Her bun was blonde and tight. Everything about her was slight and light except for the full coil that sat smug on the nape of her neck.
Her elevator eyes surveyed me, hanging on my legs—my short, thick legs—and assessed my height. I haven’t finished growing yet, my eyes pleaded with her.
We had just moved to Georgia and my angel mother, who still believes I can do anything, had driven me downtown to audition for the ballet company in our new city. I’d been dancing since I was two. Today, I was eleven, standing in the biggest studio I’d ever seen with dozens of girls my age. The wall of mirrors correctly reflected that in this sea of long, lithe branches, I was a squat tree trunk. These other willowy creatures were already in the ballet company. I had a chance today to show them what I could do.
The bun was about to start class when an older woman in an oversized tunic and fierce black hair drifted in. Her good energy splashed over everyone in proximity. When the bun noticed her notice me, she explained why I was there. And this woman, with her wild hair and even more wild eyes, stayed to watch me dance.
It was a silent eternity before the music started and I gripped the barre for dear life. But, when the first notes filled the room, my muscles melted into memory. The bun was methodical, sharp-clapping in rhythm, demanding slow, deliberate movement that stretched to the end of every note. And I kind of loved her for that, her care with the craft.
In ballet, you keep proving each move, from the tip of your tallest finger to the point of your longest toe. Symbiotic, you and the music complete each piece and you never stop stretching, pointing, looking, until it’s time to glide, jump or turn into the next move.
Ballet forced me to feel tall. Ballet had my whole heart.
After a grueling barre and some work in the center floor, the bun asked us to line up in the back corner. Physical giddiness fizzed beneath my skin. We were going to leap! We started with jetés, than grand jetés. Mid-air, I heard the bun bark out: good. Good!
See, back then, shortie had much ups. And, if nothing else came out of that day, the bun had seen exactly what my legs could do.
After the reverence, the class filed out and I hung back to hear my fate. The bun betrayed no expression, but the wild pixie leaned down to place both of her hands on my shoulders, untamed eyes close, smile open. “You dance from your center,” she said. “We’d love to have you join us.”
I’ll never know if she meant my literal middle, my core, my heart. I just know her words landed deep and I’ve called them up more than once in my life. Then I was met by my Momma’s proud-as-punch squeal in the lobby. And all was right with the world. At 11, I was smack in the middle of my center.
Your center is the midpoint, the nucleus, the most important place. You can center around something, too, move to the middle or focus in.
Lately, I’ve been a teense off kilter. Off tempo, off key, just-off center.
Leaning in to work, l’ve been leaving a gaping hole at home. Leaning in at home, I feel like I’m losing my place at work. Leaning, leaning. Worrying up for parents, sideways for a sister, sinking in worry. I live a charmed life, no doubt, but in response to the emotional maelstrom that’s swept my loved ones up this last year, I’ve lost site of my center. I’ve been teetering and grasping for the nearest solid option—my husband, a friend, a glass of wine.
And in the middle of a swirling universe, a trap door popped open to swallow me in grief.
I lost my grandma today, my Tootsie. It was an accident, a jolt, a shake-you-wide-awake.
She was the heartbeat of the Marriott clan. A woman clothed in strength, dignity, laughing with no fear of the future. Equal parts sassy, classy, accessory. With unruly beautiful balance.
She had an actual twinkle in her eyes. A mischievous, wicked flicker.
She could arch an eyebrow high as the Brooklyn Bridge.
She could hold her whiskey and (sometimes) her tongue.
When he was a baby, Tucker could not get enough of her. He’d bury his infant face into her sweet wrinkled cheek and cover her in kisses. We all felt that way.
Because, for all her fun and games packed into a petite 5 feet, Tootsie was also the queen of center. Mother to 5 sons. Matriarch to dozens of grands and great grands. Each one of us got cards on every single holiday, birthday. And I hadn’t even returned her last phone call. Recitals, graduations, weddings, showers, baptisms. She was always there, for everyone. She made you feel like a gem. She knew what was most important.
One of my favorite memories with her was a hot air balloon ride—one of her bucket list checks. We were floating high over north Tampa, pressed against each other, peering over the edge of the basket into the glory of the morning. As we drifted through this perfect, quiet peace, I realized this flight was like her walk with God. I prayed in that moment to keep this calm and this wonder.
Tonight, Tootsie’s dancing in the heavens with Doug, her love, jitterbugging across a cloud, perfectly centered.
And that’s my word for this year. Centered.
Center is not in yesterday’s regrets or tomorrow’s troubles. Center is today. And I will be glad in it.
Because when my true center dwells in my heart through faith, He can do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine, no matter what’s whirling by.
This month, as life would have it, I pulled on ballet slippers for the first time in 25 years. I tiptoed into the studio and gripped the barre, old pal, for dear life. Then music notes filled the room and my muscles melted into memory. My legs, ever thick, do not snap into fifth position anymore. But my arms, suddenly French, found the rhythm.
The teacher smiled at me. “Nice arms, Mindy. But, look. See? You have to tondu from your center.”