Saturday, September 11, 2010

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Yesterday my students and I talked about Abraham.  Our seventy minute class turned into a full 90 minutes, as we processed how timely this discussion was in light of other discussions about burning Qu'rans and building sacred centers near hallowed ground. We interrogated the meaning of the word covenant and that unbroken thread of faith that acts as a cord, tying our hearts and our actions to something bigger and older than ourselves.  We looked at a family tree, tracing with our fingertips the lines from Abraham to Levi and Dinah, and stopping with Moses. We spent a good bit of time unraveling the story of two sons, Isaac and Ishmael who went their separate ways and never looked back.  We chewed on the meaning of sacrifice, compassion, and ownership over words and stories. We studied images of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Mosque of Abraham, contemplating the meaning of sacred space.  We had a discussion about the now-frequently used phrase this time of the year: "Never Forget."  As one student said, "If we haven't forgotten about all of this history we are learning, how could we forget this?"

I asked one girl who had visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem to read these words from a Muslim text recounting the story of Abraham's sacrifice to God, which she did beautifully:

                            As the boy lies stunned on the altar, God gazes down with pride and compassion and promises to grant his  any prayer. "0 Lord, I pray this," the boy says. "When any person in any era meets you at 
\the gates of heaven-so long as they believe in one God-I ask that you allow them to enter paradise."

She commented after reading this, "You know, I am a devout Jew.  And my name is Arab.  When I went to Jerusalem, we visited a famous Muslim bakery that bore our family name.  And the family gave us sweets and welcomed us into their kitchen.  So I guess what this means to me is that we are all family after all, whether we are descended from Isaac or Ishmael.  And maybe that is why the Muslim text doesn't identify the boy as  one or the other.  Maybe like me, he is both."

Spiritual inquiry at its finest. 

I thought of  the Yeats poem, The Second Coming, set to song by Joni Mitchell with the title, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I have always loved this song and the urgent imperative behind the title phrase.  So we listened to it - an impromptu exposure to two artists with whom the girls were not familiar.  What a lovely way to meet both at once:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
                                                 -William Butler Yeats

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joni Mitchell

"Wow," said another of my students, "will we ever learn how to stand up straight?"  I looked at the girl who is both Isaac and Ishmael.  She shook her head slowly and said "Maybe it is the burden of faith that makes us slouch."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In praise of Piper

This is Piper:

Piper at rest. Which is adorable. And deceiving. And I fall for the adorable quotient every single time, in love with her sweet mug.  Just to give you an idea, a photo essay of sorts detailing her beguiling cuteness:

Piper: the early days

Moxa deserves sainthood. Piper adores him. As we all should.

With cunning intellect, she has the unique penchant 
for sticking her head
through/between/under narrow spaces. It's a special talent.

She also possesses the gift of climbing into things
(i.e. a trashcan, or in this case an empty box) 
that require special talents to free herself. Special talents that she does not have.

Piper is all kinds of things, and she is nothing like our other two dogs, who basically live to be near us, and hang on our every intonation, every trip up and down the stairs, every room we enter and leave. Moxa is always in the same room as I am. Mia goes wherever there is a lap, but really, namely one lap belonging to Alex. Piper goes...somewhere...depending upon her whims, which are fleeting and have the added bonus of being completely out of left field. The drummer to which she marches has no rhyme, rhythm, or reason. And I'm not entirely convinced that there is a drummer, even.  I am convinced that she spends most of her waking hours trying to relocate her Mother Ship. She isn't what we would dub as "normal" (a good thing) and we wondered for a while whether she was deaf. Nope.  She's just in her own orbit, spinning happily through her carefree life with a casual regard for most things.  This is as vexing as it is endearing. 

Piper bounces through the house as cavalierly as a loose-limbed sailor; flopping on cushions, the rug, your face, your newly folded laundry, the coffee table even (case in point: this morning, when she did a flying leap onto the coffee table, stood in stunned stillness for a millisecond, lapped from my iced coffee, and kept cruising). She is as unaware of her surroundings as anyone could be. She soars full throttle through the cat door, only to find herself fabulously stuck in the process. I watched and laughed for a good few minutes as she barked at the dark basement on her end, her little corkscrew tail indignant and her back legs boinging up and down on mine. She skids around corners. She screeches to stops, sliding on rugs  and biting at the AIR (?!) like Aladdin on an acid trip.

