de·cap·i·tate

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Washington, D.C., Lisa O’Neill

 

Phoenix, Lisa O'Neill

Phoenix, Lisa O’Neill

 

Detroit, Lisa O'Neill

Detroit, Lisa O’Neill

 

de·cap·i·tate (di-ˈka-pə-ˌtāt)  v. behead

 

The word architect comes from the Middle French architecte, from Latin architectus, from Greek arkhitekton “master builder, director of works,” from arkhi- “chief” + tekton “builder, carpenter.” An Old English word for it was heahcræftiga “high-crafter.”

 

To be an architect is to use your mind to conceive of bodies, buildings, frameworks. It is to see how objects could align, could fit together. To be an architect is to construct a dwelling made of many parts.

 

Structures are about foundations and support and design. They are also about absence. They are about what is contained and what is uncontainable.

 

Last night, I saw two improvisational dance groups perform: The Movement Salon and The Architects. A dozen years ago, I would have been dismissive of improvisational dance—much as I was of abstract painting or performance art. I would have sat there making myself miserable as I picked apart what was wrong with art created in the moment, without “preparation” or “process.” I would not have thought about all the process and preparation that went into being ready to construct something in and of the moment.

 

But much has happened over the last twelve years, so tonight I was in awe. I was deeply moved and lightened and full of gratitude. Here’s why: because improvisational dance is not only amazing to watch: the spontaneity, the interplay of the performers, the moments of synchronicity in movement, song, speech. The experience of improvisational dance provides amazing practice for life. Life requires risk and being vulnerable. Life requires presence in the moment and paying close attention to the actions, movements, needs, bodies, thoughts, feelings of all those around you. Life can have you laughing one minute and crumpled on the floor the next. Life is made in the living, no matter our designs or plans. Life contains multitudes.

 

After the performance, some friends and I, one of them a performer, were having a conversation about the show. I shared what came up for me while watching. That we—okay, I’m going to take out the safe plural pronoun—I can live my life so contained. I am often measuring myself. How small do I need to be in a given situation? How large a space am I allowed? It’s as if I’m on a rollercoaster and must keep my limbs inside, as per the instructions. Only instead of just my limbs, my emotions, thoughts, opinions, heart, and mind must be contained as well. How little can I be to make myself safe?

 

But how limiting is that? How constrictive?

 

These performers embodied expansiveness. They committed to their movements, to their words, to their interaction with one another. They stomped on the floor. They slid across. They took one another’s hands. They lept from one side of the stage to the other. They cracked jokes. They sang. They plucked strings and then led the bow across them.

 

Many people in my life have told me about the process of growing a bigger container, to hold the richness and fullness of life: the light and the dark, the weightlessness and the gravity.

 

“We have an expression we use all the time,” my performer friend said, “Even when you are out, you are in.”

 

Even when choosing to push yourself into the corner of the stage.

 

Even when you aren’t moving.

 

Even when your voice is a whisper.

 

You are in.

 

The only decision is whether we acknowledge that we are.

 

To live is to be vulnerable, regardless of what we tell ourselves. No matter how many barriers we construct, no matter how small we make ourselves, we will face pain, suffering, rejection. But we do get to decide whether or not we reject ourselves. We get to choose how small or big we are. It’s the difference between folding our arms tightly across our chests or stretching our arms wide.

 

When I was in my mid-twenties and going through a particularly shitty period of my life, my younger cousin sent me a card she had made with a painting of a girl outlined in black and colored in red. But instead of the red being contained within her figure, it spilled outside. Across the top, she had painted: “Some passions are uncontainable.” Inside the card, she told me the girl was me. That is maybe the best compliment anyone has ever given me.

 

I want to spill over, to spill out, under, through. I want to live my life in a way that when I’m done, I will have spent it. I will have left this earth with heart, mind, body used up. No more paint in the tube. No more tea in the cup. No more pennies in the jar.

 

We can live in our heads, constantly marking and processing how to be in any given situation. Or we can choose to fill up a space with our entire bodies, to be all in. We are the master builders, the high-crafters of our lives. We have the materials. We have the time. We have all the space we allow ourselves. The only question is: what will we build?

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