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.

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home
Market Square in Knoxville, TN, circa 1910

Knoxville’s downtown Market Square once held an imposing masonry building that served as a center for thriving commerce, including a beloved farmer’s market that purveyed meat, poultry, dairy, produce, and flowers trucked in from the city’s rural outskirts. A 14-year-old boy set it ablaze lighting a cigarette in the late 1950s, goes the story, gutting most of the building and sparking a controversy that would persist ‘til the city finally demolished what remained of it in 1960.

So ended an institution that began in 1854, and which never fully recovered. Sure, the square was revitalized in recent years in the same way so many downtowns have undergone renewal, but the demolition of that building marked the end of an era. Nowadays there’s an outdoor farmer’s market a couple of days a week during the season, set against the backdrop of hipster shops and restaurants that dot the square; for better or worse, life goes on.

There is no formula for grief: everybody grieves uniquely, and that is the truth. I’ve written about it before, how I wiped away the fog from my mirror after horrific losses: family, home, my hard-won business—some of them gone instantly, the rest in a matter of weeks or months. Loss takes no prisoners: it surely knocked the wind out of me, leaving me coughing and sputtering, blue in the face, bent double with my hands on my knees.

After what seemed an eternity I drew in a long breath and stood erect again, but sifting through smoldering ruins for surviving bits found only unpleasant epiphanies to keep me company. Your life has been a train wreck for years, they jeered. Worse still, they continued, you’ve become ugly; there is much work to do, and it’s getting late.

Loss continued to follow me down a new path. It persisted in the shadows behind me for a thousand miles, across time and space, and stubbornly insinuated itself in horrifying ways. What choice does one have, except to soldier on?

And just when I imagined I might not survive, there was hope, in the guise of a beautiful outstretched hand that insisted otherwise. I was more fortunate than most.

How much can the human spirit bear before it’s damaged for good, though? This question has troubled me all week while East Tennessee burned, with stories of unrelenting devastation and human suffering unfolding all around. It’s an epic tragedy long familiar to others, but this time struck close to home: the foothills and mountains where my ancestors settled a century and a half ago—is everything gone now? The kitschy hamlet where my family vacationed in the summers lay in ruins, its citizenry shell-shocked, livelihoods snatched away in minutes, wildlife and livestock wiped out, officials standing dumbfounded before the press to tick off names of the missing and the dead. We will rebuild, they insist while volunteers pour in. I know this refrain, and it is exhausting—the ruins will smolder for a long time, forever for some.

Monumental losses still haunt me like the drone of bagpipes, always there no matter how ardently one wishes to silence them, even in the subconscious: but then life’s melody unfolds on top of the drone, sometimes majestic in its tenor, rich with texture and beauty and joy, and occasionally hope.

Tragedy defies reason always, discriminates never. But every exhausted, beleaguered life in this world needs hope, because the alternative is unthinkable. And life will go on.

On Patience: How Long is Forever?

Sometimes, just one second.—Lewis Carroll

patience-2-a
Forever

The great, big exciting thing that was happening yesterday, the colossal event that was to be the subject of this post (and which many friends and readers have already surmised from various spoilers I’ve sprinkled in the cybersphere), is on hold ‘til this coming Friday. At least, we hope it happens Friday. Nature interfered with our plans, pliant schedules grew less forgiving, a couple of expectations required a tweak here and there, and that is that, dammit. It’s merely another reminder how unimportant is one’s own agenda, no matter how stridently one wishes to position it at the center of the universe.

Patience. It’s a virtue my parents urged me to improve in myself time and again as a child, so did my grandparents, so did my teachers. At some point in the development of my young noggin I suspected there might be a problem in this particular department, as the echoing of that one word indicated. One afternoon when mom was pregnant with my brother she farmed me out to an elderly couple down the street who said they’d be glad to keep me company for the day. Off I went with a Christmas ornament decorating kit tucked under my arm; I was seven and giddy about this change of scenery. I can’t recall a single thing about the day, not one minuscule detail, save this: the woman quipped, “She needs to be more patient,” when she handed me off to my mama later that afternoon.

