People here in Vermont are much closer to the land than they are in other states where I’ve lived. The state as a whole is sparsely populated, sparsely developed, and most of us live within spitting distance of at least one working farm. The road where I ride my bicycle is dotted with them, and an occasional gentleman’s farm, abundant second homes for city-dwelling folk in adjacent states, and a smattering of full-time residents.
About now the second home owners are beginning to trickle back across our state lines and shake the winter out of their riverside cottages. Meanwhile, working life continues unchecked on the farms in the area, whose farmstands will soon overflow with the season’s abundant offerings; we take full advantage—there is nothing like fresh produce just pulled from the ground.
I love riding past this farm in particular; on Friday I saw firsthand exactly how the rolled hay bales are wrapped in their distinctive white plastic, making them look for all the world like giant marshmallows. The farmer who was bent to this task as I pedalled past expertly speared each bale with his forklift-like machine, wrapping it with a mechanical arm the way a spider does an insect caught up in its web, and then depositing it in a neat pile, all in a matter of seconds.
It was right around suppertime for most people when I passed his place, not yet quitting time for him, with several unwrapped bales to go. The second time I passed I saw that he had finished them all. I wondered what had been set on the table in the cheerful yellow farmhouse just across the road, where hens are always scratching and pecking in the yard, a playset on one side, and toys strewn everywhere: the children in that household are immersed in the life of the American farm.
In my erstwhile home state of Tennessee there are also a lot of farms, but they are removed from city dwellers by geography and by generations. I have deep agricultural roots of my own in Tennessee, traced through my mother’s family, going back past her mother, and her mother’s mother, and two generations beyond them, reaching to her great-great-grandmother’s family, who were apple farmers in an area of Appalachia known as Tuckaleechee Cove: it is picturesque and largely unspoiled, although in recent years has become attractive to developers keen to capitalize on tourism—it is very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.
But it did not take long for a finger of my Irish-born family to migrate towards difficult city life. Their Knoxville neighborhood was and is still known as Mechanicsville, a charming collection of tidy working class Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood got its name because it was home to skilled mechanics employed by the Knoxville Iron Company, area mills, and the railroad, says its historical marker. My forebears were among them, one Dennis Donovan in particular helping to lay some of the first railroad tracks to stretch through downtown Knoxville.
My great-grandmother told me stories about her life in Mechanicsville as a child, but the one that left the deepest imprint on me was the day her younger sister Bess burned her foot badly playing in the alley behind the house, stepping barefoot in the corrosive runoff that is a byproduct of lye soap making. My grandmother’s telling of the story was always so evocative I could almost smell that alleyway, and visualize the episode, the distraught child and her tears, and more likely than not the reprimand that followed, as if any were needed after that. I made her tell it to me again and again.
Not long after the lye soap incident Bess died of dysentery, soon after the deaths of her premature triplet siblings, who lived their short lives on the open door of the kitchen stove: there were no NICUs, nor life-sustaining machinery or modern medicine to save the day. So in the space of less than three weeks my great-grandmother’s parents lost three newborns and a five-year-old child; my great-grandmother Gracie, a couple of years older than Bess, was the sole surviving child in that awful chapter of my family’s life.
Ultimately Mechanicsville itself was doomed, divided by the imposing Interstate 40 when it blazed through Knoxville in the mid-twentieth century. It suffered decline like other neighborhoods of its ilk, but has shown signs of rebounding in the last twenty years as it has ridden the coattails of renewal in other older parts of the city. I wonder whether my grandmother’s family missed the uncluttered landscape of the mountains during their life in Mechanicsville; it is impossible to know.
Knoxville’s old Mechanicsville is a thousand miles and multiple generations removed from the here and now on Vermont’s Battenkill. Agriculture has its own smells, very different from Victorian-era urban smells, and they are wide open on this stretch of river.
Vermont is attractive, I am told, for people raising families (less so for their college-bound kids, who often leave and do not always choose to return). I understand that appeal, far removed as rural Vermont is from the seamier influences of city life, with its fresher air, agrarian sensibilities and values, and a more intimate sense of community. There are disadvantages: city life has an energy and an abundance of cultural opportunities that elude us here—and in spite of that, the same big-city problems people ostensibly hope to avoid—violent crime, opioid addiction, and even environmental issues—are problems here, too. (Vermont is known for its burgeoning heroin addiction and related problems; and drinking water in wells tainted by none other than industrial waste—very, very close to home—has made national news recently.)
