Reflections: Loss, Life’s Frailty, & Gratitude

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Groucho MarxNYPL Digital Collection Woman and Dog

Mind you, this is not too profound. After last weekend’s disappointing discovery of the incipient decline of many, many of my books I am feeling better about them tonight. I’m lucky to live with somebody who loves me and pushed up his sleeves without provocation to help me save the rest of my collection. A tall bookcase came out of storage last Monday and stands smooshed between a window on one side and a gigantic china cabinet that belongs to the landlord on the other; it seems a little out of place, like it has not yet been properly introduced to the cabinet, but I am ever so grateful there was room on that particular wall for it.

I’ve emptied three large boxes of books, then cleaned and shelved them. There are many more to go and a couple more bookcases to bring out of storage and somehow squeeze among the rest of our belongings—it’s a little like forcing a puzzle piece that does not really fit. Like so many other things in this transitional chapter, it’ll have to do.

The Book Project will continue to unfold over a couple of weeks before it’s done. For now I’m wiping the sweat off my brow, in a good way.

It still does not take much these days to get me thinking about loss, and the books were a predictable catalyst for it: the loss of my home and family, my hard-won ballet school, many of my personal belongings, and then my beloved canine companion Clarence a short while before the very livelihood I moved to Vermont to pursue in the first place was yanked out from under me. There was a moment when I was shaking an angry fist skyward: it all seemed like too damn much.

And then I blew my nose, pushed up my sleeves, and got on past it. Doesn’t mean I don’t still have moments of angst, bitterness, and even stronger feelings. I don’t like going down that road, but I do sometimes when little things set me off: a landscape, a news story, a piece of music—or a book. I think humans are hard wired like that, and it’s part and parcel of continuing to heal and move forward, so long as we’re relatively healthy and stable to begin with.

I don’t live by silly quotes of the kind you see découpaged on living room walls, that are meant to daily remind us how to live our lives. Nothing against them if they really help people, but the cynic in me tends to snigger. Maybe if there is a judgment day I’ll be forced to recant: Sorry I did not live, love, nor laugh when instructed; my bad.

But I do reflect on the higher meaning of things I’ve experienced. Recently it’s been all about living without the things and people once near and dear to me, every. single. day. In the last year since I’ve started fiscally rebuilding my life I’ve been gobsmacked by this simple idea: you really do learn to appreciate the things you can’t have anymore.

This thought tugged at me a couple of weeks ago when I left the dentist’s office after not having the luxury of dental care for about four years. And again last Saturday when HCB and I joined a small group of <mainly> new friends to break bread together and enjoy each other’s company—something I once did routinely, never imgaining that too would soon be a luxury.

Last night HCB and I visited a local inn whose proprietors he has known for years, where we had an indulgent glass of pinot noir and shared a flourless chocolate torte in an intimate bar: divine. I also spent a few minutes enjoying the company of the oversized yellow lab who owns the place. This invoked in me equal parts of joy and overwhelming sadness.

It came bubbling right up to the surface again: you have no dog. YOU HAVE NO DOG. I have lived very few years of my life without a dog. In my professional life as a marketing writer I spend a lot of time writing about dogs for a particular client. The research is fun and so is the writing. But I am almost daily reminded I still have no dog. We’re not allowed to have a dog in this house, and when Clarence and I once came here as visitors, the tricky spiral staircase was too much for him. There was a lot of pacing and vocalizing when we were not all together on the same level of the house. A lot. Last night I thoroughly enjoyed loving on the big ‘ole yellow lab. It was magical. Did you know I have been writing stories about you? I wanted to ask him. When I finally have a dog of my own again, I am confident I will appreciate him more than I ever appreciated a dog, if that is possible. (Yes, it will be a “him” and his name will be Jeeves. Or Wooster. Or Jack.)

I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies, Sideways, which HCB and I watched on the telly Friday night. It was this movie to inspire our glass of pinot. And it is a scene that so beautifully expresses many of the emotions I’ve felt (and still struggle with) the last few years. But it will make you laugh, I hope. Go forth and live and love, also.

Warning: this clip is most emphatically NOT kid-friendly. Do yourself a favor and watch it in high def if it does not automatically load that way. Oh, and hat tip to my new(ish) friend Deb, who put the New York Public Library Digital Collections link on my radar, whence comes the great doggie image at the top of the post. Cheers!

Forgotten Books, Forever Friends, & Harper Lee

Books II

In Memphis and other parts of the South and Midwest powerful storms are inseparable from the spring and summer landscape. Once upon a time civil defense sirens meant a tornado, prompting the requisite sequestration of our family in a tiny downstairs bathroom under piles of pillows. By age six or so I learned to fear any old thunderstorm that blew through our suburb.

My parents were having none of that, even when the power went out as it often did.