Four years earlier three generations of self-assured women had observed the same flaw emerging me, only it caused notable damage on one occasion in particular. These three women—my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother—had taken me to see The Sound of Music, a movie for which there had been a big buildup: I was excited down to my socks. We stood in line for tickets, waiting, waiting, w…a…i…t…i…n…g. The boy in line ahead of us was not moving quickly enough to my way of thinking, or at all, really. I decided he needed help if we were ever to get inside the theatre, and so I did the sensible thing: I kicked him. I meant him no malice, but decided a gentle reminder to GO was in order, really just a thoughtful poke in the calf. The way my mom tells the story now, the kick was more of a stomp that scraped the back of his leg, painfully; she had seen the wheels turning and so had my grandmother, each of them going for an armpit, not quick enough on the draw. Impatience, 1; toddler, zip.

I did not grow out of this habit, the impatience, that is—I have not kicked anybody in a while (have wanted to, plenty). In my early twenties I bought my first car, a ’76 Olds Cutlass Supreme; it was a thing of beauty in powder blue with a white vinyl top and coordinating blue crushed velour interior. It came from my parents’ next-door neighbors (also older folk), who had driven it gently mostly, but it sported a sizeable dent on one side and its transmission leaked. Still, it was a bullet-proof car, reliable transportation whose problems were nothing I could not handle on a college-kid budget; I kept a case of transmission fluid and a funnel in the trunk and topped it off every time I got gas. The car served me well except in ice and snow, when I occasionally put it in a ditch (not my fault: rear wheel drive, no snow tires). But one hot Southern day while it sat and baked in an asphalt driveway its interior rear view mirror fell off.

This was a car made in an era when GM routinely attached accessories and trim with cheap glue, a low point in the history of the American auto industry if you ask me. Anyway. I bought an epoxy repair kit, the kind where you mix the sticky substance from two tiny tubes, et voilà! Heavy-duty adhesive in a flash. I followed the instructions diligently and all was well until I got to the part where you were supposed to hold the thing being glued (rear view mirror) to the other thing (front windshield), and wait. Suffice it to say the epoxy’s performance fell short of my expectations and a person better schooled in patience had to step in and finish the job for me. Impatience, 25,385; college kid, zip.

When Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I first met we talked endlessly about cuisine; we still do—it’s a passion I share with him. I once opined to him it takes a real gift to create exceptional cuisine, high art on a plate—a gift I had observed in him time and again. Maybe, he said, but mainly it takes the P-word: patience.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. It has been lobbed around these parts often, the P-word. So HCB joins the pantheon of folk who have felt it incumbent on themselves to point out this character flaw in me, and often.

It’s okay, all you patient ones in the universe, I’ve got this, at least this time. I live in Vermont now, where it takes forever for the snow to finally melt in the spring, where it takes forever to drive anywhere (because the destination is always far, far away), where it takes forever for your car to warm up in the morning because it was Below Zero during the night. This impatient person has waited three years for this milestone event—what’s one more week? And anyway, I’ve been called worse things. Like the time in second grade when my mama was summoned to school for an urgent conference with my teacher who said I was an instigator. Really.

Let me tell you something about instigators, gentle reader: instigators know how to get the job done.

But that is a story for another day.

Home is where Your Heart Is: I Heart Vermont, Kinda

Vermont Guide Book II 1

It just doesn’t always heart me back.

The man rapping his knuckles against my car window had no teeth. He wore unbuttoned flannel over a filthy shirt and baggy trousers, which were held aloft over his pot belly by a pair of suspenders; his scruffy beard betrayed a recent snack. It was broad daylight in a busy grocery store parking lot, a populous outpost in Vermont’s rural Upper Valley, but sweet Jebus, who was this unfortunate little man? I cracked the window a hair.

