All You Need Is

Such a simple idea, and still somehow so difficult to realize.

I am usually pretty reluctant to share much about my spiritual life with anybody, because it is one of those things which in my humble opinion is just plain private.  I have always considered questions about my faith, especially when posed by perfect strangers (“Have you been saved?”), an overt violation thereof.  Kinda like asking me which underpants I chose this morning:  none of your dang business.  And anyway, why do you care?  So I am living a little dangerously in this post.

I’ve been an Episcopalian since I was five, when my mom decided to take me to a small but oddly formal Episcopal church (“high” church) in one of Memphis’ older neighborhoods not far from our home; it was also where I attended kindergarten for a half day a week that year.  In the intervening years I was exposed to all kinds of Episcopal parishes—small to large, suburban to midtown, high church to low church, attached to Episcopal schools (which I also attended), or not, and for the longest tenure, a large, very wealthy diocesan cathedral where people go to see and be seen, and where some parishioners hold keys to the city—have buildings and such named for them.  My young family—my now ex-husband, and son, and myself—had a horrible and painful disconnect from that particular parish about a decade ago, which is a long, tawdry tale for another day.

When I moved to Vermont I had been without a church home for all that time; the day I was shown what would become my New England community I noted a tiny, beautiful Episcopal church just past the entrance to my new neighborhood.  One gorgeous late summer day as I zipped by the church in running shoes with my dog I recognized a ballet school dad and his two daughters, and the parish rector, working on the church lawn.  I stopped and we spoke for a while, after which the rector took it on himself to make me feel welcome there any time.  It was a heady feeling to have been here for only a couple of weeks and to recognize someone and in turn be recognized by them.  On a Sunday morning not long after that I asked myself a simple question:  you wanna sit here alone all day, or go meet some more people?  My motivation was uncomplicated.  Not an especially spiritual decision, though some might argue otherwise.

Going back to church has forced me to revisit how I feel about church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular.  With the passing of time I find more clarity in my answers.  I have been to other churches in my life, and to synagogues on a couple of occasions.  Some of those experiences were uplifting and some were oppressive and awful.  I will say that I enjoy the liturgy in the Episcopal Church because at its best it can be quite beautiful, and it reminds me of the meditative nature of daily ballet class (yes, really).  Of course, the downside to this is that I also sometimes find myself ignoring the liturgy and flipping on the autopilot.  But there is meditation in that, too.

My first morning in church last fall after a long absence I was overcome by emotion, and I can’t really explain that. But I was overcome by emotion in general at the time, and so I may have felt simply a flowering of what was already just below the surface.

Today I was overcome again.  I almost did not go to church.  Our rector, whom I like a great deal, has been on vacation for the past couple of weeks, and I am a creature of habit who prefers the security and predictability of the same guy delivering a thoughtful message every Sunday.  But when push came to shove I decided I was being provincial and needed to go if only to engage the liturgical autopilot for an hour.

In the end I was glad I did, but also made to feel pushed and finally inadequate, if by my own doing.   The substitute priest—who also happens to be Chairman of the Department of Religion at nearby Dartmouth—delivered a simple and powerful message:  Christ urged his followers to love everyone.  Everyone.  Including enemies.  He went on to explain that this commandment has no exceptions, period.  There was more to his sermon, of course.  There was interesting colloquial language about trademarks and logos, with the tie-in that love should be its own trademark. But the distillation of his message was, just, love everyone as Christ commanded.  And during the Prayers of the People he added a thoughtful supplication for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.  And for the bombers themselves.

If we consider ourselves Christians (and I probably in fact fail to make the mark there), it is how we are supposed to be.  I am not kidding myself.  I don’t even come close to being able to fulfill that commandment, not even for a nanosecond.  I can at least imagine it.  When Osama bin Laden masterminded and executed the atrocity of 9/11, like so many other parents of young children I found myself trying to help my then-second grader put the events of that day in some kind of perspective, as I struggled to do the same for myself.  One of my child’s peers kept riddling his parents with the question:  How can someone who does not even know me, hate me?

I remember explaining to my own child that even Bin Laden was once a tiny, sweet-smelling infant, who somebody cradled, and rocked, and loved.  But in my heart of hearts I knew I would feel better if he and his minions were obliterated.

Nope. I am not even close to possessing the capacity to love everyone.  Because I am a mom, and have spent two decades parenting a son, I can at least imagine compassion for the two young men who caused so much damage in Boston.  Were I the parent of a victim, though, would I feel the same way?  I am not a great thinker or philosopher, and so I leave the big questions of the universe to those who are.  A friend of mine who left this world far too soon was quoted in her own obituary as having said God put us here to help each other.  She was a much better person than I.  I can at least imagine a world in which love rules the day, even if I can’t come close to achieving that milestone in my own tiny life.  Good thing this is not how the story ends.

