The Boldness of Eccentricity: A Remembrance

Eccentric

The woman standing at the front of the classroom never suffers fools gladly. Instead she writes theorems on the green chalkboard rapidly, with her back turned to a roomful of privileged ninth grade girls at this pressure cooker prep school in Memphis, girls poised for success in one venue or another. She is lean, a smoker, but what flesh hangs from her arms jiggles as she writes. She begins explaining the theorem before she places the chalk on the board’s metal lip, and rubs the dust from her hands. She continues as she turns to face the class, some girls taking notes furiously, and focused, others silently chewing contraband Wrigley’s and watching the second hand on the classroom clock, one girl in particular routinely balancing on the back two legs of her chair—rearing back as this teacher will observe with disdain time and again over the course of years. There is nothing eccentric about her; you know where you stand with her, and that is all.

Questions before I continue? She is unamused, just doing her job. The bloom of youth is gone from her, not too long, but her jowls have already given way to the forces of nature—gravity is doing its own job on her.

I sit in my chair with all four of its legs planted firmly on the carpeted floor in this hallowed math classroom, sweating. Yes, yes, yes, the adolescent voice inside me urges, you do have questions! Shhhhhh!, I snap at it uncharitably. I fight back hot tears of frustration, my rational self growing more irritated with the rest of me by the moment. I am already lost in the first five minutes or so of the class.

Nobody raises their hands, nobody seems concerned. I have to sit on my own hands for fear some reflex within will throw one of them skyward, and all these judge-y eyes and ears will be where I least want them, on me. I don’t understand anything you just said! I scream silently. I will default to my time-worn strategy: maintain a cool exterior, pretend I understand, and then beg my parents for help later. This school is notorious for its academic standards, for its heaping piles of homework and high expectations. These girls will go on to discover new chemical elements; the ones who do not hold these lofty aspirations will at least possess a closet full of Lilly Pulitzer. Math should take a half hour tonight; now it will take three times that, and even I can calculate those repercussions in my head, factor in those variables with my daily ballet classes, chores, and the rest of my homework.

Two decades later in Knoxville I’ll pass the torch to my own child, who will struggle harder still with his mathematics; the bar will be set higher for him, not only because he attends a school of the same ilk, but because his brain is wired to make this—and everything else—more difficult for him. He will develop bravado to hide his confusion, and some of his teachers will misinterpret that as cheekiness. But his endearing personality will make up for so many of his shortcomings. On a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee, I will bake cookies with that boy and we will package them in a pretty basket and walk five blocks up the road to deliver them to an eccentric neighbor, because we want to.

Martin the octogenarian, Martin the flamboyant queen, Martin the proud subject of a cover story in the local indie newspaper, a story that celebrated a handful of the city’s eccentrics. When that paper hit the newsstands, something inside me jumped for joy: it’s high time to honor this man, I thought. We were neighbors, but we met at church a decade earlier; you could not sit anywhere near Martin and not notice him—if not for his unabashedly vibrant couture, then for his greeting during the exchanging of the peace, a ritual in the Episcopal church that happens just before Holy Eucharist: Peace, baby! exclaimed Martin in his unmistakable drawl when he shook hands with the communicants around him. Macular degeneration had taken its toll on Martin’s eyes, but he still looked right at you; one morning he told me I was gorgeous.

The year Martin added us to his Christmas mailing list I felt privileged. There he stood on the cover of a card with his much younger lover, both bare-chested men wearing aprons besmeared with the statue of David, minus the head. It made you look twice: two ripped nude males holding hands—oh, wait. Very clever, Martin. That card was a gesture of trust reaching beyond the mere exchanging of peace.

It was not to be taken lightly: Martin had many more reasons to mistrust people around him. On one occasion he boldly put a question to a guest lecturer during the weekly education hour at our cathedral church—an hour programmed for reflection and inquiry, a thing Episcopalians pride themselves on. A church poster campaign at the time even trumpeted this cherished ethos, holding up the Apostle Thomas as an exemplar—it’s okay to doubt, and to ask questions—Thomas did. This lecturer, though, was unaccustomed to Martin’s unrelenting style and plowed over the question with an evasive answer. Martin stood up: I really want to know the answer! There was nervous tittering. Martin even giggled at himself. The lecturer kept on going. NO, Martin insisted. I REALLY WANT TO KNOW! I turned and looked at him, this bold eccentric, all around him people gazing at the floor in embarrassment, a few rolling their eyes. None of it was lost on a courageous and savvy, old blind man, who eventually fell silent and sat down while the lecturer kept going. I narrowed my eyes at the lecturer, thinking uncharitable thoughts: either answer the man’s question, you blowhard, or admit you don’t know.