“I can see by your license plate you’re not from around here,” he said through speech almost incomprehensible to me (it might have been the absence of teeth, to be fair).

He was right. I still had temporary tags from the North Carolina dealer where I had only just bought the car. I nodded and said nothing.

“You made an illegal left turn back there,” he went on.

I turned and looked over my shoulder back towards Route 5, whence I had come.

“You’re supposed to use the special turnaround lane on the right when you turn into this parking lot,” he lectured. “I almost hit you.”

I thanked him and closed the window and waited ‘til he was gone to get out of the car.

I’d had boots on the ground in Vermont for just a few days. I knew exactly nobody in my tiny new community, saved from abject solitude by my Clarence-the-Canine, still getting the lay of the land. And only days before that a humorless cashier at the local convenient mart had rapped my proverbial knuckles when I placed my plastic shopping basket on the counter so she could reach it. Because I had the nerve to assume she would remove the sundries to punch them in the cash register and bag them, like every other convenience mart cashier on the planet does. I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and she felt inclined to teach me: “You wanna empty your basket?” she snapped.

I could wave off her unfriendliness easily enough. (Note to self: watch out—this one bites.)

But the bearded man’s behavior suggested a collective bad mood in those parts; he really rattled my cage. Maybe the failed economy here had worn everybody down, just as it had in other parts of the country, and I was arriving at the worst possible moment. Pushing the bockety cart up and down the aisles of the little grocery store trapped in a time warp, I felt nerves well up and spill over into anger, trying hard to push back tears: cheeky jerk, following me into the parking lot to make a point.

Then I softened some. Maybe he was trying to be genuinely helpful.

Still, had he plowed into me from behind on a stretch of highway where posted speed limits were pretty dang low, it would have been his fault and he knew it, even if I were cited for an illegal left turn. Nah, he was annoyed by an out-of-towner impeding his way and had to take me down. The diatribe could have been worse. I blew away what was left of the wispy cloud of charity as it evaporated in front of me.

In retelling this story a couple of times over the intervening four years I’ve lived here, I’ve discovered some folks refuse to consider you a true Vermonter unless you can name local family going back three generations. There is also an undercurrent of hostility towards the population that lies across the state’s borders, although it’s harder to pin down: some really do eschew change, or outside influence—call it progress, if you wish—fewer embrace it. Some shout it from the rooftops Vermont style, with spirited leave-us-alone slogans celebrating the “old” ways splattered on barn siding.

For all its delectable offerings, I’ve often felt Vermont is an underserved state in many ways, but when it shutters itself to outside influences must also own that and suffer the consequences; our notoriously failed healthcare exchange is a perfect example. It is one thing to love the beauty of the land, or to be a farmer, or to enjoy whatever imagined lifestyle attracted you to these parts, quite another to be provincial, to stubbornly resist change even if it has the potential to make life better—a resistance that worms its way right to the top of our government here in the Green Mountain State.

But you could also call it snobbery: it reminds me of a thing called the Twelve Year Club, a society at a prep school I attended in Memphis where membership was granted during your senior year, but only if you’d been there from crib nursery. I have about as much chance of being a “true” Vermonter as measured by these impossible standards as I did earning a spot in that ridiculous society.

Still, here I am with my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, paying my taxes and trying like heck to fit in. Last I checked, as a bonafide American I can live in any of these fifty states, even without a gene pool that precedes me. (Take that, angry little man.) But I don’t mean to just live here, to take up real estate: I want to make positive contributions, as much as I want my own life to mean something.

Meanwhile I’m left with the disquieting notion that newcomers to my erstwhile city of Knoxville, Tennessee could ever have felt unwelcome on my watch—did they? Was my demeanor ever untoward? Did I ever make a person or family feel left out? There were certainly opportunities for bad behavior—in my neighborhood, at church, at any of the schools my son attended, even at the small ballet school I founded in 2006. Shame on me if I did: exclusivity can be divisive and disenfranchising.

