Look Up

My brother came to us in an airplane when he was one and I was two. He left Guatemala and traveled in the night sky across jungles and sea with a woman from the agency who soothed him over the noise of the engines. They landed on U.S. soil and he was delivered—small, malnourished, with big round eyes—into the arms of our expectant family.

It’s fitting that his new life with us began at night under the stars, because my brother is Mayan, descended from that proud, ancient civilization who looked upward to the constellations. They followed the movement of the planets and the path of the sun, plotted courses, predicted events, developed a calendar. Makes me wonder: could they have read in a comet’s tail how far away their sons and daughters would end up, or what their fortunes would be?

Almost at once this new child pulled on our senses. Our family was the earth and he was the moon, spinning a lonely orbit around us. We navigated our relationship with him by what we could see—his blazing harvest light, his fragile slivers in the dead of winter, his total eclipses in the spring without warning—and what we could feel in the dark emotional tides that swept us under. I don’t doubt that he came here trailing the spirit of a Mayan ancestor, a young male warrior who beat a fierce drum, spilled blood into the fire, scattered broken vessels in the dust…calling him, calling him back to the jungle.

My parents were so young, and my sister and I too little to understand. There was no manual: “How to Raise a Child Who Travels with an Ancestral Warrior.”

My connection to my brother was strung with worry. I was afraid we would lose him in crowded places and I panicked whenever he was out of my sight. He tended to wander, but I would yank him back. I was furious with my parents; weren’t they paying attention? He needed to be safe or I was a ball of anxiety. Our birthdays are next to each other in December, and we share an astrological sign, and yet my brother’s life—despite my vigilance, despite our astral similarities—took a drastically different turn from mine. There was no way I could stop it, no way to yank him back. I know now that our paths are made up of choices, but even choices feel foreordained at times. How else do we learn what we came here to learn. How else do we break free.

For a long time he must have questioned why he was here, and not back there where he was born. He named his first daughter after his birth mother. He started calling himself by his Latino middle name, closer to his roots than his Caucasian first name. He tattooed art and symbols on his body. Not much is known about his birth father or other siblings, but perhaps his laugh was like theirs, or the way he raises his eyebrows. I am sure his ability to tinker with things came from the same advanced minds who understood math and numbers before anyone else in the Western hemisphere. This complex human being, my brother, tugged backward, pulled forward, spinning, spinning, spinning.

When I vacation in Mexico, I see him everywhere in the stoic eyes and high cheekbones of the people who trim the hedges and sweep the walkways, in the young man at dinner who pours my water. We agree this is the game of tourism. But I know—and they know—that they come from greatness.

I went to Chichen Itza once, one of the major Mayan ruins. We stood across from a temple as our guide clapped her hands and a surreal sound came back at us; she said the Mayans built it so that the echo would sound like birds chirping. We climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid into the thick air above the tree tops, then inched our way down the steps, slippery as ice from the treading of innumerable feet. Everywhere the temples and monuments were hacked free from strangling green; carved faces in the limestone stared back at us. We looked out over a large cenote, a deep well into which young females were sacrificed for their power and strength. A snake, coiled on a rock, napped in the shade of a palm leaf. The place was alive, moving. The earth shifted underfoot; the air rang with birds and monkeys and insects. A child with a mischievous face hid behind a stone wall, then ran with tinkling laughter—the ghost of a child from long ago, I imagined.

I wanted to connect it to my brother, that aliveness, but it took years, many long years, before I could start to see, and before he could as well.

I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, except that something feels as if it’s come full circle. We are all grown, my sister and brother and I—even my parents. In the perfect vision that hindsight gives us, no one was right and no one was wrong. We simply carried ourselves heavily on, until the load became lighter. Yes, that’s probably what it is: a lightness that comes with perspective and knowing that you have survived and being able to speak about it with love for those who were there.

My brother is lighter. The jungles of his life have often overgrown him, but he has cut himself free time and again. The eyes of his beautiful children hold glints of his lineage. He makes fervent music and cooks giant feasts and cheers on the Broncos and smiles with genuine happiness. He has made peace with the warrior ancestor and the beating drum; he has told him, “I am all right. You can rest.”

And even though my brother is firmly of the earth now, he still looks up, still searches with his telescope trying to find his place in the night sky.

I hope it is clear to him:

You are a child of the universe,
No less than the trees and the stars;
You have a right to be here.

– from Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”


I’ve been reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream. I love British authors because of the way they speak, the words they use, the sound of their sentences. We have a language in common, and yet the way they use it sounds so much better. I wouldn’t call myself an Anglophile on any other day, but I wallow like a happy hippo in her writing. (Rosamunde Pilcher is another good one, and from the same era).

What’s fascinating to me is how unformed Elizabeth was as an adult, how uncertain. She grew up largely uneducated and very naive in a family with stiff-upper-lip syndrome, who had trouble acknowledging talents or encouraging accomplishments and expected nothing more from her than to marry well and maybe learn to type (she came of age during World War II when everyone was trying to do his or her part). As a result, she literally had no idea who she was or what direction to take in life. She did not know what floated her proverbial boat. So she tried acting, she got married to someone she didn’t love and had a child she was totally ill-equipped to care for, and eventually decided she wanted to write, mostly because ideas for novels and plays and stories kept cropping up in her head and there was nothing to do but write them down. She spent much of her early writing days without discipline, fitting it in between her many odd jobs to pay the bills and her many failed love affairs. Her art suffered. But it never went away, and she realized, eventually, that she owed something to it.

