Last Thursday, one day after Ash Wednesday, was crazy warm—we hit 54 degrees, I think, or close to it. Just about unheard of on a February day in Vermont. I ditched my yoga class and instead grabbed my Big Girl Camera and Scout’s leash and asked him to lead the way. He made a beeline for the cemetery, the one that sits more or less in the center of town. The afternoon was indiscriminately sunny, a challenge for this novice photographer. Thank the universe for photo editing software, is all I can say.
Scout chose wisely; I’ve been wanting to poke around and look more closely at the headstones after our first wintry cemetery adventure a few weeks ago. So many Bennington names read like pages ripped from a town history: Gage, Safford, Putnam, others you’d recognize if you spent even a couple of days here. A cemetery is the logical place to start, I think, when you are trying to learn something about your new hometown’s past: these are the people who built this community.
The headstone of a child, though, is always so sad to me. I squatted down to get a closer look at a few of them while Scout explored with his nose like any self-respecting canine would. Don’t hike your leg on a headstone, I am thinking, please: here is a place to be reverential. Then I wonder, does Scout know where we are already? Can a dog smell human suffering?
It’s not all suffering, of course. In most cases, one hopes the end came naturally and a life was held up in celebration. Drink expensive champagne and share funny stories about me: that is how I want people to celebrate my life.
I can’t fathom the anguish of the parent who must lay to rest the remains of a child, though. I have known some who did, including my own great-grandmother—both her children, although they were grown—and her parents before her, four of five children. Others in my own family. And a dear friend just a few years ago. Unimaginable. Juggling a leashed dog in one hand and a camera in the other, trying to find just the right amount of light, and the right angle, I thought of the parents who would soon bury children they assumed had their whole, beautiful, hopeful lives ahead of them. I wanted to squeeze my own kid, a thousand miles away.
A couple of days ago comedian Michael Ian Black made a distinctly non-comedic comment on Twitter in the wake of Wednesday’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida: boys are broken, he said. This morning in a radio interview he had a chance to explain himself. I can’t quote him verbatim, but was struck by this notion: that a girl can be a feminist and still feminine, but a boy who is ‘sensitive’ can’t also be masculine—the two are mutually exclusive.
That’s a heavy burden for any boy to bear. I can’t agree or disagree about how much that one idea can really account for a disturbed boy going on a shooting rampage that kills 17 people, but there has to be an answer to this neverending story, one that goes beyond taking dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands, and I fear that important conversation is muted by a loud, if well-intentioned clamor. And here is another idea that occurred to me as I listened to Black’s comments: if we Americans could somehow get away from the sensitive ≠ masculine paradigm, might we expect to see a sharp decline in sex crimes, too? Just a thought.
But I’ve often wondered about the disenfranchisement of so many struggling boys or young men at a crucial point in their development, when intervention by a thoughtful (sensitive and strong) male figure would have made a difference to them. A more typical response is isolation and then rejection. Seems to me that when unrealistic expectations combine with rejection the result is a stinking, festering wound we’ll collectively be forced to reckon with face to face if the hellish story is ever to end, even if we made it go away for a while—just ask the parents of 14 children who died last week.
Scout and I enjoyed the last light of a beautiful winter day in downtown Bennington, one of us deep in thought, and the other really just in it for a good place to pee.
Are you planning to watch the Olympics? asks the gentle practitioner of acupuncture as he jabs some more needles into me.
I can tell this is a sneaky tactic to try to divert my attention from the pain, right after reprimanding me (in a gentle practitioner of acupuncture kind of way) for holding too much tension during the insertions, which does not help, he suggests.
But this only makes me feel like an underachiever, especially since I’m already alone in my gathering feelings of disdain for these sessions, surrounded as I am by folks who seem only to extol the virtues of this ancient technique.
There’s an American figure skater who’s had some ballet training and I may have to watch him, I manage to squeeze out through gritted teeth (I am also wincing, but he can’t tell because I’m lying on my stomach with my face in the donut thingummy). But other than that, nah, I have a hard time getting around the politics (especially in these Olympics) and all the doping and corruption and scandal.
Yes, he opines, it’s disappointing.
Later in the week I am listening to an interviewee on public radio, an expert weighing in on the doping and corruption. He concedes that it’s awful, but sadly probably here to stay, across various sports and disciplines. He names a bunch of examples, and for each one he explains what the athletes do, and why they think it helps. And what’s more, he goes on, these young athletes at the top of their game, in reaching for extremes, and in deciding to participate in doping—using dangerous substances to ostensibly boost their performance—will pay for it tragically for the rest of their lives (and some will in fact die young as a consequence).
Extremes is the word I’m stuck on. I roll it around and around in my noggin as I drive down the road to fetch one happy doggy from an afternoon at camp; most dogs know when enough is enough, I think. Extremes. Extremes.
Reaching for extremes is why I find myself allowing somebody to poke needles into me everywhere once a week, at least for the time being. It’s still an experiment, and so far is not helping. My early years of ballet training, when my young colleagues and I asked ourselves to do things we should not because of teachers who allowed or even encouraged it—I am paying for those early years now. I never used performance enhancing drugs, but I certainly pried my feet open at the barre to achieve what I hoped would be perfect turnout. Or made myself fall asleep at bedtime in some weird position I hoped would do the same. It never occurred to me at 10, 11, or 12, that I might be causing permanent damage to some joint or musculature somewhere.
The closest parallels I can draw between classical ballet and Olympic-style athletic competition are the ‘legitimate’ ballet competitions; these are not ‘dance moms’-style competitions, where there is always controversy swirling around age-inappropriate costuming and choreography, and where it seems trophies are handed out like candy to bejeweled young dancers dressed in their identical warmups repping their home ‘studio.’ That is another creature altogether, and truly outside my sphere, as they say.
