Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Gift

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Keegan digs in the dirt, making spherical mud pies adorned with twigs and rocks. Occasionally she unearths a prized bottle cap and she crowns the ball with much ceremony. Keegan does everything with much ceremony. Living with her is being treated to a never-ending series of performance art pieces.

The first one I remember, she was two and we were walking along a wooded path leading to the park carousel. She began to twist, gyrate, then freeze, and begin again. A contortionist's dance with brief interludes of motionlessness. As she began to attract stares from passersby I asked, "What are you doing?" "It is," she replied drawing herself up from a frozen pirouette, "The Sound of Leaping."

More recently she has adopted a stage persona, "The Great Ballerina Seena." The name itself may be a sort of postmodern commentary because I have never seen her perform any ballet. The Great Ballerina Seena travels with a grandiose British announcer who always provides her introduction. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a rare spectacle will meet your eyes! The Great Ballerina Seena, recently arrived from her latest European tour, will perform for you an act which has delighted and amazed audiences the world over. Never before have you seen such daring! such beauty! such sheer talent! Acclaimed from Munich to Minsk, and seen here tonight only by special arrangement, I present to you, the one, the only, The Great Ballerina Seena!"

Last night after her customary introduction, The Great Ballerina Seena came on with a pink nightgown and guitar. She began a sort of Flamenco dance routine, accompanying herself on the guitar, which she had tuned to an atonal scale of her own devising, more than you'll see on most Spanish stages. But the Great Ballerina Seena is about so much more than just entertainment. She quickly broke down the "fourth wall" of the stage and instructed every audience member to also take up guitars and play along. It became a participatory art event reminiscent of early Yoko Ono. Unfortunately, after the audience had joined in, the Great Ballerina Seena became dissatisfied with the stage lighting and demanded accommodations the venue was unable to provide. (Keegan like so many other writer/director/performers has a tendency to be somewhat tyrannical in pursuit of her vision.) Unnerved by the lighting, her directions to the audience escalated from artistic choreography to abuse and the authorities had to close the show down. The Great Ballerina Seena decried the censorship of her show, yet made no apologies to her public. I think she courts this kind of controversy.

Keegan is not always performing, of course. She has quiet, introspective times as well. These she narrates in the third person. When she is alone in her room, I can hear her talking quietly to herself. "And the girl leaped (soft thud) across the water. 'I will never give you the child!' she said" (The girl Keegan narrates also speaks with a somewhat affected British accent, ala Wendy in Disney's Peter Pan.) "The girl s..w..e..p..t -- " (she draws out the word as she grabs the doll and tosses her across the room) "-- the child across the river to the castle."

When she experiences a block and cannot come up with words to match her dramatic inner dialogue she is not thwarted. She will simply babble nonsense syllables with the pace and inflection of narrative. When things fall dangerously silent, I will peek around the corner and see her looking down, head tilted to the side. Her lips move rapidly and she rolls her eyes, purses her lips, changing expression repeatedly. This dialogue is punctuated with appropriate hand gestures. I am sorry I can't know what she is talking about now. But this part of the story is not yet meant for public consumption.

Of course it is difficult at four years old to always use your powers for good and not for evil. I might ask Keegan to pick her coat up off the floor, and, if ignored, lightly lay my hand on her shoulder to emphasize my second request. She will fall to the ground, clutching the offended area, keening in pain. "Owie, Owie, owie, owie, ooowwwie, oooowwwie, ooowwieeeee." Left alone the owies will escalate into great wracking sobs and such is her dedication to her craft that ice and band-aids must then be administered. She will also create stories to justify her behavior when she knows she has violated the rules. She is a method actress and once she has created these back stories she believes them completely no matter how unlikely they may be, or what obvious inconsistencies we might point out. She will argue with us with passion and conviction and though she protests vehemently she will accept banishment rather than admitting the truth.

Last summer I watched a group performance of Keegan's theater camp class. They played in a drum circle, did an African dance, and then improvised during a brief poem. At least I watched all the other students do those things as a group. Keegan came on stage with her class in each act, and proceeded to do something completely different from everyone else. She participated, enthusiastically. She dismantled her drum and wore it as a hat. Beaming and panning at assembled parents, she marched in jerky circles while the other students danced. In the improvisation activity, as one after the other 12 of 13 girls proceeded to: leap to the left, leap to the right, pirouette; the Great Ballerina Seena came on in a spider walk, a modified back bend, walking on her hands and feet. For the finale she planted her butt on the stage and extended all four of her limbs straight to the sky, balancing on that tiny bottom. After the performance the teacher approached me. "Are you Keegan's parent?" I nodded. She looked at me intently, eyes widening, and clapped her hands together in front her. "So...unique. So...different. So...always doing her own thing." She was earnest and I smiled, but my stomach clenched. Fear filled me. Keegan will start Kindergarten in a little over a year. What is a school going to do with her? What will the world make of her "uniqueness"? And what will she make of it in the world? But I contain this fear, this anxiety that threatens to overwhelm me. I thank the teacher. I praise my daughter, and I tell her grandparents how great she was. And my heart breaks a little, and not really for Keegan, this proud girl parading her backwards dancing, spider-walking, story-telling self to the world, but for me.