There is no paradise.
But there is springtime in Vermont along the Battenkill, and for the time being anyway, it is intoxicating in its own glorious way. I don’t know whether generations of my family members in Knoxville, Tennessee forged machine parts that might have made their way north to Vermont; it’s pure speculation, of course, but would be a nice connection were it true.
The land connects us all, though, whatever our provenance.
Updates: I am pretty dang pleased to report my foot issues have not yet derailed this latest big effort to resurrect my beloved running habit.
I told somebody yesterday I’ve learned to view every glorious, temperate day in Vermont as a gift; last week there were several of them, and the temperature once even climbed into the low eighties. Nevermind the snow this morning. On Monday and Tuesday I ran, not exactly like the wind, but I ran, friends—two consecutive days because the weather insisted; I am on week seven of my C25K program and it is going very well indeed, better than expected. To make it work I must:
- Keep on going to yoga, as I do most Sundays and sometimes in the middle of the week.
- Take anti-inflammatory meds, and stay on top of them.
- Use Arnica gel on the foot before I go.
- Stretch hammies, calves, and Achilles, holding each about 45 seconds, give or take.
- Repeat #4 on the flip side of the run.
- Dunk the bothersome foot in an uncomfortable ice bath for 20 minutes when I return home; I usually Skype my son to take my mind off the burn.
- And for much of the day during the work week use a knobby roller on the offending heel while I sit at my desk and write; I would like to think this is helping break up scar tissue.
It’s a shotgun approach that seems effective.
Wednesday was weights class at the gym, which for me is like taking cod liver oil—I know there are benefits, I am not crazy about doing it. And on Thursday my bicycle came out of winter storage for the first ride of the season. The landscape in the photo marks my turning-around spot, close to the New York state border. Friday my bum hurt like heck from the unforgiving saddle, but soon I’ll be tough enough to forego the “butt shorts,” as I call them, opting instead for more comfortable cottony stretch shorts as I do every summer.
Life always seems a great balancing act, and I’m not there yet. I gain control over One Big Thing, only to turn around and find Another out of kilter. Like that game where you whap a critter on the head and then one pops up out of an adjacent hole; I find it infuriating.
I’ve put myself back on a nutrition plan, one that has been around since the 1960s and has worked for me several times in the past. Handsome Chef Boyfriend is participating by default; we’ve enjoyed some very nice benefits thus far, but this particular plan does require work—careful buying habits and a lot of meal preparation at home. It’s okay—I have a trained professional at my disposal.
Three and a half years ago I was thirty-five or so pounds lighter and ripped. And I was scared down to my socks and anything but happy. Now that situation is more or less flipped. There is much to be said for happiness; I shall keep pursuing the rest. Cheers.
I let the original version of this post sit in the queue and marinate for a while, and then I scrapped it. It sounded way, way too Eeyore-ish, and that is not how I wish to be thought of. But I admit to struggling with a heaping case of the blues lately. I always look for the whys and the wherefores when I don’t feel great, emotionally or otherwise, and I suppose this feeling I can’t seem to shake could be ascribed to something like Seasonal Affective Disorder or some such.
I am not full of angst like the music my now-grown-up kid once listened to along about middle school: you know the stuff—wailing, hair-tearing, woe-is-me girls with heavy black eye makeup, über pale skin, and dark fingernails lamenting the uselessness of it all. Whatever it is. Because, you know, they have so much lamentable stuff in their young lives, and nobody can possibly, possibly understand them.
Nah, I don’t feel like that. I feel a bit like the photograph: the sun is not quite shining. But it is not quite shining all the time.
The days are now obscenely short here in Vermont, darkness falling by 5 pm. It has been unseasonably warm, and that is fine and dandy by me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this particular fall in Vermont feels awfully familiar, like, say, fall in East Tennessee. But winter will at last step over the threshold (it has already banged on the door a couple of times), and I think the anticipation of a solid four or more months of it is a big part of my mood.
So here is my response to this ridiculous demeanor that is not really me.
Last week I did two new things. On Thursday I attended my first-ever spin class. For the uninitiated, I shall explain. You get on a stationary bicycle in a room with lots of other folk on stationary bikes, and you pedal like crazy to the beat of insane music whilst an instructor—who is facing you on a stationary bike—screams at you through a little mic to “stand up!” and “power up that hill!” and “don’t dial it down!” and “we still have four more intervals!” and in general tries to motivate you to ride ’til you vomit. And just when you think you might, the class is over.
