Traditions: Peering Through the Lens of Nostalgia

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There are a couple of late November moments that fill me with so much nostalgia and sentimentality I get chills. One is hearing the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Miniature Overture to The Nutcracker for the first time in the long Nut season. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fan of the ballet, nor the score, with the exception a couple of noteworthy moments (Act I Scene II’s Snow pas de deux, and the chorus which happens later in the same, and possibly Act II’s Mother Ginger variation, which makes me want to jump up and dance).

But for years my mom and I danced together in Memphis Ballet’s Nutcracker, and there are so many, many intense memories inextricably bound up in that galvanizing experience it is impossible not to be nostalgic about it, to wit: the year I was feverish with flu and sipped Sprite backstage to try not to vomit on my wool felt costume; the morning mom and I were on our way to the theatre in downtown Memphis to dance in one of many performances mounted for the Memphis City Schools, delayed by an impossibly long train at a railroad crossing, arriving at the theater just in the nick of time; the red circles painted on my cheeks when I was a soldier in Act I that took days to finally fade; my dad’s irritation with the company’s Soviet-style Russian director who possessed not one smidgen of shame about scheduling late-night rehearsals for young children with even younger siblings in tow; but also the pantheon of Really Famous principals and soloists Mr. Balanchine routinely sent down to us from New York City Ballet each year because of the same Russian director’s connections with him; and on, and on, and on.

Call it total Nutcracker immersion: it stakes its claim to you, heart and soul, and there is no escaping that for the rest of your life.

The other thing to give me chills happens on Thanksgiving morning and goes like this: Five, Four, Three, Two, One—Let’s have a parade!

It surely does the same to many thousands of others, too. What I recall about that annual moment in bygone years was special time with my dad, who made sure I was in front of the telly with hot cocoa in hand to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a family tradition I introduced to my own young child when I became a parent.

Life sometimes gets in the way of traditions. I know mom was there some Thanksgiving mornings for the parade, too, almost certainly. But I also remember at least one Thanksgiving when we were already in the theatre in rehearsals for Nut by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. We probably watched the parade in the morning, but there was no traditional Thanksgiving dinner that year because of hours spent later in the day and into the evening at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis.

The first two years I lived in Vermont I did not have cable and therefore did not have the chance to see the parade at all. Last year I was at Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s on Thanksgiving morning, but as fate would have it, high winds that ripped through the Berkshires the night before took out the cable signal. No parade.

But this year! This year, I turned it on and watched the first hour of it while HCB finalized preparations of the mountains of food we would soon pack into the car before heading to his mom’s. I got the requisite chills, as always. And dad and I had already exchanged texts to make sure each of us was poised to watch it.

My own son, on the other hand, thought better of it and decided to sleep in. So much for continuing a cherished family tradition.

Really, there is not much to cherish anymore about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Decades ago it had already given itself over to the far-reaching “commercialism” that now defines the holiday season, bumper to bumper. Christmas starts before Halloween, big box stores begin to trumpet their door-busting sales soon thereafter, and every place you go, it seems, starts piping in Christmas music at about the same time.

The truth is, I no longer really care much about the parade, particularly since adverts began disrupting the flow of things many, many years ago. I do love the very beginning moments of it, in the same way I love the Miniature Overture. I love seeing the excitement on the faces of the littles in the crowd. I will always love the excerpts from Broadway shows, even if the casts lip-sync them. (And I must say the opening of this year’s parade in particular was brilliant, with the Latin beat of the new Gloria Estefan-themed show On Your Feet! engaging everybody in the crowd, including some of the other performers. If that did not make you want to jump up and dance, then there is absolutely no hope for you.)

The rest I can (mainly) do without. More and more these days I do not even recognize the names of the featured performers. And busy Thanksgiving Day plans seem always to tear me away from enjoying the high school marching bands, all those pimply uniformed kids who doubtless are so excited to visit the Big Apple, even if they are in their “prime suffering years,” as Frank’s character insisted in Little Miss Sunshine.

Once I even suggested to my Uncle Stan, who lived most of his adult life in neighboring Queens, that I come for a visit and we go see the parade. Ever the sarcastic queen himself, he waved it off and said, Save your money: you’ll spend your entire morning shivering while you stare into a horse’s ass—literally. I always loved that peremptory honesty about my Uncle Stan, as much as I loved him.

In the end, it is not the traditions, it seems, but the memories that the shadows of those traditions somehow evoke, year after year. Roles change and life does indeed insinuate itself in the best of our intentions.

Advent is a big tradition that begins today on the liturgical calendar, and is observed right up to Christmas. The word itself means “coming;” for me, it was once all about anticipation, expectation, and preparation, back when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. It is a tradition that nowadays is mainly trampled in our eagerness to bust down the doors for holiday sales while we shop along to the strains of popular Christmas carols.

But there is also a tradition of beautiful Advent hymnody, at least in the Episcopal church, whence comes my sensibilities about such things. 2015 has felt rushed, Thanksgiving felt rushed, holiday shopping will also feel rushed, and probably some of my gifts will reach loved ones a little late. This year I plan to gift myself a bit of Advent reflection in the face of Nutcrackers and Santas, and the strains of Christmas carols that began before Halloween. I treasure the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing A Charlie Brown Christmas as much as the next guy; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it makes me wistful. It is still too soon, even for that bit of nostalgia.

I leave you to enjoy this lush, contemporary instrumental version of my favorite Advent hymn, whatever your faith tradition. Its ancient opening words—O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel—seem so timely, and nostalgic.

 

Thanksgiving Eve: Grumpy Norwegian Chefs

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‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving and Handsome Chef Boyfriend decided he would make homemade lefse, because what else is there to do before the biggest culinary day of the calendar year after you have already spent hours working on your feet as a pastry chef? It is pronounced lɛfsə (good luck with that, try leff-sa instead) and it is a traditional soft, potato-based flatbread from Norway, land of the horned helmet, land of HCB’s people.

And yes, I know the horned-helmeted-Viking is a myth, but do not deny me that bit of Norwegian lore even if it is a Big Lie. I need me my horned helmet fiction.

So there was a lefse line going in the kitchen for quite some time last night. There is nothing like taking a still-steaming-hot piece of it, slathering it with butter, rolling it into a little tube, and then eating it, the melted butter dripping off your chin. It was last night’s dinner, washed down with a glass of port. No complaints here.

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. May it be filled with love and buttery goodness.

Winter Workouts: Pouring Myself Nice Glass of Endorphins

Cloudy Day

I let the original version of this post sit in the queue and marinate for a while, and then I scrapped it. It sounded way, way too Eeyore-ish, and that is not how I wish to be thought of. But I admit to struggling with a heaping case of the blues lately. I always look for the whys and the wherefores when I don’t feel great, emotionally or otherwise, and I suppose this feeling I can’t seem to shake could be ascribed to something like Seasonal Affective Disorder or some such.

I am not full of angst like the music my now-grown-up kid once listened to along about middle school: you know the stuff—wailing, hair-tearing, woe-is-me girls with heavy black eye makeup, über pale skin, and dark fingernails lamenting the uselessness of it all. Whatever it is. Because, you know, they have so much lamentable stuff in their young lives, and nobody can possibly, possibly understand them.

Nah, I don’t feel like that. I feel a bit like the photograph: the sun is not quite shining. But it is not quite shining all the time.

The days are now obscenely short here in Vermont, darkness falling by 5 pm. It has been unseasonably warm, and that is fine and dandy by me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this particular fall in Vermont feels awfully familiar, like, say, fall in East Tennessee. But winter will at last step over the threshold (it has already banged on the door a couple of times), and I think the anticipation of a solid four or more months of it is a big part of my mood.

So here is my response to this ridiculous demeanor that is not really me.

Last week I did two new things. On Thursday I attended my first-ever spin class. For the uninitiated, I shall explain. You get on a stationary bicycle in a room with lots of other folk on stationary bikes, and you pedal like crazy to the beat of insane music whilst an instructor—who is facing you on a stationary bike—screams at you through a little mic to “stand up!” and “power up that hill!” and “don’t dial it down!” and “we still have four more intervals!” and in general tries to motivate you to ride ’til you vomit. And just when you think you might, the class is over.

Here is the really great part: you have sweat dripping from your brow, and your nose, and your chin (at least, I did), and you feel really, really good, as in, Who cares that it is winter for four more months? This is the brain chemistry that I miss so, so much from my days as a long distance runner.

The second new thing I did was to join the local recreation center so I can start swimming at least a couple of times weekly. Swimming was something I once had the luxury of doing every single day, and the only thing required of me was to step outside my back door into a beautiful pool.

Those days are long gone. But I can still swim. I admit to feeling a bit self-conscious, finding myself rounder than I was in the years immediately post-divorce. Dang pastries.

I do not care. I want that brain chemistry. I desperately need that brain chemistry.

So to yoga and weight lifting classes I now add spin classes and swimming.

And there is one other thing: last week I bought myself a decent-quality sketch pad. When I was a kid I used to draw like crazy, and I loved it. In fact, I exercised my creative muscle to the point of being obnoxious. When I was not in ballet class I was sitting at the piano banging out something fun on its keys, or playing pretty arpeggios on my classical guitar. When I was not doing homework up in my room, I was sketching something, usually ballerinas.

Lately I have felt an urge to draw dancer feet; I come by it honestly. If my drawings are not too embarrassing, I will share some of them here.

Someday I hope to have the means (and the bravery) to undergo the somewhat risky foot surgery I need to be able to comfortably run again.

‘Til then, I plan to sweat as much as I can (and draw pictures of smelly ballerina feet) in the dead of winter so the sun will shine all the time.

Sunny Day

 

Race Relations

Katie holding Tom

Sometimes you get rapped on the knuckles by an ageing matriarch; it is possible you deserved it.

That is Kathryn “Katie” Blackwell, holding my brother Tom. The photo was made some time in 1969 or ’70 when he was still a newbie; my mom handed it to me a couple months ago when I saw her on my Way Down South visit. Tom looks miserable, but he mainly was miserable as a very young kid: he was what people used to call a “colicky” baby. Nothing sat well with him; ergo, that face. Then as a toddler he had to wear corrective shoes in an era when doctors thought they could somehow create a high instep where there was none. And he hated school. (Not to worry, he turned out just fine.)

That picture was made in the East Tennessee home of well-off extended family members; my guess is we were visiting from Memphis for the holidays, or maybe for a wedding, not sure. I was only seven.

Katie was employed by members of my extended family as a cook, but I am sure she did housework, too. And clearly she stepped in to help with babies when help was needed; I am pretty sure she changed all our diapers at some point or other. In those days she’d have been called a “domestic,” probably. And as I imagine was true of so many others of her ilk, she held close ties to the members of my family, who loved her deeply, employed her for decades, and continued to look in on her long after her retirement.

The house itself was spectacular, but it was Katie who ruled the roost there, and I don’t think anybody in my family would dispute that. My memories center around her cooking, mainly, but also her affections, where food equates with love. After a day-long haul from Memphis to Knoxville, Katie was usually the first to greet us, a massive tray of her chocolate chip cookies somewhere nearby. (I still have a shiny aluminum tray I feel sure was one of hers.)

Ironically Katie herself was malnourished as a child and suffered the effects of scurvy all her life, most notably in her severely bowed legs, and probably also her short stature, although the bowing in her legs would certainly have been a contributor. She moved in a distinct waddle, throwing her weight from side to side, propelling herself forward in a way that appeared to me painstakingly difficult and just downright painful. It never seemed to slow her down one jot.

Her greeting to me was the same, always, with her arms thrown wide open: “Welllllll, now, come on over here and give your black granny a hug!” She squeezed the life blood out of me, leaving a small trace on my cheek of the grease she wore to slick back her hair. Her gnarled, arthritic joints and calloused hands still moved deftly, peeling potatoes, washing out big stock pots, and—incredibly—pulling hot pans out of the oven without a mitt. Sometimes she allowed me underfoot in the kitchen while she worked, but when things were busy shooed me out of the way to go play outside.

In moments of relative calm—when things were not bustling, the oven was going, the dishwasher running—Katie sat quietly at the kitchen table reading the Bible. Things were the same at the smaller house down the hill, occupied by still more extended family, for whom Katie worked in the same capacity.

Later in the evening when we all sat down to dinner in the capacious formal dining room it would be Katie’s incredible rolls passed around the table, her fried okra, her vinegar-marinated sliced cucumbers, and her sweet, sweet iced tea poured in every glass. And I knew those chocolate chip cookies were waiting; if we were not staying at the big house, we’d be at the cottage next door, where my great-grandmother lived, and Katie would have made sure another tray of cookies ended up in the kitchen there, too.

For all the years my distant family occupied that enormous house Katie continued to work there. Even when they sold it and moved to a neighboring town, I still saw her on summer vacations, as my great grandmother lived most of her last years in the little cottage next door and Katie continued working at the house down the hill. Her enthusiasm to see me, and my brother, never ever waned. It was always the same effusive welcome, the tight hug, the same greasy smear on our faces.

And then one day during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades everything changed.

You can’t have attended public school in Memphis in the 1960s and ’70s and avoided the complexities of racial integration. I remember my seventh grade year as the year of epiphanies, eye-openers as it were, not all of them good. For me it was just one year, characterized by hallway and gymnasium violence, and notably, a really poor academic experience. It was the year I learned the “f” word, and although I had certainly heard the “n” word by then, I had never heard it thrown around so liberally by kids of all persuasions. All of it felt awful to me, none of it enriching.

For the next couple of years I attended an all-girl pressure cooker prep school. But for tenth grade we—my parents and I—decided to give the Memphis City Schools another go. A high school for the performing arts had a promising sounding curriculum. It was by no means a sterling academic year, and as for the arts program (I was there not for dance, but for music), it was average at best. But it was at least a socially enriching experience; by May I had many, many new friends—black and white—all of us united by our common interest in the performing arts.

Later that summer in Knoxville I found Katie sitting by a windowsill in the kitchen of the East Tennessee house at the bottom of the hill, reading her Bible. As always, she was thrilled to see me. I sat down to talk to her. She asked me about school, about ballet, about what I had been up to. I told her about my year, about studying classical guitar and playing in a string ensemble, about getting ready for ballet school in Illinois, where I studied in the summer.

Then I told her all about my new friends. My new black friends.

I could sense her body stiffen, and noted a change in her demeanor. Setting her jaw she looked me squarely in the eye. In a throaty voice I had never heard before, she said, “You listen to me. You leave those black children alone. It is wrong for you to have them as your friends. You stick to your white friends. You hear me?”

I was confused and speechless. I had heard adults use racist language around Katie during my childhood, did not understand much of it until I had a chance to mature, but knew it was wrong; I tried not participate. But this? I could not get my head around it. I had come to this matriarch seeking approval and instead was rebuked.

Katie’s message was lost on me, and I did not see her for many, many years after that. But when I had a chance for further reflection, I realized her strongly-held opinion was nothing if not earnest, and it was probably best to just shut up and listen. And it is possible my motives were less than pure: maybe I expected to be handed a gold star by this woman whose wisdom far surpassed my own, and she was having none of it.

Decades later I assumed Katie surely must have passed away. And then one night near the end of my marriage, my now-ex-husband came home very late and woke me up to tell me not only was Katie still living, but she was 104 and would soon be celebrated at a nearby restaurant, a place where she had a past unbeknownst to me, in an event with full press coverage.

Of course I had to go.

At 104 Katie was beyond infirm: completely blind, hard of hearing, a double amputee. I spoke at length with her son and his wife. They explained to me how Katie had lost one and then the other leg, but she continued to stay positive in spite of it all. Could she carry on a conversation, I wondered? On again, off again, they said. They encouraged me to try.

I got down low where I was close to Katie’s face and held her hands, and with the help of her daughter-in-law, told her who I was. There was no recognition. At first. But then, I sensed an awakening in her, and heard that familiar voice in my ear, a little diminished, but unmistakable. She was back, there was recognition, and now it was I to gather her in an embrace. Her daughter-in-law beamed that I got her on a “good” day.

It was the last time I would see her. But before Katie’s death a couple of years ago, my mom went to her home for a much longer visit. They talked about a lot of things, including Katie’s prized recipes; she dictated a few of them to mom while she was there.

It was only after my last visit with Katie that I learned some other things about her: that her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, that her given name was Vashti (it was Katie who later changed it to “Kathryn”), that she was born the second of ten children in a family who formed its own baseball team, that as a very young woman she learned to cook at Knoxville’s Highland Grill (long out of business but recently reopened as The Grill at Highlands Row), and that she supplemented her income taking in laundry and ironing for pennies. And not surprisingly, that she was known in her own community for giving selflessly to those in need.

Katie was named a “Tennessee Treasure” before her death on a website that celebrates centenarians. I can think of no better moniker than “treasure” for this incredible human being, a woman who took her convictions with her to the grave, leaving me and others to reflect on them; I hope she is somewhere smiling.

Katie Blackwell

Postscript Bedlam Farm: Sunday Photo Essay

Bedlam Bird Bath

Still experimenting with my new-old Nikon, still fooling around with free photo editing. I have a long way to go and the reality is I’ll need to pay someone to teach me. The October Bedlam Farm open house happened on a weekend that could not have been more picturesque and photo-worthy. Revisiting these images, playing with them, posting them here: it helps shore up this Southern girl for what is coming any second now. Fall is a gift.

Horse II

Chloe

Sheep with Dogs

Ninja Fate

Sheep with Fate

Sheep

Red with Doug

Farmies

Red

HCB

Donkey I

Donkey II

Donkeys III

Puppy II

puppy I

Jon and Maria

 

Rituals And Boundaries: Important Life Lessons

Butter Dish III Edit

Yesterday I hollared to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, Hey, don’t put a new stick of butter in the dish ’til I have a chance to polish it—it’s looking a bit gnarly.

You must be feeling better, he said.

