Unpacking Hope: A Sunday Wish

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So, so many material belongings that came with me to Vermont all the way from Tennessee have waited patiently in storage for the last three years: things David and I considered nonessential when we combined two households three years ago, the year I started writing and editing professionally full time for a marketing agency. But in our tiny mountain rental there was scarcely room for his things and mine, leftovers from our failed marriages, to say nothing of our landlord’s things: that’s furniture and belongings from three families squished into one minuscule living space. Add 2.5 humans and eventually a dog, and as Eloise would say, you can imagine….

Unearthing those stashed-away belongings is joyous and even a tad miraculous: the hand-blown Mexican Tom Collins glasses in perfect condition still, the pair of pilsners my dad gave me when I first stepped into adult shoes (they were his in college, each one bearing an etched ‘UT’ indicating his alma mater and then mine, but the ‘U’ in truth looks more like a ‘V’ and so they could be more appropriately ‘VT’ glasses now), framed art that has not seen the light of day in years, and how about wine chilling vessels of various sorts (here is one in terra cotta, another in pewter). Linens washed, folded, and carefully stored; they still smell fresh and clean, somehow. A nifty magazine rack I bought for the ballet school and that looks like the front of a gym locker, retained because I have a hard time letting go sometimes, and anyway I gave away or sold most everything else. Forgotten bottles of fancy lotions and creams (by some miracle, they all seem fine so far). Candles and more candles, and the pretty platform-style holders I bought for some occasion or other in my previous life, and look—here is a box full of flower vases.

Fresh cut flowers: a thing I mercilessly snipped out of my living budget right after I landed on Vermont soil, a self-imposed austerity measure if you wish, when I realized how bleak my financial horizon, an outlook dramatically different from the one for which I’d so painstakingly planned in the weeks and months leading to my big Tennessee farewell. In a life of privilege down South I never thought twice about buying flowers—of course one brought home fresh flowers every week to arrange carefully in an oversized vase on the big harvest table in the kitchen, and maybe also to place in a couple of the ancient, generously proportioned windowsills under the lovely (if a bit creaky) casement windows, maybe a tiny few flowers pulled out of a bigger arrangement for a bud vase in the kitchen window, another upstairs. Of course.

And now those things, all that glassware, some precious children’s books I’ll keep forever, exquisite artwork—‘high’ art and plain old sentimental art, even a few small appliances I’d quite forgotten—all of it is unpacked, washed, and put away neatly, or schlepped down to the basement or up to the attic to go through when time allows (an attic! Christmas things now organized and stored ‘til next December!), or arranged carefully on one side of the garage until we have a warm spell and a little bit of muscle to help us carry in a pair of weighty cedar chests, one old chest of drawers, a stationary bike, an important grandfather clock, and a few more boxes of things.

All of it suggests a hopeful life at least, if not a beautiful life; I applaud my own optimism. I remember the turmoil and anxiety that came with me here. But clearly even with all that I intended to make the most of it, come what may. The thing is, all these things, these pilsner glasses and linens and books and vases—they all matter, because in each of them is hope, and not for only surviving, but for thriving.

Life in these parts can be rough, and winter especially cruel and difficult, for even those with resources. For others the struggle is abundantly clear, and some simply give up—you can see it, worn on the back like ill-fitting clothing. To those folks, and to others, I send up supplications for hope: for clean curtains that still let in the ephemeral Vermont winter light; for art with the power to jettison one to a distant horizon, if only for a moment; for good reading; for the love and camaraderie of someone who understands; and for a belly full of nourishment. And come spring, that confounding and most elusive of all Vermontish seasons, for fresh, fragrant flowers. Of course.

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.

 

Photo Essay: Grey Day on the Battenkill

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Flag Flies on Birch over the Battenkill

Ain’t no sunshine in Vermont (cue the Bill Withers). And thus far today seems a carbon copy of yesterday—solid grey as far as the eye can see, the distinct chill in the air nudging you to put something warm on your back. Makes me whiney. Autumn in New England is spectacular at the height of leaf season, but we’re not there yet, not quite. The peepers will arrive in droves next Friday for the long Columbus Day weekend and they may be surprised (nay, disappointed) to find an abundance of green still clinging to our mountains in these parts, as our state’s nickname attests. Meanwhile the locals are excited about pumpkins and corn mazes and maple-glazed apple cider donuts, as they should be. I like all this fine, loved it more down South. Allow me my Eeyore-like sensibilities: I know what’s coming in a few weeks.

Yesterday I walked just under four miles along the Battenkill River, the same pathway I routinely run or ride on other days. I found beauty through my lens but had to work for it a little. There are places on this road where the tree canopy on each side of it meets overhead, hemming in the traveler; those spots evoke quaint memories of childhood tomes, a little unsettling to me. The river passes very near to the road along some stretches, disappears behind a distant tree line in others. The woods occasionally give way to broad meadows, and once in a while reveal a breathaking vista.

