Grey Day

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Today I decided I would document my walk backwards from my mailbox. The air smells every bit of fall but still felt summery to me. This dairy barn  across from the property where I am a squatter is long out of service, but its owner recently gave it a new roof to slow its demise. I know this about it because I spoke with a family member who works in the town hall and we talked about it and the property for a long while one afternoon. I find its shape and texture and small windows hugely appealing.

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I turned my back on the highway to head back down the driveway. I sat on the wood bridge leading onto the property and dangled my feet from it for a while. There is a sensory collision here of the freshness and roiling from moving water and cars zipping up and down the rural highway parallel to the stream.

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I love the orange carpet at the end of the long straightaway and the embracing trees overhead; they make a nice portal to a private place. I have followed many deer down this drive in my car’s headlights at night; they tend to disappear into the woods at the turn. I have also upset more than one gang of turkeys.

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Right at that place a smaller stream disappears under the road through a culvert. Torrential rains at times during the spring and summer sent it sloshing over the top, taking some driveway with it.

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An unused outbuilding stands resolute with its steeply pitched roof; it housed a small real estate office long ago, I am told, and later a college student. It has no running water, but a pretty wood floor.

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Somebody was still very busy today with the flowers.

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And just beyond, my tomato plants, which have not bloomed, nor will they likely before the first frost gets them. I am pleased that I started these from seed, and actually a little amazed I managed this at all. But as was the case with my first ever attempt at gardening this year, the outcome is wanting–I did not achieve Gracie’s tomatoes. I learned a thing or two. For example, do not put young tomato plants in a hot room with no air circulation; they will be dead within hours. And also, you can’t really dig in Vermont soil deeper than an inch or so before you hit rock. You need a stronger constitution for that than I possess.

I am hoping for sunshine tomorrow and tomatoes next year.

 

Mad Tom Apples: Sunday Photo Essay

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My Irish ancestors settled in the Tuckaleechee Cove area of the Great Smoky Mountains in the 19th century and made their living as apple farmers. I wonder how they would view New England’s landscape, where harvesting apples in the fall is woven into the fabric of life and where the topography is at times so evocative of the Smokies. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I and his family picked apples this morning at Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset: Honeycrisp, Gala, Empire, McIntosh, and Macoun tumbled out of our overfull bags as we moved through rows of still-full trees–it is early in the season. Home again, a family kitchen project yielded magic.

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Finding My Best Self

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Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year–began at sundown today. I am not Jewish, nor do I observe the Jewish New Year, at least not as an official adherent of the faith. But every single year I re-read this beautiful children’s story, Gershon’s Monster, on Rosh Hashanah. It is a universal story of redemption, and anyway this particular book is so gorgeous cover to cover and the story so appealing, one needs no excuses to open its pages. I believe it is my favorite piece of children’s literature ever, and that is really saying something. I love children’s books and have a great excuse to use them in my professional life, as I have said before.

I first learned about this story on public radio, listening to Scott Simon read it aloud along with Daniel Pinkwater–a reading so delightful I dropped what I was doing to listen. I immediately found a copy of the book, with gorgeous watercolors by Jon Muth. If I were a painter, I think I would want to paint exactly in this soft, evocative style that is still real.

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Gershon is a badly behaved man, but worse still does not care about his treatment of others. (In other words, he is someone you know.) He sweeps his misdeeds to the basement and once a year puts them in a huge bag–especially huge, it turns out, because his behavior is especially intolerable–and drags the bag down to empty into the sea. The problem is that he makes no effort to be truly sorry about his misdeeds. He simply gathers them up and disposes of them. When he and his wife decide they want children Gershon consults a Rabbi, who warns him away from parenting. Gershon presses the Rabbi who finally gives him a charm for his wife to wear for a year, after which time he prophesies she will bear twins.

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But the Rabbi also hints that something tragic will befall the children when they are five years old. After Gershon urges the Rabbi to reveal details of the tragedy, he at last concedes it will occur on the day Gershon puts both his socks on the same foot. Gershon is ecstatic for this bit of forewarning, but the Rabbi dismisses him, saying it will make no difference–Gershon will go on with his life as always, behaving badly and being inconsiderate of people around him.

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And of course, this is exactly what comes to pass. Gershon and his wife have twins–a boy and a girl. One morning Gershon awakens disoriented by the summer heat and (you guessed it) puts both socks on the same foot. The children have gone to play by the sea as they do every day, and Gershon rushes after them in a blind panic. He finds them confronting a horrible sea monster whose scales are inscribed with every awful thing Gershon has done in his life, just at the moment the monster is about to snap up the children.

