Break the Ballerina Routine of an Endless Stillness.
“He makes an elegant magician’s gesture. Everything stops. The lights go out like a candle extinguished by a gentle wind-lick on its face. Another gesture and a reflecting light illuminates a music box in the display window. A ballerina in a fine lilac costume holds and endless stillness, hands crossed overhead, legs held together, balanced on tiptoes. Durito tries to imitate the position but promptly gets his many arms and legs entangled. Another magic gesture, and a piano, the size of a cigarette box appears. Durito sits in front of the piano and puts a jug of beer on top — who knows where he got it from, but it’s already half-empty… Then he turns towards the ballerina and nods his head. The ballerina begins to stir and makes a bow.” ~ The Glass to See to the Other Side, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, former leader of the Zapatista rebels
When we first meet the ballerina in this story, she is alone, presumably forgotten, held captive in the little music box, and stationed behind a display window. The music box sits among a collection of lifeless figurines and mirrors “of all shapes and sizes.”
The ballerina is posed, but not resting, in the endless stillness of her performance. Presumably, some of the mirrors pick up bits and pieces of her endless immobility — even when she “dances,” she is immobile, even when the mirrors reflect, she is not seen.
He is Durito, a beetle from the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas. He does not belong outside this window as the dawn breaks in Mexico City. But alas, he is here.
Durito’s presence assures us that miracles do happen and that a chance meeting can change everything.
His first gesture stops what was before (sirens, garbage blowing through the dawn, a city waking up) so that the streets of Mexico City reflect the imposed stillness in which the ballerina lives. The lights go out. Then, via his next grand gesture, a reflecting light draws our eyes to the ballerina’s predicament. It makes her position visible.
Durito continues gesturing. Next, he attempts, comically, with the many legs of a beetle, to imitate her, to mirror the ballerina’s strained immobility. His legs predictably get all tangled. Imagine the tiny scene.
Durito continues his magic gestures conjuring and rearranging until he is seated at a tiny piano with a half-empty jug of beer (who knows where he got it). As he prepares to play, he moves towards the ballerina and nods his head. He acknowledges her and she begins to stir.
Do you recognize what Marcos is drawing through this story?
Empathy. Acknowledgment. Togetherness.
Most importantly, Durito is not afraid of the dead pose held by the ballerina.
Marcos crafted this story from within the unsettling scenes of a war zone (shortly after the Zapatista uprising in 1994) and yet he was reaching towards the heart of Mexican modernity and commerce, reaching towards all of us.
Durito has something the ballerina doesn’t have, something Mexico City doesn’t have (at least in his view): community, solidarity, togetherness. These are the hallmarks of Zapatismo.
He sees that in the many mirrors of the display window there is not one true reflection. The ballerina, a metaphor for performative behavior and isolation, goes unwitnessed though perhaps millions of people have witnessed her (and others exactly like her) dance as expected to the tune recorded in the music box.
Dancing ballerinas and music boxes are familiar, common, caricatures of beauty and artistry immobilized into predictable amusement.
Durito stops the world, focuses (and focuses our attention) intently on the ballerina, acknowledges her situation, comically, empathically. But he doesn’t stop with imitation. With one nod of his head and the gesture of moving closer to her, she begins to stir. He is saying, no matter your position, I will come close and nod to the part of you that recalls how to live.
Specifically, the story says that she immediately takes a bow. When have you ever seen a ballerina in a music box take a bow? This is a marvelously telling detail.
The routine of the ballerina’s immobility and her command performance is broken by Durito’s willingness to be near her and see beyond her present condition.
The ballerina’s routine, frozen and fixed, is broken by aliveness, by presence, by a silliness that mocks the very idea of her unnatural pose.
I think it is worth noting that the Zapatistas are an anti-capitalist, direct democracy in which the government leads by obeying the people.
Community and humanity are perhaps collateral damage of the unbridled capitalism in which governments protect the powerful to the detriment of what makes us more than just bones and flesh. Or perhaps they must be proactively destroyed in order to sustain capitalism’s inhumane norms to make us all ballerinas. Either way, we have mostly forgotten how to meet one another in this way.
We have created silos and doctrines and judgments galore to defend us against one another’s uncomfortable immobility, the ways we are stuck in trauma, poverty, ill-health, and other limitations.
We insist on performative gestures of happiness from others because they make us feel comfortable with what we are so often doing ourselves: performing happiness and masking the inner tension that threatens our ability to go on surviving.
One too many sadnesses, one too many moments of honest reckoning and we are going down, or so it seems.
As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, we have become like the boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits.
Just the other day I walked through my hometown, here in the highlands of Chiapas, not far from the territories still occupied by the rebels to this day. I was counting in my head the number of people (mostly American) I didn’t want to meet along the way. The reason? They allow only happy words.
They insist that you uphold their mood, protect their good vibrations, do the emotional labor of never troubling them with your imperfect humanity or theirs.
