I decided to do this month of poetry and parenting because of a Philip Larkin poem. My friend Emily suggested today’s piece, also by Larkin and very different in tone.
I spent this past weekend at my daughter’s rhythmic gymnastics competition. The girls work very hard in practice and the competition is mostly friendly, but strong. Everyone wants to improve, to place, to win. The parents want this for their girls too. They want them to succeed, to shine, to see all the hours of practice pay off.
All of which makes me think of this Larkin poem.
[It's not too late if you have a poem you'd like to share this month.]
Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin
For Sally Amis
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love —
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.
But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called.
The Beglinger Family and Film Crew for A Life Ascending
The documentary filmA Life Ascendingis a gorgeous piece of film work. Filmmaker Stephen Grynberg has created a visually arresting, honest portrayal of acclaimed ski mountaineer, Ruedi Beglinger and his family. High up in the Western Rockies of British Columbia, Ruedi takes guests on daily ski trips while his wife Nicoline runs the lodge they own. Guests come in by helicopter. Ruedi and Nicoline have two daughters who are homeschooled during the winter months when the family resides at the lodge. The area is the very definition of remote.
Stephen has been a guest at the lodge and his love for the mountains shows through in the film. The trust between him and the Beglinger family is also readily apparent in the interviews for the movie. I spoke with Stephen and Ruedi about the process of making the film. Stephen and I talked about the clarity that comes from being up in the mountains.
“A lot of the clarity comes for me in a combination of things. That long repetitive motion of climbing over 2 – 2.5 hours, climbing up one of these peaks. I find for me, I get incredibly clear from using my body that way. And there’s something about just being so far removed from any semblance of civilization. For me a lot of it is visual because up where Ruedi is, we’re above tree line. So in the winter when you’re ski mountaineering up there, it’s very sculpturally beautiful. You get these incredible snow formations that are constantly shifting from the combination of elements of wind, snow and sun. Wherever you are, you get some of that serene quality that you get when you walk through a sculpture garden. For me that’s a lot of it. I’m not a chatty climber. Some people want to be with other people and climb. I tend to want to climb alone and just fall into that place.”
The film captures the quiet serenity of the mountains and snow, but also the shifts that occur constantly in the landscape. Ruedi is known as a guide’s guide and in A Life Ascending we see clearly his connection with the mountains. I asked him about his relationship with his guests.
“The ski guests come for a week. In the summer we have hiking guests who come for a week or weekend. A lot of our ski guests and hiking guests, they are repeat customers. They come every year or every few years and this is a nice part of the business. They actually become your friends. You develop a very close friendship with lots of the guests. When you know in like two weeks or whatever that this or that person comes up, it’s almost like Christmas. You can’t wait for the visit. They come and they bring interesting stories. They come from all over, North America, Europe. It’s amazing the great stories people bring you. So you don’t need to worry about entertaining them. They actually entertain me.”
This connection is clearly a source of joy for Ruedi and for his family. It makes it all the more poignant and intense to think about these connections in light of the avalanche of 2003 that claimed the lives of seven people Ruedi had up on the mountain. The deaths of his guests, his friends caused him to intensely question if he was doing the right thing with his life. Should he keep guiding? Was there something he could have done differently? Something he missed?
“Before this avalanche, if you would have asked me what happens when an avalanche goes, I would have said, “Well, sometimes you don’t hear anything or you hear a small bang and then the whole slope moves. It starts moving slow and then quickly gaining speed as the snow slides down the slope.” This is how avalanches work. But this one was a whole different ball game. There was a lot of energy going on and energy release and then it actually took off in an opposite direction, hit a cliff and bounced back. Then it came past me and behind me eventually. I was thinking for a long time and it was like rewinding a film, if you don’t understand a certain clip, you review it to understand the next clip. And I took me a long time to understand that part. Why was it like this and is this what really triggered the avalanche and why did it go and is there something I didn’t see? You do a lot of thinking after this until you, hopefully, can understand what really happened.”
