Unpacking Hope: A Sunday Wish

Hope

So, so many material belongings that came with me to Vermont all the way from Tennessee have waited patiently in storage for the last three years: things David and I considered nonessential when we combined two households three years ago, the year I started writing and editing professionally full time for a marketing agency. But in our tiny mountain rental there was scarcely room for his things and mine, leftovers from our failed marriages, to say nothing of our landlord’s things: that’s furniture and belongings from three families squished into one minuscule living space. Add 2.5 humans and eventually a dog, and as Eloise would say, you can imagine….

Unearthing those stashed-away belongings is joyous and even a tad miraculous: the hand-blown Mexican Tom Collins glasses in perfect condition still, the pair of pilsners my dad gave me when I first stepped into adult shoes (they were his in college, each one bearing an etched ‘UT’ indicating his alma mater and then mine, but the ‘U’ in truth looks more like a ‘V’ and so they could be more appropriately ‘VT’ glasses now), framed art that has not seen the light of day in years, and how about wine chilling vessels of various sorts (here is one in terra cotta, another in pewter). Linens washed, folded, and carefully stored; they still smell fresh and clean, somehow. A nifty magazine rack I bought for the ballet school and that looks like the front of a gym locker, retained because I have a hard time letting go sometimes, and anyway I gave away or sold most everything else. Forgotten bottles of fancy lotions and creams (by some miracle, they all seem fine so far). Candles and more candles, and the pretty platform-style holders I bought for some occasion or other in my previous life, and look—here is a box full of flower vases.

Fresh cut flowers: a thing I mercilessly snipped out of my living budget right after I landed on Vermont soil, a self-imposed austerity measure if you wish, when I realized how bleak my financial horizon, an outlook dramatically different from the one for which I’d so painstakingly planned in the weeks and months leading to my big Tennessee farewell. In a life of privilege down South I never thought twice about buying flowers—of course one brought home fresh flowers every week to arrange carefully in an oversized vase on the big harvest table in the kitchen, and maybe also to place in a couple of the ancient, generously proportioned windowsills under the lovely (if a bit creaky) casement windows, maybe a tiny few flowers pulled out of a bigger arrangement for a bud vase in the kitchen window, another upstairs. Of course.

And now those things, all that glassware, some precious children’s books I’ll keep forever, exquisite artwork—‘high’ art and plain old sentimental art, even a few small appliances I’d quite forgotten—all of it is unpacked, washed, and put away neatly, or schlepped down to the basement or up to the attic to go through when time allows (an attic! Christmas things now organized and stored ‘til next December!), or arranged carefully on one side of the garage until we have a warm spell and a little bit of muscle to help us carry in a pair of weighty cedar chests, one old chest of drawers, a stationary bike, an important grandfather clock, and a few more boxes of things.

All of it suggests a hopeful life at least, if not a beautiful life; I applaud my own optimism. I remember the turmoil and anxiety that came with me here. But clearly even with all that I intended to make the most of it, come what may. The thing is, all these things, these pilsner glasses and linens and books and vases—they all matter, because in each of them is hope, and not for only surviving, but for thriving.

Life in these parts can be rough, and winter especially cruel and difficult, for even those with resources. For others the struggle is abundantly clear, and some simply give up—you can see it, worn on the back like ill-fitting clothing. To those folks, and to others, I send up supplications for hope: for clean curtains that still let in the ephemeral Vermont winter light; for art with the power to jettison one to a distant horizon, if only for a moment; for good reading; for the love and camaraderie of someone who understands; and for a belly full of nourishment. And come spring, that confounding and most elusive of all Vermontish seasons, for fresh, fragrant flowers. Of course.

Vermontish Doppelgängers and Other Christmas Week Reflections

Christmas Sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shape Shifting Words and Other Moving Truths

Same Shape as Always

Have you ever fixated on a simple word until it’s no longer recognizable? The word desk, for example, is a four-letter word that means “a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for WRITING and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes,” so says Merriam Webster. Roll around the word desk for a while, considering its three consonants, and the single vowel that makes it pronounceable, and it will elude you, gentle reader, like some sci-fi shape shifter only masquerading as a desk. Soon you will question your own sanity and wonder whether you invented that word, or misunderstood it all these years, and it was never really a desk at all, but some other thing. Like a sked. Or maybe a keds (ah, somebody already took that one). But you catch my drift.

