Home Is a Handstand

Dear Writers:

I spent part of Thanksgiving break at home in Idaho, staying at the condo of my former gymnastics coach. I slept on a huge air mattress in his office; the mattress is like a big crash pad, so I felt right at home. In the morning, I sat on the comfy “crash pad” in my sweats, hair uncombed, teeth not brushed, and tearfully told Coach how much I still miss IT after all these years.

IT meaning being up on the balance beam, swinging around on the unevens, or flying over the vaulting horse.

IT meaning hanging out in gyms, working out barefoot, owning more leotards than other clothes.

IT meaning the athletic life I’d always thought I’d have as a coach/dancer/choreographer/fitness guru—the specifics weren’t formulated in my teenage mind, but I’d known my career path would be an outgrowth of being a high-level athlete.

I could have still done some of those other things, but along with losing the ability to land my stunts, I also lost my belief in myself.

Idaho Statesman Bars

Me back in the day

I often tell writers that they can get away with anything in a story—as long as they do it boldly. For example, not bothering to have a transition but just hopping over to another part of the story. Poof, we’re there, without even an “and then.”

Actually, please not an “and then.”

Because you have to be enough of a smartass writer to break convention often and wisely. What’s critical though is to understand and to be able to effectively employ the convention that you’re breaking. That’s what I think, and I think I’m right. I’m a pretty skilled editor, especially when it’s not my own story and I’m therefore not traumatized about it and can get in and diagnose its issues.

It’s incredibly fun to figure out what’s not yet working with a story and how to maximize its potential. Because there’s always potential, and there’s always that one awesome thing that made the story worth writing and will make it worth reading. And there’s that awesome author behind the story, who sometimes just needs a little thoughtful coaching to help them keep their stride in the home stretch of their revision.

I crashed on my bar dismount and blew out my knee. Back then, there wasn’t a surgery that could fix it. There was what I call my “I don’t give a rip because I can no longer do gymnastics” era. I took a lot of risks and am alive out of sheer dumb luck. I suppose I was seeking an adrenaline rush.

Sitting on that crash pad, I got a lot of coach wisdom and a comforting coach hug. My coach is pretty proud of my writing, by the way. And then, we went to the gym, where the conversation began anew. The one between coach and athlete that we can still have even after all these years. The one that doesn’t take very many words but is based on movement and gesture and deep trust.

The lesson for the day was that you can go home again, if home is a handstand. Or another way to say that would be that sometimes instead of running away from  your pain, you have to run toward it and then through it. Or another way to say that would be that you can’t always be what you were, but you should always be who you are. Or that it’s crazy fun to try to do a handstand on a moving surface, like an upside-down Bosu ball.

Sometimes the biggest rush is very quiet. It’s the one in your brain that derives from accomplishment and from creating, whether that creation is a beam routine or a short story or a new hairdo. How’s that for also sidestepping? Did you mainly want to know more about the bar dismount, the grisly specifics of my injury, or if my young adult risk-taking rivaled that of Cheryl Strayed?

I got rid of most of the furniture in my upstairs to make room for handstands. Now in my bedroom—which is a huge rectangular room that runs the length of my house and which was originally two rooms until a prior owner knocked down a wall and made it one—there’s a bed, nightstand, and a chair. Looking around I thought, “Huh, I could stage Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et La Mort dance in here.”


Mikhail Baryshnikov in Le Jeune Homme et La Mort. Source: Britannica.com

That’s the ballet famously performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the opening scene of the 1985 film White Nights. The set has a bed, table, and chair, and at the end, the character hangs himself.

It’s a really bad joke between myself, because I love that ballet and a few years ago, my wonderful, beautiful sister hanged herself. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t ever want to watch that ballet again. My sister would say something like, “Well, at least when I hanged myself, I had way better hair than Baryshnikov’s 80s’ mop, and don’t even get me started on footwear.”

Terri the teen

My hilarious sister, Terri

She was eleven years my junior and taught me so much, including how to laugh at what hurts too badly to cry about. I’m working pretty hard to apply that lesson to gymnastics, where my ability to toss double back flips has been reduced to a three-second handstand, hanging close to the wall to avoid wipeouts at my current body weight. Sometimes this scenario is funny to me and sometimes it’s not.

This post started out (in my mind) to be about my editing services in 2016. Got a little sidetracked. You know how that happens. No worries, I’ll fix it in revision—later.

I wrote an essay called “Nursey,” about my sis, and which was recently published in Clover, A Literary Rag. The editors gave it a Pushcart nomination. I’m simultaneously honored and conflicted about publishing the essay in the first place as well as the nomination. What if I get a prize for exploiting my sister’s suicide? I think she would like the essay and support it and be proud of me. But I can’t wake her up to ask her. I read the essay as one of the featured authors for Clover‘s January event at Village Books in Fairhaven WA.

