A dear e-mail friend of mine who lives near NYC loves the ballet passionately. In early December she kindly sent me a link to a slide show of Henry Leutwyler photos of the New York City Ballet on the Vanity Fair web site. As I perused the photos, sitting in my pajamas at the computer, I came across one that took my breath away: two photos, side by side, of two pairs of ballerina feet on pointe at the wall, each with one toe shoe on, the other without. This exquisite duet reveals the actual toes in their bandaged and/or wounded glory. You can see this (literally) achingly beautiful portrait here.
The morning I sat at my computer in my jammies and looked at all these photos, marveling at their precision and beauty, and the precision and beauty of those being photographed in their work, two volunteer students from the University of Idaho had showed up to split wood for me out in my barn. There had been a sudden ice-sleet-rain-snow-thunderstorm the previous evening (which Romeo and I had got caught in by surprise), and the temperature had not risen above freezing since then. But I was still mostly unaware of the practical consequences of this as I ate my bowl of oats and fruit, absorbed in the world of the ballerina.
I am certainly not a consoisseur of ballet, but, like many people, I have been to and enjoyed The Nutcracker several times in my life. And my little sister took ballet for a while, and one of my mother’s students went on to be a professional dancer, so I’ve been in the audience perhaps a little bit more than most people. I loved the movie The Turning Point way back when. As a grad student I was fascinated by sections of Frank Bidart’s long poem “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” when I heard them read out loud during a reading Bidart gave on our campus. And, for a time in my professional life, I was a writing counselor who helped dance majors write their papers on dance history. It was here I learned who George Balachine was, and what his contribution to technique in ballet was. I can still see the student whose paper was a mess explain to me very clearly, with shining eyes, what this meant in the history of dance. It was my window into helping her writing become as clear as the understanding she was sharing with me.
I also remember a moment early in my life, perhaps watching the Russian dancers in the Nutcracker, of feeling how thrilling it must be to be able to jump like that; it required the kind of balance and extension my mild CP made illusive. But I had the understanding that performers need an audience. And if I couldn’t do it, I could certainly share in it by being the audience who loved and appreciated such beautiful and precise physical movements.
I was saturated with such memories as I began to dress in the layers required to take the dog and I out for our walk. I could still hear the axe falling on the chopping block now and then. I happened to open the shutters in my bedroom just before putting my coat on. It was then I saw the ice frozen in pools on the low sidewalk along the front of my house. And I saw instantly how that day, December 8, would be the first day for ice cleats this season.
If it was like this right out in front of my house, it was also going to be like this on the trail along the creek. Or worse. The moment had come to stretch the ice cleats over my boots once again. With their tiny blue tungsten nails, they are, in a way, my own unique and quirky version of “on pointe.” It’s a strange feeling to get used to, since once on, my feet do not really touch the ground. The tiny teeth are so strong that I am actually walking on those points the whole time the cleats are on, so the tread in my boots becomes irrelevant, as can the feel of the ground to my feet.
Yet the feel of the ground to my feet isn’t irrelevant. It’s the key to stability. One of the hardest things about walking on ice for me is convincing myself to let my feet continue to try and feel the slippery ground.
As we made our way through the frozen ground of the park (pretty easy, since the natural ground doesn’t slip like the pavement, but still hard work, kind of like walking on rocky sand barefoot), I relished the effort. When we came back up out of the bowl of the park and onto more pavement, I began to worry about my footing. Suddenly I remembered I had recently watched Eat Pray Love for the first time. I’d read the book years before but had never gotten around to seeing the film. My favorite character in both genres is Ketut, the Balinese Medicine Man. As I stepped onto the hard sheen of the icy sidewalk, his toothless admonition to practice “smile meditation” in every organ of the body, every day, even the liver, came back to me. And I smiled. And started seeing what I could do to imagine the balls of my feet smiling, the space between my shoulder blades, the tips of my toes, my heels, the insides of my hands, the arch of my foot. It all made an instant difference. And of course I couldn’t help literally smiling. And laughing. In my silliness, I even said out loud, “let’s kiss the ice, feet!”
But on the way back home as I completed a circuit about a mile long, some of the going was especially rough. I was getting tired. It was hard not to fret about falling. And admonish myself. At this point Ketut’s smile meditation morphed into a memory of a wonderful story my friend Irene had told me about when our boys were each about 4, a time before we knew each other through their friendship, or even lived in the same state. Her youngest son, Greg, had been acting out-of-control goofy in a restaurant, and she had had it. She took him out to the car, sat him down on the seat with the car door open, and began telling him he needed to straighten up in a commanding voice, complete with finger wagging in his face. His 4 year old response to his mother getting into his face was to take her face in his hands and plant a big kiss right on her mouth. Talk about diffusing a power struggle. Every time I think of this I still laugh, because it is so perfect a solution to all fretting and worrying and laying down the law. So that got me the rest of the way home.
