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.

Signs of Life: Sunday Photo Essay

The dark finish on the steps and handrails was elegant and dressy once upon a time, you can tell. But over weeks and months, then years and decades, it collected scuffmarks and even a few deep gouges, call it a patina if you wish, from the traffic in the house: you can see it clearly now. Sixteen steps march up, up, up, while the open great room on the first floor disappears at about the halfway point—it’s the one place in the house where you can get close enough to one of the giant beams that stretch across the broad ceiling to reach out and caress it, before the ceiling vanishes out of sight as you continue on your way. That is on your left; the varicose surface of the massive stuccoed wall on your right (it is the real thing, applied by a true craftsman in the 1920s) will draw blood from your knuckles when you venture too close with a heavy laundry basket. You’ll be out of breath by then, coming from the far reaches of the basement one full floor below, where you went around the corner, down a hallway, and around another corner, just to run a load of wash.

At the top of these sixteen steps, had you taken the time to notice in the first place, you’d have found the flooring nails on the one step to the right (and another to the left, leading to the master suite) that were pounded through the rounded piece of wood trim forming the lip of the step, but were never bent up or clipped out of harm’s way by the carpenter wielding that hammer all those years ago. When your child reaches middle school the delicate underside of his high instep will somehow find one of those nails, leaving a deep laceration that insists on a trip to the doctor and a tetanus shot right away; for a little while you’ll silently curse a nameless carpenter who is probably long dead.

At the bottom of the steps stands a solid newel post topped by a perfect, round finial that wobbles, although it will never come off in the sixteen or so years you live in the house with your husband and child, like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life. And on top of the finial is a perfectly round wood plug that once covered the nail holding the finial in place, flush with the finial itself; the nail has emerged about an eighth inch out of the plug, and you mean to countersink that dang thing and cover the tiny hole with putty. You mean to, but never do it, because a piece of you knows that finial has been grabbed onto by hands large and small through the decades, happy hands off to an adventure that won’t wait, or busy hands, purposeful hands, angry hands, and even grieving hands. And now these hands, yours, feel the play in that post every time you climb or descend those sixteen beautiful steps. If you countersink the nail, the finial won’t wobble anymore, and somehow all those stories might be forgotten.

The last time I grasped the wobbly finial was near the end of August in 2012, the night my grownup boy and I slept on makeshift beds in the empty great room, the same empty room where, on the eve of moving in, he and I ran joyously back and forth from the massive fireplace to the bottom of the steps when he was two, again and again, until we were both out of breath and finally collapsed in giggles. This long chapter in a special house drew to a close without much fanfare, and certainly without giggles. Still, there was hope on the horizon not yet realized by either of us.

There is something organic about occupying a structure, working in it, or living out your life in it. One has only to glance at an abandoned house to see this truth: the vibrancy reaches beyond the rudimentary things, the electricity and water that make the place habitable. Blood coursing through the veins, air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs by people and their animals, these things bring life to a building or home. David and I are glad to step across the threshold of our new-old Vermont home, every day: it represents so much more for us than mere bricks and mortar, but like any home, is transient—we were not the first to inhabit it nor shall we be the last.

Where is the wobbly finial post in this home? I’m not yet precisely sure, but have only just started looking.

A note about these photos: my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister gave me a wonderful hand-me-down for Christmas, her Nikon D300s—she calls it my ‘big girl’ camera. These images represent my first efforts with a decidedly more sophisticated instrument (that has a decidedly sharper learning curve to go with) than my old Nikon D70, which I’ll keep on using as the situation demands. We witnessed some spectacular goings-on in these parts over the last few days owing to an earlier than usual January thaw after our last deep freeze, then a mini-mud season that lasted for a single day (Vermonters joyously broke out shorts and T-shirts in mid January), but then dangerously high water in local rivers and streams and serious local flooding, followed by another deep freeze which has more or less stopped everything in its tracks. The Walloomsac River defines one boundary of our property and is majestic and imposing just now; I tried to capture a little of its somewhat terrifying intentions in my quest for a wobbly finial.

the view across the Walloomsac, as seen through my writing room perch
the gate that will not latch, has wobbly finial potential
ancient window glass has a satisfying wobbly texture, distorting the outside world
Roiling Walloomsac I
Roiling Wallomsac 2
Roiling Walloomsac 3
yes, we have a barn, whatever the chef may call it—we live in Vermont
whose small hands these were we do not know; we see them in other places, too
one must celebrate the basement philosopher, even if his spelling was wobbly
our house is alive

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.

