I stand at the edge of the dance floor under a big white tent on a beach. Everyone is glittering and the newlyweds just glow. I watch bright smiles and eyes brimming with a hope so strong it feels as if it were a hot air balloon about to lift the couple up.
Friendly strangers keep asking me to dance but I just shake my head and clutch my drink. The alcohol isn’t doing its job. How many more until I feel better? What’s the magic number tonight?
I’m letting everyone down, not dancing. I try to smile and not to cry. If I speak my voice will break. I’m shaky and weak and it’s hard to breathe. Is this a panic attack? It’s different from a normal hangover.
My husband squeezes my hand. “Can we just try to have a nice night? I’m sorry.”
I shake my head but the knot in my throat is too large. What I want to say is that he doesn’t need to apologize. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He thinks he has because this morning I asked if he was ashamed of me, but nothing was his fault.
Beneath the hem of my pencil skirt there is an open wound. The night before I fell and cut my knee and had to wear the ugly bruise to the daytime ceremony. People I didn’t remember meeting asked, “How were you this morning?” And then patted my back and turned their attention to bride and groom, smiling and crying and the showing their hearts so full of love. I felt like an imposter at the back: sunglasses to hide my face and black to hide the bloat and a fixed stare trying to hide my lack of everything everyone else seemed to have in such abundance.
I don’t belong here.
I think of a picture I drew at fifteen years old: a portrait of myself in church, the figure bolded in pencil, heart heavily shaded, feet planted in contrast to the worshipers hovering inches off the floor, hands raised.
I don’t belong here, I had written under the sketch.
It would be another ten years before I took that girl’s hand and led her away from the pew. It would take the familiar frown of a pastor’s wife.
I’d abandoned the culture as soon as I became an adult but was a fool not to realize that in my childhood a switch had been installed inside me that would erase all faith in myself upon the arrival of my first child. I returned to church and there, a few years later, I found myself telling a youth pastor’s wife the story of how Eldest and I had twirled all around the kitchen ten months earlier, a positive pregnancy test in my hand. Littlest’s newborn twinkle toes tap-danced on my belly.
“We don’t let our kids dance,” the young woman said. “Only in worship. The bible says joyful movement should be for Him, not for pleasure.”
we don’t let our kids dance
Now, I grew up with this kind of evangelical crazy talk and usually I’d just compartmentalize it: stick it in the box marked Weird Shit Church People Say / Abominations to The Human Spirit. But more and more I realized how weak that box was, the junk inside was always spilling out.
But it turns out there had been another switch installed inside me labeled Wise-And-Competent Mama and right then it flicked. Wise-And-Competent Mama grabbed the psyche microphone from the scared spineless Jesus-Take-The-Wheel part of me that had been running the show and this is what she had to say:
Get our kids out of here!
She reminded me that only I could protect the rights of our children and that we were surrounded by people eager to alter the autonomy I was charged with protecting.
And if we’re talking about Faith, she said:
Not even stigmata-level magical thinking compares with the faith I have.
The faith that our daughters will follow the paths of their hearts.
That when they fall, they’ll heal their own cut knees.
That if they become lost, they will save themselves.
And Wise-and-Competent Mama’s Truth hit me at twenty-five years old,
with a two year old wrapped around my leg and a baby in my arms,
in a big church with soul crushing rules enforced by social disapproval,
and I knew without a doubt:
The faith I have in these girls far surpasses any hope I’ll find here.
But here, now, people are not frowning. They are smiling. They are offering forgiveness and approval with both hands. They are saying, come on, come dance!, wanting to bring me into the happiness and the freedom and the fun.
So I try to hop foot to foot, but I just can’t. The others move as if they’re dancing on air but my heart and feet are made of lead. I can’t cry here, can’t ruin this for them. I don’t deserve this moment. I turn and walk away as fast as I can, and take myself to the ocean.
It’s a full harvest moon and music mingles with the sounds of the waves. I sit on the shore and ask myself again, what was that important thing about dancing?
About freedom, joy.
The right to one’s body. The divinity in it?
It had been so important to protect, but I failed. My dance had still been taken away.
I think about the faith I have in my daughters and wonder why I don’t believe in myself. I should try to sing, I think, try to form a weak thread back to myself. Is that self-healing? Am I figuring it out? But my voice and everything else is too, too broken.
I have that feeling again, like everything’s about to change, the still before the storm, Wise-and-Competent Mama is going to get us the hell out of Dodge. She’s about to speak up, to tell me to run, to say that something is over.
But she doesn’t tonight.