I weigh 201 pounds, 25 pounds less than I weighed in September, and 90 pounds more than my competitive weight. I think Cheryl Strayed has slept with more guys than I have, but who’s counting besides the part of our mothers that dwells within us still? That’s an overly confessive bit that should probably get deleted in the final edit, but didn’t you sort of want to know?

Feel very free to get over yourself, you’re thinking. But you also know from your own writing that once you start confessing, it’s kind of hard to stop.

My coach and I have a one-way bet. Back in the day, he once made up a floor pass centered on a move called a straddle press to encourage strength and agility development, and whoever could do it three times in a row got a new leotard. Oh, my god, I was so dialed in. I spent hours working the move to earn the coolest powder-blue shiny leo. So you can guess what the bet is. If I get my press-up back, he has to buy me a leotard. He calls me a “reborn literary acrobat.” I like it.

BTW: I’ve got my eye on the British 2016 Olympic leo.

Laurel Leigh bwHappy New Year! Keep your resolutions, run hard toward your pain, and write your best stuff ever. And then call me to edit it. Or we can take a ballet class together. Either will be fun.

XO Laurel Leigh






45 thoughts on “Home Is a Handstand

  1. How’d I just find this? What an amazing post. I hung onto every word, Laurel. Beautifully written, because it was written from your heart and soul. Thanks for being so open and loving and REAL. You are an amazing woman, and I look forward to following you and your blog and your stories.

    • Oh, my gosh, Pam. What a lovely message to get. Thank you for reading my post and for the encouragement. You know from your own marvelous blog how interesting and rewarding it is to put your life out there on the page and be met with so much goodwill. You totally made my day. XO

  2. Hi, I probably don’t know any of you, but this is Frank Sahlein of Boise, Idaho – and Laurel’s coach in her young gymnast days. She was (and is) such a creative, smart and caring person – one of my all time favorites! And as a gymnastics – well, Laurel’s daring, strength, flexibility and focus made her one of the best gymnasts in the state and in the Pacific Northwest region at the time. From her VERY small town roots to a national competition was an incredible journey of talent, passion, desire, work ethic and will. And now this well-lived life in the literary community; yes, I am still PROUD!

    • I love reading comments like these because it’s a testament to the importance of human relationships, ie how we important it is that we all receive encouragement and validation for who we are no matter where life takes us. The “who” is so much more important than the “do” so it’s good to know this kind of thing still exists in a world where “doing” is so esteemed and rewarded. The real rewards in life are in relationships and in people. Thank you for your post!

    • Thanks for the very good words, Frank. The first day I walked into your gym will always be one of my best days, definitely right up there with when you let us drive your Volvo! I’m so glad we knew each other then and now, and you have taught me so much, and I’m grateful for your friendship and caring nature.

      I’m very proud of you too. 3rd Level and its many ventures is leading edge. Good job launching a world-class company, but even more so being a world-class guy. Love you, Coach!

  3. Gosh….there’s so much I could say about the above. I guess the bottom line is that we are often challenged in how we see and relate to ourselves by the changes that happen which are often beyond our control. It goes without saying this can be a very, very painful process.

    Re: ballet….let me know if you’re serious. 🙂 Maybe the below link will inspire you as it does me. I couldn’t do 1/100th of any of this as I do not have any experience in ballet but feel a “calling” as I do with writing. I cry every time I watch it.


    • Wow, it ain’t our grandma’s ballet anymore, is it!? That is pretty awesome choreography. Thanks so much for the link!

      Totally serious about ballet class. Are you in Bellingham?

      • I am! My intention is also to go to the open mic nights and RWB among other groups in town. New to the area so just getting established. Heard great things about Opus but I know there are many options. Good to be able to express oneself artistically. 🙂 I believe highly emotive beings need these outlets to feel good, if that makes any sense.

          • I’ll be sure and introduce myself. 🙂 btw – Groupon has a special with Opus (B’ham) running right now. $15 for $60 worth of classes. Steal of a deal! Also, ck out Kathryn Morgan on Youtube. She has some amazing videos out there, esp one with advice on what adult beginner ballet dance should know and do. 🙂 Just came across both of these as I’m working towards New Year’s resolutions. Ha!

  4. Laurel, I’m so glad you stopped by my blog ’cause it nudged me over here. For nearly a year I’ve barely followed any of the blogs I like to read, yours being one of them. It’s just been that kind of year 😦

    Anyway, what a post! I was compelled to read every word, interested and continuously surprised as I read on. First–I’m deeply sorry about your sister 😦 And I’m sure that your need to write about her suicide was not done in an exploitative way. I don’t know its content, but I’d be willing to bet your words touched and benefited other people.

