When I was 20 years old, a junior at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, I made an incredibly brave choice. I decided to dedicate one third of my college curriculum to the studying of modern dance.
Prior to that point, I had been studying psychology, philosophy, writing and religion, as well as the visual arts. But the summer after my sophomore year, I had a near-death experience, spanning several months, suddenly finding myself bizarrely ill, drastically losing weight, finally, after collapsing in fever, discovering a huge tumor the size of a cantaloupe swelling rapidly with blood inside my spleen. And so, after maneuvering and surviving three surgeries, having negotiated with angels and revisited all my life contracts, I was, needless to say, irrevocably transformed.
After taking a semester off for healing, I returned to college in January for my junior year and somehow knew that if I were going to successfully remain free of disease, I would need to fully and completely incarnate. I would need to actually inhabit this body I was living in, not just drag it around, loosely tethered to my spirit. And so, I decided, with huge trepidation and terror, to dance.
It was an especially courageous choice not only because I had never danced before, but because I still actively lived with mostly invisible neurological damage from my waist down, as the bi-product of childhood meningitis, had worn leg braces as a child, and did not have access to normal mind-leg control.
I had healed to the extent that hardly anyone (besides my mother, maybe) would notice I still slightly dragged my left foot. But in a dance class, requiring complex coordination and balance, my physical limitations would be horribly exposed.
And so they were, and so it was: immensely, painfully humbling. How many times did we, the students, line up, one by one, to dance across the floor? And how many times, come my turn, did I trip and fall, and then feel the others turn away aghast, in excruciating embarrassment on my behalf? Plenty of times, I’ll tell you.
There were days I simply couldn’t face the challenge, and pretended I was sick. There were days I sat on the sidelines, fuming with grief and envy that I couldn’t move with the grace and fluidity and ease of neurological connection my classmates could seemingly take for granted.
And yet slowly, slowly, I learned to dance. Neurological pathways literally opened, healed and came to life in my lower body. Muscles developed. I cultivated my mid-line, learned to celebrate gravity, learned to enjoy the power and thrust and pleasure of movement. My spirit dove all the way down into my pelvis, my legs, my feet. My life-force came IN.
There were moments that I actually tasted physical ecstasy for the first time, true surrender to life. There were moments I discovered, firsthand, what it was to be danced.
Then, one day, in the middle of morning warm-ups, moving through a simple routine to the comforting familiarity of the live piano player’s warm-up melody, suddenly my dance teacher waved to the piano player to stop playing. The room was silent and all the students stopped dancing.
A tiny woman with a huge voice and presence, our teacher approached me slowly in her petite, graceful, chiseled body, with hungry, angry ferocity shining in her eyes like a panther about to pounce.
Then, in front of the entire class, she yelled at me, scolding me, with so much intense love and conviction and passion I have perhaps never recovered since.
She said: “Look at you, shame on you! Holding these long, beautiful limbs so close, so tight to your sides? Look at you!”
Then she got in my face: “How generous are you willing to be? How generous are you willing to be with your whole life? Will you share yourself with us? With the world? Do you dare? Or are you just going to hold yourself tightly in, hold these long arms and legs all to yourself?”
“Are you just going to be stingy? Just keep yourself to yourself for the rest of your life? In case you fall? In case you fail? In case you make a fool of yourself? In case we see how imperfect you are? OR are you going to choose to just be generous anyway? To just take up as much space as you actually take up? To be as big, as graceful, as long, as gorgeous, as enormous as you actually are?”
She stopped, out of breath from her spontaneous explosion, and stood there, staring up at me, tears of wisdom’s fierce love glistening in her eyes. Stunned tears came to my eyes as well and I met her gaze, with what must have been the light of humbled gratitude.
If I had known how to bow then, I would have bowed. I would have fallen to my knees and kissed her feet. But instead I just stood there, meeting her gaze, shaking, knowing I had been given a tremendous teaching, a true gift.
That was one of those life-changing moments: in my dance, in my heart, in my life. Bless her heart, such a true teacher, a true life-midwife. She awakened in me something that was sleeping still; in fear, in laziness, in reluctance to actually embodying my imperfect body, in resistance to taking up as much space in this lifetime as I was here to take up.
Her words come back for me now, 20 years later, as I continuously summon the courage for leaps and bounds and surrender of a different nature. Her words are a soothing balm, an affirmation, a blessing: “How generous are you willing to be? Will you share yourself? Do you dare? Or are you just going to be stingy? In case you fall? In case you fail? How generous are you willing to be with your whole life?”
True generosity can look as many ways as there are individual moments to live. It is not necessarily a grand or public gesture of exposure. It could be as simple as your own hand tenderly touching your own face. It could be a deep breath. It could be the generosity of forgiveness, or self-forgiveness. It could be a smile. Or the simple word Yes. We always know, deep inside, what the choice of generosity could look like for us, in any given moment. Generosity of presence, of honesty, of kindness, of trust, of love, of truth.
Just imagine her fierce eyes of immense love, my friend, glaring at you like a hungry predator, saying: “How generous? How generous?” and just feel how it inspires you to open your heart, spread your wings, and live and love and dance and be danced with what remains of this fleeting life.
I dare you. I meet you here in this generosity. With all my being, I meet you.
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