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At last Gershon is truly, humbly repentant and beseeches the monster to take him–and not his children. The monster, along with Gershon’s lifetime of transgressions, vaporizes, and Gershon is a changed man. It’s the way you wish every scenario of this sort would end, isn’t it?

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Every time I read this I think of the people I know who are like Gershon. And then a nanosecond later I think about the times in my life I have behaved like him. But there is always hope for redemption before it is too late, isn’t there?

At the very end of this book there is a page-long description about the retelling of this story and its place in the Hasidic movement. There is also an explanation of the tradition of “casting one’s sins into the sea,” metaphorically, at the beginning of the New Year. And then there are instructions, as the author says, for erasing our mistakes and returning to our “true moral nature:”

  1. Admit that we have done wrong.
  2. Feel remorse.
  3. Resolve in our hearts never to act this way again.
  4. Make every effort to right the wrong we have done.
  5. Apologize and ask forgiveness from those we have wronged.
  6. Make every effort to relieve whatever pain or distress we might have caused others.

Then, he tells us, we will have returned to our best selves.

Happy New Year.

 

Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year, Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth, 2000, Scholastic Press, New York

 

 

I’ve created a LOL monster.

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A while back I wrote a little story about a particular brand of fifth grade humor and my penchant for it. Call it a character flaw if you must, but I wear it proudly. I even sent my dad a fart-themed birthday card last April. (Really, can the world have too many fart jokes? I think not. And P.S., bring on the whoopie cushions.)

You may possibly recall that when I introduced this slightly pornographic Land O’ Lakes butter box trick (see above) to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, he rolled his eyes.

And then LOL Squaw (now common parlance around here) started popping up all over the place. At first there was only one of her. She showed herself–so to speak–variously at my place and HCB’s in new and unexpected venues. Example: I flip down the car visor when the late day sun blasts through my car windshield and, Boom! LOL Squaw dangles in front of my nose from a piece of tape. And on. And. On.

She eventually became dog-eared and went into semi-retirement.

Then on my birthday I opened a card from HCB to discover many LOL Squaws tumbling out confetti-style. That’s a lot of butter, friends. (Oh, wait–pastry chef.)

A little while back I flipped through my Rolodex for HCB’s address (I really do possess a Rolodex and sometimes send actual letters through the mail). Yep, LOL Squaw.

This morning when I opened my wallet to fish for coffee money in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts she made another appearance:

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And this evening when I was doing laundry and snipped the tag off an article of clothing I purchased while on a shopping outing with HCB over the weekend:

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LOL Squaw. I figure this could potentially go on forever.

I like it. Not only does this little prank appeal to my inner fifth-grader, it makes the reality that HCB and I live in separate corners of Vermont a little easier to bear. It’s better than texting, when we can’t chat on the phone. It says, I am here for you, to serve your middle school humor needs.

Lately I have been trying to parent a young man from a thousand miles away. It is difficult, maybe impossible. He continues to struggle with some big problems in his life. No laughing matter, really. Last weekend as I was sharing a few details about this situation with HCB’s sister–whose professional life qualifies her to weigh in on this–she introduced me to the concept of motivational interviewing, where you guide the person you’re trying to help using questions, rather than unloading suggestions that fall on deaf ears.

The way I understand this technique, you might listen to this young person complain that he just can’t reach a particular goal. Instead of suggesting a solution, you ask him, “So you believe you are incapable of achieving this goal?” Sort of like leading the witness.

I am no expert, and have done exactly no reading or research on this technique thus far, but you get the general idea.

HCB has put his own twist on motivational interviewing, though:

Me: I am worried about getting the last load of wood moved to the porch before the first snowfall.

HCB: We have plenty of time.

Me: I thought that last year, too, but we waited too long.

HCB: And then we managed to bring up wood using the sled.

Me: It was a pain in the behind and I want to avoid that this year.

HCB: So, are you saying you are too stupid to know when to move the wood?

Oh, and when I questioned the use of the word stupid, suggesting a qualified practitioner of this technique (emphasis on QUALIFIED) would never do this, HCB unapologetically submitted he was simply making the question less wordy, skipping a step, as it were–he actually said he was being helpful in this regard.

Finding humor in the midst of the most challenging situations is an elusive but important life skill. Having someone there to hand it to you fifth grade-style is even better.