Rusty spots dot the yellowing leaves on the trees abutting the road; Handsome Chef Boyfriend explained salting in the winter does this to them. (I for one am grateful there’s a way to deal with winter travel so life can continue more or less uninterrupted in spite of nature’s impassive plans, rusty leaves notwithstanding.) This will be my fifth Vermont winter; I greet it the same way I have the last four, with fear and trepidation. I know it’s irrational, but keeps me honest on the daily commute when the atmosphere misbehaves as it so often does. Don’t quote me any Frost, or insist a landscape blanketed with snow is quiet and beautiful: that is for the person who has no cause to bargain with it. I just want to get through winter touched by it only gently.

Until then it’s fall: we anticipate genuine beauty in Vermont, and maybe a little excitement on the horizon for HCB and myself, about which more soon.

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Garden State Highway: Beauty in Unexpected Places

Garden State Parkway

If driving were a metaphor for the rancor which seems to characterize the tenor of American politics these days, it is playing out on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Any remnant of human decency that real, face-to-face interaction demands is lost once you’re behind the wheel of a car. And on this particular stretch of road that privilege evidently extends you carte blanche to be a bonafide jackass. It’s the kind of behavior you might have known standing in a cafeteria line with the bullies in your sixth grade class—elbowing and pushing and jostling, cutting in line: generally behaving like a jerk. You’d never tolerate it in the grocery store queue as a grownup, where you could directly confront your offender.

The stakes are much lower in the sixth grade cafeteria line than they are on a multi-lane highway where the speed of traffic is easily ten- to fifteen-miles an hour over the limit to begin with. (Apologies to my New Jersey friends, and you have my deepest sympathies if you must travel this road.) The most infuriating aspect of the driving we saw on the Parkway yesterday was the overt expression of this sentiment: my agenda is more important than yours, and I am willing to risk your life to achieve it.

The reason for our visit to the Jersey shore is bittersweet, a memorial service for a beloved family friend who was an exemplar for a life well lived. It was also supposed to be a nice, if brief escape from our little corner of the world for the Chef and myself, but a virus that insinuated itself earlier this week is now in full bloom, leaving me holed up in the hotel with a box of Kleenex while everybody else is at the church; thought I could power through this one quickly, I was wrong. I feel bad for anyone who’s had to be near me for the last few days, not least of all HCB. I figure his symptoms should emerge just about any second now.

Spring has not arrived here like it has in the South, where I gather foliage is already exploding left and right. Here (at least in Vermont) we can only just see the tiniest hint of fullness and color coming into the tips of deciduous branches. At home our chives have sprouted, but elsewhere the land still lies barren from our mild winter, with snow still in the forecast.

Spring foliage covers a multitude of sins, but it’s still way too early. The scenery whizzing past yesterday was brutal: seamy, industrial, poor, decrepit towns and suburbs, juxtaposed against beautiful ancient foundations in the woods and stacked stone fences that once marked property lines. I could not get them in my lens, and instead aimed the camera skyward and surprised myself with the results, at least until it was yanked out of my hands by the G-forces of the car as we swerved (again) to avoid being nailed by another selfish somebody. HCB has excellent reflexes.

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Decaying barbecue grills and forgotten backyard toys and other roadside detritus will soon be obscured by spring’s lovely foliage. It is just too dang bad it can’t do anything to obscure the human condition as it careens down the Garden State Parkway.

Snowless Winter: A Walk in the Woods

The woods are lovely, dark and deep—Robert Frost

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Mt. Equinox looms over the Vermont Valley at 3,816 feet, the highest point of the Taconic Range, a finger of the Appalachians, and the oldest mountains in the country: Mother Myrick Mountain lies to its north, and Red Mountain to the South, the place we call home. Everywhere are streams carrying snow melt from the higher elevations, dumping it into the nearby Battenkill River, thence to the Hudson River after twisting across Vermont’s state line a short distance from here, into New York. Like it does elsewhere in the state, the topography in Vermont’s southwestern corner delivers breathtaking vistas—not only from its higher reaches, but also down below, where meandering valleys sit at the bottom of vast, chiseled bowls.

There is not so much as a patch of snow in these parts, save in the highest elevations. This winter’s snowfall has been rare and fleeting, standing in blatant contrast to last winter’s fury. The mountains look for all the world like somebody’s just shaved their nobs, leaving them to shiver ’til spring finds its way here, soon. There is a beauty to the landscape in spite of its nakedness, and maybe because of it; for the time being nature is betraying her fabulous secrets, as if the curtain that concealed them were being held back so we could take an indulgent peek.

