Battle Cry of the Middle-Aged Bullied

The Bully List
The Bully List

How much bully-induced rage does it take to finally push a person over the precipice?

Schoolyard bullies have enjoyed too much press for the last twenty or so years: there is nothing new under the sun to report about that, except possibly its lightning fast delivery through time and space thanks in no small part to sophisticated electronics and the ‘net. I don’t have a thing to add to that conversation.

But I might have something to say about this phenomenon dressed in its grown-up clothing—you could call it passive aggression, but make no mistake: what I’m talking about is bullying. This mom blogger did it way more justice in her 2010 post-gone-viral than I can hope to here. I understand her, even if my own child’s circumstances were a tad different, because I witnessed the kind of grown-up pushing and shoving she describes too many times during my parenting years. Its more benign version occurred every single day in the guise of compulsive parent volunteers who not only “selflessly” signed up to serve on every school committee or volunteer at every event, but also made sure the rest of the world (read: the parents who did not sign up) knew all about it. Call it magnanimity and self-sacrifice if you will, but it is needful superiority, plain and simple, practically oozing from the pores of parents who knew they were better than you because they stepped up to the plate more often.

I can think of distinctly more sinister examples of grown-up bullying, like a particular weekday morning in 2004 when I dropped my challenging child in the fourth grade classroom at the pressure-cooker private school he attended at the time. It was the worst school year to date—his, and by extension ours—and proved to be his worst ever school year when everything was said and done, as measured by how bloodied my family’s collective noses were at the end of it. For the umpteenth time I stood there just outside the classroom talking to my kid’s teacher, probably about his latest infraction, and probably also scheduling still another round of meetings with school admins and outside professionals in the eternal and exhausting attempt to give this kid a fighting chance for a normal existence at school. These efforts were futile for a multitude of reasons, but I lacked the wisdom to recognize this truth at that moment because of my own relative youth and inexperience. And hope springs eternal, after all.

But mainly I persisted for this: when your compromised kid has faced all kinds of challenges since preschool—some you already know about, others you’ll learn about later—it is your responsibility as his parent to advocate for him. The “system” never will, whether it’s a public or private one, and that is a fact. That much I knew at least, and that alone was reason enough to stand there and talk to this difficult, tough as nails woman about my difficult child. I probably had not gotten much sleep the night before, the shower still awaited me back at home, and also the coffee pot: I am sure I looked like Ish Kabbible, as my mom would say. In short, my general deportment did not give me much credibility.

Then I heard the unmistakable clackety-clack-clack of heels on the deck outside the classroom, recognized the silhouette of Professional Mom in her pencil skirt and suit jacket who also needed to bend the teacher’s ear about something or other to do with her wunderkind: the kid who had skipped a grade and landed here in the same classroom with my kid who had already repeated a grade. She was in a hurry, because, Professional Mom.

She glanced condescendingly at me and without missing a beat interrupted my sentence and started an impromptu meeting of her own. What’s more, the teacher allowed it to happen (see self-advocacy above). I struggled the rest of the day to find an appropriate lightning rod for my anger. Ish Kabibble stepped aside for Pencil Skirt on that morning in 2004. She could not possibly have known the monumental undertaking it was to convince my anxious kid to get up, get dressed and to eat at least a little something—especially important because the meds he needed to simply get through the academic day with a modicum of focus and calm had the unfortunate side effect of killing his appetite for the duration—and to get him out the door for our half-hour commute to school. It was a complicated ritual we practiced five mornings a week.

I think I know why women, especially Southern ones, are accused of gathering bitchiness in middle age: it’s got nothing to do with hormones (okay, maybe some) but more to do with politesse and tolerating grown up bullying, sometimes for decades, to the point of exploding. I get it now.

It could be worse than sounding off to superior parents in your kid’s fourth grade classroom: the beauty pageant scene in Little Miss Sunshine, for example. You know the one, where the pageant director with an acorn up her ass has her comeuppance at the end, where the parents finally reveal the truth about beauty pageants on the stage in support of their distinctly un-pageant like child.

When you’re a kid who bullies other kids, adults and sometimes institutions dole out the consequences. But adults who bully other adults, or their kids, suffer more “organic” consequences, if you like. I’m less likely to put up with women in pencil skirts and high heels these days, or aggressive fuel truck drivers on icy Vermont roads, or really anybody who is wont to push me around: the way I see it, I’ve done my time in those trenches. Call me bitchy if you want, and I’ll wear that moniker with pride.