Now I am sitting in Martin’s compact townhome’s tiny living room, where so much artwork hangs on the walls you’d be hard-pressed to find a square inch of empty space. Male nudes are everywhere, in any style you can name, even in the first-floor bathroom—a ‘lifetime supply’ an irreverent neighbor later observed. My boy and I sit here and eat cookies and pass a little time with an engaging person who reminds me of my beloved great grandmother, who would have applauded Martin’s tenacity that morning in church. Martin is a treasure, I am thinking, like my great grandmother was: each of them storytellers, each blind by the time they reached this milestone in their lives, each so courageous in the face of adversity. Wouldn’t it be something if their paths had crossed at some point, I think.

Later I spotted him walking down the gravel path on the main thoroughfare in our old neighborhood, a wide boulevard with a generous median. Hey, Martin, it’s me, I hollered. He recognized my voice. Martin, is that a flower pot on your head? He removed the upside-down basket with a wide lip on it and grinned and hollered back that it worked better at keeping the sun off his face than any of his other hats. You be careful out here, Martin.

Now I am worrying about him a little, an aged blind man walking alone in a neighborhood where traffic often moves too fast. Then I remember this is Martin-the-Eccentric, Martin-the-Fearless. Martin, who would never let a trifling thing like traffic, or judge-y church parishioners, or humorless math teachers—or blindness—stand in the way of his bold, adventuresome mind.

New Real Friends: A (Hopeful) Lamentation

Real Friends

Our parents serve as eternal reminders of every ‘cute’ thing we said and did in childhood, however stridently we might wish to forget: it’s a parenting privilege. I find myself doing it to my own twenty-something these days, even across the miles that separate us. I need my bref-kass, I mutter in the early morning hours to no one in particular, channeling his misinterpretation of the word breakfast when he was two. The language wire so comically crossed in his noggin stayed that way for years, rerouted by a speech pathologist just in time for middle school. (His peers will slaughter him next year, had come the peremptory warning from the elementary school principal.) I missed that little glitch when it was finally gone. Parenting privilege.

In my own early childhood, it was the post-kindergarten report: how was your first day of school, my parents wanted to know?

I loved school, could not wait to go, and continued to love it mainly, save a couple of ‘prime suffering years’ during adolescence, as a beloved fictional character might say. On the first day of kindergarten, though, my enthusiastic response evidently went something like this: “Today I made some new REAL friends!” Hilarity ensued.

It’s not an exceptional first day report, really, except for the emphasis. Even at five I clearly possessed some awareness of the distinction between casual acquaintance and friend, I think, however rudimentary.

Friendship is work, going both ways. Like anything worthwhile, it requires regular care and upkeep; neglect it and it languishes. When friendship feels effortless (it is never truly effortless), that’s proof positive of good chemistry. At least that’s how I view it.

When the planets in one’s life begin to misalign, when the glue that holds together the firmament dries and cracks and begins to flake away, the joy of a friendship transforms into hard labor. That’s a heavy yoke for a friend to bear—at least, if the burden persists beyond some decent interval of time. The last few years I lived in Tennessee I think I had grown too difficult for some of the people around me, some of my real friends—too high-maintenance, if you will, and at times even insufferable. I remain forever grateful to a particular few who stuck it out with me, when it felt like the effort had flowed mainly one way for too long.

There is a simpler piece to friendship, though, and that is time, a luxury I took for granted for years. My friends and I were lucky, even sheltered, tucked away in a beautiful, prosperous community, held together with common values to be sure, but mainly our children. I can’t speak for any of them now, but I was short-sighted. I never anticipated a future when the luxury of time would evaporate, when our lives would grow more complicated, when geography and divergent interests would conspire to separate us: I assumed there would always be lunch on the occasional Friday afternoon, or dinner on a weeknight, or Shakespeare on the Square with bag chairs and a picnic in summer. 

It also never dawned on me, poised as I was to start life anew in a place far removed from my family and friends, the impossibility of repotting those plants. (To be fair, I was focused on survival.) The reality is, when you no longer have church—however that looks—or community to unite you with others of your ilk, you will come up empty handed. Add to that a life bereft of the luxury of time, and you can forget about fostering anything more than a few casual acquaintances in a place that still does not feel like home.

But casual acquaintances have a way of morphing into real friendships, and therein lies salvation. So many significant friendships start this way: with rare exception, I’m hard pressed to define a specific point in time where the connections in my life crossed the threshold from casual to real.