My beautiful writing desk has no drawers, compartments, or pigeonholes—my antique bill-paying desk fits that description to a tee, and now sits in a preordained spot in our gleaming new kitchen. Instead my writing desk is sleek and modern, with a clear glass top and nickel-colored legs that arc up from the ground gracefully to meet it. For six years it was my director’s desk in the office at Knoxville Ballet School. Then it was loaded onto a moving van and set before a big picture window in my Vermont cottage across the road from Lake Morey: that was a magical and terrifying year, and a lifestyle I could not sustain. But for the next move to a loft apartment in the central part of the state the writing desk was pronounced Too Bulky: David-the-Chef and I took it apart and carefully placed it in the garage below the loft. Thence to an Arlington, Vermont storage unit when we finally combined our two households in 2015.

But in our new home a beautiful room awaits that desk, with pale yellow walls and big windows overlooking the back yard and the river beyond it, one corner of the room awash with sunlight on days we’re lucky. That corner looks like it was made for my big, glass desk. You can always hem and haw about the placement of a chair and ottoman here, or a bookcase there, but some furniture informs you unequivocally where it belongs, and the writing desk has spoken.

In fact I should be writing this post from that sunny perch, actually a tad overcast today. But the shape-shifting desk is missing its hardware. And in the intervening years since it was last moved, we can’t for the life of us remember where we put it. Other hardware—curtain hardware, for example—we found, exactly where it was supposed to be, inside a bag, inside a box. Right there. But in more than a week of hauling, schlepping, and unpacking, there is no desk hardware. It is specialized hardware for a special desk, not something you can run down to the Home Depot and pick up along with the trash bags and light bulbs you need. Last night I lamented to DTC that maybe the glass desk will end up in the tag sale with all the other things we’re tag sale-ing next spring, because it has no hardware. The writing desk is useless without its hardware, so I am still writing with my laptop balanced upon my knees.

One day last week leaving work I had a similar moment to the word contemplating moment, where I did not recognize a gauge on my car’s dash board: it was the visual equivalent of the shape-shifting word. I kept staring at the gauge and thinking, wait—have you always been right there? In that spot? I thought about this for several miles, several solid minutes, even turning down the radio at one point, unable to reconcile this stupid thing in my mind. I waited and waited for something to change, for some toggle switch stuck in the wrong position inside my noodle to finally flip, and then everything would seem as it should. The switch never flipped, and I finally relented to my own silliness, and retrained my brain to recognize the gauge in this new place where it’s been all along. I believe I grew some new neural pathways in that exercise. The only explanation for this I can muster is the monumental upsetting of everything that happens when you move: nothing is where it should be, nothing is as it seems, and life’s routines are shaken in general. Alas, there are miles of new neural pathways to grow yet.

Yesterday Scout tripped the alarm when we were away from the house getting more boxes of things at the rental. I disarmed the system from my phone before central monitoring was alerted, thus averting the arrival of the cavalry and an invocation of false alarm fees. Days before that the installer assured me Scout did not weigh enough for the motion detector to care, not to worry. He was wrong. Motion detected at 1:56 pm, said the app on my phone. Alarm tripped! I was in transit for trip number two of the day back over to the rental, so back I went to check on things. I could imagine Scout tripping the alarm when he hopped onto the sofa. Or perhaps hopping off the sofa to growl at the postman, a thing he did on Friday. Another item for the week: call the alarm company—little-ish Labs can convince the motion detector they are big dawgs.

Meanwhile, Scout seems unimpressed by the move, and in fact alternates between moments of indulgent relaxation on the sofa or the human bed, and sheer exuberance exploring the breadth and scope of his new back yard. More lessons to learn from a dog.

Chef and Boxes on Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day we pushed up our sleeves and worked like crazy from the dawn’s first light until we collapsed into bed late. A vacation day during a big move is simply too valuable to do things like watch parades and football games and cook huge meals or entertain friends and family. Those things will wait. Instead we had a simple dinner prepared by the chef, of seared salmon, rice, and caramelized Brussels sprouts, and I opened a lovely bottle of wine from a case our CPA gave us as a housewarming gift, bless her. We ate hungrily, mostly quietly, sneaking Scout a succulent piece or two of fish after he finished the crisped salmon skin the chef threw into his dinner bowl. Then we watched the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, a favorite of mine the chef has never seen, and marveled at how much the world has changed since that David Lynch creation, which seemed so stylized and revolutionary at the time. Now it seems ordinary, maybe because I already know who killed Laura Palmer, or maybe in my mind’s eye I made it into something it was not, like the gauge on my car’s dash board.

Last night I reminded my David-the-Chef not to look too closely at the configuration of clothing in the upstairs closet, or the placement of pots and pans in the kitchen: it’s all a work in progress, I quipped, and will no doubt change and change again—shift shapes—in the coming weeks.

