Charleston Reunions, Enough Sun in Wrightsville Beach

Spanish Moss in Mt. Pleasant
Spanish Moss in Mt. Pleasant

This morning I lamented to anybody listening it feels like we’ve been in the car for three days. We have, kinda. Sunday afternoon we arrived road-weary at my ex-sister-in-law’s-but-still-my-sister’s Mt. Pleasant home (we  just call it Charleston, it’s close enough) for a long overdue visit, first one in the flesh in too many years. One 23-y-o young man who belongs to me met us there in a questionable car, unscathed if rattled. My ex-sis-but-still-sis rolled out the red carpet for us with a proper Southern dinner set upon a gracious Southern table, vegetarian style.

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Her co-hostess is the Best Black Lab in the World, all but impossible to photograph. This sweet Lab was also the most patient dog in the world, willing for a dog-deprived woman to wallow in her dog-ness for a long while. Good girl, Waco.

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Yesterday morning three of us struck out for a longish, steamy walk while Handsome Chef Boyfriend undertook an ambitious jog from the house to the center of Charleston’s jaw-dropping Arthur Ravenel Bridgeabout a seven-mile trek out and back in the heat, all told. Meanwhile I tried to capture the Spanish moss that is so defining of the landscape in the deep coastal South.

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Our time there was delightful end to end, far too brief. We had only a little while after our walk for a geeky camera tête-à-tête (I’m still a newbie, pressing our more camera-savvy hostess for answers to hey-how-do-I-work-this-thing kinds of questions), and not much else before HCB gently reminded us it was time to hit the road. Again.

Thence to Wilmington, NC, the 23-y-o rattling down the road behind us in heavy traffic and persistent rain. Navigation misled us once, but we finally arrived, rumpled and weary. There was time only for the grocery, a quick dinner, and welcome sleep.

But today! Today was beach day. In the intervening years since my move to Vermont I have had occasion to walk the craggy beaches near Camden, Maine (a very different kind of coastline than North Carolina’s to be sure), and to sniff the surf of the Jersey shore once on a frigid day when I was miserably sick with a head cold. Being here with my boys—both of them—is restorative and wonderful. The skies rained on us this morning and then relented. We gathered our things and took off for nearby Wrightsville Beach.

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We are eating well, too much, enjoying each other’s company and also indulging in the luxury of doing nothing at all, except being together. We have a few other things on agenda in the coming days, more stories to come.

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Way Down South Trip: Travel Days Are Difficult

Bumper to Bumper Traffic in Virginia
Bumper to Bumper

Really I have so little to complain about: Handsome Chef Boyfriend did the lion’s share of driving today, from the moment we pulled off our mountain all the way to somewhere-or-other just past Fredericksburg, VA, where we missed our intended exit. A few truths from the day:

  1. Three in the morning is a difficult time to strike out on a journey: the brain is slow, the limbs and extremities unresponsive. It took me five tries to buckle on my sandals before we walked out the door.
  2. Dodging wildlife in the pre-dawn hours gives you white knuckles even when you are the passenger.
  3. People who get anywhere within, I don’t know, about 100 miles of New York City, are just plain crazy behind the wheel, ditto the people on either side of our nation’s capital.
  4. Chefs get grumpy in fast-moving bumper-to-bumper traffic, worse when it slows to a halt, and so do their girlfriends.
  5. The New Jersey Turnpike is an abomination.
  6. More than thirty bucks in tolls? Seriously?
  7. It’s all good, as they say, because at the end of a tiring travel day your plain vanilla hotel room looks pretty dang inviting. And even corporate chain food is appetizing, an exponential improvement over what you stood in a long line for at a Turnpike service center much earlier, and later at a gas station.
Sunrise over New York, as viewed from New Jersey
Sunrise over New York, as viewed from New Jersey
Delaware Memorial Bridge
Delaware Memorial Bridge
Beautiful Engineering on the Delaware Bridge
Beautiful Engineering
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key Bridge
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key Bridge
Susquehanna River
Susquehanna River
Pentagon Art
Just Past the Pentagon

In the morning we head still deeper into the American South, destination Charleston, SC. ‘Til soon, rested and restored.