Meanwhile I imagine a point on the horizon when I once again possess the luxury of time for friends. We’ll meet for lunch or dinner to talk about a shared experience for far too long—we might even shut down the little noodle eatery in Union Square at 11pm, forced to finish our conversation back at my Manhattan rental until almost dawn, because there is still so much to say. Or I’ll admire my friend’s most recent creation (she is gifted); I’ll finger the landscape on a piece of her pottery and tell her I love the blue glaze, her latest textile work will inspire me and I’ll lament for the umpteenth time how I can’t do anything with my hands, and my friend will wave it off like it’s nothing. Or my friend and I will talk about how hard it is to recognize the right moment to step away and watch an adult child suffer, or know when to step in and help. Or we’ll fiddle with our cameras and talk about apertures and my friend will know much more than I and I’ll feebly follow along as best I can and try to learn; but we’ll finish with chocolate dessert, which always makes everything better. Or we’ll stay on the phone for far too long speaking a language nobody else understands, the language of ballet divas, but he is from the South like me and so we have this extra layer of camaraderie, and we’ll channel our best French-Southern ballet-speak and explode in laughter and agree as our phones die we need to talk more often.

I’ll do all these things again with my real friends.

Idling in Vermont

Idling in Patagonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

It’s *good* to covet things.

betts-pecans-2
Bett’s Pecans

One of the best presents ever, those pecans. My dear friend Bett sent them to us last Christmas; she said she gathered them from the bumper crop on the ground under two pecan trees near where her mama lives on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. I saved the tags and stuck them to the walls in my work cubicle, a daily reminder of so many wonderful things. I think about Bett when I see her sweeping hand in red marker; I am sentimental that way. I also think about her when I swill my coffee from a fabulous little vessel imprinted with the familiar “M” stamp on the bottom, her signature bear-and-honey-bee motif marching around the outside of the mug. Bett is an American folk artist with distinctly modern sensibilities; her forebears would be proud to count her as one of their own. She is also a diligent student of the South, and I love that about her.

As for the pecans, they did not last long: you can’t get anything approaching the flavor or texture inside those exquisite little kernels up here in these parts. But the union of Southern pecans and Vermont maple syrup? That is salvation, right there. (Still working on teaching Handsome Chef Boyfriend the proper way to say it: p’cahhhn, with a nice, soft ahhh, accent on the second syllable, instead of PEEEE-can, much harder on the ear. There is work to do yet.)

I miss my Southern friends; I knew there’d be casualties when I packed my bags and left home for good. I’ve been a poor correspondent, but everybody’s busy and life has a way of insinuating itself despite one’s best intentions. (Somebody had the gall to say this aloud at a going-away party for friends many years ago and everybody in the room was shocked; I don’t know why—it is the truth.)

It’s not just that, though: seems once you reach a certain place in your life it’s a big imposition to ask for a new friendship, perhaps impossible to forge relationships of the kind that unfolded naturally earlier in life. I know there are exceptions, but it still feels more challenging now than it did way back when; nor does the scattered configuration of the population here help any. And because the tap root I yanked up in 2012 still has a ways to go before it’s reestablished in new soil, I’ve been gun-shy about seeking my “tribe,” if it even exists. I don’t have a church family as I did in Tennessee; my child is grown and lives a thousand miles from me and so I don’t have a place in any of the powerful communities parenting seems to foster; the ballet school I founded in 2006 is long gone; and I have not set foot inside a ballet classroom since October of 2014.

There was a loud rip in the universe in January of that year, my second year as a Vermonter, when I lost my Clarence-the-Canine to degenerative myelopathy, an insidious neurological disease which ‘til then had slept quietly inside him unbeknownst to anybody. This may seem trivial to anyone for whom the companionship of a dog means little or nothing.

The death of my steadfast companion was not all. At the time I was living in a beautiful part of Vermont on 180 spectacular acres where woods, water, meadow, and mountains intersect to create nothing less than a sublime landscape. My loft home was open and sunny and inspiring, truly delightful in most ways, a rare opportunity that came to me by way of a ballet school colleague. Had I any notion I might live in this place after my colossal 2012 reboot, my heart might have leapt, a little.

But had I occasion to reflect on living in complete isolation there without my dog, and with few Vermontish winter survival skills (I must underscore this: surviving a rough Vermont winter alone in the middle of nowhere, however intoxicating the surroundings, requires a certain savvy no novice from the South possesses), I might have reconsidered my course. And in spite of being in a comfortable spot in my still-new romance, I felt the most intense loneliness there I’ve felt in my life, ever. My colleague assured me her land had healed many folks, situated as it was there in Vermont’s beautiful Upper Valley. I never doubted her, but healing seemed to elude me. No amount of HCB’s cajoling in our epic nightly phone calls would convince me otherwise: I was in a terrible financial bind and completely alone, anxious as hell to get out. (And anyway, HCB was two hours away on the other side of the state: it may as well have been a million miles.)

