Vermontish Doppelgängers and Other Christmas Week Reflections

Christmas Sunset

This one thing still happens to me every week, if not every day: I see somebody and I think I know who it is for an instant, and then remember there is no way I could possibly know them. I am new here still, and mainly disconnected, still. Back ‘home’ in Knoxville I could scarcely go anywhere without bumping into (or at least glimpsing) people I knew. Even in a city with some size to it—about a half million or so in the metro area, a city where you plan your crosstown trips carefully against the traffic—I was fairly sheltered in my midtown enclave, sheltered in a life where my closest friends and I lived within walking distance of each other, and attended the same church, and sent our kids to the same schools. So really it is not too surprising I’d bump into people I knew every single day. You might even have called it a provincial life, saved by the intellect and creativity of the people around me, maybe even a little out of step with others in the neighborhood.

Still this phenomenon persists. I stand in line at the grocery store and see somebody in the next line, and think, Oh look! That’s so-and-so! But wait, it can’t be. I’m a thousand miles from so-and-so and her family, and have not talked to any of them in years (wonder what the kids are doing? they must be out of college by now). This morning I saw a face in the church choir that looked for all the world like the anthropology professor’s, my former anthropology professor’s, who sang in the cathedral choir in Knoxville. But of course it wasn’t. Or the well-heeled woman I talked to for a long time over coffee after church a couple of weeks ago: she could have been someone I knew and had known for decades, but was not. The mind sure does funny things to you.

During my first years in Vermont this phenomenon made me wistful for what I left behind, and underscored the pain and loneliness of what’s best described in hindsight as exile, self-imposed or not. But these days the doppelgänger effect leaves me with a different, more hopeful idea: what if people are simply people? The people in the grocery queue here are people stocking up for the week, or for the impending storm, like the ones back home (yes, Tennessee has occasional snow and ice in winter). The choristers are choristers, like the ones at the cathedral. If you got them all together in the same space, aside from their distinctly different dialects and some other notable differences in cultural sensibilities, they’d probably all feel pretty much at home with each other.

When I was back home in Tennessee in September I was glad to bump into a pair of people with whom I was close, about as close as somebody can be to you without being your actual family, but with whom I’ve not kept up over the last five years. It was a good catchup but far too brief, followed up a week or so later in a phone call an hour long but not long enough. And another family in the same circle, not in town in September as fate would have it, but now relocated to another part of the country anyway, starting their own new chapter outlined in this year’s Christmas missive. I miss them all, and others.

No matter how much you and your friends once giggled about your kids all meeting up at somebody’s wedding rehearsal dinner fifteen or twenty years down the road, nothing really turns out how you imagine it will.

And from that truth emerges this somehow encouraging thought: were I still there in Tennessee right now, my life would look so different from how I imagined it would look, even had I continued down the path I was on: I would still be starting a new chapter. My little enclave, my community, would’ve changed no matter what. Sure, I’d see some of the same faces week to week, but the imagined future—the ones my friends and I once envisioned for ourselves and our kids—would still be fiction, a mere fantasy—and nothing more. Now there is talk of retirement plans, for we are approaching those years, not quite there yet. And retirement will not look how we imagined it might, not precisely.

Really, how lucky am I to have lived down south in Tennessee—on both ends of the state at different times in my life—and out west in Colorado for a few years, and now in New England. How lucky am I to have made a living doing one or both of the two things I love doing. I could use some shorter winters, and longer days. (And how irksome that this wonderful sunshine beaming through my office window as I write these words will be gone in a flash, leaving the damaging effects of its radiation on my left cheek through the window glass, but none of its vitamin D-inducing benefits.) But that is not what this chapter has in store for us, for Chef David and me, and now Scout, not just yet. We are precisely where we need to be at this moment in time.

I leave you with images from Christmas week in our corner of the world.

First Sunday in Advent: Finding Peace and Home

Peace and Home

Last Thursday afternoon I stood on the front porch of our new home having a delightful chat with a pair of young Mormon missionaries. Earlier I’d seen them combing the other side of the block for anybody whose ear they could bend to share their earnest message. One after another door remained closed; some folks were not yet home from work, probably. But I bet others simply refused to answer. I went about my business while I waited for them to knock, resolving to talk to them when they did. No way in heck would I let them deliver their spiel, but I’d known some Mormons back in Tennessee; they were good people and held tight to their convictions without getting all up in anybody’s business. I even attended the baptism of one of their children, invited by her parents, and felt honored as an outsider to be included.

