I've been trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone recently, one of those personal improvement goals that I might have scoffed at a few short years ago before I realized just how much improvement I could use. When I found myself with an unexpected free evening a few weeks ago, I solicited suggestions from my Facebook friends for things to do, indicating that I was open to anything and everything, from live theater to mud wrestling (the mud wrestling became an instant fixation). Within minutes, a friend sent me the details of a house concert that was happening near my neighborhood later that evening.
"The host is named Neil. Just tell him I sent you."
Sure, I thought. Thanks, but no thanks. Showing up to a stranger's house for a party sounds like something out of a nightmare. In fact, I just had that nightmare last week.
I mulled it over for a while, thinking about the awkwardness of the scenario, the pain of meeting new people who would have no idea why I was at the party with them in the first place. The idea was so preposterous that, in the end, sheer curiosity drove me to go through with it. Things could have gone spectacularly awry, and that was precisely what piqued my interest.
When I arrived at Neil's home, I felt as though I were intruding on a family reunion, and I had to resist the urge to slip out the front door before anyone noticed I had even entered. Instead, I took a deep breath, introduced myself to Neil, and opened myself up to the whole experience. With a small shift in attitude, I found I could speak to people with relative ease, which is a rarity for me, and I began to settle in and enjoy the food and the company. Later, when the bands performed, I was transfixed. Listening to music in such an intimate setting was a new experience for me, and I was enchanted by the performance of the duo Pretty Gritty, an alt-country group from the Portland area. Their harmonies, their chemistry, the woman's plaintive voice--everything about it resonated, and I felt fully, exhilaratingly alive. The night was a surprise success.
I decided to make this kind of thing a regular practice, one I've dubbed deliberate discomfort. Maybe purposeful discomfort would be a better phrase--or at least one that sounds a bit less masochistic. When I noticed a flyer for a modern dance class at the local YMCA, I decided to put my purposeful discomfort plan into full effect.
Though I'm athletic and (usually) coordinated, I've never been comfortable with the way my body moves through space. Nothing makes me more self conscious than having to cross a crowded room, and that awareness of my body as something separate from my brain makes me prone to fits of clumsiness. I've always felt that I wouldn't be so lacking in poise as an adult had I just studied dance as a child. I instantly pinned all of my hopes for poise onto this one modern dance class series.
Unrealistic expectations aside, I went in with a great attitude. I was wearing a cheeky little sweatshirt with Magnifique! emblazoned on the front to help me feign confidence. I was uncharacteristically chatting up the other dancers before class. I was ready. Then we began the warm-up.
I was fine initially, still buoyed by the thrill of trying something new. And the warm-ups were easy. We began simply by walking, then shuffling, then changing pace. We were greeting people as we passed them, shaking hands or smiling. We were jogging, first forward, then back. My mind was still wide open to the experience.
Then we were asked to do our best runway walk. That was the first moment of discomfort that registered with me, and I found I simply couldn't bring myself to do it. I can do it, mind you, and probably have done it in a different context, as a child, perhaps, or with people I know very well and don't mind embarrassing myself in front of. But there, in that room filled with strangers, the thought of putting on a runway stride felt absurd. My face burned with humiliation. I kept my head down as I walked through the crowd of women who strutted around the dance studio with ease.
Once that fear of embarrassment set in, my mind and body once again became separate entities, and they were not on speaking terms for the rest of the afternoon. I could not follow along with the simplest movements. When going through footwork sequences, my upper body was as rigid as a stone as I focused intensely on everyone else's feet. At one point, when asked to run to the center of the room and do a move--any move--on the floor, my mind and body went blank, and I awkwardly fell to my knees and buried my face in my hands, dangerously close to tears. I was not having the transcendent experience of the private concert just weeks before.
Feeling the tears well up disappointed me. I had expected to leave my adolescent insecurities behind once I reached middle age, and to have them rise up, unbidden, was discouraging. I couldn't understand how every other woman in the room could be so free with her body, so utterly lacking in self consciousness. I was clearly the only person in the room with no dance experience, true, but what we were being asked to do was not to dance, per se, but simply to move--creatively, expressively, and with joy.
I couldn't tap into the joy. That was the biggest disappointment of the day. My first venture out beyond my comfort zone had been so joyful I felt I had made some monumental breakthrough. Each subsequent experience, I reasoned, should only take me to new, rapturous heights! A flower can only bloom in the sunlight! But so much of growth happens in the dark spaces underground. I have to accept that some of my own growth will be a sprawling, tangled mess way down in the dirt.
That first class was such a disaster that whenever I think of it, I'll slap my head involuntarily as if I can beat the embarrassing memories out of my brain. Still, I'll return to the class to try again. Maybe I'll confess my feelings of vulnerability to the other women in class. Maybe making my fear public will loosen its grip on me. Maybe it won't. And maybe I'll never find joy in dance, but I promise I'll learn to find joy in the challenges of trying it.