Dogged Adventures: No Complaints About Rainy Days

The best that Irma could muster

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

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

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

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

Southern vacation requisite and best ever post-run carbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Live in a Summer Moment

Summery Radicchio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Life promises nothing. And everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you’ll open a weirdly specific business

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

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

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

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

Two summers ago, I said, I drove through.

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

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

You might go postal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wholesale destruction is a delicious opportunity to start all over again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Commute

Morning Sun on Taconics

Like so many geographic place names in America, Taconic comes from a Native American word, meaning “in the trees.” I can think of no better moniker for the landscape that greets us each morning, but the daily commute frees one (if only briefly) from the confines of the woods which can at times overwhelm. In those moments the sky opens in the Battenkill Valley, flanked to the west by the Taconic Mountains and to the east by the western escarpment of the Greens, Vermont’s namesake mountains. However distant the Taconics or Green Mountains loom on the horizon along the stretch of Vermont’s Highway 7A between Arlington and Bennington, one can never fully escape that condition: living in the trees. The profound beauty of this landscape will catch in your throat when you first see it, but prolonged immersion in it stokes a hunger for the flat horizon, if only to observe more fully the movement of the earth against the night sky: the filtered view of it up through the trees is only a tease.

The people on our mountain are a mixed lot. Kempt homes, immaculate wood piles, tidy gardens, and even a manicured lawn here and there where the limited sunshine has permitted one to grow and flourish to begin with, live in communion with backcountry landholders who seem not to care, or to worry too much anyway, about graffitied dumpsters and work trucks that should not be here to begin with, mud in lieu of lawn, and cars left to rot in situ, giving one pause to reflect on the oily soup that must surely leech from them into the ground water by way of any number of streams that finally flow into the nearby Battenkill. (I have been told these are the people you want as friends for their willingness to save you from your own stupidity when you put your car into a wintry ditch, or to deal with the rabid raccoon wandering in the woods.) Some of these folk were here first: it is their landscape, now governed by town rules to which the authorities seem content to turn a blind eye. About this time of year neighborhood creeks roar indiscriminately at all hours helping to mute the sound of heavy trucks, but in a few weeks will settle, becoming quieter still with the foliage that now waits with gathering impatience to explode from long-dormant trees and other flora. There is no way to filter the rusted out carnage when you pass through it on the way to your own drive—it is an exercise in gratitude for what you have—but the arrival of spring in earnest will try hard to help.

Our rough gravel mountain road turns to asphalt pavement for a few tenths of a mile before it drops sharply by way of a hairpin turn and finally meets Route 7A. Thence a couple of miles south into town proper, with a parallel railroad to the east and scattered housing, businesses, and the town park to the west: the accidental tourist will be tempted to stop into a likeable and accessible modern sugaring operation with adjoining shop and Norman Rockwell exhibit before venturing on into town.

Although Arlington was once the state capital, nothing much remains to suggest any kind of pomp that may have distinguished it as such, save the land markers on its outskirts. Aside from a few notable historic structures, this miniscule village is like any other in these parts, with two raggedy convenience stores, a smattering of family businesses, a vet and a medical clinic, the requisite town hall, an ancient and a modern church, and more recently an offending small box retailer of the variety one local suggested cries out, We need help here. It is too bad: we are not living in the glory days of this New England village, though there is yet life in it. (A recent infrastructure project missed its mark: opportunities were overlooked, perhaps not enough money in the till.)

A long stretch of lovely rural highway unfolds on the south end of town; heading south you can abandon ship and take a left turn onto Highway 313 to the newer Route 7, which has the feel of Interstate. It lacks the interest and character of the original, older 7A that parallels it a couple of miles to the west, affording a more intimate view of rural life in Vermont, far and above the best commute to Bennington in my opinion. Route 7A winds its way along the valley floor for several miles, hilly and curvaceous here and there, with two stretches in particular where the trees all but close in overhead: it is these two ‘tunnels’ that stubbornly cleave to packed snow and ice after a winter storm a while longer, when the rest of the road is long clean and dry.

