Snowless Winter: A Walk in the Woods

The woods are lovely, dark and deep—Robert Frost

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Mt. Equinox looms over the Vermont Valley at 3,816 feet, the highest point of the Taconic Range, a finger of the Appalachians, and the oldest mountains in the country: Mother Myrick Mountain lies to its north, and Red Mountain to the South, the place we call home. Everywhere are streams carrying snow melt from the higher elevations, dumping it into the nearby Battenkill River, thence to the Hudson River after twisting across Vermont’s state line a short distance from here, into New York. Like it does elsewhere in the state, the topography in Vermont’s southwestern corner delivers breathtaking vistas—not only from its higher reaches, but also down below, where meandering valleys sit at the bottom of vast, chiseled bowls.

There is not so much as a patch of snow in these parts, save in the highest elevations. This winter’s snowfall has been rare and fleeting, standing in blatant contrast to last winter’s fury. The mountains look for all the world like somebody’s just shaved their nobs, leaving them to shiver ’til spring finds its way here, soon. There is a beauty to the landscape in spite of its nakedness, and maybe because of it; for the time being nature is betraying her fabulous secrets, as if the curtain that concealed them were being held back so we could take an indulgent peek.

It is an ephemeral chance to observe what spring and summer foliage will obscure in a few short weeks, and with no shortage of wonderment:  a pair of pileated woodpeckers have hewn three large holes in a mainly-dead tree standing right at the edge of the road that leads off our mountain, the telltale pile of detritus below it evidence of the best kind of neighborhood construction project. A colossal pine forest nearby reveals its timeworn past in the magnificent trophies that long ago succumbed to the elements, giving the discoverer pause to surmise a course of events. Hand-sized sections of pine bark evoke intricate tortoise shell patterns; the underbellies of felled trees betray evidence of entire ecosystems writ small that once inhabited them (and maybe helped hasten their demise). Ancient moss is iridescent against the wheat-grey hues in the woods, a resplendent cape lain on the shoulders of a massive tree trunk. Even the frigid streams have secrets to reveal: hardy brookies cavort in unimaginably cold water; an ice formation shows sharp teeth as if poised to snap its jaws shut against the bones of its prey; and just upstream a face leers eerily at passersby from below.

I invite you to see and hear Vermont woods in winter; sound byte at the bottom.

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Happy Birthday to Us

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Only eight days separate my birthday and Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s. That is excuse enough for eight days’ worth of prolonged celebrating, give or take. I suppose one could argue birthday celebrations really should not be a big deal at our age. But since people over thirty usually whine about ageing instead of celebrating it, making a big deal about it feels perfect. (I will also put in that I felt excellent in this morning’s yoga class.)

HCB and I have been together for almost three joyous years now. That is the best cause for celebration.

We’ve had several delicious days. And because we have summer birthdays, and live in rural Vermont, we take full advantage of exquisite local produce in our summer cooking and eating, to wit: one day before my birthday HCB made us this beautiful vegetarian dinner.

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It’s almost entirely local, some from our favorite farm stand, some a gift from one of my colleagues who routinely shares bounty from her garden with me, a giant plastic bag at a time.

Then came my birthday, the unofficial kick-off of our week of celebrating another middle-aged year. Vegetarian and vegan friends, please avert your gaze, because this was the surprise dinner HCB made for us:

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We don’t eat much red meat here, in part because it’s pretty expensive and we are still practicing a frugal lifestyle, but also  because we try to live healthfully. (And I for one am smitten by the writing of Michael Pollan, whose mantra—eat food, not too much, mostly plants—I try to live by as much as I can.) Still, lately I’ve had a hankerin’ for beef, and HCB answered that with a beautiful dinner, enough for about five people, it would seem.

And that cake up there? It’s my birthday cake, chocolate velvet made by HCB. I love chocolate more than life itself. My critique of the chef’s pastry skills:

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Celebrating is also about going out, even when you’re pinching pennies. One recent day we headed into town to prowl around and pick through tag sales, and grabbed burritos from this favorite eatery. We took them to an adjacent park, where we ate them under a tall tree on a glorious afternoon, the brilliant blue sky dotted with puffy summer clouds. HCB can down one without leaving so much as a crumb or a drop of spicy juice in the wrapper, but I reduce mine to a sloppy rubble, as you’d expect of a five-year-old; there is always mockery about the mess.

