It was 2005 and I was serving in a new parish in Beavercreek, OR, outside of Oregon City. My youngest daughter was staying with me at the parsonage following graduation from Pacific University as she waited to leave for her Fulbright Scholar appointment: a year in Argentina. Hope was a dance minor in college, a Spanish major. One day she announced: “Mom, we should go take Argentine Tango lessons.” Always up for any kind of dance, I said, “OK! If you find a place to go, I’ll come along!” Our first classes were with Steven Payne and Amy PK. Hope soon left for Argentina, but I stayed with tango, found my forever teacher in Alex Krebs, started visiting Argentina as soon and as often as I could and now can’t wait to return again to visit wonderful friends and teachers who’ll forever remain in my heart. But first, I’m most eager (like hundreds of dancers) for the moment when it’s truly safe to open Portland milonga venues once again.
At a certain point in the journey one wonders what the denouement will look like, feel like . . . and whether that will make any difference at all in the end. How will this particular life, my life, resolve? How will all the threads and chapters and diversions play out or come together? Or will they? Is it possible to choose one’s own denouement after all? I start with this question of choice. Of course, there is always choice. This fundamental and critical reality of human existence -of human life- is my daily reminder to Liam, just arrived at age 6. Never a stronger willed child challenged his grandmother at nearly every turn. It’s almost like a daily fencing match where I only make points when I manage to catch him off guard and make him laugh. As when he screws up his face in anger over some frivolity of the moment and I say with a smile, “Hope you don’t freeze that way!” His angry face melts into a smile and a twinkle flashes from his eyes as his meet mine and I smile, “Gotcha!”
So today I fell into a sad several hours of depression. Trying to climb out I tuned into You Tube tango performances by Chicho, Bruno, El Chino Necci and others I enjoy. The effect was mixed with moments of almost joy to moments of deep longing to return to the dance floor after nearly five months away. Some lucky souls live with their favorite dance partner! I want to feel badly towards them but instead I just wish I were them. Oh how I miss the dance! Some get a bit of joy and a sense of the milonga from big virtual milonga events. Not me. It just makes me more lonely. Lonely for tango dancing and for a return to Buenos Aires, the heartland and home of so many dear friends. Mi Buenos Aires querido . . .
May fourth is both my son and grandson’s birthdays. I have one son, Steven and he’s 57 today. Emerson, my daughter Thea’s boy, has reached the auspicious age of 12. It’s May fourth 2020 and I’ve been sheltering in family members’ homes for the last nine weeks. I’m painfully homesick and missing the freedom of independent living I used to take for granted. The news today suggests we are not in these United States any where near the end of danger of this pandemic. In fact, the news suggests things will probably get worse soon with more infections and more suffering and more death upon deaths. So far 65,000 souls living in our country have died from Covid-19 virus. Some say maybe 100,000 will have perished before it’s over and a cure is in hand and available. So today I am grieving the loss of my independent life, the separation from home and familiarity of personal space and objects, friends, grandbabies, driving my own car, driving my daily life without barriers. But I am also pondering Mary Oliver’s question: “What will I do with my one wild and precious life?” I suppose I am also considering what I have already done, in that I am now 77 and classified in this health crisis as in a vulnerable group because of my 77 years. One can do a lot in 77 years. I have born and raised eight children, grandmothered 13 grandchildren, played tennis well though not expertly, earned a BA and MDiv, taught in public schools for five years, served five different churches as pastor and/or teacher, been a leader in liturgical dance, wrote and delivered a lot of sermons, taught a lot of religion and dance classes, acted in many plays, become a very good Argentine Tango dancer, traveled five times to Argentina, experienced Japan, Switzerland, France, Germany, Mexico. Led eight mission trips to Mexican border towns to build 8 small houses for poor families, led one mission trip to minister to orphans in Mexico, cultivated many long friendships, explored creative writing Japanese brush calligraphy, once made a different candle for each member of my family, and lived alone essentially and happily for the last 20 yrs. Should I contract this deadly virus and expire, I will have done okay I guess. But I am not ready to give up this life that I love. In fact I should I get another couple decades to dance on, I’d be so blessed and fortunate indeed. And there is this book . . . .this dance partner…..that pie…..these seeds……that child….that friend……that place…..that challenge…..that role- -so much more . . . .
It’s April 8 and today I read that Dr. Fauci, the country’s lead coronavirus expert, says we should keep washing our hands vigorously and frequently as we return to normal–whenever that happens is unclear. But he also says–we should never go back to shaking hands! This does not bode well for tango dancers, my friends. We not only shake hands but hold them…..for long periods of time. And not only hands but whole bodies, albeit gingerly and gently as our chests connect and our faces too sometimes. The reality of the good doctor’s statement is just sinking in. Will we dance with gloves and masks? Will the tango studios close altogether? Hmmm. Then I remember a special quotation: ” Life is what happens on the dance floor. Everything else is just waiting.” So I breathe deeply as I know all the tango dancers around the world are doing, and resolve to wait . . . for as long as it takes.
Yes, some researchers and medical types may have had advance clues but not the whole picture of what its like now or what it’s becoming. The numbers are rising each day of both those affected and those killed by this Covid19 plague. The projected numbers are chilling as is the reality that we’ve not yet reached the high point of the upward curve. After days and days of non-stop virus news, anxiety levels are up most everywhere and threaten to go off the charts and into the panic zone as close family or friends report being infected. That’s where I am tonight. Personally, I’m feelin fine and sheltering in place but my niece is not. She’s been locked up in her bedroom for over a week. A doctor herself, she reports nearing the point of either getting better or much worse. Her anxiety and that of her husband and two children is intense. She didn’t see this coming either. The TV keeps saying we’re all in this together, and we are; but some are in deeper than others.
