Homecoming, Part the First

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This afternoon, for the first time since I moved to Vermont, a stranger made a comment about my Southern accent (which I can’t hear at all). I walked through the automatic doors at Home Depot, where a man wearing a familiar orange apron was stooped to some task or other. He asked me how I was.

Fine, thank you, how are you? That is my auto-response when people are friendly.

The “fine” drew his attention.

He stood up, turned around, and said, Ah, I love that accent.

Really, I asked? Nobody notices, I said, or if they do they don’t say anything.

There’s no mistaking it, he went on. He explained he grew up in Brooklyn. What do you drink in the morning, he asked me?

Coffee I said.

With an ear-to-ear grin he shook his head in an endearing way.

It’s quwah-fee, he corrected. One of his colleagues suggested he was flirting.

I giggled and moved on, but could not help smiling as I went about my business.

His timing was impeccable. For the first time in three years—almost exactly three years—since my big reboot, the adventure-born-of-necessity that drew me away from my native South, my family, friends, and everything I’ve known and held dear for most of my life—I am going home. This time I’ll have Handsome Chef Boyfriend in tow. My parents and friends have not met him, nor has he seen firsthand the setting for so many, many stories I have told him.

Maybe I am turning on the Southern in anticipation, without realizing it. I have been eating grits for breakfast these last few days. That must be it: Southern-ness is in the grits.

This trip feels important and we are both excited about it.

And I for one am also nervous. January was the last time I was nervous, standing at the threshold of a big career change, and a big life decision to combine my household with my sweetheart’s. I don’t completely understand how my head works under the influence of nerves. HCB called me to check in one night in January just ahead of the move and asked me how my day had gone, what I had been up to.

Polishing silver, I said. This prompted some deserved chiding about what I should have been doing, which was packing.

And now, when I should be packing for this long-ish upcoming trip, I have been scrubbing grout. And walls and toilets. And doing some kitchen projects. And other domestic stuff. I mentioned this to my amazing yoga instructor this morning, and without hesitation she quipped, that’s called procrastination.

Maybe. But it’s also nerves. I am not expecting anything really heavy duty to unfold over the course of this trip. But I am anticipating some emotions, and some sadness. I have already surpressed a few tears, whilst reminding myself there is so much in my life that is joyous, acknowledging how grateful I am.

The ride has been rough these last few years, though.

Ergo, I am nervous.

It is my great hope to share stories as they unfold, no promises. There is another week of work and preparations, an absolutely filthy Subaru I must find time to prepare before next weekend, lists to be made, supplies to be procured.

Just a thousand miles, and we’ll be there. ‘Til soon.

Happy Birthday to Us

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Only eight days separate my birthday and Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s. That is excuse enough for eight days’ worth of prolonged celebrating, give or take. I suppose one could argue birthday celebrations really should not be a big deal at our age. But since people over thirty usually whine about ageing instead of celebrating it, making a big deal about it feels perfect. (I will also put in that I felt excellent in this morning’s yoga class.)

HCB and I have been together for almost three joyous years now. That is the best cause for celebration.

We’ve had several delicious days. And because we have summer birthdays, and live in rural Vermont, we take full advantage of exquisite local produce in our summer cooking and eating, to wit: one day before my birthday HCB made us this beautiful vegetarian dinner.

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It’s almost entirely local, some from our favorite farm stand, some a gift from one of my colleagues who routinely shares bounty from her garden with me, a giant plastic bag at a time.

Then came my birthday, the unofficial kick-off of our week of celebrating another middle-aged year. Vegetarian and vegan friends, please avert your gaze, because this was the surprise dinner HCB made for us:

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We don’t eat much red meat here, in part because it’s pretty expensive and we are still practicing a frugal lifestyle, but also  because we try to live healthfully. (And I for one am smitten by the writing of Michael Pollan, whose mantra—eat food, not too much, mostly plants—I try to live by as much as I can.) Still, lately I’ve had a hankerin’ for beef, and HCB answered that with a beautiful dinner, enough for about five people, it would seem.

And that cake up there? It’s my birthday cake, chocolate velvet made by HCB. I love chocolate more than life itself. My critique of the chef’s pastry skills:

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Celebrating is also about going out, even when you’re pinching pennies. One recent day we headed into town to prowl around and pick through tag sales, and grabbed burritos from this favorite eatery. We took them to an adjacent park, where we ate them under a tall tree on a glorious afternoon, the brilliant blue sky dotted with puffy summer clouds. HCB can down one without leaving so much as a crumb or a drop of spicy juice in the wrapper, but I reduce mine to a sloppy rubble, as you’d expect of a five-year-old; there is always mockery about the mess.