Keep that in mind next time you go into the bathroom, he said. Uh-oh, I thought.

Instead, this is what I found:

Everybody needs ‘em a little ballet in the bawthroom. Such a loving and thoughtful chef. Has anybody seen my desk hardware?

Find a Penny

Closeup of Lucky Penny
Found Penny

You are a hoverer, I said to the twenty-something this morning, aware of his presence just behind and to the left of me while I was kneading biscuit dough.

A what?

A hoverer: whatever I’m doing, there you are, hovering like a helicopter. The other morning you were standing there at the bathroom door talking to me while I was putting on makeup, just like you did when you were little. Hovering.

<Twenty-something steps away a little.>

No, come back, I urged. I don’t mind it. I miss it, mainly.

Last weekend the hoverer found a penny on the floor of the attic in our 1936 home. I am not superstitious, but I pick up pennies. I think it’s more about paying homage to the smallest piece of our currency, the one nobody cares about, and that we talk about doing away with from time to time for its irksome proclivity to add bulk to the change purse. Ben Franklin’s ‘penny saved’ wisdom will mean nothing to future generations. Picking up this particular penny seemed important. Not much escapes the scrutiny of the twenty-something, even forgotten pennies in old attics. We are alike in that way: always surveying the horizon, detail oriented.

Window at Gable End of Attic
Photo courtesy of the Hoverer

Detail of Attic Window, Gable End of House

Earlier this morning he wondered why it’s so hard for me to post to my blog. Heh. Well, buying a new house is time-consuming, grasshopper. And continuing to work 40 hours weekly whilst doing it. And since the twenty-something’s arrival a few weeks ago I find myself stepping back into some old shoes, if only for a while, planning and preparing meals for a finicky eater, sneaking in a few veggies cloak-and-dagger style. Just like when he was a toddler. He’s perfectly capable of fending for himself and has done that of necessity on this visit when HCB and I are unavailable. But he does not always choose wisely (Taco Bell comes to mind).

There are those impediments to writing, and the fatigue and exhaustion that come from inhaling buckets of dust, bending and stooping to vacuum up cobwebs and ancient bug graveyards, and lifting and schlepping overburdened boxes to and fro, again and again. Early this morning HCB and I agreed: next time we pay somebody to do this.

And now here is the hoverer, standing behind me asking me what I am doing. Trying to blog, I tell him, just like I did when he was in sixth grade. Trying to.

In three days’ time our status has changed from squatters to bona fide homeowners, something we each doubted we’d achieve again, ever. On Thursday we signed all the papers in a nondescript bank conference room, we unmarried two. I observed to the attorney sitting between us how unsexy the whole business of closing seemed to me. I mean, this man and I have just bound ourselves together for the next thirty years on paper. The attorney laughed and said he wasn’t about to touch that one. I felt like we at least needed to spit in our palms and shake hands, or something. But HCB’s eyes twinkling across the table from me spoke volumes, and he did steal a kiss from me as we were leaving the bank lobby.

Bedroom Window

Detail of Window Lock

The twenty-something and I spent the balance of closing day scrubbing our new house to a fare-thee-well. The house has stood empty for a long time, but it’s still dusty after a period of big renovations. Inside it smells like new paint and carpeting, mostly, maybe a bit of carpentry, too. There will be more dust to clear, but the important work is done. On Friday when high winds knocked out the power in our rental, I grabbed Scout-the-Lab and my things in the darkness of early morning and drove to the new house to shower. Living on the grid, so to speak, has its advantages.

Yesterday HCB and the twenty-something did all the heavy lifting, bless them. We did not really see each other much during the course of the day. My job was unearthing and cleaning things in the cottage, making pathways for big furniture to move through tiny rooms, getting said furniture ready to move, keeping Scout as settled and happy as possible in the pandemonium going on around him, and importantly, fixing homemade chicken noodle soup. I made a single trip over to the house to drop some fragile belongings, to hang a shower curtain, and to roll out a rug on top of a new pad. My bum foot still swelled to the size of a watermelon after all that, and today is not much improved.

But my fellas and the ten-foot truck we rented for the day made three circuitous trips from our mountain cottage to the storage unit, thence to the new house and back again, to retrieve and move things according to HCB’s carefully calculated plan. My massive antique hutch has inspired a lifetime supply of hutch jokes and puns. (Twenty-something this morning changed the handle on one of his social apps to ‘Hutchmasta.’)

