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.

New Running Shoes, Perilous Decisions

Not many weeks ago I took the first uncertain steps to resume running after an injury interrupted a many-years-long stint; I wrote about it here. I have a new pair of running shoes to prove it, hard-won shoes begat by the sweat of my own brow and a little research, and a long drive to a neighboring state.

Posterior Tib 2A

In the intervening days and weeks I have undertaken a running regimen one of my colleagues reviewed for an online publication. It’s aimed at folks who are athletic slugs with a keen desire to exercise, but without effective strategies for starting and sticking with it. The typical scenario of failure, as the program’s creator describes it, is resolving to run, and then over-reaching the first time out, soon throwing in the towel when the body balks.

That does not describe me. I am the runner who once started each day with a quick swig of water, a leashed dog or two, and then covered no fewer than four or five miles at a respectable clip before the sun had fully breached the eastern horizon. I remember the first time I ever tried this, tiptoeing out the back door a few minutes past five a.m., opening a squeaky iron gate quietly as I could to keep from waking the neighbors, stepping off the curb onto the chilly pavement with two eager Siberian Huskies whose excited breath showed in the amber light of the street lamps. The only sounds were the dogs’ toenails against the pavement, the occasional soft clinking of their tags, and our collective breathing. Somehow I did this crazy thing again the next day. And the next, and for many, many years, with different combinations of family dogs. I came to love this hour that was sometimes the only peace in my day.

We were so easily spooked in those early mornings by whatever we imagined lurked in the shadows of neighborhood trees and hedges. (Human or canine, the mind plays sinister tricks on itself in the darkness.) Out on the main road rolled newspapers sailed over the top of the paper carrier’s car in the darkness, each one set aloft by his expert arm but still landing with a quiet thwap in one driveway and then another (this action sometimes evoked a low growl in the dogs); we could hear baritone radio voices muted inside passing luxury sedans pointed towards the big teaching hospital just across the river, the doctors on call starting their rounds; we could smell other people’s toast and coffee; more than once skittish urban foxes and coyotes crossed our paths; finally we witnessed the street lamps flickering off as daylight overcame dawn. Each day my dogs and I watched the neighborhood wake up; by the time we arrived back home they were tired out, our own house was stirring, there was a child who needed to be gotten up and readied for school, breakfast to be made, schedules to follow. My quiet time for the day was over.

This lifestyle continued unchecked for years and I honestly believe brought me a measure of sanity I could derive from nothing else. But soon after I moved to Vermont for a new teaching position, and shortly before I lost my beloved German Shepherd Clarence in early 2014, chronic posterior tibial tendonitis forced me into running retirement. It’s a mouthful but mainly describes inflammation in the muscle and its associated tendon that reaches down from the calf and wraps under the heel by way of the ankle bone on the inside of the leg. Mine is painfully distended and swollen in the region of the heel itself near the attachment, and behaves badly most of the time. It does not respond well to stress, which would include long distance running. It does not take a shining to classical ballet, either, and one movement in particular, called relevé (think calf raises)—a movement that occurs many, many times over the course of a single 90-minute ballet class—is particularly aggravating. And of course it does not respond well to the other kind of stress, either—the emotional kind.

Add afternoons of teaching ballet class for a three- or four-hour stretch (actively dancing and demonstrating relevé and lots of other body-challenging movement), to mornings of vigorous long-distance running, and a congenital heel deformity that adds wear and tear to the soft tissue, and then throw in a little happy weight gain just for good measure, and the body will finally protest so loudly you can’t ignore it another second. Dang posterior tibial tendon: an orthopedic surgeon diagnosed it as compromised many years earlier, but it was decent enough to allow me to keep on keepin’ on. Now it was throwing the worst imaginable fist-pounding, screaming, spitting tantrum. It certainly had my undivided attention, as nature intended.

Posterior Tib 9A

My foot looks normal every morning but by day’s end is swollen and tight and yellow; it does this whether I run or do nothing, but it’s worse when I spend the day on my feet. Lately it has sprouted new capillary growth I can see just under the skin. But in my professional life now I spend most of an eight hour stretch sitting: this has brought welcome relief to the offending foot and heel. And in the last couple of months…could it be? I swear I could feel actual healing in that foot. The rest of me has felt like a slug, like the wanna-be runners for whom this interval training app is intended.