Four years past the Parking Lot Incident, and I’m still not really what you’d call “settled” in my new potting soil—disturbed, transplanted, and placed in freshly aerated dirt to be sure, I just have not taken root. It’s possible I’m in the wrong pot, which makes me a little gun-shy of making close connections, HCB being one notable exception. Meanwhile, I hope to remember to show some heart and welcome new folks who may in fact be scared down to their socks and hoping for a fresh start.

Kinda like the first people who arrived here looking for a new home many generations ago must have felt.

Letters Home: A Memorial Day Reflection

Memorial Day 2 A

Dad handed me an ancient stationery box stuffed with letters a few years ago, written by my granddad on the eve of and during his WWII tour of duty. “Thought you’d get a kick out of this,” he quipped, as he often does whenever he passes down more family artifacts.

He was right about that. Some were addressed to granddaddy’s parents, who survived a few years into my childhood. So I at least knew them, but remember her mainly. Most of them he wrote to his wife, though, my grandmother Earle, with many sentiments for my dad, still a toddler at the time. The salutation in each of them reads, “Dearest Earle.” Their marriage was long-lived, far from perfect, but Granddaddy was civil to the core and kept a calm and steady hand on the tiller: things might have come unglued were it not for this mark of character.

Memorial Day 5 A

They’re important relics, taken as a whole a time capsule of a monumentally important chapter in our nation’s history as seen through an individual lens. Most are simple reports about not much of anything, sweet in tone (granddaddy had an imposing stature and baritone voice, but an eternally kind and gentle demeanor) and sometimes even elegant. Some include terrific descriptions of the world, dispatched from wherever he happened to be when he was writing, an accidental globetrotter with so many others of his ilk. The earliest are written on Army Air Force letterhead, others on cheap airmail stationery, a few on distinctive blue paper, penned in Granddaddy’s dramatic sloping hand. A single one is typewritten (its content reveals why); all are well preserved.

Memorial Day 4 A

I may be reading more into them than is really there, but I sense anxiety in a very young man (he writes “Dear Mama” in a childishly endearing way), a relatively new dad, headed into the dangerous unknown on the other side of the world—not just worry for his own skin and the young wife and child he left behind—but for the very existence of the free world; a censored letter is a stark reminder of times fraught with peril.

Memorial Day 3 A

I get a kick out of these, to be sure, but there is so much more to them than an afternoon’s diversion. I usually think of granddaddy on Memorial Day weekend, and others in my family who served in our armed forces. They left us a profound legacy; we’re all standing on their shoulders, something to remember today and every day.

April 10, 1945

Dear Mama,

Will try to dash off a few lines in answer to your letter. Things have slacked off. Yesterday was the only day have been able to go into Miami, I didn’t have time to stay long. Would like to have gone out to the Beach, but it was too far under the circumstances. It is really crowded on the streets. The Navy seems to predominate.

We are supposed to finish up here about Saturday, I have about 20 more hours of flying to do. Have been doing o.k. and have had little or no criticism from my instructor. The airplanes are pretty big, but they fly like any other, just more gadgets. They estimate the cost of one hours flying in a C-54 to be $1000.00, so my ‘education’ will run into quite a few thousands.

I’ll return to Dallas from here for a few days and judging by pass standards will go to Nashville for crew assignments, in which case I will get about ten days off. However, I can’t say definitely until I get my orders.

****

Got a letter today from Earle (or rather, Frank) telling me what a big birthday he had. They seem to have enjoyed the cake and things very much. Am glad he got over the measles in time. He must have been pretty sick. I sent him a baby turtle from town yesterday, hope it gets there o.k.

****

Hope you and Daddy and all are feeling well. Will let you know if and when I am to get home.

Love,

Franklin

Granddaddy

Agricultural Reflections: Cycling on the Battenkill

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.

Cycling Turnaround on the Battenkill 1

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.

Nolan Farm 1

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.

Horses on the Battenkill 1

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.)