Farm Stand and General Store: Evolved New England Institutions

Old Building, New Concept
Old Building, New Concept

The concept of the general store revealed itself to me the instant I had boots on the ground in my new home state of Vermont. Most small farming communities here have one (and so that would be most of Vermont, which is largely made of small farming communities). But their store offerings vary widely, to say nothing of what you can expect to pay for the stuff on the shelves. The most “complete” general store I ever patronized was Coburn’s, just over the mountain from my erstwhile home in Sharon, Vermont, on Route 132 in the small town of South Strafford.

Coburn’s is one-stop shopping in a vernacular white clapboard building like so many others that dot the landscape in these parts—you can find a decent selection of reasonably priced groceries there, dairy and not-bad-looking produce, and sliced deli meat at the counter in the back. You’ll also find a respectable bottle of Argentinian Malbec, sturdy work gloves, fire starter logs (important for a Southern girl whose fire building skills are wanting), a small newsstand, full-service post office and bank, and two gas pumps out front. Really, what more could anybody need, except possibly longer store hours?

Other communities are not so fortunate. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had a long-running joke about one general store in particular where we occasionally stopped for gas but avoided the inside of the store like plague because of its rotting produce, overpriced groceries, surly counter help, and general filth. If one of us had to dash inside for something, the other would ask, Need a box of seven-dollar Triscuits? Those folks are doing the locals a disservice and getting away with it because they’re the only game in town.

The best of these small businesses, if they are not running a smooth operation like Coburn’s, have evolved into a modern iteration of themselves, changing with the times if you will. Five Corners is one of them, not too far down the road in the Massachusetts Berskhires, at a busy Williamstown intersection. We had a couple of primo sandwiches there yesterday on our way to Pittsfield erranding. (And you can’t beat the beauty of the Berkshires on a gorgeous summer day.)

Five Corners Market 3 A

Five Corners Market 2 A

To be fair, this exquisite little place is no longer a general store in the true sense of the term. It’s got pricey, gifty stuff, and coolers stocked with high-end charcuterie and cheeses, but you can also grab a half-gallon of milk and a few other necessaries in a pinch. There’s a long, rustic table in the center of the main space where folks plunk down on a wide bench with their laptops and cuppa Joe (which is also top-shelf brew). The sandwiches are interesting (not your average ham and cheese) and the pastry is to die for.

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I’m okay with this version of the general store—there’s no filth in sight, not a single head of expensive rusty iceberg, it’s a creative use of the space, and the building itself has been artfully preserved—it’s better than an empty, derelict building by a long shot, and there are plenty of those around here. You might not see farmers hanging out here, and you shouldn’t expect to buy groceries at this place between city trips to the supermarket. But there is still local community building going on.

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It’s high summer here with the faintest hint of fall in the air, and the produce is exceptional. Which brings me to the Vermont farm stand, another venerable institution, not to be confused with the farmer’s market, which is also seen in abundance in New England communities. But the farm stand as it exists in these parts is new to me—what I know as a farm stand from my life in Tennessee is typically a roadside lean-to (or even the bed of a pickup) purveying a single item, or a couple, from a local farm. You can get incredible seasonal produce if you’re lucky enough to stumble on one of these at just the right moment.

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What I’ve noticed in these parts is a bit more evolved, although the simple roadside farm stand lives here, too. But with the growing season as short as it is, the big, established farms set up seasonal retail shops in respectable quarters with regular hours. Clear Brook Farm is happily about halfway between home and work, a sizeable operation that offers local meat and dairy, lush produce, but also bedding plants, flowers, and landscaping supplies. Their stuff is at its peak about now; some time in late October or thereabouts they’ll close up shop ’til next spring.