Nope, these are elite competitions where one finds the most promising young talent emerging in the art of classical ballet across the planet. There are no trophies, but there is certainly cash. Arguably the most prestigious of these—the Prix de Lausanne—you can actually watch in real time via livestream, which I still find magical. And the thing I love so much about the Prix is all the coaching that goes on during the competition. That is, the young dancers who earn a place in the competition have the opportunity to attend classes and receive one-on-one coaching from renowned ballet mentors, opportunities worth their weight in gold. Even if you walk away without one of the coveted scholarships or professional company contracts, that alone made going worth your time and effort. And these days we hope the grownups in charge are a tad more concerned and vigilant about the health of their young dancers than my early teachers were.
Does doping go on at this level of classical ballet competition? I have to say I honestly don’t know, but I hope not.
Maybe a tad more concerning are the demands modern audiences make on young athletes: it’s quite thrilling, after all, to see these young people at the very top of their game, doing their thing better than they’ll probably ever do it again, so effortlessly, and reaching milestones one never would have thought possible. (The human body can do that? Wow!) We want it, nay demand it, and they rise to the occasion. There is no room for moderation in this paradigm. And so long as our expectations are there, my guess is the extremes will grow more and more pronounced.
When I was a young student in residential ballet school I studied with the celebrated Natalia Krassovska, among others, for three consecutive summers. Mme. Krassovska came out of an old Russian tradition that prized results at the expense of dancer health; it was the same style of training I had for the first five or so years of classes before that, and so it was familiar. But if ever there were a living example of the consequences, it was she, who by then already could barely walk. Each day she hobbled into the classroom, with her hair pulled into a perfect Giselle-style bun (parted in the center, covering the ears, and secured low, at the nape of the neck), and the long-sleeved leotard she wore under her teaching skirt gathered at its plunging neckline. After she tethered her tiny dog to a chair, she would greet the piano accompanist and hobble again over to the barre to demonstrate the first exercise of class.
When I could tear my eyes away from her expressive face and painted-on eyebrows, I watched her feet closely, in the pink heeled teaching shoes she wore over her classical pink tights. She could not execute every movement in the vocabulary, but she came damn close. And those feet—and I mean feet, not legs—stood always in a perfect fifth position. That, in a nutshell, was why she could no longer walk: I imagine every joint from her heels to her hips had suffered so much wear and tear through the years from the feet being torqued open to achieve that beautiful position, that her legs could no longer do what they were made to do, and that was simply to stand and walk.
And here I am now, in more or less the same boat, I am thinking as I look at the swirly patterns on the carpet through this donut hole, with my own special flavor of crippling discomfort.
In homage to the Olympics I shall not watch, I leave you with a winning performance from this year’s Prix de Lausanne, which ended only a few days ago; the dancer is a South Korean, and her technique is not extreme—it is merely beautiful. To all the young ballet competitors, and to all the young Olympians, I say this: while you’re doing your best to achieve the unimaginable, reaching for extremes, remember that one day you may simply want to stand and walk.
What is that thing, you ask? Why, it’s a completely broken alternator plucked from an ’07 Subaru Outback. (What—you don’t have random car parts on the floor in your mudroom? You should; all the popular people are doing it.) I snapped that photo in the early morning hours on Friday, when one impatient David-the-Chef stood breathing down my neck, waiting for me to finish so he could stuff this heavy hunk of metal inside a paper sack and whisk it off to the car parts store right when they opened (at some silly hour like 7 am, for car parts people, who I suppose are like construction people, who need the home improvement stores to open at silly hours, too).
I tried to make it art, but then decided, nah, it’s a broken car part, and the chef needs to git ‘er done and get to work: I can certainly appreciate that. I’d already messaged my office to tell them I’d be working from home, but this new possibility of an early-morning car fix gave me hope that this day might turn out to be a normal-ish Friday after all.
Thursday afternoon on my way home from work I noticed Yuri (my beloved Subi) acting funny when we were stopped at an intersection. His normally quietish hum got quieter still, and then the fan (which I had set to stun, along with the temperature, because Vermont winter) blew out its deliciously warm air with a bit less vigor. And sure enough, my intuition was correct: something was wrong. The battery warning light on the dash started flashing its angry red rectangle self, with its annoying little plus and minus signs so you know it’s a battery icon, and then the brake light came on. My heart moved into my throat, as it does in these kinds of situations. And of course the traffic signal at the intersection refused to change, because in this dreaded Vermont Vortex everything around me slowed to a crawl, even the people on the sidewalks talking on their cell phones, and the other cars in traffic…they all….slowed…..down. If only we could move forward, went my thinking, the battery will charge a bit…I am just a few blocks from home: don’t die on me now, Yuri!
I flipped on my hazards and crept forward when the light finally, finally turned green, and then about a block or so later the dash warning lights went off and I could feel power coming back into the car. I’m sure I must need a new battery, I thought—I’ve had this one for the six-plus years this car has been mine. It must be a fossil by now.
But safe at home I was still a little concerned, and panic-dialed my boy back in Tennessee, the Car Expert, who merely quipped, You’ve got a bad alternator. No, I insisted, I think I just need a new battery. Probably your alternator, he went on, before changing the subject to something more interesting. While we were still talking I started Googling symptoms left and right. What? he wanted to know, sensing my lack of focus on him. Well I just Googled the car’s symptoms, I said, and that led me to a bunch of Subaru forums. Mmm-hmm, he said, and what do they say?