Geese on the Battenkill 1

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.

New York View on the Battenkill 1

Dancing in the Company of Giants

Robbins was more immediately successful than Balanchine, but the two together…when I think that we had them both! What a combination! We were incredibly lucky.

—Violette Verdy

Le Ballet II

In fall of 1969 Memphis Ballet School and its company had not long occupied the second floor of a mainly spent Depression-era building at the at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street; before that a fire had destroyed the company’s home and in the interim classes and rehearsals were held in the National Guard Armory; my family had only just moved to Memphis from Knoxville. The Armory was where I had my first pre-ballet classes at age five, but what I recall most about that time were long hours sprawled in a corner with my books and crayons waiting for mom’s classes and rehearsals to end.

I started ballet classes in earnest when I was seven or eight at the school on Summer Avenue. You could blast through the street level door of that ramshackle building and explode noisily up the dark, narrow stairwell without disturbing a soul. The sound of live piano accompaniment spilling from two separate ballet studios collided in a familiar dissonance and met you at the top, along with the air, fragrant with sweat and rosin and the smell of old building. Patches of duct tape fought hard to push back the innards of orange vinyl sofas in the hallway, worn out furniture of unknown provenance.

There was a proper office to the right where a receptionist sat at an old desk whacking out correspondence on a loud typewriter. To the left a hallway led you to changing rooms and toilets around a corner, and finally to an antiquated Coke machine where you could drop a quarter in the slot and open a skinny door to wrestle out a Coke or a Tab, or an Orange or Grape Nehi; sometimes you had to put up a fight ’til it surrendered your drink, else trudge back down the hall to the receptionist to report your lost change. I chipped my tooth on one of those bottles when I was eight, and got in trouble for horsing around in the girls’ changing room to boot.

The school’s new directors were young Soviet-era immigrants, Balanchine disciples to the core, and as such lifted the School of American Ballet paradigm out of NYC and plugged it in on that seamy Memphis street corner, right down to the class level designations (Children I, Chidren II, and so on) and color-coded school uniforms. I am absolutely certain this did not impress me at age eight. But as the years unfolded my eyes were opened to a minuscule ballet world where everybody knew everybody, and because of our connection to SAB and Mr. Balanchine himself, NYCB company artists were but a phone call away: they visited us often and carried the principal roles of most of the ballets the company mounted in those days. It was not unusual to see the likes of Edward Villella or Gelsey Kirkland or Helgi Tomasson or Patricia McBride (and many others of their ilk) wandering around those creaky hallways. And because mom danced in the company, I experienced complete and early immersion in that tiny world, whose New York City epicenter it seemed had landed right on our doorstep.

We also sat on the precipice of what would soon emerge as ballet’s golden era, where one Rudolph Nureyev had already paved the way for others to follow and to foist classical ballet upon American pop culture. It would not be long before we tuned in to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Twyla Tharp on our living room televisions, names that would ultimately come into common parlance everywhere. Though I am certain I took some of it for granted, my ballerina mom worked hard to impress upon me how lucky I was to share the company of these ballet greats.

In the old ballet school building on Summer Avenue there was a musty storage room next to the office where sets were lain on the floor in heavy, carpet-like rolls; it was narrow and dark and most ballet school parents probably did not notice it in their comings and goings. The only occasion I had to go inside it was for costume fittings, when a seamstress came in and set up her supplies near the doorway during Nutcracker season; she made you hold still to avoid being stuck while she pinned and tucked material, then asked you to turn around, and tugged at your waist, made you turn around again, and raise and lower your arms. A few more pins and you were dismissed.

But if you were to climb carefully over the yards and yards of rolled sets in that big closet you’d finally reach the other end, where you could peer through a crack in a locked wood door to see everything that was going on in the main studio. It was where my mom positioned herself one January day in the mid-1970s to observe me in my first audition for residential ballet school when I was twelve. Mom had long left the company and started teaching at her own school in the suburbs where I was now her student; we had not been inside that creaky old building in a while. And unbeknownst to me at the time, I was about to cross a much bigger threshold into the land of ballet giants.

