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.

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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) gmail.com .

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.

8 comments:

El Ingeniero said...

Beautiful! I was having a conversation with my co-blogger Jaimito about some milonga he was at, and he was complaining about all sorts of things, and I threatened that an upcoming "Victims of my snobbery" post will feature the "excessive snob" ;)

But all joking aside, you are right. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and if someone is seeking perfection, whether be it in tango or elsewhere in life, they are bound to be disappointed because perfection simply does not exist. But reality most certainly does, and we need to learn to enjoy that. Nice post!

Game Cat said...

A very very nice post. Thank you.

Never had PTSD, came to the dance for the love of the music.

The music evokes so many feelings, complex very human feelings, positive and destructive, that remind me of what I'm made of. And capable of.

And perhaps what I can be.

Frances R said...

In tango one is rewarded a quadrabajillion times over for being real, being oneself rather than being perfect. How true, I wish more people learning tango understand that, and sooner.
Thanks a lot for sharing. It is very important, and much appreciated.

Dzesika said...

Thank you so much for writing this - precisely the things that are indispensable about tango. After working as a designer, photo retoucher, marketing person, etc etc etc, tango has on many occasions been for me the grounding force in a sea of slickness and unreasonable expectation. And I love it for that.

ania4viva said...

Thank you for your beautiful article. I had a similar experience yesterday while teaching a lesson, to the one you mentioned, where I suddenly saw myself in the mirror, and saw someone I admired. Not because of their dancing, just because in that instant I was 100% pure me.
A moment on earth where we become a soul.
Would you mind if I shared this with my readers on my blog? (www.melbournetangohotspot.wordpress.com if you'd like to check first). I think many would appreciate the relief from the pressure to be perfect. In tango and in life.
ania.

Mari Johnson said...

El Ingeniero, Game Cat, Frances, Dzesika, and Ania4viva - thank you so much for your comments. This was a tough one to write and it was a *long* time coming. Since I published this, I've gotten so much reinforcement that it was the right thing to do. I'm so relieved to be surrounded by such generous souls - online and off.

Ania4viva - I'd be honored for you to use any material you'd like. And I'll get your blog added to my list tonight.

PenenlopeGlamour said...

I just want to share what tango did to me. Even if I have jsut discovered it 8 months ago, it has changed my live.

I was an expat in the States (from Spain) and I was alone and bored. One morning I reed this advertisement in a magazine for a Tango class. Went there, felt in love with Tango, then with one of my teachers. Now I only dance Tango, I don't do any other social activity if there is no tango involved. Tango all day long, with friends (wich I feel as my family) in social milongas and at home only the two of us (this is the moment when the whole world stops rotating around the sun).
Now he's coming back with me home.

Tango has got us together. Tnago has changed me and has given me a whole new experience and feelings and love to everyone around.

Mari Johnson said...

@PenelopeGlamour - It sounds like you've been on quite an exciting and rewarding tango journey! Dancing couples can have their own stresses, but it's wonderful to be able to share that world with someone so close.