"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, April 22, 2013


Four eleven-year-old girls stand on a sunny school playground. Three are in eleven-year-old bodies. One peers out from the decades-older body of their teacher. One girl, a happy healthy athletic bursting-with-happiness-and-energy long-limbed girl, does a cartwheel out of nowhere, for no particular reason beyond the invitation of the warm bright air and her own inner joy.

The three other girls watch and admire her form, and so she does another, also with perfect cartwheel form: First one hand on the ground, then the other, with legs going perfectly overhead, each landing in its turn, the torso perpendicular to the ground the entire time. Perfect 360 degree rotations. She ends each revolution with a victory stance, arms raised high, exuberant grin on her face.

The peeking-out girl says wow, that was amazing, I've never done a cartwheel.

One of the other girls laughs and says I can't do one either. She's about to show them her not-doing-a-cartwheel when the fourth girls spins out three in a row.  Her audience watches in admiration. This is not someone who looks like she could do any cartwheels, let alone a beautifully executed series. Short of stature, short-limbed, solid, the best artist in the class with an artist's intense inner focus and no previously apparent athletic inclinations. She barely smiles at the applause and praise offered by her peers, but the blush pushing up from her collar reveals her pleasure.

The peeking-out girl asks how did you learn to do that. Thinking about her own short solid body that she could never coax into the light freedom of a cartwheel.

The reply from the artist: gymnastics, lessons from the time she was a much littler girl.

The peeking-out girl remembers a childhood where there was neither the money nor the parental energy for gymnastics or dance (she desperately wanted to be a ballerina) or piano even (let alone the harp she knew she was born to play). She recalls friends trying to show her the steps to a cartwheel, and her frustration at not being able to follow the simple instructions, and the shame voice saying stupid fat girl. She thinks she remembers being laughed at, although she's not so sure about that any more. She remembers the hot flush of humiliation, her fury at a body that would not bend to her mind's demands, her decision to never try again.

Do you want to see me try offers the girl who has said she's never done a cartwheel either. This girl is a soccer celebrity who plays whatever sport a season has to offer. A child of supreme confidence in herself despite a life where adults betray and disappoint her in heartbreaking ways. Without waiting for an answer from her audience, she spins herself awkwardly around, head down, her body moving in a twisted "u" shape, her limbs going every which way but where they should. She lands on her bottom, laughing, her face alight with joy.

Everyone claps for her, and laughs with her, and then the three in-time eleven-year-olds wander away, distracted by a kick-ball game. The peeking-out eleven-year-old, safely hidden behind the eyes of her sixty-year-old body, marvels at what she's just seen. Success by someone who wasn't a cool kid. Failure by someone who was. But failure that no one saw as failure. Failure seen as fun and not one bit of anything more.

She offers a question tentatively, inwardly, longingly. Maybe we could try again?

The sixty-year-old teacher stands watching her students frolic like wild things on a sunny spring playground, holding her own inner eleven-year-old close. You know it's too late for cartwheels in this body. But look, it's not too late to see that shame does not have to be a part of that loss. It's not too late to understand that not doing cartwheels never ever meant there was something wrong. It's not too late to finally realize that you are as wonderful, talented, and beautiful as any of the girls you watch every day with envy and yearning.

Together, they form a picture of a freckle-faced girl with braids and strong sturdy limbs, banged up knees and bare feet, doing a perfect hand, hand, foot, foot, perpendicular rotation in the long faded sunlight of a North Idaho summer. It didn't happen, but it might have, and they applaud the girl together. A girl no longer defined by an unaccomplished cartwheel.


DJan said...

This is so beautiful, Deb. thank you for it, and I wonder if that inner 11-year-old knows that she still accomplishes incredible virtual cartwheels. :-)

Linda Reeder said...

I know that inner 11-year-old. She is also me, still recovering from the things she couldn't do or didn't get a chance to do, and who needs to still do self-talk to remind herself of all she has done and can do and will do even yet. And she has tears in her eyes now.

