Half Full or Half Empty?

by Sable Jak 

Life changes perceptions. What shocked once is barely worth noticing now. Dislikes become likes, and fashions—well, we won’t even go there. Points of view change as you get older too, and sometimes, when you look back, you realize someone was a friend and you never even knew it.

Seventeen years ago I earned a good portion of my living as a belly dancer. When I first started dancing I was offered a month-long gig in a new Greek nightclub in Juneau, Alaska. Ever since childhood I'd wanted to dance, sing, or act, so I was thrilled to get the job. This would be my first "tour." I arrived in Juneau with a trunk of costumes and an adventurous spirit.

The establishment where I performed was on the ground floor of a hotel. I settled into my room and a heavy routine of three 15-20 minute shows a night, six nights a week. Billing was shared with a singer/guitarist from Oregon. He would do the first set, I would do the second, we'd break and then start over again. It was exhausting and exhilarating. The audiences were great, the tips good, and the local surroundings incredible. Bald Eagles were as plentiful as sparrows, I experienced the Mendenhal Glacier illuminated by Northern Lights, and I was welcomed into the homes of local residents.

And always, I saw the old woman. She came to the nightclub every night.

The guitarist loved her. He’d play old Sophie Tucker songs and she’d belt them out from the audience or from the stage, depending on what she felt like, holding forth like a queen without a country. Her face glowed at the applause and enthusiastic shouts from the audience. But I felt ashamed for her.

She was impossible to avoid. I'd been taught to be polite, so I always listened when she talked to me. Our conversations were always in the bar. I learned she’d been an entertainer when she was young. She was "the girl in the band," singing her way from coast to coast with one of the many kings of swing. Men with fat cigars and fatter wallets had pursued her, and she’d met people most of us see only in old movies and on late-night TV. Now she was living day-to-day in a residential hotel in Juneau, hoping to find a home to call her own. She stayed with her husband in the room next to mine, and oh, how they fought. He berated her constantly, yelling and making her cry, and on occasion, I think, he hit her.

One night before I went on to dance, she put an arm around my waist and gave me a little hug. "Make ‘em happy, Hon," she said. "Take ‘em out of their lives for a few minutes. I know what it’s like up there. I was really something in my time. Get up there and show ‘em how beautiful you are."

But instead of being encouraged, I hated her attention. She terrified me. No, what she represented terrified me: she was what I would become if my dreams went unfulfilled and my potential remained unrealized. She was a constant reminder of the possibility of failure.

Seventeen years later and too late to do anything about it, I finally understand her. She was at the club nightly because she loved the atmosphere. It reminded her of the happiest days of her life. Watching me, she wasn’t jealous, she was reliving what she'd done with joy and happiness. That old, worn out woman had lived her dreams, and she had shone in her time.

Was her glass, in that Juneau club, half empty or half full ? When I knew her, I saw it as half empty. I realize now that she saw it as half full.

Tonight as I wrap up this memory, I’ll raise a glass to her. I don’t dance anymore, but I have wonderful memories of when I did. Best of all, I finally understand what she was telling me. Don't sip lightly from the glass of life. Drink deeply and be happy with what you've done. The words "I did" are much more satisfying than the words "I wish I had."

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