Heavenly Noise: Holiday Sunday Photo Essay

Drosselmeyer Christmas ornament
Herr Drosselmeyer evokes the magic of the season

Suffice it to say we have been busy. (Note to self: never again move to a new house just before Christmas.) A little peek at what some of us have been up to these last couple of weeks. Heavenly Peace on this Christmas Eve, from my family to yours.

St. Peter's Episcopal Church nave
Third Sunday in Advent at St. Peter’s Episcopal
Detail of reindeer in snow globe on denim Christmas placemat
Because everybody needs snow globe placemats
Toll House cookie bars in holiday wrappers
Awaiting packing and shipping
Dried apricots dipped in dark chocolate
Dried fruit = health food
Bennington Potters storefront
My happy place (and yep, that is the ass end of a moose in a plate glass window)
Dog biscuit cookie cutters in rolled dough
All dogs deserve treats…
closeup of Scout's feet
…because the holidays are just plain exhausting
polished sterling silver spoon on table
Happiest Shiny New Year

 

First Sunday in Advent: Finding Peace and Home

Peace and Home

Last Thursday afternoon I stood on the front porch of our new home having a delightful chat with a pair of young Mormon missionaries. Earlier I’d seen them combing the other side of the block for anybody whose ear they could bend to share their earnest message. One after another door remained closed; some folks were not yet home from work, probably. But I bet others simply refused to answer. I went about my business while I waited for them to knock, resolving to talk to them when they did. No way in heck would I let them deliver their spiel, but I’d known some Mormons back in Tennessee; they were good people and held tight to their convictions without getting all up in anybody’s business. I even attended the baptism of one of their children, invited by her parents, and felt honored as an outsider to be included.

So when the two young missionaries arrived on my porch I gave them a big ‘ole Southern howdy, which I think caught them off guard a bit, as much because up in these parts folks can be pretty dang reserved. I introduced myself, said I was at least a little familiar with their church, explained I had Mormon friends. Their faces lit up.

Before we go any further, I said, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a Mormon. I will never be a Mormon. I have my own faith tradition and I’m a comfortable and happy practitioner of it, thank you very much.

We can respect that, one of them said, both of them nodding their heads vigorously.

They went on to ask me what brought me all the way from Tennessee to Vermont, and what did I think about Vermont, and how are Tennessee winters compared with Vermont winters. I think it’s fair to say I’m a somewhat reluctant Vermonter, I said, especially in winter when I’m known to be cranky. I also said people here often don’t know what to do with an effusive Southerner. They laughed and we talked a little while about where I work and what I do (although I tried to edit myself, after my twenty-something recently observed that I talk too much). They were clean scrubbed boys wearing familiar white dress shirts and neckties; one of them had product in his hair that made it stick straight up, but it was neatly combed.

I know all about the two years of missionary work y’all have to do. (Yes, heads nodding.) It must be hard to make cold calls on people—I bet y’all get doors slammed in your faces.

Sometimes, they admitted, but mainly people are nice.

After we said bye and I stepped back inside I realized how starved I am for community—starved enough to cherish my encounter with a pair of Mormon missionaries with whom I have so little kinship. My hunger will be assuaged, I think, living in this house in our new urban neighborhood, among people, and I am glad of it. But as I mentioned recently to a colleague, it’s different when you’ve already raised your family, and you relocate far from the people you’ve known your entire life, and the community you’ve known for almost as long. Back then your young child was the ‘glue’ that bound you to others of your ilk.

Now, here you are so far away from that, and with no glue: this situation is exponentially more difficult, until you find some kind of mooring—if you are lucky enough to find it—with others who share your values and identity.

