Dancing Through Visions of Vocation
In the summer of 2015, two years after discovering that I will likely spend the rest of my days battling stage four cancer, a friend who was a former student of mine asked me if I would consider renewing the mentoring relationship we had begun in her youth because she was ready to fulfill her college-age dream of founding her own professional dance company. She wanted a sounding board as she began to create the foundational elements—the mission and vision statements, for example. I’d been her Drama teacher in high school more than two decades earlier, and we’d had a simple mentoring relationship then—one primarily fed by my encouragement and support as she traveled a road familiar to every artist: facing the challenges of working through our insecurities and shortcomings and human foibles and failures, but still giving our all fearlessly to the work at hand. I was unsure about my energy stores and concerned about my ability to find the strength to be a difference-maker in her quest, but I recognized the gift I was being given at this juncture in my own journey—having been forced to retire in my illness—and so I readily agreed. Throughout the next year, we entered in to a new, more significant and intentional interaction. Kelly and I spent months sharing a book study, discussing Steven Garber’s book, Visions of Vocation. (I created a study guide we used, which was later posted on the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture’s website if you are interested. You can find it here). We sought answers to all the connections we could find between our daily lives, our artistic abilities, our own stories and our foundational beliefs about human nature and the world we live in. How did this vocational aspiration connect to every part of our lives, we asked ourselves? To our past wounds, to our current passions, to our future hopes and dreams?
I’ve written poetry since I was a kid. It has always been an outlet for me, a way to come to terms with the difficulty of living in a world filled with as much pain as beauty, as much sorrow as joy. Writing has long been a cathartic exercise, helping me make sense of so much that feels senseless. I turned to poetry to find comfort and resilience and meaning in the wake of my diagnosis of incurable cancer. As part of our study, I shared my writing with Kelly. I’d just finished a poem called “Joy and Sorrow,” and she saw in that poem a twist on a piece she had choreographed some time before (about Sorrow and Suffering) that she was now viewing through the lens of my poem. The piece became part of a tenth anniversary celebration for a Northern California dance company, and it focused on the coexistence of Joy and Suffering and the potential for beauty and solace in their interdependence in our lives. I was invited to a rehearsal to see the piece and talk to the dancers about its genesis in connection to my poem. I was reduced to tears at the beauty of my words turned to movement, breathless with the unexpected revelation of how dance could be used to speak my very personal truth and communicate such raw emotion. The vision statement Kelly ultimately selected for the company, from an article by Lauralee Farrer, stopped me dead in my tracks: “to stand in the ashes of the barn burned down, pointing to the moon. One half in suffering and one half in hope.” Could anything have spoken more directly to my life at the moment? I’d already been through four surgeries and challenging recoveries by that time, and the promise of hope in the face of suffering had become my saving grace in the struggle of living with a stage four cancer diagnosis and all the emotional and physical challenges it entails. And here in front of me was my story. All the pain of it. All the possibility my life still holds: Suffering, yes. But also Joy. Also Hope.
I was hooked. By the time our first concert took place in Denver in August of 2016, I was an Artist-in-Residence and Kelly’s creative partner in Chadash Contemporary Dance Movement. (Chadash is a Hebrew word with the root meaning of “new” and carries connotations of “restoration,” rebuilding,” and “renewal.”) We are a dance company that tells stories about the human condition, seeing us as we are, but always with an eye to whom we might become. And we tell our stories by employing a vast array of visual and performing arts. We have over three dozen contributors in the Chadash family at this point, including dancers, of course, but also visual artists, filmmakers, composers, photographers, actors, a costumer, multimedia artists and sound and lighting technicians. I write our stories, the spoken word and poetry components, and, more recently, I have begun writing and directing films.
My work with Chadash has given me so much more than I could have ever imagined or anticipated. Although I kept my illness to myself for the first two years, it is now no secret that I am in this battle. Now six surgeries and recoveries later, I’ve learned some significant life lessons. For example, I know that I have no control over the medical circumstances my cancer generates, but I have full control over how I respond to them. I’ve learned that when I think I have reached the end of my ability to withstand a challenge, I am actually only two thirds of the way there. I have learned that joy is a choice, available to me regardless of the challenges I face. That’s true for all of us, but sometimes we need a cataclysmic life event to bring that truth home. And what’s of equal value is that I have learned what I believe courage is, and what it is not.
Courage is not finding ways to distance myself from my challenges. And I don’t believe that it is found in stoicism in the face of loss and grief, or apathy towards suffering, even though that is often so hard to bear. It is not distracting myself with busyness to hold off the pain. Nor is it wearing a mask of bravery to cover my insecurities and fears. I’ve discovered that for me, courage is walking through the pain and suffering, admitting that it is real, leaning in to the people and rituals and scheduled activities that bring me some level of comfort, and, in so doing, growing in resilience and grace and grit. Courage is learning soft ways to tell hard truths to the people I love. Courage isn’t always forceful or strong. On the first day of my teaching career, some thirty odd years ago, my sweet husband gave me an art piece for my classroom with a quote from Mary Anne Radmacher that says: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is that little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” That’s me in a nutshell. And that’s the beauty of the thing. Because so far, I still have another tomorrow.
There are many things that bring me joy, but nothing more so than fueling and exercising my creative spirit. I was born to be creative—to write, to paint, to teach, to direct. Each of these is an act of creativity that transports me to a place of deep joy. When Kelly and I work together to create a new concert, building on ideas, collaborating on concepts, imagining characters and their relationships and the themes that drive them, we are like a couple of tiny kids building a fort in the backyard out of odds and ends and sundry bits. Our laughter is infectious, our ideas grandiose, our camaraderie perfect. For us, the work is play. And in that play, my joy is manifest and made complete.
In this zone of creativity, there is no awareness of illness in me at all. There is no room for it. I am whole. My mind is unfettered and free. My body fills with energy (for the moment, anyway) and my spirit soars. It’s hard to put into words, but I know that it has something to do with living with no fear in the zone in which I was created to operate. Having found that vocational avenue that brings together all of who I am and connects me with this soulmate who shares my vision and my passion and my willingness to step out in faith, allows me to accept whatever creative lightning bolt from the heavens shows up to strike us and ignite a spark that invariably becomes a blazing flame.
We build. We disagree. We agonize. We discover. Eureka! We encounter problems. We worry. God shows up. We overcome. And most of all, we grow. We sharpen one another, encourage one another, hold one another up in prayer. As in life, not everything turns out the way we would wish. But we are learning over and over that things do seem to turn out as they were meant to be. And we are learning to have both grace and courage along the way when things do challenge us. Because at the end of a show, when the costumes go back in the bin and the Marley floor gets rolled up and returned, I know exactly what my body is fighting. The physical challenges are real. Even so, they seem to become lesser in light of the great gift of creativity once again on the horizon as we look forward to our next concert. How blessed is a human being who has had the opportunity to find that place where Vocation meets Passion and gives birth to Art!