Woodstock, Halloween afternoon.
I shot a couple of photos today on a brief outing through Shaftsbury to retrieve a particular young ‘un from a day-long outdoor adventure. It is cool in Vermont and there is indiscriminate rain; a short time down the road the rain will be snow. Fall’s vibrant colors abound, although the peak of the season was probably about a week or so ago. Plenty of the vernacular architecture I love so much dotted the landscape I traveled today; I only captured it in my mind’s eye. The contrasts in this vista struck me, and we stopped the car for a bit.
I have also stopped my own proverbial car for a bit this weekend, although there is no rest for the weary, as the saying goes. Or maybe, the early bird gets the worm. I started a new job last week and was feeling a little worse for the wear by the time I drove south to my Handsome Chef Boyfriend on Friday. It will be a while before I completely acclimate to the new world order, which still includes this gig. But I am driven as always and feel a sense of urgency about how I spend the hours when I am not on the clock, so to speak.
I have stepped away from the ballet world for the time being. I need to look over my shoulder and take an inventory of what I left behind before I go back again. There is a certain amount of wistfulness that goes with that, and relief, and disbelief. The intensity of those big epiphanies is only possible, I think, when you can put distance between yourself and the forest where you were completely immersed for most of a lifetime. Ballet will always be there, I am sure. There is no changing that, and no desire to change it. But there will be new rules of my own design before I return.
I am thankful as always for family and friends who seem always to be there with the safety net; I hope I can someday return favors too many to number. I came across a little piece of writing a few months ago that has been helpful in unanticipated ways, although in so many other ways seems to speak to people who are somehow more resourced and gifted than I, and more male. Still, there is wisdom in this piece. It is not profound prose, but more thoughtful than a trifling bit of Internet how-to by a long shot. I printed it last March, stapled its pages, and stuffed it into a pocket in my briefcase. A few weeks ago I pried apart the staple and put the pages on my fridge, where I can read it again and again. It has my undivided attention during another shifting of tectonic plates beneath me. Loss of control is never a happy feeling, at least not in my universe. But reading the pages on the fridge is a great exercise in getting back into the left brain and restores at least a shred of control, or the illusion of it, anyway.
I did my one thing today. Tomorrow comes soon, and starts early, but is a new day full of promise and possibilities.
I have wanted to capture this image since early in the summer and finally had my chance today. I love this stand of trees lining the road connecting Quechee Main Street to Woodstock Road. The first time I saw these enormous pines they took my breath away. They make me feel small and inconsequential in a huge universe. It is not a bad feeling, just a beautiful reality check.
That’s my mama, working one-on-one with one of my former students in Knoxville, Tennessee. That picture was made in June of 2012, days before the small ballet school I founded closed its doors for good, and only a couple of months before I relocated to Vermont. Mom will be seventy-three in December. She still teaches ballet, and she is still helping young students find their way to the professional stage. She is respected like nobody’s bidness, as we say in the South. She has rigorous standards in the classroom and expects them to be met. If you can’t grasp this concept, she does not have much time for you. I know this about her firsthand, because from the time I was twelve and forward she was my primary ballet instructor. On more than one occasion she made me cry in class and wiped the floor with my butt; she often told me, I am your mom, but when we cross the threshold into the classroom I am your teacher. It felt unfair–I knew in my heart of hearts she was holding me to even higher standards than she did others in my class, because I was her kid. But I also knew better than to question this arrangement.
A few days ago I heard Garrison Keillor quoting Margaret Thatcher, likely in homage to her October 13 birth anniversary: “Power is like being a lady…if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” That particular quote jolted me out of my casual listening and brought me right into the moment. Whatever your opinion of Lady Thatcher, she was spot on in this sentiment. Same goes for respect; if you’ve got to stamp your foot and demand it, well…. I don’t live by quotes. But once in a while I hear one that seems perfect for the moment. I think folks respect my mom because she sticks to her guns and never compromises her standards. (And by the way, she is also a lady, even when she is wearing sweatpants and handling stinky ballerina feet.)
A ballet teacher blog post that is floating around social media caught my eye a couple of days ago; it appears to be going viral–at least, as viral as it is possible that a post about teaching ballet can be. Its author, a young woman named Erin Long-Robbins, was brave to say out loud what many of us in the ballet classroom think and have thought for a long time now. Like my mama, she appears also to hold her students to high standards. But what she has to say can so easily be expanded in scope to include so many other disciplines, and is really a much broader statement about the nature of entitlement.
Respect is not a birthright, nor power. Hard work, on the other hand, is available to us all.
More than a decade ago I stood in the book aisle of a big box department store in Knoxville, Tennessee, fingering a papberback with a full color closeup of a border collie on its cover. I was having a bad day–a series of bad days, really, that grew into bad weeks and months and difficult years. That book was my introduction to writer Jon Katz’ work. I read it a couple of times and loaned it to somebody at least once. My copy of A Good Dog is a bit dog-eared but now bears Jon’s autograph and a brief message from him scrawled inside its cover.
Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I soaked in delicious late-day sunshine from Jon and his wife Maria’s weathered Adirondack chairs, observing foliage and traffic on a rural highway that serves this part of upstate New York. I thought about that book, about animals that change people’s lives, about people who change each other’s lives.
Some time ago Jon started a group using social media, its purpose to bring together folks whose common denominator was the desire to create–poetry, prose, photography, art. He described it as a ministry of encouragement. It was and is a place for its members to share their work without fear of reprisal, but hoping for positive, constructive feedback from Jon and from each other.