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Then we snagged some treasures at a tag sale across the street: salt and pepper shakers to add to HCB’s daunting collection, a couple of never-been-used green scalloped bowls, and a $4 camera bag (happy birthday to moi).

And then work and life insinuated themselves into our long celebration. One afternoon we took my trusty Subi to the home of a friend with mad mechanic skilz, who replaced an axel. I shot a bunch of photos of his beautiful shepherd, and the pond on his property, and walked away with a couple I like (a telephoto lens is in my future, along with better editing software):

joie de vivre I

Wary Herron

I love the great blue herron. There were scores of them on the property that once belonged to my great grandmother Gracie, where I lived for several years in the late 1980s. I found they eschew encounters with humans when they can, but will stand their ground like nobody’s business if they must. That one was in the water when I started shooting, and then calmly stepped out, made itself very small, and disappeared into the tall grass in just a few long steps. (And you can see from the shepherd that he took full advantage of the water when I was looking at the heron; a Monty Python line about “lovely filth” popped into my head when he came galloping out.)

And then HCB’s birthday was here. I made him dinner this time, seared tilapia, mixed greens, with local veg, and brown rice. I did not attempt to bake anything: it is definitely not a skill I possess. But I did procure a small container of our favorite ice cream. One move ago I lived not far from that particular creamery, which is how we came to appreciate the frozen concoction they purvey. It is happily available right down the street from us here, at the local general store. Forget that other well-known Vermont ice cream brand (which has long sold out to other interests, and no longer exercises the same quality control it once did). This stuff is da bomb. I could not get the scoop through it because it was so frozen, but HCB also explained that density is a barometer for quality. We had to let it soften a bit, well worth the wait. Should you visit Vermont, you must try it.

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Last night we finished our celebration with Maine lobster, lovingly prepared by HCB with farmstand corn on the cob and a seasoned, roasted potato. It made me think of last year’s celebration, which happened in part in Maine.

Soon we will embark on a homecoming of sorts, a trip south to see my family (some for the first time in three years), to reconnect with loved ones, to introduce HCB to the people and places and sights and smells I’ve been describing all this time. We have so much to look forward to, and there will be stories to tell.

But before then we have a couple of weeks of hard work, starting now: HCB patiently gave up his afternoon to replace the Subi’s failed brake pads and rotors ahead of our trip, and we’re both trying to stay caught up at work in anticipation of being away. HCB’s trip to Illinois for a memorial service will punctuate the daily practice of work and exercise.

And as always, I am compelled to organize and clean. I was at it all day yesterday; it’s how I maintain the illusion of being in control. (And it is indeed an illusion.)

I need three more hours in every day.

‘Til soon.

Scrub Brush

Works & Process

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I love the theatre—lobby, house, backstage, on the stage—it does not matter. I have clocked time there since before I could walk. Friday night I had the chance to be there again at the small and mighty Paramount in Rutland, Vermont. A quirky and entertaining NYC-based company called Bedlam was reading a new play by one Tony Award winning Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), called New York Animals. And if you have never heard of nor seen this fantastic little company, drop what you are doing right this second and find them. This event was an exceptionally good call by Handsome Chef Boyfriend, who heard this broadcast on VPR and suggested it.

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This time the audience sat on the stage with the actors; it had been converted into a black box mini-theatre for this interesting run-through ahead of the play’s opening in NYC later this fall. We were all up in their business during the show, a small but enthusiastic audience, at times moving our feet out of the way of the action unfolding practically in our laps. A company member stood by to prompt forgotten lines; it was a rough cut to be sure, but in a beautiful venue on a delicious summer night in Vermont.

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House lights came up for intermission, a chance to examine the theatre more closely. It reminds me so much of this other small theatre in Knoxville; I’m guessing they must be roughly the same vintage, although the Paramount is smaller. It’s pretty; sometimes I think Vermont is underserved and a little forgotten when it comes to performing arts. I’m glad the Paramount is not too far from home.

When it comes to performance, I know the play’s the thing, and all. But I have always loved the process more. For me, the same is true of classical ballet. The final year in the life of my small ballet school in Knoxville, Tennessee, before I knew its doors were closing for good, my student population at last had exposure to the stage, an important milestone in the life of any young dancer. We mounted a lecture demonstration at the Knoxville Museum of Art, showing the progression of training from the lowest to the highest levels at the school.

