*Almost* Paradise: Close Enough

Class with Julie Kent: Pretty Dang Close; Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

So how’s your dukkha these days?

I know exactly nothing about Buddhism, but my friend Jill does. That’s her beautiful daughter in the photo up there, standing next to former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Julie Kent, perhaps a little star struck. Dukkha, she explained, is the Buddhist concept of suffering, with an asterisk: it’s thought to have been mistranslated as actual suffering, when what it really means is thinking you’re suffering when you’re only inconvenienced or slightly unsatisfied. Like getting the grocery cart with the bockety wheel on it, and now you’ll spend the next half hour fighting the grocery cart around the store.

Annoying, perhaps, but suffering? You still have the privilege of browsing well stocked shelves of food which you will buy and then go home and enjoy, a privilege most Americans take for granted, anyway. You probably won’t spend too much time worrying about whether you’ve gotten the nutrients you needed today, while somewhere on the globe there’s no clean water to drink.

The Buddhists, Jill went on, maintain we add ‘extra’ to our dukkha by imagining our lives would finally be perfect if only we could accomplish <missing thing>. We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?

In fact I’ve honed it to a lustrous sheen over the last five years of transition. There were plenty of sleepless nights at first, and no small amount of hand wringing and nail biting and wondering what would happen if and when the bank account was empty: these are the things that spawn action. There was genuine anguish to be sure, but probably never actual suffering. And my own landscape now is downright pastoral by comparison, a green hill dotted by black-faced sheep, and the occasional bockety wheel to keep me honest.

Seems that beautiful little ballerina up there, my erstwhile Knoxville Ballet School student, is North Carolina bound, finally getting her wish to enroll in full-time residential ballet school. I could not be happier nor prouder. It’s no small thing: Celia sailed over the talent hurdle, clearing it easily, the academic one a mere formality (quoting my beloved mentor: you can’t be dumb and dance). She has leapt into the world of pre-professional ballet training: the rest is up to her.

Hat tip to her devoted parents, who are moving heaven and earth (and experiencing no small amount of dukkha) to make this happen for their daughter, who by all accounts is giddy, as anybody in those pointe shoes would be.

Her mom explained the ‘extra’ she’s added to her own dukkha in all this is wishing she and her family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina a few years ago, when they were actually considering it. But because this is an exercise in futility, she continued, she’s moving past it. She went on to list all the positives of this exciting new development, bockety wheels be damned.

There is food in the pantry and a dog dreaming on the floor—in Tennessee and in Vermont—and soon a Knoxville girl will enjoy complete classical ballet immersion in North Carolina: that’s close enough to paradise.

Literary Devices

Literary Devices

About a year or so ago my sister-in-law back ‘home’ in Tennessee observed an endearing habit in my brother. From an adjoining room she could hear him plunking out something on a computer keyboard. Only he was not typing the way somebody, you know, normal, would: his technique was more like firing off a weapon with each keystroke, with a final cannon shot for each period: pow! pow! pow! BOOM! It made her giggle.

Yep, I said, it comes from dad. I don’t know how I know this: I don’t have an explicit memory of dad typing this way, but he must’ve at some point. He has hands you could describe as athletic, I think, long, muscular digits with rounded fingertips. My brother has the same hands, and so do I. And not long after my sister-in-law observed my brother’s explosive typing habit, I realized I possess precisely the same disposition when it comes to typing. Nature or nurture—who knows? It’s clear the proverbial apples did not fall far from the tree.

I’m hard on keyboards, but I figure that falls comfortably and justifiably within the domain of a writer. I’m already on my second one in a tenure just under three years at the digital marketing agency where I work, which is also where I confirmed the typing technique lineage I already suspected: on a quiet afternoon (you could hear a pin drop) I realized the loudest noise in our becubicled open space was the sound coming from my fingertips. Bam-bam-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-bam! Over time I also realized the most percussive keystrokes occurred when I was trying hard to make a point—in a piece of correspondence, in content I was writing for a client, even in mere frustration after making the same stupid typo three times in a row—CAPITAL G, dammit! Pow! Somehow banging the keyboard extra hard seems meaningful and necessary, or cathartic at least. Maybe it’s simply passive aggression, I don’t know.

The reader can discern no proof of emphatic typing at the other end of an email, nor can the e-commerce consumer parsing through a product description or blog post. Once upon a time, gentle reader, the typewritten page might indeed have revealed the vigor of a keystroke, with inky letters imprinted deeply on a fibrous page like some ancient rune in bas relief. You could flip the page over and feel the words through the other side; I remember this phenomenon from any number of prep school papers I churned out in my youth.

The Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee lies within the bowels of Neyland Stadium, in a long, curvilinear corridor that follows the exact contours of the stadium itself. It was still the men’s athletic dorm when my dad was a student there in the 1960s; the tiny dorm rooms were later pressed into service as anthropology professors’ offices, classrooms, and even laboratories. On any fall weekday afternoon during class one could hear the muted sounds of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band practicing on the field above

When I was clocking countless hours as an anthropology major there in the 1990s (and even a few a bit later as a graduate student in city planning), one could also hear the telltale percussive strikes of a manual typewriter issuing forth from a particular office filled to the brim with books, journals, files, and stacks upon stacks of papers: the beloved professor and mentor who sat behind the old desk in that office stubbornly refused to transition to the digital age when most of his colleagues had long abandoned the analog world (more recently he has relented)—I found this tenacity one of his most endearing habits among many when I was his student. That loud clackety-clack-clack reverberating through the department was reassuring: Dr. Faulkner is in the house.

I can’t say I miss the typewriter, however romantic it may seem as viewed through the lens of nostalgia, at least not in the way I sometimes miss the old-fashioned vinyl LPs that digital music plowed under decades ago. I could easily hop back on that bandwagon, as others have. But the typewriter’s limitations are simply too dramatic as held up against the word processor, and that gap widens all the time. I’d even wager our advancing digital devices may hasten our evolution as a species, outpacing any decent interval Darwin himself could have imagined (it’s a shaky assertion, I know).

Underscoring an important point—in the era of the typewriter and now—demands a classical command of the language, though, with judicious use of italics or bold-face type thrown in for good measure: doesn’t make a difference how hard you bang out your thoughts on the keyboard, as I am doing now. Either you know how to express them on ‘paper,’ or you don’t.

My devices at home are failing. My old Gateway laptop I procured just after I came to Vermont in 2012 is falling apart a piece at a time: it has given me almost five years of excellent service, and I paid nothing for it—old credit card thank-you points stepped in during a crisis, no complaints here. Back in the winter I bought a wireless mouse to make working from home a little easier (lots of tabs open at once, lots of clicking back and forth between them, but without the luxury of the two large desktop monitors I have at the office). And after I made that leap, my laptop mouse pad quietly died, almost as if it had withered from neglect before finally giving up. I felt a little bad about that.

More recently I realized the keyboard itself was on its last leg when the spring under the space bar broke on one end (the end that bears a visible thumb-shaped dip in the black plastic); the action on the other end remained intact, forcing me somehow into another quadrant of my brain when I typed. It was an awkward transition at best, but I made it work. A couple of other keys—important ones—threatened to fail, too: one simply cannot live without the commanding and affirming delete, backspace, and enter keys. And then last weekend the space bar finally gave up the ghost completely. I could lightly tap it and it still responded, sort of, but I worried it might decide to just keep on going when I touched it, reducing my writing to infinite empty space and no way to stop it. (In space, no one can hear you scream.) So I found a wireless keyboard to use for the time being, until I have time to browse for the perfect replacement laptop. This means my laptop is now effectively a desktop: I’m tethered to my desk if I want to write, just like I was in the analog age. (And anyway, my battery’s shot, too: I must stay plugged in all the time now.)

My shiny, new wireless keyboard is compact but fully loaded; I kicked the tires when I was looking, and the ad suggested it was made for people like me, slackers trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. I paid almost nothing for it, which makes it sweeter still, of course. I think this proclivity to keep on going with the same old equipment fairly aligns me with my beloved anthropology professor.

Best of all, though, the keys are springy and loud, almost like an old typewriter keyboard—a very smart typewriter. BOOM! Anything for a good literary device.

This one’s for you, Dr. Faulkner.

Live Your Life: A Mother’s Reflection

A Mother’s Life

Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak

It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”

I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.

Off you go, then, I told him.

Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.

We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.

We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.

And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.

During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.

Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)

A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.

And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.

A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.

Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.

Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.

My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.

The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.

Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.

The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.

Idling in Vermont

Idling in Patagonia

Some forty years after its publication Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is still considered a pivotal and authoritative piece of travel writing about this 400,000-square-mile South American region. Ferdinand Magellan called the tall aboriginals he encountered there Patagones after a mythic character, it is rumored, hence its name. Straddling two countries and claiming most of a vast mountain range, Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic to the east, and all but shakes Antarctica’s hand in its southernmost reaches; precisely where it begins in the north is arguable. My own ‘journey’ there began with a mammoth piece of content I’m writing for a client. But the very idea this delicious-sounding book existed prompted my off-the-clock quest for it.

