Dressed for Dancing; My Sojourn in the Findhorn Foundation
Praise for Dressed for Dancing
Leslie Hill’s Dressed For Dancing is a vivid journey to the heart of deep grief and back. From the first paragraph to the final lines, her compelling story and crisp, dynamic prose draw the reader into the quest for meaning after heartbreaking loss. When a skeptic joins a spiritual community, it could be sink or swim. Leslie plunges in boldly, and comes up sputtering for air. She describes her participation in the Findhorn Community with so much irreverent humour and deep gratitude that the reader is hard-pressed not to grab a carry-on bag and head for Scotland. Dressed for Dancing is a rollicking read that will move and delight and inspire, and show one woman’s emergence from the shadow of sorrow into the spaciousness of a new life.
Marlene Schiwy, Ph.D, author of A Voice of Her Own: Women and the Journal Writing Journey. Fireside, 1996, and Simple Days: A Journal on What Really Matters. Sorin Books, 2002
In this debut memoir, a woman embraces a lifestyle she never imagined for herself and discovers the power of vulnerability and faith. … Overall, Hill delivers a moving memoir or her transformation from skepticism to spirituality and from grief to joyful living. An engaging story of an intercontinental spiritual journey.
Dressed for Dancing drew me in from the first page and held me captivated throughout. Gracefully written, it has the excitement of a good novel but with the depth and insights that come from it being a true story of one woman’s spiritual awakening and journey. It is also, hands down, the best book I’ve read in years about the modern Findhorn Foundation community.
David Spangler, author of Apprenticed to Spirit. Riverhead Books, 2011.
Dressed for Dancing reads effortlessly, is provocative and compelling.
Betsy Warland, author of Breathing the Page. Cormorant Books, 2010.
This memoir is the Canadian version of Eat, Pray, Love and, in true Canadian style, is more earnest and self-effacing. Hill's grief over losing her beloved husband is palpable. When she decides to leave everything she knows to find enlightenment and peace in Scotland, she captures the essence of the Findhorn Community. Her description of daily life and the characters she met is very appealing. I never lost touch with the narrator. A well-structured memoir with a lovely ending.
Canadian Authors, for the Whistler Independent Book Awards 2016. Dressed for Dancing was long-listed for Best Nonfiction Independently Published Book.
Dressed for Dancing
Chapter 1 Good Days
I put our wedding photo on his bedside table. Not the one I would have chosen. I would have picked a more traditional one. This was Paul's choice, a casual shot of us, back to back, upper bodies only, our heads facing the photographer. He's smiling, I'm laughing. I didn't argue about the photo; this picture may not show off our clothes but our happiness blazes out of the frame. I was still delighted and grateful that he'd finally agreed to marry after eight years. I'd felt the connection the first week we spent together; for me it was obviously a permanent commitment. He saw the strong attraction, which, in his mind, didn't equal marriage.
But we did marry, in the end. Only six months ago. For a moment my sight blurred. If I'd been alone I would have cried, but I wasn't alone, even though Paul was asleep in the narrow hospital bed. The picture also doesn't show his thinness. The suit had fit him perfectly four weeks before the wedding but he'd lost weight by March 11.
All the stories in my childhood ended with the hero marrying the princess and living happily ever after. I was a thirty-nine year old professional, educated, logical, analytic, and a feminist, yet some part of me still believed I deserved a happy-ever-after ending. Putting the picture on the bedside table was an act of defiance.
I blinked until my vision cleared. I looked around the room, noted a new plant that had arrived since yesterday. A hibiscus with coral flowers and dark green leaves. Paul loved hibiscus. For him they symbolized the Caribbean, sun, heat and humidity, his respite through cold dark Canadian winters.
I'd tried to personalize the room to take the edge off the sterility but there's only so much you can do in a hospital. I'd taken down the crucifix – this was St. Joseph's – and put up a framed print of lilacs, another of Paul's favourites, brought in a tape recorder, his tea pot and tiny cup for the green tea he loved, and a single duvet in the same smoky blue as his eyes. It was September, and his windows looked south over Lake Ontario and west to the sunset. On windy days the large, single room got chilly. The staff had moved him here from a shared room on Labour Day weekend. It meant I could extend my visiting hours without disturbing anyone. I would have anyway; perhaps they realized or maybe it was the cookies I took regularly to the nursing station.
He stirred, waking, and opened his eyes. Reached for my hand as I leaned down to kiss him. He saw the wedding picture and smiled.
“Nice. I guess I fell asleep waiting for you. How was work?”
“Same old. Still pretty quiet this week. Lots of classes booked in next week for orientation.”
“If you get too busy -”
“If I get too busy I'll take a day off work.” I'd told my principal the week before school started that I would work from eight to four but not a moment longer. He'd nodded. Paul taught in another school in the same system. They knew. I didn't say much then, but the day the boss found me weeping in the library office when I should have been outside in the parking lot for our first fire alarm drill I had to admit that Paul's health wasn't improving, that I was sick with fear.
“Would you like me to make you some tea?”
“Love some. The hospital stuff is awful. I don't think they ever boil the water. And I hate those Styrofoam cups.”
I made him green tea, in the little terra-cotta teapot he'd brought home from his four years in Japan. While it was steeping, he looked up at me, smiled a bit. “I've been thinking, we haven't made love since the end of July. Are you coping?”
I was torn between exasperation and amusement. “Coping? My dear idiot, you think sex is an issue? Don't you know what life is like for me when you're in here? I'm on automatic pilot outside this room. This time here, with you, every day, is the only time anything is real. I do what I need to to get through the day and live for the moments I'm with you.”