But I was allowed to burn a small votive candle in a ceramic owl lantern on my nightstand, and I could read by its warm light to my heart’s content, well past my bedtime, for as long as I wanted—even on a school night. My grandmother gave me a cheaply bound fairytale anthology when I was about eight; its stories and monochromatic illustrations held me in good stead through many a storm before it eventually fell apart.

I soon forgot the wind and lightning and angry claps of thunder, drifting to sleep instead wondering how it was possible for a princess to feel a pea through all those layers of fluff, or why any respectable prince would climb a tower prison on a girl’s ponytail (to say nothing of how she grew it that long in the first place). That book and others served as a powerful tincture to ease big anxieties in a fraidy-cat girl; it was the start of a trend that led to a voracious appetite for the printed page.

Books V

I had every intention of honoring Harper Lee today, the author of my favorite story, one that came to me a few years after the fairy tale years and captivated me even more. I had so much to say about it, and about her, her writing style, how the South seems to churn out exemplary fiction writers through the ages. I listened to an assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird on the radio on Friday, and a remembrance of Harper Lee today. The voice-over from the 1962 movie took me right back to the story and to the South, and reminded me why I love them both so much. And I always, always identified with Scout, the story’s narrator.

Big Thinkers have tried to figure out why the book has had such staying power: why it is still read in schools, still talked about and studied, still relevant. In the radio piece I heard on Friday theories were advanced left and right about racism and Atticus Finch’s character especially (particularly in the new book, which I have neither seen nor read but in which he is purportedly revealed as racist).

Here is my own explanation in a nutshell: all these folks are overthinking it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good story, and Ms. Lee was one of the best-ever descriptive writers, and that is all. You can tear apart themes about race and the Deep South all you want, but the bottom line is this—Harper Lee wrote an engaging narrative, and she wrote it well. She knocked it out of the park, as they say. She wrote the book just before I was born: she could not possibly have known the tenor of race relations in America in the here and now. But if the book speaks to a new generation of readers, all the better. It’s that staying power, some would argue, that makes a thing a true classic.

Today when I tried to unearth my beautiful hardcover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, though, I ran into a road block: I could not find it.

I climbed over piles in the basement storage room, trying to locate a box that looked familiar. I peeled back packing tape and lifted cardboard flaps, scanning titles, pulling out volumes one at a time. Nothing.

Then I found an open box and removed a few books stacked on the top. My hand found its way to a family history, the spine covered in mildew and the cover warped. Thence to a David Sedaris collection—the same. And a beautiful edition of The Wind in the Willows I once read aloud to my son, the slipcover damaged, and the book showing signs of moisture damage. I was horrified. Every single box contained books in a state of decline, damp to the touch, or reeking of must.

Books IV

I’ve moved three times in as many years, and with each move another precious possession is lost or damaged; I suppose that is to be expected. Before my thousand-mile haul from Tennessee to Vermont in 2012 I’d already spent the better part of a calendar year paring down the artifacts of a failed marriage and family life to the prized possessions (many pre-dating my marriage) that would see me into an unknown future. The remains were what I considered important, the things I would squeeze into the big yellow Penske truck on the front lawn of my erstwhile home. Loss and damage: it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve already downsized to the things that are truly meaningful.

I feel a connection to my books going back to those stormy Memphis days and even before. Ironically, I spend far more time writing now than I do reading. But it bothers me to my core that my books are in a state of disarray, that some are damaged or ruined, that others are missing: silly as it sounds, I feel like I’ve failed my trusted friends.

This afternoon I resolved to fix the problem. We are packed into cramped quarters here, a condition not likely to change soon. But my bookcases are coming out of storage and every single book will find a proper place on a shelf, including my missing hardover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The civil defense sirens have fallen silent; it’s high time all my old friends came out of sequestration.

Books I

 

Dancing in the Company of Giants

Robbins was more immediately successful than Balanchine, but the two together…when I think that we had them both! What a combination! We were incredibly lucky.

—Violette Verdy

Le Ballet II

In fall of 1969 Memphis Ballet School and its company had not long occupied the second floor of a mainly spent Depression-era building at the at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street; before that a fire had destroyed the company’s home and in the interim classes and rehearsals were held in the National Guard Armory; my family had only just moved to Memphis from Knoxville. The Armory was where I had my first pre-ballet classes at age five, but what I recall most about that time were long hours sprawled in a corner with my books and crayons waiting for mom’s classes and rehearsals to end.

I started ballet classes in earnest when I was seven or eight at the school on Summer Avenue. You could blast through the street level door of that ramshackle building and explode noisily up the dark, narrow stairwell without disturbing a soul. The sound of live piano accompaniment spilling from two separate ballet studios collided in a familiar dissonance and met you at the top, along with the air, fragrant with sweat and rosin and the smell of old building. Patches of duct tape fought hard to push back the innards of orange vinyl sofas in the hallway, worn out furniture of unknown provenance.