It’s true, I was. For the first time in over a week I was feeling somewhat restored after the first full night of sleep I’d had in as long. I have not been this worn down by illness in recent memory. I can power through a head cold as well as the next guy, and have been known to teach ballet with laryngitis on occasion. But this stuff is sinister.

Last week was a blur. My workweek rituals were derailed right out of the starting blocks on Monday with my request to telecommute, the workday spent on the sofa in my jammies, no routine packing of a lunch or gym bag. I felt grateful for a compassionate employer and work-at-home privileges.

But boy, did it ever get so much worse before it got better.

And however unwelcome illness, the derailing of daily rituals is as objectionable, speaking only for myself.

I recently saw a candid piece of video shot on a U.S. Marines base playground. In it a handful of kids are seen swinging and playing, while in the distance can be heard the first few trumpeted notes of evening Colors. Instantly and without provocation, the children stop playing and swinging and stand respectfully at attention. There are no adults seen in the video. The music ends and the kids return to their boisterous play. (Go here if you want to see it.)

It is obviously an important ritual the children have learned to respect. The video felt timely to me,  upended as my own cherished weekly rituals have been and will be a bit longer.

That little video got me thinking of all kinds of rituals, and how they serve humanity.

It also recalled an embarrassing moment in my brief life as a ballet school director. I had a guest artist at the school teaching an open master class, meaning I had advertised the class and made it available to the general public. A couple of my own students were there, but the class was attended mainly by kids from other schools in the area—whose decorum and general deportment were beyond my control. While the instructor was in the classroom getting his notes and music organized ahead of class an unknown teenage girl blew into the classroom and flung her dance bag in a corner, kicked off her street shoes, and shoulted across the room at him: “Hey! I saw you at DEA Nationals!”

Stunned, he looked up and said, “Excuse me?” “Hey, weren’t you a teacher at DEA Nationals?” “Yes,” he said and put his head back down to his notes. “I thought so,” she said without so much as a smidge of shame.

After class I apologized to him and underscored she was not one of my own. He laughed and said, “That girl obviously has NO sense of boundaries.”

Seems nobody ever taught her to stand quietly at attention for evening Colors.

If ever there were a universe fraught with ritual, it is classical ballet. From attire and grooming, to entering and leaving the classroom, there are time-honored rituals observed in classical ballet institutions across the globe. Long hair is swept into a classical bun. Class ends (and sometimes even begins) with the ritual of révérence, a formal display of respect and gratitude to the teacher, the purveyor of the art form, and often from one student to another. In some schools children enter the classroom in a formal way, when they are invited, in an exercise called pas marché. It is a lovely thing to observe, and an excellent way to teach a young child respect for the learning environment. In the professional world, every day begins with the ritual of ballet class; a famous dancer once likened it to brushing your teeth in the morning. It is how you reorganize your body after sleep, said another.

None of it is frivolous. We sweep long hair into a neat classical bun to keep it from interfering with movement, and to show the face and the neckline. Even the act of combing the hair and fastening it to the head is an important ritual that helps ready the mind for the discipline that is about to unfold. The rituals of pas marché and révérence teach the important skills of walking as one would walk on the stage (much more difficult than you might imagine), and of taking a bow in a show of gratitude at the end of a performance. And, of establishing all-important boundaries, from student to student, and student to instructor. And even from performer to spectator.

The professional begins each day with class to organize and prepare mind and body for a busy day of rehearsals. All of it, from the tiniest ballerina wannabe learning to take a tentative curtsey, to the professional warming up in  class, making a careful head-to-toe inventory of potentially bothersome injuries and other concerns for the rest of the day and the workweek—it all matters.

Important rituals reach into every corner of our lives. Nighttime bathing and stories prepare a young mind for sleep. Daily exercise maintains the body and prepares it for the rigors of life. The ritual of holy baptism (and rituals of other faith traditions) nutures spiritual lives collectively and entrusts an entire community with the spiritual stewardship of an individual life.

And what of animals? Rituals exist in the pasture and barnyard as much as they do in our own back yards. Bestselling author Jon Katz documented the braying of his beloved donkey Simon, which happened almost on cue, every single morning—it was Simon’s “call to life,” as Jon said. A ritual through and through.

None of it feels silly to me. With rituals and boundaries come preparedness for life and a sense of peace in a world over which none of us has much control. And daily rituals create an environment ripe for intellectual life and creativity. At least, that seems to be what happens in my life: rituals build a framework that somehow allows me to think and create, and also to handle the curve balls that are thrown my way from time to time.

No gym bag again tomorrow. Butter dish looks great, though, and I’ve spent some time today thinking and writing. How satisfying.