People rebound courageously all the time from all kinds of trauma far worse than mine, going on to reach impossible training and professional goals. I decided the “baby steps” approach of this little regimen could be the salve I needed to ease back into running again, this time without all those damaging relevés, and sadly also without a dog at the end of a leash. The first couple of times out I was giddy from the old euphoria that for me comes only from running. Other pursuits have stepped up to the plate in the last year and a half in lieu of it—yoga, weight training classes, bicycling in summer and spin classes in winter, and even swimming. Nothing does for me what running does, but I concede some of them (yoga especially) help make running better, or even possible.

Significantly, I returned home from those first few jaunts pain free: nada. zip. nothing. No pain at all, at least nothing outside of what I consider “normal” pain. Rest must have been the thing that was missing, I concluded, the thing all the dance and sports medicine professionals insist is so important for soft tissue injuries, but is so elusive for driven athletes. I finally gave this tiresome injury what it wanted, or so I believed.

Slowly and surely the pain came back.

I’m soldiering on for the time being, nearing the end of the fourth week of the training program and skipping some of the modules that feel silly to me. Last week I researched running with posterior tibial tendonitis, thinking other runners who have the same problem would report the fix: there must be some cocktail of exercises, stretching, icing, heat, or other things to make this work. In truth I have tried them all in the past (and some I still practice), but held out hope there was something I missed.

Posterior Tib 1A

Instead I found this ominous warning: Stop running, and stop now. Do not attempt to push through the pain. You do this at your own peril, risking permanent damage to your foot, damage that will change its shape and ultimately change how you walk and move. Furthermore, the very instep itself is at risk, as the tendon is what holds it up, giving it the important structure it needs to do its job.

Terrifying advice that leaves me at yet another difficult intersection.

Run at your own peril. Don’t run at all.

There is a particular flavor of nightmare I hate, and it goes like this. You wake up in your own bed and familiar surroundings, and everything seems fine. It is time to get up and start the day. And then some awful thing happens, some terrifying thing, there is a menacing person you don’t recognize standing behind the open bedroom door, or whose shadow just stirred in the hallway beyond. Then you realize, I am not yet awake—this is a nightmare. And you try desperately to stir. You open your eyes again, thinking you’re in the clear, and then that shadow moves again. You are still in the dream, imprisoned by your own mind. Eventually you do wake up and pinch yourself just to be sure, and you start your day in earnest, feeling a sense of disquiet.

Every single morning for an entire year I felt like that, the year I lost everything that had meaning to me, the year before I left Tennessee to start life over in Vermont. Every morning I was caught up in the hope that what was happening to me was only a bad dream, and every morning I was disappointed. Things got dramatically worse before they got better, loss and angst following me right into my new home state, financial ruin, emotional turmoil along with it. I have likened this to being pushed into a deep hole, somehow managing to cling to the edge with only a couple of fingers.

And then I managed to get the other hand to the top, then all ten fingers dug in, and then an elbow, and another. Then one swinging foot found a toehold, bits and pieces of dirt still giving way under it, but in the end the toes won and the other knee made its way almost to the top of the hole.

Daily I reminded myself, you can choose to sink or to swim, advice I heard often growing up in a family with a strong line of matriarchs at the helm.

In the last few weeks I have felt better (in spite of the foot) than I have in the last two years, and not just physically. At first I could not breathe and a couple of times was caught up in comical bouts of coughing that continued over the course of a day. Then gradually my lungs cleared and I felt better. Muscles began settling into a shape I recognized and my clothing felt better on me. Even my head started working better, with  renewed clarity of thought and vision.

So here is what I think about this tricky situation. I could die next week, or tomorrow, or today, for some stupid reason. I could keep on battling middle age weight gain with inadequate tools in my bag, and all the unpleasant problems that sprout from that like obnoxious little tributaries flowing from a big, muddy river. Or I could take a risk, live dangerously. It could be a perilous decision.

Or it could be life-affirming.

As Mr. Balanchine said, there is only now. I choose to live in the moment, to risk peril in a new pair of running shoes.

Posterior Tib 6A

Emotional Habits: Putting Sadness in a Box

Kitchen Table

In her book The Creative Habit renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her work process. She starts a new box for each new project; anything that serves as inspiration goes into the box, along with every other object that has some meaningful connection to the work. When the project ends she puts a lid on the box and off it goes to storage. Then she gets out a new box and starts another project.

I find that methodology so appealing in so many ways.

And while an emotion is not exactly a project in creativity, like a piece of choreography or a Broadway score, I’ve wondered whether you could take them—especially the difficult ones around an episode or event in your life—put them in a box, and after you’ve eviscerated them, processed them, and feel “finished,” put a lid on the emotional box and schlep it off to storage.