So when the two young missionaries arrived on my porch I gave them a big ‘ole Southern howdy, which I think caught them off guard a bit, as much because up in these parts folks can be pretty dang reserved. I introduced myself, said I was at least a little familiar with their church, explained I had Mormon friends. Their faces lit up.

Before we go any further, I said, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a Mormon. I will never be a Mormon. I have my own faith tradition and I’m a comfortable and happy practitioner of it, thank you very much.

We can respect that, one of them said, both of them nodding their heads vigorously.

They went on to ask me what brought me all the way from Tennessee to Vermont, and what did I think about Vermont, and how are Tennessee winters compared with Vermont winters. I think it’s fair to say I’m a somewhat reluctant Vermonter, I said, especially in winter when I’m known to be cranky. I also said people here often don’t know what to do with an effusive Southerner. They laughed and we talked a little while about where I work and what I do (although I tried to edit myself, after my twenty-something recently observed that I talk too much). They were clean scrubbed boys wearing familiar white dress shirts and neckties; one of them had product in his hair that made it stick straight up, but it was neatly combed.

I know all about the two years of missionary work y’all have to do. (Yes, heads nodding.) It must be hard to make cold calls on people—I bet y’all get doors slammed in your faces.

Sometimes, they admitted, but mainly people are nice.

After we said bye and I stepped back inside I realized how starved I am for community—starved enough to cherish my encounter with a pair of Mormon missionaries with whom I have so little kinship. My hunger will be assuaged, I think, living in this house in our new urban neighborhood, among people, and I am glad of it. But as I mentioned recently to a colleague, it’s different when you’ve already raised your family, and you relocate far from the people you’ve known your entire life, and the community you’ve known for almost as long. Back then your young child was the ‘glue’ that bound you to others of your ilk.

Now, here you are so far away from that, and with no glue: this situation is exponentially more difficult, until you find some kind of mooring—if you are lucky enough to find it—with others who share your values and identity.

This morning I attended the first Sunday in Advent Holy Eucharist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a beautiful church that is walking distance from home. I haven’t had the luxury to do this for all but the first of the five years I’ve lived in Vermont, for one reason and another. But this new house and neighborhood make a number of things possible, including belonging—to a church, to the gym, and to other groups of people with whom I share interests, potentially.

In recent years I’ve also longed for the peaceful reflection and quiet preparation that come with the season of Advent, mainly run over roughshod by secular Christmas, and today I found that, too. Our naked Christmas tree stands in front of a living room window waiting for us; we’ll get to it when its limbs relax a little and we can stop unpacking and hanging curtains long enough to breathe. And I’ll listen to Bing Crosby this time around in a different frame of mind.

Importantly, I think I found home this morning: when I walked into the nave of that exquisite downtown church I felt it instantly. After the service another communicant there told me she had the same unmistakable feeling wash over her the first time she walked in. The power of place, and of home, can’t be underestimated. It brings me to tears, as it did this morning.

On Tuesday I’ll drop some teacups and saucers at the church for the annual Christmas tea. Once upon a time they were destined for our tag sale that never was, but will now be in the spring. Scores of ballet students sipped tea from those beautiful cups at a half dozen or so Nutcracker tea parties I threw back in the days of Knoxville Ballet School. So much joy was poured into those teacups; it feels good to hand them to St. Peter’s, the best place for them now, I think.

Fr. Lanier this morning reminded us that the first Sunday in Advent is also the first day on the liturgical calendar. He went on to point out that darkness and cold typically characterize this day, especially in the northern hemisphere. But his message was a hopeful one, reminding us to find light and purpose in the darkness and cold as we prepare for the joyous occasion of Christmas and renewal in the new year.

It dawned on me that at this moment in our history we are a nation of beleaguered and divided people who need a hopeful message, I think, from a good person we trust: my Advent wish is for each of us to find that person, and to find peace, in whatever our faith traditions, and in so doing to find home.

Dogged Adventures: No Complaints About Rainy Days

The best that Irma could muster

When it’s cold-ish, rainy, and a bit blustery on vacation, you spend a fair amount of time in your cheap hotel room doing mainly nothing. Or riding shotgun around town with your twenty-something while he shows you new stuff and changed stuff and plain missing stuff. Five years is long enough for the landscape to morph so dramatically in some places it’s no longer recognizable, five years of freeze and thaw cycles, stormy seasons, and a recovering economy. Midday Monday found me sitting with the boy in the drive-through lane at his favorite eatery, idling over the same pavement where I clocked so many hours with him snapped into the back seat booster, tired, hungry, a peanut-sized malcontent who never really met the world’s expectations from a tender age. This was a better scenario.