They say…it’s most likely the…alternator. <sigh> I can see my twenty-something’s handsome young face staring back at me from my laptop (because when we talk it is always a video call), and I can see he is swiveling from side to side in his desk chair a thousand miles away, in his groovy, man-cave-like bedroom, and both his eyebrows go up-up-up, and he smiles out of one corner of his mouth, and says, Ah. Your Alt—Er—Na—Tor.
Meanwhile the chef (to whom I’ve already texted several panic messages by this point) is saying maybe to the alternator theory, but also wants to look at the battery connections when he gets home. Thank the universe for chef boyfriends who also know a bunch about cars.
I embrace the battery theory and go about my business, although by now it is way too late to go to yoga, and anyway, Yuri has no intention of taking me there.
The Vermont Vortex had settled in comfortably much earlier in the week. On Monday I had another session with the gentle practitioner of acupuncture, which damn near killed me: the pain was excruciating, and a couple of times simply intolerable. That hour set me on edge, and got me worrying about the next session, an entire week and a day into the future. I will hone this one to a fine sheen, I am thinking. By next Tuesday I may talk myself out of going back.
Then still more Vortex: a colleague who shares an interest in jazz (and who in fact is a jazz drummer outside of work) brought me a two-CD set to listen to, a classic 1966 recording he had stumbled across recently and thought I might enjoy. After work I installed iTunes on my laptop (reinstalling software on my new laptop has been a pretty low priority). First I had trouble choosing the correct version, and then more trouble getting Apple to recognize me, and then finally, finally it worked, except then Windows decided it wanted to do some kind of features updates, and got hung up on them with the message: Updates 100% Complete—Don’t’ turn off your PC. I tried to stay calm and walked away, and sure enough, about a half hour later everything worked. So now, I am thinking, now I can upload and listen to this great recording.
But wait: my new laptop has no CD drive. How can this possibly be? It has everything else. I dropped a chunk of change on this PC, and I expect it to perform, dammit. But a quick search of Google, again, reveals that the CD drive is going the way of the T-Rex. Who knew? (Not me, obviously.)
I am sure the Vortex finds all of this so entertaining, together with the inexplicably corrupt memory card in my new Big Girl camera, the one my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister gave me for Christmas. Which is why I shot the alternator photo with my iPhone, which also tells me that iCloud is full and if I want more storage I gotta pay up.
On Thursday morning I called the wonderful veterinary practice where I take Scout, which happens to be upstairs from the doggy day camp where he cavorts with his buddies on Friday afternoons, joyous occasions always. Scout is due for a vaccine, I explain to the nice receptionist, but I’ve lost the reminder card and don’t know which. I’ll look it up for you—hang on, she tells me. Yep! Lyme vaccine is due. Can y’all go downstairs tomorrow and give him the vaccine while he’s at camp, I ask? I will check with one of the vets and let you know, she says. Okay, I tell her: just leave me a voicemail.
By Thursday evening I am thinking there will be no camp for Scoutie on Friday anyway. But on Friday morning, David-the-Chef drops in the new car part in under a half hour <cue the heavenly chorus>, et voilà—Yuri turns right over and hums happily, no warning lights on the dash, just a contented Subi.
We’ve been driving him a bunch this weekend just to be sure, because his idling speed was a tad too low for our liking one day after getting his shiny new part. Oh, and Scout did make it to camp, and he did get his vaccine, but I didn’t get that promised confirmation voicemail until yesterday, a full day after the event (Vortex).
And this morning? This morning I slipped on some ice in the driveway coming inside after I fired up Yuri to get him warmed up and ready to go. I did not hit the ground, but came pretty dang close. If anybody saw what happened, and it is indeed possible somebody did, I am sure they had a good laugh. I reached out to grab the nearby porch railing at just the right moment to save myself and in so doing bent a finger waaaaaay back into an unnatural position, and so now my entire right hand feels like it has been smooshed by something heavy.
The gentle, soft spoken man balances a clipboard on one knee, pen poised in hand, listening carefully while I explain my habits before going on to tell him the history of a badly compromised heel. He starts scribbling while I talk.
It gets me outside, I said. With my dog. It gives me a shot of feel-good, of course, I said. And I like the color that comes into my cheeks after a good run. And I feel energized by it for hours afterwards.
He is nodding and writing.
And where does your foot hurt when you run?
I tell him it is medial at the start of a run, but often moves once I get going, radiating around the heel to the outside of it, just under the ankle bone. So…lateral—I guess it also hurts laterally. He uses the end of his pen to point to various places on my foot to make sure he understands.
And would you call the pain an ache, or a throb, or is it more of a sharp pain? Is there a burning sensation when you feel it?
You mean, it burns?
No, I mean yes, all of those things you said: it aches, it throbs, or it is sharp. Or it burns. It can feel like somebody grabbed a bit of flesh with needle nose pliers from the inside, and then twisted. Hard. But I don’t have to be running to feel it; sometimes it can happen to me while I’m sleeping, and it is bad enough to wake me. Or when I’m sitting still at my desk, minding my own business. Sometimes I feel pain then, too.
Then he asks about the history of my bum foot.
Stress fracture to the calcaneus some number of years ago, I explain. Posterior tibial tendonitis, made worse by Haglund’s deformity, or the “pump bump” in common parlance. My orthopedist down in Knoxville said the tendon was fraying from friction with the bony Haglund protrusion. Pump bump is pretty funny, I quip, because I never wear heels. Ever. It took a ballet school dad, an ER physician, to finally point out the obvious: you may not wear heels, but you’re putting your foot in that position—with your heel elevated—hundreds of times a day in your line of work.
