Secret Admirer

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I see this pair walking around the lake just about every single day.  I do not know them but imagine they must be yearlong residents somewhere on my road, unlike the majority of folks who own seasonal houses and who will return only with the warmer spring weather.  I have passed them on occasion during my runs with Clarence.  They are probably in their eighties; she is always in a dress or skirt.  They walk along at a brisk pace and appear oblivious to wicked cold, biting wind, snow, and the elements in general.

These two bring a smile to my  face every time I see them.  I do not know why I find them so reassuring, but I think it has something to do with what a dear friend has been known to quip about people who have made it to their eighties and beyond:  They won.

I love that idea.  And even though I don’t know these people, I like to think that what they have between them is unmovable.  It is certainly enduring.  There are lessons to be learned here.

We should shut up and listen.

Magnetic Poetry, Magnetic Boyfriend

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One of many things I find so endearing about Handsome Chef Boyfriend is a penchant for leaving things in his wake that will surprise me later; found this today.  There was more, but I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) include it here.

Unsupervised for even a second, he rediscovers his inner sixth grader.

HCB:  you are busted.

XO,

Deb

Two Shoes, Three Shoes, Four Shoes…

Dog shoes.

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Clarence has struggled some with the bitter cold winter here in Vermont when we go outside, particularly when the temperatures drop below zero. I mentioned this to my good friend Larry back in Tennessee who calls often to check on us and he immediately bought these nifty Petco shoes for Clarence and sent them to us yesterday.  After a few user problems (of the human kind), we have figured them out and they are pretty amazing. (And huge hat tip to Larry and some of his colleagues, who insisted on buying two tons of pellets for my pellet stove back in the fall.)

Thank you, Larry, and a great, big, huge, slobbery kiss from Clarence.

Woof.

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

At one of the several teachers’ intensives I have attended at American Ballet Theatre over the past four years my mentor, Raymond Lukens (at left)—who happens to be co-creator of ABT’s National Training Curriculum along with his esteemed colleague Franco De Vita—asked a roomful of sweaty ballet teachers, Do you realize how lucky you are to be doing this job?

Yes, I really do realize how lucky I am.  I spend my days creating classical ballet exercises that will help shape and form a new generation of young dancers, and then I guide them through the execution of those exercises.  I sit squarely in the middle of three generations of instructors on one faculty—the youngest the school’s director and visionary, and the oldest a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre for many years during Baryshnikov’s tenure there.  I consider myself very lucky indeed to have these two colleagues as bookends, and also as creative barometers.

Here are a few of the images that greet me during my working day.

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the entrance to the school

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the school’s main classroom

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and one of my favorite corridors, right around the corner from the school’s entrance

The building where I teach is old and quirky and has seen many uses and episodes of remodeling through the years.  In its current guise it is home to artists and creative businesses of all sorts and has a fantastic energy to it.

Soon the ballet school will move into a new facility that is literally across the railroad tracks from our current space, about five months behind schedule.  It is also old and quirky but with fewer tenants.  We will gain an additional classroom space—critically important to a growing school—and significantly, the three of us will see much more of each other.  Operating out of two facilities as we have been since September, we are like ships passing in the night.

The school I founded in Knoxville had so much going for it, but  I was working in a creative vacuum there.  I am immeasurably excited about the prospect of being part of a community of ballet artists for the first time in my professional life.

I Skate on a Frozen Lake


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Today Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I braved a very windy day to venture out onto the frozen lake where I live.  Since the temperatures have steadily climbed above zero for the last couple of days, more and more people have been seen on the ice engaged in various winter sports.  On our way out of the neighborhood today for my morning of ballet class in White River Junction, we noticed the southern end of the lake teeming with activity.  We decided we had to check it out later.

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Once home we grabbed our skates and headed out to the trail, HCB in his hockey skates, and I in my figures.  I was unsteady on my feet for a while.  This image shows the path looking south; we had about a 1.5-mile stretch to reach the southern end of the lake.  I had a death grip on his hand most of the way down, but with a wicked strong tail wind, we did not have to make much effort to really fly–in fact, a couple of times we were not skating at all, but were whipped along by the wind alone (he found this thrilling, I found it terrifying).

I tried to get a couple of images that show just how thick the ice is; HCB estimated about eight inches near where we launched; it was thinner elsewhere, but still around four or five inches.  In these pictures the greyish area below the scored cracks actually shows the ice in profile. Pretty dang thick.