My whole life has been a lie, observed the twenty-something about the fake towels at the pricey department store

We can deal with boredom, content merely to be off the clock for a few days. My ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister has had a much rougher go of it in Charleston. I hate that we missed our visit, but hate it more that she and Waco-the-Lab are dealing with what they are. And there is that fickle José doing dog-knows-what out there in the Atlantic, a bit too close to Charleston.

Meanwhile the eternally agreeable and exercise-deprived Scout-the-Lab was positively giddy for his four-miler in a beloved city park in Knoxville, Tennessee Monday morning, a romp squeezed in before Irma arrived in these parts (she threw some cold rain and wind our way, and then moved on). HCB did eight miles in about the same amount of time it took me to cover four. The paved trail in the park was new, seems like yesterday. Now it is broken up in places, marbled with root incursion (a visual nightmare for somebody like myself with no depth perception); running in this case was a euphemism for playing hopscotch along the serpentine and hilly path. Scout explored every nook and cranny with the joie de vivre only a dog possesses; we should watch and learn.

Southern vacation requisite and best ever post-run carbs

Lakeshore Park was once the sprawling campus of a large residential mental hospital, the ‘loony bin’ as insensitive locals sometimes called it. In the late 19th century it was named the Eastern Hospital for Insane officially, then in the 1920s the more sanitized sounding Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital replaced it. And true to a trend, the residential services in the hospital came offline in pieces starting in 1990. For a time the grand old 19th century brick structures remained, some of them anyway, where patients continued to receive outpatient care. Then many of those services fell by the wayside, too, and the big, empty buildings served only as a snapshot of history, what was once a self-sufficient operation with its own dairy now a thing of the past. By June of 2012 the hospital was officially a hospital no more, replaced by legions of city athletic fields, and the new pathway around it filled with stroller-pushing moms and now hopscotching middle aged folks and their shy doggies. I halfway thought I’d bump into somebody I once knew and then it dawned on me most of these folks were mere children the last time I made this circuit. Time marches on.

In the space of only a few days Scout learned this truth: sleeping in a huge, soft bed with your humans is divine. He does not enjoy this luxury back home in Vermont because a vexation known as spiral stairs makes it impossible.

Scout’s most amazing discovery: the joy of sleeping in bed with the humans
Sometimes you find beauty in unexpected places, even near a nondescript hotel
Monet writ small in Knoxville
Found somebody pretty busy in a clump of honeysuckle near the hotel

Scout meets Prometheus, the Shiloh Shepherd who lives with the boy

Funny that a 60-pound dog could scare the bejeebus out of a much larger shepherd, but that is precisely what happened when Scout-the-Lab invited a skeptical fraidy cat to play.

The culinary highlight of our time in Knoxville was authentic Cuban fare eaten on our laps from Styrofoam takeout boxes, since doggies are no bueno inside a restaurant with no patio. We also caught up with my dad for a happy couple of hours and obligatory family photos with lots of chiding dad about his ancient phone technology. He insisted the groovy clicky noise and the animated shutter on his phone trumps the benefits of a smartphone any day, but HCB’s missing head suggests otherwise.

Authentic Cuban sandwich
Meat-filled empanada
Needs empanadas
Twenty-something with his granddad and mama
Family portrait
Family photo with headless chef

Scout-the-Lab is not only the Most Agreeable Traveling Canine Ever, but can now also claim expertise as a city dog. I had reservations about this, mainly about folks wanting to approach and touch him. But when we spent an evening in downtown Knoxville they came at us fast and furious—I could not run interference on every single encounter, nor did I need to as it happened: Scout seemed to get it. He was happy to be approached and petted and in fact enjoyed the attention. Urban night life proved a treasure trove of delicious new experiences for a dog keen to take it all in.

City Dogs
Expert at city sidewalk dining
You can still spot the work of the ‘cathedral guy’ in downtown Knoxville; many thanks to the boy for a much better photo than I got
Nekkid ladies hold up the old Miller’s Department Store building in downtown Knoxville

When I was a young student at the University of Tennessee, I routinely stepped over the busts of naked ladies in the basement of the McClung Museum on campus, where they sat in storage when they were salvaged from a beloved downtown department store after its conversion to Something Better. In the last couple of decades as Knoxville came to its senses they were restored to their rightful places. I caught them hard at work as they should be, from our sidewalk table at this little eatery, where earlier we bumped into a pair of dear friends, and were waited on by the daughter of another. It was the perfect finale to our time in Knoxville.

With apologies to friends, family, and one beloved professor and a couple others I could not see this time around, more soon from the mountains of Asheville, NC.