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My mom is a force to be reckoned with. We had discussions about the faculty at the residential school in Illinois where I would attend summer classes for three consecutive years; they centered around duly reverential behavior and good deportment in general. I was warned of consequences for behaving badly, as gangs of adolescent girls are wont to do on occasion. I am sure I rolled my eyes, but I did hear this message: you are privileged to be taught by the likes of these people. There were many of them: Gwynne Ashton, Alexander Bennett, Natalia Krassovska, Buzz Miller, Vitale Fokine, Birute Barodicaite, and so many others. Most of them are gone now.

Last week ballet lost another one, the delightful and inimitable Violette Verdy, a Balanchine ballerina of French extraction who left an indelible mark on generations of young dancers. Her absence leaves another great void, a hole that will be filled by others only in the fullness of time. A friend and colleague mused, Does every generation feel the losses like we do?

I can only speculate on the answer to that question. For my part, I do know it took me some time to fully comprehend and appreciate the moment of that microcosm of ballet greatness at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street in Memphis, and I had help; I know there were probably many who did not get it at all. And I took that awareness with me when I went away to school. And I most assuredly took it with me when I had the great privilege to attend teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in 2009 and for a few years thereafter.

I hesitate to speak to an entire generation of young people who do not seem duly impressed when they find themselves in the presence of giants, or do not miss them enough when they’re gone, but I think it is the case sometimes, symptomatic of decades of feel-good teaching, celebrations of mediocrity, and shored up self esteems. At the risk of sounding tiresome, I submit there is a price tag on it; we’re already paying for it collectively well beyond the reaches of the ballet classroom.

Miraculously, the building on Summer and National is still there, derelict, boarded up, graffiti’d, just about forgotten. Nor has the rest of the neighborhood fared well; it was never a good neighborhood to begin with, but across the street from the school once stood an old, diner-style Krystal and a corner Rexall drug store. My young colleagues and I patronized those businesses every single week; they’re gone now, along with the ballet greats who flew up and down that dark stairwell so many times. In its stead looms a neighborhood that knows nothing of any of that.

One of life’s great thrills is finding yourself in the presence of giants; the important thing is to learn humility and recognize the moment. Ms. Verdy certainly did.

About the photos: the first is of a rare history book in my possession, written by Boris Kochno and containing numerous heliogravure and photogravure illustrations by Picasso and others. It is teeming with so many of the antecedents of ballet giants I have known. The other photo is of me around age thirteen warming up before a spring demonstration performance, on the eve of another summer at ballet school in Illinois. Many thanks to the wonders of Google for the image of Memphis Ballet School in the here and now.

July 27th Lake George Reunion

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Sometimes I really am a princess. I never know exactly how to behave at big, multi-generational family gatherings because they weren’t part of my own childhood. It’s kind of like that feeling you get when you’re in somebody else’s kitchen—you want to be helpful, but it’s not your kitchen or your stuff and you don’t know where any of it goes, so you stand around feeling kind of stupid and useless. It is that feeling, on steroids. Yesterday was one of those occasions, the annual gathering of family (one finger of Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s large-ish one), on the western shore of beautiful Lake George. For most everyone there it’s a week of fun; our schedules right now—mine and HCB’s—allowed us one day, which is better than no days.

I fare better when somebody takes the reins and gives me specific instructions, which thankfully happened a couple of times yesterday. Sitting on a big porch in a delicious breeze, observing fun unfolding in the dappled sun on the lake, listening to the pretzel logic of young children at your feet, catching up with folk you have not seen in a year: it’s restorative.

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But what would typically have been only about laissez-faire summer togetherness this time was also about grief, about the recent and sudden passing of the family matriarch who “would have wanted us all to be together in her absence.” It was shocking news that reached us only a few days earlier.