Our dining table was finally gotten from the furniture restorer’s shop, where it has waited patiently in the darkness for more than two years after big repairs and refinishing; I almost dragged that table to the curb when it broke just after I moved to Vermont—close call. Hanging our heads over plates balanced on our knees to eat supper will soon be a thing of the past. Soon. We are not yet sleeping at the new place, too much still to do, and a new-used washing machine that on Thursday decided to belch out a puddle of water because of a frozen and burst internal organ, kind of a ruptured Kenmore appendix, you might say. We think we can fix it. And we need a fuel delivery for the boiler.

Restored Fireplace

On the way home from the house yesterday I stopped by the storage unit where I found two filthy and exhausted people dealing with the last load of big stuff. It was cold and there was not much light. And there were casualties: mice had moved into the unit some time ago and left some of our belongings unusable, destined for the dump. They also left themselves behind, in various stages of decomposition. I asked what I could do to help. Bring us four strong men, quipped HCB; hot showers and chicken noodle soup a little while later were the perfect salve, with a heavy dose of the twenty-something’s latest Netflix series on the telly.

The Walloomsac River from our Back Yard

Roiling Walloomsac River

Our new place has an unbelievable yard for its urban setting, abutting the Walloomsac River. And in spite of that you can walk less than a block for one of the best bagels I’ve had in a long time, and a strong cuppa Joe to go with. The regulars in that clean-scrubbed shop are friendly, and so are the staff. The woman who made me two breakfasts to go Friday morning welcomed me to the neighborhood with a generous smile and said she knew precisely which house was ours. It was still windy as hell outside, the same wind that had earlier taken down the power on our mountain. Here, she said: let me get the door for you. We’ll be seeing much more of you I said, stepping out into the bitter wind.

Late Day Sunlight in Vermont Mudroom
Magical Late Day Sunlight in a Proper Vermont Mudroom

I can think of no better time than opening this new chapter to formally introduce Handsome Chef Boyfriend. His name is David, henceforth David-the-Chef. Think of it like spitting into your palm and then shaking our hands. Or perhaps finding a lucky penny.

Hole in That Theory: B & W Challenge Day 7

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 1
Holy Birch Bark, Robin

Birds around here fall silent in winter, but this summer and fall the woods around this little cottage have resonated with so much birdsong at times that we’ve raised a fist skyward: trying to sleep, here—can you please keep it down? A parliament of owls lives in our trees. That’s what you call a group of owls—a parliament. The sound of an owl in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee, was rare and enchanting. But in this Vermont forest they awaken a light sleeper in the night, making it difficult sometimes to fall asleep again before the early morning alarm sounds.

On the drive down our steep mountain road one morning last week I disturbed a bunch of crows who were sauntering around in the road like they owned it. You call that a murder of crows. Murder is what I’d like to do to a few owls who are interfering with REM cycles in this house.

I picked up that piece of birch bark out in the yard a few weeks ago because it was so spectacular: somebody was hard at work, for a while. I love how methodical and tidy the holes are, in neat rows evenly spaced. We have woodpeckers here, too—teeny ones and big ones. The maple that smooshed our cars a couple years back held a nest of woodpecker babies deep inside its trunk, who cried and cried when the tree came down. We could hear them, but could not see them. The mama was nearby and distraught. The next day we found a dead baby on the ground by the downed tree, probably abandoned by a critter looking for an easy meal who perhaps though better of it for some reason. Or maybe bald baby woodpeckers are an acquired taste. Nature sure can be cruel.

Meanwhile my own baby—my twenty-something manchild—arrived on my doorstep somewhat unexpectedly last Tuesday. He’s hanging out with us for a while, helping us pack, perhaps helping us move, too. We’ll see. House closing day is only a week and a half away, and then the big work begins. It’s an exciting and terrifying time for us. For my part, I’m thinking about 1936, the year the house we’re buying was built. Those were tough times, but the worst of the Great Depression was over and the American economy was beginning to recover: the ‘waste not, want not’ values of my grandparents—and of so many others of their generation—resonate with me even now.

Who built our house? Who bought it? Was it a family? Did they have a dog? Had they suffered through hard times? How did they make ends meet? I know only that somebody thought to conceal a cutting board under the kitchen counter—it slides out and shows beautiful signs of many years of use. And close to that is a drawer made just for bread, with a sliding metal lid that’s perforated in an artful starburst pattern. Once upon a time I think we cared a tad more about aesthetics in ordinary objects, like bread boxes. And street lamps, and toasters, and bridges. I think all of that matters. And I love that the people who re-made our house with modern comforts and conveniences saw fit to keep some of the things that matter.