An Evening of Ballet: Refueling at the Mothership

The Mothership

Last night we saw ‘big’ ballet right down the road in Manchester. It’s a rare thing in these parts, in this underserved and sometimes overlooked state of Vermont, where a tiny population can’t support big art, or even medium-sized art of this caliber. We got lucky this time. Billed simply as ‘An Evening of Dance with American Ballet Theatre & Friends,’ this mixed-rep performance was staged and led by former ABT soloist Anna Liceica, who also danced last night in a couple of works, including a variation from Michel Fokine’s Romantic-era ballet, Les Sylphides, and in her own arrangement of ‘Dance of the Hours’ from the opera La Gioconda. The rest of the cast were members of American Ballet Theatre and Pennsylvania Ballet (ergo the ‘friends’).

I met Anna a few summers ago when ABT & Friends came to the Lake Placid School of Ballet, where I had a guest teaching engagement. So it was nice to see her again and catch up briefly before she and the rest of the cast were whisked off to dinner at a patron’s house. And I loved meeting one Lauren Post in the flesh, a young dancer whose talent I spotted many years ago observing a morning technique class at a Youth America Grand Prix regional finals competition: it was a story I’ve carried around for more than a decade and finally got to share with her. (Plus, we are both Southern girls, so as Eloise would say, you can imagine….) And bending Sterling Baca’s ear for a moment was fun, a dancer I’d long admired in classes and demonstrations through various legs of teacher training at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, starting in 2009. Anna, Lauren, and Sterling, and the rest of the talented cast danced beautifully last night to a reasonably full house. Will they return to Manchester, we wondered? Maybe one day, Anna said; they’d like to.

This evening of ballet—good ballet—dovetailed with my longing for a shot in the arm after a couple of empty ballet years, with only one other occasion to see this young dancer at Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island to break the silence. I still have a ballet tome rattling around in my head, and some day I’ll let it out. It’s all about expectations: what five-year-olds expect when they step into their first ballet classroom, what their parents expect when they write their first tuition checks—and what anybody should expect of the child who decides s/he wants this life professionally. It’s a long pathway from those baby steps to the moments that unfold on the stage as they did last night, one fraught with peril, as a friend would say. Professional ballet is hard on the body, and hard on the wallet in a cultural milieu where it’s not held in the same esteem as, say, professional athletics. Most young folks who take that leap of faith know they’ll be taking on extra work to survive in the impossibly underfunded arts world here: you have to really want it, and that may finally be the single most important ingredient for any gifted young dancer who seeks the stage.

When I opened a small ballet school in Knoxville in 2006 I aimed to swat away a few gnats, those tenacious myths that cling to ballet training in the guise of legitimacy. In short, I set out to teach the parents in my ballet school community how to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet: I urge ballet newcomers even now to ask questions, and look skeptically upon a school that can’t or won’t answer them—too many schools hide behind rules and regulations in the name of some imagined tradition. I can still hear my mentor Raymond Lukens’ words during the first session in ballet pedagogy training I ever attended at ABT, to learn the curriculum this very ballet mogul co-authored: never make a rule unless you have a reason for it. In my first year as director at Knoxville Ballet School a number of parents asked whether they could watch their child in class, for example. Yes, I said, that’s what the observation window is for. At <School X>, they would say, it was forbidden—we were never allowed to watch. One mom told me she was so desperate to see what was going on—and importantly, whether her child was enjoying it—that she lay down on the floor, nine months pregnant with her second child, to try to peek through the crack under the door. This is just silly, and that is all.

I understand the motivation behind the rule, within reason—parents can be a distraction to the learning process when they’re standing outside a window grimacing and gesturing in some indecipherable sign language to their little person, whose focus on the teacher is now lost. And in some teaching environments it may be appropriate—big, reputable ballet schools with high enrollment, for example, where inviting parents to watch presents a logistical nightmare to say nothing of the disruption to the learning process. Those schools have the luxury to say no legitimately, knowing parents will have the opportunity to see their children on the stage at least once (and often more) in the calendar year, and also in the classroom for observation on designated days.