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Then we snagged some treasures at a tag sale across the street: salt and pepper shakers to add to HCB’s daunting collection, a couple of never-been-used green scalloped bowls, and a $4 camera bag (happy birthday to moi).

And then work and life insinuated themselves into our long celebration. One afternoon we took my trusty Subi to the home of a friend with mad mechanic skilz, who replaced an axel. I shot a bunch of photos of his beautiful shepherd, and the pond on his property, and walked away with a couple I like (a telephoto lens is in my future, along with better editing software):

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I love the great blue herron. There were scores of them on the property that once belonged to my great grandmother Gracie, where I lived for several years in the late 1980s. I found they eschew encounters with humans when they can, but will stand their ground like nobody’s business if they must. That one was in the water when I started shooting, and then calmly stepped out, made itself very small, and disappeared into the tall grass in just a few long steps. (And you can see from the shepherd that he took full advantage of the water when I was looking at the heron; a Monty Python line about “lovely filth” popped into my head when he came galloping out.)

And then HCB’s birthday was here. I made him dinner this time, seared tilapia, mixed greens, with local veg, and brown rice. I did not attempt to bake anything: it is definitely not a skill I possess. But I did procure a small container of our favorite ice cream. One move ago I lived not far from that particular creamery, which is how we came to appreciate the frozen concoction they purvey. It is happily available right down the street from us here, at the local general store. Forget that other well-known Vermont ice cream brand (which has long sold out to other interests, and no longer exercises the same quality control it once did). This stuff is da bomb. I could not get the scoop through it because it was so frozen, but HCB also explained that density is a barometer for quality. We had to let it soften a bit, well worth the wait. Should you visit Vermont, you must try it.

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Last night we finished our celebration with Maine lobster, lovingly prepared by HCB with farmstand corn on the cob and a seasoned, roasted potato. It made me think of last year’s celebration, which happened in part in Maine.

Soon we will embark on a homecoming of sorts, a trip south to see my family (some for the first time in three years), to reconnect with loved ones, to introduce HCB to the people and places and sights and smells I’ve been describing all this time. We have so much to look forward to, and there will be stories to tell.

But before then we have a couple of weeks of hard work, starting now: HCB patiently gave up his afternoon to replace the Subi’s failed brake pads and rotors ahead of our trip, and we’re both trying to stay caught up at work in anticipation of being away. HCB’s trip to Illinois for a memorial service will punctuate the daily practice of work and exercise.

And as always, I am compelled to organize and clean. I was at it all day yesterday; it’s how I maintain the illusion of being in control. (And it is indeed an illusion.)

I need three more hours in every day.

‘Til soon.

Scrub Brush

The Best Medicine

Tom Magliozzi

June 28, 1937 – November 3, 2014

 

I remember the day Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Car Talk’s hosts, “Click and Clack–The Tappet Brothers”) congealed on my cognitive landscape. I was sitting in my car listening to them at a neighborhood shopping center. A caller was explaining that his expensive Italian car (I am pretty sure a Ferrari, but don’t quote me) had significant transmission problems. Reverse gear did not work at all, he said. He had taken it to several “boutique” mechanics known for their prowess with imports, to no avail. Tom and Ray of course had a field day with him. How, they chided, could he possibly drive the car without reverse gear? The caller, enjoying his Car Talk moment in equal measure, explained his creative driving and parking strategies to the delight of the hosts.

Eventually the chatter turned to the pragmatic, the how-to piece that is usually buried somewhere near the end of the conversation. Tom and Ray told the guy that really his only option was to ship the car back to Italy, where he could have it repaired by proper Italian mechanics with access to proper Ferrari transmission parts, which was of course out of the question. In all seriousness, though, they went on (now they had the full attention of the caller and their radio audience): there was a better solution. BUILD A CIRCULAR DRIVEWAY, one of them bellowed, and then both exploded in laughter. IT’LL BE WAY LESS EXPENSIVE THAN FIXING THE CAR! (More explosive laughter.)

With the passing of Tom Magliozzi on Monday the world lost a giant (and you can just imagine him turning that phrase to spawn more thigh slapping). I never thought of him quite like that for the decades I listened to the show, though. He was half of a twosome who made a lot of people grin and giggle on Saturday mornings, end of story. Still, an NPR radio spot yesterday paying homage to him really got me thinking. People kept talking about Tom’s laugh, how big it was, how when you were in the same building you could hear him coming because of that unmistakable bellow that made people feel “okay,” whatever else may have been going on in their lives or in the world.

