In re: Carmelita
By the time I met her, Carmelita was in constant pain and it made her grumpy. She had arthritis and had suffered a fall years before that cut short her career as a ballet dancer and more or less broke her back so that she walked with a flat footed, turned out shuffle that anyone could see was excruciating. Some one else, anyone else, would have been in a wheelchair or at least a walker, but not Carmelita. She never took the easy way out, on anything. She was impatient with foolishness and even with children so she hired me, one of her ‘advanced’ students to teach the children, the beginners. I loved teaching and much later became a teacher to other children. I did not, unfortunately, become a ballerina. I started too late and I didn’t have the talent. Perhaps what I lacked most was courage. Plus, my parents hadn’t had an opportunity to go to college and they wanted that for me, so that’s what I ended up doing.
Carmelita sometimes said very unguarded and critical things to people, even to the young, even to me. She was much more unguarded and even more critical about other people, luminaries she had known and who were friends in her rarified world of serious dance and also, especially, politicians. She reserved a special place in conversational hell for her friends who had been revolutionaries, would-be revolutionaries in the 1930s and 40s but who later became unapologetic apologists for the worst of American ‘leaders’. She didn’t mind, she said, that they had changed their minds, or gotten scared or whatever the many possible reasons. What she resented, and deeply so, was that they pretended that their former lives and aspirations had never existed.
Carmelita was no fan of short cuts, for herself or anyone else. She even objected to ‘benefit concerts’ for various causes that she supported. She said it was just a way for unknown or less talented artists to get a big audience and kudos under the banner of supporting something worthwhile and that people should just give the money to the causes. I’ve thought about that a lot in the many years since and I still think that is a harsh judgment – yes, some artists who would not perhaps be included were, and got to share their art – but is that so bad, really? In art, especially, I no longer think that either media or the marketplace is this best arbiter of either quality or talent, and I don’t think she did, either, but I do see her point. She didn’t believe in taking advantage of someone else’s suffering, no matter how righteous, to build one’s career.
She was still sending money to whoever was left of the Spanish-Civil War Anarcho-Syndicalists as late as the 1960s, thirty years after the Fascist dictator Franco had taken over the country. That was her generational battle, above all else, like Vietnam became for my generation or the Civil Rights Struggle for the generation before. She lamented loudly and frequently about the unsung, unacknowledged heroism of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War who stepped up and fought courageously in a War the United States and much of Europe neglected to participate in and which, she thought, prefigured exactly the fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Japan. A few years later, when I had hung up my pointe shoes and tutus and was marching constantly to end the war, the surviving members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, old and withered, marched beside us up Market Street and Telegraph and in downtown Oakland and anywhere else we marched. They took the consequences. They hung in.
In addition to being my teacher, my employer and my mentor, Carmelita was a moral arbiter for me and an inspiration. She criticized my very nascent writing the same way she criticized my dancing, she was correct, and she was clear. When I left L.A. to go to college in San Francisco she was disgusted with me as if I’d quit a burgeoning career, copped out, something she never did. But she remained my friend. I called her once from San Francisco State where we were protesting, trying to establish an Experimental College, which we did, trying to establish Women’s Studies and African-American Studies, all of which happened. At the point where I phoned her down in L.A., however, none of that was happening. It seemed like we were just getting tear gassed and arrested for nothing. I told her that I felt our efforts were impossible and she said, in her deep, resonant voice:
“Well, Laurie, just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you should stop fighting for it.”
I didn’t know that lesson. I was raised to fly under the radar, don’t brag, don’t persist, don’t bother anybody, about anything which is also good advice in some circumstances but not in all, not nearly in all.
Carmelita said that dancers were the stupidest people on earth, second only to opera singers and yet she had spent a good deal of her life trying to help dancers learn. She said that dancers (and opera singers) were too wrapped up in the minutiae, the mechanics of dance instead of that great artistic thrust of life. That in response to the human cruelty and injustice around us, our response was ‘ronde de jambe, ronde jambe, ronde de jambe’.
And yet for all her grouchiness and sharp tongue, she could be the kindest, most generous person on earth.
One day she stopped class to lecture us all (‘ronde de jambe ronde de jambe ronde de jambe’) because someone had objected to the all the homeless people they saw panhandling at all the entrances to the wonderful downtown central library in L.A. She was furious. She said that not only should we give money to the poor, unasked, wherever we found them but that when she did it she always put the cash some few feet away, as if it was just where it should go, and didn’t look the person in the eye because she didn’t want to humiliate them, she wanted them to have the dignity to ‘find’ it a few minutes later, without having to thank someone whose luck was better than theirs, because in Carmelita’s eyes, that was the only difference – some people were favored in this system and others not at all. She was completely free of the American Protestant ethic that holds that God shows his love for us here on earth by giving us wealth. She was a million miles away from that and I don’t know that she’d ever heard that, she didn’t need to, she had something else inside. She had compassion and she didn’t need to reach for it or show it off or even name it.
This odd delicacy, this determination to share what she had with whoever needed it and to do so while preserving another person, a stranger’s, sense of self-respect was one of the greatest life lessons I have ever learned. It made all the other things, the things that sometimes hurt, recede and although I have not always lived up to her standards, at least some of the time I have tried.