But in my small, suburban school in Knoxville, Tennessee, I said yes: it was good advertising for the product I was purveying, and proof positive we were hard at work. And anyway, simply closing the curtains sends a clear message to an offending parent who is not likely to offend again. I once had a tiny, beautiful Chinese student who at first simply refused to participate unless her mother came into the classroom with her; she was five at the time and spoke no English. I unfolded a chair in the corner of the classroom; shored up by her mom’s presence, the child was content to participate fully with her classmates and by the end of the academic year had gained enough confidence that she finally asked her mom—in perfectly clear English—to stay in the lobby with the other moms. She went on to enjoy much success in her ballet classes and in the annual ABT Affiliate exams before her family returned to China. In the end, my class observation policy was never a problem; it is a single example of many where a silly rule masquerading as a cherished ethos has the potential to ruin a child’s chances for classroom success, to say nothing of leaving a sour taste for the art form in the mouths of her parents. I was able to position myself in such a way as to straddle the professional ballet world in which I had grown up fully immersed, and the real needs of uninitiated ballet parents and their young children.

Last night during intermission I spoke with a man from Boston, a balletomane I think it’s fair to say, who arrived late to the performance and wanted to know what he missed. That in turn led to a lengthy discussion about Romantic-era ballets, modern audiences, and a few unfortunate attitudes and practices that stubbornly persist in some professional companies even today—where the work environment has improved in most settings as compared with previous generations, but where a few antiquated and unhealthy practices are still tolerated in others. Turns out he’s a psychiatric therapist who treats lots of young dancers. I told him about my teacher training at ABT and explained to him that for the first time in the history of ballet training in this country a new curriculum has emerged that actually addresses the training of the whole dancer; this was music to his ears. It’s groundbreaking in a country where anybody can hang out a shingle and claim to know how to teach ballet—whether they possess the qualifications to do it, or had rather hide behind closed doors doing god-knows-what to vulnerable young folks, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed firsthand. It’s another truth we learned on the first day of teacher training at ABT: you need more professional certifications to give somebody a manicure in this country than to teach a child classical ballet. I think most folks would agree the stakes are higher for the health of a child.

But one other thing about this still-new training and curriculum I’ve been less successful explaining to parents, or to anyone who would listen: this is a big deal. No, really—not all ballet schools are alike (far from it), and most school directors don’t possess the constitution to subject themselves to scrutiny, to adhere to a set of high standards and then invite adjudicators from the epicenter of the ballet world to come and see whether the school is honoring them. This was finally the best answer I could ever give a parent who questioned why s/he should write a check for $50 at the end of the year for a ballet exam: because the exam tells all of us whether I’m doing my job well, teaching your child ballet—it holds me accountable—and this benchmark after all should matter to you a great deal. It was a simple line of reasoning and stated in those terms made undertaking the exams an open-and-shut case.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been disconnected from the ballet classroom since October of 2014; I’m lucky to ply my trade now as a writer, though, and enjoy it as much. One of my colleagues with classical ballet roots not unlike my own asked one day last week whether I miss teaching. I don’t miss the punishment to an ageing body, I told her, nor cobbling together freelance work to try to make ends meet. But I do miss the process of enlightenment, the priceless ‘Aha!’ moments in the classroom when you nurture along a kid who finally internalizes some thing she’s been struggling with, and the same moments outside the classroom, when a parent demonstrates a depth of understanding about classical ballet training in May s/he did not possess in September. And I miss the satisfaction of observing those parents sharing their wisdom with the new crop of parents who cross the school’s threshold the next September.

For now I’ll make my peace with the joy of watching a handful of beautiful dancers who finally came to town.

I leave you with excerpts of Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty as performed by dancers from American Ballet Theatre in 2015 at the Guggenheim as part of the Works and Process series; Lauren Post dances Silver Fairy, seen in the opening on the left.

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.

How to Live in a Summer Moment

Summery Radicchio

Summer is color at long last after months of a monochromatic landscape, not only the verdant carpet that defines our namesake Green Mountains in Vermont, but in what it yields: marbled veins and rivulets in crimson radicchio, the bitter leaf that will cavort a while later with exotic mesclun and mustard greens waiting patiently in their twist-tied bags at the farm stand, where I stop on the way home from work, where a cat wanders around while people are picking through vegetables, a cat who sometimes plunks down lazily on the rough-hewn floorboards and flicks the tip of her tail back and forth and forces patrons to queue up awkwardly around her at the counter. Everybody smiles. Cat, you know nothing of the alert dog waiting just outside these big, open barn doors in the back seat of my car, I think.

Summer is taking that dog outside to do his doings whilst contemplating words like curmudgeon, and unctuous, or unctuous curmudgeon, and then realizing you can’t really have it both ways because they cancel each other out, which is too bad because ‘unctuous curmudgeon’ rolls off the tongue in a pleasing way. Scout, you are an unctuous curmudgeon, I say, and he wags his tail at me.

