Learning to Dance (at the top of the world)

(Jordan Dotson shares his thoughts on his first visit to the Seng Girls Home)

Qinghai is a strange place, an unsettling place. If anything it’s an ecstatic place, yet not in the diluted, everyday form of the word that makes you think wildlycrazyhappy (though that’s entirely true as well). It’s ecstatic in a literary sense – a place where ten thousand times a day you find yourself beyond the confines of your own body, watching yourself, unable to quite comprehend that you are where you are, that you’re doing what you’re doing, that you’re seeing what you’re seeing.

Epiphanies snowball on top of each other there, until you’re filled to bursting with some grand sense of adventure and importance. Or, perhaps, the exact opposite. At least that’s what I’d imagine the Seng girls would tell you. Amongst so much wind and snow and time that feels slower and thicker than mud, what’s so important? It’s only people like you and I who feel beyond themselves when looking up at such a sky, huge, vast, and bluer than blue, with clouds rolling across it like great wooly sheep. It’s only us, regular people, who feel awed by the strands of prayer flags mingling with the wind. It’s us who feel compelled to take pictures of the chilly, terrifically unamused yak.

Yet you don’t realize this at first. At first you feel, very superficially, the sense of time beyond time that can only exist at such altitudes, the nobility of those hairy yak. But you will. You’ll realize the silliness of your epiphanies, of your grand, poetic realizations, and it will most likely come the first time you look around at dozens of smiling, girlish, tomato-red faces and realize: they’re not even cold. Much like the yak, the Seng Girls aren’t amused by the storybook landscape. They aren’t impressed by bullets of hail or the Milky Way frosted in stark relief beyond their bedroom windows. No, they don’t really care. While you’re shivering in the wind, you watch them and realize they too are shaking, but for a very different reason, as if there’s something inside them fighting to get out. It’s that moment when you fall completely in love with these girls, when you realize that they can carry and tolerate an incomprehensible voltage of life, and that, really, this vibration inside them comes from a singular place: they just want to dance.

Truthfully – they just want to dance. And they do. As often as possible. Inside, outside, in the rain or sun or snow, they dance. No matter how dirty their shoes are or how infected the windburn on their faces, they dance, and when you walk into a room and one hundred and twenty of them stand up until you sit, or when they drape three dozen silk scarves around your neck, or when you stumble out of the frozen mist of your sleeping bag and find twenty of them sitting at desks in the snow, reciting vocabulary words in three languages, and again they all stand up until you’ve passed, smiling and smiling and smiling, you can tell that really, they’re all thinking about lunchtime, when they get the chance to dance again. That’s when Qinghai stops being impressive. That’s when you climb back into your own body, when you start to focus, when you feel a sense of conviction balling up in you like twine and forcing you to act. In that moment, you’ll extend your hand, you’ll offer to help. You’ll realize that the stories you wanted to tell your family, the pictures you wanted to post on Facebook, were as fleeting as the weather. You’ll want so very desperately to help these girls, to give them an even greater voltage of life to tolerate, to make a difference.

Yet…that too will pass. It can’t help but pass, because still, these girls aren’t impressed. Yes, you’ll help. Yes, you’ll help them find more medicine, better plumbing, new door hinges…but they won’t be worried. You’ll realize that where they are, together, with friends and teachers who adore them…they smile. Constantly, desperately, as if doing so will tame the weather and split the skies, they smile. And then you’ll look around and realize how very big a very small person can be, how small you might actually be yourself, and how you will always be, perhaps, some sort of cliche, no matter what you do, unless maybe, maybe, you can figure out how to dance.

Then, the Seng girls will be impressed. And they’ll smile. And in that moment, you’ll have made all the difference in the world.

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