There was a proper office to the right where a receptionist sat at an old desk whacking out correspondence on a loud typewriter. To the left a hallway led you to changing rooms and toilets around a corner, and finally to an antiquated Coke machine where you could drop a quarter in the slot and open a skinny door to wrestle out a Coke or a Tab, or an Orange or Grape Nehi; sometimes you had to put up a fight ’til it surrendered your drink, else trudge back down the hall to the receptionist to report your lost change. I chipped my tooth on one of those bottles when I was eight, and got in trouble for horsing around in the girls’ changing room to boot.

The school’s new directors were young Soviet-era immigrants, Balanchine disciples to the core, and as such lifted the School of American Ballet paradigm out of NYC and plugged it in on that seamy Memphis street corner, right down to the class level designations (Children I, Chidren II, and so on) and color-coded school uniforms. I am absolutely certain this did not impress me at age eight. But as the years unfolded my eyes were opened to a minuscule ballet world where everybody knew everybody, and because of our connection to SAB and Mr. Balanchine himself, NYCB company artists were but a phone call away: they visited us often and carried the principal roles of most of the ballets the company mounted in those days. It was not unusual to see the likes of Edward Villella or Gelsey Kirkland or Helgi Tomasson or Patricia McBride (and many others of their ilk) wandering around those creaky hallways. And because mom danced in the company, I experienced complete and early immersion in that tiny world, whose New York City epicenter it seemed had landed right on our doorstep.

We also sat on the precipice of what would soon emerge as ballet’s golden era, where one Rudolph Nureyev had already paved the way for others to follow and to foist classical ballet upon American pop culture. It would not be long before we tuned in to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Twyla Tharp on our living room televisions, names that would ultimately come into common parlance everywhere. Though I am certain I took some of it for granted, my ballerina mom worked hard to impress upon me how lucky I was to share the company of these ballet greats.

In the old ballet school building on Summer Avenue there was a musty storage room next to the office where sets were lain on the floor in heavy, carpet-like rolls; it was narrow and dark and most ballet school parents probably did not notice it in their comings and goings. The only occasion I had to go inside it was for costume fittings, when a seamstress came in and set up her supplies near the doorway during Nutcracker season; she made you hold still to avoid being stuck while she pinned and tucked material, then asked you to turn around, and tugged at your waist, made you turn around again, and raise and lower your arms. A few more pins and you were dismissed.

But if you were to climb carefully over the yards and yards of rolled sets in that big closet you’d finally reach the other end, where you could peer through a crack in a locked wood door to see everything that was going on in the main studio. It was where my mom positioned herself one January day in the mid-1970s to observe me in my first audition for residential ballet school when I was twelve. Mom had long left the company and started teaching at her own school in the suburbs where I was now her student; we had not been inside that creaky old building in a while. And unbeknownst to me at the time, I was about to cross a much bigger threshold into the land of ballet giants.

deb2

My mom is a force to be reckoned with. We had discussions about the faculty at the residential school in Illinois where I would attend summer classes for three consecutive years; they centered around duly reverential behavior and good deportment in general. I was warned of consequences for behaving badly, as gangs of adolescent girls are wont to do on occasion. I am sure I rolled my eyes, but I did hear this message: you are privileged to be taught by the likes of these people. There were many of them: Gwynne Ashton, Alexander Bennett, Natalia Krassovska, Buzz Miller, Vitale Fokine, Birute Barodicaite, and so many others. Most of them are gone now.

Last week ballet lost another one, the delightful and inimitable Violette Verdy, a Balanchine ballerina of French extraction who left an indelible mark on generations of young dancers. Her absence leaves another great void, a hole that will be filled by others only in the fullness of time. A friend and colleague mused, Does every generation feel the losses like we do?

I can only speculate on the answer to that question. For my part, I do know it took me some time to fully comprehend and appreciate the moment of that microcosm of ballet greatness at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street in Memphis, and I had help; I know there were probably many who did not get it at all. And I took that awareness with me when I went away to school. And I most assuredly took it with me when I had the great privilege to attend teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in 2009 and for a few years thereafter.

I hesitate to speak to an entire generation of young people who do not seem duly impressed when they find themselves in the presence of giants, or do not miss them enough when they’re gone, but I think it is the case sometimes, symptomatic of decades of feel-good teaching, celebrations of mediocrity, and shored up self esteems. At the risk of sounding tiresome, I submit there is a price tag on it; we’re already paying for it collectively well beyond the reaches of the ballet classroom.

Miraculously, the building on Summer and National is still there, derelict, boarded up, graffiti’d, just about forgotten. Nor has the rest of the neighborhood fared well; it was never a good neighborhood to begin with, but across the street from the school once stood an old, diner-style Krystal and a corner Rexall drug store. My young colleagues and I patronized those businesses every single week; they’re gone now, along with the ballet greats who flew up and down that dark stairwell so many times. In its stead looms a neighborhood that knows nothing of any of that.