As Stephen shot the film, it became apparent that the family was going to have a key role in the final cut. Stephen describes them as the heart of the film.
“I certainly didn’t know how much the family grounded Ruedi and was his…well, salvation is probably a little bit too grand a word, but how important the family was in his healing process and his coping process after the avalanche. That I didn’t know at all. I got a sense of just how grounded those kids were. When I’d been up there before, I wasn’t a parent. So now I went up there to shoot it and I have a family and am a parent in LA questioning all the time—What am I doing to my kids? I think that was a lot of it too. The idea of family was way more on my mind. At the end of the day, as interesting as it is, I worried that the film would become just a sort of biography of this guy. And I didn’t want that. I thought that that would be fine, but it wouldn’t be that satisfying to me or that interesting to a wider swath of people.”
A Life Ascending comes out on DVD on February 28th. Check out the website to order the film, find local screenings and more. My interview with Nicoline will post on MomsLA.com on February 29. For more with Stephen and Ruedi, go to the Huffington Post.
Okay. This is hard for me to admit. I watch Dance Moms. I know, you’re thinking–What? This snob who writes about poetry and claims not to watch TV and eschews so much of popular culture actually watches Dance Moms? Call it a cringing and morbid curiosity. Call it my way of protecting my daughter from the potential evils of reality television. Or just think of it as my experiment in putting down the books, tucking away the computer and curling up on the couch with my girl to watch something sort of alarming.
Why let her watch it if she needs protecting? Well, it’s complicated. I could blame my sister who got us hooked, but that’s sort of a stretch. My daughter is a rhythmic gymnast. She practices 5 days a week, works incredibly hard and competes. It’s a lot of pressure and school on top of that. So we know something about the competitive world of dance that the show portrays. Rhythmic isn’t much like the show and I really wonder how accurate the portrayal really is. I don’t know how much scripting and outlining goes into creating a reality series. But I know that there’s editing, lots of editing involved. As a writer, I know how easy it would be to lift someone’s words out of context and twist them to my own possibly sordid designs. We’re seeing a version of reality– cut down, remixed and pieced together for an effect. I’m always kind of exasperated with myself for indulging in this show and for letting my daughter watch it. I’m searching for the right analogy. Car crash, train wreck, ancient Romans throwing Christians to the lions, moth to the flame? Maybe, but very trite.
I don’t really understand our fascination with these shows. Why take something as achingly beautiful as dance and reduce it down to young girls in lots of makeup being pitted against each other while their teacher screams and their mothers moan, scheme and threaten to pull the girls from the dance company? Is it just that we love intrigue, drama and being horrified by people doing things we might think but wouldn’t act on? Sorry for all the questions. If you’ve got this figured out, please share.
Now on to what I’ve learned. I may come off as pretty laid back, but those who know me well have witnessed the neurotic swish and swirl I can succumb to. And somewhere inside of all that seething lies a competitive and ambitious nature. It’s a small, inside pocket, but it’s there. So I can understand how parents with children who compete in sports and other activities get caught up in the idea of winning. It’s a blessed thing to see your child excel. Perhaps it’s what you wished for during your childhood and never achieved. But blessings can turn to curses if we’re not careful.
So Dance Moms reinforces in me the need to sidestep the competitive madness, and then the focus softens right back to where it really needs to be–on the love my daughter has for rhythmic gymnastics. Amalia is a bit of an enigma to me. I don’t really know what it is about rhythmic that has held her for almost six years now. But she loves it. She’s smart–she doesn’t analyze it. She just gets out there practicing her elements, stretching and improving her routines. She’s fluid and graceful. Dance Moms doesn’t capture much of the devotion and grace of the girls on the show. That’s too bad because at the end of the day, after competition ends and the medals are hung on a shelf, it’s the love and passion for their discipline that our dancers and athletes carry with them.
For those of you unfamiliar with rhythmic gymnastics, here’s a pretty amazing video: