Finding Elusive Beauty


Last week I observed to someone how easily I can descend into a bad place when I think of my life’s recent milestones in terms of loss: family, home, livelihood. This happened to me more or less all at once about two years ago. And then just on the heels of venturing a thousand miles to try to start again from scratch I lost my companion animal. When my head goes there I do something a smart friend suggested. I recite times tables from the beginning exactly as I did when I was eight, long enough to get out of my brain’s emotional right hemisphere and back into its rational left one. It works. I’ve navigated some tough crevasses this way. The alternative is wasting hours or even an entire day or more wallowing in self-pity. And it’s cheaper than therapy.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on all this in the context of beauty. I believe the presence or absence of beauty in a person’s life has a palpable impact on its outcome, period. There is no science behind my theory, just a strong instinct. (Acknowledging your instincts is a benefit of advancing age.)

I once came across a fantastic suggestion for helping local homeless people: tiny individual care packs in a Ziploc that you keep in your car to hand somebody in need. The suggested contents were the things you can imagine—toiletries, phone card, sunscreen, energy bar. I am thinking a small piece of art or a photograph or poem should go in that bag, too. I know it sounds easy for me to say from my relatively privileged station. I am not so sure, though. I think finding beauty is a struggle as surely as earning your keep, and maybe as critical for self-preservation.

Just a few days ago I finally met a person whose work I have admired since I moved to this corner of the world, if a bit wistfully and from a distance. She is one of those people in the business of creating beauty. If you are interested in seeing her work—her photographs, her cheese and bread, her amazing and bold projects in animal husbandry and beekeeping—and also in reading her engaging writing, go here. I for one am thrilled to have found myself in her company for a couple of hours, during which time our conversation ran the gamut from stories of life and love and families to finding and creating work. How did you get there, I asked? How did you find yourself making amazing artisan cheese and restoring an old house and barn and raising a family here and creating all this amazing beauty? 

Her answer is best synthesized in a single word: gradually. She went on to elaborate about repetition, trial and error, and a confession that it’s the success stories that make the final cut for the rest of the world to see.

This evoked another idea that has been on my mind of late, related to beauty and its creation: the best work ultimately comes from repetition, from trying and failing and trying again, and is rarely the result of a single Aha! moment. Choreographer Twyla Tharp drives this point home in her book The Creative Habit. Mozart wrote a lot of music. Some of it was extraordinary, most of it was not (the not-extraordinary Mozart is the stuff rarely performed, live or in recordings). The point is, he wrote a lot of it. There are exceptions. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, was her only novel. It is a brilliant piece of beauty.

Mainly though, I think most creative output aligns with Ms. Tharp and the Mozart Theory. There is enough loss and sadness and ugliness to go around; much of the time I find the magnitude of it overwhelming. The answer to this must be tenacity, to keep on working and creating and hoping that some beautiful thing emerges from our efforts. And to continue to find beauty wherever we can, because elusive beauty is food for the soul.



Once More, with Wiggly Animals

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Level 2 Aviary

Between episodes of attempting to catch a cheeky groundhog and putting in my first-ever vegetable garden, spring arrived here in Vermont in earnest. The lawn needs mowing and the house needs dusting. My Subi needs its snow tires off and oil changed. I need to wash the windows to welcome in the warm sunshine at long last. There are still more outside chores–lots of them.

There is no time for any of this at the moment. The young students at the ballet school where I teach are learning the last bit of their choreography for the spring performance, to be mounted in five short weeks <chews nails>. I teach most levels there–all of them really–but my primary responsibility lies with the children from age four through about eleven. This year the school director asked me to create something original for all of the younger enrollees, set to French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.

It will come off beautifully, of course. But we are in that disquieting place just now where we are hoping it comes off beautifully, rethinking timing, and spacing, and the complexity of some of the movement, second guessing ourselves. The Carnival cast is huge. Yesterday after our first full run-through I did a mental body count and arrived at something approaching thirty-five warm bodies who will be on the stage all at once twice during the ballet. That is a lot of little people, plus a few bigger ones who will have beautiful solos set by my colleagues and will help with some artful herding (pun intended, of course).

We had high expectations of our young students yesterday, and almost without exception they delivered. (This did not stop me from requesting just one more full cast rehearsal, please, in addition to what we’ve already got on the call board.) I also asked for these lovely photos; all were made during yesterday’s rehearsal, and provided courtesy of school director Jackie Stanton-Conley.

Another academic year draws to a close, another spring performance waits in the wings.

I think we should add a groundhog to the ballet to make it more Vermontish. What do you think, M. Saint-Saëns?

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Pre-Primary Level Kangaroos
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Primary Level A Tortoises
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Primary Levels B and C Fossils
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Deb, standing in for a missing Fossil
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Lovely Primary Level C Soloist Fossil
Level 1A Master of Elephant Ceremonies
Big Carnival Cast
Lovely Young Dancer


Houston, we have a problem.


