A few weeks ago, I went to an '80s dance night at the Topanga Canyon Community Center, a big, empty, rectangular room down a long dirt road, deep in the canyon, that looks a lot like a high school cafeteria—which seemed great. I was in high school in the 1980s, and spent many evenings dancing in the cafeteria. I grew up outside Detroit, so we lived in Motown, sort-of. Sophomore year, I was president of my class, and used this position to host "funk dances" every few months in the cafeteria. I remember my years in suburban Detroit as one long, dull, grey winter, but dancing was an unequivocal high. The '80s night in Topanga brought back that lighter, more carefree time.
Healthy regression, I realized that evening, is also an important, easy-to-overlook strategy for creating positive moments and moving on.
Back in high school, we'd dress like Madonna, or Jennifer Beals in Flashdance—pink leg warmers and ripped sweatshirts—and move around the cafeteria with abandon. Actually, I'd spent many Saturdays in middle school in front of the TV, imitating the moves on Soul Train, so I wasn't dancing with abandon, exactly—more like with a teenaged, suburban version of soul.
I suddenly remembered Soul Train that night in Topanga Canyon. I also recalled, viscerally, every guy I had a crush on in high school and college. I remembered the girls I'd been friends with, the Prince concert I went to in 7th grade, and exactly where I was when I first saw MTV. I had no backache back in high school, or in Topanga Canyon that night—though I often do when I take Zumba at the gym. My feet didn't hurt—though they did last time I went salsa dancing. I remembered the moves we did in the 1980s, a particular knee-to-opposite elbow bend, that went along to every Madonna song, and Michael Jackson, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George and even Depeche Mode.
I was actually on a date in Topanga, and the guy I was with was totally game to dance for two hours, and get up on the stage, and stomp all around the room with me. That felt like high school, too, the lightness of being out with someone else just to have a good time, not discussing divorce or children or work, not talking about problems we needed to solve.
The retro-dance felt like a chance to connect with some essential part of myself.
I kept thinking about the classic study by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, in which she recreated the world of 1959 for eight 70-something men. In this experiment, reported in her 2009 book Counterclockwise, the men took a bus to a converted monastery in New Hampshire that had been totally decked out in the decor of their high school years. The men also were instructed to try to be the younger versions of themselves, and even to talk about the news of the past in the present tense.
Here's how Bruce Grierson described the beginning of this experiment in The New York Times Magazine:
They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside—including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around—were designed to conjure 1959.
Before heading to the New Hampshire time warp, the men had been assessed on measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing, vision, memory and cognition. It was Langer's contention that these bio-markers would change, improve, after five days of living in the era of their youth.
At the end of the five-day stay, they were tested again. As Grierson put it:
They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller—just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger.
This seemed incredible to observers, but I totally get it. That night in Topanga, the music let me effortlessly slip into my 10th-grade self, pre-frustrating-marriage, pre-harder-than-I-expected-divorce. I had a huge amount of energy back then, and a new car, and an untested self-confidence that I like to think of as the "real" me, but that can be hard to muster hour-by-hour this many years later, when my back hurts and my son is refusing to eat anything but candy, and I'm tired after a long day at work.
During divorce, it can be hard to keep your eye on a brighter future. One approach: Recapture the zest of some part of your past.
I've written about coping strategies on Splitopia.com and in my book, Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well.
For more coping strategies, check out these posts: