Before we pulled out of Chattanooga on a hazy Tuesday afternoon, my dad reported he’d seen a burgeoning praying mantis and stick bug population this summer. And evidently my son is a praying mantis whisperer. I could not capture the kind of image he did, a challenge I threw his way. And what it lacks in resolution it more than makes up for in composition, in my humble opinion.
Howdy there, praying mantis.
Dad had taken us all to dinner at a barbecue joint in downtown Chatt the night before, during which time the boy selfie-photo-bombed a photo-in-progress; it was to be a continuing theme for the week. From the praying mantis sublime to the selfie ridiculous. I’ve always maintained that next to “ridiculous” in Webster you’ll find his name as its definition. He hones it to a fine sheen and wears it proudly.
Tuesday was another travel day.
Knoxville, Tennessee rests in a valley between the Cumberland Plateau to its west and the Smoky Mountains, the central portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to its east. The Tennessee River flows north to south between Knoxville and Chattanooga, but has its origins very near downtown Knoxville, at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers. Whatever weather is happening on the plateau, or in the mountains, tends to moderate in the valley, making for easy winters for the most part. For that and so many other reasons it’s an attractive place to put down roots; my family did so in the 19th century.
But despite the region’s lush and mountainous beauty, the city itself can feel seamy; Cormac McCarthy captured that quality in Suttree, his 1979 semi-autobiographical novel set in 1951 Knoxville. Suttree is brilliant writing by a man whose childhood home was only a few blocks from my own young family’s home for the better part of the last couple of decades.
Knoxville has struggled with something of an identity crisis for much of its life, famously called “a scruffy little city” by Susan Harrigan writing for the Wall Street Journal in 1980. What was meant as derision was and is held up by locals as a source of pride. That kind of thinking is admirable on the face of it, but maddening to me. I don’t miss that about Knoxville. When I opened a small classical ballet school there in 2006 I felt like I was fighting the “scruffy and proud” mentality on many, many occasions, trying to scratch and claw my way to bringing something special to the arts community there. Ultimately the school met that goal, with the help of many, many people and a whole lot of tireless effort, short-lived though it was. It happened in the guise of Franco de Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. Twice he visited the school to adjudicate exams (and by extension my own teaching). We put our vulnerable selves out there for those visits, and were all the better for it in the end.
Lots of folks did not get that, or did not care about it anyway. The local press showed very little interest in it. But the parents of kids (and the kids themselves) who had been along for this ambitious journey at the school certainly got it. This is one of them, who has continued to pursue her passion for classical ballet. She has talent coming through the pores of her skin; she’s danced at ABT’s New York City young dancer workshop and elsewhere, currently splitting her time between Knoxville and Atlanta to get the training she needs. (Would that the school had continued.) I have a proprietary interest in this child and others; this one came to me at age six and it is hugely satisfying to see she is on her way.
We spent a delicious Tuesday evening catching up (she had just come from ballet class as you can see), her own erstwhile-ballerina mom and I talking about her plans for the future and the realities of life as a professional ballerina. My photo-bombing-selfie-taking kiddo obliged me with the photo; props to him.
Knoxville’s economy was rough when I left three years ago; the school’s demise was in no small part a consequence of that, among other complicated things. But I will say the worst of it appears to be finished, at least for now: I was overwhelmed by bustling new development in the far reaches of the city limits and in its center. There is a lot going on.
In the intervening days since the end of my homecoming I’ve reflected on this, and the reasons my new home state of Vermont seems to continue to struggle so, so hard to keep its head above water. I am still getting the lay of the land here, figuring out the Byzantine political and economic landscape. I live in a state whose population continues to shrink, whose children grow to maturity and then leave, to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We could use a little boost, but sometimes I wonder whether we’re our own worst enemies up here in the Green Mountain State.
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were filled wall-to-wall with important reunions with family and friends. They deserve their own attention, about which more soon in separate posts. ‘Til then.