Losing Myself…& Finding Myself…in An Unexpected Place
I’ve always been a sucker for a romantic comedy. Or a romantic dramedy. Or really a romantic movie of any kind. From a very young age, I was mesmerized by motion pictures, but particularly ones that dealt with matters of the heart. In 5th grade, my teacher would turn on Gone With the Wind every day during snack time, and though we only got to watch it for about 15 minutes a day (which meant it took forever to get all the way through it), it was the highlight of my day. Of course, GWTW is pretty far removed from a romantic comedy! But still…watching lovelorn Scarlett O’Hara moon over Ashley Wilkes while the dapper and dashing Rhett Butler stood waiting in the wings just set my soul on fire.
When I was a little older, a little movie called Dirty Dancing was released and although my parents wouldn’t let my sister and I go see it at the theater, it would become the first movie we would ever rent on VHS. My dad even bought us a VCR for the occasion…which, if you recall, in those days was a REALLY big deal. And even though my mom and dad made us fast forward through the sexy parts, the film captivated me like nothing ever had before. I was in love with movies. I was in love with LOVE. I was in love with the wonder of it all…the coming-of-age of it all…the idea that a routine vacation with your family to the mountains could alter the course of your entire life and drop you right smack dab into the middle of a fairytale romance. Because of the movie and its impact on me, I began to believe in magic and whimsy and serendipity and fate like never before. I began to dream and wish and hope and imagine. In all seriousness, I truly believe Dirty Dancing changed the course of my life and even set me on the path to someday becoming a writer and spinning my own tales of love and happily ever after.
As I got older, I began to realize that one of the things about romantic movies that struck a chord with me the most was “the grand gesture.” You know, that moment at the end of the film where the guy chases the girl (or the girl chases the guy) to the airport, the train station, etc. etc. to declare their love. Or in Dirty Dancing speak, the “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” moment. I began to wish for and hope for and dream about having my own Johnny Castle to sweep me off my feet in true grand gesture fashion.
And somewhere in the midst of my wishing and hoping and dreaming, I met a boy who loved to dance. A boy who lit up my world. A boy who I even traveled with to one of the locations where Dirty Dancing was filmed in North Carolina (pictured here). If you’ve read my second book I’ve Never Been to Vegas But My Luggage Has, you’ll remember this moment. We found the steps where Baby practiced her dance moves and that boy kissed me right there in that very spot, setting my little movie-nerd heart aflutter.
But every high moment with that boy was followed by an even lower moment…leading me to finally come to the conclusion one night, as we sat in Grand Central Station in New York City, where so many cinematic grand gesture moments have been filmed: “You’re never gonna be that guy at the end of the movie who chases me, are you?”
The answer was no.
And he would prove that, time and time and time again, over the course of seven and a half years.
So, two years ago, when the curtain finally closed on our relationship for the last time, I put away my romantic movies. My old friends. My sources of inspiration. My reminders that great big love and great big gestures can and do exist…if only in our imagination.
I began to doubt in love. For the first time in my life, I questioned whether or not there was really a happy ending out there for me. I looked around at other people and wondered why love seemed to come so easy for them and yet be so unattainable for me. I put walls up around my heart. I closed myself off emotionally. In many ways, I shut down. For a dreamer and an idealist like me, someone who lived with my head in the clouds, to stop dreaming and imagining and looking for magic and believing in Hollywood Endings was detrimental to me and my spirit. My creativity took a hit. My personal relationships suffered. My world became very small. I was no longer the person I had always been. I wasn’t sure who I was, honestly.
To be disappointed in love, over and over and over again, can cause us to stop believing and dreaming and hoping and wishing. It can cause us to grow cynical. It can harden us. It can make us retreat inward and shut other people out until we look up one day and find ourselves all alone. For me, movies had always been my saving grace. Why movies, you might ask? They’re not based in reality. They’re make-believe. And yet…life imitates art and art imitates life. It’s this beautiful, perfect circle. And I’ve found that often, when you have an open heart and eyes to see, life and God find ways to bring you breathtaking, awe-inspiring moments that surpass anything you’ve ever seen on a movie screen.
For two years, my eyes were closed. My hands were closed. My heart was closed. And then, like they always have, movies once again found a way to creep back in and become my guiding light. In my research over the years of the filming of Dirty Dancing, I had discovered that the resort that served as “Kellerman’s” in the movie is an actual place you can go and stay. It’s called Mountain Lake Lodge and is located in the beautiful mountains of Pembroke, Virginia. It had always been on my bucket list to go visit, and in June, after the difficult year my family and I had had, I decided there was no time like the present.