The bird or birds who made the holes in the found birch bark were probably more concerned with finding their next meal than with art. But there is most definitely art in their industry. The twenty-something helped me puzzle through a problem with my Nikon, and made a few pictures of his own. I like this one he shot, in full color: to me it shows a perfect, tiny landscape and tells the story of so much that happened to this tree, which surely provided shelter to more than a single family in its history. Soon we’ll start making our own thumbprint on the new-old house, putting our own holes in the walls, if you will. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 2

 

Yankee Flour, Southern Biscuits: Sunday Photo Essay

Breakfast sandwich on a Southern biscuit made with yankee flour
Southern Biscuit, Yankee Breakfast

Changing your address can change your life, chirped a too-cheerful woman in a slick TV advert for planned community living.

We are long accustomed to cranking out some pretty impressive cuisine in our outdated, strapped-for-space, apartment-sized kitchen. We’ve made do using a teeny kitchen table that belongs to our landlord as adjunct counter space, perfected a risky bowl-balancing technique at the T-shaped junction of our rusty divided sink where it meets the lip of the unfortunate formica countertop, ditto the V-shaped metal dish drainer, and in a pinch have even pressed into service the flat top of our stainless steel garbage can to hold some large cooking vessel or other when there was absolutely nowhere else to put it. (Scout’s food storage bin doubles as a decent cookbook holder, I have discovered.)

Vintage glass mixing bowl with flour and fork, just cutting in the shortening
Favorite Vintage Glass Mixing Bowl

But if I had to fault this kitchen for a single thing above all others, it would be its darkness. At times this vexes me enough to send me into a tailspin for a solid evening, when I can’t find my damn readers, and that on top of badly compromised eyes in the first place.

Fork in stiff biscuit dough
Fishs Eddy Fork in Dough

I’ve taken on the black-and-white photo challenge for the past few days, the one everybody’s doing. I decided to edit these in black and white, too, but the absence of light in our little kitchen speaks volumes through my Sunday morning biscuits in the make. That, and my inexperience with a camera. I expect more of our soon-to-be kitchen, a wide-open space with light fixtures everywhere, loads of natural light, and a pleasant collision of interesting 1936 cabinetry and storage with 2017 finishes and appliances. Yes, that change of address will indeed change our lives.

Dough ball kneaded four times, as Granny would say
Need to Knead

White Lily flour is the gold standard for Southern biscuits, and for over a century was milled at a factory near a familiar intersection just northeast of downtown Knoxville (the company closed its Knoxville plant in 2008 and moved operations to the Midwest). It was what everyone bought and baked with, a pantry standard along with Hellmann’s mayo and for many years, JFG coffee, if you lived in Knoxville. For a while Williams-Sonoma peddled White Lily at a stupid price in its brick-and-mortar stores and catalog; they seem to have come to their senses. Anyway, up in these parts King Arthur flour is the thing, and is what I put in my biscuits this morning.

One cut biscuit, one hole in rolled dough
A Drinking Glass Makes the Best Biscuit Cutter

My mama begged my great-grandmother Grace—Granny Grace—to tell us some of her beloved recipes many years ago, long before she died. I am sure Granny had recipes tucked away somewhere, but by then most of what she routinely created in the kitchen was stored in her noodle, and so she simply quoted from memory. Granny’s vagueries were maddening sometimes (‘put in about that much milk,’ said gesturing with tar-stained fingers between puffs on her ciggie, or ‘bake it ’til it’s done’). To her way of thinking it was obvious.

The White Lily biscuit recipe
Self-Respecting Southerners Know

This morning I did a side-by-side of her biscuit recipe and the one on the White Lily bag, and dang if they’re not pretty much identical. I clipped the White Lily version from my last bag of flour, the one I schlepped all the way to Vermont from Tennessee with me. It’s on the door of the fridge, right next to my mom’s potato soup recipe—soup she routinely made and brought to me the year I was going through my divorce, when I would eat nothing else. I’ve begged her to send it to me for years, and not long ago she finally called and quoted it to me over the phone. It reads pretty much like a Granny-Grace style concoction—a little of this and a little of that, until it looks right, and cook it ’til it’s done. She comes by it honestly, anyway. And when I protested, she merely quipped unapologetically, you live with a chef: figure it out.