Last weekend Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had our first springtime work session in the “secret” terraced gardens on the property I call home at the moment.  During a cool, misty afternoon we raked and shoveled and pulled weeds and prepared a bed in anticipation of putting my started-from-seed-inside veggies in the ground.  I don’t grow things:  I kill them.  This is a big moment for me.

While he was working HCB noted the presence of a pretty well- engineered system of tunnels in the middle terrace, and judging from the size of what appears its main entrance we concluded the critter who lives there must be big.  A couple of days later I took my morning coffee up to the garden and saw that the holes–which HCB had carefully filled–were freshly re-excavated. After all our clearing I could also see that these underground digs (get it? digs? underground?) probably set in motion the partial collapse of the massive stone retaining wall in the middle terrace (we are working around it for now). Its structure is in fact so fragile that I am reluctant even to walk in front of it, as I fear the rest could go any time.  You would not want to be standing there with coffee in hand should this come to pass.

Later that same day I observed a healthy looking groundhog lumber past my back door, down the stone steps, through a pleasing, curved section of lawn leading to the garden, and–you guessed it–right into the largest hole we found.  The woman who owns this delicious property–a colleague of mine–quipped, If you’ve got a groundhog, you’re not growing vegetables.


I did not proceed as planned with my vegetable garden early last week.  I decided instead to contemplate the problem.  This weekend I headed to HCB’s house, and we concluded the best course of action is a live trap.

When I returned home earlier today, I noted a couple of exciting developments.  First, I have beans!  They did not wait for me, friends. They made an executive decision to grown in my absence, without my permission.  I could not be more thrilled.  I do not care whether they seem puny, or that there are not many of them.  In my mind, this is gardening success.  I have about enough of them on my plants for a single serving.  I grew my own food.  Badabing.


And second, I have almost-tomatoes!  Yep!  They sprouted while I was gone. (And also some more beans, and also some more chard–just in case.)


So now I am more resolute than ever that this garden will be.  We will bait the trap next Friday night, and if we succeed in catching a groundhog, will transport it down the hill, across the river, and release it into a field (where, my colleague noted, I will probably piss off somebody else). Don’t care.  Not sharing my veggies (key word there, my), with a toothy, overgrown rodent who can find its own dang beans.

Have not yet concluded how to proceed if there is, say, an entire family living in my garden….

Will keep ya posted.  Oh, and by the way:  my squash plants are thriving. And a very kind Vermont friend pointed out that the stuff I thought was chard is in fact rhubarb!  Have no idea how to prepare it, but I do know how to love it, and have access to a chef….


Secret Garden Part I


Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I squeezed much into our Saturday as we are wont to do; it is really our only day together every week, so to quote Eloise, You can imagine….  In the late afternoon we pushed up our sleeves and got to work clearing and preparing beds in the terraced gardens on the beautiful property I am fortunate to call home for the time being. We talked about doing this last summer on a sweltering day as we walked around and took inventory of what this place has to offer.  The deer flies that afternoon made it just about impossible to enjoy the wild beauty around us.  Still, we could see its potential.  You’ll want to clean this up in the spring, he said.

Cleanup I can do; growing things, not so much.  But I am resolute in my desire for vegetables in my garden this summer.  The heirloom beans I started indoors too soon from seed recently sprouted purple flowers. They have absorbed most of the soil nutrition in the planter where I moved them after they sprouted, and need to go into the ground now. There are no frost warnings in the ten-day forecast, so I think I shall risk moving them later today.  Ditto my very healthy-looking squash plants. HCB, in true HCB-stealth-style, prepared one bed for me while I was showering.

Nobody has lived here for the last couple of years, and the terraced gardens are badly overgrown.  But in the space of about an hour my envisioned vegetable garden plot had morphed into this:


HCB paid closer attention than I to what was growing where among the weeds and volunteers on that day when we walked around and explored last summer.  He knew there was a mainly bare patch, and so that is where the vegetables will go in.  A healthy raspberry patch on the other end of the bed will be left alone except for weeding.

In my vegetable garden, though, we also found this, which looks like chard (something I am also starting from seed), with its bright red stems:


Later I will ask my colleague, who owns this beautiful place.  We also found a thriving patch of chives, some of which found their way into the turkey burgers HCB made for our dinner.


 A row of something-or-other planted across the front of the upper tier remains a secret for a while longer.


Soon I will poke tomato seeds into this flat I prepared while we worked outside yesterday.


HCB went about the somber business of starting a grave for Clarence-the-Canine, who will finally have his burial very soon.  We chose a spot near the entrance to a path in the woods where Clarence once attempted a solo flight, relenting only when he heard the panic in my voice.  It is a nice final resting place for him, but the soil is rocky and difficult to work, and there is more to do.

When the cool afternoon drizzle reached a crescendo and our sweatshirts were soaked, we put away our tools and called it a day in the secret garden.