Many times, when I meet the happy-facers, I slap on my smile even if I don’t feel like smiling just to ward off the hostility towards my sadness. I avoid all unpleasant references to the circumstances we face globally, anything personally challenging, all negativity. But on that day, I knew I couldn’t do it.
And I have news for you. If the happy-facers were really secure in their positivity, my sadness or other immobility would no more trouble them than the ballerina’s dilemma kept Durito from his beer.
This crazy prohibition on undesirable human emotion is reflected in spiritual doctrines (dead letter rules) like the Law of Attraction, which make a negative thought or emotion tantamount to insuring your poverty and confirming your self-destructive lack of discipline.
But did the Law of Attraction, and similar ideas, make us this way or did we invent it in order to fortify us against the times in which we live?
What is really happening here?
Why do we need such dead letter indictments of our humanity?
I will wager it is fragility. We are all so very vulnerable right now. We are all so worn down. It is like our bones can just barely uphold the weight of our own flesh much less something so complex as an uncooperative soul insisting that we feel a full range of emotions.
We mistakenly think that if we imitate (mirror, connect with, accept into our presence) the ballerina’s predicament, it will become our own. It will become more weight that we must carry on our decalcified, undernourished bones.
What we do not understand is that the weight of her suffering is our own.
We are the ballerina and we are the surrounding, sterile mirrors — here, but not here, reflecting, but not reflecting.
If only we understood that the key to our own wellness rests in our ability to hear what the ballerina is not saying, yet saying with every fiber of her being.
But alas, in order to do this, we need a miracle, we need a Durito. We need a chance, or perhaps a destined encounter with a person who can be a pattern interrupt. They will be like the wind awakening the fire in a mostly dead ember. We will be the fire’s eternal fuel, dancing as its creative flames.
We must discover in the Duritos of the world, and then within ourselves, a long-forgotten aliveness, and in that aliveness, we must encounter what Durito is said to provide later in the story: an unbreakable and eternal mirror.
Who can provide such a mirror?
Only someone who remembers how to lean in to our predicament with us and then to lift our spirits with a bit of magic. This means someone who knows that you cannot simply override sadness by force of will. It foretells someone who understands in their bones that you cannot kill anger’s bite simply because you wish to banish it.
These heavy-laden emotions and the lonely, forlorn, bankrupt circumstances of our modern societies must find acknowledgment within and between us. Otherwise, we become as Marcos describes Mexico City’s condition,
This collective of loneliness, multiplied by millions and empowered.
As the story goes on, “Durito plays and the ballerina dances.” When he finishes, the ballerina returns momentarily, eerily to her immobility.
“Durito turns up his collar on this trench coat and makes a slight bow towards the display window.
‘Will you always be behind the glass pane?’ Durito asks her and asks himself. ‘Will you always be on the other side of my over here, and will I always be on this side of your over there?'”
At the posing of this question, everything changes. Just a few lines down in the story, the alarm bells are ringing uselessly, a star-shaped hole adorns the glass, and the ballerina is no longer in the music box.
Marcos ends the story with a commentary. In relevant part, he notes,
This city lives a cruel game of mirrors, but the game of mirrors is useless and sterile if finding the transparency of glass is not the goal.
This places in full context the opening lines of the story,
Cut from the inverse side, a mirror ceases to be a mirror and becomes a glass. Mirrors are for looking on this side, and glass is made to look to the other side. Mirrors are made to be etched. A glass is made to be broken… to cross to the other side… The image of the real and the unreal, which searches among so many mirrors for a glass to break.
The eternal mirror is not a mirror after all. It is the presence, without judgment or agenda, that first sees and reflects, and then destroys the mirror with the sublime transparency of desire.
This clarity will make it possible to break free of our immobility and break through the display windows that hold us all apart in the endless stillness of a performance that makes only a vague reference to either our humanity or to the full range of who we are, and who we can be.
This everlasting mirror and its subsequent transparency are born of a passion for one another and for ourselves that can, at long last, break the structures of a world made of traumatic isolation and replace it with a world made of togetherness. But the gateway to this togetherness is formed of the bravery it takes to clearly, unambiguously hunger for someone as Durito hungered for the ballerina.
In other words, this new world of togetherness will be wrought of passion’s fire.
This will not be any ordinary passion. It will be apocalyptic. It will represent our enlightenment, not by virtue of brute force control of our pain, but by situating the truth of who we really are and how truly powerful we can be right in the heart of our human dilemmas, right in the core of our human frailty, right in the heat of our most difficult emotions.
But it won’t stop there. It will carry on as Durito did to inspire within us a lightness of being. Isn’t this the true meaning of enlightenment after all?
So, I will go first. I will repeat for you now the words I hope will free you from your immobility and awaken in you the kind of apocalyptic passion that leaves the alarm bells of this present age ringing uselessly. I will speak the words that I hope will awaken in you the desire to truly live, which means finding your way to a love that dares to nod at who you were meant to be:
Will you always be behind the glass pane?
Will you always be on the other side of my over here, and will I always be on this side of your over there?