Tag Archives: striving

The Heartbreak of Striving

img002I know the heartbreak of striving. If you’re a dancer or a writer or anyone who has ever put your all into something, be it an art or sport or pursuit of a truth—knowing the odds of success might be questionable—you know it too.

It’s the moment “hobby” turns to passion. “Like to” turns to “have to.” “Want to” turns to “my heart will break if I don’t.”

For me, that shift happened in ballet when I was at that pivotal age of eleven. For years my friends and I had danced happily, loving the music, loving the combinations our teachers asked of us. High on childhood and music and ballet, we had a rose-colored view of ourselves. Blind to the work ahead, we could imagine that we were ballerinas already. We were being taught technique in such a loving way, it fed our dreams without building the muscles of self-critique. We soared on our dreams.

But suddenly, around the age of eleven, something dawned on all of us—especially those with talent. Ballet is hard. Really, really hard—even if you have talent for it. It’s a strange phenomenon. As you get closer to being a real dancer, as your teachers demand more of you and you demand more of yourself, you begin to feel the pain of not being good enough. Not yet. Your ability to happy with the pictures you make in the mirror must be delayed. It was a hard realization. To suddenly feel inadequate at the age of eleven. My first heartbreak.

The thing is, in order to become good at ballet, I needed to recognize that there was room for improvement. We all did. We needed to push through to become better at it. Our teachers impressed this upon us. We were not good enough yet. Those of us who truly loved ballet understood that it would take years before we were good enough. And because ballet was what we wanted, we were willing to do the work and to wait. Even though we were just kids. Even though we knew that, even with work and time, some of us might not make it. I hope I do, we’d say. I hope I make it. We were competitors, fellow strivers and fellow sufferers.

One day half the girls in my class had learned they were going on pointe. The other half—myself included— were told we weren’t strong enough and would have to wait one more excruciating year to get our satin pinks. No matter how hard we’d worked, we were not ready. A second heartbreak.

Beginning then, our four-times-per-week ballet class was extended fifteen minutes. Our teacher would clap her hands say the words—ladies, put on your pointe shoes! And the lucky half would run for the corner to wrap their toes in lamb’s wool and slip on their hard-tipped shoes, lace up the gleaming ribbons. The rest of us, with heavy hearts, joined in their special exercises in our normal “flat” ballet slippers—our dreams deferred as our classmates blistered and bled, building callouses they would later show off.

The year passed. I got my shoes, then my callouses. Another year later, no one in our ballet class could remember who had gone on pointe at eleven and who’d had to wait. But now the work of becoming real ballet dancers kicked into high gear. We had ballet class six days per week, knowing that other girls our age danced three classes per day to our one. Still, there was plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Some of us made it.

As a writer, I have revised my novel umpteen times, received great feedback, but also rejections. I will continue to revise and work until my book is good enough. Just as I did with my dancing. If you are to strive for something you love, no matter what the endeavor, there will be heartbreak along the way.

teaching at MAD LOMI saw a germ of this in one of my little ballet students just two weeks ago. I was teaching the class a new skill—a single pirouette from fourth position. We’d been building up to it, working on passé, passé relevé, spotting the head, opening and closing the arms, proper placement. This girl was ready to turn, I thought. So I stayed with her as she worked through the steps and tried the turn. I was patient and encouraging in just the right measures, I thought. She was determined—I could see it—and I would not let her give up.

“That’s it,” I kept saying, between more technical instructions. “You’re there.” I kept pushing, gently, sure I was going to get a result that delighted us both. She’d have that feeling of balance, of landing, of making the illusion of spinning.

“Once more.” As I said it, I realized it was too much. Her brown eyes were welling up, spilling over. Soon she was sobbing, having put her all into something that was not working. Not yet.

I felt awful. So guilty. I had made a child cry. But then I remembered how many times I had cried while I was striving for my dream—sometimes because I was hard on myself, other times because I was scolded by my ballet teachers. Granted, in my day, adults were more openly critical of children in ways that weren’t always good. Today, we have expressions like “It’s all good.”

Of course, in ballet, it isn’t all good. As teachers, we have the difficult task of expressing that in a non-damaging way. I don’t believe it’s necessary to be negative with children, to “draw the talent out of them,” as some teachers did when I was growing up. Instead, I think we need to find creative ways to inspire children, to nurture their passion for art or sports or science or music. When they love what they are doing, striving—having a self-imposed standard to meet—comes naturally. And, though there will certainly be heartbreak along the way, hearts are resilient.

To my little, tearful student, to all children moving from play into passion, my advice is as follows:

Whatever your dream—enjoy the journey, keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t give up when it’s tough. You’ll get there.

Chasing the Dream: A Lesson From Dad

Two beautiful members of my father's legacy

It wasn’t until after his cancer diagnosis in 1989 that my dad began to focus most of his efforts on his memoir.  The writing process was different from previous works.  It was good for the family—for my parents’ marriage—because it involved less research, less travel.  He was home more, though by that time, I was living in Boston.  Fortunately, Pan Am had this great New York to Boston Shuttle which cost fifty bucks for a round-trip ticket, so I came home on weekends whenever I could.  My mother would park the car and my dad would wait for me at the gate. 

That’s one of my clearest visual memories of him, actually.  Dad’s eyesight was so bad that he couldn’t see me until I was right up close.  But I could see him.  He wasn’t a tall guy, so the first thing I always picked out of the crowd was his wide, brown dome of a forehead.   He’d be waiting there, hands on hips, face full of anticipation as I came down the ramp.  His embrace felt like home.

Of course, once we got home, the time I spent with my parents was limited.  I’d be lying if I implied that seeing them was my main reason for flying to New York those weekends.  I was in my twenties with lots of friends from high school, college and my old ballet school swarming the city.   The social scene was what drew me back each weekend.  I might have dinner with my parents or spend a few hours with them in the afternoons, but at night I went out, stayed out late and slept until eleven the next morning.  Like many very young people, I believed time was limitless.  When I woke up, my father would have already put in a good five hours at the typewriter.  He’d get up before dawn—as he did all his life until he got really sick—put up the coffee, pour himself a mug (black with loads of sugar) and begin his work. 

By then had become clear that the memoir was the thing he should have been working on all along.  This was going to be his triumph.  Dad believed—because this was the way the publishing world had worked when he was at Viking*—that he could get his “four chapters” done and would then be given a big advance to do the rest. 

My father remained idealistic about his work to the very end.  He could always imagine success waiting just beyond the horizon.  “When my ship comes in …” was the phrase I heard him use over and over again.  

Though the ship never came in, I am proud of my father nevertheless.  He left me a gift that most daughters never get: the first ten chapters of a richly detailed memoir, ten more chapters outlined.  Some people have suggested that my mother and I try to finish the book, so his legacy lives on.   It is a beautiful thought, but I know, lacking my father’s experience and perspective, we’re incapable of doing that.   Besides, I believe that his legacy lives on anyway—in me and in my children.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my father, the most important is: set your goals high, but don’t squander the present.  No matter how my father chased his dreams, he always had time for me.

Enjoy the love of your family, your children’s joys and wonderings.  Strive for the future, but don’t let NOW pass you by.    

*My father was an art director at Viking Press from 1959-1981