The Boldness of Eccentricity: A Remembrance

Eccentric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Real Friends: A (Hopeful) Lamentation

Real Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Almost* Paradise: Close Enough

Class with Julie Kent: Pretty Dang Close; Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

So how’s your dukkha these days?

I know exactly nothing about Buddhism, but my friend Jill does. That’s her beautiful daughter in the photo up there, standing next to former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Julie Kent, perhaps a little star struck. Dukkha, she explained, is the Buddhist concept of suffering, with an asterisk: it’s thought to have been mistranslated as actual suffering, when what it really means is thinking you’re suffering when you’re only inconvenienced or slightly unsatisfied. Like getting the grocery cart with the bockety wheel on it, and now you’ll spend the next half hour fighting the grocery cart around the store.

Annoying, perhaps, but suffering? You still have the privilege of browsing well stocked shelves of food which you will buy and then go home and enjoy, a privilege most Americans take for granted, anyway. You probably won’t spend too much time worrying about whether you’ve gotten the nutrients you needed today, while somewhere on the globe there’s no clean water to drink.

The Buddhists, Jill went on, maintain we add ‘extra’ to our dukkha by imagining our lives would finally be perfect if only we could accomplish <missing thing>. We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?

In fact I’ve honed it to a lustrous sheen over the last five years of transition. There were plenty of sleepless nights at first, and no small amount of hand wringing and nail biting and wondering what would happen if and when the bank account was empty: these are the things that spawn action. There was genuine anguish to be sure, but probably never actual suffering. And my own landscape now is downright pastoral by comparison, a green hill dotted by black-faced sheep, and the occasional bockety wheel to keep me honest.

Seems that beautiful little ballerina up there, my erstwhile Knoxville Ballet School student, is North Carolina bound, finally getting her wish to enroll in full-time residential ballet school. I could not be happier nor prouder. It’s no small thing: Celia sailed over the talent hurdle, clearing it easily, the academic one a mere formality (quoting my beloved mentor: you can’t be dumb and dance). She has leapt into the world of pre-professional ballet training: the rest is up to her.

Hat tip to her devoted parents, who are moving heaven and earth (and experiencing no small amount of dukkha) to make this happen for their daughter, who by all accounts is giddy, as anybody in those pointe shoes would be.

Her mom explained the ‘extra’ she’s added to her own dukkha in all this is wishing she and her family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina a few years ago, when they were actually considering it. But because this is an exercise in futility, she continued, she’s moving past it. She went on to list all the positives of this exciting new development, bockety wheels be damned.

There is food in the pantry and a dog dreaming on the floor—in Tennessee and in Vermont—and soon a Knoxville girl will enjoy complete classical ballet immersion in North Carolina: that’s close enough to paradise.

Live Your Life: A Mother’s Reflection

A Mother’s Life

Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak

It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”

I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.

Off you go, then, I told him.

Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.

We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.

We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.

And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.

During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.

Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)

A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.

And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.

A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.

Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.

Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.

My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.

The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.

Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.

The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.

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.

Tail of the Dog, in Which Warden Prepares to Play the Wrong Piano Concerto

This was not what I had on my calendar for this date.
This was not what I had on my calendar for this date.

In 1999 the Portuguese virtuosa Maria Joao Pires famously sat at the piano with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Riccardo Chailly  at the podiumawaiting the first bar of the piano concerto she expected to play for this lunchtime concert. Imagine her surprise when the orchestra began playing a different piece of music—the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor—instead of what she had come prepared to play. That moment is captured on video, the sick feeling in her gut written all over her face, which she places in the palm of her hand as the reality of this horrible epiphany slowly unfolds before a crowd of expectant concertgoers. There are only a couple of minutes of music before the piano begins. As the concerto continues, Chailly surmises what has happened, there is an exchange between the two of them, she insists she had something else in her calendar, she is not sure she can do this without preparation. There are a few reassuring words from Chailly, as he continues to move his baton without missing a beat, a smile on his face: the proverbial band plays on.

I can only guess this must be akin to how Warden felt this week in his new digs: surprise! We are the wrong people in the wrong house, these new rules and routines are wrong, wrong, wrong: this bowl is unfamiliar, this collar, this leash—a leash!—nothing is right.

warden-at-the-park-2

Meanwhile, we’ve smiled and continued to move the baton to the time signature of life in this family. And how has Warden responded to this? Like a boss, that’s how.

The last week has been one of discovery for Warden and for us (living with a dog is in my muscle memory but unpracticed; it is awakening now with lighting speed). Warden regarded us with suspicion in the beginning, most especially one adolescent human who is a part-timer here. This is not just about displacement, I think, but is a character trait of the breed: shepherds are discriminating. Now at the start of our second week together I think I can fairly say he has imprinted on me, regards the tall chef with equal parts affection and suspicion (although hand-fed pieces of succulent baked chicken and beautifully seared salmon must be considered in this assessment). We’ll see how things go with the adolescent later today.