It is an ephemeral chance to observe what spring and summer foliage will obscure in a few short weeks, and with no shortage of wonderment:  a pair of pileated woodpeckers have hewn three large holes in a mainly-dead tree standing right at the edge of the road that leads off our mountain, the telltale pile of detritus below it evidence of the best kind of neighborhood construction project. A colossal pine forest nearby reveals its timeworn past in the magnificent trophies that long ago succumbed to the elements, giving the discoverer pause to surmise a course of events. Hand-sized sections of pine bark evoke intricate tortoise shell patterns; the underbellies of felled trees betray evidence of entire ecosystems writ small that once inhabited them (and maybe helped hasten their demise). Ancient moss is iridescent against the wheat-grey hues in the woods, a resplendent cape lain on the shoulders of a massive tree trunk. Even the frigid streams have secrets to reveal: hardy brookies cavort in unimaginably cold water; an ice formation shows sharp teeth as if poised to snap its jaws shut against the bones of its prey; and just upstream a face leers eerily at passersby from below.

I invite you to see and hear Vermont woods in winter; sound byte at the bottom.

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All That Glitters: Making Effort Look Effortless

When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.

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This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.

Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.

Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.

This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,

[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.

Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.

In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.

But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.

And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.

P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?

 

 

It’s Christmas (Excess) Time: I Need Lettuce

I’m just gonna come out and say Christmas in this here country seems mainly about excess in just about every corner of life: lights and larger-than-life inflatable yard thingummies, unfortunate arrangements of popular Christmas carols, sad-looking folk ringing bells over red pots outside supermarkets and big box stores (do not even get me started on that particular institution), toys, traffic, over-stimulated children and short tempers, and on and on, none in moderation, all to excess. And where holiday cuisine goes, too, too, too much sugar, butter, salt, flour, eggs, chocolate, peppermint. And “tan” foods as far as the eye can see. It’s not like you can avoid any of this: you can try like crazy, but unless you live like a hermit, you’ll still experience total immersion. Or even a full frontal assault, like being whapped upside the head with a two-by-four.

‘Tis the season when I begin to yearn for the fresh, crunchy greens I routinely buy at the farmer’s market on the way home from work in the summertime, now a memory. I also feel the need to apologize to my insides for the full frontal assault that is holiday nosh. A reprieve is coming, and soon. There will be a New World Order when it’s all over (still a few days yet); Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I have been talking about it.

But in the middle of all the excess this year something floated through the ether and landed in front of my nose the way so many things do, these days, via social media. I have a dear friend to thank for it, a former roommate, herself a fount of beautiful things. I was so gobsmacked by this I’ve been thinking about it for days and days. It has made me reflect long and hard about the culture of excess and what there is to show for it, which is often so little.

And yet out of so little, these two young children create profound beauty. Yes, I believe the word profound is not overbaked to describe this pair. I do not know where this lovely little piece of film was shot, nor who made it. I do not know the country of origin, nor the exact ethnicity of these children. There are no frills or spangles, no costumes or other equipment, no special effects, no mirrors: the space through which they are moving is even missing its walls.

Enough said. Here is a Christmas offering for you, or maybe a Christmas antidote, a bit of visual lettuce, if you will. I wish you peace and moderation for the duration of the season.

 

A Reflection for Advent: There is only now. Right now.

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I am terrible at watching hockey games and have difficulty focusing on important things like, say, hockey. Instead I see the diamond quilting in a bright red jacket in the bleachers  in front of me.

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And the little sign bearing a message which seems important, but I bet is often ignored.

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And other non-hockey details (yes, it is the ceiling):

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We drove up to a particular town in the middle-ish of Vermont yesterday for a season-opening  high school hockey game. Here is how bad I am at being a hockey spectator: “our” team, the team for whom a particular teenage boy plays, a boy who happens to be important to us, scored a couple of times, and I completely missed it. Because I was looking at rusted out grommets and little paper signs and quilted jacket patterns.

Earlier when we funneled into the ice rink with the rest of the crowd, the message on this little sign posted at the entrance, a sign everybody seemed to file past without so much as a glance, that message gobsmacked me right in the noodle, and felt somehow so relevant, a mandate for good behavior during the holidays, and really in general, because adults need to be reminded, too.

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Whether we successfully beat down the big box doors to score the perfect present and wrap and ship it on time for Christmas feels irrelevant. The urgency around all that can’t justify bad behavior when you’re standing in a long queue, waiting on a weary customer, or driving through a congested intersection.

It is easy to lose sight of what is important any time, like during varsity hockey games. I’m guilty of missing things that are going on right now because I’m obssessing over some other thing. Like weird, shiny insulation on the ceiling of an ice arena.

It is the second sunday in Advent, the season for reflection and preparation; it possesses its own beauty, unlike the celebratory season that is Christmas. It is introspective, at least for me. But when the rest of the world wants to whack you in the frontal lobes with its own version of what is important, you have to scratch and claw your way to find that beauty.

I did find some reflection and beauty yesterday, here:

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And here:

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The boys on the team seemed distracted last night; they did not play well and in the end were beaten badly. Earlier yesterday I was reminded of a favorite George Balanchine quote, something he once said to his dancers, but might have said to the hockey players, as Handsome Chef Boyfriend wisely observed:

Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for? Another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.

I leave you with this simple Advent reflection of my own design, two smooshed-together and partially stolen ideas: be kind, and stay focused on what is important right now.