This morning I attended the first Sunday in Advent Holy Eucharist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a beautiful church that is walking distance from home. I haven’t had the luxury to do this for all but the first of the five years I’ve lived in Vermont, for one reason and another. But this new house and neighborhood make a number of things possible, including belonging—to a church, to the gym, and to other groups of people with whom I share interests, potentially.

In recent years I’ve also longed for the peaceful reflection and quiet preparation that come with the season of Advent, mainly run over roughshod by secular Christmas, and today I found that, too. Our naked Christmas tree stands in front of a living room window waiting for us; we’ll get to it when its limbs relax a little and we can stop unpacking and hanging curtains long enough to breathe. And I’ll listen to Bing Crosby this time around in a different frame of mind.

Importantly, I think I found home this morning: when I walked into the nave of that exquisite downtown church I felt it instantly. After the service another communicant there told me she had the same unmistakable feeling wash over her the first time she walked in. The power of place, and of home, can’t be underestimated. It brings me to tears, as it did this morning.

On Tuesday I’ll drop some teacups and saucers at the church for the annual Christmas tea. Once upon a time they were destined for our tag sale that never was, but will now be in the spring. Scores of ballet students sipped tea from those beautiful cups at a half dozen or so Nutcracker tea parties I threw back in the days of Knoxville Ballet School. So much joy was poured into those teacups; it feels good to hand them to St. Peter’s, the best place for them now, I think.

Fr. Lanier this morning reminded us that the first Sunday in Advent is also the first day on the liturgical calendar. He went on to point out that darkness and cold typically characterize this day, especially in the northern hemisphere. But his message was a hopeful one, reminding us to find light and purpose in the darkness and cold as we prepare for the joyous occasion of Christmas and renewal in the new year.

It dawned on me that at this moment in our history we are a nation of beleaguered and divided people who need a hopeful message, I think, from a good person we trust: my Advent wish is for each of us to find that person, and to find peace, in whatever our faith traditions, and in so doing to find home.

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

I Can’t Twirl Pasta (and other truths): Weekend Vignettes

I Can’t Twirl Pasta

Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.

Pasta Twirling Fail
Pasta Mess
Post-Apocalyptic Movies Do Not Help
Going Postal Redefined
Late Day Sun on the Battenkill
Early Morning Sun Globe in the Back Yard
Sun Through Trees Through Icicles Through Window Screen
There’s a Dog in These Woods
Pork Tenderloin Requires No Twirling
Eating Tenderloin Can Be Tiring
Paws to Reflect on Green Checked Chef Pants
Tall Trees Compete for Sun
Play Dog, Play
Sugary Snow
Frozen House in the Wood: Icicle Would Kill You if it Could
Still Life with Snow Shovel
Scout Can Slurp Pasta

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.

Simple Living versus Excess (or How Not to be Insufferable)

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Ice Formations on the Battenkill

It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.

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Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.

Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.

I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.

Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.

Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.

After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.

Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.

But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.

My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.

By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.

I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.

I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.

But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.

Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during migration attempts during the 1980s
Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during the migration attempts of the 1980s

Romancing Haglund’s Deformity: My Forever Running Partner

Scout-the-Runner
Scout-the-Runner

Vermont broke weather records last week: my car thermometer said 73° when I left work Friday afternoon, with partly cloudy skies and a pleasant breeze that carried an earthy spring scent—in February. I could be wrong, I speculated to Handsome Chef Boyfriend a few days earlier, and I know there’s still plenty of time for big snow, but this feels for all the world like spring thaw to me. Yes, he agreed, and even if it snows again, it won’t stick around long.

Call it climate change, but it feels more like weather. Winter’s fury’s still fresh in my mind: below-zero misery, the distinctly menacing sound of the heat cycling on and staying on, heart-stopping electric bills in the post office box, and the eternal fight to keep winter on the outside of the car, to say nothing of shooing it out of the house: we’ve paid our cold-weather dues, and if spring wants to move in a month early, so be it. Mud season is a thing of beauty.

Yesterday there was no cycling on of the modern kerosene heater that warms us pretty well in this tiny place. The house was blessedly quiet, with only the sound of a laptop keyboard clicking behind me, a snoring Labrador wedged next to me on the sofa, clouds drifting across the skylights overhead, and aromatic brown rice bubbling under the saucepan lid on the stove just around the corner. Later on we’d throw open the door and leave it that way, just as we do every day in summer: how delightful to enjoy this appetizer in winter, even if it’s only a tease.