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The young enrollees demonstrated movement vocabulary in a way I hoped made sense to the audience, who were shown not individual choreographed pieces prepared a level at a time “recital” style, but individual movements as they are taught to children over a period of years, in a natural progression. It was my intention to demonstrate how we get from point A to point B, in a careful age-appropriate way that made sense. I used the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series as a model, and judging from the standing-room-only crowd and surprise visit by local news media, we were successful. I think people are naturally curious about how things work.

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KBS 2B

Friday night was all about process. After the play we had a chance to give the company feedback—to ask questions, comment about character development that seemed confusing, say what we liked and didn’t. Steven Sater himself came up from NYC to talk to us directly, and even asked us questions while he made notes. He was erudite and funny, gave us a glimpse of how this particular play came to be, explained how he has been writing music for it in collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and told us among other things how he thought the music would ultimately fit into the script.

People in attendance made some good points and a few good suggestions. One man in particular wanted to know whether the play—New York Animals—was written expressly for New Yorkers, as he had grown up in the city and retired to Vermont. Without blinking an eye, Steven Sater quipped, Well I heard the show did very well in Vermont.

Yes, it did.

Vermont has plenty of endearing qualities. One is that it tends to attract talented people out of the city and into the beautiful countryside in the summertime, as it does this particular company each year. I love seeing the ballet in big venues in big cities; ditto the theatre. There is no substitute for that experience.

But I am just as happy—maybe even happier—to watch the process unfold right in my own back yard.

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Photos belong to the author and to Knoxville Ballet School; it ain’t nice to steal, so don’t do it.

 

 

Learning Curve

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Once upon a time when I was the director of a small ballet school I taught classical ballet to adult beginners a couple nights weekly. They were dedicated people, mostly women, but also a few men, from all walks of life. Some of them told me it took them weeks to gather the courage to come for their first class. Some were just passing through, most enjoyed it and continued until the school closed its doors in 2012 after six short years. My teaching style is non-threatening in the main, and I would like to think my adult students found the classroom environment a safe place to make mistakes, to learn, to gain body awareness, to discover their capabilities and limits.

Their classes were scheduled in the evening after I had taught the other enrollees, varied levels for children from ages four to about fourteen on any given weekday. I was usually toast by the time my adults came into the school and honestly it was sometimes difficult for me to gather the enthusiasm and energy to teach them, but I tried like crazy not to show it. Classical ballet—dancing, or conveying ballet to a new generation—really does require every shred of focus and intellect you possess, to say nothing of the physical demands of teaching. At least, this is the case when you deem it important enough to do it well. And when you are dealing with adult beginners you’ve got to demonstrate every movement—full out—you can’t pantomime the movement the way you can with accomplished young dancers who understand it already, nor can you assume they know what you mean when you begin speaking that language. And then when the music starts you’ve got to dance it with them.

But after we finished our floor warm-ups and pulled out the barres to begin class in earnest, wall to wall grins and giggles erupted at happy mistakes and triumphs and I always somehow rebounded and felt great. I went home exhausted and satisfied. I remember one of my students struggling to get her placement correct (it’s how we describe posture in ballet), and at the same time internalizing the steps to the exercise we were doing; she quipped, Wow. I bet dancers never get dementia.

I have an even better appreciation for those adult learners now that I have decided to venture into the (very) frustrating world of photography. I have figured out a couple of things about which I reserve the right to later change my mind. First, morning light is the best light. I shot that flower up there in yesterday’s glorious morning light. Second, I fare much better at closeups than landscape shots. To wit:

Yellow Flower with Bee

Manchester Center

But even so that busy bee is blurry; I asked it to hold still to no avail. The landscape was my attempt to shoot the mountains looking west from downtown Manchester yesterday around lunchtime. It stinks, in part because there was all this junk in the bottom of the photo I had to edit out, which made the proportions of the photo awful. But I am smitten by Vermont’s Green Mountains. We’ve had some incredible summer days lately with cool temperatures, low humidity, and gathering afternoon clouds to punctuate the intense blue of the afternoon sky. I love the shadows the clouds cast on the mountains, how they change every second and bring movement to the mountains themselves. It’s what I wanted to capture, and eventually I’ll figure out how.

I will attend my first-ever photography workshop in early October. I am told it does not matter that you know nothing, and I hope the organizers of the workshop really mean that. I am the beginningest of beginners who will be there, I am sure. Here is how beginning of a beginner I am: I need the instructor to say, This is a camera—you use it to take pictures. I am not kidding. Every picture I’ve taken that has turned out well has been the result of dumb luck. And I am still shooting in auto mode.

