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
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
And so naturally enough, I was a nervous wreck during the
long drive to class.
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
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.
But I found that all that really means is a screaming new
agenda: DO MORE OF WHAT YOU WANT TO DO BECAUSE OTHERWISE YOU
WILL FAIL AT DOING WHAT YOU WANT AND YOU DON’T WANT THAT,
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
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.