And you still run? asks the kind man.
Yes, I tell him unapologetically. In a perfect world, I explain, I would have the expensive, risky surgery (which of course would not come with risks in this fictional scenario) to fix the Haglund’s, if that window is still open in the first place—when the problem gets bad enough, no surgery can fix it—and then I would be booted and rest obediently while somebody brought me tea and finger sandwiches, and then I’d do physical therapy diligently. Et, voilà—the foot would be fixed. I don’t know that world, but I do know life is a balance. And speaking only for myself, of course, I have discovered I am worse off when I don’t run. Therefore I run.
This is what I tell the gentle practitioner of acupuncture, who is about to stick needles into me everywhere. He explains why he needs to stick needles in my back, even though I need help with my foot; it is something about cleansing. Maybe it will be like a bloodletting, I think: maybe he will exorcise this ugly foot demon out of me, right out of the teeny pinholes he is about to poke all over me.
But probably not. Somewhere in my head I can hear a wise person opining about a therapy’s being effective only when positive thinking goes along with it. I try to think positively when I am asked to inhale and exhale each time another needle goes in. When this kind practitioner, this gentle therapist, places a needle under my bum ankle bone, right on the outside where there is not much flesh, I feel a sharp pain, then nothing, and then another, sharper pain inches away in the soft flesh under my foot, a delayed reaction: I estimate it is somewhere between the third and fourth metatarsal. My eyes are watering and I am trying to stay calm. And positive.
The practitioner is reassuring, telling me this is all normal, but to say something if the pain does not subside. It finally looses its grip and I try to concentrate instead on the new-agey music and the fountain over in the corner of the room while I wonder, laying here like a human pin cushion, why feet can’t be swapped out, like hips, or knees.
* * *
Yesterday Vermont winter also loosed its grip. I had promised Scout for days we’d go find an adventure; I reminded him in the morning that we would. He paced nervously around the house waiting for me to finish baking biscuits for the church freezer, and setting up the stew in the slow cooker, and starting a load of wash, before I finally started pulling on my stretchy, wintry running clothes.
He yawned and whined in anticipation on the car ride to our new running spot, standing in the back seat and wagging his tail all the way there. Trembling with excitement while I leashed him, he told me I was a slow poke and really could anybody go any slower? The other dogs are already running, he lamented.
And then our moment finally came: down the dirt road the two of us bounded, stopping to mark piles of rotting leaves one of us, and maybe a few remnant piles of filthy snow from the last storm, to sniff some horse poop, to look in the treetops for those vexing squirrels, and sometimes to point. Scout, I tell him, you really are a gundog. You’ll have to make your peace with pretending, friend.
Powering up a long, steep hill, it dawns on me we have not run since a week or so before Christmas. It has been one thing and then another. Snow and more snow. Then ice. And unrelenting cold. We had flood warnings all over the place twice in January. But now we’re still in January thaw, and on this beautiful early Saturday afternoon in southwestern Vermont, it is unbelievably 54 degrees and sunny.
But my foot does not care that all is right with the world and lets me know unequivocally I won’t be completing this four-mile or so circuit at a good clip, at least not the one I prefer. So Scout and I power on for about three miles, stopping here and there to investigate a noise, or some movement in the woods, real or imagined. I shift to toe running from time to time to answer my heel, now shouting at me. We wave at the mailman and a few other passersby. Then we turn up the long dirt road that will eventually lead us back to the road where we left the car.
This particular road has turned to soft mud, the kind you can get stuck in without proper tires on your car: you expect this in March, maybe not so much in January. I glance at Scout’s underside and realize it is black as the night, from his pads up to his armpits. I just bathed him last week, and that is too bad. But this doggy is on cloud nine, and so is his human, even if we’ve dropped back to nothing more than a vigorous walk at this point.
By the time we get back to the road where we left the car we’ve slipped in the mud a few times, been taunted by one especially portly squirrel, and got within sneezing distance of a large, white horse giving rides to little people at a local winter festival. We can smell the wood fire where s’mores are being made hand over fist, and we cross paths with countless folks and other dogs coming and going. And then we are back to the car, almost, it’s just ahead, but Scout has now planted three feet and is pointing with his wrist: the dog is stock still, trembling in his tracks.
What is it—what do you see? I ask him.
And then even I, the deficient human, can see it: an enormous gray squirrel, about eye level, peering at us from a space under a fallen tree. The squirrel flicks its tail a couple times, taunting us.
The squirrel disappears and reemerges now on top of the log, comically dangling a tiny, airline-size liquor bottle from its mouth.
Scout is beside himself.
The squirrel drops the bottle, which goes clinkety-clink-clink onto something hard on the ground. He vanishes and then reappears, holding the bottle again by its narrow mouth as if he were about to tip it back to lap up a last drop, before skittering up a tree and out of sight. Scout is breathless with excitement, panting, and my cheeks are tickled pink on either side of my wide grin, a grin of disbelief at this spectacle. I wonder whether David will even believe this story. My foot is screaming at me, but I am euphoric on this exquisite late January afternoon in Vermont.
So, so many material belongings that came with me to Vermont all the way from Tennessee have waited patiently in storage for the last three years: things David and I considered nonessential when we combined two households three years ago, the year I started writing and editing professionally full time for a marketing agency. But in our tiny mountain rental there was scarcely room for his things and mine, leftovers from our failed marriages, to say nothing of our landlord’s things: that’s furniture and belongings from three families squished into one minuscule living space. Add 2.5 humans and eventually a dog, and as Eloise would say, you can imagine….