Accretional Layers

ac ▪ cre ▪ tion

/əˈkrēSHən/

Noun; 1.  The process of growth or increase, typically by the gradual accumulation of additional layers or matter.  2.  A thing formed or added by such growth or increase.

As a student of historical archaeology in the late 1980s I learned early one of the canons of the discipline:  soil is laid down in accretional layers over time, with the oldest soil (and generally the artifacts therein) to be found in the deepest layers, and the more recent soil and cultural material on top.  The result is stratigraphy, which you can see clearly in the photograph.

Pretty logical.  As bizarre as it may seem, doing legwork for the CPA to prepare my 2012 Federal Income Tax Return made me think of accretional layers—not of soil, but of events that shaped my life over the last calendar year.  And equally bizarre perhaps is that I actually enjoyed this process.  I love creating order from chaos—in this case the chaos of receipts and file folders desperately thrown into Rubbermaid tubs before my move last August with my fingers crossed that I had not overlooked any critically important documents.  And beyond that, the chaos of my life.  I take comfort in knowing exactly where I stand; makes me feel a teeny bit more in control of it, even if that is but an illusion.

When everything was said and done at tax time I was exhausted, not from the work of putting everything in order, but from reflecting on the train wreck of the last year.  If the 2012 tax year could somehow be seen as accretional soil layers, mine would look like this, starting at the top:

▪ The first disquieting hints that my errant ex-spouse had no intention of honoring our Marriage Dissolution Agreement

▪ A solo trip to NYC for continued teacher training at American Ballet Theatre

▪ Reaching a new terminus a thousand miles from home where I knew a grand total of three people, and saying goodbye to my son, and starting a new job where I was not the boss

▪ Signing off on a woefully compromised Marriage Dissolution Agreement, against the advice of my attorney, followed by the rapid-fire finalization of a ruinous divorce in the eleventh hour so that I could quite literally get out of town

▪ Dismantling thirty years, selling some of it, giving away some, and packing the rest into a big yellow Penske truck pointed towards Vermont

▪ Taking a bloodbath on the sale at auction of the lovely, historic home where there had just been a family, and where there had been a functioning family for many of twenty years

▪ A job interview and teaching audition in Vermont together with a lightning-fast search for housing

▪ A couple of months of unemployment and commensurate fear and worry

▪ Careful squirreling away of cash so that I would have a way out of Knoxville when it became painfully clear I could not stay

▪ A secret job interview in New Haven, Connecticut after which I really began to learn how to live a cloak-and-dagger kind of life if I was to survive; and,

▪ The sad dissolution of my hard-won ballet school in Knoxville, Tennessee

It’s only a snapshot of the year, of course.  So many more things happened, some amazing, some terrible, and one thing in particular quite wonderful.  For the first couple of months after my move I wept with little provocation—driving down the Interstate to work, listening to music, grocery shopping, unpacking boxes and boxes of things.  I still don’t quite understand that, but I think being alone, upended, so far from family and friends, was terrifying, grand adventure though it may have been.

There has been growth, and increase.  I have started laying down the accretional layers of 2013, and they are forming and changing me. There is much to worry about, and much promise, and excitement.  If there is truth to the adage, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, then I am living, breathing proof of it.  More growth–and strength–to come.

Saucer-eyed.

big eyes

These are two of my young students, each with older ballerina sisters.  I snapped this a couple of weeks ago at one of the rehearsals for our studio performance.  This takes me back several decades when I spent countless hours waiting for my ballerina mamma to finish class or rehearsal, only I was usually sprawled in some corner of the studio (or stage) with paper and crayons in hand, blissfully unaware of what was going on around me.  Except I wasn’t unaware, of course.  I was taking it in through the pores of my skin, like these two.  Dream big ballerina dreams, little girls; one day it will be you.

Quick Start

Quick Start

One day long ago I was chatting with a dear friend about some new device or other one of us was trying to figure out in the absence of a quick start guide—you know:  the leaflet, or nowadays often DVD, that comes with a new gadget or gizmo and allows the impulsive among us to start using the new thingummie stat.  I mean, as if anybody actually had time to sit down and read an entire instruction manual.

Funny thing is, at that point in my life—and my friend’s—we really did not have time for trivialities like reading instruction manuals.  I was parenting an incredibly challenging youngster, and she three of them, including a pair of twins.  Quick Start Guide became shorthand between us to refer to any urgent situation life might have thrown our way and for which we needed wisdom, immediately.

I did not have a Quick Start Guide for my life’s reboot last August.  Nor an instruction manual.  I did have a Garmin, however, and it has saved my neck on several occasions when I’ve been in the middle of nowhere—which describes most of the state of Vermont—trying to find something.  You can’t miss it, the locals often quip when you ask for directions.  I am here to tell you as a newbie that you can indeed miss it, and are in fact likely to until you really get the lay of the land.

Like the day I was to meet my two colleagues at a rural gas station from which we would convoy to the home of our brilliant piano accompanist to discuss music for our spring performance.  I was in a hurry and did not bother using the Garmin; mercifully, this time the conventional you-can’t-miss-it directive proved true, and I did find the gas station.  I was running a few minutes late to our rendezvous, however, and in no time my cell started ringing.  A somewhat annoyed ballet school director wanted to know where I was.  In the beautiful Vermont countryside, I replied.  (This was the truth.)  With some irritation in her voice she continued, No, I mean, what are you near?  A barn.  With some outbuildings.  (This was also the truth.)

No useful landmarks, no navigation device, no quick start guides.  That more or less describes where I am just now, in this particular chapter.  It’s all good, as they say, at least for the time being.  I left behind a life characterized by noise and chaos and urgency and now find myself in relative quiet where time can even appear to stand still.  It is restorative.  It is what I needed, even if it has meant taking a vow of poverty, of sorts.

But before too much longer I will require a plan.  Perhaps not so much a quick start guide, but a more comprehensive instruction manual.  Many people in my life have assured me that this is what will come to pass when I truly need it.

I just hope the instructions are clear and offer more landmarks than a barn and a few outbuildings; it may possibly be time for some billboards—big ones with loud colors and huge text:  QUICK START GUIDE JUST AHEAD ON LEFT.  I will take all the navigational help I can get.

Delicious. Naughty.

PB Cookies

Last night I was shooed out of my own kitchen so Handsome Chef Boyfriend could bake mystery cookies.  These peanut butter-based beauties emerged from my tiny, unevenly heated, apartment-sized oven a bit later.  Main sources of flavor aside from peanut butter (and after HCB fished around in my pantry for a while):  pecans, maple syrup (this is Vermont, after all), and Ghirardelli 60% cacao dark chocolate bar pieces.  And of course King Arthur Flour.  So delicious.  I was able to send most of them home with him this morning, but these were escapees.  Shame on you, Handsome Chef Boyfriend.

Starter Wife

In a few days a chancery court judge in Tennessee will review a case before him in which I have a strong personal interest.  It would appear that certain folks really do fancy themselves Teflon coated and somehow manage to escape all kinds of scrutiny and accountability; if this formula has worked for the better part of a half century, though, why shouldn’t it always?  The court will decide in this case whether a particular individual will be made to honor his financial obligations—to which he agreed, on paper, legally.  I hope like heck that the judge takes a hard look at the burgeoning collection of Beemers in that person’s driveway when he enters a judgement.

One of many epiphanies to emerge in the last chapter of my life:  for most of two decades I was a handy tool kit to support the development of my ex-husband’s own life and career and interests, disposable once he arrived at a particular place where he felt comfortable reaching for the Next Big Thing without me there.  What that is precisely remains a bit foggy peering in as I do now from the outside, but by all appearances seems pretty dang superficial and includes new teeth, tanning booths, fast cars, and very young girlfriends—the last two of them proud owners of mugshots, yes, seriously—among other things.  Call it a midlife crisis if you wish, but it has been going on for some time now (even during our marriage) and to me belongs more credibly in the land of mental illness.  What do I know, though?

For the last few years I had begun to think of myself as the doormat, and had mentioned this out loud a few times to anybody who might listen—a convenient place for my family to wipe the mud from their shoes at the end of the day.  My mom was more succinct:  You were their bitch, she said.  It’s not an endearing moniker.  But somehow, Starter Wife feels worse.  Embodied in that term is the notion that you are expendable.  Disposable.  Replaceable.  It is a horrible thought.  And people do not speak of starter husbands.

I own some of it.  I allowed myself to slip into a supporting role.  It did not happen overnight, but gradually, indiscernably.  I gave up ballet for what emerged as an entire decade.  And then I gave up grad school to be at home with a tiny infant child who arrived unexpectedly and joyously in our lives.  I let go of things to do with managing family business and assets, because at the time I thought the work I was doing with a very difficult child was so much more important.  But I never imagined that when I let go of these things the person I trusted the most would later use that as a way to take advantage of me.

