Niko left us with about eight inches of snow on Thursday, Orson’s knocking at the door right now: we expect him to gift us with ten to twelve or so inches. Yesterday Scout—with shiny, new off-leash privileges—took advantage of the calm between the storms.
Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.
But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.
Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.
Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.
A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.
We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.
Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.
Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.
Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.
HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)
The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.
The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.
It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.
The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)
Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.
Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?
Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.
In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.
But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)
I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.
Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.
If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.
Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.
Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.
‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.
Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.
A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.
Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.
I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.
When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.
I also underestimated my own grit and determination.
Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.
I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.
I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.
I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.
Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.
I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.
I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.
I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.
I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.
Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.
It’s tough on Tennesseans. And Texans. I remember the first time the mercury dipped below zero when I was living in my first home here, my delicious little lakeside cottage in Vermont’s exquisite Upper Valley: I recall the first time I felt pain when I tiptoed outside, the first time I heard my shepherd Clarence-the-Canine cry out when he stepped on frozen, spiky snow in our front yard (on with the shoes, sorry they make you feel silly—better than busting open a pad). We’ve already felt that kind of cold with winter not yet officially arrived. Feels too soon to me; mercifully, it never seems to last long—the cold that is. As for the other unmentionable, Vermont feels distinctly how C. S. Lewis might call it along about March: always winter, never Christmas.
I digress. Three nights ago I awoke to loud, percussive popping, like shotgun blasts too close. It took my foggy brain a while to decipher the noise and calm down, or at least not worry too much about it, the unmistakable sound of our wood deck boards outside in the cold, shrinking, shifting, sliding around in protest against nails that fastened them in place on a much warmer day. That kind of cold demands respect, nine-below-zero cold, the kind that can split boards, or damage warm-blooded membranes and stiffen sinew in seconds; my joints had been trying to warn me it was coming for a while. Here is a bit of wisdom that belongs in a primer for Vermont pilgrims: do not worry too much about the explosions when it’s nine below (or colder); you probably won’t die.
Meanwhile the unworried person beside me slept deeply and peacefully, but I could not. Instead I lay awake and listened to the blasts spaced sometimes at long intervals, other times coming close together, and worried about another creature of slight build and tawny hair, doubtless also awake downstairs, a Texas dog who’d have to face the music outside in a few short hours.
This will be a new and perhaps painful experience for you, Scout, as it was for Clarence before you, and for me, I thought. I made a mental inventory of supplies to track down in the coming days, used my worry to get a fix on some coordinates: Clarence’s old shoes are in the plastic bin, I think—will they fit Scout? Will he trust me enough to let me fiddle with his feet? I replayed the warning on last night’s news: in cold like this, don’t let your pup stay outdoors any longer than it takes to warm up your car. Five minutes.
What if I can’t get the shoes on him? I flipped through old, dog-eared folders in my head overflowing with nuggets and tidbits, things I’ve needed at one time or another in my professional life as a copywriter and later filed under “Archives.” What was it about Labrador feet? Some kind of webbing that makes them adept in the snow? Or was it water? Or was that another kind of dog? Wait, the vet had only just said Scout looked more Chessie than Lab to her. Do they have the same kind of webbing?
Five minutes? How can I explain this to my dog? Or my car?
However perilous a picture the mind (my mind) can paint lying awake in the darkness before dawn, it is never that bad. Scout did consent to the shoes for our first, brutal walk in the very early morning, but objected to them shortly after we launched. By the time we came back inside he was wearing only one shoe, the other three spilling out of my coat pocket. Scout did his doings in about fifteen minutes and seemed none the worse for wear, while all around us the sound of baying neighbor dogs, seasoned Vermont dogs, resonated in the frozen woods. Just before we navigated our way to the path that leads once again to the safety of the cottage, Scout made a quick diversion, took a side trip in the snow, rolling around joyously on his back, ears aflop, tail awag. Nine below is but a number, he insists as he lies there grinning at me. But okay we’ll go in, he finally concedes, standing again on all fours, shaking the snow from his coat and licking bits of it from his smiley whiskers.
Our little house looks inviting from the street with warm lights glowing through its windows in the darkness; inside the stairs have separated ever so slightly from the pretty slate landing while the house tries to shake off the cold.
Nine below, I had almost forgotten your beauty: you make twenty degrees and sunshine feel divine.
scoutverb | \’skau̇t\ – to explore an area to obtain information; noun – one sent to obtain information
Saturday morning came early, bitterly cold and windy, but clear; we’d practically forgotten how the sun looked. We stood squinting and shivering in a nondescript outlet mall parking lot with many other hopeful families, waiting, waiting, waiting for the white transport van from Texas that would arrive any moment and deliver to us our travel-weary companions, canine refugees of sorts: Labs and Lab mixes, puppies and adolescents and adults, on the road for 2000 long miles, soon to be discharged into the loving arms of happy, silent humans (and a few pint-size noisy ones)—happy dogs, silent dogs (a few barking dogs), bewildered dogs. Some were practically home when they were carried or walked off the van, others had miles yet to go.