I knew there would be sadness in the wake of losing my family and my home nearly four years ago; what I did not anticipate were the waves of sadness that would continue to wash over me for years after my marriage ended, pangs of grief, maybe, that still catch me off guard when I least expect it. I don’t miss the unhappy marriage, but I mourn for the things that were important and yet were somehow deemed disposable.

Lately the sadness has centered around the house where my son grew up, where a handful of beloved family dogs lived and died, a house that was nearly lost to foreclosure, saved in the nick of time by an auction where a calculating buyer snapped it up for a fraction of its true worth. The white auctioneer’s tent on the front lawn was replaced only a day or two later by a big yellow Penkse truck stuffed with what could fit into the small rental awaiting me a thousand miles away in Vermont, a fraction of the sum total of my belongings. I had exactly two days to evacuate the house I loved and had every reason to believe I’d live in until I died.

If you wanted to orchestrate a fiscal and domestic disaster of epic proportions you could not score it better than the cacophonic sypmhony that unfolded on a particular corner in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011. The location of our beautiful home already invited a fishbowl-like existence; it was not unusual for people to stop and photograph our prominent corner because of the centuries-old trees and beautiful Tudor Revival house itself—a house we were lucky to call home for about sixteen years, but whose care and upkeep grew to be too much in the face of a slow economy and a series of very bad decisions.

When everybody in a town and neighborhood already fond of gossip caught wind of the drama being played out on that corner, life in the fishbowl grew worse, at least it felt worse to me. As the house and grounds fell into neglect I became embarrassed and angry. I don’t miss those final days one bit.

But what catches in my throat when I least expect it are the detailed memories of the bones of the house during moments when I felt my life was in complete synch with it. And being a student of historic structures to begin with, I appreciated and knew every square inch of it, from the loose finial with the protruding nail at the bottom of the steps, to the 1920s stucco on the walls that would draw blood from your knuckles if you miscalculated their whereabouts with an overloaded laundry basket in your arms. Or the basement “stairs to nowhere,” as we called them, formerly a service entrance that had been capped over at some point during a courtyard renovation. Or the panel in the basement stairwell behind which a servant’s call bell was once stuck somewhat comically in “on” mode while we scrambled to undo the paneling and switch it off.

breakfast

I knew the damage on a living room floor vent that happened when our 140-pound Shiloh playfully slammed onto the sofa, sending it skidding across the slippery hardwood floor and into the wall. Just above that vent was window hardware left behind by the previous family, jury-rigged with a nutcracker in the top left corner; you could see it if you were looking for it, like finding Waldo in the familiar children’s books.

Next to that was one of two front doors (when you live in an ell-shaped house on the corner that is what happens), the main one that welcomed trick-or-treaters every year. And just on the other side of the door was a small built-in telephone cubby from the earliest days of the house, arched at the top, with a beautiful hardwood shelf for the phone. Underneath it was another stucco-ed hole for a very small phone book.

Teddy Blue

I know exactly the sound of the heating and cooling system cycling off and on, my son’s voice on the answering machine recorded when he was in kindergarten, the way the sun streamed through his west-facing bedroom window revealing every single cobweb and speck of dust that needed cleaning. If you sat in just the right spot in his sunny yellow room you could see the slate-roofed dormers from the adjacent section of the ell outside his window, and the copper gutters and flashing, transporting you to some Old World locale. It was the backdrop for all our read-alouds, the perfect evocative setting for Harry Potter.

I cursed under my breath every time I closed the door to the tiny bathroom just off the kitchen and observed where my child had carefully, over years, encouraged the toile wallpaper to peel as it rounded a tricky corner. With some success I had used white glue to repair it. And it was that same bathroom where he left the water running one morning at age three after he finished brushing his teeth, then turned around and stumbled over his own feet, taking a spill onto an unforgiving terra cotta tile step in the foyer, ripping the skin on his cheek right away from the bone; a day that began innocently with an anticipated play date resolved with plastic surgery to repair his face later that afternoon.

And it was that same unforgiving surface that every single dog who lived in our family loved so much in the heat of summer, because the stones remained cool to the touch. I can still see them—any one of them—sprawled on the wide stones in front of the open front door, the sun streaming in through the glass of the storm door on ribs rising and falling to the cadence of contented breathing, but instantly at the ready to announce every passerby or errant squirrel.