#1Nana said...

This is wonderful! I also could never do a cartwheel and never had lessons in anything...well, one lesson in baton twirling but then we never went again. I love the lesson learned on the playground. You're right that its never too late. I still have learning to ice skate backwards on my list.

Hope the spring sunshine is lifting your spirit...and soon it will be summer break!

Linda Myers said...

I did sloppy cartwheels when I was eleven, but I could jump on a pogo stick and I could stand on my hand.

When I was 64 I learned how to line dance. That felt like a victory.

kario said...

It is such a gift to acknowledge those scared children inside of us and heal them. What a lovely thing you did for yourself. I would say that even if your body didn't do it, your spirit executed a perfect cartwheel that day.


Catch My Words said...

Although the story was interesting with a powerful message, I was a little distracted by the voice and had a hard time following the plot at times. An eleven-year-old in a sixty-year-old body doesn't work for me, especially when she's the teacher.


T. Powell Coltrin said...

I do a cartwheel like a sideways frog. My daughter has shown many how it looks.

I wish my folks had had the money to send me to classes. I would have needed to had the opportunity too. Out in the country well...there wasn't any.

Mark Lyons said...

I loved your post, probably because I know that I still have that "little boy" inside of me that frequently reminds me of the pains and fears that have remained with me since childhood. Thanks for reminding us that some of the childhood perspectives that frames our lives may have been wrong.

I love you


Barb said...

That girl is perfectly free to be herself now Deb. I'm here in CO clapping for you.

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Deb Cushman said...

I smiled as I read your post, thinking back to my cartwheel days. But then I remembered that I could never do a decent cartwheel. Summersault, yes. Cartwheel, no. It is nice, however, to think that I really could have if I had wanted to practice :)

Thanks for the memories, Deb.

Anonymous said...

I loved peeking over your shoulder and meeting the peeking-out eleven year-old you, Deb. I accomplished cartwheels and handstands and was a member of the gym club aged eleven but there were other things I was less confident at. The girl who performed poorly is surely the richest of the three'in-time' since she has learnt to laugh at herself and to enjoy laughing with others.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, I've been away from reading blogs for three weeks due to a minor ailment, so I'm coming here to your posting late. I hope you've spent time in the past couple of weeks mulling your own questions and answering them from the surety of the love that extended to you from all your readers.

Your sentence "A girl no longer defined by an unaccomplished cartwheel" puts me in mind of a novel I'm writing that takes place in Bronze Age Greece. The main character--a girl, then woman--lets everyone else define her. I'm hope that as the novel progresses she will begin to define herself and take joy in the contentment of it. Peace.

Anonymous said...

I could never do cartwheels, the splits, or twirl a baton!
My mother sent me (forced me) to go to gymnastic classes. They were terrifying - especially those human pyramid formations!! ...a class full of competent kids I hated being in and finally pleaded my case. Enjoyed your post Deb.

Sally Wessely said...

I feel like crying. You so beautifully spoke to my heart in this post. I am the one who could never do cartwheels either. I am the one who was afraid to scamper over rocks and up trees. I am the one who never had dance lessons. I needed this message from you. Thanks, dear friend. XO

Terri Tiffany said...

I LOVE your posts@ Wonderful I have that girl in me who for so long wanted to be athletic but found another way to be who I am.

Laura said...

oh Deb, it has been far too long since last I visited. I'm so glad I did just now. What a tremendous gift to realize it IS possible to re-experience the past from a new whole and healing perspective. BEAUTIFUL!

Amber said...

I love you so much. Still. ;)

I love how this was written. You have such a talent for putting your reader in the space. And I thought of G, who will do cartwheels many times a day, for no reason. Or do a jig. Or sing. Loudly. Lol



Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I'll bet every female reader can identify with this post is some very deep way...maybe not cartwheels but some cool achievement we couldn't do. (I'm sure many men have similar experiences but not sure whether they process them the same way.) This piece is another masterpiece.