The great thing, though, is that I know the folks in charge of the workshop and feel safe and unthreatened around them, as my adult students did around me. In the meantime I’m enjoying every new discovery I make (today it was the zoom function on my lens). And just think of all those new neural pathways that must be sprouting in my noggin about now, like these pretty sprouting flowers outside our back door.

The steepest learning curve is completely worth the climb.

Yardful of Yellow Flowers

 

Auto Mode: Thou Art Weighed…

…and found wanting, along with my outdated photo editing software. I am itching to get out of auto mode. Not sure I can wait until the October workshop. Today’s experiment was the vista opposite the building where I work. (I have always found it funny to see an actual building somebody dropped on top of a couple of silos—at least, I think they are silos, but that is definitely a building). I shot the first when I arrived and the second eight hours later, when I left. Everything is so much clearer in the morning. Including my head. I think this experiment is a solid fail, but I’ll give ya a nickel if you can explain that crazy building.
Morning Vista

Afternoon Vista

Kingdom of Wilis: Foggy Vermont Morning

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Kingdom of Willis II

Giselle is a story ballet with Romantic-era sensibilities that still somehow reaches modern audiences. In it a pretty peasant girl—Giselle—dies at the close of the first act, duped by a handsome nobleman promised to a princess, her heart too weak to withstand the loss. In the second act she is transformed into a wili, a ghost who rises from her grave every night to join others of her ilk, each a bride also jilted by a lover before being wed to him. Any of those young cads foolish enough to venture into the forest late at night risks meeting his death at the hands of the wilis, who will dance him into his grave (ergo, ballet). The wilis disappear at dawn’s first light, which happens near the end of the second act in the ballet.

The woods outside our door this morning reminded me of that scene. Plenty of fog, but not a wili in sight.

What does THIS button do?

Faded Geranium

I lived in Denver for a few years in my twenties, mostly piddling around, as my mama would say. I took a brief break from academia (where I should have been hard at work), to dance a little, but mostly to explore. The last year I lived there I worked in a frame shop with a gallery in the front of the store. We framed high-quality prints of renowned artists and photographers and sold them at a deep discount. It was my first exposure to some of them, including the work of Ansel Adams. I was smitten from the get-go. Some day I’d love to own an Ansel Adams; the chances are slim to none.

His work made me want to pick up a camera. I returned to my home state of Tennessee and promptly stepped into grown-up shoes, married, finished my undergrad degree, went on to grad school, started a family. Life gets in the way of grand ideas. But after school I kept on writing while parenting a tricky kid, and then founded a ballet school, and obtained pedagogy credentials from a significant institution at the epicenter of the ballet world, and ultimately brought that world right to my doorstep in Knoxville, Tennessee. And I kept on writing and writing through all of that.

And then everything fell apart.

But three years after the involuntary demolition of my marriage and family and what I built in Knoxville, writing endures, and probably has preserved my sanity. In fact I’ve been writing nonstop for most of my life and now I earn my keep doing it. Since moving to New England I’ve had some new opportunities to improve my chops and to finally venture, however haltingly, into the world of photography. Finally. I see this as something that goes hand in hand with writing, that has been sitting on the back burner long enough. And I have no clue what I am doing.

I’ve relied until now on smart phone technology and Instagram to illustrate my stories. It frankly feels like cheating. Learning something about classical photography (is that what you call it?) will push me far outside my comfort zone. It’s an excellent time to be pushed: I do not care how silly I look. In early October I will have my first swat at learning from people in the know. I will ask stupid questions, and that is okay by me. Life is too short not to ask stupid questions.

Friday my second-hand Nikon and lens kit arrived from a merchant in San Francisco who was kind enough to message me several times with words of encouragement and some rudimentary instructions. The camera is old and a little smelly. But it appears to work fine. I’ve only tried it in auto mode thus far—I snapped that photo up there of a half-spent geranium, a perfect metaphor for this foray into the unknown, by somebody whose skills are questionable, but who possesses potential to bloom (I hope). I am frankly thrilled I could figure out how to take the picture, upload it, edit it a teeny bit with five-year-old Canon software, and post it here.

There is so much to learn. I keep hearing language from a movie, not sure which, possibly Out of Africa, where a child quotes his tutor, and I paraphrase: there is so much to learn in the world there is not a single moment to waste.

Focused on learning here. (See what I did there?) ‘Til soon.