Mother Nature has not been especially helpful in this trial-by-fire week: first time since I’ve lived in Vermont we’ve had snowfall in October, only here in the valley-ish area where we live it was more of an icy, bone-chilling mess with high winds thrown in for good measure. Did we shrink from this hellish weather? Heck no. Warden discovered the neighborhood park with me this week on a day that left us soaked through and muddy, ditto the back seat of the Subi; second time around it was not so awful outside.

warden-at-the-park-1

And yesterday we had a bigger adventure at this place, which is a bit further afield from home, but happens to be very close to work, where I expect Warden will go with me most days eventually. (Baby steps.) So there was a lot of trust building and plenty of fun to be had yesterday, with one tired dog and a couple of worn-out humans at the end of it all. Warden is champing at the bit to play off-leash; for now he will remain tethered, and stay that way ’til we know beyond the shadow of a doubt the trust is firmly established.

brush_burning_mile_around_woods
Brush Burning Against Beautiful Vista at Mile-Around Woods

playful_warden_mile_around_woods

warden_david_running_mile_around_woods

warden_head_tilt_mile_around_woods
You-Need-To-Catch-Up Head Tilt

There was adventure to be had at home this week, too. Fun fact about this tiny house: there are skylights.

Sky Lights Up There
Huh.

Who knew? Also, it is possible to lock yourself in the bathroom without opposable thumbs; the best time to do this is right after ralphing up kibble eaten with too much gusto, and whilst HCB is phoning to announce he is stuck in an October snow storm behind several disabled vehicles on the mountain between the bakery and home. (I explained I had to go because the dog was locked in the bathroom and there was a pile of vomit on the floor, sorry you’re stuck on the mountain—good luck with that.) And also the basement is questionable; best to bark at it occasionally for good measure, which you can do conveniently whilst slurping and dribbling.

warden-basement-stairs
Basement, i vous considère.

I think it is fair to say we had a good first week together. It ended peacefully, and last night, as Warden snuggled on the sofa between the two humans, this happened:

warden_david_trust
The Chef is okay.

As for Ms. Pires, she played that concerto bumper to bumper without missing a note, the consummate professional. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Concertgebouw Orchestra live in concert—I’m such a huge fan I frankly would not care about unrehearsed Mozart or muffed notes. I’m also a huge fan of Warden-the-Shepherd. Here’s a short clip of that Pires concert, with some narrative by Maestro Chailly; he is talking about the Mozart, and about Pires, but may as well be talking about us. Take a peek at 2:48—it is the perfect musical metaphor for Warden’s quiet start to life in his new family.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.

warden-adoption-day-masthead
Foggy Day Shepherd

No, really. It was. Friday was a grey day, Friday afternoon brought wave after wave of gully washers to Southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and Friday night the heavens opened up and Zeus hurled mighty lightning bolts down upon us. Prediction: Handsome Chef Boyfriend will look over the top of his glasses when he reads this and ask, Why couldn’t you just say “it stormed?”

Because it’s funner to say it my way, that’s why, and you should stick to making compotes and port wine reductions, and let me sauté the words.

Friday was a truly awful day to be on the road, which is what we were; it was the kind of day where the sun seems never to rise completely, where it feels dark by four, even though the time hasn’t yet changed, and a shroud of fog hides everything beyond the immediate horizon. Friday night was worse still. I might add some language about the mighty rolling thunder, and also the broken reading glasses, the “good” pair, which snapped when I yanked them out of my bag to read my phone in the dark as text messages and Facebook messages and emails poured in. But that would be a different kind of descriptive language, of the sort that exploded from my mouth when my glasses broke. (Rest assured I was not driving while intexticated. I drove the daytime leg of our six roundtrip hours in the car with my devices safely tucked away, and HCB drove the after-dark part of them, because he knows I lack confidence in my nighttime vision, especially in unknown territory, and most especially on dark and stormy nights.) Suffice it to say, no dark and stormy night could impede our plans, not on this day for which we had waited so long.

warden-adoption-day-19-a
Warden vom Traumhof

On Friday we welcomed a new torrent of joy into our family, one Warden-the-Shepherd. Officially, he is “Warden vom Traumhof, by Goliath v Traumhof and out of Emerald v Traumhof,” says so on his adoption contract. I still can’t wrap my head around the pedigreed part of this pooch, although I have read and studied it some through my new reading glasses after the Dark and Stormy reading glasses incident, but I will say he is related to this amazing blogger’s Princess Blaze and Marshal Dillon Dingle: I believe Marshal Dillon and Warden are half-brothers, if I understand all these blood lines correctly. Which I think means we are all family now, so I am sure they’ll be fine if we drop in on their fabulous new digs up in Maine for a few days.