Scout is a good name for a yellow Lab mix: it also happens to be the name of one of my favorite literary figures. Scout is a worthwhile verb, one that promises adventure and excitement, but best of all, Scout is a noun and he is ours. So let’s try this again, with belly rubs and other indulgences, but mainly plenty of quiet time to adjust.
And what an adjustment: from Texas to Vermont, where Scout arrives at the precise moment the first genuine cold snap of the season rolls in. A light layer of snow from the last small weather event still frosts the landscape in these parts, but tomorrow we’ll awaken to a winter wonderland—a trial by snow for Scout, if you will: if the weather gods get it right, he’ll be in it up to his elbows our first time outside in the morning.
Today there is filtered sunshine, no wind, and a neighborhood to explore. This evening there will be still another human to meet, more tweaking, realigning, settling, obtaining information: the ice maker dumps with a clatter at regular intervals (what is ice?); fresh vegetables sizzle and sputter loudly in a hot sauté pan (only good can come of this), a capricious heater cycles on and off (it is not to be trusted, but the warmth radiating from it feels exquisite), and a mystifying cacophony wafts up spiral stairs from the basement in unpredictable outbursts (more data needed). And outside? Outside are creatures busy under the snow, beneath layers of spent foliage, in a network of tunnels under Vermont’s rocky soil—and they can be heard, or maybe smelt, occupying a keen canine noggin with a fervor that makes him forget the cold, if only for a moment.
Meanwhile we humans are obtaining a little information of our own: what are these floppy ears? What is this short hair? What is this impossibly affectionate demeanor? What is this polite compliance with human wishes? Welcome home Scout. We have but one simple message we shall try to convey in your own language: we already love you like crazy.
The great, big exciting thing that was happening yesterday, the colossal event that was to be the subject of this post (and which many friends and readers have already surmised from various spoilers I’ve sprinkled in the cybersphere), is on hold ‘til this coming Friday. At least, we hope it happens Friday. Nature interfered with our plans, pliant schedules grew less forgiving, a couple of expectations required a tweak here and there, and that is that, dammit. It’s merely another reminder how unimportant is one’s own agenda, no matter how stridently one wishes to position it at the center of the universe.
Patience. It’s a virtue my parents urged me to improve in myself time and again as a child, so did my grandparents, so did my teachers. At some point in the development of my young noggin I suspected there might be a problem in this particular department, as the echoing of that one word indicated. One afternoon when mom was pregnant with my brother she farmed me out to an elderly couple down the street who said they’d be glad to keep me company for the day. Off I went with a Christmas ornament decorating kit tucked under my arm; I was seven and giddy about this change of scenery. I can’t recall a single thing about the day, not one minuscule detail, save this: the woman quipped, “She needs to be more patient,” when she handed me off to my mama later that afternoon.
Four years earlier three generations of self-assured women had observed the same flaw emerging me, only it caused notable damage on one occasion in particular. These three women—my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother—had taken me to see The Sound of Music, a movie for which there had been a big buildup: I was excited down to my socks. We stood in line for tickets, waiting, waiting, w…a…i…t…i…n…g. The boy in line ahead of us was not moving quickly enough to my way of thinking, or at all, really. I decided he needed help if we were ever to get inside the theatre, and so I did the sensible thing: I kicked him. I meant him no malice, but decided a gentle reminder to GO was in order, really just a thoughtful poke in the calf. The way my mom tells the story now, the kick was more of a stomp that scraped the back of his leg, painfully; she had seen the wheels turning and so had my grandmother, each of them going for an armpit, not quick enough on the draw. Impatience, 1; toddler, zip.
I did not grow out of this habit, the impatience, that is—I have not kicked anybody in a while (have wanted to, plenty). In my early twenties I bought my first car, a ’76 Olds Cutlass Supreme; it was a thing of beauty in powder blue with a white vinyl top and coordinating blue crushed velour interior. It came from my parents’ next-door neighbors (also older folk), who had driven it gently mostly, but it sported a sizeable dent on one side and its transmission leaked. Still, it was a bullet-proof car, reliable transportation whose problems were nothing I could not handle on a college-kid budget; I kept a case of transmission fluid and a funnel in the trunk and topped it off every time I got gas. The car served me well except in ice and snow, when I occasionally put it in a ditch (not my fault: rear wheel drive, no snow tires). But one hot Southern day while it sat and baked in an asphalt driveway its interior rear view mirror fell off.
This was a car made in an era when GM routinely attached accessories and trim with cheap glue, a low point in the history of the American auto industry if you ask me. Anyway. I bought an epoxy repair kit, the kind where you mix the sticky substance from two tiny tubes, et voilà! Heavy-duty adhesive in a flash. I followed the instructions diligently and all was well until I got to the part where you were supposed to hold the thing being glued (rear view mirror) to the other thing (front windshield), and wait. Suffice it to say the epoxy’s performance fell short of my expectations and a person better schooled in patience had to step in and finish the job for me. Impatience, 25,385; college kid, zip.
When Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I first met we talked endlessly about cuisine; we still do—it’s a passion I share with him. I once opined to him it takes a real gift to create exceptional cuisine, high art on a plate—a gift I had observed in him time and again. Maybe, he said, but mainly it takes the P-word: patience.