Beautifully baked biscuits on sheet pan
King Arthur Makes a Respectable Biscuit

The biscuit sandwich I made this morning assuaged my days-long desire for a made-from-scratch biscuit. It was not exactly what Granny Grace would eat: in lieu of her crispy bacon, for example, mine had a leaner applewood smoked turkey slice. There was no fried egg, but instead a small egg whites omelet folded, and folded again; I did not cook it in bacon grease as she might have done, but instead used coconut oil. I schmeared the biscuit with a little bit of apricot preserves, no butter, and layered on crisp, fresh spinach, the year’s last from our favorite farm stand. I still have a few tomatoes in the windowsill that probably come close to Granny Grace’s high standards for tomatoes, and so I added a thick slice. (She would wait until lunch for hers, sliced and laid out on a plate or saucer and doused with salt, taken with strong black coffee and another smoke.)

Plated biscuit sandwich in profile, in color

I’ll keep on making Southern biscuits wherever I live: some things should never change. And I know Gracie would agree.

October in Vermont: Season of ‘Lasts’

Staring into the sun on an exquisite October afternoon
It’s unfair to name October a season, which more properly belongs to fall. But it does mark a big transition in these parts, a time beyond which the air feels more authentically like winter to a person with Southern roots. Not once in the five Vermont winters I’ve seen have we missed a respectable snowfall—a ‘plowable’ snow—before Thanksgiving; if the trend continues we’ll have our first one soon. It won’t hang around for long, not like the snow from a nor’easter does, the kind that takes down the power grid and leaves you wishing your elbows did not have bursitis when you pick up the snow shovel, the one you forgot to leave by the back door, the reason you now have snow melting inside your boots. Rookie mistake. Nature has a sense of humor: thirty years ago last week a surprise early snow knocked out the power for five solid days, the news said. HCB remembers it.

That kind of snowfall comes later mostly, in February and March, and buries the landscape until spring thaw. January in Vermont can be oddly pleasant thanks to a phenomenon known as January thaw. But the big storms here often persist right into April, until winter has no choice except yield to the sun’s new angle in the sky. The miracle of life after all that never fails to amaze me, the idea that underneath those sinister layers the planet is birthing something new and wonderful. I always felt the same about spring in the South, but here the sensation is exaggerated.

In spring the Battenkill will roar through our little hamlet in an angry torrent. It will lick the low-hanging branches on its banks, leaving icicles that dip down into the water, exotic crystalline formations that will finally relent on a sunny afternoon. It does not feel like spring here, not a proper spring anyway, until June. Vermont winters are long, quipped the man connecting the phone cables in my cottage basement back in 2012, shaking his head while he worked. I get it now.

Ice and angry torrents on the Battenkill
Meanwhile the air feels more like late summer; Nate will pound us with rain for the next couple of days. The kids are playing soccer with padded shinbones, still dressed in summery shorts and tank tops, not for long. It’s Columbus Day weekend, a time when droves of tourists pour into the state (not in numbers like they once did, insists HCB) for the foliage and to buy the same syrup they can probably get back home at the neighborhood Kroger for less. Give them their syrup: they pump dollars into the local economy, and anyway it’s more fun to buy some where you can watch it being made while you lick sticky sugar from your fingers, the sugar that coated your apple cider doughnut a moment ago. It’s what fall is about, or October at least. Best to enjoy that doughnut this weekend, because there’s not much foliage to see, still a lot of green on the trees and it is raining indiscriminately—if Nate had come any later he’d have left us a naked landscape, but these trees are not quite ready to let go.

Still, October is about lasts. It is time to polish the silver for the last time—not for the last time ever, one hopes, but for the last time in this little cottage in the woods. And HCB will chide me for it, because we have bigger fish to fry. Polishing silver is my default strategy whenever I hear the words ‘pack and move.’ It is procrastination through and through.

Moving from Tennessee to New England inspired the most silver polishing: that is one heck of an undertaking, disemboweling a home where you’ve lived for sixteen years, prying apart what is yours from what is his, stuffing as much as you can onto a crowded moving truck, and saying goodbye to the stuff that refused to stuff. No use crying over spilt milk, but I cried plenty.

My first lakeside home in Vermont’s Upper Valley was exquisite but beyond my reach in spite of the best-laid plans, as fate proved. I squeezed out enough cash for a year, maybe to my detriment, but in hindsight it was probably important for me to live there. Vermont winters never suffer fools gladly, and my first one was forgiving in that cottage, exploding pellet stove and zombie basement notwithstanding. Life there was a sojourn, a pause I needed from the misery I left in Tennessee. It had its terrifying moments.