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At the southern end of the lake we found a pond hockey tournament; HCB counted around fifteen or so rinks that had been marked off and prepared for games, and there were quite a few in progress:

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And for those of my friends who have questioned the existence of elusive Handsome Chef Boyfriend, here he is warming his hands at the tournament:

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My fingers and toes were pretty frozen as we started our trip back up the trail home.  We had been concerned about what would now be a strong head wind, but thankfully the wind had shifted a bit and was mainly coming at us sideways from the west.  I was working hard to push and started getting my skating legs back sometime in the last mile or so.  I stopped to take more photos and HCB–who is a hot shot hockey player–skated a few tight circles and then zoomed off ahead of me:

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We had to walk-skate through crusty snow back to the shore.  The second I congratulated myself for staying upright all afternoon, I hit the deck within about five feet of dry land; much hilarity ensued.

I am the kind of exhausted I have not been in a while–the kind you get when you are working hard physically, and also working hard to just stay warm.  It is really an exquisite feeling.  And in spite of the fact that I was mainly focused on not wiping out, I still enjoyed the stunning beauty of this place, and of seeing everyone there–the skaters, who were all ages but pretty universally accomplished, the cross-country skiiers, the ice fishermen, the hockey players, and the dogs, who bounded joyously across snow and ice with huge, goofy grins.

Until I am a bit more sure of myself on my skates, though, it will be a while before I am willing and able to manage Clarence at the end of a leash that is attached to me.

To be continued….

January Deep Freeze

The lake where I live is completely frozen now, and has several inches of crunchy snow on it.  It is nearly ten below as I write, at 1 am; there are warnings about frostbite and hypothermia floating around.  Today (yesterday) was kind of horrible and it is calming to me to think of this cold landscape over which I have no control.  When I took Clarence out about an hour ago, the cold hurt his pads and he asked to come back inside.  Just now we had success; I will get him some shoes.  The moon is so bright, though, that you can actually see across the lake because of the light reflecting off the snow.

Day before yesterday during our run I heard the unmistakable scratching of skate blades.  I glanced over my shoulder to see a skater on the lake path with her leashed dog, who was running beside her in the snow.  I made a pledge to myself and to Clarence to try this soon, maybe as early as next week.  This weekend, when the temperatures are predicted to be much warmer, I will do some skating with Handsome Chef Boyfriend to get my skating legs back; it has been a couple of years.

Before I left for ballet school yesterday–in spite of the biting cold and wind–I ventured through the property just across the street (yes, I have permission), down a steep hill, and stepped out onto the ice to see how it feels to stand on a vast frozen lake. In spite of the wicked cold, it was pretty amazing.  I shot a few images.

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on the way down

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evidence of a creature who had gone before me

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looking west 

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my first careful steps onto the ice; the groomed trail is visible just below the line of a shadow cast by a passing cloud overhead

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on the lake’s north end, ice fishermen

Snow Plow

Last summer I started looking around Vermont for a place to live when it seemed more and more likely that I would be powering down my life in East Tennessee and pressing the reset button in New England.  I knew that when I arrived in August for the teaching audition that serves as a job interview in the ballet world my potential new employer would have a lot of savvy advice, and ultimately it was she who spent hours driving me all over the place to look once I was on the ground.   But I thought I would do some leg work ahead of my trip; I had only a few hours to find a home, and I wanted to be at least a little prepared.

In short order I began sifting through online listings for interesting rental properties.  The biggest challenge for me at that early stage of the game was learning Vermont place names and determining their whereabouts in relation to my work in White River Junction.  There were plenty of rentals out there but I had the gathering impression that I would be driving some distance to work.  My ideal home—within walking distance—simply did not exist, at least not at my price point.  And I have since learned that a thirty-mile commute here is kinda like being right next door.  It’s all relative.

So I started exploring options.  One of the first listings that appealed to me was a barn conversion.  It was a gem—open concept floor plan with cathedral ceilings (of course), hardwood throughout, fully modern kitchen, in an idyllic setting, and significantly, dogs okay.  But then this perk caught my eye:  “Plowing included.”

Sitting there in front of my laptop at the dining room table in my beautiful vintage Knoxville home which was only days from being sold at auction, I tried to suppress giggles.  Plowing included.  Er, okay, whatever.  I am not a farmer.  I can’t even foster a plain old house plant, much less cultivate a garden.  Besides:  when would there be time for that?

But plowing was mentioned in just about every listing I came across.   And then this:  Snow removal included.

Oh.  That kind of plowing.

Yep, I am officially a hayseed.