Here is the really great part: you have sweat dripping from your brow, and your nose, and your chin (at least, I did), and you feel really, really good, as in, Who cares that it is winter for four more months? This is the brain chemistry that I miss so, so much from my days as a long distance runner.
The second new thing I did was to join the local recreation center so I can start swimming at least a couple of times weekly. Swimming was something I once had the luxury of doing every single day, and the only thing required of me was to step outside my back door into a beautiful pool.
Those days are long gone. But I can still swim. I admit to feeling a bit self-conscious, finding myself rounder than I was in the years immediately post-divorce. Dang pastries.
I do not care. I want that brain chemistry. I desperately need that brain chemistry.
So to yoga and weight lifting classes I now add spin classes and swimming.
And there is one other thing: last week I bought myself a decent-quality sketch pad. When I was a kid I used to draw like crazy, and I loved it. In fact, I exercised my creative muscle to the point of being obnoxious. When I was not in ballet class I was sitting at the piano banging out something fun on its keys, or playing pretty arpeggios on my classical guitar. When I was not doing homework up in my room, I was sketching something, usually ballerinas.
Lately I have felt an urge to draw dancer feet; I come by it honestly. If my drawings are not too embarrassing, I will share some of them here.
Someday I hope to have the means (and the bravery) to undergo the somewhat risky foot surgery I need to be able to comfortably run again.
‘Til then, I plan to sweat as much as I can (and draw pictures of smelly ballerina feet) in the dead of winter so the sun will shine all the time.
Great news: today is gorgeous, a perfect day for a longish ride. Less great news: the tourists have arrived, lots of ’em. Yes, I know they drive the economy. They also drive their luxury cars like maniacs on otherwise quiet country roads, and I still have a little grit in my teeth to prove it. Best-of-all news: I was not squished like a bug by anybody’s luxury car, nor by one careening dump truck. I think I need different tires for this kind of riding, which feels like off-roading to me, but it’s great to be outdoors in the sunshine, iffy traction notwithstanding. This is my ‘hood—I get to see all this anytime I want. I am a lucky girl. Next time I’m out I’d like to shoot the same road with kitsch as the theme (yep, we have it in Vermont). ‘Til soon.
I’ll give ya a nickel if you can explain the architectural and historical provenance and significance of the four spires, which seem to be on New England churches everywhere.
The Norman Rockwell home; now it’s an inn.
S’pose the geese know they’re for sale?
Walking around in a New England cemetery is an enriching experience I highly recommend should you decide to become a tourist; leave your luxury car at home, please.
The Battenkill has stripes.
Dancers have such ugly feet.–Anne Bancroft, The Turning Point
Handsome Chef Boyfriend looked at that photo and said, Your feet don’t look that bad in real life.
I don’t really care how they look (a benefit of age and wisdom, I think). They’ve served me pretty well for most of my life.
Recently not so much.
I went to a conditioning class last Wednesday afternoon, nevermind which kind. It was the first time I had not been the person standing at the front of the room in more than a couple of years, when I was still living in Knoxville and teaching adult ballet classes with conditioning, along with many other ballet classes week to week. I was also going to the gym for conditioning classes and running about thirty miles weekly. I felt good approaching the mid-century mark of my life, with the exception of a nagging heel injury and an old running injury in my right knee that still flares up inexplicably from time to time. And I was about twenty pounds lighter than I am now.
After I lost my teaching job in October I had to think on my feet. Which left very little time for me to use them. I tried to explain this to my doctor during a checkup a few weeks ago when she berated me for 1) gaining weight, and 2) not exercising. You are preaching to the choir, I said. She kept on going. You need to exercise at least three times a week, she said. (This was after I tried to explain where I was two years ago, that I was a ballet teacher, that I was super thin after my marriage failed, that I exercised for a living. And that my life had been through a lot of big changes in a small space of time. And that a chronic foot injury had continued to worsen for the past couple of years. And that my immediate concern was survival.) More pontification.