 

Nourishment

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Fall term has been up and running for two weeks now at ballet school; that means that I have been sneezed and coughed upon by little people (and a few medium ones, too) for about as long. In years gone by I have been good for a solid head cold once a year but lately find myself unable to dodge the bullet three or four times a year. I am speculating that stress and general upheaval may be the culprits. Be that as it may, I am under the weather at the start of the year (sigh), almost right on the heels of a summer cold in late July. Don’t interpret this as whining, please; in general I’m not a huge fan of complaining publicly about ailments and illness. It just annoys me that at the moment I apparently lack the constitution to fight it off.

Aside from my work in the ballet world and as a freelance writer, I also serve as assistant to the founder of a groovy Vermont startup; I’ve been at it for a little over a year now. Most days of the week I report to work there in the early part of the day. Then I’m in my tiara for the afternoon and into the evening. (Not really, but I do actually own one.) Wearing different hats in a single day is part and parcel of who I am right now. As part of an ongoing marketing campaign recently the owner of the company at job #1 (who is the creative thinker behind some pretty dang delicious sweet potato-based salsas) has used social media to pose this question: What will feed and nourish you for the (fill in the blank) ahead?

Late Friday evening and into the night that question posed itself again and again to me on the longish drive down to Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s place for a weekend visit. What will feed and nourish you for the weekend ahead, I wondered? I willed the answer: homemade chicken soup. My throat was sore and I was worn out. And I happened to know he had just baked a whole chicken only a few days before. I had sent a message to him via mental telepathy to make stock, and then of course soup. I walked into his place around 9:30 and the unmistakable savory wall of homemade chicken soup steam smacked me in the noggin; you can see the finished product in that photo at the top, which I made just before we lunched on leftovers a while ago. (Yes, I know how incredibly lucky I am.)

Yesterday we wandered over to Saratoga Springs, NY to shop at a particular big box store of which we have none in Vermont. I am torn about this because in general I am against feeding the establishment that profits from the very cheap labor of people in countries without basic human rights. It is really hard to live by that ethic and there were some essentials I have needed for a while now that I knew I would find there. We made a day of it, delicious in just about every possible way (except for the human rights violation part); my only regret is that I did not press HCB to stop the car on several occasions so that I could snap photos of the breathtaking early fall landscape in upstate New York, and the vernacular architecture I can’t get enough of. I was a bit out of it and decided to just enjoy the ride. On the way back, though, we made an important stop, for ice cream.

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The Ice Cream Man has a cult-like following; it’s on New York Highway 29. I whined a little the first time we drove past, and then on the way back was finally assuaged. All of the ice cream there is homemade. A small cone has FOUR scoops (I kid you not); we opted for the kiddie size, which has only two. And as happens all the time, I could not help thinking about the American obesity epidemic, and about Michael Pollan’s food writing. But I also recalled something he observed about cultural differences in thinking about cuisine, and a project where Americans and French subjects were shown photos of the same chocolate cake and asked to choose an adjective to describe it. Americans overwhelmingly chose the word guilt, and the French, celebration. Dark roast coffee ice cream (moi) and Almond Joy ice cream (HCB) fed and nourished us as we celebrated our beautiful drive home. Works for me.

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We wrapped up our day on the sofa with a movie and a bowl of penne noodles and homemade meatballs. (There were possibly some pecan bar trimmings from a particular bakery thrown in for good measure.) Yep, fed and nourished. Not guilty, but celebrating good times in the company of an amazing man, at the end of a tiring work week. We’ll wake up tomorrow morning and do it all over again.

Finding Family

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This has been a Handsome Chef Boyfriend weekend through and through. I am writing from his place this weekend, hanging around an extra day on the chance I can meet a deadline in a foreign and yet ever familiar environment. It is messy and inconvenient for everybody concerned; tomorrow morning will come early, and I know I will feel at least a litte underfoot as we all launch for the first day of our work and school weeks.

Mainly, though, I feel privileged to be here.

Yesterday I felt privileged to be with HCB’s sweet mama and two of his out-of-town sibs for the afternoon and evening. HCB and I had a purposefully unhurried morning drive to Brattleboro, hoping to hit a few tag sales on our way. I am not ashamed in the least to say that breakfast was a bag of apple cider doughnuts from Clear Brook Farm, eaten straight from our laps in the car, washed down with hot McDonald’s coffee and jokes about lawsuits. We licked the sugar from our fingers and swept crumbs to the floor. Could breakfast be better?