    I, too, miss the things I was able to do when I was young, and also lost so many of those things at a young age due to health problems that began. It’s not easy, but it’s all about focusing on what we CAN do, not dwelling on what we can’t do 🙂 That pic of you is impressive, too! Your body is SO straight!

    Also, I’m overweight, too, for most of my adult life, in varying degrees. After years of trying to figure out the best way to lose weight, typically falling into the “Atkins/no carb” way (it can’t be sustained, nor is it good for you), I finally came back, full circle, to the basics they’ve been saying for decades: take in less than you need. Very simple. It’s all about portion control and activity level (and going to bed early enough). I was on a wonderful roll, losing weight easily a year ago. I stuck to the calorie intake to average 2-3 lbs. of loss each week, doing moderate exercise 3-5 per week (I did my Basement Bops almost every day ( http://2creativitycookbook.com/basement-bops/ ), was eating foods that satisfied me and all was great. I ended up with other health problems that changed what I was allowed to eat—drastically restricted with so many common foods eliminated. I’ve since been struggling, but keep trying to get back to that wonderful mind set. I hope you find your balance!

    • Wow, thank you for such thoughtful comments, Donna Marie. “Balance” is such a good term to apply to so many things, and I think you are very correct that so much of it is about mindset. My mind isn’t always my best pal. 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words about my sis. The essay about her is getting a good response, which is helping me to feel less conflicted about it. I feel like as writers we make the choice to put ourselves in the public eye and the loss of privacy that entails, but it’s a different type of responsibility when writing about others. Even if they agree, they might not be fully prepared for the outcome of responses. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I had to get permissions before submitting another essay, and it involved a lot of trust on both sides for me to tell the person that I was writing about him and for him to agree to it.

      Thank you so much. Your comments mean a lot. And, I hope you find your balance too. Please keep me posted. It’s good to have a friend in that effort!

      XO Laurel

      • Yep! It’s all about balance, whether it’s on a beam or pretty much anywhere else in life. It’s always been very elusive for me. I’m still trying! I just wish all the skinny pictures of me that I recently posted in key spots (including my phone!) were influencing me the way I’d hoped. Sheesh! lol

        • You will find what works for you. For me, it helped to take the focus off losing weight and instead focus on working the trick, in this case, handstands. I would think it would be, but just getting skinny isn’t what motivates me. It’s more about doing what I like to do agility-wise. It made me think that we focus a lot on appearance, but that’s a static element in some ways, and it’s maybe more about lifestyle and accomplishment. I’ve definitely got a lot to figure out about myself.

        • Well, the “skinny” part of it is very visual and I have pics of that, but “skinny” for me represents many things. I have a list of all the things (27) that would/could/should improve if I can get my weight down and change certain habits, like when I sleep, etc. Appearance is only a part. And after seeing one of my docs today, I’m back to dealing with another aspect of my health that is difficult, expensive and I don’t know if I’ll have the means to address it. There’s just SO much and with it also being related to my (lack of ) brain function, it’s a vicious cycle ’cause that lack makes it difficult to function, period. I’m still trying though! I keep creating tools and methods in the effort to help it work 🙂

          • Yep, and keep on trying, and I think you have the best attitude. I’m sorry you have to deal with chronic health problems. It is a balancing act, as we keep saying! One day at a time, my friend! XO

  5. Oh, dahlink, you KNOW how I feel. But maybe you don’t. So let me tell you that you are one of the most awesome, thought-provoking writers I know. And you can edit the hell out of anything, including hieroglyphics. Congrats on the nomination! I’ll be rooting for you, even in your ambivalent state. And I’m not talking about Idaho. We’ve got to jumpstart the Dogpatchers for 2016. Where, oh where, is Wes?!

    • Aww, Jill! I’m so glad we met in Margo’s class years ago. I can’t really imagine a writing journey without you. We’ve written together and read each other’s work from the beginning. I hold your work and your opinion in such high regard. I didn’t realize how much I was hoping you would comment on this post until you did. Thank you, my friend and comrade in all of this. XO

  6. Laurel,
    Like your coach, I am proud of your writing too 😊. Appreciate your creativity, openness and sense of humor. Congrats on the Pushcart nomination…well deserved!

  7. Lovely Blog, Laurel. I’m moved. I’ve read your essay on your sister, and, as you know in your heart, you didn’t exploit her. People need to be seen. Sometimes the best we can do in situations that aren’t ours to fix or can’t be fixed, is to bear witness. And you do so eloquently. I’m looking forward to the day I have something worthy of your editing—hopefully in the second half of this year. Happy New Year.

    • Hi Laura,
      Thank you for such kind words, and for reading my essays. It’s a pleasure knowing you, and I’d love to edit your work, especially as that would mean that your project is progressing toward the goal. Keep writing! I know you will. XO

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