Once upon a time, a boy I loved and greatly admired told me that I was lacking in the grace expected of a woman my age. I didn't bother to counter at this undisguised assault on my femininity, (any rebuttal would seem to prove his point, so I remained silent), but it led me to ponder the subject of grace and gracefulness at considerable length.
True, I hadn't studied ballet, dance, or theater. I was no charm school graduate. While other girls my age learned to walk gracefully, balancing books on their heads, I was the one curled up in the armchair, reading those books! I found myself at greatest ease behind the camera, rather than in front of it. I had no cultured accent, nor a worldly view acquired traipsing across Europe on my own, preferred comfort over fashion, sneakers over stilettos. I couldn't tell a salad fork from a dinner fork, and my culinary education consisted entirely of a South Indian vegetarian diet - rice, pulses, lentils, vegetables and the foods that appeal to children - Kraft mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the like. I knew nothing of the world of caviar, beef bourguignon or French cuisine.
From a purely physical standpoint, I conceded I was lacking grace in spades - particularly in my youth. I was gangly and tall, had an abundance of legs and lacked the appealing petiteness of the young girls that were my friends. My height relegated me to the back riser dominated mostly by boys of my age at a 4th grade choral concert (age 9), where I stood under the intense scrutiny of white hot stage lamps, grew faint, and fell, none too gracefully, from the riser to the wood floor some 3-4 feet below, coming to in a flash of light and pain, much to my embarrassment.
Grace eluded me when, at age 11, I raced down the hilly street across from our home on a yellow Schwinn bicycle with brown pleather handlebars. I didn't give much thought to grace, but the sense of freedom I had when I let go of both handlebars and extended my arms out into a "T" shape was overwhelming and overjoying, and I whooped a cry of joy that was sure to be heard a mile down the street, until the moment just before I reached a waylaid rock, the size of a small melon, at the bottom of the hill. (I hadn't seen the rock but my bicycle decided to engage in battle with the rock -- and the rock won.) I flew off the bike and was unceremoniously (and decidely ungracefully) dumped onto hot asphalt where I amazingly escaped with skinned knees and arms, and a slight concussion. My ego bore the brunt of the wounds. My mother, always cool and collected, came to inspect and ascertain that fractures were absent, and admonished me for my foolhardiness.
At age 13, I traveled with my family to Orlando where we visited Wet n Wild, which featured a simulated wave pool. Grace, once again was nowhere to be seen, but confidence I had plenty of. I was sure I could ride the crest of the waves with the grace of a dolphin. I swam closer and closer to the deep end - following my elder sister who was a good swimmer. As I approached 8 feet, the waves overtook me and began pulling me under the tow. I panicked and began to drown. My sister nearby attempted to pull me out but I panicked and pulled her under the tow with me. Eventually, lifeguards caught sight of us flailing about in the pool and turned off the wave machine. A rescue team put me on a stretcher and carried me out of the water, in front of what must have been hundreds of people while I blathered, sputtered water and sobbed uncontrollably, wet, bedraggled, and completely humiliated at the failure of my swimming skills.
At age 15, I joined the Russian Dancers at my local school. I was assured of visions of my own graceful loveliness, whirling around the stage dancing the Troika and the Byelorussian dances that I had admired, in the beautiful peasant blouses and skirts that were the costume of the Russian Dancers. I was once again foiled by my height and asked to dance the male part, (due partly to a lack of high school aged boys willing to be seen whirling girls around a dance floor). The male part proved to be difficult and challenging, but I willingly attempted to learn the parts and danced my heart out.
At 17, my mother signed me up for Tae Kwon Do lessons, in an attempt to ensure that I would be able to defend myself from the villainous advances of criminals which she was sure abounded at Ohio State, where I was to undertake my college education. Clad in oversized and heavy white cotton pants, along with a matching white jacket tied up with a white belt, I learned a few moves, but was more fascinated with learning the loud, decidedly ungraceful guttural cry that was emitted from the diaphragm in conjunction with these moves. I suppose there were a few who managed to do this and look graceful -- I was not one of them.
But I knew what grace was. Grace was having a sense of serenity and comfort in your own skin. I had seen grace, first in the women who surrounded me - my mother and grandmothers, and later in a young and lovely Audrey Hepburn who exuded grace in a dozen films. It seemed to pour effortlessly from my mother as she glided about in sarees and managed to mother three little girls. And in my grandmothers too, smelling of tea rose perfume and Indian talcum powder, they also undertook the daily delicate rituals of womanhood, yet had the air of women who could domesticate Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde.
But the greatest lessons of grace I learned were from Audrey. Audrey's name is synonymous with grace. We all love her for the obvious reasons: she was undescribably beautiful and talented. Yes, she had the requisite ballet lessons and acting lessons, and was the daughter of a baroness. She lived through World War II and doubtless had many experiences that shaped the person she became. But what impressed me the most about her was her inner beauty. In every biography that has been written about her, she is praised for how she found common ground with every person who engaged with her; that being around her was akin to feeling like the most important person in the room. Not only was she comfortable in her skin - but what was more important, she knew what real grace was -- how to make others feel comfortable in their skin. It was this in effect that made her so appealing and timelessly beautiful to us. There are a dozen other actresses of her time that rivalled her in beauty, but it is this quality that set her apart from everyone else. In everything I've read about her, every quote attributable to her, I've learned that she had true class, grace and humility:
Humility: "I myself am made entirely of flaws -- stitched together with good intentions".
Class: "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone".
Grace: "For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone..."
As a woman who has spent years embracing awkwardness, this was a revelation, that grace can exist within, in spite of what you are externally. So much about being a woman has gifted me with grace - most importantly, the ability to love. I'm able to demonstrate that love every day to my child. I am able to embrace what life hands me with quiet acceptance when it is something I cannot change (other people), and the fire to fight when it's something I can (my recent weight loss). I have been told that I was kind to a fault, and that kindness has been mistaken by some for weakness. To that I would say this: "Only a fool mistakes kindness for weakness. There is the heart of a lion within the spirit of a lamb. Grace is selfless strength."
In that sense, I realized that I am graceful like Audrey; graceful, indeed. Outwardly, I appear to be as awkward as the dodo bird, but inside I am 100% swan. And that boy I loved? I think he could use a few lessons in grace.