Arriving at Mountain Lake was literally like stepping into the movie. It’s exactly like Kellerman’s. From Baby’s cabin (which you can actually rent!) to the lake to the gazebo to the main dining hall…you can feel the spirit of the movie all around you. And even beyond just getting to nerd out over being on hallowed Dirty Dancing ground, the resort itself is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s very remote with cool mountain temperatures (even in the summer), walking trails, gorgeous views, cozy cabins, tons of activities, and delicious food in the dining room and pub. I’ve been going to the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee for years, but I never felt like I had a TRUE mountain experience until Mountain Lake. It was precisely what my soul needed at that moment in time.
Because Baby and Johnny’s lake (where they practiced the lift) has receded over the years, you actually have to hike out a pretty good distance to see it. I decided to take this hike by myself one day, in order to have an opportunity to spend some time alone and just soak in the atmosphere.
It was a beautiful trek. Here are some of the highlights…
When I got out to the lake, I found a bench sitting right by the water. It made for a perfect spot to sit and reflect on the gravity of the fact that due to the water’s recession since the movie was filmed, I was basically sitting smack dab in the middle of the lake where the fictional couple I loved so much had started to fall in love.
Something about that caused my closed-off heart to begin to open, just a tiny bit.
And as I sat and pondered the past two years and how guarded I had become…and the previous 35 years before that and how unguarded and open and hopeful I had been…and as I whispered words to God and felt the cool lake breeze tickle my face and marveled at the ecstatic dance of joy my 11-year-old self must be doing somewhere in time to see her all-grown-up self sitting by the lake where she had been in her imagination so many times before…something in me changed. The carefully-formed walls I had erected around myself began to crack. I began to feel the first rays of hope shine down upon me like the warm June sun. And it suddenly occurred to me that if I could spend seven years loving the wrong person, get my heart broken beyond measure, and yet still be standing, still have enough childlike faith to find magic in a place that to anyone else, might just be a lake, and still tap into that part of me that believed in love and movie moments and grand gestures and fairytales…wasn’t anything possible? Wasn’t it conceivable that maybe there’s a Hollywood Ending out there for me, too?
I took a rock from Baby and Johnny’s lake that day…a touchstone I keep with me now to remind me of that moment by the water…of all the things I really, truly believe in…of the girl I was before life and hurt and heartbreak and disappointment came in and changed her. And of the girl I am now: A little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, but still a dreamer who, despite the setbacks and the struggles, still sees life as a beautiful, wondrous adventure.
This past spring, I encountered a man (angel?) who told me: “When you lose yourself, you find yourself.” I think he’s right. I think I needed to lose myself for a little while…to wander…to wonder…in order to realize that I will always, always be able to find myself again in the things that I love. In the things that I’ve always loved. The heart of who we are, who we WERE, way back when…it never really changes. It just gets covered up sometimes by the storms and uncertainties of life.
Since I got back from Mountain Lake, I’ve rediscovered my love of romantic movies. I’ve rewatched Elizabethtown and Leap Year and You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally, and yes, even Dirty Dancing. And instead of causing me to scoff and doubt and feel like my life is somehow lacking…they’ve caused me to laugh and dream and imagine what my life might be like if and when my leading man dances into the picture. I feel like after two years, I’m awakening from a deep sleep…rather like Sleeping Beauty, you might say. 🙂 And best of all…I finally feel like I’m ready for love again. I hope it’s ready for me, too.
But whether or not love ever finds me…I’ve found myself again. That little girl who watched nobody put Baby in a corner with wide eyes and believed that she, too, was worthy of a grand gesture? Turns out, she’s still in there. How I’ve missed her. And as crazy as it might sound, I’m not sure I would found her…or for that matter, ever become her in the first place…without a little movie called Dirty Dancing.
As it turns out, a routine vacation to the mountains with your family CAN, in fact, alter the course of your entire life.
So maybe, in this case, I made my own grand gesture by visiting the place where the movie that has captivated me for most of my life was filmed. Maybe I rescued myself. Maybe, in the end, we have to learn to rescue ourselves. Maybe that’s what real love is all about. Hoping and dreaming and wishing to someday dance wildly with a partner…
But learning and loving to dance, just as wildly, without one.
(Make sure you’re following me on Snapchat…I’m going to be sharing even more pics from my pilgrimage to Mountain Lake there! My Snapchat name is mandyhaletsw)