Life Blues, Part I by Molly Shanahan
I am involved in Jon Mueller’s Death Blues project as a movement artist. Jon asked me to do some writing along the way about how the ideas he’s exploring, the questions he’s asking, move me. I hope this is the first of a handful of responses.
When I was ten or so my school, Ludington Middle School in Detroit, offered a once-weekly, special topic elective. It was supposed to be a chance for the teachers—strung out on the Detroit Public School curriculum, I imagine—to teach something they had a personal interest in. So, history teachers would teach chess, or our home economics teacher would teach, say, horticulture, and the special education teacher offered something called: I Am Somebody. That was my pick. (Friends who know my psychological inclinations will think this is funny.) It was a weird class. Nevertheless, some of the “teachings” have stuck with me to this day. We learned, on one end of the spectrum, how our teacher, Ms. Somethingorother, had kept a would-be intruder out of her house by praying really, really hard as the door shook and the lock loosened. This was supposed to convey the power of prayer over misfortune. We learned, also, through an exchange that to this day is vague and veiled, how one of the students had been raped. At our teacher’s coaching each student agreed to privately, secretly pray for her every day at noon; I think we were praying that she’d find the courage to tell someone, or that she’d recover through the force of our communal good wishes. I still remember struggling to figure out how I was going to get away to pray when my mom and I were shopping for training bras in Hudson’s that weekend. As an adult, I question the wisdom and appropriateness of some of these teachings. But the biggest lesson, and the hallmark of “I Am Somebody’s” questionionable curriculum, is one that I have come to value with increasing reverence: the only constant is change.
It’s hard to think about death. As I grow older, though, I’m struck by how hard it is to think about life, too. Maybe even harder. When confronted with questions of life—do I have enough success, fulfillment, presence, love?—the questions I have about death feel almost comforting, calm, imbued with a peaceful silence. I’m shocked to find (indeed, to admit) that this is true for me, shocked to see these words form on the page in front of me.
These days my life is filled with processes that feel like endings, and I am watchful—like an owl in the forest of my history—of the ways my emotions land on the endings instead of the inherent, related beginnings. I am preparing to leave my home in Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in Dance on the east coast. While I know I’ll be back, the life I’ve carefully—and at times carelessly—constructed, is coming to an end. As I prepare these endings, trivial in some important ways, and just, well, important in others, I am overwhelmed by the ghosts of former endings and, especially, losses. My body seems to remember them all with grave dedication. My tissues pay homage to old traumas like they are island Gods, my devotion to them worn into my bloodstream through practice. I am learning to see these memories as a kind of scrapbook, tied not just to their “real” stories but to the ways I tell their stories differently according to the whims of my moods.I see now that it’s heavy, this scrapbook of memories that define me through my losses. It is weighing me down. Maybe it’s one of the things I’ll leave behind in Chicago, along with the beat up antique dresser I never really liked in the first place.
I often look to my experiences in movement for teachings about how to experience life with more equanimity, more tolerance for the change that’s inherent in each moment. One of the turning points in my experience of movement—and one I teach with increasing assertiveness—is the peace of mind and body that comes with allowing each moment of the dance to pass, to be finished, released into history and, yet, to be fully present. In movement it’s certainly true that the only constant is change, and I’m learning that this is true of what we know as “body” as well. When I spend time in the studio I feel a sense of peace. I also find an ironic kind of productivity that eclipses most of the other ways in which I experience—or relentlessly, frantically pursue—productivity. The peace comes from being immersed in this process of change that I’m describing, living in the cycle of embracing and releasing and the birth and death of each specific, characteristic moment in space and time. It’s a place that is not full of thought or full of questions, even, it’s just full. And somehow this fullness comes from allowing things to pass without grasping for their constancy. Allowing, allowing, allowing and, yet, committing to the fullness as it changes shape, rhythm, even meaning. I think the productivity comes from achieving a kind of resonance with the cycle of doing and undoing, receiving and releasing. Isn’t this what “having enough” really means?
Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
Lecturer, Dance Program
Department of Theatre, School of Communications