My kid is still struggling to find his way, no thanks to some of his school experiences that should have been so much better. He did not turn out to be any of the nefarious characters as predicted by “professionals” at various times during his childhood—cruel to animals, a sexual deviant, a violent ne’er do well—not even close: the ignorant folk who made those calls got him so, so wrong. Quite the contrary, my “problem” kid as a young man is well spoken, loved and admired by his peers, and more often than not will make you pee yourself laughing with his comedic timing. He has a long road to travel yet towards being “whole,” for lack of a better word, continuing to wrestle with depression and anxiety that may have been there all along but certainly were not helped by some of the adults in his life who should have known better, people quick to marginalize others, who assumed they or their children were better or more deserving than we, or who assumed whatever misinformed thing they may have assumed about us—these are the same people about whom that mom blogger opined nearly a decade ago, who are more than happy to judge you for your apparent failure as a parent. They deserve to be called out for bad behavior, then and now.

I’ll never understand the “no regrets” ethos to which many folks so stubbornly cleave. I have regrets upon regrets, a multitude of tapes I’d like to rewind. (That morning outside the fourth grade classroom comes to mind.) I did finally blow my lid the day we were given the boot from that school, with enough pent-up frustration by then I could have spewed a much bigger volcano of rancor than what ultimately spilled out, and I’d be plenty justified. But there were some beautiful teachers on that campus, and are still, who did care about my kid and helped him learn: to those people I owe a great debt.

And as for my parenting skills, go ahead and judge: That fourth-grade teacher happened to drive through the line at a fast-food eatery where my kid was working the cash window a few years back. She did not recognize him after so many years, but he recognized her right away. He engaged her in friendly conversation, pointed out his beloved car in the parking lot, and invited her to sit down over lunch with him some time.

Art is the Consolation Prize…

art_consolation

…for the human condition.

Catchy, isn’t it? I can claim it only partly. Came to me in the car, where all profound thoughts outside the shower do, while I listened to the inimitable Meryl Streep discuss her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie named the same. Jenkins was a real-life character, a New York heiress notorious for her pronounced ineptitude as a singer but shameless resolve to sing nonetheless. (No one, before or since, wrote one historian, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.) I can’t quote Ms. Streep directly, but she did mention the word “consolation” in reference to art and its effect on us as a species, whatever talents and gifts may elude us. She’s spot on about that: when the world comes crashing down around you, there is art to pull you from the rubble, a joyous ray of hope fighting its way through the plumes of dust.

If you were a liberal arts major in college chances are excellent you took at least one survey course in anthropology, where you learned about the emergence of art on the timeline of humanity. But for those who did not, who among you has never seen cave paintings like the ones discovered in 1940 at Lascaux? They’re estimated to be as old as 17,000 years, which in the grand scheme of things is not old at all; earlier examples have been discovered elsewhere. Nor have they escaped Disney’s pop culture canvas, as any self-respecting five-year-old can tell you.

But when you were sitting in that survey course you probably also learned that art came later, after the rather more pressing business of survival. Art, our professors opined, was what separated civilized societies from the rest, societies who’d figured out how to grow things to eat, and then store food for later. Art was a glowing beacon that announced, We have time on our hands—looky what we can do while the rest of you are out there driving bison herds off cliffs.

And that is precisely why losing the great art and architecture of the world to natural and unnatural forces alike is so tragic. And why leaders who champion the arts tend to govern great societies who collectively hold the arts in high esteem. And why steeping our children in the arts is so important, and why singing or dancing or painting or playing an instrument, even badly, is so utterly worthwhile.

Art holds sway over us all, whether or not we recognize its power (so much power it inspires love on one end of the continuum, and despicable acts of intolerance on the other, to say nothing of garden-variety controversy between those two extremes). It does not matter where or how you found art, whether it defined your life from the get-go, or you stumbled across it later on. It only matters that you found this beautiful thing for which climbing down from the trees was worth risking our necks: it elevates us as a species. No time like the present to elevate ourselves—in the end, art may be more than our consolation prize—art, the arts, may finally be our salvation.

You Can’t Sit With Us: Reflections on a “Mean Girls” National Policy

Detail from photo of immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, date unknown; New York Public Library Digital Collection
Detail from photo of immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, date unknown; image, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Find someone who looks like they need a friend, and be that person’s friend: it was my mama’s mandate to me on the first day of third grade, a tall order for an eight-year-old kid at a new school, but the outcome for me that year was a tight friendship with a sweet, third-generation Scot. It lasted until her circumstances prompted a relocation with relatives in Louisiana, but we enjoyed months of camaraderie before that day arrived, and I’m glad I knew her.

The simple be-a-friend exercise earned me a number of meaningful connections I might otherwise have missed through the years; when I became a parent I repeated this mandate to my own child, who internalized it well and continues to practice it himself, and with far more aplomb than I ever possessed, all the more remarkable in his case because he’s been on the receiving end of exclusion too often in his young life. Or maybe that explains it.