I knew every single lovely original casement window in that house, I could tell you which ones opened easily, which had to be cajoled (a bath towel and the palm of the hand is what it took). Some still had their crank apparatus—there were two old metal cranks floating around, one was bent—but the upstairs windows were all missing theirs because it made them easier to open. The massive old window sills were deep enough to display homeless casseroles and candles and all manner of other things. Later we replaced the old windows with their more efficient modern cousins, which I admit were also lovely and missing the annoying gloppy layers of decades of paint that burdened their forebears. No longer could you feel the winter blasting through them, but they emphatically lacked character, and they ate up those incredible oversized sills.

winter window

I know about the fire that happened long ago in the master bedroom, strangely, in one of the two window seats in the small dormers on either side of the fireplace. It had long been painted over, but if you lifted the bench to reveal the storage under it you could see the charring on its underside.

I also know a nine-year-old child died from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom in that house. And that one of two sisters who subsequently grew up there died in a drug-related incident in Atlanta. And that the eldest child of the family who sold it to us also struggled with addiction. And that the three families who ever lived in the house—including ours—had adopted children. So much sadness, and still so much hope.

I remember just about every single detail of that house. I will never go inside it again in my life, ever. I’m okay with that, I think. I hope the new people are giving a beautiful home everything it deserves. They have no idea of the stories that unfolded there.

I just wish I could make the lid fit more tightly on the box.

poolside

All That Glitters: Making Effort Look Effortless

When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.

Chandelier 1

This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.

Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.

Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.

This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,

[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.

Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.

In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.

But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.

And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.

P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?

 

 

The Wrong Side of Every Door: Finding Paradise

The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He’s always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.—T.S. Eliot

Paradise 1

The oppressive heat of high summer in Memphis, Tennessee reaches its fingers across the flat landscape and foists itself upon every living thing. Nor is rain any relief, for it invokes heat’s accomplice humidity to wreak havoc in its wake. Even when you live your days in air-conditioned comfort, step outside late at night in August and the heavy air defies your lungs to work at all. At least that is how I remember my years growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s. A morning shower will hold you in good stead for a while; by high noon you’d gladly pay somebody for the privilege of another.

I believe this is why a singular Harper Lee sentence always resonated with me so deeply from the moment I first read it: “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” She was writing about a South deeper still than Memphis, but I knew exactly what she meant in that beloved opus, my favorite story. She makes the heat sound romantic; it is not.

Paradise 4

On a memorable summer day I see the silhouette of my mom on her hands and knees in our upstairs bathroom diligently scraping rubber from the floor’s ceramic tiles with a razor blade. In the days leading up to that moment Memphis and other parts of the country had felt the effects of a dangerous heat wave that had already killed scores of people as it marched across the land. Our air-conditioning and everybody else’s failed; and like most people we had to take a number and get in line for the repairman. When at last the cool air was restored we found the backing on the bathroom rugs upstairs had melted and congealed against the hard porcelain. If you have never experienced high summer in the Deep South you may raise your eyebrows. I speak the truth.

In the seventh grade I attended one of the worst public schools in the city, during the worst of the tumult that was called desegregation. It was built on an anthill, went the local lore; there were ants everywhere. You could see regiments marching across baseboards and up walls; they were even said to have gotten inside classroom clocks and stopped them.

The school was not air conditioned. That meant for a few dreadful weeks in the fall and the spring it would be hot, and I mean hot. The heat inside that building brought with it short tempers during a time that was already supercharged with tension, and it intensified the unmistakable odors that marked poor, unscrubbed adolescent children, children who lacked hygiene at home and abroad. The school was a petri dish for those smells and so much else that should not have been allowed to fester and grow. My tenure there was mercifully short.

By the end of high school I’d had enough of Memphis. It was not all about the heat, although it impressed me. There was also a healthy dose of nest-soiling, the need to thumb my nose at my silly childhood and move on. My future was uncertain, except for this one thing: it would not unfold there. Ninny that I was, I believed with every stitch of my being that life would get underway soon in earnest, that my Avalon might have been out of sight for the time being but was certainly attainable. I had but to arrive there.

Paradise 2

I was wrong, of course.

I did not think the culture of the American South had anything to do with me. I did not acknowledge that Memphis had birthed the Blues, had no cause to walk Beale Street. I did not care about the Sun Record Company. (And everybody knew Elvis was a hayseed—all you had to do was look at his fans.) I did not pay much attention to the city’s difficult history, palpable evidence of it everywhere. I forgot about the institutions I once held dear: Brooks Museum of Art, Ellis Auditorium, the Orpheum Theatre, the exquisite Memphis Botanic Garden, the beloved Pink Palace—none of them mattered to me anymore.