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I hate New England winters. There, I said it. Springtime in New England is not the prize, as some have suggested (they have not seen springtime in East Tennessee). This moment in late August—this moment is the prize. The impossibly rocky soil here produces a surprisingly robust and gorgeous summertime yield; it is ephemeral.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may (or hibiscus, if you prefer) and get thee to a local farm stand.

Homecoming, Part the Second

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It is beyond me how 1000 miles disappear so quickly in the rear view mirror, or how four days dissolve in what feels like a half hour. It’s what has transpired in the intervening hours since 2:30 Saturday morning when Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I began our long drive south to see family and friends, some for the first time in three years. And for HCB to see the gaping hole left by the taproot I yanked up three years ago. And just to get out of Vermont for a few days and shake off the cobwebs and stretch our legs. The sun rose Saturday morning in Pennsylvania.

I wish we had more time already and we’re only now settling into my erstwhile hometown of Knoxville for a few days. I have so many thoughts about the landscape between the place I call home now, and the one I once did. And a desire to learn more about the vernacular Dutch architecture that dots the Pennsylvania countryside, a place that blurs the lines between North and South. The moment the first cheerful “How are you’uns?” washed over our weary selves snuck up on us. Some thoughts are gone already, some I may be able to reclaim. It feels like we’ve crammed months into hours.

Partly by design (and the balance geography) we started in Highlands, NC, where the small cottage that served as a happy vacation home in the last chapter of my life stands forgotten and neglected, suffering, awaiting its unknown fate. We went to check on things and reclaim a few belongings. I knew it would be hard, and would bring raw emotions to the surface. It did that in spades. I did not make photos of the house, but I did the landscape, seen above and below, and a busy intersection of a town teeming with new life and new young families. I no longer have a life there, but I hope its vibrant pulse bodes well for the future. An unlikely encounter with a favorite babysitter and her own young family felt perfect: my son was with us on this leg of the trip, and the reunion with the person who first introduced us to Highlands—in Highlands itself—brought much needed poetry to an otherwise difficult and emotional day.

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The Ocoee River Gorge hems you in for mile upon serpentine mile, the river on one side, sheer rock walls and gnarled outcroppings on the other, the instability looming overhead urging you to keep your foot on the gas and both hands on the wheel. After a while you yearn to be let out, walls closing in with the fading light of day. Sunday was an exemplary specimen, the intense late-day sunlight filtered through rain, then late evening darkness gathering quickly, the backdrop for memories recalled along the way and answers to questions unresolved until Chattanooga grandparents could address them later. (What was that sketchy looking thing up on the ridge? A water flume, turns out, been there since the 1930s, carries water to this day.)

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In two days’ time we ate our way through Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dad’s lovely wife shared with us one of her own traditions from the Deep South, biscuits with butter and chocolate. We were in bewildered awe, any doubts I had about properly introducing HCB to Southern cuisine evaporating with the steam coming off the melted confection set before us.

Downtown Chattanooga remains a favorite. The three of us struck out on our own for a day at the Tennessee Aquarium and some walking. Devices are a foregone conclusion; life—aquatic, avian, insect, and even human—could still hold sway over them from time to time.

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Aquarium 1

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Aquarium 3

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I have everything to learn about making beautiful photographs with my new-old camera, even more about capturing motion. But I was able to pet a moving sturgeon, and that is something.

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Climbing from the Aquarium into Chattanooga’s Bluff View Art District is worth sweaty knees and elbows, as is a late afternoon at Rembrandt’s for coffee and handmade chocolate; but chocolate does not always hold sway over devices.

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Hunter Museum

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Back at our hosts’ home there was not enough porch time for this Southern girl, but I am especially fond of the porch itself, which emphatically does not hold sway over devices.