Exclusion. Nobody likes feeling left out. This morning I checked my news feeds on the ‘net and found little beyond a collective hue and cry centered around that theme writ large: the exclusion of people seeking refuge in our great land.

Anybody who knows me at all understands how I hate jumping into the political fray. I eschew conflict, most especially political conflict. One afternoon last week I listened to the late Mary Tyler Moore explain in a 1995 interview how she grew up in a repressed family bereft of conflict because unpleasant things were simply never discussed—they were just there, and nobody talked about them; she went on to describe how she borrowed some of her own mother’s real-life proclivities to play the role of Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.

I confess I own some of that. Talking openly about conflict is risky, because it lays open the possibility of controversy, which can be downright ugly. Speaking out about deeply held convictions puts us at risk of estrangement from the people we love and admire and call our friends. And that is why I eschew conflict, at least I think it is.

I still cleave to the notion, however naive, that we have far more in common with each other than not. And anyway, I don’t think the world needs to know our opinions about everything, as social media suggests it does—including the opinions of the delusional, the unhinged, or simply the misinformed among us.

Misinformed. Never mind fake news: last week a colleague linked me a poorly written HuffPost article about an exercise trend that draws inspiration from the ballet world. The writer got a few facts about classical ballet dead wrong, and not surprisingly; people outside the ballet world who try to report on it get it wrong more often than not. A few hours earlier I’d watched a news clip showing moments from a professional ballet company in their daily morning class. Seems nice enough, positive marketing for ballet. But I cringe every time a reporter stands there nodding her head knowingly while the ballet rep explains something, and then attempts to “translate” what they’re saying for the audience, distilling it I suppose so everybody can understand. But they rarely synthesize the facts correctly; something important is usually lost in the translation, and the reporter’s comments often perpetuate the misconceptions floating round in the public mind’s eye to begin with.

That’s just ballet. What of the story of an entire ethnic group? Or a faith tradition? Or a profound world event, for example the Holocaust, or the tragedy that is Syria?

In first grade a favorite rainy day activity was sitting in a circle where one kid whispered something—a word or phrase—into the next kid’s ear, who then whispered it into the next kid’s ear, and so on, until finally the last person had to say it aloud. It was never anything close to what the first person said, so the phrase “Lego blocks” emerged instead as “dirty socks” or some other thing that set off the first grader giggle box in everybody. Nobody was disparate in that classroom setting: we were all one, each of us united in this fun game that demonstrated how simple it is for a thing to be lost in translation. Nor were we desperate.

Desperate. How desperate must be a person or family to willingly risk everything—everything, including their lives—to leave their familiar homeland for a better life elsewhere? Surely each of us has imagined ourselves in that person’s shoes and felt anguish at the prospect of wearing them.

When my son visited me during the holidays a couple of years ago he brought with him a close friend, a young man of Palestinian descent whose family has owned a beloved East Tennessee eatery for decades. One night during their visit Handsome Chef Boyfriend prepared Yorkshire pudding for us and explained to my son and his friend all about this favorite food in the context of his own family. Then he asked my son’s friend about his family’s culinary traditions, which spawned a beautiful conversation that went on for some time. Earlier my son—who is of Mexican descent—and his friend encountered some scorn on the sidewalk when they were shopping one town over, based solely on the somewhat “ethnic” appearance of each of them. They’re both Americans. 

My son is a funny and irreverent guy; he is also fiercely loyal. He handed back the scorn, which was deserved.

We’ll never all “just get along;” the size and scope of our problems can never be reduced to the silly word just. But we owe it to ourselves not to be misinformed, lest we risk isolation that finally ruins us. The mandate to find somebody who needs a friend and be that person’s friend has never felt more timely.

Oh, Just. Let. Me.

Patient Scout Surveys the World
Patient, Camouflaged Scout Surveys the World

Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.

However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.

In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.

At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.

More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.

Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.

One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”

Retirés All
Retirés All; photo, Xavier Battle

Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.

Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.

In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.

Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.

Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:

Band-Aid Blunder
Band-Aid Blunder

I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)

There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:

band-aid_box_blunder_2

Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.

I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.

Stretching Dollars, Counting Blessings

Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil
Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil

Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.

But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.

Naps are important, too.
Naps are important, too.

Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.

Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.

A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.

We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.

Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.

Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.

Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.

Three Dollar Chicken
Three Dollar Chicken

HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)

I know there be chicken.
I know there be chicken.

The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green  onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.

soon_to_be_stock

soon_to_be_stock_2

and_then_there_was_stock
And then there was stock.
Almost souped.
Almost souped.