So we were together.

There was a big hole without her we all noticed and felt, not least of whom her adult children and their spouses, and her husband. It happened to be his birthday. And as difficult as the day visibly appeared for him and others, there was also the unrelenting joy that comes with the gathering of young children whose hearts are filled only with love and celebration: that is what a birthday party is about, and kids remind us of that lest we should forget, even when we are hurting. Every single person there understood.

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And even when you are hurting from the inside out, you still have to smile at littles, first cousins still sticky from a day on the beach, maybe a little cranky and possibly sleep-deprived, some in their swimsuits, and at least one red-caped super hero, who are beyond excited to be at the lake and celebrate their granddad’s birthday, help blow out candles, and watch him open presents.

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And as difficult as it must have been to do that without her, you still have to smile at a cake made with only good intentions by enthusiastic young bakers, its chocolate gorge filled with dolphins and whales, observed from the cliff’s precipice by a pair of sparring tigers, surrounded by sugary sprinkles and jimmies. Candles counted, skeptical opinions voiced (you are definitely older than fifteen), requests for only cake, or only ice cream, or both, please.

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And when superheroes need a little backup, love always saves the day.

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Wisdom of Generations

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Last time I observed this vista it was late fall and Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I were headed to Brattleboro for a visit with his mum. Yesterday it was further afield for a celebratory sendoff in Massachusetts at the home of a sibling, whose daughter and her husband and young family will soon leave for a new life overseas. Big changes for everybody concerned. I tried to document the day as unobtrusively as possible, but I can’t pass up a chance for more storytelling.

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I’ve landed smack-dab in the middle of a very big family of very good people, traversing many generations. This is not the first time HCB and I have joined this extended group to celebrate with them, nor will it be the last. And it has never been precisely the same combination of people twice; people have busy lives and come from far afield. But where this particular multi-generational family is concerned, everybody tries their best to get there.

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There are lots of babies and toddlers right now. Which means lots of young parents. And some middle-ish ones. And grandparents, and even some great-grandparents. Big brothers, young sisters, nieces and nephews. Husbands and wives, widows and friends. Many generations in the same place, at the same time. For my part, I am still somewhat of an observer in this setting.

Yesterday I was thinking about a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above the chalkboard in my tenth grade English classroom: The years teach much which the days never know. It occurred to me that this same bit of wisdom could hold true with a multi-generational family: there is love and enrichment to be found in every unit of a family, more still in the family as a whole. Young, sharp minds hold no sway over a lifetime of experience. Nor can that lifetime be complete without the tincture of youth to keep it alive. At least, that is what I would like to think.

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Seeing my own child from infancy through his adolescence—in spite of the time I spent chiding him about various things throughout his rough-and-tumble teen years—pushed me outside my comfort zone and gave me an edge I would not otherwise have possessed. (And as he steps into grownup shoes there are signs he was actually listening to me on occasion.) In short, he made me a better teacher and thinker than I’d have been without him. I could not have foreseen that when I signed on to parenthood.

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There was talking and listening yesterday, some of it loud and boisterous, some whispered. And envelope-pushing and discovery. And good food and company. And chiding. And wisdom flowing in many directions. The thumbprint of the past was there, and celebrated. And hope for the future was everywhere, unmistakable.

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The only thing missing today was actual face time with my boy, but we had a nice check-in with each other, as we do most every day. And this, from HCB and his going-on-thirteen-year-old:

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Surprise Mother’s Day geraniums, to keep me from stealing the ones outside a certain Vermont welcome center. It’s the kind of thing that is the domain of the older generations: if age bestows upon you the capacity to pick flowers out of other people’s gardens, as I have been told it does, then why not liberate entire pots of geraniums?

And anyway, there’s an attorney in this great, big ‘ol family, plus one in my own Tennessee family. So the way I see it, I’m covered.

Someday my grandchild will beseech me once again to tell about the time I was arrested for stealing the flowers. And I shall be happy to comply.