Being Real

I just read "The Disease Called Perfection" and the follow-up, "The Cure for Perfection". If you can, take a few minutes and read them. I'll wait here, I promise.

Back? Amazing concept isn't it? Almost subversive - stop the perfection disease.

I promise this post is (at least a little bit) about tango. First of all because tango was the first challenge I faced where I was rewarded a quadrabajillion times over for being real, rather than being perfect. And then, when I wrote about it, I started finding so many other people feeling the same thing all over the world. When I started looking around at my life, my history, my world I could see, in some instances for the first time, what was really important. Tango changed everything because tango changed me. I know tango doesn't do that for everyone (though chances are pretty good if you're reading this). Maybe your church does this for you, or your bridge club, or your blogging group, or your bowling team. I found it in tango. I wish everyone could find it somewhere.

All over our lives and our world - we are driven to distraction perfection. And it's killing us. Sometimes figuratively, by killing our spirit/heart/trust/faith/hope. Sometimes literally .

"Single Dad Blogging", author of the posts linked above, asked his readers to be real. In his first post he asked readers to help spread "real" and to be real with ourselves and the people around us. To do this not only for ourselves, but so that others can feel welcome to be real around us.

I've been making short 'journeys into real' on this blog occasionally, and most of the emails I've gotten have reassured me that this is the right path. But every once in awhile, about 1 in 20 or so, one says something along the lines of, 'why can't you just right about tango?' I have lots of stock zen answers that are all true - but not helpful. When I am writing about this stuff - this unrelated personal history - it still is about tango. Because that's what tango is - personal history. It just happens to be someone else's.

Tango, the music, the history, the culture, quite frequently isn't pretty - but it is beautiful. It isn't tidy - but it's enlightening. Most of all, it gives permission to be real. Which makes it so troubling to see people try to create an image, or a persona (off the stage), in their tango life. This is the place to get real.

And I suspect, from the a few of the beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring emails I've received, that many of us came to tango looking for precisely this.

A couple of weeks ago, as so often happens, I got a look at myself in the mirror at the end of a milonga on the way out the door. My shoes were beat to hell - scuffed, scratched, the heels are getting worn down (again). The hem of my skirt, actually almost all of my skirts, is frayed and unraveling. My makeup was mostly where it had started out but my hair certainly wasn't. What hair wasn't matted to my face was sticking out in odd angles all over the place, while the clip meant to hold my hair was loose and off to one side. I was a mess. Still I kept looking at that woman in the mirror like I didn't recognize her. This has happened a few times, yet it always feels so peculiar when it does. I felt beautiful - and looking at the disheveled wild-woman in the mirror didn't detract at all from that feeling. In fact, those details validated the feeling. I was real. This was real. This is what it means to be a living, loving human being. When I looked around at the few people remaining with me, I saw it in them too. Radiant, beautiful, living, loving human beings.

That feeling is a treasure. If you've had it, you can often find yourself looking for more and more opportunities to get back to that space. Because the hard truth is, our world tries to take that treasure away from us every day.
A bit of history . . .

You know what the opposite of the loving/kindness/bliss world of tango is? The beauty industry.* I worked in that industry for 12 years.

Here's me being real.

I spent over a decade helping an industry tell you that you aren't pretty enough, young enough, white enough, tan enough (ironic isn't it), skinny enough, smooth enough, rich enough or firm enough. "Real" is unattractive and it should be covered. For a couple of years, I was amazing at it. My sales were outstanding. Mostly because I bought it - hook, line and sinker. I bought the lies, the products, the image - the package deal. I was owned by the industry and I thought it was making me happy. It brought a weird order to my chaotic world view. I had blond hair, fake nails, fake eye lashes. I had an image that I bought from the stores I worked in. I hardly knew the person in the mirror and that was okay. I liked it that way.

But it doesn't last, the feeling of order and achievement and belonging - because it can't. It isn't real. It's so hard to maintain. And I needed to maintain it so badly. It got harder and harder for me to work in the industry. I didn't think so at the time, but that was a good thing.

I've briefly mentioned before in this blog that I have PTSD. The details don't belong here, but the world view that those details created for me, does. Over the past year or so, I realized that the most insidious damage to the way I see my world and myself, wasn't from being traumatized - it was from not being protected from it. It came from people who knew what was going on, turning away and allowing it to happen, rather than risking confrontation. Trauma leaves brutal scars. But when people who should be protecting a child, for whatever reason, choose not to, that leaves the feeling that the scars belong there.

Here's what went through my mind as a kid - and I suspect many other kids who have faced similar traumatic experiences . . .

I must deserve it.
I'm ugly.
I'm not worth protecting.
I'm worthless.
I have no value.

