My sister and I danced a routine in a gym show once to Henri Mancini’s “The Pink Panther,” wearing pink leotards and twirling stuffed tails our mother had sewn onto pink shorts. This was serious stuff—Waterford Elementary School Stuff—we might as well have been on Broadway. We sported pink felt ears that were bobby-pinned to our hair in tight buns on our heads. But while we were dressed identically—two upright pink … well, panthers—people could easily pinpoint the true dancer in the pair from a mile away. My sister was the ballerina—long and lean—I was more the gymnast, short and solid. She twirled her way through the number—while I tackled it.
For a second show, we danced to John Williams’ “Star Wars.” My sister wore a white leotard and flowing, tulle sheer cape—and I wore jet black. She glided through the performance, exquisite arabesques, glissades, and grand jetés, while I tumbled my way strong and mighty across the mat with cartwheels and round-offs. (Just so you know, I wasn’t supposed to be evil like Darth Vader—we had to create an aesthetic that reflected the themes of the movie so someone had to wear all black, blah blah blah.)
I admit it—I have always been more about speed and power than about elegance. I was the one born with thicker legs, stronger muscles, and a fiercer determination that in fifth grade led my teacher to tell my mother to watch out. “She could be a great leader someday,” Mr. Jubett said, “as long as she learns to harness that energy properly.”
What exactly did that mean?
I was having dinner with a friend recently and as we got to the door to go outside, he grumbled pleasantly, “You always get to the doors before I do!” I stopped, and looked back at him. “I try to get to the doors,” he said, “but then I realize, ‘Ahh! She got there first again!’”
I laughed. I am just simply not slow enough to be graceful.
Speed does not have to be the antithesis of grace. I do know that. Take Olympian runners, for example—the way they leap over hurdles or sprint in a 400-meter—or consider the elegant power in a Wimbledon tennis match. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Except for in me.
I definitely fall in the more aggressive, non-graceful camp.
When I was in seventh grade, I auditioned for the play “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” After what seemed like hours of preparation and grueling reading (that probably lasted forty-five minutes), what role did I end up with? Merlin. Yes, the magician. This was now the second time I was to wear a flowing black cape—but this time with silver stars sewn on it. I had a pointy wizard hat and a fake beard of grey synthetic hair balls glued to my face. I still remember what that adhesive smelled like. This was real acting; I was playing not just any Arthurian legend, but a legend of the opposite gender.
My best friend Amy? She got to be Lady Guenevere. She was tall, blonde, clearly princess-like. I was more … what can I say? More … magical.
Even at work people still tease me about how fast I walk and how I plow my way through things, head down. They don’t say I am ungraceful, but I know what they mean. At one point early in my career, my peers used to call me Bulldozer (affectionately, of course). I earned this nickname because if someone were taking a long time to wash their lunch plate and I was in a rush, I’d simply pop my dish for a quick rinse in the sink they were hogging. I didn’t necessarily get in their way—or cut them in line—they could still maintain the tortoise pace they were employing—but this way, I didn’t have to wait for my turn, either. I figured both of us could wash at once.
I have mini angel cards in a dish on my desk at home—they each have a single word on them. I sometimes take one out in the morning as I ask God and the universe, “What do I need to be thinking about today?”
A few days ago, I drew “Grace.” It made me smile immediately, because I have been thinking about grace for a long time (clearly, since about third grade, since I had to don that cape). According to the book that accompanies the cards, grace means, “Poise and elegance in form, attitude, and action.” The book instructed, “Give up struggle and allow the universe to participate in the creation of your life.”
To me, poise is about being ready, making sure you remain calm and composed. Okay, so maybe I think of poise more in relation to responding to crises than in relation to the essence of a ballet. Elegance—well, I don’t really know much about what that means, other than recently seeing Julie Andrews teach Anne Hathaway again how to sit properly in The Princess Diaries. (A lady never crosses her legs when seated—you simply angle your knees to one side and cross one ankle gently behind the other.)
Me? I tend to sit in meetings with one leg tucked under. The downside is now that I am getting older, my leg sometimes falls asleep or I tweak my bad knee and have to hobble around for a few minutes once the meeting is finished.
My mother used to tease me about not being that graceful. She was the picture of elegance—when she was photographed, she always stood in fifth position, with one foot perpendicular to the other, shoulders back, head held at just the right angle. She moved slowly, deliberately, carefully, in everything she did. I do pretty much the complete opposite. She passed away two years ago, and I sometimes still hear her giggling when I hit my head on an open kitchen cabinet or drop something because I am moving too fast.
A few weeks ago, I was doing laundry, and tried to open the door and enter the laundry room at the same time. I bumped the laundry basket against the doorjamb and clocked myself in the jaw. Suddenly, I felt her in the laundry room with me. I could sense her laughing, in her loving, teasing way. I said aloud, “I know, I know. You’re thinking, ‘Where did this girl come from?’” and I imagined her smiling in response. That was just what she was thinking. But as I opened the dryer door, I heard her answer. “Your father,” she said, and we both laughed.
Title from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”