That, together with a single glowing accomplishment: I managed to nudge my first-generation Kindle out of its long slumber, and after several hours’ worth of uploading no fewer than four system updates, finally pressed it into service once more. I like my old-style Kindle for its satisfying, clicky keyboard—the kind that talks back to you affirmingly—and for its Etch-A-Sketch-like screen that does not tire the eyes and overstimulate the brain at bedtime the way most devices these days do, so the experts say. I pat myself on the back any time I win a battle with technology: this one was measurable, rewarded by the instant, magical download of a new book.

In Patagonia is my favorite kind of writing, one thoughtful, descriptive essay after another, stitched together in a sensible way that takes the reader bumping right along for the ride across the arid steppe. Any gaps in Chatwin’s account he fills with ingenious turns of phrase and the quiet kind of humor that belongs to the English alone; stop paying attention for an instant and you’ll miss it. Chatwin is an exquisite storyteller and that is all, weaving illuminating bits of history throughout the 1970s landscape as he sketches it, staying true to his descriptive narrative style. It is a story we already know, of successful and failed European conquests, of aboriginal tribes whose temperaments vary from heroically savage to comically irreverent, of expats seeking freedom from persecution in the homeland. Europeans of questionable provenance insinuated themselves into this Patagonian landscape centuries ago as alleged princes and kings, so they claimed, bestowing fictional titles on the ‘Amerindian’ natives in exchange for land and wealth: you can convince any tribe of naked drunks to agree to a lopsided deal, went the thinking. Things never seem to work out precisely as one hopes they will; the natives have a way of skewering and roasting you on a spit when they come to and figure out what’s what.

I envy Chatwin’s excursion while my engine idles here in Vermont. Not that I have some unsated wanderlust: the idea of a Patagonia-style sojourn appeals, but I probably lack the constitution for it, to say nothing of the bank account. One thing is certain: my mood always hangs on the promise of what is coming, even if that is unclear. Lately ‘what is coming’ seems to be lollygagging along at an irksome pace, coming to a dead stop now and then to examine some inconsequential weed growing out of a sidewalk crack. (Even this spring’s arrival is maddeningly complicit in this plan, teasing us with minuscule bits of warm sunshine, but mainly handing us damp cold and grey days that linger like a tiresome dinner guest.) I need a trumpet fanfare, or at least some sign of progress where there is none, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, back in the tiny rental house at the end of a mountain road. Where the partial remains of two failed marriages collide with things that belong to someone else, the balance left to languish in storage. Where the kitchen counter doubles as a pantry. Where a single bathroom groans in protest every time a tap is opened. Where a timid dog retreats often to the security his cheerful yellow quilt-covered crate behind a sofa, a crate whose top doubles as an adjunct desk littered with receipts and file folders and Kleenex boxes and other objects—a broken antique sugar dish in a Ziploc bag (another casualty of too-tight quarters); a takeout menu from a local eatery; random USB cables; and a stack of newspapers eager to wrap and box precious possessions yet again. Nothing can be put in its place, for there is no place for the putting.

A thousand miles away from me a twenty-something also idles, waiting for his life to inch forward like Patagonia’s own Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the curious glacier that advances about six feet every day, calving building-sized icebergs into the water around it. Be patient, I urge, reminding him he could be doing things now to nudge his life forward, however glacial its pace seems to this restless young being.

I could heed my own advice in the place where I am treading water now, yearning for permanence and community and walls I don’t mind painting.

My friend Rebecca’s goat Darcy finally had her twins a couple of days ago. Rebecca, whose life and writing and cheese and food and photography are filled with so much inspired beauty. Were I a true Vermonter, I’d want to live like my friend Rebecca and her family, I think. But I believe that is called coveting thy neighbor’s oxen, if memory serves, and it surely applies to their goats, too (never mind that Rebecca and her family live a solid two hours from here: in these parts they still count as neighbors, and anyway I used to live much closer). But I will never achieve the ‘true Vermonter’ milestone measured any way you want to; my life is my life. I still draw inspiration from Rebecca, and from Darcy-the-Goat, who took her sweet time about kidding her twins, “chewing her cud like a bored receptionist chewing her gum,” wrote Rebecca. I think Chatwin and Rebecca must be related. Or maybe Darcy and the Natives.

Things never seem to work out the way one hopes they will, but they finally work out the way they must.