The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.

soupy_blessings

 

Bee in My Bonnet

Coffee Table Inspiration
Coffee Table Inspiration

It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.

The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)

Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.

Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?

Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.

In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.

But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)

I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.

Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.

If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.

Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.

Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.

‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.

 

1.1.17: Time to Press Reset

New Year's Eve Morning 2016
Perfect Light, New Year’s Eve Morning 2016

Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.

A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.

Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.

I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.

new_years_eve_walk_5

When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.

I also underestimated my own grit and determination.

new_years_eve_walk_4
The Most Important Connections

new_years_eve_scout_1

Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.

new_years_eve_woods_1

I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.

new_years_eve_walk_3

I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.

new_years_eve_scout_3
Superhero

I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.

Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.

I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.

new_years_eve_walk_1

I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.

new_years_eve_woods_2

I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.

I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.

Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.

sycamore_stories_masthead

When the World is Nine Below

Not Nine Below Scout
Not Nine Below Scout

It’s tough on Tennesseans. And Texans. I remember the first time the mercury dipped below zero when I was living in my first home here, my delicious little lakeside cottage in Vermont’s exquisite Upper Valley: I recall the first time I felt pain when I tiptoed outside, the first time I heard my shepherd Clarence-the-Canine cry out when he stepped on frozen, spiky snow in our front yard (on with the shoes, sorry they make you feel silly—better than busting open a pad). We’ve already felt that kind of cold with winter not yet officially arrived. Feels too soon to me; mercifully, it never seems to last long—the cold that is. As for the other unmentionable, Vermont feels distinctly how C. S. Lewis might call it along about March: always winter, never Christmas.

I digress. Three nights ago I awoke to loud, percussive popping, like shotgun blasts too close. It took my foggy brain a while to decipher the noise and calm down, or at least not worry too much about it, the unmistakable sound of our wood deck boards outside in the cold, shrinking, shifting, sliding around in protest against nails that fastened them in place on a much warmer day. That kind of cold demands respect, nine-below-zero cold, the kind that can split boards, or damage warm-blooded membranes and stiffen sinew in seconds; my joints had been trying to warn me it was coming for a while. Here is a bit of wisdom that belongs in a primer for Vermont pilgrims: do not worry too much about the explosions when it’s nine below (or colder); you probably won’t die.

Meanwhile the unworried person beside me slept deeply and peacefully, but I could not. Instead I lay awake and listened to the blasts spaced sometimes at long intervals, other times coming close together, and worried about another creature of slight build and tawny hair, doubtless also awake downstairs, a Texas dog who’d have to face the music outside in a few short hours.

This will be a new and perhaps painful experience for you, Scout, as it was for Clarence before you, and for me, I thought. I made a mental inventory of supplies to track down in the coming days, used my worry to get a fix on some coordinates: Clarence’s old shoes are in the plastic bin, I think—will they fit Scout? Will he trust me enough to let me fiddle with his feet? I replayed the warning on last night’s news: in cold like this, don’t let your pup stay outdoors any longer than it takes to warm up your car. Five minutes.

What if I can’t get the shoes on him? I flipped through old, dog-eared folders in my head overflowing with nuggets and tidbits, things I’ve needed at one time or another in my professional life as a copywriter and later filed under “Archives.” What was it about Labrador feet? Some kind of webbing that makes them adept in the snow? Or was it water? Or was that another kind of dog? Wait, the vet had only just said Scout looked more Chessie than Lab to her. Do they have the same kind of webbing?

Five minutes? How can I explain this to my dog? Or my car?

However perilous a picture the mind (my mind) can paint lying awake in the darkness before dawn, it is never that bad. Scout did consent to the shoes for our first, brutal walk in the very early morning, but objected to them shortly after we launched. By the time we came back inside he was wearing only one shoe, the other three spilling out of my coat pocket. Scout did his doings in about fifteen minutes and seemed none the worse for wear, while all around us the sound of baying neighbor dogs, seasoned Vermont dogs, resonated in the frozen woods. Just before we navigated our way to the path that leads once again to the safety of the cottage, Scout made a quick diversion, took a side trip in the snow, rolling around joyously on his back, ears aflop, tail awag. Nine below is but a number, he insists as he lies there grinning at me. But okay we’ll go in, he finally concedes, standing again on all fours, shaking the snow from his coat and licking bits of it from his smiley whiskers.

Our little house looks inviting from the street with warm lights glowing through its windows in the darkness; inside the stairs have separated ever so slightly from the pretty slate landing while the house tries to shake off the cold.

Nine below, I had almost forgotten your beauty: you make twenty degrees and sunshine feel divine.