More and more I have come to believe a sense of humor is probably the most important barometer of a person’s true character. I am dead serious. Its obverse, self-importance, the red flag warning there will be trouble. In my past I’ve ignored this trait in others to my own detriment. But I think it is a simple litmus test for whether a relationship–of any kind–has the potential to work. It is not rocket science, but my gut tells me the capacity to laugh, to find joy and humor in life even in the face of adversity, and to parlay that to people around you, is profound.

I leave you with this brief, thoughful remembrance.

You’ve Been Chicked

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Heard an NPR piece the other day on the use of the word chick as a verb, in the passive voice, as it appears on this here t-shirt.  The context is athletics, where a woman outdoes a man in a sporting event:  Dude, you just got chicked.  As HCB’s sister recently quipped, references to the female persuasion as a barometer for less-than-desirable athletic performance (e.g., You throw like a girl) are demeaning.  Maybe here at last is a bit of redemption, although I know some would argue that this sentiment only serves to underscore the same superiority expressed in the “throw like a girl” statement.  Philosophers:  knock yourselves out.

I have never chicked a guy in an athletic event, ever.  But I am hijacking this expression to use elsewhere.  Because, you know, I have TOTALLY chicked plenty of dudes in my day, and I feel certain there are plenty more I shall chick in the future, in the active voice.  (And yes, I throw like a girl; HCB will back me up on that one.)

Cage Rattling II

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I do not know what it is about these creatures.  This one was on my porch today when I arrived home after some time away.  I am unsettled, not especially calm or happy at the moment.  I have been wrestling with inexplicable sadness for the last day or so and wish it–and the moth–would go away.  (Sorry, dear luna moth:  this has nothing to do with you.)

All You Need Is

Such a simple idea, and still somehow so difficult to realize.

I am usually pretty reluctant to share much about my spiritual life with anybody, because it is one of those things which in my humble opinion is just plain private.  I have always considered questions about my faith, especially when posed by perfect strangers (“Have you been saved?”), an overt violation thereof.  Kinda like asking me which underpants I chose this morning:  none of your dang business.  And anyway, why do you care?  So I am living a little dangerously in this post.

I’ve been an Episcopalian since I was five, when my mom decided to take me to a small but oddly formal Episcopal church (“high” church) in one of Memphis’ older neighborhoods not far from our home; it was also where I attended kindergarten for a half day a week that year.  In the intervening years I was exposed to all kinds of Episcopal parishes—small to large, suburban to midtown, high church to low church, attached to Episcopal schools (which I also attended), or not, and for the longest tenure, a large, very wealthy diocesan cathedral where people go to see and be seen, and where some parishioners hold keys to the city—have buildings and such named for them.  My young family—my now ex-husband, and son, and myself—had a horrible and painful disconnect from that particular parish about a decade ago, which is a long, tawdry tale for another day.

When I moved to Vermont I had been without a church home for all that time; the day I was shown what would become my New England community I noted a tiny, beautiful Episcopal church just past the entrance to my new neighborhood.  One gorgeous late summer day as I zipped by the church in running shoes with my dog I recognized a ballet school dad and his two daughters, and the parish rector, working on the church lawn.  I stopped and we spoke for a while, after which the rector took it on himself to make me feel welcome there any time.  It was a heady feeling to have been here for only a couple of weeks and to recognize someone and in turn be recognized by them.  On a Sunday morning not long after that I asked myself a simple question:  you wanna sit here alone all day, or go meet some more people?  My motivation was uncomplicated.  Not an especially spiritual decision, though some might argue otherwise.

Going back to church has forced me to revisit how I feel about church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular.  With the passing of time I find more clarity in my answers.  I have been to other churches in my life, and to synagogues on a couple of occasions.  Some of those experiences were uplifting and some were oppressive and awful.  I will say that I enjoy the liturgy in the Episcopal Church because at its best it can be quite beautiful, and it reminds me of the meditative nature of daily ballet class (yes, really).  Of course, the downside to this is that I also sometimes find myself ignoring the liturgy and flipping on the autopilot.  But there is meditation in that, too.

My first morning in church last fall after a long absence I was overcome by emotion, and I can’t really explain that. But I was overcome by emotion in general at the time, and so I may have felt simply a flowering of what was already just below the surface.

Today I was overcome again.  I almost did not go to church.  Our rector, whom I like a great deal, has been on vacation for the past couple of weeks, and I am a creature of habit who prefers the security and predictability of the same guy delivering a thoughtful message every Sunday.  But when push came to shove I decided I was being provincial and needed to go if only to engage the liturgical autopilot for an hour.

