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  • Helanius J. Wilkins

A Lesson For Living: A Gift To My Father

“You’re always a day late and a dollar short” is one of my favorite sayings from my younger years in Louisiana. It is not my favorite because of what it insinuates but, rather, how it makes me laugh out loud, sometimes to the point of tears. Just reading the statement I find myself reliving moments of how family members performed it – the attitude in their voices, the look in their eyes, the posturing of their bodies, and how it was a way of reading (calling out) someone covered up in a joke, sort of.

I am a few days late. (Go figure!) My vision was to deliver this piece as an additional gift to my father on Father’s Day. Well…the idea did not fully form until the early morning of Father’s Day. Oops! And, although unrelated to this moment, I do know a thing or two or three about being a dollar short. After all, I am an artist who on multiple occasions must transform big dreams into projects with significantly less than a Beyoncé budget.

When I think of the phrase “You’re always a day late and a dollar short,” I also think about resilience – the ability to recover from or adjust easily to - despite hard luck or change. One of my earliest memories of learning about resilience came through observing my father. Early in my childhood he suffered an on the job accident where he was pinned for 30 minutes under a heavy pipe that resulted in him being bedridden in a hospital for several months. That was followed by a physical rehabilitation process that spanned over a year and included having to learn how to walk again. His sheer will to recover, to be independent, to be strong, to walk again, uncovered lessons that taught me about patience, focus, determination, practice, grace, flexibility, and being fearless – all characteristics that I believe are markers of resilience, hence living.

His experience taught me that resilience is a repetitive exchange between unlearning and learning, and how in the relearning, new insights can be gained about the self, others, and the world around us. In this sense, resilience translates to being a student for life, something that is deep-seated in my core. I am reminded of a quote by American poet, writer, and professor, Sonia Sanchez: “I cannot tell the truth about anything unless I confess being a student, growing and learning something new every day. The more I learn, the clearer my view of the world becomes.”

More recently I have found myself reflecting on how learning to walk is a metaphor for new beginnings and developing a resilient body. I am also reflecting on how I am learning to walk again during this heightened moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings. On Wednesday last week, I was shocked to see that my morning and evening walks combined amounted to 16 miles (a personal best since being in Colorado). By finding some solace in walking, I feel I am doing something larger. Perhaps I am creating a ritual for self-care. Perhaps I am revisiting how I discovered that my father’s journey was one about resilience, therefore living? Perhaps it is about claiming a simple activity easily taken for granted as a source of bravery and groundedness. Perhaps it is a practice in repetition that is meant to teach me the foundation for something new. (After all, Prince has a song titled "Joy in Repetition.") Perhaps it is a practice that is meant to reconnect me to my childhood, and a time when learning how to walk was bold, challenging, fun, filled with falls and constantly having to get back up, holding on to surfaces and the hands of my parents and relatives, and an early sign of independence that truly felt freeing. Hmmmmmmm….were my childhood experiences of learning to walk and observing of my father’s journey also teaching me something more? Teaching me nuanced lessons about how I would have to repeatedly learn how to walk? Teaching me about the strength I would need to call upon to endure as a Black male adult in America? Was my childhood experience in part a practice in unlearning fear in times when I may be most afraid?

In 2011 I deliberately chose to unlearn fear by making the decision to embark on my first evening-length solo project. New to me in so many ways, I likened it to learning how to walk again. “/CLOSE/R/,” which premiered in 2012, contrasted from my previous projects up to that point because it was personal, semi-autobiographical. It invoked living in the way that I had witnessed and learned about my father when I was a child. Following the premiere of the work at Washington, D.C.’s Dance Place, I remember sharing an extended conversation with a close friend where I expressed a sense of fearlessness. I had found my footing deeply rooted in uncertainty and had exposed my naked truth through a practice of shedding. I felt a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders and an aliveness. There was a heightened sense of humility and grace because, although the performance was a solo, I felt an extreme sense of connection and community.

My dad attended a live performance of “/CLOSE/R” in 2013. Immensely proud and enthusiastic about the work, he said “I did not recognize my son on the stage. I have never had that experience before.” Although I have never asked, I have often wondered what he meant when he said that to me. Perhaps he saw a reflection of himself in me? Did he see a son who was strong, resilient, and unapologetic for his own journey or being his own self in a way that mirrored his father’s strength or past moments in life?

I recalled how in my mind “/CLOSE/R” allowed me to feel courageous. In many ways it was a rebirth where I had learned to walk fully embracing all that is Helanius. It was when I discovered the truth that movement, for me, became a way for a very shy, southern child who was afraid of people to express himself; to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, to have a presence. My body became my voice and my actions were my words.

Making dances is an ongoing lesson of learning to walk over and over again. This moment feels particularly trying. However instead of throwing my hands up in the air, I am choosing to keep investigating and creating opportunities to make art. Dance is a vehicle for me to protest, build community, exhale, and celebrate. In this present time, making new works feels particularly essential as my way to disrupt oppression. Making new works is a demonstration of resilience. It keeps me connected to my father’s lesson for living while traveling uncharted territories. This post comes with something new – work-in-progress footage of my first exploration at making a virtual dance. This footage is my way of giving you a snippet of what I am working on, welcoming you behind the scenes as I'm exploring how to create in a different way, and introducing you to members of the cast for my new ensemble project, "Kanaval," that is now rescheduled to premiere in 2022. May this be respite from the weight of the times to refuel and continue along paths of learning how to walk again.

Photo at top of post by Christopher Michael Carruth ©2019.

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