By Lavinia Plonka
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais said that we move according to our perceived self-image. And we are stopped by our perceived limitations. In one of my many careers, I was a mime, which meant I made money-creating illusions: imaginary adversaries, objects and challenges that I had to overcome in the name of drama. One of the most infamous mime pieces involves being trapped in a box with an invisible ceiling that slowly closes down on the poor mime. Some people view this piece as an existential statement of the human condition; human as victim of outer circumstances over which he has no control. Or, if the mime manages to escape, it becomes the triumph over the invisible prison. Others however, just really think it’s a cool illusion. It all depends on your perception.
I taught mime to thousands of children over the years. It was a wonderful discipline to teach them not just technique, but how to craft a story, how to choose precise illusions, how to inhabit their bodies. I’ll always remember a boy named Chris. The first day the students were to perform their assignments, he eagerly raised his hand to perform, like all the other children. At his turn, he jumped up and ran incoherently around the room, gesturing madly. I considered myself a seasoned pro, able to interpret almost any child’s attempts to communicate through mime. But I drew a blank. I asked him to explain.
“First, these guys were chasing me. Then I ran up to my room and hid under the bed. While I was there, I found my old bicycle and when I tried to ride it, it fell apart. I jumped out my window and there was a guy selling hot dogs. So I ate one and then flew away.”
“But Chris,” I said, trying to sound kind, “the homework was to walk down a hall and listen to what’s behind the doors!”
His crestfallen face sent a guilty pang through my heart. “I did listen at the door. That’s why they were chasing me.”
Chris was not like the other children in this expensive drama school. The other children arrived scrubbed, dressed in kid haute couture – color coordinated, covered in logos, accessorized. Chris had dirty socks with holes in them, his clothes were hand me downs and he emanated a faint, unwashed stench. I was pretty sure coming to drama school was not his parents’ idea.
I wanted to root for him. But he did not endear himself. He couldn’t sit still. Not that many eight year olds can, but he seemed particularly uncomfortable in his body, shifting and sprawling, breathing mucusy, asthmatic wheezes, humming tuneless melodies. “Chris. Please don’t sing while the others are performing.” “Chris. Stop crawling around.” He would look surprised and hurt.
Part of my job was to teach children focus and concentration. Many of them were stressed-out kids dropped off by stressed-out parents desperate to find an alternative to Ritalin, Xanax, Zantac. For two hours, I tried to provide an environment for letting go and learning. I gave them plenty of opportunity to run, scream, freeze, create statues, roll on the floor, play imaginary football, chase alien monsters and blow up imaginary buildings. And then we paid attention – to each other, to our actions, even to our breath. Chris didn’t get any of it.
He became more reluctant to participate, edgier, more woebegone. Then one day, I noticed him squeezing back tears as two children were talking.
“I showed my homework to my mom yesterday, and she told me I really looked like I was brushing my hair with a real brush.”
“When I showed my family the part about catching the burglar, they all acted really scared!”
That day, his mother forgot to pick him up and I had to drop him off at home; a decent looking home, though like Chris, a little ragged. No one was there to greet him.
After eight weeks of classes, the final assignment was to create a piece where you find yourself trapped in something like the proverbial imaginary box and find a way to escape. Chris surprised me, eagerly raising his hand. I was nervous as I called on him. The last few weeks he had either “forgotten” to do his homework, or was obviously making it up on the spot, trying to tap dance his way through the assignment. But this time, it was clear that he had practiced, that something about this assignment had engaged him. He lucidly portrayed falling down a big hole and first tried to dig himself out. Then he clawed with his fingers at the imaginary walls. He tried to burrow like a dog underneath. The children were enthralled. I felt like a proud parent.
He picked an invisible object up, then sighed and looked at me sorrowfully. “It’s no good. I’ll never get out.”
“No, Chris,” I implored. “It’s great. What are you holding? How do you get out?”
“I can’t.” He sat down in his self made prison.
“Don’t give up, Chris. You can.” He looked at me doubtfully, the invisible object still clutched in his grubby fist as if it was real. We were silent, looking into each other’s eyes. I remembered the words of Jean Louis Barrault, a great mime and actor, who said, “Mime is not a substitute for words. It is that which cannot be put into words.” In that silent moment, everyone in the class understood what was happening between Chris and me. He was waiting for faith. My faith in him. Not just words, but the feeling. He needed me to truly believe that he was capable, that he would succeed.
It wasn’t that his own faith was not strong enough. It’s just that no one should ever have to go it alone when trying to break through perceived limitations.
And now for a momentary, apparently wildly irrelevant digression. Back in 1967, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. She signed the application with her initials so no one knew a woman had entered. Her boyfriend was her trainer, preparing her for the race. During the race, the chairman of the race leapt out of the TV truck and tried to pull her out of the race. Her boyfriend, a former football player, knocked the man right off the road.
She went on to complete the race and a few years later, women were officially part of the Marathon. His belief in her and in women’s rights helped her break that glass ceiling.
As Chris and I stared at each other, we knew we were co-creators of this shift in reality: from loser to winner. There is a phenomenon called the Observer Effect that simply states, “The situation changes based on the attitude of the observer.” We both needed to shift. Just like the whole world shifted during the Boston Marathon. Chris’ uncertainty was as much a part of my beliefs as my judgementalness was part of his. I slowly nodded to him. He looked down at the invisible object in his hand. It became a rope, which he tossed upward, climbing painfully hand over hand out of his imaginary hole. The class cheered.
“You see, you can do it!” I was as pleased as if he’d escaped from a real hole. Which in all likelihood, he had. Chris beamed as another toe popped through the holes in his sock.
When not walking against the wind, Lavinia helps others go beyond their perceived limitations offering private sessions and group classes in The Feldenkrais Method and the Creative Body. Laviniaplonka.com.