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photo by padre

Learning to Learn




“Quiet feet, Luke, quiet feet.”

“Up on two, turn on three. Quick-quick-slow. Quick-quick-slow.”

“More athletic tension. More athletic tension!”

My head spins as my feet turn and stumble. I seem to have tied my and my partner’s arms into a figure eight knot. As we stop, the couple behind us bumps into us and the whole circle of waltzers comes to a screeching halt. It is not the first time this night. My heart drops as we begin again, painfully aware of a fact I try my hardest to avoid: I have no idea what I am doing.

During the coldest and dreariest months, the Pacific Northwest becomes what feels like a perpetually dark ice cave. “Stir crazy” doesn't quite say it; in the words of Jimmy Buffet, “This morning I shot six holes in my freezer / I think I got cabin fever.” To combat the heel of winter’s boot grinding down on my spirit, I decided to do something crazier than unload a colt .45 into my refrigerator: I joined a dance class. American ballroom dance to be specific. With nine of us in the class and a fiery dance professor, we set upon learning ballroom dance 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday for a month.

Never have I been more out of my element.

I’ve danced at weddings, and if I might say so, I tear it up, second only to grandpa and the groom’s old college roommate. But ballroom is a different animal. I have learned martial arts, so I know how to move my body, but not to a beat that seems to exist only if you believe in it (like fairies).           

There is an uneven ratio of women to men in the class, so the first time I step onto the floor with a partner, mine happens to be the dance instructor. After leading her elbow directly into a wall, stepping on her feet multiple times, under a barrage of instructions more esoteric than the nutritional facts on my granola bar, I am pretty much convinced that the art of the waltz is not for me. After class, I push send on an email professing my deepest apologies that I cannot continue. The response is almost immediate: “Luke, don’t let fear control your life. Sometimes you need to ‘take the lead.’”

The dance pun is unbearable; more unbearable still, I am checkmated into staying.

One month later I still lead my partner into walls, but much more gently and far less often. I know something of East Coast Swing, the waltz, and the foxtrot. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m still not a very good ballroom dancer. Yet I find myself not entirely despising the experience of being really bad.

As the ice cave melts over the Northwest, summer eases itself in like a worn pair of dancing shoes. With the heat comes the freedom of summer break, and congruently, a summer job. Split fingers and grass cuts have taken the place of stepping on toes. With a large hat and new gloves, I apprentice as a gardener with a tall man who has been caring for plants since Eden and the friend—who’s been gardening and landscaping for years—who got me the job. The work is all manual and straightforward, yet I find myself confronted with a myriad of techniques I never expected: how to transplant living plants, how to level a plain, which Jurassic plants are and are not weeds, and just what is a pergola? Though the labor is manual, I find myself feeling exactly what I felt in dance class: utter incompetency.

I die for competency; I crave it. Competency is how I feel control over my world; it is how I feel safe, the shield I hide behind. And though there are only a few areas where I am actually competent, I stick to them the best I can. Stepping into gardening, into incompetency, I expect the fear and shame that always quickly follows. I brace myself. It doesn't come.

What comes instead is eagerness.

Dance class did not make me an expert in the arts of ballroom wizardry. Honestly, I can’t really remember how to waltz. But it did expose me to something much more useful in my day-to-day: it retaught me how to learn. I was forced to let go of my pride (which is usually just my fear with a “masculine” shirt on). My worship of competency was actually crippling, and dance class—or rather, learning how to be incompetent—helped to heal that. For it is the humility in learning that allows me to learn, allows me to ask where my feet go in a turn, allows me to re-transplant a hedge, makes me a better dancer and a better gardener.

One of the most miraculous things about the Cross is that it allows us to be bad at things; it frees us from perfection. For we are no longer under law but under grace.

It turns out a pergola is a type of garden gazebo, or archway, usually made with lattice and often supporting climbing vines.