Lake Morey through my cottage window, winter of 2013
Thence further inland towards the central part of the state, where I said farewell to my beloved Clarence-the-Canine and finally grasped a new reality: that year and a half or so forced me to square my shoulders and face the music, as it would anybody with a dwindling bank account. Getting a handle on living expenses came at the expense of living among people. I understood people who had gone before me found healing in that beautiful setting I was lucky to call home—180 pristine mountainous acres—but I did not. It was instead an exercise in adapting to isolation, living in fear and living lean, leaning on the lessons I learned growing up during rough years in my mama’s house in Memphis: you can survive if you’re smart. I had that at least going for me, but occasionally I also wondered whether my time there resembled anything like a monastic life. Maybe I needed simply to shut up and listen. I left my beloved Clarence-the-Canine buried on that land, a reminder that life is transient and nothing belongs to any of us forever. Maybe there was healing after all and I failed to recognize it.

Clarence at the loft in Sharon
Combining two households almost three years ago made sense. It’s true two can live cheaper than one to be sure, but there’s also the sheer joy of being together with the person you love instead of a two-hour drive from him, to say nothing of the great satisfaction of writing a new chapter, a big one, and importantly, a hopeful one. Moving here has not been without its vexations: the outdated infrastructure in this tiny little house in the woods can’t support two full-time, full-size human adults, plus one part-time teenager (a while back there were two of them) without protesting. It is a place bursting at the seams—with the landlord’s stuff, HCB’s, and now mine; overflow went into storage. Since I moved in almost three years ago we’ve dealt with bears unafraid of people, with dangerous, law-breaking neighbors, with a fallen maple that badly damaged one new car and left the old car parked next to it with a good-sized flesh wound, and with one tragic visit to the emergency room after a dog bite last October. We are still somewhat isolated on this mountain top, in spite of living in a neighborhood. On an icy morning it takes a while to carefully navigate a dirt road before reaching the highway down below. But we are together.

Soon it will be the last time to navigate that treacherous road, and weather gods willing, maybe we won’t at all. Instead we will take on the new challenges of living in a distinctly urban setting, in and among a community of people, in a house that is waiting for us at this moment. The walls in our 1936 ‘New Englander’ hold the stories of generations of families who have gone before us, to which we’ll add our own. Vermont winter will still come to us there, and we’ll be ready for it. Next October I might polish the silver, or maybe I’ll let it wait ‘til Thanksgiving. But next Halloween I shall certainly pass out candy to neighborhood children. And I shall walk to Main Street with Scout-the-Lab and HCB. I’ll say hey to people I know when I pass them, people I’m about to meet, a couple of whom I know already.

Next October will be a season of firsts, at last.

New Sycamore Stories

New Real Friends: A (Hopeful) Lamentation

Real Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Almost* Paradise: Close Enough

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

So how’s your dukkha these days?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nostalgia and the Shipwrecked Mind: Righting the Boat

Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.—Mark Lilla

Should you doubt that bit of wisdom, you have only to consider this campaign slogan and its outcome: Make America Great Again.

Facebook is notorious for rubbing our collective noses in nostalgia with its “On This Day” algorithm, where the photos and videos and sentiments we posted on this day a year ago, or five years ago, come back to haunt us. If once was not enough you can share them again in a mere click; I do all the time, if the memory still feels relevant to me. But that’s just it: more often than not they’re relevant to me and to nobody else. They’re fun memories, or painful ones (occasionally I cringe), and that is all. Sometimes I wish Facebook followed Snapchat-style protocols and after some interval made posts evaporate into the ether.

But even if a trendsetter like Facebook elected to follow that paradigm, other entities still allow you to peer into your cyber past; the WayBackMachine app is one of them. I confess I’ve used it on occasion to revisit my now-defunct ballet school website. The digital marketing agency where I work also invokes it once in a great while to look at a particular e-commerce website and, say, explore their inventory in a product category from a year ago, or even a decade ago; it can help give us direction when we’re working on a marketing strategy for a client. So you might say nostalgia can be helpful in certain situations.

Yesterday Facebook gifted me yet another memory of my early days in Vermont, a photo of my beloved Clarence-the-Canine stretched out on the living room sofa in my cozy lakeside cottage, the place I lived for just under a year. And here came another one right on its heels, an Instagram photo of a beautiful breakfast I made myself one morning in the same cottage, my coffee mug situated artfully in the background, everything around this little contrived still life neat as a pin. For the first time in nearly a quarter century I was in charge of my life at that instant, my clean, kempt rooms, and the order of the day: it was an idyllic day at that, where I had the privilege of mornings free to run around the lake with Clarence, time to prepare inventive cuisine, time to observe the beauty around me and reflect on it, maybe post something to my blog. The balance of it I spent doing what I’d come here for in the first place, teaching classical ballet to mainly privileged children from nearby Hanover.