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In all fairness to the boy, he had just snapped several amzing photos of this incredible porch-time interloper; this is my photo, which paled in comparison to his:

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That’s my dad and his lovely, gracious wife; I think they look great. My dad knows so much about so many things. Water flumes built at the top of the Occoe Gorge during the Great Depression, the history and evolution of the Cavalier Furniture Company, WWII-era aircraft, the whereabouts of the nearest Krystal burger: he’s your man for all this and so much more. I hope like heck it’s not another three years before we see them again.

We’re already on the next page of this nine-day-long story; ’til soon.

 

 

Works & Process

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I love the theatre—lobby, house, backstage, on the stage—it does not matter. I have clocked time there since before I could walk. Friday night I had the chance to be there again at the small and mighty Paramount in Rutland, Vermont. A quirky and entertaining NYC-based company called Bedlam was reading a new play by one Tony Award winning Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), called New York Animals. And if you have never heard of nor seen this fantastic little company, drop what you are doing right this second and find them. This event was an exceptionally good call by Handsome Chef Boyfriend, who heard this broadcast on VPR and suggested it.

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This time the audience sat on the stage with the actors; it had been converted into a black box mini-theatre for this interesting run-through ahead of the play’s opening in NYC later this fall. We were all up in their business during the show, a small but enthusiastic audience, at times moving our feet out of the way of the action unfolding practically in our laps. A company member stood by to prompt forgotten lines; it was a rough cut to be sure, but in a beautiful venue on a delicious summer night in Vermont.

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House lights came up for intermission, a chance to examine the theatre more closely. It reminds me so much of this other small theatre in Knoxville; I’m guessing they must be roughly the same vintage, although the Paramount is smaller. It’s pretty; sometimes I think Vermont is underserved and a little forgotten when it comes to performing arts. I’m glad the Paramount is not too far from home.

When it comes to performance, I know the play’s the thing, and all. But I have always loved the process more. For me, the same is true of classical ballet. The final year in the life of my small ballet school in Knoxville, Tennessee, before I knew its doors were closing for good, my student population at last had exposure to the stage, an important milestone in the life of any young dancer. We mounted a lecture demonstration at the Knoxville Museum of Art, showing the progression of training from the lowest to the highest levels at the school.

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The young enrollees demonstrated movement vocabulary in a way I hoped made sense to the audience, who were shown not individual choreographed pieces prepared a level at a time “recital” style, but individual movements as they are taught to children over a period of years, in a natural progression. It was my intention to demonstrate how we get from point A to point B, in a careful age-appropriate way that made sense. I used the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series as a model, and judging from the standing-room-only crowd and surprise visit by local news media, we were successful. I think people are naturally curious about how things work.

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KBS 2B

Friday night was all about process. After the play we had a chance to give the company feedback—to ask questions, comment about character development that seemed confusing, say what we liked and didn’t. Steven Sater himself came up from NYC to talk to us directly, and even asked us questions while he made notes. He was erudite and funny, gave us a glimpse of how this particular play came to be, explained how he has been writing music for it in collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and told us among other things how he thought the music would ultimately fit into the script.

People in attendance made some good points and a few good suggestions. One man in particular wanted to know whether the play—New York Animals—was written expressly for New Yorkers, as he had grown up in the city and retired to Vermont. Without blinking an eye, Steven Sater quipped, Well I heard the show did very well in Vermont.

Yes, it did.

Vermont has plenty of endearing qualities. One is that it tends to attract talented people out of the city and into the beautiful countryside in the summertime, as it does this particular company each year. I love seeing the ballet in big venues in big cities; ditto the theatre. There is no substitute for that experience.

But I am just as happy—maybe even happier—to watch the process unfold right in my own back yard.

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Photos belong to the author and to Knoxville Ballet School; it ain’t nice to steal, so don’t do it.

 

 

Learning Curve

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Once upon a time when I was the director of a small ballet school I taught classical ballet to adult beginners a couple nights weekly. They were dedicated people, mostly women, but also a few men, from all walks of life. Some of them told me it took them weeks to gather the courage to come for their first class. Some were just passing through, most enjoyed it and continued until the school closed its doors in 2012 after six short years. My teaching style is non-threatening in the main, and I would like to think my adult students found the classroom environment a safe place to make mistakes, to learn, to gain body awareness, to discover their capabilities and limits.