Her art—her writing—saved her. It gave her reason to grow up. It gave her license to learn a thing or two about herself, and to turn all the swirling doubts and insecurities and bewildering experiences into something tangible that could be shared in a cathartic way with the world.

Which leads me, oddly enough, to George W. Bush (former president, that is, though he was never my president). Politics aside and the past over and done with, I now see, as many of you probably have, that he’s been doing a lot of painting. People want to critique it, of course, maybe even have some laughs at his expense. Others may think it’s pretty amazing that a world leader of such un-sophistication had it in him. But me? It makes me smile. I mean truly smile, like I’m looking upon a kid from the sticks going off to Juilliard to study music.

Clearly I don’t know him, and I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that in practicing his craft and painting all those portraits, he has changed. Opened. I imagine him in a light-filled studio at home, swiping a brush across a rough canvas to capture the shadow of a jaw. Perhaps he looks upward and outward these days. Perhaps he feels the beating of his own heart, sees new colors in the world. Perhaps he wonders more than he speaks.

My favorite stories are the ones about problems and failures. On The Writers Room and in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, co-creators of HBO’s series The Game of Thrones, talk about when they showed the finished pilot episode to a room full of trusted friends. When it was over, someone said, “You’ve got a massive problem,” and the ever-conscientious D.B. Weiss, who must have been a good student in his days, scrawled across the page of his notepad, “Massive problem.” They were embarrassed, of course. They were just trying to follow a jolt of inspiration and make a good show; they didn’t know how it would be received, and certainly didn’t expect that kind of reaction to it. Ultimately they had to re-shoot the pilot, fill in the holes, re-think, re-do. Now look what it’s turned into.

Their art was not without tangles and exposed wiring. Their art did not come out of the womb perfect and shiny and baby-soft. But it was their art, nevertheless, and they learned from it and by it…and eventually the rest of the world got to soak in its mastery. They now get to wake up every day with an inch more of gumption, of commitment to the story’s final scene. Their art keeps them honest.

Art. There should be a tagline: “Makes you grow.”


Sometimes I still fancy myself a dancer.

When I’m alone and a piece of waltz-y music starts playing on Downton Abbey, I get up, bourrée across the floor, and step into an arabesque. If I angle it right, I can catch a blurry glimpse of myself in the living room window. My leg doesn’t go as high as it used to, my turnout is less, but my arms and hands are still pretty. I still have that going for me.

I ache to take a ballet class again. I know within a few weeks that my leg would be back up there, my turnout 180 degrees. I know that everything would come flooding back to me, and I’d smile at myself in the mirror.

We dance girls who spent all of our time in class know what it’s like. You’ll still catch us standing in first position when we’re in line at Starbucks, doing a quick tendu or plié because we can. We see a stretch of open space and think, “Step pas de bourrée, glissade, grand jeté.” We hear music, and choreography comes to us out of nowhere, the Muses whispering combinations to us from across time.

We still have jumbles of old pointe shoes with the satin peeling away from the toes, the soles rough from resin and wear. Our soft ballet shoes are stiff and crisp with months of dried sweat. Wads of leotards—pull them out again and they look so small, put them on and they stretch to fit. Ragged legwarmers, nylon warm-up pants, knitted shorts. Masses of tights in every shade of beige and pink and black, with the toes cut out so they could be pulled up the calves. Lamb’s wool, gel pads, surgical tape, band-aids. T-shirts from every recital since the dawn of time, the necks cut out, hems frayed. All the paraphernalia. All the memories. All the costumes and head pieces and pictures, too.

I tell co-workers and strangers, “I used to be a dancer.” They look at me like I’m cute. I want to take their arm, press them: “But I was.” They don’t understand what that means. How even if we technically weren’t professionals yet, we acted like ones. How the studio held its own politics and rules. How we suffered from all the insecurities about our bodies and our levels of talent, clamoring to be in the front or eying those who were. But also how we learned discipline and respect and hard work and the noble pursuit of perfection. How we could do a complete costume change in 30 seconds flat. How most of the girls I knew back then are still composed and self-motivated and capable today; we are different in a way you can’t put your finger on.

We did not watch sitcoms at night; we danced. We didn’t always have boyfriends; we danced. We tried to play sports and be cheerleaders and join clubs and do activities, but we always came back. We always danced.

I can’t stretch very well anymore, and I used to have darn good flexibility. Everything hurts. I go to a chiropractor once a week so he can crack the years of torture out of my spine. Turns out I had an old neck injury, sustained somehow, perhaps when my pointe shoe slipped in class once, and I came crashing down—a five-point landing—hitting my chin on the floor, spraining my wrist, shaking me up. All I know is I wake up every morning with lower back pain and a hip that snaps at the slightest provocation. But at least my neck is fixed.

It’s not age—I don’t play that useless game. There are 70-year-olds who take yoga every week and can bend themselves in half, no problem.

I think, maybe, it’s letting go that brings pain. Letting go of dance leaves space behind to be filled with the rust and cobwebs of memory. Letting go of the idea of making a living at it. No longer walking onto a dark stage and waiting for the curtain to sweep open. No longer standing at the barre and waiting for the music to cue. No longer clutching the hand of my best friend as we watch a pas de deux by two masters that is so beautiful your heart comes out of your body and floats in aching rapture as the dance goes on and tears run down your face. No longer having this practice in my life which was the only thing I lived for back then.

I have other things to live for now. Life is good; choices have been made, even the right choices.

But I still, sometimes, fancy myself a dancer.

For Debie, Laura, Rachael…and all the others. And for Sarah, who is.