One of life’s great thrills is finding yourself in the presence of giants; the important thing is to learn humility and recognize the moment. Ms. Verdy certainly did.

About the photos: the first is of a rare history book in my possession, written by Boris Kochno and containing numerous heliogravure and photogravure illustrations by Picasso and others. It is teeming with so many of the antecedents of ballet giants I have known. The other photo is of me around age thirteen warming up before a spring demonstration performance, on the eve of another summer at ballet school in Illinois. Many thanks to the wonders of Google for the image of Memphis Ballet School in the here and now.

Settling into Your Gifts

The more she dances, the more she wants to dance.

Celia YAGP I A

In the intervening decades since I was a young dancer the ballet competition has emerged as part and parcel of the classical ballet landscape. It is not the stuff of controversial choreography and revealing costumes on little people and trophies handed out willy-nilly, but a serious contest to vie for the attention of movers and shakers in the ballet world, maybe earn a free ride to a stellar ballet school or a spot in a coveted ballet company. The usefulness of ballet competitions is still debated in ballet circles, but by and large—if you wish one day to dance professionally—at some point in your training years you’ll find yourself there, dancing a two-minute variation you chose from a sanctioned list weeks or months before, showcasing what you’ve got in front of a panel of esteemed judges.

The judges have a difficult job. They observe many young dancers over the course of a weekend (or longer), most of them already highly accomplished, and some dancing the same variations back to back on the stage. They are looking for “this elusive thing called talent,” as the former director of a competition once said. It is one thing to be a big fish in the small pond whence you came, quite another to take class in a roomful of big fish, to say nothing of competing with them in performance.

The benefits of competition reach beyond finishing well, or “placing”: competitors have the opportunity to dance in master classes given by members of the panel (sometimes many classes depending on the competition, and even one-on-one coaching with notable dance mentors). They chalk up a little more stage experience. And they receive a written evaluation, a mandate to improve technique where it needs it, but there is also praise where it is deserved (we hope).

Those of us who’ve spent time in the ballet trenches teaching youngsters to dance especially like that last bit: any seasoned ballet teacher knows you can tell a student to pull up the supporting knee or stop lifting the chin or to fully stretch the knee in arabesque, ’til you’re blue in the face, maybe for an entire semester. And then a judge says it, et voilà! The problem is fixed. We roll our eyes and go on, glad that somebody finally drilled the message effectively through a young person’s thick skull.

I still have a proprietary interest in my former students, even in the absence of my small school in Tennessee, and even though I’ve left the teaching world for the time being. The percentage of kids in a ballet school like the one I founded who go on to enjoy a professional life as a classical ballet dancer is minuscule. Some teachers hang on the hope that one (or more) of their students will enjoy professional success. I did not. There are plenty of worthy reasons to learn ballet that have nothing to do with life on the stage. But one of my former students appears to have set her sights on it, and I could not be more thrilled she has found quality instruction that promises to help get her there.

She attended her first big competition a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, and as fate would have it, plowed through a number of obstacles to arrive at her two minutes on the stage. Not least of all was the weather, a rogue Southern snowstorm that first threatened and finally succeeded in calling off an afternoon of competition while event organizers hustled to reconfigure schedules at the last minute so every competitor could participate.

There was that: the storm and the cancellations. Then there were two back-to-back nights of sleep deprivation. And when this young dancer’s number was finally, finally called, officials announced they could not find her music, news that was delivered unceremoniously to her backstage and which left her beyond distraught.

In the end the problems were resolved and she danced beautifully in spite of nerves and everything else, and emerged with honorable scores from the judges, along with honest evaluations echoing things she’s heard before. She was pleased with the outcome, and in the end more determined than ever to keep moving down the road that ultimately leads to the stage.

The more she dances, the more she wants to dance, her mom told me when we were doing the competition postmortem through a series of emails. The ballet competition is a contrived stage experience, not a true reflection of ballet performance in the “real” ballet world. But this one was indeed a true learning experience for this girl. I am not sure I’d have emerged from a weekend like that so undaunted and fiercely resolute about dancing at the tender age of fourteen.

But that is what it takes: self-possession and self-assuredness early on, for a career that happens early in life and ends sooner than most. There is also the so-called “elusive talent,” and this girl has it in spades: I recognized it the day she came to me at age six.

A parent once told me she was enjoying watching her young daughter “settle into her gifts.” That is a beautiful way to describe allowing a child to figure it out. Sometimes you have to nudge them a little. There will be difficult days and decisions ahead, but I know one young dancer who seems to have settled into her gifts quite comfortably. The rest will be up to her.

Celia YAGP II A

Photos courtesy of Jill Adlin and used by permission; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.