Unearthing those stashed-away belongings is joyous and even a tad miraculous: the hand-blown Mexican Tom Collins glasses in perfect condition still, the pair of pilsners my dad gave me when I first stepped into adult shoes (they were his in college, each one bearing an etched ‘UT’ indicating his alma mater and then mine, but the ‘U’ in truth looks more like a ‘V’ and so they could be more appropriately ‘VT’ glasses now), framed art that has not seen the light of day in years, and how about wine chilling vessels of various sorts (here is one in terra cotta, another in pewter). Linens washed, folded, and carefully stored; they still smell fresh and clean, somehow. A nifty magazine rack I bought for the ballet school and that looks like the front of a gym locker, retained because I have a hard time letting go sometimes, and anyway I gave away or sold most everything else. Forgotten bottles of fancy lotions and creams (by some miracle, they all seem fine so far). Candles and more candles, and the pretty platform-style holders I bought for some occasion or other in my previous life, and look—here is a box full of flower vases.
Fresh cut flowers: a thing I mercilessly snipped out of my living budget right after I landed on Vermont soil, a self-imposed austerity measure if you wish, when I realized how bleak my financial horizon, an outlook dramatically different from the one for which I’d so painstakingly planned in the weeks and months leading to my big Tennessee farewell. In a life of privilege down South I never thought twice about buying flowers—of course one brought home fresh flowers every week to arrange carefully in an oversized vase on the big harvest table in the kitchen, and maybe also to place in a couple of the ancient, generously proportioned windowsills under the lovely (if a bit creaky) casement windows, maybe a tiny few flowers pulled out of a bigger arrangement for a bud vase in the kitchen window, another upstairs. Of course.
And now those things, all that glassware, some precious children’s books I’ll keep forever, exquisite artwork—‘high’ art and plain old sentimental art, even a few small appliances I’d quite forgotten—all of it is unpacked, washed, and put away neatly, or schlepped down to the basement or up to the attic to go through when time allows (an attic! Christmas things now organized and stored ‘til next December!), or arranged carefully on one side of the garage until we have a warm spell and a little bit of muscle to help us carry in a pair of weighty cedar chests, one old chest of drawers, a stationary bike, an important grandfather clock, and a few more boxes of things.
All of it suggests a hopeful life at least, if not a beautiful life; I applaud my own optimism. I remember the turmoil and anxiety that came with me here. But clearly even with all that I intended to make the most of it, come what may. The thing is, all these things, these pilsner glasses and linens and books and vases—they all matter, because in each of them is hope, and not for only surviving, but for thriving.
Life in these parts can be rough, and winter especially cruel and difficult, for even those with resources. For others the struggle is abundantly clear, and some simply give up—you can see it, worn on the back like ill-fitting clothing. To those folks, and to others, I send up supplications for hope: for clean curtains that still let in the ephemeral Vermont winter light; for art with the power to jettison one to a distant horizon, if only for a moment; for good reading; for the love and camaraderie of someone who understands; and for a belly full of nourishment. And come spring, that confounding and most elusive of all Vermontish seasons, for fresh, fragrant flowers. Of course.
The dark finish on the steps and handrails was elegant and dressy once upon a time, you can tell. But over weeks and months, then years and decades, it collected scuffmarks and even a few deep gouges, call it a patina if you wish, from the traffic in the house: you can see it clearly now. Sixteen steps march up, up, up, while the open great room on the first floor disappears at about the halfway point—it’s the one place in the house where you can get close enough to one of the giant beams that stretch across the broad ceiling to reach out and caress it, before the ceiling vanishes out of sight as you continue on your way. That is on your left; the varicose surface of the massive stuccoed wall on your right (it is the real thing, applied by a true craftsman in the 1920s) will draw blood from your knuckles when you venture too close with a heavy laundry basket. You’ll be out of breath by then, coming from the far reaches of the basement one full floor below, where you went around the corner, down a hallway, and around another corner, just to run a load of wash.
At the top of these sixteen steps, had you taken the time to notice in the first place, you’d have found the flooring nails on the one step to the right (and another to the left, leading to the master suite) that were pounded through the rounded piece of wood trim forming the lip of the step, but were never bent up or clipped out of harm’s way by the carpenter wielding that hammer all those years ago. When your child reaches middle school the delicate underside of his high instep will somehow find one of those nails, leaving a deep laceration that insists on a trip to the doctor and a tetanus shot right away; for a little while you’ll silently curse a nameless carpenter who is probably long dead.
At the bottom of the steps stands a solid newel post topped by a perfect, round finial that wobbles, although it will never come off in the sixteen or so years you live in the house with your husband and child, like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life. And on top of the finial is a perfectly round wood plug that once covered the nail holding the finial in place, flush with the finial itself; the nail has emerged about an eighth inch out of the plug, and you mean to countersink that dang thing and cover the tiny hole with putty. You mean to, but never do it, because a piece of you knows that finial has been grabbed onto by hands large and small through the decades, happy hands off to an adventure that won’t wait, or busy hands, purposeful hands, angry hands, and even grieving hands. And now these hands, yours, feel the play in that post every time you climb or descend those sixteen beautiful steps. If you countersink the nail, the finial won’t wobble anymore, and somehow all those stories might be forgotten.
The last time I grasped the wobbly finial was near the end of August in 2012, the night my grownup boy and I slept on makeshift beds in the empty great room, the same empty room where, on the eve of moving in, he and I ran joyously back and forth from the massive fireplace to the bottom of the steps when he was two, again and again, until we were both out of breath and finally collapsed in giggles. This long chapter in a special house drew to a close without much fanfare, and certainly without giggles. Still, there was hope on the horizon not yet realized by either of us.