Those thoughts gradually, or not so gradually, turned into "if" statements. If I'm pretty enough/smart enough/sexy enough - people will like me and protect me. The reality is with that dialog going on inside my head, it wasn't the people who would protect me that I tended to find. It was more of the same. Even when people did come into my life to help me, to love me, to help heal me - I couldn't trust their help. I didn't believe it. Why?
Because I no longer believed I deserved it.

You would think that a loving husband, friends and relatives who did help me and, when they could, protect me, would be enough to undo the damage and rebuild some of the trust. It wasn't. The dialogue never stopped. I still believed that at any point, it would be taken away. I would do something, and then the real (ugly) me would show through, and I would be alone. Sometimes I did things to ensure that happened - pushing people away, and then saying to myself, 'see, I was right.'

Finally, when things really began to fall apart, I looked for help. I was an insomniac. I was in massive debt. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I was in an incredibly deep depression. Therapy helped very little in the beginning. While I could nod my head and agree intellectually that this was what was going on, and these are the things I was going through - I was very detached from it. I still couldn't let anything show. It's hard to heal wounds when you spend so much energy trying to cover them up. I had occasional inklings into the way things could be. Groundwork was being laid. Seeds were being planted. (Never underestimate mental health professionals who are also dancers, they're on to something.)

I just needed to act on something. Take a chance. Do something I couldn't imagine myself doing.

I learned to dance tango.

The sound of the music, the lyrics of the songs, the connection in the dance - spoke to parts of me, my past, the way I saw, and continue to see, the world, that I couldn't even articulate. I still can't - though I do keep trying. I saw myself for the first time, as a worthy human being. Not because I learned the skills necessary to dance this dance (which I will be learning the rest of my life), but because I saw a new way to be in the world. A new way to see myself, my history - and other people, and their histories.

I could be valuable by being real. I could let other people know that it was okay for them to be real, too.

*NOTE: The entire beauty industry isn't this way - there are a few magnificent gems out there. And working in the industry doesn't have to wreak havoc on your self-worth/identity/image - but it very frequently does.


Far more people read this blog than comment on it, or send me email - so I don't know who most of you are, who are reading this right now. Some of you may be thinking, why can't she just write about tango? For you, I would say have a look at my blog roll - there is tons and tons of great tango blog reading material out there. There's something for everyone.

I also know, from some of the emails and comments I've received, there are a few of you who might relate to this in one way or another. Or you may know someone who is struggling.

I would ask, if you can, talk to me. Comment here, I allow anonymous comments, if you'd like to do so. Send me an email at infinitetango (at) .

And if you're a tango dancer, stay until the end of the milonga. Take a chance. Look around at the exhausted, almost-delirious, gorgeous, radiant, wild-men and wild-women.

Be real. Let other people be real in your presence.

El duende, redux

El duende has settled around my shoulders again, and it won't be shrugged off it seems.

Almost a year ago I tried to explain to a friend what all this "duende" talk is about. A year later no easier to articulate. It's not a something, but the space between somethings. It's the emptiness that makes the non-emptiness so cherished.

I wrote then how it was something I no longer sought out in tango. In the beginning of my tango journey, even before I was dancing, the duende in the music felt like some kind of romantic lure. It doesn't feel that way anymore.

I don't really try to avoid it, because that's just not how it works. It comes when it comes,
in the music,
in a dance,
in a breath.

When I try to ignore it, it just loiters around until I notice it - or can't help noticing it. It's in the places, in slivers of space, where dark meets light. In contrasts and sharp edges.

In that place you know suddenly quite clearly,
that both exist for want of the other.

The duende is the sad beauty of something we know we will lose. So in that sense, duende is the beauty of everything.

How not to get dances . . .

(notice picture of the about-to-pounce cute kitten from, so cute that you should instantly forgive the awkward actions of this wayward tanguera.)

I did that thing I promised myself I wouldn't do. I practically pounced on a leader for a dance. (*hangs head in shame*)

He doesn't come to milongas very often at all. And I did try to use my psychic ability eye contact, first. Really, I did.

He was sitting on the far end of the dance floor, in very low light. So when I looked for a cabeceo from him, I couldn't exactly tell if I was making eye contact, or staring down a coat rack. (My vision is pretty bad - even with my glasses on.) I tried to nonchalantly pass by every so often - but we were both dancing a great deal and it was rare that he and I were both sitting at the same time.

And he did write in his blog that it was okay to ask.

Aaaand it was getting late.

I panicked.

Worst of all he was getting ready to pack it in when I finally got over to his table. ::facepalm:: I could have just said "good night" and wandered off but nooOOoo... Who knows how long it would be before he'd be back? His lovely lady friend threw him under the bus and encouraged him to dance with the poor misguided soul (who was trying to look casual) in front of their table.

Of course said leader was very sweet and it was a lovely tanda. But still . . . This is not how to get dances.

