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On the Stage
As the dawn light slinked in through the crevice beneath the brightly patterned curtains, I peeled them back to peer out onto the stage beyond. My fleeting eyes surveyed the audience outside my bedroom window and upon seeing all the welcoming smiles awaiting my debut, I whispered a calm sigh the air. The trees stood with their arms held high as if begging me to emerge while the birds perched nearby whistled encouraging chants. Glimpsing down, I even saw the swaying grass wave subtle greetings to the actress they recognized peaking out at them. Things would be okay. Knowing the feather-shaped hand of my Disney clock was closing in on eight, though, I released the curtain from my grip. The show was about to begin.
Turning away from the window, I leapt over to the mirror for one final glance. As I stood before my reflection I scanned every fabric fold and accessory of the make-shift buckskin costume staring back at me. No fault would stain its khaki surface; no inaccuracy would subject it to laughter. Everything had to be perfect. The night before, my surreptitious hands had infiltrated the confines of my sister’s wardrobe to snatch this plain dress; to my young eyes, it seemed indistinguishable from the tan one draped across the glossy Native American woman gracing the poster to my right. Her strong and tranquil visage hummed pleasant melodies of the foreign realm I so wished to be a part of – the land of towering elms stretching toward the sun, of rivers carving songs into the earth, of bare feet treading unexplored soil, of wolves crying to blue-corn moons and of colors of the wind. The land of Pocahontas - the most recent Disney star.
Pulsing lyrics from the movie sharing her name streamed around my swaying legs and palms as I sang along with each word. To be ready for my role, I had to know everything. “You think you own whatever land you land on / The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim / But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name” (Schwartz “Colors”).
Her voice resonated the independence and courage which my feet, tired of stepping into frilly princess gowns, yearned for. Though I would later learn of how Disney strokes had blurred the image of the genuine Pocahontas – a member of the Powhatan tribe who was forced to convert to a Western lifestyle and marry colonist John Rolfe, contrary to the depiction of her in the 1995 film in which she falls in love with the idyllic John Smith - it was no matter to me now (Sutton 306). I wanted to be Pocahontas. I would become her. “Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon / Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned? / Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains? / Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?” (“Colors”)
Several messy filaments of thread poked out from an imprecise border of fringe which I had cut along the bottom of the dress. I would be this character, even if that meant I would have to face my sister’s vengeful claws for vandalizing this outfit. A string of blue plastic beads swung across my neck while a red crayola marker stripe tattooed my upper arm. Closing my eyes, I imagined how my long hair would dance gracefully with the wind once I stepped outside onto the stage to go to school. Everything had to be just like her. Looking into my reflection, I saw how the image of a gawky seven-year old had transformed into a proud Native American woman. I had become her – or at least I thought. I was going to leave behind my mundane life and become something much greater.
Though Polaroid snapshots would later reveal the humorous absurdity of this all, for now my thoughts narrowed in on assuring that every motion and utterance was like the admired Indian princess. Rush barefoot through the grass. Release songs to the trees and air. Walk tall and elegant. Raise hand in a kind, slow gesture to greet with “Wingapo.” Roll in the riches of the earth. Be curious and offer a kind hand to strangers. I was ready to play the part.
Strolling into my classroom, I walked with gentle steps over to a group of chattering girls. These friends would be the first, aside from the trees and grass, to see my performance.
“Wingapo,” my firm voice greeted them as I lifted my right hand and made a circle in the air with an open palm.
“Ummmm…hi,” Katie responded, her lips struggling to contain her laughter. “What an, erm, fun dress. Where’d you get it?”
“I…well…made part of it myself,” my speech diminishing to a hushed murmur.
Hearing her final declaration and watching the amused eyes of the other girls examine my ridiculous attire, I edged away toward my desk and sat down. As I slumped down into my icy metal seat, the tan hide of my costume seemed to rot from my skin to reveal the dreary dress of an ordinary girl. The loose filaments of thread mocked me with their imperfection as the crimson streak on my arm smeared from my sweat-stained hands. I was a failed actress. Never would I run free with the colorful breeze or stand tall atop a mountain watching the stream rush below.
My attention turned toward the surrounding walls as I averted my eyes from the peculiar looks I was certain my classmates were sending me. Several posters, each illustrating a different time in history, encircled me. The pure Grecian statues displayed on one of the laminated sheets detained my sight; the flawless features of these mythical figures echoed a perfection I felt I would never grasp. While they could adorn museum podiums with their beauty, I could only stand as fractured pillars or smeared paintings around them.
Throughout the day I sat with folded arms concealing my body, only releasing them when the final bell breathed life back into the stiff room. Anxious to rid myself of my make-up and costume, I rushed home without voicing a single lovely Pocahontas lyric to the surrounding scenery. As I crept in through the entryway of my house, livid cries from my sister seized me. How could you have to this to my dress? What did you think you were doing? That was mine, MINE! Shrugging the shrieks off for the moment, I slithered back to my room; the show-biz world was far too much for me to handle. Once back there I noticed the stream of posters, each depicting a part I longed to play, hanging around me. Pocahontas…an adventurer in the outback of Australia...a clever witch…a world-renowned singer…I wanted their lives, their stories, but I would never be able to don their masks. Collapsing onto my bed, I burrowed myself beneath my warm covers. I wanted to be anyone other than me.
After years of choosing different roles from a vast palette, I never seemed to find a costume which would weave itself into my permanent wardrobe. They all disintegrated from me like the Pocahontas dress had several years before. Although these attempts created an endless line of stories to chuckle at far into some Friday night – and oh how they did - they left me bemused. The dreaded plague of ‘identity confusion’ was lingering over me. It was the time, as defined by developmental psychology pioneer Erik Erikson, of adolescence. According to him, It was during these years I was meant to struggle to find my identity and self-image amid a flurry of role confusion (Boeree). While I could recognize the stage of development I was in, I longed for the day I would be able to advance beyond this confusion.
With the remembrance of my Pocahontas and other identity fiascos in my mind, I often sifted through books in search of some revelation. While this often resulted in finding new enticing roles and subsequently having to commence the process all over again, on one specific occasion the words of a particular poem wafted up to me. After a play rehearsal one morning, I drifted along an unknown road and decided to settle in an isolated pasture to read. As I sat under a canopy of autumn branches and looked down upon the worn book which was resting across my legs, a poem by Sylvia Plath gazed up at me.
I am vertical
But I would rather be horizontal
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love…
…Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.
(lines 1-10; "I am Vertical")
Contained within each stanza was an all-too familiar emotion. For so long I had been yearning for the trees, for the garden beds - for all those things which I was not. The tree extending above me seemed beautiful, but I knew my skin would never gain the striking quality of bark and I knew my fingers would never cascade crisp leaves down to the earth. This was not my destiny. Inching closer to a small pond which had been formed from a recent rain, I peered into it and saw how the remnants of stage make-up still camouflaged me. Scooping a handful of water, I wiped the disguise from my face and watched as all my former facades seemed to recede with the rippling water. For the first time, I stared back at me.
As I lifted my head to look out at the barren plain before me, I could almost hear the soothing words of Pocahontas glide along the breeze. “What I love most about rivers is / You can’t step in the same river twice / The water’s always changing, always flowing…To be safe we lose our chance of ever knowing / What’s around the river bend” (Schwartz “Just Around”). Beyond where I sat – in the safe riverbed of my dreams of other lives, others roles – there were infinite possibilities awaiting me, infinite rivers to explore. I needed to step out onto the empty stage and claim my intended role. I knew the time for my own story had come.