I remember the hours I spent working out fantasies in the in backyard, conversing with lions or riding aback dragons, and the books I consumed under the covers of my bed each night. I imagined myself an author, writing down the fantasies I constantly inhabited. Only last week I caught myself grimacing and gesturing as I walked down the sidewalk in the financial district through lunch hour crowds. I had become so engaged in the conversation I was having inside my head with people who were not there, that I had forgotten not to let it show.

My father was a creative man, although I didn't realize it until later. When I was about fifteen and going through a closet of my father's childhood artifacts, I came across a drawing of a frog on a lily pad. The colors were brilliant, greens and blues and purples. It was really beautifully done, even though he was young, maybe nine or ten, when he did it. I took the drawing into the family room where he was watching TV. "Dad, you did this? This is really good." My father looked at it and grimaced. "Yes, I used to like to draw." He looked at the picture a minute more, then shifted his eyes to me, staring at me intently. "You know Karen, when I was young my teacher pulled me aside and told me that people who are really talented -- who really can do art -- they are born with that kind of talent. It's a gift. You either have it or you don't. And he let me know I didn't have it." My father paused and looked away. "Best advice I ever got. I could have wasted a lot of time on that. Best thing anyone's ever done for me." I was appalled. Aghast that any teacher would say that to a student, and horrified that my father viewed it as the best advice he'd ever received.

My father wasn't unkind. He loved me. He worried over me. He agonized over each decision I made. In each achievement, though he would praise me, he would then point out the problems, the potential pitfalls, the ways things could still go wrong. I realized later he had a basic belief that things would not work out. And I was left with that underlying anxiety, that what you desire you will not ultimately get, and if you did there will be something essentially flawed in it. I took his teacher's horrible advice. I believed it. "Real talent is born in you like a mark you and everyone else can see. If you had the gift you'd know." I repeated it like a mantra to myself. If I really had talent, I would have written that novel by now. It would have just flowed effortlessly onto the page. Not like these halting words that shuffle clumsily along the line, tripping on their loose ends and trodding on one another's toes. I crumple the paper after the first sentence, embarrassed. How sad, I'm an aspiring writer. One who wants desperately to write, but doesn't have the gift. Pathetic. I became suspicious of my own dreams. And I left them behind.

Yesterday Keegan declared, "I'm a cowboy princess." I am unsure if this is her job, her gender, or a philosophical statement. But I say, "Yes, yes you are." I smile as she stomps away in cowboy boots and butterfly wings to caucus with the fairies under the dining room table. I think to myself, "She has a certain something. She was really born with that bent for drama and fantasy." And suddenly I put a hand to the wall to catch myself as my knees go momentarily weak and my mouth drops open. A gift. She has a gift. This is what the gift looks like. It's not the Mozart Sonata at age five, not the perfectly formed novel. It's this, this flair, this love, this inclination. This is what it is, and I had it, and they knew it.

My father's words, his piercing eyes when he said them. I realize how clearly I have remembered each time he talked about it. How these moments stand out, preserved in detail from amongst a blur of other childhood experiences. These were meaningful moments in a family mostly ruled by silence. He could see the creativity in me, as plainly as I can see it in her. But he had abandoned his own gift, left it behind. And he feared for me, that I would feel disappointment like his own, for what he saw as an impractical existence. And to be honest I have begun to know his anxiety as I watch Keegan venture further out in the world. I worry for her. While other parents are up in arms over the reading programs being used or the test scores at different schools, I shrug. Keegan's hunger for stories will drive her to read if all they had was a set of alphabet blocks. But the neat rows of desks and the rooms of silent children scare me. The older girls walking the hall in carefully coordinated outfits, patrolling their peers for any kind of variance. How will The Great Ballerina Seena continue her performances in her cowboy boots, fairy wings and construction worker's hat? Can she continue to let that gift show, with the weight of her peers' disapproval, her own doubts, and my fear and regret pressing down upon her?

So here I am caught between my father and my daughter. An awkward midwife for something unborn in him, something burgeoning in her, and in me...a new and tenuous sense of possibility. When Keegan was born, the moment I held her I was overwhelmed by a powerful elation unlike anything I had ever experienced. For the first time in as long as I can remember I had something that I truly desired, something that really mattered to me. And there was no downside. I began to ask, what else? What else really matters? And I began to believe that perhaps I could have the things I truly desired and they could be good and worthy rather than dangerous and misleading traps. And for her sake, I realize I must contain my fear, and not visit my disillusionment upon her as my father did upon me. I must cultivate faith. Faith in her. Faith in myself. Faith that this world will have a place for both of our gifts.

I have begun to write. I am sending my own ungainly words spider-walking out on to the stage. I have to show her how to nurture that gift, rather than abandon it. It's the least I can do. The Great Ballerina Seena deserves at least that much of an introduction.


Karen Vernon is a writer, a public health researcher, and the mother of two lovely girls. She has published multiple academic papers related HIV prevention, treatment, and policy, injection drug use, and needle exchange. The Gift is Karen’s first non-academic publication. Currently she lives in Washington DC and tries to find time to write between the crying, screaming, work, and worry, but generally just goes to the park instead.


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