I do not remember how I came across this group in the first place but I have been an active participant pretty much from its inception. And while social media often provides a platform for unfiltered voices of hostility and rancor it can also be a positive place for people to come together–people who might not otherwise have known each other. This has been the case for me where this vibrant community is concerned. I have made so many connections there, wonderful ones, and yesterday had the opportunity to meet many of them in the flesh for the first time.
I keep thinking about self-examination, but also about exposing oneself to examination by others. It is intimidating, to be sure. But without at least some willingness to shine a light in vulnerable places, how is it possible to grow at all? I was explaining my take on this to one of the members of the group yesterday. To me it is a mandate–not a question of whether one should or should not do this, but an imperative.
Yesterday Jon gave his listeners a little background about an aged woman, a poet and a dear friend, Mary Kellogg, who was missing from the fall open house this time around because of illness. He explained that during a conversation with her early in their friendship, and after reading some of her beautiful poetry, he asked why she had not done anything with it to that point. Her reply was simple: nobody had encouraged her. I had never made the connection between that epiphany and the formation of the creative group before yesterday. And what a service Jon has done to help this group of people come together as it has. (Happily, Mary’s work is now published and has enjoyed much success.)
Yesterday was magical. Seeing Jon and Maria is delightful as always: listening to Jon talk about his beloved animals, his new book about the rescued donkey Simon, watching the border collie and therapy dog Red working with the sheep (always alert, awaiting the next important work); looking at the eternally generous Maria’s beautiful textiles (and the work of others) in her studio; a cameo appearance by the complex and aged dog, Frieda. Celebrated photographer George Forss was there, too, talking enthusiastically about his work and his new book (for which Jon wrote the foreward); and an impromptu acoustic guitar performance by Roundhouse Cafe chef-owner (and singer/songwriter) Scott Carrino was a lovely finale to the day.
I will echo the sentiment I have heard others express, though: the best part of yesterday was meeting the people I had known until now only through the group, through the ether. These people bare themselves every day, bravely exposing their work and their lives. What a huge privilege to embrace them, finally, and to say to them all, ‘Til we meet again.
I had some loose change rattling around in my pocket this afternoon and precious little else. My fiscal landscape changed dramatically a couple of weeks ago–not by way of a little hiccup, but a big, loud, stinky belch. (It did not even have the decency to cover its gaping mouth.) I realized my cupboard was nearly bare and I had no plan for tonight’s dinner. So I did what any sensible poor person would do and stopped at this beautiful farmstand on my way home from work. No store-bought lettuce for me tonight, no sir. Best to get it while you can, to my way of thinking; before you know it we’ll be dealing with ice and snow and making our peace with anemic-looking winter tomatoes.
I am a Halloween curmudgeon; to me it’s just an excuse for people who know better to behave badly. I am okay with little kids getting excited about the candy and jack-o-lanterns, but that’s where my enthusiasm ends. Still, who can resist the sight of all those cheerful pumpkins and squash and gourds?
Lately I’ve been thinking about bad behavior in the context of Rosh Hashanah and my annual reading of Gershon’s Monster. I love the idea of self-examination, atonement, and redemption. For the last couple of years I have had plenty of time to reflect on the notion of bad behavior in varied contexts. When we are children–if we are lucky–we have adults in our lives who help us walk the straight and narrow, and let us know when we are straying from it. When we do there are consequences, and we hopefully learn from them. The same is true when we learn to take a pencil in hand and write. We all need editing when we are starting out, but also continued editing as we move forward.
Who edits us once we’ve struck out on our own, though, when we desperately need it? This is a question that has bothered me for a while now. I would like to think there are natural consequences for transgressions, for being inconsiderate, for hurting others. I remain unconvinced on this point. I think a more likely scenario is surrounding ourselves with people we know will affirm our bad behavior so we can go right on behaving badly. (See Gershon, above.) Poor editing, if you ask me.
A Vermont farmstand on a sunny fall afternoon is as good a place as any to contemplate life’s big questions. As I said, best to get this bounty while you can. I found that the tough leaves of this beautiful escarole stood in stark contrast to the tender baby arugula I usually buy boxed at the supermarket. What a treat. A couple of late season tomatoes and a few Empire apples finished my sunny afternoon outing.
Dinner was soup I made from scratch a couple of nights ago the way my Handsome Chef Boyfriend does it, with found ingredients. (He once told me his favorite time to cook is when there is almost nothing left in the pantry.) Some would call it stone soup; I call it kitchen sink soup. It is wicked good, with salad from the farm and iced tea, and soon I’ll finish with a bite of dark chocolate.
And then I’ll think some more about editing.
Friday afternoon I had the great pleasure of looking over the shoulders of several of the staff at a particular Vermont bakery. I could not resist the design on this cakewheel, seemingly frozen in another era. Today I showed a very young friend of mine how I edit the photos I use on my blog. We did a few together, and then I mainly handed it over to her. So this is a guest post of sorts. May you find sweetness in the people around you today and every day.
I am officially published in this here magazine. It has been a long time coming, and I hope it is just the beginning. There are great big changes on the horizon for me, about which more later.
Meanwhile, this made me smile today; the topic is relevant in so very many ways. Oh, and who wouldn’t want their first bit of professional work to appear in a publication with a cover piece about a New Yorker cartoonist, hmmm?