His eyes widened and then he smiled. “Okay. I was just checking.”
I poured tea into the small cup. He drank, closed his eyes for a moment. “That's delicious. Thanks.”
When we first met, he'd been surprised by my readiness for lovemaking every time he turned to me. Decided I must be some hot woman. I didn't tell him otherwise, but the truth was that I never got over my own astonished delight at how much I loved him and how deeply he seemed to love me. I drank in every expression of it, from lovemaking to hand-holding to feeling his body next to mine as I drifted off to sleep at night. My earlier relationships had been poor, pallid things in comparison.
“Want a massage?”
He smiled and nodded. He loved being massaged. I poured some lotion into my hand, still warm from the tea pot, and pulled the duvet back from his feet and ankles. The duvet hid his wasted body, diminished now to skin stretched over bone, which made his swollen ankles look bizarre. I knew what the swelling meant. His circulation was failing. I began to rub cream into his right heel and instep with my thumbs, while my fingers held his foot steady. He closed his eyes. So did I. This was how we made love now.
We were quiet for a long time.
When I'd finished his second foot, ankle and calf he broke the silence.
“I don’t think I could stand this without you. You’re the most important person in the world. Your visits … I’m grateful for every moment we’re together. If I get out of here I’m going to make love to you every single day.” He kissed the tips of my fingers, pulled me closer. My eyes clouded.
Later I went down to the cafeteria to get a sandwich and coffee and bring it upstairs to eat while he had his evening intravenous “meal” from a bag.
He showed me the new get well cards.
“The hibiscus is from Ralph. Nice, isn't it? Reminds me of the Virgin Islands. We'll go back, I hope. If we go in March, maybe you'll see another whale.” He smiled at me. I actually loved the cold of winter, but the humpback whale, my first ever sighting a year ago, had completely reconciled me to a week down south every winter. Hibiscus bloomed everywhere there.
The sky grew gold and orange. Headlights swam through the dusk on Lakeshore Boulevard and the Gardiner Expressway.
We'd known for five years that this surgery was coming. Paul had had the first round in July 1984 to cut out a piece of small intestine so scarred from radiation after a childhood cancer of the kidney that food could no longer pass through it. He had agreed after increasingly frequent days of pain from food blockages and a dangerous loss of weight and energy. The doctor had warned us the scarring would build up again and more surgery would be necessary in five years or so.
Five years and one month.
On my way out after the visit, I went into the hospital chapel. As usual I was the only person in there. I didn't like God. I think it started with my Presbyterian upbringing. As a child I'd been afraid of the minister, an angry old Scot, who scowled down from the pulpit every Sunday and shouted his sermons. I focused on keeping a low profile. But I'd never doubted God's existence. I had prayed passionately when my mother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of fifty-two. Let her live, I'd pleaded. Her death four months later had killed my interest in God. I had stopped praying entirely.
But after eleven years of avoiding both God and church, I'd been coming here daily, ever since the assistant surgeon had spoken to me in the hall, three days after Paul's surgery. He was asleep and I was leaving. She had spoken in a brisk matter-of-fact voice.
“We began the operation on schedule, but when we reached the site of the scarred intestine we found a number of small growths that are clearly malignant. We then had to decide whether or not to proceed as planned, to remove the scarred section of intestine or to cancel the surgery and just close him up. That discussion is why the operation took longer than we had anticipated. Eventually we agreed that his quality of life would be better with the surgery so we went ahead.” She waited for me to respond.
It took me a moment. I had to clear my throat, find my voice. I could hear a quaver as I spoke. “I don't understand. Why didn't you remove the growths? You were right there.”
“There were far too many of them. They are scattered like pepper all through his abdominal area.”
“Oh. But – what can you do then? He can't have more radiation.”
“No. But we might try chemo, when he has recovered. If there is pain.” She waited but I couldn't speak. My mind was a blank. I kept hearing her words over and over. Clearly malignant. Quality of life. Scattered like pepper.
I felt my way out of the hospital that day.
The chapel was silent, with peach coloured walls and subtle lighting that suggested windows even though there were none. When I closed my eyes, light seemed to shine more brightly than it did when my eyes were open. It was very peaceful.
I might not think much of God, but Paul was an atheist. He wouldn't see any of the hospital clergy. I was the only one who did believe who visited him daily. So I tried God again. But there was no point praying for Paul to live, since it hadn't worked for my mother.
I waited until I figured God had noticed me, to make my plea.
“Let me channel divine love to him. Let my love be as pure and as holy as possible, since he won’t accept You in any other way. Let me bring him as much comfort and strength as You might. Help me.”
I had no idea what God would make of such a prayer from someone who disliked Him but I didn't care. Paul had been more relaxed and I'd been less panicky since my first chapel visit. Nothing else mattered.
The silence deepened and the peach coloured light steadied me. I sat, letting the peace of the place quiet my fears.
Paul's health had been problematic as long as I'd known him. Not a completely bad thing. It meant he made the most of the good days. He was usually so positive, so upbeat that I was surprised the day I heard him criticize another teacher for looking forward to the summer holidays.
“The fool is pissing his life away,” he'd said impatiently. “Every moment counts. I can't understand someone getting bored or upset over nothing at all.”
That was when I understood it wasn't a coincidence that our relationship was so good. Paul didn't waste time. He didn't bicker, quarrel, fall into bad moods. When we argued, it was about something important. Without realizing it, I'd followed the pattern he set. For eight years life had been marvellous, even in the shadow of his ill health.
But our good days were running out.