Before anybody concludes that I am a bitter divorcée who just can’t let go of the past, rest assured that I am anxious as hell to let go of it.  I have in fact moved on in so very many ways, which should be clear to any reader of this blog who is not bloody daft.  What the judge decides will make it easier for me to move on, perhaps. Or not.  Or will at least make it clear that my life is about to get much more difficult than I imagined.

This former starter wife has many complicated working parts that are now fully engaged.

Walking Through Walls

WRBA angels

I am not sure who shot this image on Friday evening at White River Ballet Academy’s studio performance, but it has an otherworldly quality to it that is kinda cool.  Handsome Chef Boyfriend says it appears that the three of us just walked into the room through the wall behind us like angels.  I am on the right, with school director Jackie Conley in the center and the brilliant Ruth Mayer on the left.  Jackie was making introductions and had just begun to address the sizeable crowd who gathered to watch our young students.  Beautiful performance, beautiful evening.  The journey continues.

Moving Planets, Shifting Gears

WRBA Ruth's Level 5-6 2

The beautiful ballet school where I teach and work most days each week will soon mount an informal works-in-progress performance in its new digs.  This will serve also as a celebration of the move and will include the public as part of First Friday in White River Junction’s historic village. With a skosh of remaining construction, a little bit of grit, and a few nuts and bolts still to be sorted, we are pretty pushed this week to make sure things go smoothly on Friday night.  My sense is that they will, no matter what.  The kids and a few adult ballet students—numbering sixty-something altogether—looked strong and danced well in rehearsal last Saturday.  Our music is gorgeous (three ballet teacher-choreographers, three composers:  Orff, Brahms, and Debussy), we’ve still got time for a tech rehearsal and a couple of run-throughs, and in general we are ready.  (Note to the universe:  this is not meant to be interpreted as over-confidence, okey doke?)

If you follow my blog even casually, it should be pretty clear that I took a proverbial grand jêté of faith to leave Tennessee after thirty years there and move to Vermont; this little ballet school—which is not so little anymore—is what got me here, thanks to its director’s sharp eye when I made it known to the ballet firmament that I was casting about looking for work.  And in the gigantic plot twist my life has taken lie a couple of significant sub-plots, not least of which that Princess Deb must adjust to no longer being a princess, but instead being a team player, a worker bee, a clock-puncher, if you will.  In all fairness, I should add that there is not much metaphorical clock-punching that goes on at work.  I am lucky to have my hand in the ballet world still, and to actually earn my keep doing it.  The best part of my work has always been and continues to be forming little people into young dancers.  There is a huge creative component to what I do, and I have been relieved of many of the administrative headaches that I now observe my employer wrangling almost daily; I really do feel her pain.  But it is so nice to have colleagues; that was missing at my small school in Knoxville, and there is an energy that comes from a team you just can’t harvest when you are working in a vacuum as I have done for the past six years.

The other sub-plot, significantly, is that I have never had the opportunity to create a choreographed work for anybody.  Really.  Of course, you can argue with some credibility that making classes every week is making choreography—you create exercises from dance movement vocabulary and you set it to music, and you lead your students through ninety minutes of it, pretty much every day of every week.  But it is not the same as creating a piece for the stage.  I mentioned during my interview week last August that I had never created original choreography for anybody, ever, to which my young employer-to-be quipped, Well you will now.

And so I have.  I do not know why this has always seemed so daunting to me; people do it all the time.  Not only that, people do it badly all the time—and still get paid for it.  My own ballerina mom has created countless chamber ballets (beautiful ones) and waves me off when I am wringing my hands about doing it myself.   Mercifully, I was handed a very light load and given the freedom to choose my own music; I grabbed Claude Debussy with little hesitation.  Now that most of my choreography is complete and we are simply polishing and refining, I will say that the biggest challenge for me has been setting a dance on tiny people, within the parameters of the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum which we use at the school.  I adore these little people; they are cute, and silly, and clever, and some of them are gifted.  But they are wiggly—almost without exception.  And I’ve had the additional challenge of choreographing one piece in particular on two sections of tiny people, who rehearse on different days of the week.  Because this group of little ones is not quite ready for our in-house performance, they will instead be given an opportunity to demonstrate improvised dances that are part of the ABT/NTC, and will have their moment on the big stage in June when we mount a more formal production of the same three ballets we will roll out for the first time on Friday.

Another moving part in this huge journey, another new chapter.  If you are anywhere near Vermont’s Upper Valley this Friday evening, come see us.

Primary A improvisation