This first time out, I had done well. But I was wiped out enough from the extra effort to lay down on the couch with Romeo and take a short breather. Even getting those cleats stretched onto the boots is, for me, well, a literal stretch. As in, hard for my hands to do. And once I do get them on, they put pressure on the toes that the boots aren’t designed to disperse. So after a while, that is tiring too. Like having your toes in the box of a toe shoe might feel, I imagine. And sometimes, trudging through slush and ice that’s melting, the slickness of that gradually works the cleat too far off the bottom of the boot. The conditions have to be just “right,” and thankfully they rarely are, but once it went flying off and split in two. The moisture and rising temperature were just too much for it.
Since the short break of clear ground between the ice of early December and the week before Christmas, we’ve had pretty consistent snow on the ground. When there’s snow and ice, my snow boots with the “star” tread on the bottom are my “go to” footwear.
They are soft and warm as can be. A neighbor once said they look like sleeping bags for feet, but I prefer to think of them as “cute,” the word my son used when he first saw them a few years ago. I’d like to say they are vegan, but I can’t. I was thrilled to be avoiding leather, but later discovered I had missed the fact that they are filled with down. Finding vegan snow boots and outer wear that actually work to support my specialized needs in extreme conditions is a challenge I haven’t succeeded at fully meeting yet. It’s turning out to be a very gradual process.
Non-vegan uppers notwithstanding, I love walking with the help of the “stars.” They grip the combination of snow, ice and slush like nothing else. And I can feel my feet on the ground. Sometimes this makes them sore (that long walk on the beach in bare feet effect) but overall it is great exercise, and this year I am happy to report my feet feel more sure than ever.
This wasn’t always the case. Here is an excerpt from a journal entry several years before eating this way. My star boots would not have made a difference then. No matter what I wore just trying to make it around the block, my feet had a terrible time feeling the ground, and I felt I was taking my life in my hands as I negotiated the “false bottoms” of black ice, likening them to the layers of MS fatigue I was also negotiating:
“St. Stephen’s (December 26, 2000)
A more reliable but inivisible layer of stamina is hidden, waiting, under a layer of icy fatigue. This icy layer is not clearly transparent; it reveals several different attempts to melt that ended in icing over again. Like the patch of sidewalk under the huge fir trees around the block, some of it is colored beige with mud and mottled with several large, black tear drops of water melting off the branches above it, and all of this is suspended over a thin, treacherous lining of invisible black ice. In these spots, even the melting powdery texture of snow is gone–they resemble mere wet sidewalk, but that look is treacherously deceiving; they are hard, smooth, without texture, and can only melt from underneath, or when the temperature rises enough to force even these shady spots to give. Waiting not to be so tired is like waiting for this ice to melt. It requires a nearly unearthly kind of grace and patience I don’t have in huge supply this morning, but know I must ask for and cultivate nonetheless.”
I am grateful beyond words that I was somehow “given” the grace and patience to find eating this way, and thus also find the way to melt those layers of icy fatigue, slowly but surely, from “underneath.” And gradually, to negotiate the physical ice that once seemed the perfect metaphor for the layers of locked up stamina I couldn’t access. These days, I’m out every day, no matter what. Romeo and I walk at least a mile, often more, unless the weather conditions are very extreme and prevent it. In three years, that’s been less than what I can count on one hand.
But when the ice is smooth, hard, and plentiful, or the puddles are deep, I take my time getting my bearings and rely on Romeo to lead the way if necessary. He knows just what to do. My star boots cannot grip or stay dry in those conditions, so I switch boots, and go back to the ice cleats. Or something called Yak Tracks. I think I may like these better than the cleats; they are easier to get on over the boots. But it may take a few seasons to know for sure. Here’s what they look like:
Maybe this year if I continue to think of negotiating the ice as a kind of ballet, I will remember there’s beauty in discipline, form, and even limitation. That even when I feel as if I must be “on my toes” at all times, or, more precisely, endure the scrunching of my toes in order to walk on little nails, spirals or stars in order to make my way step by step, I can still touch the earth with my feet every day. Even when it’s frozen. And for me, that’s a blessing beyond compare.