There is something organic about occupying a structure, working in it, or living out your life in it. One has only to glance at an abandoned house to see this truth: the vibrancy reaches beyond the rudimentary things, the electricity and water that make the place habitable. Blood coursing through the veins, air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs by people and their animals, these things bring life to a building or home. David and I are glad to step across the threshold of our new-old Vermont home, every day: it represents so much more for us than mere bricks and mortar, but like any home, is transient—we were not the first to inhabit it nor shall we be the last.
Where is the wobbly finial post in this home? I’m not yet precisely sure, but have only just started looking.
A note about these photos: my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister gave me a wonderful hand-me-down for Christmas, her Nikon D300s—she calls it my ‘big girl’ camera. These images represent my first efforts with a decidedly more sophisticated instrument (that has a decidedly sharper learning curve to go with) than my old Nikon D70, which I’ll keep on using as the situation demands. We witnessed some spectacular goings-on in these parts over the last few days owing to an earlier than usual January thaw after our last deep freeze, then a mini-mud season that lasted for a single day (Vermonters joyously broke out shorts and T-shirts in mid January), but then dangerously high water in local rivers and streams and serious local flooding, followed by another deep freeze which has more or less stopped everything in its tracks. The Walloomsac River defines one boundary of our property and is majestic and imposing just now; I tried to capture a little of its somewhat terrifying intentions in my quest for a wobbly finial.
The fall has come not a moment too soon, some might say.
Peter Martins stepped down as Ballet Master in Chief at New York City Ballet last week after allegations of sexual harassment and the verbal and physical abuse of company members, reported the New York Times. This is not the first time he has come under public scrutiny. There was the alleged wife beating incident some years ago, but Martins’ wife, former NYCB principal ballerina Darci Kistler, dropped the charges the next day. And Martins pled guilty to a DUI in 2011. Now it seems more than one person who danced for him has a bone to pick with him.
Several weeks ago after the public sullying of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the moguls started falling like dominoes. Why, I wondered aloud to a colleague, had the earlier shaming of Bill Cosby not started the same cascade of high-profile evictions in the entertainment industry? What was special about Weinstein? Or has the cultural climate shifted just enough in the intervening couple of years that fewer people are afraid to come forward with their stories? After the Weinstein story broke, scarcely a day passed without some other firing or forced resignation of big names across industries. Funny thing, I told my colleague, that kind of thing happens in the ballet world all the time, and has for decades.
I suppose I decided in the case of ballet, anyway, there was simply some tacit, industry-wide acceptance of bad behavior, and so it would merely continue and life would go on in the classroom and in the theatre, superimposed over unspeakably bad behavior by people who are supposed to be leaders, and therefore one would assume, held to higher standards. But not in the arts: ballet feels so tied to ancient standards in the first place, it seemed this problem too, the sexual misconduct, might somehow be tolerated along with other practices that would never fly in other arenas nowadays—like referring to the members of a company as ‘boys and girls’ instead of ‘women and men,’ for example. That is to say, children, not grown-ups. And everybody knows you can push around children in ways no grown-up would tolerate, the thinking might go.
And then the news of these allegations broke. I happened to hear about them on a local NBC affiliate in a breaking story near the end of the evening news broadcast. Then there was a silent spell which proved to be only the calm before the storm. One of my ballet homies astutely observed, good thing it was Peter: had it been somebody less renowned the same old problem would doubtless have persisted unchecked. But Peter Martins’ ousting may pave the way for others to speak up with less fear of professional repercussions.
And fear is precisely what all this boils down to. Recently retired NYCB principal dancer Wendy Whelan articulated this so eloquently one evening last week during an All Things Considered broadcast on NPR: “It’s a tradition that’s built on discipline and focus and pleasing people. And it can easily get manipulated. For us, career is everything,” she said. “I mean, he’s literally my dad’s age,” she continued. “And, you know, a lot of us dancers interestingly, I think, have a dad thing…our dad was either not there in a certain way or just harder to please or something. And we all have this thing about pleasing dad.” Ironic that she used the word ‘tradition’ to describe ballet.
For dancers, it would seem, the time-honored tradition to tolerate serious missteps on behalf of the artistic staff is perpetuated in the name of job security, as other artists have claimed—even physical abuse and unsolicited sexual advances. Nor is this kind of criminal behavior (let’s call it what it is) limited to female dancers alone: there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ victims of these crimes.
My own parents are only five or so years older than Peter Martins. And when we first moved to Memphis in the mid-1960s, and my mom joined Memphis Ballet, the same kinds of things went on in that company. Teachers took Draconian measures in classes to correct ballet technique (as occurred everywhere on the planet in those days unfortunately), and unprofessional dalliances happened in the company. At eight I understood that the artistic director and his wife were divorcing precisely because he had become romantically involved with a company member. I also remember an awkward year or two when all three of them—husband, ex-wife, and girlfriend—continued to share the same classrooms and the stage. You could excuse it all as expected, anywhere there are ‘temperamental’ artists; I am sure the Board of Directors did. In another ironic twist, the ballet company and school in Memphis observed the same paradigms almost precisely as the ones Mr. Balanchine had by then established at NYCB and its affiliate School of American Ballet, and the company directors in Memphis were in fact Balanchine disciples themselves. The leader sets the cultural tone for an institution, and Mr. Balanchine in particular was a ballet icon whose influence made its way around the world, to say nothing of Memphis, Tennessee. He was also notably viewed as a father figure by many of his dancers (if not all of them), but his own questionable behavior flew under the accountability radar; he might not be so lucky were he judged by today’s standards, of course.
