Home Is a Handstand
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Happy 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