All those things were somebody else’s Avalon.

Too bad for me: I missed it all when I’d gone, the second I sprouted a lick of sense. I waxed poetic about these things to anybody who would listen after I moved out west to Colorado for a few years, much to the chagrin of people around me, I am sure. And on the eve of last summer’s homecoming to Knoxville, Tennessee—the city that was mine for three decades and my ancestors’ far longer—I am sure my wistfulness about the South I left behind invoked more than one eyeroll in the people around me here in Vermont.

Vermont, where I am struggling once again to come to terms with impossible (to me) winters even though this one has been mild thus far, observing others doing the same. I often think in my heart of hearts life should not have to be so difficult for a population who often struggle to make ends meet. Where is their Avalon?

There is no paradise, said a wise person: this is the truth. Avalon is everywhere and anywhere we live, and a smart person can find it. I am no ninny, nor am I wise. Winter in Vermont pushes hard, like summer in Tennessee. I will feel it tomorrow when I drive to work on a sketchy road that may or may not have been plowed to my satisfaction after a little squall comes through tonight. I’ll have white knuckles and will keep a close watch in the mirror for more seasoned winter drivers who wish I’d go a little faster. I will not appreciate the beauty of the landscape as I should. But I will try to find Avalon in this still-strange landscape.

And I will try like heck not to be a terrible bore.

Paradise 5

Race Relations

Katie holding Tom

Sometimes you get rapped on the knuckles by an ageing matriarch; it is possible you deserved it.

That is Kathryn “Katie” Blackwell, holding my brother Tom. The photo was made some time in 1969 or ’70 when he was still a newbie; my mom handed it to me a couple months ago when I saw her on my Way Down South visit. Tom looks miserable, but he mainly was miserable as a very young kid: he was what people used to call a “colicky” baby. Nothing sat well with him; ergo, that face. Then as a toddler he had to wear corrective shoes in an era when doctors thought they could somehow create a high instep where there was none. And he hated school. (Not to worry, he turned out just fine.)

That picture was made in the East Tennessee home of well-off extended family members; my guess is we were visiting from Memphis for the holidays, or maybe for a wedding, not sure. I was only seven.

Katie was employed by members of my extended family as a cook, but I am sure she did housework, too. And clearly she stepped in to help with babies when help was needed; I am pretty sure she changed all our diapers at some point or other. In those days she’d have been called a “domestic,” probably. And as I imagine was true of so many others of her ilk, she held close ties to the members of my family, who loved her deeply, employed her for decades, and continued to look in on her long after her retirement.

The house itself was spectacular, but it was Katie who ruled the roost there, and I don’t think anybody in my family would dispute that. My memories center around her cooking, mainly, but also her affections, where food equates with love. After a day-long haul from Memphis to Knoxville, Katie was usually the first to greet us, a massive tray of her chocolate chip cookies somewhere nearby. (I still have a shiny aluminum tray I feel sure was one of hers.)

Ironically Katie herself was malnourished as a child and suffered the effects of scurvy all her life, most notably in her severely bowed legs, and probably also her short stature, although the bowing in her legs would certainly have been a contributor. She moved in a distinct waddle, throwing her weight from side to side, propelling herself forward in a way that appeared to me painstakingly difficult and just downright painful. It never seemed to slow her down one jot.

Her greeting to me was the same, always, with her arms thrown wide open: “Welllllll, now, come on over here and give your black granny a hug!” She squeezed the life blood out of me, leaving a small trace on my cheek of the grease she wore to slick back her hair. Her gnarled, arthritic joints and calloused hands still moved deftly, peeling potatoes, washing out big stock pots, and—incredibly—pulling hot pans out of the oven without a mitt. Sometimes she allowed me underfoot in the kitchen while she worked, but when things were busy shooed me out of the way to go play outside.

In moments of relative calm—when things were not bustling, the oven was going, the dishwasher running—Katie sat quietly at the kitchen table reading the Bible. Things were the same at the smaller house down the hill, occupied by still more extended family, for whom Katie worked in the same capacity.

Later in the evening when we all sat down to dinner in the capacious formal dining room it would be Katie’s incredible rolls passed around the table, her fried okra, her vinegar-marinated sliced cucumbers, and her sweet, sweet iced tea poured in every glass. And I knew those chocolate chip cookies were waiting; if we were not staying at the big house, we’d be at the cottage next door, where my great-grandmother lived, and Katie would have made sure another tray of cookies ended up in the kitchen there, too.