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The cool and  slightly rainy day had prompted merchants to begin breaking down their tents by the time we arrived at the big farmers’ and flea market in Wilmington but we still scored some beautiful yellow mums to take to Brattleboro, along with two gorgeous pepper plants for ourselves, and probably the best tomatoes I’ve seen all summer. Gracie would approve.

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The trees are starting to show color now, especially at higher elevations. We stopped on Hogback Mountain and took in stunning views of the Greens stretching all the way into Connecticut and Massachusetts. I still have a long way to go before I will feel accustomed to Vermont winters but I can never tire of this, which in so many ways reminds me of the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, where I spent the last three decades of my life:

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Time stands still when we are with HCB’s family, a reality that is nice in so many ways. In the last two years I have had occasion to meet many of his extended family members during holidays, at one big wedding, and a summer reunion, where I have tried like crazy to remember names and get a handle on which baby belongs to whom, how many cousins and aunts and uncles there are, how they are all connected. These occasions are loud and happy and push me outside my comfort zone. But I welcome the chance to sit quietly and chat with HCB’s mama and his sibs with no distractions. Yesterday was like that–lots of conversation, a few household chores, a rainy day of watching scores of birds avail themselves of an abundance of seeds in the backyard feeders.

We finished the day in the company of a crowd of hardy Vermonters gathered at the Evening Star Grange in Dummerston for a chicken and biscuit dinner, courtesy of HCB’s mama. This multi-generational phenomenon–the chicken dinner–was new to me on my arrival in New England. You can find them in churches and community centers all over the place (and in this case, the grange, which you will see has its roots in agriculture as a social, community, and political meeting place, if you Google it). I have observed signs scrawled in marker and poked in the ground on street corners announcing these dinners, which are open to anyone inclined to go. A modest fee gets you a ticket at the door; once inside you hand it over and in turn receive more food and dessert than you can shake a stick at, as Gracie would say, second helpings offered generously while supplies last. We sat at long tables dressed in checkered tablecloths and enjoyed the kind of dinner I could easily imagine a group of people a century ago might have also.

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There is also a palpable, down-home sense of community. Lots of people know each other and shout friendly greetings. Last night a gentleman asked a woman in line ahead of us whether she had ever gotten her new bathtub installed. Nope, she smiled, it’s not time for my annual bath yet! That, friends, is deliciously Vermont. There are also plenty of folks who do not know each other, but who make each other’s acquaintance by the end of the evening if they’ve broken bread together at the same table.

The singular experience of immersion in a social network of this sort, or a huge extended family gathering, was never really part of my childhood. My brother and I had a few cousins, none of them close to our age, and we really only had limited exposure to them and to other members of our extended family. A week in summer and the occasional Christmas away from home–that pretty much describes our extended family life. It was not a bad experience–just a different one.

Now I find myself coming into a different kind of fold. I sat with a very close friend of HCB’s family at a wedding brunch a little over a year ago. We talked for a long time about varied topics, but the conversation ultimately found its way to family, to this family.

“They absorb you,” he told me, with a broad smile.

I’ve never been happier to be absorbed.

Tolerance 1, Extremism Zip

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As some of my friends can attest, I generally eschew heated debates about politics. Or religion. Especially religion. One of my friends back in Tennessee loves her a good political debate so much that she has thrown entire debate-themed parties (usually to follow election returns), inviting lots of folks from both sides of the aisle, so to speak. This guarantees plenty of, you know. Conflict. I have never been to one of her parties, although she has pressed me more than once. Nope, in those days I had a lifetime supply of conflict at home, thank you very much. The idea of immersion in that kind of turmoil gives me a stomach ache. Why would I want to do that on purpose? Y’all knock yourselves out. That has always been my mantra.

I generally prefer to think we humans have more in common than not and had rawther focus on that. Yesterday as I was embarking on the daily adventure of leaving for work–which includes a slow and careful trek down a quarter-mile-long bumpy, twisty, hole-y driveway that crosses two streams (one wide enough to require an actual wood bridge), and finally a steep and curvy ascent up to a big, rural highway–I met a carload of Vermont Barbies head on, except they were in a Saab instead of a Subi. True story.

They pulled up right next to me. I rolled down the window and assumed they were maybe lost. “Can I help you?”

Shoving a leaflet through her window, the woman behind the wheel smiled and said, “Do you believe that man has ruined the earth beyond repair?”