In the end I was glad I did, but also made to feel pushed and finally inadequate, if by my own doing.   The substitute priest—who also happens to be Chairman of the Department of Religion at nearby Dartmouth—delivered a simple and powerful message:  Christ urged his followers to love everyone.  Everyone.  Including enemies.  He went on to explain that this commandment has no exceptions, period.  There was more to his sermon, of course.  There was interesting colloquial language about trademarks and logos, with the tie-in that love should be its own trademark. But the distillation of his message was, just, love everyone as Christ commanded.  And during the Prayers of the People he added a thoughtful supplication for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.  And for the bombers themselves.

If we consider ourselves Christians (and I probably in fact fail to make the mark there), it is how we are supposed to be.  I am not kidding myself.  I don’t even come close to being able to fulfill that commandment, not even for a nanosecond.  I can at least imagine it.  When Osama bin Laden masterminded and executed the atrocity of 9/11, like so many other parents of young children I found myself trying to help my then-second grader put the events of that day in some kind of perspective, as I struggled to do the same for myself.  One of my child’s peers kept riddling his parents with the question:  How can someone who does not even know me, hate me?

I remember explaining to my own child that even Bin Laden was once a tiny, sweet-smelling infant, who somebody cradled, and rocked, and loved.  But in my heart of hearts I knew I would feel better if he and his minions were obliterated.

Nope. I am not even close to possessing the capacity to love everyone.  Because I am a mom, and have spent two decades parenting a son, I can at least imagine compassion for the two young men who caused so much damage in Boston.  Were I the parent of a victim, though, would I feel the same way?  I am not a great thinker or philosopher, and so I leave the big questions of the universe to those who are.  A friend of mine who left this world far too soon was quoted in her own obituary as having said God put us here to help each other.  She was a much better person than I.  I can at least imagine a world in which love rules the day, even if I can’t come close to achieving that milestone in my own tiny life.  Good thing this is not how the story ends.

Starter Wife

In a few days a chancery court judge in Tennessee will review a case before him in which I have a strong personal interest.  It would appear that certain folks really do fancy themselves Teflon coated and somehow manage to escape all kinds of scrutiny and accountability; if this formula has worked for the better part of a half century, though, why shouldn’t it always?  The court will decide in this case whether a particular individual will be made to honor his financial obligations—to which he agreed, on paper, legally.  I hope like heck that the judge takes a hard look at the burgeoning collection of Beemers in that person’s driveway when he enters a judgement.

One of many epiphanies to emerge in the last chapter of my life:  for most of two decades I was a handy tool kit to support the development of my ex-husband’s own life and career and interests, disposable once he arrived at a particular place where he felt comfortable reaching for the Next Big Thing without me there.  What that is precisely remains a bit foggy peering in as I do now from the outside, but by all appearances seems pretty dang superficial and includes new teeth, tanning booths, fast cars, and very young girlfriends—the last two of them proud owners of mugshots, yes, seriously—among other things.  Call it a midlife crisis if you wish, but it has been going on for some time now (even during our marriage) and to me belongs more credibly in the land of mental illness.  What do I know, though?

For the last few years I had begun to think of myself as the doormat, and had mentioned this out loud a few times to anybody who might listen—a convenient place for my family to wipe the mud from their shoes at the end of the day.  My mom was more succinct:  You were their bitch, she said.  It’s not an endearing moniker.  But somehow, Starter Wife feels worse.  Embodied in that term is the notion that you are expendable.  Disposable.  Replaceable.  It is a horrible thought.  And people do not speak of starter husbands.

I own some of it.  I allowed myself to slip into a supporting role.  It did not happen overnight, but gradually, indiscernably.  I gave up ballet for what emerged as an entire decade.  And then I gave up grad school to be at home with a tiny infant child who arrived unexpectedly and joyously in our lives.  I let go of things to do with managing family business and assets, because at the time I thought the work I was doing with a very difficult child was so much more important.  But I never imagined that when I let go of these things the person I trusted the most would later use that as a way to take advantage of me.

Before anybody concludes that I am a bitter divorcée who just can’t let go of the past, rest assured that I am anxious as hell to let go of it.  I have in fact moved on in so very many ways, which should be clear to any reader of this blog who is not bloody daft.  What the judge decides will make it easier for me to move on, perhaps. Or not.  Or will at least make it clear that my life is about to get much more difficult than I imagined.