It does not take much to set me off even now: a song that was popular at the time, a smell in the air—these things raise my hackles and set me on edge. The truth is I could not see the forest for the trees, and that is all. But the brief chapter (really just a couple of sentences) that still arouses dread when I have a half-second to reflect on it, continues to change shape as viewed from a greater distance—even a minuscule change in focal length can yield a very different image, a reality I observe each time I pick up my camera. I think I failed to recognize healing is often uncomfortable; it occurs to me now that healing is probably exactly what unfolded there, in the little house in the middle of nowhere.

In 2012 I walked away from unhappiness holding an empty bag, equivocating some, wringing my hands mostly. A dear friend held this question right in my face: Isn’t your freedom worth it? Yes, probably, though I could not have imagined the monumental challenges I was about to face. But does not the void left by something of towering importance imbue that thing with still deeper meaning, make it still more worthwhile to have? As HCB said to me shortly after we met, some things really are worth waiting for.

It’s undeniable—I’m in a better place now than I was a couple of years ago, and if you asked him, HCB would most likely agree the same holds true for him. I spend a fair amount of time yearning for things lost, things still beyond reach, and a few things perhaps unattainable (never quit trying); so does he, with less fervor than I—he is far better at rolling with the punches. It is possible we might even covet a few things. I don’t think that’s unhealthy.

Yesterday we pawed through some stuff in our storage locker, disappointed to find interlopers of the rodent variety had made a big mess and destroyed a few of my belongings; there is probably more destruction buried deep inside the locker, judging from the extent of damage on the surface. (It’s a continuing theme around transitions: move your things, store them, move them some more, and there will be damage and loss, guaranteed.) But there is also this: next weekend we’ll finally achieve this monumentally important thing we’ve missed for nearly three years. It’s most definitely worth waiting for, and it’s about time.

kong

(Dis)Comfort and Joy

IMG_20151213_170758

Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I spent yesterday Christmas shopping over in Saratoga Springs. We had fun, observed people, marveled at humanity, privately assessed it as we are wont to do for amusement. We ate lunch and dinner out, rare for us, and arrived home content if a little weary, with a bargain Christmas tree tied to the top of the Subi.

On the ride over to New York I lamented the absence of friends, a void I’ve felt since I moved to Vermont. Once you leave a tightly knit community it is difficult or maybe impossible to rebuild the kinds of relationships that happen when you raise a family there. HCB and I compared notes about the kinship we once felt between our own families and others during our respective marriages.

For my part, I will say those relationships grew out of two important institutions in my life at the time: neighborhood and church. There was much overlap between them, and two families in particular emerged as important cornerstones in the life of my young family.

There is nothing like that here in my new life in Vermont. I have not felt connected to any church community since my arrival here save one, and that was in my first year when I lived near the New Hampshire state line in Vermont’s Upper Valley. Community and neighborhood have a very different connotation in general in a rural state where neighborhoods in the traditional sense are rare, unless you live in one of the few towns with any critical mass to it.

But anyway the reality is HCB and I work hard in our professional lives and spend much of our time outside work mainly dotting i’s and crossing t’s. We are still in survival mode, the two of us, and will likely be a while longer before we can really figure out how the horizon looks, much less try to establish friendships with others of our ilk.

This morning I grinned when I slid into the driver’s seat before my yoga class and found it adjusted for a very tall chef. After class I headed to a little café like so many others you’re likely to find on Main Streets in New England villages; I was there to meet up with a recent acquaintance, another writer with a keen desire to see her own work published, but who also spends her professional life writing as do I. We were united initially by an online lament that it is just plain difficult to do justice to your own writing at the end of a long day spent writing for someone else. I have come to realize it is a good problem to have, and am not really complaining.

When I arrived at the café a jazz trio had just set up and were about to start their Sunday afternoon set. It was quirky and odd to find a straight-ahead jazz trio in this kind of venue on an early Sunday afternoon to be sure, but Vermont itself is pretty quirky and odd. In spite of that the musicians were tight and the original compositions they played were good; the band’s spokesman explained each piece to his attentive audience using humorous language suffused with just the right amount of technical jargon. Jazz can be discordant, and much of this jazz in particular was written in seven—don’t try to dance to this, he jokingly chided. I still found it interesting and listenable.