Summer is listening to Miles Davis in the evening with plenty of daylight still filtering through the skylights above, wondering who stole my copy of Kind of Blue back in Knoxville years ago and wondering why I never replaced it. And thinking of all the music I said I’d collect through the years but never did, like Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson in spite of his weirdness, or any of a number of 1980s British Invasion bands whose over-produced music I loved in my twenties. And the Bach Brandenburg Concerti—I still have none of them after all these years. And by the way maybe it was the same person who stole the liner notes from my Paul McCartney USA tour video, which vanished around the same time as Miles.

Summer is reminiscing about a highfalutin event my ex and I once hosted in Knoxville, a fundraiser for a local historic landmark where I’d worked as a young student of archaeology. And now years later I was somehow on the board of trustees feeling like a fish out of water and this enormous white event tent was pitched on our sprawling corner lawn shaded by massive, centuries-old hardwoods, a tent filled with tables and white wood folding chairs and people dressed to the nines and a sommelier going on about what they would be drinking that evening, and making Kir Royales for everybody all night long while they were writing checks. And thinking I knew on that night how the rest of my life would go. But in that moment, I am thinking I’d rather have a trowel in my hand and dirt under my nails than wear this tailored linen dress. Or stand at the barre breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes instead of wearing too-tight sandals on my own front lawn among people whose names I won’t remember and who know nothing of me.

And here I am two decades later in Vermont, longing for a summery Kir and making one for the first time in as long, with cheap cassis and even cheaper chardonnay. And it is better than I remembered.

And then reading about how to make a perfect Kir after I have already made and drunk one, I marvel at the snobbery out there in the wine-y ether, and about how you’re supposed pour in the cassis first so that it mixes perfectly with the wine, taking care it’s not too red—and instead I pour it in last, and carefully, to try to make it separate from the wine in the glass on purpose like a dessert parfait, because it did that by accident one time in Knoxville and it became a science experiment to try to make it do that again and again; my archaeology colleagues would appreciate the layers that recall stratigraphy in the soil.

Summer is eating lobster and filet because they were on sale and because I live with a person who knows how to prepare and cook them, and also greedily gnawing on our corn on the cob from a local farm, which if we’re being honest pales in comparison to what I grew up eating. And sneaking a small bite or two to Scout-on-the-sofa between us while we enjoy this rare surf-and-turf supper and binge watch the final few episodes of Six Feet Under on a Friday night after a difficult work week, and laugh and cry at the hilarity and sadness of mortality and at human frailty in general. And then we decide to save the last episode for later.

Summer is rooting for the lightning bugs in the woods when darkness falls at last, whispering that their homies down South would love to meet all three of them, and wondering how in this far-north destination they could ever overwinter in the first place.

Summer is anticipating a trip down South in September when it will still be plenty hot, and pretending I’m running on a gravel road in North Carolina where my erstwhile family’s erstwhile vacation home languishes in legal limbo, and comes unglued at the seams a little more with each passing Appalachian freeze and thaw cycle. I pretend I’m already on vacation before I run around the corner with Scout in this mountainous Vermont neighborhood and remember I am not.

A robin red breast will sit on the gravel road in the summer in Vermont with his back to you, statuesque, giving you the impression—however fleeting—that you can have him. Your lift your tawny ears, furrow your wrinkly brow, and stiffen your body at this delicious possibility. The prey drive in you engages at the precise moment he takes flight. Away he goes, and with him your resolve, which evaporates right off your muscular neck, moving first through your collar, and then all the way up your leash where the human hand on the other end of it feels it waft away, the human who has reminded you time and again you’ll never catch a bird.

But you are here to remind your human to live in this summer moment.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: What Does Your Life Promise?

Maybe you’ll live in an artsy house with a bicycle wheel fence out front

Life promises nothing. And everything.

An earnest young man named Tristan called me Wednesday night on behalf of the University of Tennessee’s Arts and Sciences Annual Telefund, he said. I found a mailer from my alma mater in the P.O. box last week, so I knew this was coming and already planned to give. Perfect timing, this call, as I was sitting on the sofa after work doing mainly nothing except unwind with the news and a glass of wine in hand. It’s somehow reassuring that the familiar ‘974’ exchange still belongs to UT—I knew exactly who it was.

Last year I gave the student solicitor an earful of unsolicited advice. He may have caught me at a bad moment, I can’t recall. But I do remember thinking, if you’re intercepting my down time like this then you’ll hear a few words for my trouble. I asked him about his major (business). I said, go take English. No, wait. Go take English literature. You’ll need the writing skills, even if you think you won’t in whatever professional life you anticipate on the outside.