Stepping away from the obvious damage for a moment—the physical and emotional injuries wrought upon individual victims—there’s something more sinister to these breaking stories, that threatens ballet systemically. Now and again the potential demise of classical ballet has been prophesied, based on its decline following the ‘golden age’ of the 1970s, when one Mikhail Baryshnikov emerged on the ballet horizon and raised the technical standards, for male dancers in particular. Importantly, he brought classical ballet to places it had never been, namely the American living room: ballet finally entered our pop culture conversations, as it never had before.
But its appeal was ephemeral, only now showing signs of again reaching a broader audience thanks to the likes of Misty Copeland, for example, with her big commercial sponsorships and barrier-breaking successes that black ballerinas could only dream about once upon a time. And there is American Ballet Theatre’s ground-breaking National Training Curriculum that has raised teaching standards for those who seek it out, addressing the whole dancer, improving dancer health, ostensibly staving off injuries, and making longer careers possible (they’ve been getting longer and longer, thanks to more intelligent training around the globe in general). But none of this matters if the people in charge believe they are Teflon coated in the professional sphere!
Sound like a stretch? Consider the parents whose daughter, like Wendy Whelan from Louisville, Kentucky, for example, might be a prodigy. It’s already a tough call: convince them to spend money hand over fist for highly specialized training for their talented daughter—full-time residential training that takes her far from home, where she will have nothing approximating a normal childhood, will need to forestall her college education so that she can dance, and may in fact continue to need her parents’ financial support even after she finds her way to the professional stage—and then add to that this little footnote: she may need to sleep with the artistic director of her dream company if she wants to advance through the company rankings and get the roles she desires.
It frankly infuriates the heck out of me—I don’t care how beautiful Peter Martins once was as a dancer, and indeed he was. Because that kind of behavior makes the job of ballet teachers everywhere more difficult, and ultimately threatens the very existence of the form. Young ballet students might as easily take up soccer or the cello: what responsible parent would knowingly send them down a path with criminal abuse at its terminus?
As somebody once observed, it’s only ballet, and there is truth to that. Wendy Whelan and others of their ilk may view the landscape through a different lens, though—the “career is everything” lens. And anyway, criminal behavior is criminal behavior, whether it happens to an intern at a major network, or a young dancer who fears losing her status with the company she’s dreamed of joining all her life. Really, classical ballet is hard enough.
I leave you with the trailer of a fairly recent film that beautifully documents the last couple of years of Wendy’s professional life with New York City Ballet, through her surgery for a torn labrum, and her farewell performance months later. You’ll see glimpses of Peter Martins, too. The full-length film, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, is available on Netflix.
Photo at top of post is the property of Knoxville Ballet School; don’t steal—it ain’t nice.
This one thing still happens to me every week, if not every day: I see somebody and I think I know who it is for an instant, and then remember there is no way I could possibly know them. I am new here still, and mainly disconnected, still. Back ‘home’ in Knoxville I could scarcely go anywhere without bumping into (or at least glimpsing) people I knew. Even in a city with some size to it—about a half million or so in the metro area, a city where you plan your crosstown trips carefully against the traffic—I was fairly sheltered in my midtown enclave, sheltered in a life where my closest friends and I lived within walking distance of each other, and attended the same church, and sent our kids to the same schools. So really it is not too surprising I’d bump into people I knew every single day. You might even have called it a provincial life, saved by the intellect and creativity of the people around me, maybe even a little out of step with others in the neighborhood.
Still this phenomenon persists. I stand in line at the grocery store and see somebody in the next line, and think, Oh look! That’s so-and-so! But wait, it can’t be. I’m a thousand miles from so-and-so and her family, and have not talked to any of them in years (wonder what the kids are doing? they must be out of college by now). This morning I saw a face in the church choir that looked for all the world like the anthropology professor’s, my former anthropology professor’s, who sang in the cathedral choir in Knoxville. But of course it wasn’t. Or the well-heeled woman I talked to for a long time over coffee after church a couple of weeks ago: she could have been someone I knew and had known for decades, but was not. The mind sure does funny things to you.
During my first years in Vermont this phenomenon made me wistful for what I left behind, and underscored the pain and loneliness of what’s best described in hindsight as exile, self-imposed or not. But these days the doppelgänger effect leaves me with a different, more hopeful idea: what if people are simply people? The people in the grocery queue here are people stocking up for the week, or for the impending storm, like the ones back home (yes, Tennessee has occasional snow and ice in winter). The choristers are choristers, like the ones at the cathedral. If you got them all together in the same space, aside from their distinctly different dialects and some other notable differences in cultural sensibilities, they’d probably all feel pretty much at home with each other.
When I was back home in Tennessee in September I was glad to bump into a pair of people with whom I was close, about as close as somebody can be to you without being your actual family, but with whom I’ve not kept up over the last five years. It was a good catchup but far too brief, followed up a week or so later in a phone call an hour long but not long enough. And another family in the same circle, not in town in September as fate would have it, but now relocated to another part of the country anyway, starting their own new chapter outlined in this year’s Christmas missive. I miss them all, and others.
No matter how much you and your friends once giggled about your kids all meeting up at somebody’s wedding rehearsal dinner fifteen or twenty years down the road, nothing really turns out how you imagine it will.