Plowing is the lifeblood of a New England winter, I think.  The unmistakable sound of that truck rumbling down my picturesque street tells me first, I am not alone here.  And second, somebody has successfully braved the storm for the rest of us.  How very reassuring.  Standing in my tiny, chilly kitchen in the early morning, fumbling with the coffee maker before I can even see straight, countless times I have heard that sound and looked up to watch the plow truck rattle by with its cheerful grinding and scraping.  Sometimes what comes off the road is powder laid down overnight as part of the last storm system that came blasting through.  Other times it is a messy accumulation of sand, road grit, and ice that formed after yesterday’s warm daytime sunshine melted some of what was on the road, and it refroze.  When you actually watch what the plow is catching, it can appear to be nothing.  But when you back out of your (poorly shoveled) driveway, you are eternally grateful the truck made a couple of passes down the street in the last dozen or so hours.

The plow trucks occasionally zip past me when I am running with Clarence; we get out of their way.  Sometimes the drivers wave to us.  I have seen one truck around here with block letters that spell THINK SPRING on the front of its plow.  This lifts my spirits every time I see it and reminds me that even seasoned Vermonters get tired of dealing with winter.  (Handsome Chef Boyfriend insists this is a play on a local expression, Think Snow, but I am not so sure.)

Lately I have come to view this removal of layers of winter impediment from the street as a metaphor for starting over.  (New England pals:  go ahead and collectively roll your eyes.)  It is not unlike how I think of the cleansing effects of water:  life-giving, renewing—an essential element that brings relief at the end of a difficult work day, that calms a distraught child when nothing else will, that is the single most important nutrient.  Washing away the day so there is the promise of something new and better.  The snow plowman prepares the way for us so that we can go about the business of finding something new and better.  Or even finding what we have grown accustomed to, or of what we need.

And what we need may be a fresh, unimpeded start.

Thank you, plowman.

You say potato…

I am pretty sure I once heard Eudora Welty in a radio interview lamenting the disappearance of the regional dialect in America.  Her theory:  the insidious whitebread suburban-speak coming into our living rooms day and night via television had dealt a fatal blow to the subtleties that once defined us regionally, including our interpretation of spoken English.  We were all beginning to sound the same.  That interview was probably some time in the late 1990s, not long before her death.

If you are schooled in the reality television phenomenon known as Honey Boo Boo, first, I am so sorry.  Second, you may guess that Ms. Welty was just wrong.  We’ve still got regional accents.  And if you are unfamiliar with the rural deep South, I can say that–yes–there really are people who sound like that.

Tennessee’s native sound varies widely from east to west.  The late Robert Drake, a respected Southern writer and a friend, always insisted that the East Tennessee dialect (commonly known as “hill”) was not Southern; it was Appalachian, as East Tennessee is after all part of Appalachia.  The tongue has a distinct twang to it.  My mom grew up in East Tennessee but somehow emerged as an adult with much more of a West Tennessee drawl, maybe because we lived in Memphis for a couple of decades.  She could imitate hill dialect to a fault, though, and I often pressed her to do this while I was growing up.  I would illustrate it here if I could, but no vowels nor combination thereof quite do it justice.

My dad also grew up in East Tennessee, but much further south, close to the Georgia state line.  His accent has its own nuance, and phrases which I once found embarrassing–“sweet” milk he liked to order when we ate out (cue proverbial eye roll), or “I’m fixin’ to go,” to indicate intention, I now find endearing.

I tried to “erase” my Southern accent in early adolescence because I was so self-conscious about it.  In summer intensives at ballet school–a long way from my Memphis home–every night was a girly slumber party in somebody-or-other’s dorm room.  The kids came from everywhere, but there were only a couple of us from the South.  I recall being asked to say things, phrases, out loud, whereupon an entire room of pajamed thirteen-year-olds erupted in hysterical laughter.  I laughed, too.

And then I went home to Memphis and tried deliberately to “repair” the way I spoke so that there would be less ridicule the next year.  It was not that I was stupid, or spoke with bad grammar.  But I am sure I sounded to these kids–who came from the two coasts, and from various points between–like a foreigner.

Now I embrace my Southern-ness.  It does not even bother me, not one bit, that Handsome Chef Boyfriend teases me about it.  He has been known, in fact, to tickle me in the ribs until I cannot breathe just so that he can hear me utter his favorite  word, QUIT!  Only that is not how it comes out.  He would tell you it sounds like this:  QUEEEEIT!

Since I have moved to Vermont, and work in Vermont, and have Vermont plates on my Subi, I am eager to hear a Real Vermont Accent. I have not yet figured it out, which has made me consider the idea that Ms. Welty’s earlier observation was perhaps correct.  I may have gotten close once, when I arrived one morning at the really hipster building where I work in White River Junction and a food delivery person was talking to the staff in the kitchen at the equally hipster restaurant in the same building.  It was shop talk, and I could not understand a single word being spoken.  Had I not been in such a huge hurry I would have eavesdropped longer.