Dammit, dammit, dammit. It has been lobbed around these parts often, the P-word. So HCB joins the pantheon of folk who have felt it incumbent on themselves to point out this character flaw in me, and often.
It’s okay, all you patient ones in the universe, I’ve got this, at least this time. I live in Vermont now, where it takes forever for the snow to finally melt in the spring, where it takes forever to drive anywhere (because the destination is always far, far away), where it takes forever for your car to warm up in the morning because it was Below Zero during the night. This impatient person has waited three years for this milestone event—what’s one more week? And anyway, I’ve been called worse things. Like the time in second grade when my mama was summoned to school for an urgent conference with my teacher who said I was an instigator. Really.
Let me tell you something about instigators, gentle reader: instigators know how to get the job done.
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.
The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He’s always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.—T.S. Eliot
The oppressive heat of high summer in Memphis, Tennessee reaches its fingers across the flat landscape and foists itself upon every living thing. Nor is rain any relief, for it invokes heat’s accomplice humidity to wreak havoc in its wake. Even when you live your days in air-conditioned comfort, step outside late at night in August and the heavy air defies your lungs to work at all. At least that is how I remember my years growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s. A morning shower will hold you in good stead for a while; by high noon you’d gladly pay somebody for the privilege of another.
I believe this is why a singular Harper Lee sentence always resonated with me so deeply from the moment I first read it: “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” She was writing about a South deeper still than Memphis, but I knew exactly what she meant in that beloved opus, my favorite story. She makes the heat sound romantic; it is not.
On a memorable summer day I see the silhouette of my mom on her hands and knees in our upstairs bathroom diligently scraping rubber from the floor’s ceramic tiles with a razor blade. In the days leading up to that moment Memphis and other parts of the country had felt the effects of a dangerous heat wave that had already killed scores of people as it marched across the land. Our air-conditioning and everybody else’s failed; and like most people we had to take a number and get in line for the repairman. When at last the cool air was restored we found the backing on the bathroom rugs upstairs had melted and congealed against the hard porcelain. If you have never experienced high summer in the Deep South you may raise your eyebrows. I speak the truth.
In the seventh grade I attended one of the worst public schools in the city, during the worst of the tumult that was called desegregation. It was built on an anthill, went the local lore; there were ants everywhere. You could see regiments marching across baseboards and up walls; they were even said to have gotten inside classroom clocks and stopped them.
The school was not air conditioned. That meant for a few dreadful weeks in the fall and the spring it would be hot, and I mean hot. The heat inside that building brought with it short tempers during a time that was already supercharged with tension, and it intensified the unmistakable odors that marked poor, unscrubbed adolescent children, children who lacked hygiene at home and abroad. The school was a petri dish for those smells and so much else that should not have been allowed to fester and grow. My tenure there was mercifully short.
By the end of high school I’d had enough of Memphis. It was not all about the heat, although it impressed me. There was also a healthy dose of nest-soiling, the need to thumb my nose at my silly childhood and move on. My future was uncertain, except for this one thing: it would not unfold there. Ninny that I was, I believed with every stitch of my being that life would get underway soon in earnest, that my Avalon might have been out of sight for the time being but was certainly attainable. I had but to arrive there.
I was wrong, of course.
I did not think the culture of the American South had anything to do with me. I did not acknowledge that Memphis had birthed the Blues, had no cause to walk Beale Street. I did not care about the Sun Record Company. (And everybody knew Elvis was a hayseed—all you had to do was look at his fans.) I did not pay much attention to the city’s difficult history, palpable evidence of it everywhere. I forgot about the institutions I once held dear: Brooks Museum of Art, Ellis Auditorium, the Orpheum Theatre, the exquisite Memphis Botanic Garden, the beloved Pink Palace—none of them mattered to me anymore.
All those things were somebody else’s Avalon.
Too bad for me: I missed it all when I’d gone, the second I sprouted a lick of sense. I waxed poetic about these things to anybody who would listen after I moved out west to Colorado for a few years, much to the chagrin of people around me, I am sure. And on the eve of last summer’s homecoming to Knoxville, Tennessee—the city that was mine for three decades and my ancestors’ far longer—I am sure my wistfulness about the South I left behind invoked more than one eyeroll in the people around me here in Vermont.
Vermont, where I am struggling once again to come to terms with impossible (to me) winters even though this one has been mild thus far, observing others doing the same. I often think in my heart of hearts life should not have to be so difficult for a population who often struggle to make ends meet. Where is their Avalon?
There is no paradise, said a wise person: this is the truth. Avalon is everywhere and anywhere we live, and a smart person can find it. I am no ninny, nor am I wise. Winter in Vermont pushes hard, like summer in Tennessee. I will feel it tomorrow when I drive to work on a sketchy road that may or may not have been plowed to my satisfaction after a little squall comes through tonight. I’ll have white knuckles and will keep a close watch in the mirror for more seasoned winter drivers who wish I’d go a little faster. I will not appreciate the beauty of the landscape as I should. But I will try to find Avalon in this still-strange landscape.
And I will try like heck not to be a terrible bore.