I find this preachy stuff insufferable. In 2011 I was still healing from a stress fracture in my left heel, a whopping case of plantar fasciitis, and posterior tibial tendonitis. To say my foot was badly compromised would be an understatement. I had pushed through all kinds of pain, until I could push no more. My orthopedist consented to cycling as a substitute for running, which I did for about six months while my foot got (somewhat) better. I bought a new bicycle and rode it 25 miles, every single day. And continued to teach ballet through all of it, because I owned a school and had no choice. I learned how to use a medley of tools to keep going–judicious use of Ibuprofen (abusive use on a bad day), ice baths, therapeutic stretching, taping, massage. Forget physical therapy: I spent hours and hours there, with little improvement, and much of what I was asked to do I was already doing on my own anyway.
So about last Wednesday. I knew I would be tight, sore the next day, all of that. And that my range of motion likely would have suffered attrition since October.
It was much worse than I could have imagined. In fact, it was horrible. A bit shocking, really.
As a young ballet student I think I believed I would always know how to move, that it would somehow be effortless. And when I got a little older, I fooled myself into thinking that this ancient, contrived art form would only serve me well as time marched on. I never truly thought I was possibly doing some things that were hastening the ageing process and that ultimately bone, joint, and sinew would uprise against me and declare mutiny. Damn them all.
I am not really sure where this leaves me. I spend my days at work in this new chapter of my life sitting, thinking, writing, which is a good thing. Standing up to take a quick break is difficult and painful. Conventional wisdom among practitioners of dance and sports medicine dictates that rest is important–probably the most important part of recovery from injuries. I have not had a chance to rest since I founded a ballet school in 2006. Time will tell. But I am not crazy about chronic pain, and I feel older than my years, by a lot. I have a burning desire to run again, which I emphatically can’t do right now. I am not even sure I can ride a bicycle (which is out of the question until April or May in Vermont, anyway).
So my plan is to go to a class a few times a week and try my best to just move.
I really, really need that oil can.
I rendered Handsome Chef Boyfriend speechless yesterday right before he launched for home. I love when that happens.
On Saturday we had dinner at possibly the best burger joint ever, which happens to be very close to my house. (They also have a nice selection of craft beer on tap there.) We sat at the sunny bar and ate our burgers and fries and took in the local culture after a nice day together which had started with Clarence-the-Canine’s burial (no sadness, just happy memories this time), and then included typical warm weather Saturday stuff–the farmer’s market and tag sales, mainly. I scored a pair of brand new white sneakers for four bucks at one of them. Which should actually be proof positive that I am not a princess: I proudly purchase and use flea market items and openly admit it on the Internet. You could say it’s on my permanent record.
Anywho, the point is that we drove the same route I have been cycling lately since this nagging Achilles injury I’ve sported for about five years or possibly longer just won’t quit. I hate not running, but since I attempted to resume my running habit when the ten feet of Hellish Vermont Winter Snow finally melted, it is abundantly clear that I can’t do it this summer, barring some sort of divine intervention or foot surgery. And surgery is not an option at the moment.
That is my bicycle up there in the photo. I bought it about three years ago when my foot was acting up and I was in pretty intense physical therapy twice weekly. My orthopedist sanctioned biking as an alternative to running. I rode 26 miles every single day of the week. This is a true story. But that is how much I needed to ride to derive the same benefits (read: euphoric afterglow) from a much shorter run. Back then I had the luxury of time, though. Now I am carving it out when I am able between two jobs, and three starting in August. So a nice ten-mile ride a couple of times a week is what I can manage at the moment. It is better than nothing at all which was more or less my situation during the winter.
And this is my bicycling skirt. That’s right–I ride my bike wearing a skirt. I was explaining to HCB that some time ago I had researched women’s cycling clothing. I mean, have you seen cycling clothing for women? It does not flatter the human form, friends. As I was explaining this to HCB the rendering speechless had already begun, because I had alluded to the fact that hockey clothing has the same issue: you take a nice athlete and then add enough padding to make him (or worse, her) look like the Michelin Man. How unfortunate.
But this skirt is made for cycling–it goes on over the butt shorts (the fugly ones with the gigantic diaper in the seat that you must wear if you want to be able to walk the next day). When I explained to him how pretty it is–how it just billows in the wind, he just stood there with his mouth hanging open. Boom.
My butt shorts are actually Capri riding tights with lace around the cuffs. And that is in fact the edge of my monogrammed initials on the duvet in the photo. I might actually be a princess, a little. (But I look like a girl on my bicycle.)