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Praise in the New Year

As a young teenager I used to take ballet classes with a formidable Russian teacher who came up from New York once a week to teach a class to a group of dancers culled from studios all over the area.

I loved these classes, loved to watch Mr. D., in his flowing white shirt and tight cummerbund, demonstrate triple pirouettes and beated jumps. I loved to watch the older girls—though I was a little bit jealous of them—whose parents had enough money to buy them leotards in pastel colors and little filmy skirts that tied around their waists.

I loved having an accompanist instead of a record player and ballet barres that were portable so that girls could stand on both sides them; it all seemed very professional and exotic to me.

And so naturally enough, I was a nervous wreck during the long drive to class.

“Give me a pep talk,” I would say to my mother, “I mean, I really need it this week.”

I said this every week.

It was a strange thing to ask for because most of my mother’s copious praise had to do with how I looked. I generally discounted most of her praise; she seemed more concerned about having a good-looking daughter than a good-hearted one. I didn’t think I was as pretty as she thought I was and I didn’t feel I was as good-hearted as I wanted to be.

So it took a certain measure of desperation to ask my mother for pep talks on the way to ballet class.

And yet, she was good at them.

She had been a dancer herself, a ballroom dancer, and I think she understood something about dancing—which is essentially that you can’t do it well if you are terrified.

When she gave me my weekly pep talks she didn’t exaggerate; she didn’t tell me I was the thinnest dancer or the highest jumper or that I looked like a gliding swan when I bourree-d across the floor. She knew I knew better.

But she was able to make me believe that I was competent, graceful and strong. She was able to make me believe that I had a rightful place in these classes and that maybe I ought to be a little less shy about claiming that place.

When I think about New Year’s resolutions, I can’t help but think they are all essentially based on the idea of an achievable ideal—a logical contradiction, really—and that willpower alone will achieve it.

I grow more and more aware of what my willpower won’t do.

Not only that, but New Year’s resolutions are discouraging. They always highlight the chasm between who you are and who you want to be. They never celebrate your life for what it is just the way it is.

I flirted with the idea of a New Year’s resolution this year: to do more of what I want to do and less of what other people think I really ought to want to do.


Somehow this not helpful.

I keep thinking of my mother’s pep talks. In a lot of ways she wasn’t connected with the reality of who I was, but when it came to dancing, she was. She worked with what I actually had going for me rather than idealizing some notion that I had the potential to become someone else entirely. Somehow she helped me to enjoy what actually was—and because of that I became a better—and slightly less terrified—dancer.

I know that New Year’s resolutions are tempting; we want to believe in our perfectibility. But the trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that their reaches far exceed their grasps. We discover what resolutions we want to make by first searching out our own imperfections; the whole rationale for needing a make a resolution is that there is something wrong with us—something we do too much of, not enough of, something we don’t do at all.

So then, once we’ve identified what’s lacking in ourselves, we decide—all by ourselves—that we can fix it, all by ourselves. Flying solo with our willpower, we make the vain attempt to turn ourselves into better persons. And when that fails we’ve somehow lost sight of the possibility that maybe we weren’t so bad just the way we were.

New Year’s resolutions are tempting because they hold out the golden carrot of perfection and it’s hard to resist that lure.

But a golden carrot isn’t good for much. You can’t roast it, stew it, peel it, munch it, plant it or leave it out on a plate for Santa’s reindeer.

I don’t think it’s New Year’s resolutions that we need. It’s pep talks. I don’t think it’s willpower that we need, but praise. And we can only get that from one another.

We need our interdependency far more than the myth of our self- sufficiency or perfectibility. We need others to tell us—and we need to tell them, too—that we are strong and graceful and competent and that we need not be so timid in claiming our rightful place in this life.

—Jo Page


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