Think Not

Dear Writing Friends:            

 I was walking at Town Lake a few weeks ago when I spotted a familiar face coming around the bend. The woman shot me a look of recognition, but I couldn’t quite place her. Maybe it was the striped hat and dark glasses. Not wanting to be rude, I smiled back. But who was she? A member of my husband’s congregation? Someone I knew from my days as an art critic? As she came toward me, she removed her glasses and there were those deep, black eyes and regal countenance. It was the dancer, Deborah Hay. She took me in a long embrace and everything else dropped away.

 We spent a few minutes catching up. Deborah was home in Austin for a few weeks, resting and recuperating between residencies. I told her what was happening in my life, the difficulty I was having with my daughter. When I asked her about her family, she said she had recently been visiting with her grandson. “I’m naming my next piece after his favorite reply,” she said with a mischievous grin. “‘I think not.’” Deborah looked me in the eye. “ We take what we have and we carry on.”

 I met Deborah in the late 1990s through my friend, Ann Daly, who was on my dissertation committee. The three of us met once a month to discuss our writing and to read our current work to one another. Deborah was my first role model for living as an artist—deeply engaged, always inquiring, her mind never far from dance. In the spring of 1999 I took a class with her on dancing and writing. We met at the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs in the grand ballroom, a long, narrow hall with high ceilings and wood floors. At the beginning of each class, Deborah gave us a directive, one of the intentions she used for her own work. I don’t remember her exact instructions that spring, but here are a few examples from her book, my body, the buddhist: 

  • I imagine my whole body at once has the potential to dialogue with all there is.
  • What if where I am is what I need?
  • What if now is here is harmony?

 Deborah rang a bell and we danced freely about the space, exploring the intention. I never knew how my body would move on those nights. I felt like there was a question mark hanging over my head. What now and what next? Holding Deborah’s directive gave me enough focus to let go of expectation and made dance an act of discovery.

After ten or twenty minutes, Deborah rang the bell again and we scurried to find our notebooks. We wrote and then gathered to read to one another. The writing was wild and irrational, coming from the deep subconscious. Although admittedly, being the aspiring writer in the group, I held a tighter grip on my pen than the other students. I cared too much and tried too hard. I hadn’t yet learned to write the way we were dancing—without expectation. I didn’t know that I could watch the words slip from my mind to the page. I didn’t know how to “think not.”

 After I saw Deborah at Town Lake, I thought about what she said – “We take what we have and we carry on” – and remembered all the times she had carried on with her work. It reminded me of something Natalie learned from Katagiri and that she repeats often to her students: Continue under all circumstances. I wanted to ask Deborah what it took for her to continue when she was a single mom in a new town, when she was struggling to gain support for her work, or when she just felt like giving up. We spoke briefly on the phone.

SG: It seems to be that you have lived by the motto, Continue Under All Circumstances. Can you talk about how you managed to continue during difficult times?

DH: More than continuing, it’s been about survival. There are things that I’ve done in my life, situations I put myself into that were seemingly impossible, that I set up to prove that I could survive them. One was moving from New York [where Deborah was an integral part of the contemporary dance scene] and then moving from Vermont to Austin. I just went hurdling into these things.

In terms of my work, it is all about survival. If there is a message there, it’s about surviving with less, making things with nothing. I lived that way for so long, it’s almost become an aesthetic. As a single parent and an artist, I lived with what was in front of my nose—being able to buy food and shelter. I really believe that I did that for so long, it became a part of who I am and what my work is about.

S: Will you talk about the title, “I think not.”

D: I love the beauty of that statement, and use it simply as a guide, to reduce things in order to be really big.

S: When I first knew you, I was impressed by the way you structured your day around the availability of studio space—early in the morning. You were up and at it by 7 a.m. and done a few hours later. I often ran into you at Town Lake in those days, mid-morning. I also remember that you wrote in the afternoons. How do you structure your time now that you are on the road so much?

D: I have so many projects going all the time, I really trust that I’m always working. When I’m in Austin, I go to the studio for a few hours and either work on choreographing or practice. But I don’t workout. I walk at the lake, and I’m at home in the evening.

S: Have you always made that assumption, that wherever you were, you were working?

D: Yes, I’ve always been like that, but I didn’t always have that thought about it.

S: So, you’re still writing?

D: I want to do another book about the pieces I’ve worked on the last five years, how working with the dancers has informed my choreography. Most of it’s written, but it needs a shape and then putting it together.

S: As I was re-reading my Body, the Buddhist, I ran across this line and wondered if you could respond to it: “I am not at home, unless I am in art.”

D: It’s still true. I’m agitated when I’m in Austin. It’s home and I come here to refuel, but when I’m traveling and working, I feel like I’m suspended. I’m being constantly fed by these amazing dancers, fueled by our work together. The work completely grounds me.

By now Deborah is off the Frankfurt to work on her Motion Bank Project. To learn more about her work and see a schedule of her upcoming projects and performances, visit her website,

Writing Topic: What if where I am is what I need?

This month’s quotation:

I accept the fact that I cannot attain a perfect practice and instead use my energy to remember to engage in practice. In this way, I create futures I cannot achieve and then practice being here as the means for completing a day’s work.


                                                Deborah Hay, from my body, the buddhist


(C) 2011 Saundra Goldman