I am fresh back from a walk through memories of a time when I found…and subsequently lost, myself. So much I need to get down….so much percolating….
When I heard of Walter Swarthout‘s passing, I was shocked, as anyone would imagine. I had not heard of anything awry with his health, and indeed it was unexpected. Granted, I had not had real contact with him for 22 years possibly, but Facebook has a way of giving us cursory information about people. What I wanted to know was how Margaret, his wife of 50 years, was doing and how could I make sure to be at the wake so as to connect with her and the people who may attend?
I hate that deaths bring people together, but I realized this may be the last opportunity to connect with so many people from my past, from a past that somehow, against everything that sings in me, I gave up,…..and I have been lost ever since. I did not hear of a wake, but I did receive notice of a celebration of his life October 1, 2016. I only pretended in my mind to debate whether I could make the time to go down to the Bay Area, but my soul had made up my mind the instant I learned it was on a weekend and within a 6 hour drive from my home.
I brought my daughter, who gave no fuss thankfully, and we headed out Saturday morning, with copious amounts of coffee, at 6am for the Bay Area, to visit friends I had danced with 20+ years ago when I was living my life with my first true love, Dance. I was excited to share my history with my daughter, to share a time of my life I talked about with distant eyes.
I moved away from home a week after I turned 16 to San Rafael, California to study at Marin Ballet on full scholarship. My ballet teacher Lynn Cox had left Albuquerque, New Mexico to teach with them, and I was considering quitting dance without her there to keep things going. I made the better choice and followed her out there. It was a crazy time. I broke my foot in class 10 days after I moved there, and was living with a family that was pretty understanding, but I am sure they did not anticipate having a depressed teen dancer on their hands. I would not let it sidetrack me, though. I was exactly where I wanted to be. There was ZERO question about sticking it out.
After the first semester, the family would not keep me, and I moved into the ballet school. As far as I know, I was the first dancer to live in the building, or at least the first female dancer. That building used to be a convent, and our main studio was the chapel, so it had big, golden tinted windows that cast a warm glow when the sun was shining in. At night, it was big, cavernous, and left me too much space to mentally roam. I was thankful at times for my tiny room.
As my daughter and I approached San Rafael, I searched for familiar places…. for the underpass I walked under every morning to catch the public bus at 7:13am to get to school, for any buildings that were familiar. It had changed dramatically, but when I pulled around the corner of Linden Lane to Elm Street, and saw the ballet school….I knew it hadn’t changed much.
As soon as I saw the second story windows, so many memories came flooding in….of people who had ended up sharing the building with me at times, such as Alejandra, and Amir, and Sebastian….and the rooms… and the stairwell outside that I would go and pound my new toeshoes on to soften the toe box. And the runner I met in the dark before dawn when I was desperately trying to meet anyone in the area…. and I found myself parking in the exact same spot as I did 20+ years ago.
And the emotions hit me….excitement, apprehension, sadness, remorse, giddiness, curiosity…all of it. I walked slowly up, past all of the bunheads, fairly oblivious to my daughter and me, despite the fact we seemed pretty out of place with our slow gait and wandering eyes. The inside main level had been completely and beautifully revamped in white, metal and glass. I pointed out the studio where I had my most transformative movement experience ever, the couch where I realized one lonely night that I was in love with my gay roommate Amir, the lobby I had spent so much time in, the staircase I had traversed hundreds of times. The wood was still the same. I pointed out the hallway that used to have a pay phone that I got in trouble for using and giving out the number. I had tried to meet guys, and they would call during school hours for me. It was not a good thing. The phone wasn’t there, but the studio looked the same. I used the bathroom, nearly tripping over the 20 young dancers sprawled out in the small locker room next to the stalls. We definitely did NOT fit in, but I didn’t care. That was my home once. I still belonged. I left a part of myself there.
I went to the front desk and mentioned that I used to live here (at which point I started crying, of course), and asked if I could walk around. She didn’t seem phased and said yes. More and more memories flooded in as I walked up those steps, looking through the glass partition that once was wall….by Ms. Swarthout’s old office, and straight to Studio D, the big girls’ studio. They had raised the floor, so that you could no longer catch that extra moment of air by running from the hallway and leaping off the step into the studio, but other than that, it was exactly the same. The windows, the lighting, the old school chairs, even the letters labeling the rows of chairs were the same. The portable barres, the same, …..the fat wood barres, the same. (The picture below is from MarinMommies.com and one of few I could find of even part of the studio.)