Today I am still in Palm Springs, now hold up in a backyard casita, trying to stay safe. Think studio apartment but a very nice one. I’m lucky and grateful to be so blessed. I have access to a lovely backyard with pool here in the desert and just spent an hour sitting outside as the sun lifted higher and higher into the sky and warmed my chilly morning bones. This is my morning prayer time. It now takes a full hour to get through all the prayers I need to lift in these days, double the time I needed three weeks ago. Today all my Argentina people came onto my list. Out of curiosity, I counted17 in all. I miss them, some more than others of course, but I miss them. One at a time over five different trips, they welcomed me, lifted me up, embraced me with their open Argentinian arms and hearts and took me into their lives; took me to backyard family asados, some going on for whole afternoons and half the evening. They took me to visit their families–to their mothers’ and uncles’ homes. There I was greeted, embraced, celebrated and fed very, very well. They pulled out their hidden stash of homemade wines and spirits to go with the roasted fatted lamb and piles of homemade empanadas. They let down their hair and told me stories and laughed freely with me. They made an asado right there on the small apartment floor using a portable barbecue because the rain was pouring outside. They bought ten times the meat we needed because they wanted to treat me like the beloved one they’d made me into. They took me to the countryside on the back of their motorcycle and gave me a holiday with friends and amazing homemade pizza baked on the asado grill. They joined me on my birthday and took me dancing, unlocking a crucial secret about our beloved dance: even the professionals dance their own, unique dance. They kept me out all night and rode me home on the motor through the streets of Buenos Aires as the sun began to come up once more. They confided in me and invited my council. They let me know that riding on their motor was a privilege reserved for precious few. They opened their homes, created space for me, sheltered and fed me, washed my clothes, took me along with them to their classes where they invited me to share and made me a part of the family, a part of their lives, a part of their country, which is now my country. How I miss you, my beloved Argentina.
I’m sheltering in place at my daughter’s home in Palm Springs, unable to get back home. Happily there’s Alexa who, when asked, will shuffle and play songs from a favorite tango band-Otros Ailes. “Alexa, play Otros Aires band,” I say loud and clear. The music fills the air and at once my spirit lifts, then my feet and the dancing begins. No worries that I have no partner here, only two small dogs I’m watching until my daughter returns. I dance anyway, as I have since I was very young. I dance because doing so makes me happy, invites me to be in cinc with the music, invites me to smile and just be. Plus, I’m moving and not just sitting. My daughter Hope has a sign on her kitchen wall: “This Kitchen is for dancing.” Well done, Hope! I raised you right!
I saw that film recently, the one about Mr Rogers. It wasn’t so much about his long-running TV show for children as it was about the way he lived his own life . . . and that was beautiful as well as deeply moving. Fred Rogers created community wherever he was by the way he opened his heart to others and truly appreciated each soul he encountered. He lived out of an attitude of compassion and gratitude. We need that sort. We need more of that sort in the world just now. Like we need a felt sense of community. In Buenos Aires this is found in “my barrio,” whichever one one claims or lives in. It’s there one goes in an an evening milonga to see friends we know and respect and love. It’s where we are known, respected and loved. Being there feels like home even if we don’t know all the players, when enough acknowledge us, embrace us with their smiles as well as their arms, we know we belong. I almost didn’t stop at the Sunday afternoon practica today as I would be very late with only an hour or so left after visiting coffee hr after church and the art museum after that with my beloved niece. But tossing caution and reason aside, I did stop and found a beautiful day in my barrio. I haven’t danced much of late and didn’t expect much, but was warmly welcomed and affirmed by several sincere souls. “It’s good to see you out, we need to see you more often, let me give this lady a hug hello, I need to dance with you soon . . . ” All this and I didn’t even get to dance a milonga tanda! I’m inspired and encouraged by my beautiful day.
I for one will be glad to see this year come to a close. It’s been a tough one for sure. From the very beginning a string of illnesses and injuries-mine and those of close family and friends- has interfered with the dancing. As 2020 looms in the near future, my health has mostly returned to normal, save a lingering cold. My family members are all recovered but some friends, one in particular who is also part of the tango community, is still in recovery from a terrible car accident. It wasn’t her fault, but she’s suffered a complete life altering because of someone else’s mistake. It’s been over four months since she’s been able to work so her business has come to a halt and her resources nearly depleted. While I continue to pray for her complete healing I find myself profoundly grateful to have healed nearly completely from my terrible fall last October. On my way to dance at the Portland Tangofest, I tripped on an uneven place in the sidewalk and took the worst fall of my life, hitting the concrete sidewalk hard with my face. I took the brunt of the fall above my left eye which was swollen shut soon after I arrived at emergency. CT scans revealed a fracture in the orbital bone but fortunately no surgery was required. However, it would be many weeks before all the swelling and bruising dissipated. I looked truly hideous for a while and just stayed home. I returned to dance shortly before the Thursday Norse Hall milonga celebrated it’s 10th year and last milonga ever. Wow. I really hated to see that one close. But, change is always happening, all around us. We can count on that for sure… and a new Thursday milonga opens in 2020 in a new location. I write today from Fresno where I am enjoying the holidays with family. While there’s not much tango here, everyone in this family dances-at the drop of a tune! Even the youngest, baby Oliver, just one year old! He’s the best dancer ever, moving and shaking at the first hint of music. That’s my baby! Can’t wait to see what kind of dancer he becomes as he grows up! Noe, my eight yr old grandson, in heavy into Polynesian dance! Delightful! So, looks like 2020 is likely to hold plenty of dancing, maybe even more tango for Mema! Bring it on!