Oh, boy.

Being perceptive as I am, I recognize a loaded question when I hear one. And being a person of advancing age, I am not one to suffer fools gladly. There is just not enough time for that.

“Nope,” I quipped cheerfully. (I really was cheerful.) “And now I must go to work.”

“What is the name of this road?” she continued.

Trying not to betray my gathering irritation, I replied, “This is not a road. It is a private drive. You are on private property.”

Some people would call that trespassing. I could have toyed with this woman and her colleagues, but I was anxious as hell to get to work and for them to leave. I would have to forgive those who trespassed against me later.

Not to be dissuaded, she went on. “Who else lives down here?”

“NOBODY,” I said. “THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY.” (I was teetering on the edge of suffering fools gladly at this point, and so I am sure there was discernable irritation in my voice.)

She got my meaning and rolled up her window. I hesitated at the top of my drive long enough to make sure they were in fact behind me, and then I was on my way. Sheesh.

*  *  *  *  *

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I dropped my second-grader at school and returned home to a flurry of emails from my Uncle Stan. The first one just read, TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION. And then like millions of other Americans I watched the horror of the day unfold, chewing my nails, consulting with my now ex-husband, wondering whether I should get back in the car to go retrieve my child–whose school was perilously close to another attractive target, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. By the time I tried to call Stan to make sure he was okay the phone lines were completely jammed.

*  *  *  *  *

I reflected on my driveway encounter all day long yesterday, partly bemused (I mean, I am not exactly on the beaten path here), partly annoyed as all get-out (how dare they come onto this property and waste my time with the ridiculous tripe they’re peddling?). But I know they and others of their ilk genuinely believe they possess an important truth and feel compelled to share that with as many people as will listen to the message and consume it, no matter how misguided. And isn’t it a great thing that they can do that here without fear of reprisal (except possibly the uneven temper of a slightly aged ballerina who does not wish to be late for work)?

And isn’t it fantastic that my friend can invite people with widely disparate political convictions into her home for lively debate, and nothing happens–except lively debate?

Tonight I am thinking of all the people who perished thirteen years ago today at the hands of festering intolerance and loathing, and of the people in the world who are emphatically not free to practice their chosen religion, or to opine about politics. And I am thinking of Uncle Stan.

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And Away We Go!

Fall term began at ballet school yesterday; the school director caught me in a moment during my Level 4A barre with a very pointy index finger. I was urging the kids to “send the foot across the room,” speaking metaphorically of course. And no, we are not in prison, but in a smaller interior classroom in our funky, architcturally interesting repurposed building. The door has those metal thingummies in the window glass. Kinda artsy, no? She apologized for the blurriness when she sent me the photo last night. Aside from the aforementioned artsy quality, I will take any help I can get softening my advancing age. Bring the blurry.

The title of this post is a nod to a kinda famous guy who happened to be in the same group of trainees as I at American Ballet Theatre in 2009, learning the curriculum we use. When some of the teacher trainees were struggling with a particular piece of movement we teach in the lower levels, he offered that expression to convey the feel and musicality of the steps. Simple and effective language can be a powerful teaching tool. Blurry photos can make us feel lovely as we teach. And away we go….

Monday Morning Fog

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This morning I am listening to a Hildegard of Bingen recording that was once my parenting soundtrack. The fussy infant I cradled against me often fought sleep, and later fought just about everything; I wished for vision and clarity to help him. And I am thinking of him now, a young man a thousand miles from me who continues to struggle to find his way against all odds. Seeing through the fog is difficult–at times impossible–but there are mountains of hope beyond it.

A Most Happy Ear Worm

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On a day some time in the early 90s a song from The Most Happy Fella insinuated itself in my head as an earworm–you know: that refrain or tune you get in your head that will not leave you? The show had just enjoyed its second Broadway revival which is probably why I was thinking of it.

Anywho. In a late-night chat session with my Uncle Stan I asked him to help me with the title of the song–this was a show he had conducted, so I knew he’d have the answer. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: Hey, do you know the name of the song from MHF that goes something about “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by?”

Stan: Yes. It’s called, “Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By).”

Boom.

The Most Happy Fella is a show with old-fashioned sensibilities but I dare you to keep a straight face when you listen to this song. And what I love about this particular clip–which was an advert for a West Coast opera production–is that it dumps art right in the public’s lap. I just love that, corny as it is. (And also, these four gents have lovely voices.) Thanks, Stan.