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Lobster Girl Finds the Beat 

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For three glorious months in 2019, it seemed like it was finally going to happen for me. I was attending a dance fusion class at the Arcata HealthSport led by an amazing instructor named Jovonne. Once a week I'd stand at the back of the class with my friends and try to keep up. Never in my life had something I was so bad at made me feel so good.

"My God," I realized one afternoon as I shook my ass in step with 30 other beaming women, "I would follow this person into battle."

I have never felt comfortable on a dance floor. I am not physically gifted and I cannot keep a beat. I'm a word person, and if a song has any kind of lyrics, I'm going to inevitably fall into rhythm with the syllables. I've got the dour, driven internal voice that gets programmed into most eldest daughters, reminding me there are a thousand things that need to get done, and why would I embarrass myself doing something frivolous that I'm also terrible at? For a while, dance class was a workaround. If that dour voice began to gripe at me, I could quiet it by reminding it: This is a class, not something foolish like dancing for fun. These little codas helped counterbalance the joy I was pretty sure I wasn't allowed to feel.

But that was 2019, a whole lifetime ago for many of us. The pandemic years were hard years for me, marked by a cascading series of personal tragedies. It was a kind of grief season and if the circumstances had been plotted into a novel, an editor would slash through half of them with a red pen with the words, "Too much, unbelievable."

And to survive, I went into Lobster Mode. It's a familiar approach for we eldest or only daughters. We have to get things done and it simply won't get done if you pause to fall apart. So, you get tough and you cover your sweet meat with something almost impossible to break, and you put your little lobster head down, and you push forward.

I see that chapter of my life now from above, like I'm looking down through a glass bottomed boat. There I am, Lobster Girl, scuttling from the Airbnb to the hospital. There I am, hibernating, sunk deep in my shell and unreachable as people around me sob. Lobster Girl on the phone with the sheriff's office in another state. There I am, phone clutched in my claw as I talk to the oncologist, the extended family, the coroner, the mortuary. Lobster Girl, buffing her dead mother's nails in a hospice suite. My claw again, clutching a pen and signing the endless forms. Here's Lobster Girl holding the box with her oldest brother's ashes to her hard thorax, face closed. Lobster Girl, making her way across the cold, stony bottom of the dark sea, a thousand fathoms of saltwater threatening to crush her tiny form to dust. Lobster Girl, surviving only because of that hard and beautiful exoskeleton. Watch Lobster Girl open her mouth and let an endodontist explore the rotten socket of her back molar where her jaw has been clenched for months. Lobster Girl, taking a deep breath before opening the front door of her house to see which pieces of furniture her ex-fiancé took with him. Lobster Girl lying on the bare floor with her claws spread wide, pinchers open, breathing deeply into the emptiness and the openness.

If it was just about the endorphins, I probably wouldn't have come back to dance. I began jogging for the first time in my life early in the pandemic, and I credit that practice, along with antidepressants and my friends, with reeling me back up to the surface. It happened slowly, almost a year of grimly swimming my little crustacean tail toward the light, but it did happen.

"Take your medicine," I'd tell myself as I laced up my sneakers. It was that dour voice again, that eldest daughter voice, but she was right. (We usually are.) Exercise is good medicine.

But there was something missing, and one day as I pounded my heavy shell down the trail, my pinchers clicking like castanets, I realized what it was: Joy. So I found myself at the back of a dance class again, this one led by instructors Stephani and Phuong at HealthSport in Eureka. I wasn't nervous because spiky little lobsters that have lost their mother and brother, betrothed and back molars all within the space of a year don't waste brain cells on social anxiety. I just tried to keep up as the spritely instructors led us through a playlist of pop, Latin remixes and hip hop. I was pleased to find that while my sense of rhythm hadn't improved, my jogging habit meant I didn't get winded. The room was full of all sorts of beautiful bodies, including big girls like me, and some, like me, were just a few steps behind everyone else.

I realized quickly that the class got better the more you attended and began to learn the moves. It felt less like an exercise class than it did a dance troupe, bonding and having fun together. I attended sporadically for a few months in the spring and when I came back at the end of the summer it was clear that the women who'd stayed the duration had become friends, bonding with the instructors and with one another. I stood, claws hanging heavy at my sides, as they caught up before Stephani put on "Side to Side" by Ariana Grande and began to shimmy. Everyone shimmied to the right and I scuttled along with them. They raised their hand and I did, too, knocking my pinchers together just a beat behind their clap.

Then, about 20 minutes in, as we did some modified ballet moves to "Calm Down" by Rema, it happened: I felt the sting of saltwater at the back of my throat. I wasn't alarmed. I've been here before. That first time you cry from joy is the signal that your carapace has begun to crack open. And it's got to crack open because if you're doing it right, you inevitably grow out of your shell.

What a waste, I thought as I pirouetted, a new thought for me. What a waste it was hiding all this joy and love and softness inside where no one could share it.

A slow song will do that for you, get down under your defenses in a way people can't, pop that shell open so you can step out glistening and new. I know it won't last forever. I know what I am. Maybe the next shell will be prettier, roomier, light enough to let me dance. In the meantime, though, it feels good to leave it all out on the floor.

Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Eureka.

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About The Author

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry was a staff writer of the North Coast Journal from 2015 to 2018. She is a frequent contributor the the Journal and our other publications.

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