I Don’t Know How to Dance

Wilensky’s Light Lunch, Montreal. Photo by Shawn Goldwater.

I was in my forties the first time I visited Montreal. I had a young family, not a lot of money, and only two weeks of vacation time a year, one of which was already accounted for. A holiday was a rare and cherished occasion. My former wife and I invested much time in planning the trip. I bought an excellent guidebook to Montreal and pored over it for hours to identify places to see and things to do. I was particularly interested in seeing the historic Jewish Quarter of the city. I had first learned of it reading Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

We stayed in an apartment on the upper level of a high-rise apartment building with a magnificent view of the city. There was an indoor swimming pool in the building’s top floor. We saw a spectacular fireworks display through the children’s bedroom window the night of our arrival. The kids asked what was going on; I told them a daddy-fib. I said that when the city had learned of their coming to Montreal, it had staged an enormous fireworks display in their honor. They were amazed. The truth was that we arrived during the annual Montreal Fireworks Festival.

The next day our plan was to spend the morning walking up Mount Royal, have a picnic on the mountain, and see Mount Royal Chalet. In the afternoon, we would stroll through the old Jewish part of the city. Everything went well, except for one thing; somewhere on the mountain, I lost my guidebook. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was so upset that I didn’t want to visit the Jewish Quarter. My wife, however, suggested that we go anyway, just look around, she said, and see what we could see. 

In the end, we did go, but I went, kicking and screaming all the way. When my plan A failed, I wasn’t good at trying plan B. I didn’t enjoy our stroll down St. Lawrence Boulevard. My wife was a patient person. She would point out things to me, obviously Jewish, and all I could do was grumble. I felt lost without my book. I didn’t know what to look for, where to find it, nor understand what I was looking at. I made my family’s time unpleasant, to say the least.

That evening I found an English-language bookshop, and though I did not find a copy of the book I had lost, I found another one to serve in its stead. With it, we planned the rest of our trip, which went well.

In his poem “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns writes: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” Oh, how much truth those simple words contain! We need a plan A, maybe even a Plan B, but we need also to be flexible, to remain adaptable. Otherwise, we waste precious time in our all too short lives.

In his book Stuart Little, E. B. White provides an excellent literary example of what I am talking about. Stuart reacts much as I did in Montreal when my Plan A failed. Stuart is on the road searching for a bird with whom he has become good friends. He stops in a quaint town named Ames’ Crossing. While drinking sarsaparilla on the porch of the town’s General Store, Stuart is joined by the storekeeper. The man tells him about a pretty young lady in the village just about his size [Stuart is a little over two inches tall] whom he thinks Stuart should meet.

At first, Stuart seems not much interested in meeting the young woman, Harriet Ames. After all, he is on a critical mission. But then, quite by chance, he sees Harriet. And that is enough to cause him to modify his plans, at least temporarily. He decides to meet her. Being the formal mouse he is, Stuart sends her a letter asking her to join him the following evening for a canoe ride on the river next to which he is camping. Then he remembers, he doesn’t have a canoe.

The shopkeeper comes to Stuart’s rescue with a small canoe souvenir. Stuart takes the canoe to his campsite, where he finds that it is not seaworthy. He immediately starts to work on it. He seals all its leaks, and uses stones for ballast; initially, the canoe had quite a list. He also makes a back-rest and pillow for Harriet. Finished with his work, Stuart hides the canoe until the time comes for Harriet’s visit.

The rest of the evening, he imagines how wonderful tomorrow’s evening with Harriet will be. He pictures how she will be dressed, how impressed she will be with his nautical skill. He envisions her sitting on the banks of the river, admiring his remarkable swimming ability.

The morning dawns, but with the threat of rain. In the late afternoon, Harriet arrives, on time, looking just as Stuart had imagined. He tries to suggest that he is a man of the world, affects an English accent, and then invites Harriet to come with him to where he has stored the canoe. Disaster! It’s missing. Harriet joins him in looking for it. Eventually, they find it. Here’s White’s description:

…after a while they found the canoe—but it was a mess. Some one had been playing with it. A long piece of heavy string was tied to one end. The ballast rocks were gone. The pillow was gone. The back rest was gone. The spruce gum had come out of the seam. Mud was all over everything, and one of the paddles was all bent and twisted. It was just a mess. It looked just the way a birchbark canoe looks after some big boys are finished playing with it.

White, E. B.. Stuart Little (A Harper Trophy Book) (pp. 120-121). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Stuart is distraught. He doesn’t know what to do, like me in Montreal. Harriet is much more calm and reasonable.

“Miss Ames,” said Stuart in a trembling voice, “I assure you I had everything beautifully arranged—everything. And now look!”

Harriet was for fixing the canoe up and going out on the river anyway, but Stuart couldn’t stand that idea.

“It’s no use,” he said bitterly, “it wouldn’t be the same.”

“The same as what?” asked Harriet.

“The same as the way it was going to be, when I was thinking about it yesterday.

White, E. B.. Stuart Little (A Harper Trophy Book) (p. 122). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

With his plan in shambles, Stuart is lost. Harriet suggests some things they could do instead. He declines, even though they would allow him to enjoy time with Harriet, which he seems to have forgotten was his original purpose in meeting her.

“Well,” she said, “it’s starting to rain, and I guess I’d better be running along if you are not going to take me paddling in your canoe. I don’t see why you have to sit here and sulk. Would you like to come up to my house? After dinner you could take me to the dance at the Country Club. It might cheer you up.”

“No, thank you,” replied Stuart. “I don’t know how to dance.”

White, E. B.. Stuart Little (A Harper Trophy Book) (p. 123). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We are passing through a difficult time now. The plans of many of us have been turned on their heads—birthdays, weddings, long-planned, even funerals of loved ones. It’s not easy to let go of our projects and accept that they are not going to happen, not the way we planned them. The key to making the best of it, I believe, is to think like my wife in Montreal or Stuart’s Harriet in Ames’ Crossing. We have to learn how to make the best of what happened and not to waste time fretting about what didn’t happen. We need to learn how to dance.

All the best,
Gershon

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Know How to Dance

  1. This is excellent, so true! Also it can be fascinating to explore a city without having a guidebook (though not without a map!), I remember finding a beautiful peace sculpture in Vienna that I would never have found if I’d been paying too much attention to a guidebook (though there were many things I visited because of guidebooks)

    Juliet
    http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

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