I am pretty sure the Native Americans who inhabited this part of the world had a pretty interesting dialect, if place names are any indication.  In my daily commute I cross a river called the Ompomanoosuc; I call it the Oompa Loompa River because I can actually say Oompa Loompa.

When my teenager visited me during the holidays and we crossed the river, he tried sounding out the word a syllable at a time.  I said, It’s called the Oompa Loompa River.  No, he insisted, It’s the Om-Pom-Pa-Noo-Suc River.  And you know, he continued, the Indians probably named it that just to piss off the white people.

Maybe.

But now I am on a quest to answer life’s eternal question:  Does Vermont have its own dialect?

Inquiring Southern minds want to know.

Size matters.

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Long before I took the huge leap of faith that was moving to Vermont—before my marriage failed and I found myself unemployed at the end of a miserable divorce—I wondered how rural New England life might feel on my bones.  It was just a fantasy.  My life and family and work were deeply rooted in East Tennessee and the idea of undertaking such a huge shift could be only that—an idea.  I have had occasion in the last year to reflect on how this idea could never come to fruition—or even really bear discussion—during our marriage because my ex would always say his work was in East Tennessee; one of many red flags I chose to ignore in my two-plus  decades with him.  Even a New England vacation was out of the question.  What we had was never really a partnership.

Ironically I am writing this post at the big, glass desk I placed intentionally below one of two large, west-facing picture windows on the cheerful facade of my Vermont cottage.  From here I can look across a small road, through a stand of tall scrub pines and onto a picturesque frozen lake; it is close enough to me that if I threw a rock it would land in it.  Or skid across its surface.  The locals tell me it will teem with winter activities before too much longer; Handsome Chef Boyfriend ran around it yesterday morning and reported that there were already a few ice fishermen out on the shallow north end.  The week before Christmas there was no ice at all.  Then a winter storm blew in, and two days later another on its heels, and suddenly the lake was frozen.  Just like that.  It is magical, and all new to me.

My shepherd Clarence and I saw a few of summer’s waning days before New England fall was upon us. And then we had several weeks of delicious, long runs against a backdrop that was more stunning than I could have imagined, or that any picture postcard could ever do justice.  I kept pinching myself to make sure this was no dream.

I have arrived at the next chapter, at my life in rural New England.

Leaving Tennessee was rough.  I walked away from close bonds to people, to family, to land there.  I closed my small ballet school of necessity.  The local economy was and remains weak.  Had there been a couple more years of financial and emotional support I think we—my ballet school families and I—could have made a go of it.  We were very close.  But there was no way in the world I could bear the thought of spending the next half-century of my life standing behind a cash register at the mall, and that was the emerging picture.  My ex would have been fine with that scenario.

A great hue and cry went up when I announced the school’s closure:  proverbial wailing, tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth.  As Eloise would say, You can imagine….  I still hate that I had to walk away from my students, some of whom I had been teaching from quite young and who were now experiencing their first summer study away from home at American Ballet Theatre.  If you are uninitiated in the ways of the ballet world, this is a big deal.  Abandoning a work in progress is a horrible feeling, and I am eternally grateful to my mom—a veteran ballet teacher—for stepping up to the plate in my absence to care for some of these kids, in spite of a two-hour commute.  (Thanks, mom.)  I really did—and still do—care about my ballet kids.

Many of my Tennessee friends, and some of my family, urged me to reconsider the idea of leaving.  It is nice to be loved, and I think a few people just did not want me to go.  My closest family members were worried about my finances and felt that it would be more difficult to help me if I were a thousand miles away; they were probably correct.  It was difficult to explain why I had to go, although I tried to make it clear.  Some people did not get it, others got it right away.  Still, it was a good exercise for me to be careful about this decision and spend some time reflecting.

And then there was a single moment when the decision to get out felt right, in fact urgent.

On an early summer day I sat idling in traffic at a signal at the entrance to my neighborhood, waiting to make a left turn when the light changed.  The driver’s window in the car ahead of me was open, and then her arm emerged and came to a rest on the door.  The arm that was tattooed with flames from the shoulder to the elbow.  The arm belonging to a woman, a massage therapist who had worked on my ex.  The massage therapist who had held him.  And dined with him.  And slept with him.  And lived in a condominium three blocks from our family home.  And probably passed by it many times a day, unbeknownst to me.

In that moment, I realized that the city of roughly a half million I had called home for three decades had just shrunk, kind of like the Grinch’s heart, two sizes too small.  It was time to go.

