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Memoir About Learning to Dance With Uncertainty

Essay by Deborah Jiang Stein: The Tao of Tutu

Deborah Jiang Stein, author of the new memoir Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus, was born in prison and grew up struggling with breaking out of her own private prison. Now, she talks to women in prison nationwide about how to learn to hear the music of their lives. Here's more from this inspiring woman:

JUST when I think I've come to terms with my prison roots, another surprise tracks me down and won't let go—this one, of all things, about tutus.

I've always loved the mystery of quiet beauty. Not commercial beauty as defined by the public, not the marketing and commercial sense of beauty. I mean the quirky beauty in a chunk of tree bark or the bristle design on a tiger caterpillar. Even creased metal on cars in a junk yard intrigues me as a design element.

The tutu and I go back in time to my girlhood in Seattle. When I was a kid my mother sent me to ballet classes down the street at the dead end in a neighbor's basement studio. I loved it from the time I stepped into her studio, loved the sound of resin on the leather soles of my pink ballet slippers, loved the classical music plunked on the piano by some amateur accompaniest, loved the steamy sweat of dance, and most of all, loved the tulle and tutus in the studio.

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But, this was the late 60s before Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison showed us how ballet belonged to more than frilly tutued white girls.

The Battle of the Tutu began in a dance studio at the dead end of our pine-tree lined street. I spent an hour every Saturday afternoon in this studio the size of a small bedroom, with a worn oak floor framed by three walls of mirror and a box of resin in one corner, a piano in another corner.

How could I, a little brown skinned girl born in prison and adopted into a Jewish family, flit around to classical music in a tutu when my own prison inside my head told me I had to be tough. I put prison birth and tough into one scene and I lived that scene for years, even though I grew up in a middle class home.

I went tough with a switchblade packed in my pocket as a teen and later added a .38 pistol in my other pocket, all primed to join a gang when I was 18. Gangs then were not like today but still, a gang of outlaws, five two-time ex-felons, all men older than me. I was the think-tank for our petty crimes, and some not so petty. Drugs, crime, violence filled my days and nights.

Okay, that's more than an elevator version so think of it as a fast ride up to the 110th floor of the Sears Tower because for years I lived at 100 mph towards self-destruction and harming others, too, until I hit a dead end of my own. My weight dropped from 120 to 90lbs, a lot to lose for my 5'3". From both stress and poor nutrition, I began to lose hair in quarter size patches, and on the inside, I had a bleeding ulcer.  I was a mess.

Now out the other side, I figured out freedom stirs as an energy within as well as a physical circumstance. I knew it for myself, how imprisonment by secrecy, shame, and stigma destroy freedom.

New people, crowds, conflict, financial insecurity, faltering relationships, not fitting in, so much to fear. "Out the other side" means I now reframe doubt and uncertainty to fuel creativity instead of letting it immobilize me. Not all the time. I'm not perfect at it, but it's my focus whenever the lightening of fear and doubt strikes me. I just sit and live with it all instead of run or fight. That's it. Sit still in the discomfort.

The Tao of the Tutu, or for more revolutionary friends ... The Tutu Manifesto

1. Even the best of tutus aren't waterproof.

2. The droop in a tutu still rustles with a drop of life.

3. A tutu doesn't judge the hips it swings on.

4. A fault-finder complains even that the tutu is too beautiful to wear.

5. When the last thread unravels on a shredded tutu, a strand of hope still remains.

6. A rip in your tutu does not mean a wound in its purpose.

7. A ruffled wind makes for a restless tutu.

8. A tutu cures the malady of taking-oneself-too-seriously.

9. A tutu is not a garment. It is love, light, and hope.

10. Just because a flower falls from your tutu doesn't mean your tutu's lost it's purpose.

11. Find the whimsy. If you don't wear a tutu once in a while, life will be the way it's always been.

12. Everything seems possible when we're in the state of a tutu.

13. Expect the unexpected and don't worry if a hummingbird nests in your tutu. We're made to adapt. People and tutus.

14. Fanatical beliefs, even in the tutu, make freedom impossible.

15. Fear and a tutu cannot occupy the same spot.

16. Just when you think life makes sense, the ribbon tangles on your tutu.

17. Tutu does not the woman make. But it does contribute to the power of her dreams.

More than I care to admit, glimmers of doubt and fear still seep into me once in a while. But these days I face the uncertainties and dance with them so they're no longer my demons. Always I come out stronger.

Deborah Jiang Stein, author of Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison, is a writer and public speaker who devotes her work to women, men, and children in the margins of society. She founded the nonprofit, The unPrison Project (www.theunprisonproject.org) to serve women in prisons. Deborah is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a YA novel, and another memoir.

If you'd like to be elibible for a free copy of Deborah's memoir, please email info@theunprisonproject.org by March 1, 2012. Put CONTEST in the subject line.

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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