Their classes were scheduled in the evening after I had taught the other enrollees, varied levels for children from ages four to about fourteen on any given weekday. I was usually toast by the time my adults came into the school and honestly it was sometimes difficult for me to gather the enthusiasm and energy to teach them, but I tried like crazy not to show it. Classical ballet—dancing, or conveying ballet to a new generation—really does require every shred of focus and intellect you possess, to say nothing of the physical demands of teaching. At least, this is the case when you deem it important enough to do it well. And when you are dealing with adult beginners you’ve got to demonstrate every movement—full out—you can’t pantomime the movement the way you can with accomplished young dancers who understand it already, nor can you assume they know what you mean when you begin speaking that language. And then when the music starts you’ve got to dance it with them.

But after we finished our floor warm-ups and pulled out the barres to begin class in earnest, wall to wall grins and giggles erupted at happy mistakes and triumphs and I always somehow rebounded and felt great. I went home exhausted and satisfied. I remember one of my students struggling to get her placement correct (it’s how we describe posture in ballet), and at the same time internalizing the steps to the exercise we were doing; she quipped, Wow. I bet dancers never get dementia.

I have an even better appreciation for those adult learners now that I have decided to venture into the (very) frustrating world of photography. I have figured out a couple of things about which I reserve the right to later change my mind. First, morning light is the best light. I shot that flower up there in yesterday’s glorious morning light. Second, I fare much better at closeups than landscape shots. To wit:

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Manchester Center

But even so that busy bee is blurry; I asked it to hold still to no avail. The landscape was my attempt to shoot the mountains looking west from downtown Manchester yesterday around lunchtime. It stinks, in part because there was all this junk in the bottom of the photo I had to edit out, which made the proportions of the photo awful. But I am smitten by Vermont’s Green Mountains. We’ve had some incredible summer days lately with cool temperatures, low humidity, and gathering afternoon clouds to punctuate the intense blue of the afternoon sky. I love the shadows the clouds cast on the mountains, how they change every second and bring movement to the mountains themselves. It’s what I wanted to capture, and eventually I’ll figure out how.

I will attend my first-ever photography workshop in early October. I am told it does not matter that you know nothing, and I hope the organizers of the workshop really mean that. I am the beginningest of beginners who will be there, I am sure. Here is how beginning of a beginner I am: I need the instructor to say, This is a camera—you use it to take pictures. I am not kidding. Every picture I’ve taken that has turned out well has been the result of dumb luck. And I am still shooting in auto mode.

The great thing, though, is that I know the folks in charge of the workshop and feel safe and unthreatened around them, as my adult students did around me. In the meantime I’m enjoying every new discovery I make (today it was the zoom function on my lens). And just think of all those new neural pathways that must be sprouting in my noggin about now, like these pretty sprouting flowers outside our back door.

The steepest learning curve is completely worth the climb.

Yardful of Yellow Flowers

 

Kingdom of Wilis: Foggy Vermont Morning

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Giselle is a story ballet with Romantic-era sensibilities that still somehow reaches modern audiences. In it a pretty peasant girl—Giselle—dies at the close of the first act, duped by a handsome nobleman promised to a princess, her heart too weak to withstand the loss. In the second act she is transformed into a wili, a ghost who rises from her grave every night to join others of her ilk, each a bride also jilted by a lover before being wed to him. Any of those young cads foolish enough to venture into the forest late at night risks meeting his death at the hands of the wilis, who will dance him into his grave (ergo, ballet). The wilis disappear at dawn’s first light, which happens near the end of the second act in the ballet.

The woods outside our door this morning reminded me of that scene. Plenty of fog, but not a wili in sight.

July 27th Lake George Reunion

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

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

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

So we were together.

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

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

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

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

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