It is good to be pushed outside one’s comfort zone from time to time; I have been all kinds of pushed outside my comfort zone in the last three years. The comfort of cherished friendships is elusive; forging relationships is more challenging now and requires different skills in this still-new landscape. To borrow the music metaphor, there may be only discordant, complicated harmonies written in confusing time signatures. As Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin Udall (ironically a writer) famously asked a roomful of anxious people in a psychiatric waiting room, What if this is as good as it gets? 

Maybe this new, discordant landscape of hard-to-forge relationships is as good as it gets. Who can say?

But maybe an uncertain landscape brings with it something edgier and distinctly more interesting than a wistful yearning for a chapter long closed. Maybe there will be dancing to music written in seven.

Carpe Diem, and All That

Ballet Workshop Clock

When you discover two of your favorite people are performing in the same weekend in separate but (kinda) nearby venues, albeit in completely different kinds of shows, and you think you can somehow make it to see them both, you tell them, Heck yeah, I’ll be there. Every opportunity to go to the the theatre for a performance of merit is a golden one, more glowing still when you know somebody on the stage. And if it requires travel to two cities (and neighboring states) in the same day, well so be it. Maybe it is a function of age, but more and more I feel a sense of urgency about doing things, and seeing people who are important to me. I would not go so far as to call it a bucket list. Just urgency.

See that ugly flower clock up there? It was part of a most impressive collection in a Massachusetts dive where Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I stopped on our way down to his sister’s on Friday night. The place was full of clocks and plates and needlepoint, a lifetime supply of them, clearly somebody’s labor of love. And there were wagon wheel light fixtures for days. This funk-vibe little eatery may have been firmly rooted in about 1972, but it was clean as a whistle, staffed by earnest young folk, and offered a superlative and surprisingly forward-thinking menu. Here is the authentic-tasting falafel sandwich I had as evidence (trust me):

Wagon Wheel Falafel

Betcha it was not on the menu when they opened.

Anyway, that clock. It struck me (ha ha) I’d seen it somewhere before: that clock was one and the same hanging on the ballet classroom wall at my mom’s small 1970s school, the erstwhile Ballet Workshop in Memphis, Tennessee, where I trained for a few years of many, from about age twelve ’til fifteen or so. Hideous clock. But it brought back a groundswell of memories.

Like the first time my mama took me to the theatre as a spectator. I imagine I was held in her lap, but what I recall was the tiny sliver of glowing blue escaping from the bottom edge of the curtain as the house lights came down—magical. It was a beautiful mystery that held so much promise.

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Or the moment when I first saw the stage lights come up behind a scrim that seconds before seemed opaque, but now revealed an entire world behind it. Magical.

Or the boom of a live orchestra in the pit when you least expected it.

Or the smell of the theatre; it changes when the cutain opens, whatever lingered behind it spilling into the house. (You can see the air moving whenever there is fog; fog will always tell you which way the wind is blowing as it curls over the lip of the stage. I’ve always wondered how it feels to the musicians in the pit—does it mess with their instruments? Make playing more difficult? Or do they get caught up in the magic, too?)

That silly clock made me think about the ballet. But as HCB and I sat in the Massachusetts dive and ate dinner, I also thought about whether we could realistically make both performances: a Broadway show in Worcester at 2 and a 7:30 ballet in Providence. HCB was powering out of a week of illness, and I was feeling its first symptoms.

Damn.

We warned his sister we were sick; she was a saint for still taking us in for the weekend. We decided we’d keep our date for the first show (and our breakfast with Ryan Carroll, my friend in the show), and then reassess afterwards how we felt about going to the ballet in Providence later that night.

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That is moi, sandwiched between Handsome Chef Boyfriend (a rare sighting, I know), and Ryan. I’ve known Ryan for about a decade or so; he more or less showed up out of the ether in Knoxville looking for guest teaching gigs early in Knoxville Ballet School’s history. Southerners to the bone (Ry is from Montgomery, Alabama), we became fast friends and our connection continued to grow through the years with his frequent visits to the school. He always stayed at my place and we enjoyed late nights watching videos and talking ballet trash.

I also saw him on several occasions in NYC (where he lives) over the years when I was in the city for teacher training at American Ballet Theatre. We both had the proverbial rug yanked out from under us (in different ways), and in more or less the same time frame. He is a dear person who was always a champion of Knoxville Ballet School; so many young students, even outside the immediate school community, benefitted from his generosity.

Ryan is also a beautiful ballet dancer with impressive Broadway credentials. At the moment he is touring with The Producers in the role of Carmen Ghia.  The first time he guested for me I had the great fortune of observing him teach Bye Bye Blackbird from Fosse (a show he had danced for a very long run with the likes of Ben Vereen, et al.) to a roomful of teenage girls. That was magical, too, and I shall never forget it.