Once through this pair of chutes, though, the heavens open again and Vermont country life can be observed as in a fish bowl. In the early morning children of all ages wait for school buses on the sides of the road, many in their own driveways. One ancient and curious barn stands half burnt, its thrifty (or uninsured) owner continuing for years now to use what remains of it, in no apparent hurry to rebuild. Wheat-colored fields, flat and rolling, will soon give way to a verdant carpet of new growth. It is along this stretch and on the approach to the hamlet of Shaftsbury one can see examples of early clapboard farm houses, barns, and other outbuildings, some lovingly cared for through the generations, nudged right up against the road: this mattered less when it carried unmotorized traffic. But when you park on 7A and step out of your car for a moment as I have done on one occasion, the cars ripping past in close proximity will get your attention: this is a fast moving highway in the here and now, however quaint the landscape.

Also on this stretch of road lies the turnoff to one of the best farm stands I’ve had occasion to visit during my tenure as a Vermonter. And just across from the turnoff a pair of cottage businesses and a farmhouse hawking fresh eggs on a sandwich board: $3.50 a dozen during the two-plus years I’ve made this particular commute, a piece of burlap occasionally covering the sign. At the top of the hill beyond it, the cheerful yellow-and-blue cottages of the Serenity Motel cozy up to the Governor’s Rock Motel, its namesake boulder rising from the ground on the edge of the road. A few tenths of a mile further south and this curvilinear road will lengthen straight as a pin on its way into Shaftsbury, losing elevation as it surges past a sizeable cemetery, a forgotten apple orchard, and a handful of quaint structures (one schoolhouse in particular speaks to me), before the highway slows to a crawl through town. Blink and it’s gone, the town Robert Frost surely referred to as the ‘village’ in his 1922 poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. And just beyond town the same poet’s house, standing proud in its dressed stone facade but beleaguered by sparring heirs, it is rumored, still worth a gander if you’ve never been.

You’re almost in the quirky town of Bennington at this point, one of a few in Vermont with any population to it but a victim of the slow economy in recent years and other afflictions seen here and elsewhere, with palpable signs of renewal to be sure. To the east is another chance to pick up Route 7 should you desire, but my journey at this point circumvents the town in the other direction, to the west, by way of back roads—pothole ridden, poorly maintained, but scenic enough. Winding around the pastoral entrance to Bennington College, the daily commute continues across North Bennington Road, picking up the Silk Road and passing through a beloved covered bridge. Middle- and upper middle-income families live here, an elusive population in Vermont: this is a picturesque neighborhood still flanked by the remains of farms. Silk Road eventually bumps into Vail Road to the right, Fairview to the left, but all roads lead to my destination. I veer left, where there is more of interest, in particular the Bennington Monument, a massive monolith towering just outside the car now but visible on the horizon from nearby New York; marking the Revolutionary War battle that was thought to have turned the tide of the war, the monument announces Vermont more impressively by far than placards elsewhere at its borders. At the base are situated large homes, elegant and historic, save one Walloomsac Inn that languishes eerily in its shadow, a bizarre structure that is the subject of rumors and legends.

I venture instead in the opposite direction down a semi-rural road, sparsely populated with appealing homes, finally reaching my destination: a nondescript corrugated metal structure, an unlikely venue for the creativity and industry that blooms in a petri dish behind closed doors at the top of a carpeted stairwell. Not far from civilization, the campus here is always windy (it defies you to breathe in the winter, lovingly caresses you in high summer), home to a small airport and a sizeable wetlands that supports all manner of wildlife—massive snapping turtles, various species of waterfowl, and a healthy deer population all live here. It is a pleasant terminus for a longish commute that is occasionally harrowing, mainly uneventful, and once in a while awe-inspiring: the afternoon sun slipping behind the Taconics sets ablaze the fall foliage on the western slopes of the Greens in colors the likes of which I have seen in no other place I’ve lived.

Twenty miles door to door, about a half hour or so in the car: it is not a bad way to spend a few moments most days. Seems the mountains of my erstwhile home in Appalachia have followed me here: the Vermont landscape connects me unexpectedly to my Tennessee roots via the daily commute.

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