fingernail I poked a slot near the end of the stem of one clover and inserted the stem of the next through the slot.  Sometimes I put a clover crown on my head or tested a clover jump rope, but any such usefulness was superfluous.  I imagine Daddy had to deal with piles of discarded clover chains when he mowed the grass.

One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was showing off my handstand skills for a neighbor girl and a boy from school.  When I flipped over after the handstand, I sat in a pile of manure that the girl’s dog had left behind.  My patient mother took crying me to a sink in our basement to clean off the mess.  I was mortified by the outcome of my effort to impress my friends.

Daddy made me a pair of wooden stilts, and I was proud of being able to tramp around the yard on them.

When I was small, Mother helped me bake a chocolate cake.  A picture from that afternoon shows frosting smeared across my smile.

Mother told me I once said, “It’s the frossin’ what makes it good.”

We put salt or sugar on grapefruit in those days to cut the sour taste; I preferred sugar.

I made meatloaf for some of my fellow teachers at the boarding school where we taught.  I put eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs in my meatloaf, which was the centerpiece of my most reliable menu.  When my friend David came to eat meatloaf with me one night, my dog, Maggie, chewed his wallet, so I had to buy him a new one.  I don’t recall having to replace any cash.

On the first evening David and I were in Germany with the students we were chaperoning, I asked him how to say, “Could I please have some change?” in German.  On subsequent days, when I had a chance to get away from David and the students, I used my phrasebook to figure out how to meet my needs.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I cried listening to Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”  I wanted a boyfriend—if not a Beatle then one of the boys at school.

Ringo was my favorite Beatle, probably because in the early days he looked more like a little boy than like an intimidating young man who might reject me.

My love for Ringo—if not my affection—faded by the time I was in college.  My love for Andrea Bocelli hasn’t diminished in twenty-two years.

When I was six, Santa Claus gave me a record player in the form of a small blue suitcase.  Coordinating with Santa that Christmas, my parents gave me two records.  The first included Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.  The second was Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and the Toy Symphony, then attributed to Haydn but now more often attributed to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad.  Even after we moved to our new home, I often rolled up the small blue hooked rugs in my bedroom so I could dance to a Tchaikovsky ballet playing on my little record player.

Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first morning after the last day of school.

The woods behind our house, drawing by Mason Hayek

At summer camp in Maine, after we campers were in bed, the camp director’s Doberman thundered down the cabin line like a galloping pony.

When I was a camp counselor, I played taps on my flute in the evening.  The sound drifted out over the lake as infinite stars drifted overhead.  The Milky Way was a broad stripe across the sky.

And so, as perhaps these memories suggest, it’s nearly impossible not to be able to write if the mind is set free to jump here, there, and anywhere.