Producers Playbill

By Saturday morning my voice was already gone. I tried to cram three years’-worth of questions and narrative into an hour-long coffee date with HCB and Ryan at Starbucks. Then quick as a flash it was over. HCB and I had a little rest and made it to the theatre for the 2:00. We made it through the performance with discreet coughing, but it was abundantly clear by then the ballet would have to wait.

Insofar as The Producers—and J. Ryan Carroll—I will only say you should drop what you are doing, check this schedule, and find tickets for a city on the tour near you. Sieze the day: you never know when you will get another chance for a wonderful little piece of magic like that. (‘Til soon, Ms. Gwynn Root.)

Hanover Theatre I

Homecoming Finale: In the Company of Artists

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That is one Gwynn Root, a beautiful professional ballerina who currently dances for Festival Ballet in Providence, Rhode Island, although she has danced professionally with several other companies in her career to date. Here she is more recently, with Festival this past summer, in an image from the WaterFire Providence website:

Gwynn Festival

I met Gwynn eight or nine years ago, just as she was preparing to embark on her life as a dancer; the connection was my mom, who was and is still occasionally Gwynn’s coach. In the intervening years since our first meeting I’ve had the great privilege of also meeting and spending time with Gwynn’s family, who are among the most talented DNA-sharing people I know. Gwynn’s mom and dad are artists, Peggy and Tom Root, Peggy known mainly for her lush landscapes, and Tom for his incredible portraiture. Tom made that picture of Gwynn when she was little and uses it on a professional brochure.

And there is also younger brother Charles, probably the most gifted twelve-year-old kid I’ve ever encountered. He comes by it honestly.

They are also quite possibly the kindest people I know. I really, really miss the Roots. When HCB and I started planning our Way Down South trip, I suggested we set aside a day to go and see them (all except Gwynn, who had already launched for the fall season in Providence) in their home city of Jonesborough, TN. If you have never heard of Jonesborough, you should know it holds the distinction of being the oldest town in the state (challenged by some), and also the storytelling capital of the world.

Amazingly, despite having grown up in Tennessee and living there most of my life, I had never been to Jonesborough. I wanted to go there to see the Roots, to see their new art school on Main Street, and to see the town. And to have another chance to spend a few moments with my mom and her husband and their young daughter Grace (who is officially and incredibly my 50-years-younger sister).

So that is what we did. Peggy opened up her huge, huge heart and the school to host a potluck lunch for us. Mom and Peggy did all the work, we did none of it. It was incredibly incovenient, and they were unbelievably gracious to do it.

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That’s Grace, who needed to sample some of the chocolate cake she helped bake for this event. She needed to sample it often.

Charles was also able to join us. I shot one photo of him, which does not represent his demeanor at all, but does capture his handsomeness (the Roots are all beautiful people).

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It was a bright, hot summer afternoon in the South, and I think that is clear in Charles’ expression. He is growing up in a way that is rare indeed these days, with ready access to the businesses that dot Jonesborough’s Main Street, ducking into them as time and temperament allow, helping out when he is needed. Everybody knows Charles. It is a wholesome existence that is a throwback to another time. Not surprisingly, he is already an accomplished musician and artist. This is a piece inspired by his sister Gwynn and her life as a dancer. They love each other very much.

Charles Root Dancers

I also had permission to shoot some of the work hanging on the walls at the school.

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And my own handsome son B continued his theme of selfie photo bombing.

We abandoned ship when Tom came in to set up an afternoon session with his students.

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Which was the perfect opportunity for chocolate from the shop adjacent to the art school.

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And then Peggy (who somehow escaped my camera lens) walked up and down Main Street with us. For me, this was a delicious, indulgent sampling of the vernacular architecture I love so much, led by someone who knows the town intimately.

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HCB, B and I made a brief detour to the visitors’ center just up the road, where we saw the beautiful mural painted by none other than Tom and Peggy.

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And had a moment for a quick game of checkers.

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And sadly it was time to say goodbye, but not before a brief chat with Gwynn when she called mer mama.

We finished our day, and our whirlwind tour of East Tennessee, with barbecue at one of B’s favorite eateries:

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Yes, it was pretty damned amazing. But bittersweet. I hate saying goodbye to my son. I really hate living a thousand miles from him.

That was Friday. Saturday morning launch for Vermont came early, but before we left Tennessee for who-knows-how-long ’til our next visit, we stopped by mom’s to get some of my things she had been storing for me. And I was able to wrestle this out of her hands:

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It is one of Peggy’s. Mom agreed to make it my Christmas present, a wee bit early.

Our Way Down South trip was stressful, fun, emotional, exhausting. It was important to do. There are things I miss about the South, others not so much. I hope to flesh out these thoughts more.