Turning arrows to flowers

"Songs are born from memories, our own pains and from others; joy that we [have] not lived but someone lived with us; tears that we do not cry but someone cry near us. A song is a piece of life; a suit that is looking for a body to fit altogether well. The more bodies to be for that suit, the more success will have the song. Because if everybody sings it, is a signal that everybody lives it, feels it, suits it well." Enrique Santos Discepolo

The things we do to avoid pain . . .

Pema Chodron, in many of her writings, talks about the things we do to avoid pain - and why we do them.

"Devaputra mara involves seeking pleasure. It works like this: when we feel embarrassed or awkward, when pain presents itself to us in any form whatsover, we run like crazy to try to become comfortable. Any obstacle we encounter has the power to completely pull the rug out, to completely pop the bubble of reality that we have to regard as secure and certain. When we are threatened that way, we can't stand to feel the pain, the edginess, the anxiety, the queasiness in our stomach, the heat of anger rising, the bitter taste of resentment. We react with this tragically human habit of seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain." (When Things Fall Apart)

Until I started listening to tango, and learning to dance, PTSD had made me a master at avoiding pain. Distraction and avoidance were constant companions helping me to avoid suffering in my past and in present, and cope with the fear of pain in my future. It was like a subconcious chant - keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. Not realy physically, but mentally. Emotionally. Don't linger too long in one place, on one thought. Keep moving.

For me, tango, much like yoga and meditation, quiets that impulse. It keeps me in the moment - whether the moment is pleasure or pain, or as is so frequently the case, when it is both. Chodran, and other Buddhist writers, teach that if we run from pain, distract ourselves from it - we learn nothing. We learn nothing about ourselves, nothing about the situation that brought the experience. We cut ourselves off from the moment and from our own wisdom - from all the things we might gain by feeling what we need feel, and really looking at the ways we try to run. It's been a long journey for me. While I still catch myself running away - at least now, I see it. I feel it when it happens. And, most of the time, I stop. I listen to what's going on.

Yet, old habits die hard. This past weekend there was a farewell milonga for one of my favorite tangueros and I almost didn't go. I dreaded going - even though I knew it was going to be a beautiful milonga. I'm not good at goodbyes (is anyone?) and I was afraid of being upset and sad, especially in public. Afraid of pain.

I went anyway.

I felt all of the things I was afraid of feeling - sad, angry, embarrassed, self-conscious. I'm not one of those discreet, "dab my nose, and blink away the tears" sort of criers. I'm a full on, red-faced, puffy eyes, sniffling, sobbing sort of criers that you can always hear in the theater during the sad bits.

And occasionally during Kodak commercials.
. . and pretty much all of the Armed Forces ads.
. . . also, any ads with animals or babies . . . or especially baby animals . . .
I go through a lot of Kleenex.

Anyway . . .

I went and I stayed in the moment, for as long as I could anyway. A couple of times I found myself almost trying to be annoyed at different things. Building walls. Distracting myself. And then I stopped. Listened. Found the moment again, and allowed myself to feel it. It's next to impossible to lie in the embrace and every time I danced, everytime I hugged someone, I let the walls fall away. In doing so, I got to connect with others who were also sad, and recognize (again) the very unique world that tango creates. Where it's okay to be sad, to be angry, to resent the world a little bit for changing around us when we're not ready for it to. And again, I was enveloped in metta - in the arms of leaders and friends and community. It was a wonderful milonga and I'm so glad that I went. Still, I wonder how many times I will have to relearn this lesson.

"…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are."
— Pema Chödrön
(NOTE: For information on the reference of turning arrows into flowers, see the chapter in "Comfortable with Uncertainty" on Google Books. )

An Update of Sorts

(Photo courtesy of

I am still here. And I am still dancing.

I am sorry for the long silence. It wasn't for lack of something to write, rather too many things all vying for attention and freedom. It was writer's block in the form of 'writer's bottleneck'. Too many things going on - in my job, in the world, in my head. Just too much.

I had to take a couple of steps back and think about some things.

One clear idea that has come from my step (or two, or three) back, is that tango returned me to my Buddhist practice. I don't say that lightly. No one could be more surprised by that than I am. I struggled for several years, off and on, with a frustrating and half-hearted practice. Never truly embracing the path . . .

The problem with taking steps back from writing to look at things is that, while it gains perspective in some ways, it begins to cut one off from other perspectives. Other voices. For me, that silences the writing. I can't write in a vacuum. Every post I write is a letter to someone - or several someones. I write in dialogue, even if I'm the only one who knows it.

On Facebook, where I had also been fairly inactive, I managed one short update that I hoped wouldn't be too cryptic:

"I was embraced in such a feeling of Metta (loving-kindness) during the milongas this weekend. Sometimes for just the briefest moment, sometimes entire tandas - every time in tremendous gratitude. I am so blessed."

Those are the moments I see the path most clearly. Carrying that clarity with me during work, and stress, and bad moods, and arguments - that's the tough part. But it's there. I'm carrying it with me all the time.

The embrace.