You’ll need to know how to write well if you enter the priesthood

To his credit, he was polite and reverential, and admitted writing was not his strongest suit, that his dad helped proofread his college papers even now. I gave him some names, which he said he was taking down. For all I know he was making a note on my Permanent Record, This one is a whack job.

Poor Tristan: he was brave enough to dial me up even with that red flag flying.

I exercised more self-restraint with this young man. He asked how I got to Vermont from Tennessee. Long story, I said, involving an awful divorce. I’ll spare you the details. Fair enough, but if I may ask, he persisted, can you tell me how you’ve used your degree in anthropology?

Maybe you’ll open a weirdly specific business

The short answer, I told him, is not at all. The longer and more truthful one goes like this: my degree helped me survive at a moment in time when I thought I might not, because all those classes in anthropology and other disciplines conspired to help make me a stronger writer. It is how I earn my keep these days, writing and editing digital copy for a burgeoning marketing agency here in Vermont.

Ah, said Tristan: so you moved to Vermont to work for a marketing agency?

No, I told him, I moved to Vermont to teach ballet. I have spent much of my life immersed in classical ballet, but that is a story for another day.

He understood, he said, and would not take any more of my time. He told me he was from Michigan, enjoys his life as a UT student, and knows Vermont because he comes here in winter to ski; it is a beautiful corner of the world, we agreed. Then he ticked off a list of recent improvements to campus and insisted “without the support of alumnae like you” they would be impossible (now he was reading from a script). Have you visited campus lately?

Two summers ago, I said, I drove through.

Did you know they’re tearing down Presidential? (He is no longer reading.) It’s about damn time, I said: I lived in one of those brutalist high-rise buildings as a freshman and remember it only as a noisy and impersonal assault to the senses. We both laughed. Seriously, he said—you should come see it—there’s only a huge pile of rubble now.

I’d like that, Tristan; maybe this summer. I asked him to make my gift to the Anthropology Endowment in honor of one Charles Faulkner, professor emeritus. He thanked me and said goodnight.

You might go postal

To my unrelenting desire to dance Mouse King in somebody’s Nutcracker, I think I’ll add, deliver a college commencement speech. I have a much better shot at Mouse King because some small civic ballet company somewhere might actually find itself desperate for one, although I may be too short to fill those shoes. But I’ll never give a commencement address because I lack the other kind of stature: fame and notoriety. Still, I have so much to say.

My chat with Tristan got me thinking about the varied chapters of my life so far, and the impossibility of connecting the dots that will define the rest of one’s life when one is only just graduating from college. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was Tristan’s age—connecting those dots is an exercise in futility, and anyway it doesn’t matter. Standing there in your cap and gown, giddy with your accomplishments thus far, you have no way of knowing what lies ahead. If you chose a career for which specialized training was essential—you’ll practice law, or medicine, for example—it’s not unreasonable to expect some pieces to fall into place as you imagined they might.

Maybe you’ll live on a groovy sustainable farm in rural Massachusetts

But most people I knew when I stood on that threshold were still putting together the pieces. I dealt with my own uncertainty by postponing decision making for a while, plowing headlong into graduate school with leftover undergrad momentum. I was married by then, and a surprise adoption changed my plans near the end of my coursework, a plot twist I found delightful and challenging in its own right. Full-time parent of a difficult child: it was not in the blueprint (by then I had zeroed in on a few career possibilities, none ever realized as fate would have it). Nor could I have predicted returning full time to classical ballet as a teacher might insinuate itself into the child rearing landscape (I forgot to tell young Tristan I used anthropology every day of the week in the ballet classroom, giving my students lessons in anatomy with a full-size anatomical skeleton—who knew coursework in human osteology would prove helpful in the ballet studio?).

Nor could I imagine that in the space of only a few months it would all vanish: a comfortable, settled, affluent lifestyle a couple of decades in the make completely gone. Gone.

Nobody gets through life without a few curve balls, maybe even a direct hit to the noggin once in a while. But what do you do when somebody yanks the rug out from under you wholesale?

Wholesale destruction is a delicious opportunity to start all over again

At first, you gnash your teeth and wail and lash out at the universe: you need answers—why is this happening to me? The universe is strangely quiet. When you tire of waiting, you finally blow your nose and sweep your greying hair out of your face, push up your sleeves, and get to work. Next comes the hard part: you may suffer a little humiliation while you’re figuring out Plan B. And Plan C, D, or even Plan E…. But this exercise is so much better than the alternative, after all. And anyway, you have no choice.