I’ve spent the last three days in the company of artists from all over the country, about which more very soon.

 

 

Homecoming, Part the Fifth

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That’s me up there, flanked by my bosom buddies Bett and Emily. The three of us and our families have known each other for decades. They are the kind of people who see you through everything that happens in your life, and you them. I assumed we’d be together as friends forever. And there are so many more I wish there’d been time to see. If there is a template for Southern graciousness, those two are its exemplars, along with a handful of others I know.

Thursday began early with our breakfast at this eatery, only three blocks from my erstwhile home in Knoxville: I used to walk there routinely to meet friends for coffee or lunch. It was admittedly weird to be in my old neighborhood again; I made myself drive by the house, although I did not linger. I was satisfied that its new people appear to be taking good care of it, but sad for so many other reasons. Anyway, I wanted Handsome Chef Boyfriend to see the setting for so, so many stories I’ve been telling him for three years now. It felt important to do.

But I digress.

HCB was a prince for joining a “girl” breakfast that was mainly about catching up; three years is a long time to go without seeing your homies. But I knew they’d want to meet him, so I pressed him to come. It was a lovely breakfast and I am genuinely pleased to see that the neighborhood bistro is still thriving; others of its ilk were not so fortunate.

Thursday was probably the most ambitious day of our homecoming week; I think HCB was growing weary of somebody’s possibly too-ambitious plans by then, and in the intervening weeks since we’ve been home there has been discussion that somebody’s contract as tour guide may not be renewed next time around. As ambitious as the day was, it is oddly the least represented in photos; I did manage to grab a few.

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Yep, I had the mop chopped; plans were hatched weeks earlier. When I moved to Vermont I had very, very short Annie Lennox-style hair. It was a life-simplifying decision I made in 2009 just ahead of the first leg of my teacher training at American Ballet Theatre. I did not do it for vanity, but as time wore on I really appreciated short-short hair even more. And during the worst year of my life, when my family came unglued, hair maintenance was the very last thing on my mind.

When I moved to Vermont, this is how I looked:

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I was a hell of a lot skinnier then than I am now, too; that was a selfie I made for HCB, just being silly. I was also terrified, and about to experience all kinds of loss on a monumental scale, not least of which financial. I grew my hair long because it was one less monthly expense. For the better part of two years now it has been getting on my last nerve, as a friend of mine used to say. I called upon the amazing and gifted Sunshine Carter, a Knoxville stylist, to take me back a few years. My hair, anyway—I have to work on the rest of me now. I think she did a beautiful job. There was a long exhale afterwards; props to my son B for shooting photos, and to Sunshine for the cute haircut. I left the salon feeling restored, much more like myself.

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People in the South are just friendlier. There. I’ve said it.

This is not a statement about regional character, that people down South are somehow better people than folks in other parts of the world. (And of course the South is beleaguered from time to time by news-making, hate-mongering sociopaths, as the world well knows.) But I do think Southerners—the non-sociopath ones—behave better in day-to-day interactions with others: warm, effusive, friendly exchanges really are a Southern specialty. It does not take all that much effort to smile and be nice to somebody. And you feel better when people are nice to you (at least, I do). A case in point: the fine staff at the salon, who made us—myself, B, and HCB—feel so welcome. And it really was a recurring theme in so many places we went.

After a brief recharging at the hotel it was time for another reunion, this time with a trio of my former ballet students for gelato at Whole Foods Market. (Yet another sign of the burgeoning economy down South, however you may feel about them, ditto Trader Joe’s—Knoxville had neither when I left it in 2012.) This threesome started pre-ballet at Knoxville Ballet School when they were barely bigger than toddlers. And they were on the leading edge of children at the school who had the American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum from the earliest level, which at the time was Primary Level A.

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As often happens when like-minded families are thrown together by their children’s enrichment activities, the school proved to be a galvanizing experience for these girls and their parents. I can’t believe how much they have grown, truly. Here are the same girls, in the same exact order, just after their affiliate exams in 2011, numbers 3, 2, and 1. (And that is moi, with my brilliant accompanist Eva Holder, and ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Principal, Franco De Vita. It was the second time Franco had come down from NYC to adjudicate; we were all so very lucky.)

Affiliate Exams 2011 Primary B

And we are still lucky. I am glad to see my young students moving on, whether they choose classical ballet or not, especially glad that they wanted to see their former ballet teacher. Our time together was too brief, then and now.

