Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Magical Life

Jane Kettering died quietly last week. Which is pretty ironic, because she didn’t live quietly. A pioneering movement therapist, Jane danced and clapped and shouted and talked and touched people’s outer and inner selves for most of her 97 years. She is quiet now, but the sound of her reverberates inside so many people.
More than 15 years ago, some of the people who circled in Jane’s orbit discussed writing a book about her life and her work. As far as I know, that book has never been written. But it should be. So I’m making a small start here.

I was not part of Jane’s “inner circle”; I knew her mostly from seeing her reflection in my wife and son. For them, she was a mixture of friend, earth mother, and life coach, someone who never made judgments but made it easier to feel good about yourself. That’s a pretty rare skill.
Members of the inner circle from New Jersey would often
travel to Colorado for a "Jane fix."
A few anecdotes:

The first time I met Jane was in her home in Plainfield, New Jersey, about a year before she returned to her birthplace in Buena Vista, Colorado, to touch a whole new set of lives. It was a Christmas party, and everyone was dancing together, with and around Jane in her big colorful house. They all looked so free in their movements—especially Audrey—which was not a way I was used to seeing her on a dance floor. Jane gave me a big hug and brought me into the circle. I didn’t come all the way inside, but I was right on the edge.
The next time I saw her was in Colorado, where we had come so Audrey could get a “Jane fix.” We met her in Delaney’s Depot, a small-town diner/restaurant where Jane appeared every morning. She didn’t come because she needed breakfast—Jane ate only toast and honey with her coffee most mornings—but because people could be certain to find her there if she was needed. She would fill the rest of her day in private or group therapy sessions and later on teaching dance to children or adults.

As we sat at the table, she gave me an intense look and said, “So what do you want to do with your life?” I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just said, “Well, I’m hoping to get through this breakfast first.” She laughed, then we made an appointment for her to give me a neck massage later that day. A Jane neck massage was not something you would ever forget. She had me sit on the floor with my back to her between her knees as she set to work. She rested my forehead in one big powerful hand as she began digging into my neck with the other hand or with an elbow. At one point she put both hands around my face, tightened her grip and gave a quick twist. It was a bit of a shock, and I figured she had just removed my head from my neck and was going to toss it in the corner. But, luckily the head was still in place, and my neck did feel a little better. The tension I had been feeling was replaced with a mixture of surprise and relief. My first real Jane moment.
A Jane massage was often filled with surprise twists.
When our kids were about nine and six, we brought them out to Colorado to meet Jane and her husband Kett, who were actually building a huge log home near Buena Vista with their own hands. I can still see our kids helping carry heavy stones to be part of the house’s foundation. Later, we would all join in on one of Jane’s famous, or infamous, cookouts, depending on how much you were concerned with sanitary food preparation. You just couldn’t worry about such mundane things as germs when you were in Jane-land. You closed your eyes, chomped on the burgers or hotdogs, and joined in the lively sing-along that always accompanied the food.
Kett and Jane share hugs with Amanda, Brett, Audrey,
and our friend Lorri.
A few years later, we sent Brett out to stay with Jane for a month. At the time, he was pretty shy and insecure about himself. Jane cut through that right away, letting him find himself by being himself. There were not a lot of rules at Jane’s house, just the expectation that you would care about others and do your share of the work. The work that summer involved digging a new septic line for the log house, and Brett threw himself fully into the dirty labor. At the end of the month, Audrey flew out to take him home. She couldn’t find the boy beneath the dirt. It turned out that Jane had not required him to take baths, just let him decide on his own, and he didn’t decide to bathe or change his clothes too often. It took three baths to clean up his outside, but his inside was stronger and more complete for having spent the month with Jane. And he made a lot of friends with the unique characters who moved around Jane in Buena Vista. He also insisted on bringing home a medical supply bag containing several preserved cow hearts that he was given by Jane’s son Greg, the local veterinarian. Needless to say, the hearts didn’t stay long in our house in New Jersey.  

Audrey and Brett, and sometimes our whole family, made other visits to Colorado to be with Jane. I can remember a Pioneers Day parade and a day at a rodeo watching cowboys on bucking broncos and little kids riding on bucking lambs. I can also remember looking for 86-year-old Jane one day at her office/house in Buena Vista, only to discover her inside a crawlspace trying to repair a leaking pipe. She was strong and unflappable.

The last years of her life were not very Jane-like. Her strength began to ebb, and her mind began to lose some of its sharpness. Her daughter Jeri brought Jane from Buena Vista to her home more than an hour away, where Jane could finally slow down. Audrey and I visited her there a few years ago. We shared stories and she gave me another neck massage that was gentler and not nearly as exciting (or frightening) as the one I had been given many years before.

I can recall that last visit, but it’s not what I think about when I think about Jane Kettering. I think about watching her wrestling with Brett on her living room floor, where you could slap a couch cushion and see dust sail into the air and just laugh about the mess.
Jane and Brett in mid-tussle
And I remember dancing the two-step with Jane to a country band at a Buena Vista restaurant and then line dancing with her whole crew that night. And I remember her wearing hole-filled tights and teaching a group of young ballerinas at her cinder block studio that friends had helped her build but never chose to paint. Maybe they wanted it to be as natural as Jane. She seemed as young and energetic as the little girls that day, a mixture of mentor and friend.

When we bought our second Scottish terrier many years ago, we had to come up with a name. I suggested that we name him Buena Vista Guru in honor of Jane. But Audrey and Brett didn’t like that name or that characterization of Jane. Instead, he became Buena Vista Magic, or Buni for short. There was always some magic in the air when you were around Jane.

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