For all the years my distant family occupied that enormous house Katie continued to work there. Even when they sold it and moved to a neighboring town, I still saw her on summer vacations, as my great grandmother lived most of her last years in the little cottage next door and Katie continued working at the house down the hill. Her enthusiasm to see me, and my brother, never ever waned. It was always the same effusive welcome, the tight hug, the same greasy smear on our faces.

And then one day during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades everything changed.

You can’t have attended public school in Memphis in the 1960s and ’70s and avoided the complexities of racial integration. I remember my seventh grade year as the year of epiphanies, eye-openers as it were, not all of them good. For me it was just one year, characterized by hallway and gymnasium violence, and notably, a really poor academic experience. It was the year I learned the “f” word, and although I had certainly heard the “n” word by then, I had never heard it thrown around so liberally by kids of all persuasions. All of it felt awful to me, none of it enriching.

For the next couple of years I attended an all-girl pressure cooker prep school. But for tenth grade we—my parents and I—decided to give the Memphis City Schools another go. A high school for the performing arts had a promising sounding curriculum. It was by no means a sterling academic year, and as for the arts program (I was there not for dance, but for music), it was average at best. But it was at least a socially enriching experience; by May I had many, many new friends—black and white—all of us united by our common interest in the performing arts.

Later that summer in Knoxville I found Katie sitting by a windowsill in the kitchen of the East Tennessee house at the bottom of the hill, reading her Bible. As always, she was thrilled to see me. I sat down to talk to her. She asked me about school, about ballet, about what I had been up to. I told her about my year, about studying classical guitar and playing in a string ensemble, about getting ready for ballet school in Illinois, where I studied in the summer.

Then I told her all about my new friends. My new black friends.

I could sense her body stiffen, and noted a change in her demeanor. Setting her jaw she looked me squarely in the eye. In a throaty voice I had never heard before, she said, “You listen to me. You leave those black children alone. It is wrong for you to have them as your friends. You stick to your white friends. You hear me?”

I was confused and speechless. I had heard adults use racist language around Katie during my childhood, did not understand much of it until I had a chance to mature, but knew it was wrong; I tried not participate. But this? I could not get my head around it. I had come to this matriarch seeking approval and instead was rebuked.

Katie’s message was lost on me, and I did not see her for many, many years after that. But when I had a chance for further reflection, I realized her strongly-held opinion was nothing if not earnest, and it was probably best to just shut up and listen. And it is possible my motives were less than pure: maybe I expected to be handed a gold star by this woman whose wisdom far surpassed my own, and she was having none of it.

Decades later I assumed Katie surely must have passed away. And then one night near the end of my marriage, my now-ex-husband came home very late and woke me up to tell me not only was Katie still living, but she was 104 and would soon be celebrated at a nearby restaurant, a place where she had a past unbeknownst to me, in an event with full press coverage.

Of course I had to go.

At 104 Katie was beyond infirm: completely blind, hard of hearing, a double amputee. I spoke at length with her son and his wife. They explained to me how Katie had lost one and then the other leg, but she continued to stay positive in spite of it all. Could she carry on a conversation, I wondered? On again, off again, they said. They encouraged me to try.

I got down low where I was close to Katie’s face and held her hands, and with the help of her daughter-in-law, told her who I was. There was no recognition. At first. But then, I sensed an awakening in her, and heard that familiar voice in my ear, a little diminished, but unmistakable. She was back, there was recognition, and now it was I to gather her in an embrace. Her daughter-in-law beamed that I got her on a “good” day.

It was the last time I would see her. But before Katie’s death a couple of years ago, my mom went to her home for a much longer visit. They talked about a lot of things, including Katie’s prized recipes; she dictated a few of them to mom while she was there.

It was only after my last visit with Katie that I learned some other things about her: that her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, that her given name was Vashti (it was Katie who later changed it to “Kathryn”), that she was born the second of ten children in a family who formed its own baseball team, that as a very young woman she learned to cook at Knoxville’s Highland Grill (long out of business but recently reopened as The Grill at Highlands Row), and that she supplemented her income taking in laundry and ironing for pennies. And not surprisingly, that she was known in her own community for giving selflessly to those in need.

Katie was named a “Tennessee Treasure” before her death on a website that celebrates centenarians. I can think of no better moniker than “treasure” for this incredible human being, a woman who took her convictions with her to the grave, leaving me and others to reflect on them; I hope she is somewhere smiling.

Katie Blackwell