When I was puzzling through a squirrelly child-rearing problem years ago, a wise friend reminded me to use past behavior to predict future behavior. Superimpose this idea on life’s bigger mysteries, and you get something like this: use past successes to predict future successes. Your package of skills helped you accomplish much: now use them to accomplish something more, even if the shape of that thing, whatever it is—could be writing for a marketing agency, who knows?—remains out of focus for now. The not-knowing is anguishing, to be sure. But uncertainty holds the promise of possibilities.

Maybe you’ll build a solar array next to a police station

My commencement speech would go something like that. I’d also urge my young listeners to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities when they pop up, even if they look different than you thought they might. And when you make poor choices, I’d tell them, admit your mistakes, chalk them up to personal growth, and move on. Learn how to apologize if the situation calls for it. And never say ‘no problem’ when somebody says, ‘thank you.’

All the television news outlets have been airing mash-up reels of commencement speeches lately, famous folk standing becapped-and-gowned at the podium, a few notorious ones, advising hopeful throngs of the newly-degreed on this special occasion that for many marks the transition into adulthood, or ‘the real world,’ anyway. Because I’m such a fan of fifth grade humor the one who speaks loudest to me is Will Farrell, a fearless performer who had the audacity to channel Whitney Huston’s standard, I Will Always Love You, to a hopeful crowd of University of Southern California grads. It was a cringe-worthy performance they’ll forever remember. I’ve never been a Will Farrell devotee, but give me a little irreverent humor on a solemn occasion and I’m in (anybody who lacks humor is suspicious in my book). He was nothing if not earnest, like the young man who called me the other night. And in moments of seriousness, he was credible. It was a perfect sendoff, full of hope and possibilities. I leave you with the juiciest morsel.

To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.—Will Farrell, 2017

Stretching Dollars, Counting Blessings

Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil
Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Dollar Chicken
Three Dollar Chicken

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

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

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

soon_to_be_stock

soon_to_be_stock_2

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

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

soupy_blessings

 

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.

Summer Reading: Some Promising Looking Fresh Hell

What fresh hell can this be?

Beach Reading 2
Accidental Literature

It is a line sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but Dorothy Parker said it. Dang Shakespeare. It’s one of those quips that sounds so civilized, so much better than any number of other crude things one might choose to say when a situation demands it (wtf comes to mind).

I found Dorothy Parker in my great-grandmother Gracie’s basement when I was twelve, in her house way up high on a hill above the main channel of the Tennessee River. It was a jaw-dropping piece of land where Granny Grace lived in her little whitewashed board-and-batten cottage, its beauty completely lost on my bored, twelve-year-old summer vacation self. At the time I could not have foreseen I would start my own family there.

Boredom spawns creativity, they say. It did not during those long hours that stretched between time trying to sit still while Granny Grace swilled black coffee and chain smoked and told the same stories over and over (still mercifully entertaining on the thousandth telling), and shopping excursions (five pounds of bacon at the highway grocery) and chores (one summer we painted her house), and family dinner much later. I stupidly longed to be back home in the heat of Memphis with my twelve-year-old co-conspirators.

But left to my own devices I explored what there was to explore: potted African violets covering every inch of a massive round wood table; oil portraits of beloved family members (even dogs); the curious tintypes in Granny Grace’s ancient photo albums; and on a slab of concrete foundation that served as an impromptu bookshelf in the basement, a collection of cast-off paperbacks and back issues of magazines (yes, even magazines devoted to curating African violets). A found collection of Dorothy Parker short stories was my salvation at a horrible point on the pre-adolescent continuum when the excitement of adult life has revealed itself, but only through a foggy lens, and still well beyond reach.

A high school Latin teacher once said, it does not matter how you’re exposed to art, or music, or literature—only that you’re exposed to it. So if Bugs Bunny serves as your entrée to the world of Wagner, she went on, so be it. I think I agree with this. A damp Knoxville basement is as good a place as any to fall in love with the writing of Dorothy Parker. I tore through that book scarcely taking a breath. That was also the moment when I discovered the great appeal of the short story as a form.

Many years later I found Cormac McCarthy at a time when I was living in the same neighborhood where McCarthy himself once lived. His seamy autobiographical novel Suttree transfixed me like that dog-eared copy of Dorothy Parker stories had years before, Suttree still more because of its Knoxville setting; I had a good fix on the landscape in that delicious story. So yesterday when I came across a bargain paperback copy of The Crossing in our über-pricey local book store I snatched it up; seems fitting for a late-summer beach trip a few weeks hence. I couldn’t leave the store without a collection of short stories: a used copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by one John Updike shouted at me from the stacks.

Only one hellish oversight, Mr. Updike, if a little stale now:  you left out the Dorothy Parker. (Wtf?)