Even more memories flooded in, of the piece I did with Lynn Cox, of the day I broke my foot, and exactly where I sat. I pointed out where I used to sit and do floor barre with my cast, and I remembered the long night I had a breakdown and wailed until I was spent, and pounded my fist on the floor until I thought it would break because I was heartbroken over the man I had lost my virginity to. So many memories that nobody ever knew about…. so many lonely nights.... Amir and the pictures he took of me bathed in the golden light cast by those windows on the dance floor, my long hair falling behind me.
I knew my daughter was uncomfortable, with three dancers sitting around talking and stretching before class, but they paid us no heed, and I needed to take the time to FEEL that space, to feel what it opened up in me. It was so incredibly clear that I was HOME. Nowhere else on this earth was as much a home for me as that big, creaky building that housed more tears and laughter and triumphs and challenges and friendships and expression than any other place in my life. That was where I had a love affair with my true love, where I was held by the community of dancers that understood and loved and supported me. I had never quite realized the power of that place on me until yesterday. I wanted to do another plie, a few tendus… just for old times’ sake. I refrained, but I am not sure why.
Next, I took my daughter to the back, where I used to live, and amazingly, it was EXACTLY like 22 years ago. The paint had not been updated or even touched up, the bathrooms were the same old tile, the floors the same linoleum, and only the contents of rooms had changed. I showed my daughter the bathroom, with the stalls and 2 showers, pointing out this was my bathroom for 2 years. I didn’t mention that I had sat on the floor of one of the showers one lonely Sunday, contemplating suicide because I thought that I was fat. By that point, I was deep into my anorexia. Thankfully, once I thought of how I would commit the deed, I realized I couldn’t do that to myself. Nevertheless, it was a scary and dark place.
My first room was converted into a pilates studio while I lived there, at which point I was moved to the other end of the long hallway. This is where most of my memories were of living there. We walked down to see it, and opened up the door to what is now the Boys’ Training room, full of weights and a thin, cheap carpet over the cold linoleum I once had. I could picture my small bed tucked in the corner, surrounded by toeshoes and posters of dancers hanging all over the walls around me, like a ballet cocoon. …and the small table where I had my tiny boombox that played classical music while I studied on the bed, my books, and the 6″ black and white tv I watched only very occasionally. The sink in the corner was the same, the closet, the window, and the exposed baseboard heater.
I then took her down the back stairs into the kitchen, where I informed her I had to lock up my food, because occasionally other dancers would eat my food, or they would take my only spoon, which I had stolen from the grocery store, because I only had $ 20/week to live off for food. I think if they had realized my situation, they likely would have offered me silverware and food, but I was proud and didn’t see my situation as rough, just tight. I was so resourceful, only buying the overripe bananas, nearly stale bread, and other clearance items. It was not unusual for me to steal my weekly 5 pounds of carrots, and I think the folks at the grocery store probably knew. I was so thin at 95 pounds and 5’6″, I think they took pity on me.
The kitchen was not much different, rough and handmade, with white painted wood paneling making up the shelves and cabinets. No lock was on the refrigerator anymore though, since nobody lived there. And then, the room by the kitchen where Amir lived, and afterward Sebastian, the man I lost my virginity to. I had moved out by that time, thankfully. And then the studio downstairs where I listened to that haunting piano piece that sounds like raindrops. I laid in the dark space and let the rain fall down my face as the notes dripped into my heart…a haunting, serene, and surreal night.
By this time, I had completed the ghost tour of the studio, and I could have hung out for days, but I knew my daughter was uncomfortable, and it didn’t make sense to hang out where I was no longer dancing. I suppose it would have been weird for me to suddenly take up residence again….
I regretted not getting pictures of me in the space, but I made sure to get just one picture out front. Of course, the instant I decided to take a picture, a dad promptly seated himself, and a dancer did too. They were oblivious to the idea that I might actually have enough reverence for this building that I might want to take the picture without them. They added to the picture though, showing that this building is still a vibrant school of dance.
The memories didn’t stop there! We went downtown to 4th street and visited my old haunt Royal Ground Coffee. I was there when it first opened 23ish years ago, and I let them know I was an old-timer. They still sell the same brand of oat cakes!
It was nearly time to get ready for the celebration of Walter’s life, but first I took my daughter to my old high school. First, I showed her the amphitheater outside where I graduated, and we were fortunate enough to be able to go inside, where I snapped a photo by the Redwood High School Alum pics, specifically the one of Robin Williams.
At this point, it’s time to get prettied up and ready to see actual people from my past at their new dance school, Marin Dance Theater. That is big enough for a second blog, to be sure….. until then….