I remembered those days wistfully when I looked at that photo: I was the captain of my own ship which was happily bereft of the chaos I had only just left behind. In short, life was beautiful.

Then HCB reminded me the pellet stove in that hard-to-heat place had dangerously exploded one night, foisting upon me a little reality check. The paltry bankroll I brought with me from Tennessee was running out, and fast; a piece of the financial picture I assumed would be there (I had done the math before I moved) had dissolved with no warning, nor did I earn enough teaching ballet to sustain that lifestyle for much longer, and I knew it. I was unused to the brutal Vermont winters—not just the cold and snow, but the palpable expenses of winter, to say nothing of unrelenting grey days that seemed to stretch on for weeks and then months. Although I had met Handsome Chef Boyfriend right after I got here, two hours and an entire mountain range separated us: for the most part I was terrified and living alone with my dog who would soon be gone, with no inkling of what the future might hold, and no real plan to extricate myself from the disaster ahead—I already heard that train in the distance barreling down the tracks.

So much for Eden. Mainly, I think, nostalgia needs to live high on a closet shelf in a shoebox, pulled down once in a while so you can finger its contents wistfully, and then shove it back on the shelf.

The news stories of the day (real or fake) help fuel this wistfulness. Can you imagine an account that goes, Today, millions of Americans got out of bed and went to work, paid the mortgage, enjoyed a nice supper, hung out with their kids, and then went to sleep? Of course not, because there’s no story to that story. Jobs moving overseas, illegal immigrants pouring over vulnerable borders, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes, though?—stories for days. At one point in my life I was so terrified of flying I put the skids on any travel where the destination could not be reached easily by car: that limited us—my erstwhile family—to a relatively narrow geographic area on the East Coast, and a short window of time on the ground when we got there.

Then came the opportunity to study classical ballet pedagogy at American Ballet Theatre in New York City: if I really wanted this thing, I finally had to figure out a way past the anxiety. I considered medications, worried a little about how they’d make me feel, knowing I needed to be sharp at ballet school. And then something remarkable happened during a family trip to Washington, D.C. Our hotel room window looked out on the White House, and beyond it, arrivals and departures at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport. Unable to sleep one night I stood there watching the planes for hours. They took off and they landed. Over and over again. All night long, and into the morning. Nothing else happened—the planes took off, the planes landed. Only then could I begin to comprehend and correct my irrational fear of flying. Nobody tells the story of planes taking off and landing safely, because there is no story to tell, really. The majority of the time, airline travel is uneventful, however trying its logistics.

I have a recurring bad dream, a wakeful dream—call it a daydream. In it I return to that little Vermont lakeside cottage. I expect to throw open the door and find everything perfect, as if I had stepped out only to run an errand. Instead the place is cold and dark, there’s an inch of dust and cobwebs everywhere, there is no dog—he is long gone, I am alone and unemployed, and the silence is deafening. Nor is my beloved HCB there: only the roaring silence. It is terrifying. This “dream” is triggered by a catchy song that was popular at the time, with piano notes resonating again and again in descending triplets. I hear that song now and it stops me in my tracks, raises the hair on the back of my neck.

Reinventing the past is an exercise in futility. Learning from the past and then moving on feels relevant. But feeding on nostalgia can and does invoke reactive behavior: what if nostalgia inspired rancor and hate founded on a contrived, sepia-toned existence? I don’t know, it might encourage angry, unhinged people to rant destructively using social media as a platform. In its more sinister guise it might encourage somebody to desecrate a Jewish cemetery, or phone in a bomb threat to a Jewish community center. Or to rough up a transgender person who simply needs to pee. Or to shoot and kill a man at close range because he looked “ethnic.” Or maybe to build a wall that shuts out scores of people who are taking away mythical, sepia-toned jobs, people who instead would by and large make us a better, stronger, more enriched nation. In the hands of a reactionary, nostalgia is a dangerous motivator indeed.

* * * * *

Inspired by that photo from four years ago, yesterday I made two lovely breakfast sandwiches; I ate one and gave the other to HCB. The sticky marmalade clung to my fingers and utensils, and afterwards my napkin was rumpled and stained with breadcrumbs and little bits of egg. You could say that breakfast sandwich was a metaphor for our lives right now: uneventful, fairly satisfying, messy at times, but pretty good overall.

Steady as she goes.