warden-adoption-day-20-a

All our friends and family have been clamoring for pictures, which I have promised, but fell short of the mark on Friday. This was owing in part to the weather (I can’t replace my one “good” camera like I can my reading glasses), but also the general mayhem that met us when we arrived at Warden’s house, which I can only describe as a great crescendo of many, many enthusiastic German Shepherd Dogs who are busy announcing and greeting the newcomers but also reminding each other who gets to greet first and who should be put in his place while all this greeting is going on, to say nothing of the chorus of shepherd voices from the training center across the driveway and down the hill; imagine if you will. So I only grabbed a few fair-to-middlin’ iPhone photos, and some pretty dang blurry ones with the Nikon, blurry in part because of the low light and shutter speed (still learning, friends), but also because my subject would not hold still. But I love it when my “mistake” turns out interesting, like the head-shaking-teeth-showing image that seemed a perfect masthead photo for “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Here is the irony: Warden is one of the most agreeable, friendly German Shepherd Dogs I’ve encountered ever, one trait among many that drew us to him, and why his human believed he might be a perfect fit for us. In all the chaos that met us at the front door, Warden was there, too, but did not bark once—did not so much as growl—just tried to fight his way forward to inspect us, intercepted by a pretty girl named Prada and a grand dame named Charlotte. At least, I think it was Charlotte—there was a lot of tail wagging confusion and a few fierce reprimands, and Charlotte was clearly not one to suffer fools gladly. Plus, a couple of females are in season, which had Warden all excited for anybody in a skirt, including Charlotte, who is a mature gal whose time for all that is long past, and who mainly rolled her eyes in disgust at this whole spectacle.

warden-adoption-day-14-a

Warden is a special dog and I knew leaving the nurturing fold of his family, both human and doggish, would be difficult for everyone. But once on the road after our longish visit he proved an easy travel companion; we stopped for strong coffee soon after we struck out for home, at the precise moment the storm unleashed its greatest fury on us (or, in the worst part of the storm, if you prefer); the car shook with every clap of thunder, but Warden seemed unimpressed. I took this as a good omen, dark and stormy nights be damned.

I know everybody’s champing at the bit for endearing dog stories and photos, closeups and action shots. They will come in good time, although I can assure you the notorious German Shepherd head tilt is alive and well in this dog. For now, we must give him room to settle in and learn to be part of our family, and to embrace a lifestyle completely unlike the only one he has known thus far.

The sun is shining brightly this morning and there is a contented dog in twitching, snoring REM sleep at my feet, a beautiful condition for which I’ve waited too long. Soon the images will come into much sharper focus.

(And Clarence—thanks, good boy.)

warden-adoption-day-13-a
Warden-the-Shepherd at home

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.

Sunday Photo Essay: New Skete Monastery, Spiritual Connections

New Skete German Shepherd Dog Image 13
New Skete German Shepherd Dog

There has been a German Shepherd-shaped hole in my heart since I lost my beloved Clarence-the-Canine to Degenerative Myelopathy in January of 2014; the intervening years have marked the longest dogless period in my adult life. Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyrfriend and I attended the annual pilgrimage at the New Skete monastery in nearby Cambridge, NY. The monks are renowned for their German Shepherd breeding and training programs, among other works and projects; the New Skete nuns are as celebrated for their exquisite cheesecake, made right down the road. New Skete is celebrating fifty years.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world, a branch of the Catholic church steeped in rich liturgical tradition. I especially love the spiritual connection these monks in particular have drawn with their German Shepherd Dogs, one that began with the first dog, Kyr, whose passing left a profound spiritual void, inspiring the New Skete GSD program that exists today. That spiritual connection I have always felt—with shepherds and other dogs—though find difficult to articulate. The monk who demonstrated obedience with his GSD at the pilgrimmage spoke frankly about this in a way that resonated so strongly with me.

We finished our New Skete afternoon at the evening vigil and healing service. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, tower bells traditionally call believers to worship with changing and distinctive patterns throughout the day. The three largest bells in the tower at New Skete were cast at a foundry in Troy, NY, the smaller set of twelve tuned bells at the Taylor Bell Company in England during WWII. The numerous wood bell towers in the Carpathian mountains of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia inspired the post and beam tower here. The ringing of the bells is a beautiful and powerful way to make an announcement—they say unequivocally, stop what you’re doing and come.

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved: liturgy that engages every sense has always felt the most meaningful to me and is why I still appreciate so much in my own Episcopal tradition. Divine music in a space that is acoustically alive, elevated language, engaging and vibrant visual art, incense that draws you right to the moment, but also periods of silence and reflection—all these were there at the New Skete vigil.

Near the end of the service I found myself standing before a priest who imposed the cross on my forehead with a tiny brush dipped in holy oil; as I turned to go he stopped me and asked for each hand, where he marked another cross on the back of each—”so that your hands may do good works,” he said. I have not stopped thinking about those words.

I wish for you the same peace I felt at New Skete yesterday, and may your hands do good works.

New Skete Holy Wisdom Church

New Skete Chapel

New Skete Reflection 1

New Skete GSD 2

New Skete GSD 1

New Skete Chapel Sanctuary

New Skete Cemetery

New Skete Bell Tower with Sun

New Skete GSD 4

New Skete Dog Training 1

New Skete GSD 12

New Skete GSD 7

New Skete GSD 5

New Skete GSD 6

New Skete GSD 8

New Skete GSD 14

New Skete GSD 9

New Skete GSD 11

New Skete GSD 15

New Skete Bell Tower

New Skete After Vespers

Before Vespers 2

New Skete with Sun and Clouds