And from that truth emerges this somehow encouraging thought: were I still there in Tennessee right now, my life would look so different from how I imagined it would look, even had I continued down the path I was on: I would still be starting a new chapter. My little enclave, my community, would’ve changed no matter what. Sure, I’d see some of the same faces week to week, but the imagined future—the ones my friends and I once envisioned for ourselves and our kids—would still be fiction, a mere fantasy—and nothing more. Now there is talk of retirement plans, for we are approaching those years, not quite there yet. And retirement will not look how we imagined it might, not precisely.
Really, how lucky am I to have lived down south in Tennessee—on both ends of the state at different times in my life—and out west in Colorado for a few years, and now in New England. How lucky am I to have made a living doing one or both of the two things I love doing. I could use some shorter winters, and longer days. (And how irksome that this wonderful sunshine beaming through my office window as I write these words will be gone in a flash, leaving the damaging effects of its radiation on my left cheek through the window glass, but none of its vitamin D-inducing benefits.) But that is not what this chapter has in store for us, for Chef David and me, and now Scout, not just yet. We are precisely where we need to be at this moment in time.
I leave you with images from Christmas week in our corner of the world.
Suffice it to say we have been busy. (Note to self: never again move to a new house just before Christmas.) A little peek at what some of us have been up to these last couple of weeks. Heavenly Peace on this Christmas Eve, from my family to yours.
Last Thursday afternoon I stood on the front porch of our new home having a delightful chat with a pair of young Mormon missionaries. Earlier I’d seen them combing the other side of the block for anybody whose ear they could bend to share their earnest message. One after another door remained closed; some folks were not yet home from work, probably. But I bet others simply refused to answer. I went about my business while I waited for them to knock, resolving to talk to them when they did. No way in heck would I let them deliver their spiel, but I’d known some Mormons back in Tennessee; they were good people and held tight to their convictions without getting all up in anybody’s business. I even attended the baptism of one of their children, invited by her parents, and felt honored as an outsider to be included.
So when the two young missionaries arrived on my porch I gave them a big ‘ole Southern howdy, which I think caught them off guard a bit, as much because up in these parts folks can be pretty dang reserved. I introduced myself, said I was at least a little familiar with their church, explained I had Mormon friends. Their faces lit up.
Before we go any further, I said, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a Mormon. I will never be a Mormon. I have my own faith tradition and I’m a comfortable and happy practitioner of it, thank you very much.
We can respect that, one of them said, both of them nodding their heads vigorously.
They went on to ask me what brought me all the way from Tennessee to Vermont, and what did I think about Vermont, and how are Tennessee winters compared with Vermont winters. I think it’s fair to say I’m a somewhat reluctant Vermonter, I said, especially in winter when I’m known to be cranky. I also said people here often don’t know what to do with an effusive Southerner. They laughed and we talked a little while about where I work and what I do (although I tried to edit myself, after my twenty-something recently observed that I talk too much). They were clean scrubbed boys wearing familiar white dress shirts and neckties; one of them had product in his hair that made it stick straight up, but it was neatly combed.
I know all about the two years of missionary work y’all have to do. (Yes, heads nodding.) It must be hard to make cold calls on people—I bet y’all get doors slammed in your faces.
Sometimes, they admitted, but mainly people are nice.
After we said bye and I stepped back inside I realized how starved I am for community—starved enough to cherish my encounter with a pair of Mormon missionaries with whom I have so little kinship. My hunger will be assuaged, I think, living in this house in our new urban neighborhood, among people, and I am glad of it. But as I mentioned recently to a colleague, it’s different when you’ve already raised your family, and you relocate far from the people you’ve known your entire life, and the community you’ve known for almost as long. Back then your young child was the ‘glue’ that bound you to others of your ilk.
Now, here you are so far away from that, and with no glue: this situation is exponentially more difficult, until you find some kind of mooring—if you are lucky enough to find it—with others who share your values and identity.
This morning I attended the first Sunday in Advent Holy Eucharist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a beautiful church that is walking distance from home. I haven’t had the luxury to do this for all but the first of the five years I’ve lived in Vermont, for one reason and another. But this new house and neighborhood make a number of things possible, including belonging—to a church, to the gym, and to other groups of people with whom I share interests, potentially.
In recent years I’ve also longed for the peaceful reflection and quiet preparation that come with the season of Advent, mainly run over roughshod by secular Christmas, and today I found that, too. Our naked Christmas tree stands in front of a living room window waiting for us; we’ll get to it when its limbs relax a little and we can stop unpacking and hanging curtains long enough to breathe. And I’ll listen to Bing Crosby this time around in a different frame of mind.
Importantly, I think I found home this morning: when I walked into the nave of that exquisite downtown church I felt it instantly. After the service another communicant there told me she had the same unmistakable feeling wash over her the first time she walked in. The power of place, and of home, can’t be underestimated. It brings me to tears, as it did this morning.
On Tuesday I’ll drop some teacups and saucers at the church for the annual Christmas tea. Once upon a time they were destined for our tag sale that never was, but will now be in the spring. Scores of ballet students sipped tea from those beautiful cups at a half dozen or so Nutcracker tea parties I threw back in the days of Knoxville Ballet School. So much joy was poured into those teacups; it feels good to hand them to St. Peter’s, the best place for them now, I think.
Fr. Lanier this morning reminded us that the first Sunday in Advent is also the first day on the liturgical calendar. He went on to point out that darkness and cold typically characterize this day, especially in the northern hemisphere. But his message was a hopeful one, reminding us to find light and purpose in the darkness and cold as we prepare for the joyous occasion of Christmas and renewal in the new year.
It dawned on me that at this moment in our history we are a nation of beleaguered and divided people who need a hopeful message, I think, from a good person we trust: my Advent wish is for each of us to find that person, and to find peace, in whatever our faith traditions, and in so doing to find home.