This former starter wife has many complicated working parts that are now fully engaged.

Moving Planets, Shifting Gears

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The beautiful ballet school where I teach and work most days each week will soon mount an informal works-in-progress performance in its new digs.  This will serve also as a celebration of the move and will include the public as part of First Friday in White River Junction’s historic village. With a skosh of remaining construction, a little bit of grit, and a few nuts and bolts still to be sorted, we are pretty pushed this week to make sure things go smoothly on Friday night.  My sense is that they will, no matter what.  The kids and a few adult ballet students—numbering sixty-something altogether—looked strong and danced well in rehearsal last Saturday.  Our music is gorgeous (three ballet teacher-choreographers, three composers:  Orff, Brahms, and Debussy), we’ve still got time for a tech rehearsal and a couple of run-throughs, and in general we are ready.  (Note to the universe:  this is not meant to be interpreted as over-confidence, okey doke?)

If you follow my blog even casually, it should be pretty clear that I took a proverbial grand jêté of faith to leave Tennessee after thirty years there and move to Vermont; this little ballet school—which is not so little anymore—is what got me here, thanks to its director’s sharp eye when I made it known to the ballet firmament that I was casting about looking for work.  And in the gigantic plot twist my life has taken lie a couple of significant sub-plots, not least of which that Princess Deb must adjust to no longer being a princess, but instead being a team player, a worker bee, a clock-puncher, if you will.  In all fairness, I should add that there is not much metaphorical clock-punching that goes on at work.  I am lucky to have my hand in the ballet world still, and to actually earn my keep doing it.  The best part of my work has always been and continues to be forming little people into young dancers.  There is a huge creative component to what I do, and I have been relieved of many of the administrative headaches that I now observe my employer wrangling almost daily; I really do feel her pain.  But it is so nice to have colleagues; that was missing at my small school in Knoxville, and there is an energy that comes from a team you just can’t harvest when you are working in a vacuum as I have done for the past six years.

The other sub-plot, significantly, is that I have never had the opportunity to create a choreographed work for anybody.  Really.  Of course, you can argue with some credibility that making classes every week is making choreography—you create exercises from dance movement vocabulary and you set it to music, and you lead your students through ninety minutes of it, pretty much every day of every week.  But it is not the same as creating a piece for the stage.  I mentioned during my interview week last August that I had never created original choreography for anybody, ever, to which my young employer-to-be quipped, Well you will now.

And so I have.  I do not know why this has always seemed so daunting to me; people do it all the time.  Not only that, people do it badly all the time—and still get paid for it.  My own ballerina mom has created countless chamber ballets (beautiful ones) and waves me off when I am wringing my hands about doing it myself.   Mercifully, I was handed a very light load and given the freedom to choose my own music; I grabbed Claude Debussy with little hesitation.  Now that most of my choreography is complete and we are simply polishing and refining, I will say that the biggest challenge for me has been setting a dance on tiny people, within the parameters of the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum which we use at the school.  I adore these little people; they are cute, and silly, and clever, and some of them are gifted.  But they are wiggly—almost without exception.  And I’ve had the additional challenge of choreographing one piece in particular on two sections of tiny people, who rehearse on different days of the week.  Because this group of little ones is not quite ready for our in-house performance, they will instead be given an opportunity to demonstrate improvised dances that are part of the ABT/NTC, and will have their moment on the big stage in June when we mount a more formal production of the same three ballets we will roll out for the first time on Friday.

Another moving part in this huge journey, another new chapter.  If you are anywhere near Vermont’s Upper Valley this Friday evening, come see us.

Primary A improvisation

Fairy Godmother

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This is my Fairy Godmother, my “Auntie” Jane, who also happens to be one of my former ballet teachers, currently visiting all the way from Memphis.  This picture of her was made just before a spring workshop performance there in about 1975; I was among those young ballerinas in the photo somewhere.  Although we are very close and have kept in tight contact through the years, I have not actually seen Jane in a couple of decades. We have had so much fun during her visit:  lots of cutting up, a little bit of bad behavior, amazing food (some of it courtesy of Handsome Chef Boyfriend), and plenty of time at ballet school.  She is bravely venturing out and doing new things; later this evening I will deliver her to some friends on the other side of the state so that she can start the next part of her New England vacation, which will include snowboarding on Bromley (cue the jokes about butt padding).   Be reassured, my bloggy friends, that I am still here,  joyously busy at the moment.