One of my favorite writers when asked recently the biggest lesson life has taught him answered, there isn’t one lesson, but many.  But, he said, dealing with love—finding it, doing what one loves, taking risks to do what one loves.  The choice, he says, is security or satisfaction.  So he has settled for a lot of satisfaction and no security.

That, in a nutshell, is where I find myself now.  I won’t be in this beautiful little cottage for very long, because the reality is that I can’t afford it.  I am trying to take each day at a time, trying to enjoy the beauty and serenity of this place while I can.  On a beautiful Sunday afternoon a few days before I left Tennessee I found myself sitting on the porch at the home of another brilliant writer and friend who has seen more than her share of sorrow, telling her about that crystal clear moment when I knew I had to go.  Her advice to me:  you must tell your story.

That is precisely what I am doing.  It is risky.  There is no security in it.  It is deeply satisfying.

I know my friends understand.

Chickens are not compelling.

 

Let me be very clear about this.  Chickens—the dead kind that await preparation for the table—are just chickens.  They may be tough or tender, free range and organic, or raised in a huge, commercial poultry house, in which case you might say they were fowl.  Get it?  Fowl?  They may be served up as haut cuisine or deep fried to a fare-thee-well.  But they are just chickens.

Allow me to digress a moment.  I spend a couple of weeks each summer in NYC at American Ballet Theatre for ballet teacher training.  Although I was a little terrified the first time I did this in 2009—traveling alone to the city, training in the company of icons at the epicenter of the ballet world, in general being a fish out of water—I have grown to love going there.  It wears me out, to be sure; the city has a palpable energy that can be fatiguing if you are not accustomed to it, and I am emphatically not.  But I find the creative shot in the arm from that experience essential to teaching ballet well.

I have also grown to enjoy the experience of pretending to be a New Yorker for a couple of weeks each year.  I stay in a tiny apartment that is walking distance to ballet school and try to embrace the lifestyle.  My first summer there I learned how to shop smart—how to stretch my grocery dollars, to plan meals and examine portion and package sizes and think about the distance I had to walk to schlep everything home, how much waste I would produce and the consequences of that when it came time to deal with trash and recycling in my apartment building.  It is a little like being in college again and I do not mind it one bit; in fact, the whole process has evolved into an enjoyable challenge to see just how frugal I can be.  And now I am practicing that same frugality of necessity each and every day because my uncertain finances dictate that I must.  Until I am actually forced to live under a bridge, it is no big deal to me.

Vermonters are practiced at frugality, and I admire the heck out of them for it.  This is not a political or ecological statement.  It has nothing to do with my opinions about stewardship of the planet, or climate change, or world peace.  It is just an observation about the kind of stalwart people in whose company I now find myself.  And you would probably expect folks who are accustomed to dealing with New England winters to be both stalwart and frugal.  After all, when you’ve got to haul your trash to the dump in the freezing cold and deep snow, where you pay three bucks to dispose of a single bag, you are going to plan those trips wisely and recycle as much stuff as you can.

This resourcefulness should in no way be mistaken for a lack of sophistication.  Several folks from my own little community recently knocked my socks off during a wine tasting at the local general store.  (Yep, you can buy excellent wine at the general store right around the corner; there is an impressive selection of bottles there and the store owner prides herself on remembering the individual preferences of her returning customers.)  I enjoyed listening to them speaking wine-ish—something I have never done well—swirling the juice around in the glass, making comments about the legs, and the nose, and all that.  I also enjoyed the collision of the sophisticated language with the trappings of Vermont winter (think Elmer Fudd hat).  The whole business endears them to me.

Which brings me back to cuisine and chickens in particular.  Frugality notwithstanding, Vermont has amazing food.  Of course there is the proverbial cheese and maple syrup here.  And King Arthur Flour, which is literally right down the road from me.  But the array of eating-out possibilities is dizzying, from roadside dives with gluten-free menus to upscale places with creative, artfully prepared food and a price tag to match.  I am certain that there are food snobs somewhere in Vermont, as there are in NYC, and back in Tennessee.  I would not use the word snob, though, to describe what I have observed thus far of Vermonters in general; these people appear not to take themselves too seriously.  We should all learn from that.

Recently when I was poking around to see what was going on at a particular upscale  Tennessee eatery whose success or failure has a real and material affect on my financial solvency, I laughed out loud (yes, really) when I saw this comment on its social networking page:

 We have about two dozen of these compelling <Farm X> chickens.

Compelling?  Chickens?  Um, okay.  If it sells more chickens, knock yourself out, and then send me a check so I can buy myself an Elmer Fudd hat.  Or better yet, pay my utility bill.  Or buy some chicken.

But not the compelling kind, please. Just the plain, frugal, stalwart Vermont kind will do for me.