Spring thaw means resuming my running habit in earnest. But where it was once part and parcel of every day in my erstwhile Southern life, in Vermont it is seasonal. Some folks manage in the winter with special equipment, but my damaged foot objects. This was a point of dispute between me and my well-intentioned doc in December: you can do it if you really want to, she insisted. I lobbed one back at her: not at my age, not with Haglund’s deformity. I know Haglund’s deformity, she persisted, and you can do it if you want.

It was another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon in Tennessee, who identified this malformation in my heels (it’s more pronounced in the left one), and another who explained why I have it. Sometimes Haglund’s is called the “pump bump” because women who routinely wear heels are vulnerable to it. I’ve never worn heels a day in my life, except maybe for the odd special occasion. I mentioned this to one of my M.D. ballet dads a few years ago when I was still teaching. How could I have something tied to the wearing of those awful shoes, when I never wear them? Well, he opined, you may not wear the shoes, but consider this: you put your foot in that position every day of the week for hours at a stretch.

He made an excellent pointe, so to speak: ballet dancers (and their teachers) maintain this position of the foot more often than not. It’s called relevé, and you can see it here in spades in an examination class at the renowned Vaganova School:

But I digress. My doctor is wrong on this one, and that is that. I’m more body aware than the average Joe and because of my badly compromised foot have exactly no stability on ice, not even on packed snow if it’s slippery. Time and again this winter I grabbed hold of trees to stay upright negotiating the topography of the back yard for Scout’s late-night pee breaks. If growing old is not for sissies, as the wisdom goes, neither is winter in Vermont with a dog.

Nor is the confounded bony protrusion on the back of the heel the only problem: it’s all the soft stuff around it—muscle and tendon—irritated by movement, sometimes angered, occasionally declaring all-out mutiny. I will make your life a living hell if you attempt to stand and walk. It occurs to me I can’t have my foot replaced.

So I won’t run in those conditions, even with special equipment, the conditions which prevailed from some time in December until only a few days ago. Instead I will respect the foot.

But mud! Mud is the perfect medium for running, a thing I remembered last weekend when Scout and I embarked on our first several runs of “spring,” as it were. The heel sinks into the soft, mushy gravel in a satisfying way, water oozing up around it, the shock absorbed mercifully and gently in the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the lower back, while blood courses joyously through the veins. Scout is a perfect running dog, happy to keep up whatever cadence I ask of him. A slow couple of miles a day feels fine for now, with some starting and stopping to honor the foot thrown in for good measure: I’m a good listener and had rather avoid mutiny down below even if the heart thumping up above urges us on.

After the rice finished cooking yesterday I laced my running shoes with Scout circling me enthusiastically. Crossing the bridge over the Battenkill I glanced uneasily at the water roaring under it in torrents, carrying runoff from the nearby mountains; later HCB and I would observe places it has already breached its banks to settle in wheat-colored fields. Elsewhere in our neighborhood the same is happening on a smaller scale, streams ripping through culverts under the roads and in some places spilling over the top of them.

Scout kept his nose skyward to concentrate new smells that surely must assault him like a freight train, stopping now and then to bury it in the warm, wet schmutz on the side of the road below. Meanwhile my foot cried out like a mythical Mandrake yanked out of its potting soil, but I didn’t let on to Scout, only slowing down now and again to shush the pain.

Once home we headed directly to the tub, where a mud-encrusted Scout suffered no pain in his first stem-to-stern scrubbing on my watch. And true to his character, he stood resolute and patient in the soapy water through it all, content to lie on the bathroom floor quietly afterwards for a towel drying and brushing. Scout ended his day as it began, hunkered down with his humans, but sweeter smelling, exercised, his belly full of turkey and kibble.

I know running will never be the same as it was even a few years ago. There will always be a twice-daily regimen of ice baths, and pain meds, and fish oil, maybe some massage, and the occasional Arnica application if I want to keep going. Two things I know for certain: I need to run. And my left hand needs a leash in it. For the time being, anyway, they’re both met.

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