Our day ended with a blissful dinner at the home of incredibly talented friends Bett (see above) and Doug; I have no photos to show. I could have walked around snapping pictures of their incredible home, the beautiful salmon they smoked for us in the Big Green Egg, the amazing things they’ve done in the patio and yard since last I saw it, Bett’s exquisite artwork (in all kinds of media, most especially pottery and rug hooking), the dog, and the cat. But that would have been, you know, weird. What I can say is being there in that place again, where we often found ourselves when our kids were little, and then slightly bigger, and then all of a sudden teenagers and young adults, was life-restoring. We had a wonderful, relaxing time with friends, telling stories, remembering the fall of the company that brought so many talented people to Knoxville, Tennessee, Doug and Bett among them, and life after big transitions. I did not want to leave.

But we did; Friday’s adventures required a good night’s sleep. About which more soon.

Homecoming, Part the Third

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Before we pulled out of Chattanooga on a hazy Tuesday afternoon, my dad reported he’d seen a burgeoning praying mantis and stick bug population this summer. And evidently my son is a praying mantis whisperer. I could not capture the kind of image he did, a challenge I threw his way. And what it lacks in resolution it more than makes up for in composition, in my humble opinion.

Howdy there, praying mantis.

Dad had taken us all to dinner at a barbecue joint in downtown Chatt the night before, during which time the boy selfie-photo-bombed a photo-in-progress; it was to be a continuing theme for the week. From the praying mantis sublime to the selfie ridiculous. I’ve always maintained that next to “ridiculous” in Webster you’ll find his name as its definition. He hones it to a fine sheen and wears it proudly.

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Tuesday was another travel day.

Knoxville, Tennessee rests in a valley between the Cumberland Plateau to its west and the Smoky Mountains, the central portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to its east. The Tennessee River flows north to south between Knoxville and Chattanooga, but has its origins very near downtown Knoxville, at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers. Whatever weather is happening on the plateau, or in the mountains, tends to moderate in the valley, making for easy winters for the most part. For that and so many other reasons it’s an attractive place to put down roots; my family did so in the 19th century.

But despite the region’s lush and mountainous beauty, the city itself can feel seamy; Cormac McCarthy captured that quality in Suttree, his 1979 semi-autobiographical novel set in 1951 Knoxville. Suttree is brilliant writing by a man whose childhood home was only a few blocks from my own young family’s home for the better part of the last couple of decades.

Knoxville has struggled with something of an identity crisis for much of its life, famously called “a scruffy little city” by Susan Harrigan writing for the Wall Street Journal in 1980. What was meant as derision was and is held up by locals as a source of pride. That kind of thinking is admirable on the face of it, but maddening to me. I don’t miss that about Knoxville. When I opened a small classical ballet school there in 2006 I felt like I was fighting the “scruffy and proud” mentality on many, many occasions, trying to scratch and claw my way to bringing something special to the arts community there. Ultimately the school met that goal, with the help of many, many people and a whole lot of tireless effort, short-lived though it was. It happened in the guise of Franco de Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. Twice he visited the school to adjudicate exams (and by extension my own teaching). We put our vulnerable selves out there for those visits, and were all the better for it in the end.

Lots of folks did not get that, or did not care about it anyway. The local press showed very little interest in it. But the parents of kids (and the kids themselves) who had been along for this ambitious journey at the school certainly got it. This is one of them, who has continued to pursue her passion for classical ballet. She has talent coming through the pores of her skin; she’s danced at ABT’s New York City young dancer workshop and elsewhere, currently splitting her time between Knoxville and Atlanta to get the training she needs. (Would that the school had continued.) I have a proprietary interest in this child and others; this one came to me at age six and it is hugely satisfying to see she is on her way.

We spent a delicious Tuesday evening catching up (she had just come from ballet class as you can see), her own erstwhile-ballerina mom and I talking about her plans for the future and the realities of life as a professional ballerina. My photo-bombing-selfie-taking kiddo obliged me with the photo; props to him.

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Knoxville’s economy was rough when I left three years ago; the school’s demise was in no small part a consequence of that, among other complicated things. But I will say the worst of it appears to be finished, at least for now: I was overwhelmed by bustling new development in the far reaches of the city limits and in its center. There is a lot going on.

In the intervening days since the end of my homecoming I’ve reflected on this, and the reasons my new home state of Vermont seems to continue to struggle so, so hard to keep its head above water. I am still getting the lay of the land here, figuring out the Byzantine political and economic landscape. I live in a state whose population continues to shrink, whose children grow to maturity and then leave, to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We could use a little boost, but sometimes I wonder whether we’re our own worst enemies up here in the Green Mountain State.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were filled wall-to-wall with important reunions with family and friends. They deserve their own attention, about which more soon in separate posts. ‘Til then.