She is nothing if not an adventure of mishaps. And she seems to be totally okay with that fact.  I respect her for it, even.

And though she frustrates me to no end, she is also one of my greatest sources of amusement.

Having a dog who licks the air as she makes her approach to licking you never gets old. And she is absolutely indiscriminate in this regard, assailing her humans, her canine compadres, the couch, the wall, the odd throw pillow, even the cat - with all the audible slopping sounds of a toddler diving into his/her first ice cream cone. Mia, ever so dainty and deliberate in her licks, is horrified when Piper assaults her out of nowhere with the force of a frog hurling its tongue out in an effort to ensnare its nearest snack.

There is absolutely nothing subtle about this dog.

If she's bored, she barks. Or jumps. Or pulls every single toy out of the toy bin.

If she's in pain, she whines like a wee banshee.

If she's frisky, she becomes a whirling dervish of chocolate brown and white, and she whirs around you until you are dizzy.  This happens at least three times a day - five, if you're lucky.

She hassles the other dogs, tugging at their ears, nipping their legs, coaxing them into a game of rough house. Sometimes I feel as though I have landed in the midst of a three-way wrestling match. There are no innocent bystanders when this happens. And for three very different dogs, their "pack" is cemented. They are loving, tolerant, and considerate of one another (Piper even waits for Mia before bounding outside in the morning). It's very warm and fuzzy.

She LOVES children, and will kiss them and wag at them, and want to melt into them with no visible signs of fatigue. This can go on for hours.  Children love her back. My niece calls her "Hyper" (an apt description), and carries her around like a rag doll, while Piper smiles away, limbs loose and trusting, her head cocked sideways looking up at something no one else can see (the Mother Ship perhaps?). She loves effortlessly - not at all earnestly, but with an enthusiastic blunt force that I kind of equate to a bear hug that goes on for too long.

The thing about Piper is that she loves us when she feels like it. It's completely spontaneous, her patterns are for the most part unpredictable, but the end result is always the same. She can chew my favorite sandals, demolish a thumb drive, rip holes in carpets, and leave her nose prints all over the glass door.  She can take the stuffing out of each and every toy and scatter it throughout the house, she can topple trashcans and eat the tissues, and she can ignore me with all the intellectual might of a maggot (though our trainer swears she is brilliant). She can curl up to my side, nuzzle my neck, and fall sound asleep in a nanosecond. She can bat me with her paw when she wants attention, and stare at me wide-eyed and alert, ready for whatever I have to give her. She can sit for treats, and bury her nose in my hair (as she is right now). And in all of these ways, she makes her own Piper-esque mark on our hearts.  Our house without her antics would seem somehow less alive.  Even Moxa and Mia agree:

Sunday, August 15, 2010


You have a million-watt smile, and very beautiful teeth.

Your eyes are exactly the color of seaglass, and sometimes they are green.  Other times, they turn blue. They almost always sparkle.

You have few outward fears.

You have the ability to speak your mind, and hold your ground.

Whenever there is a piano within a fifty foot radius, you are drawn to play it. In Vienna, a crowd of listeners cheered after you were finished. And the Viennese know a thing or two about music.

You brought me homemade apple strudel on our first date. Good move.

You don't like spicy food, or beans, or coconut milk, or ginger - all things I love. Somehow this doesn't get in our way.

You always give me the heart of your artichoke when we make them. You claim it is because you are full, but I know it is because you know how much I love them.

You always cut your juice with still or sparkling water, and you are right. It tastes better that way.

You have the ability to make people roar with laughter.

You are unafraid to try something new, or to make an adventure out of a mundane task.

You put music on for me when I cook.

You sleep very strange hours, and sometimes don't go to bed at all. As an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, I don't get this.

Come to think of it, there are a number of things about you that remain utter mysteries.

And the same is true of me, like why I open the cereal box upside down. Or why I leave cabinets open.

You love to ask questions, even when you already have the answers.

You are frustrated with the state of the basement. I don't blame you.

You love animals. Animals love you. It's a win-win situation.

You notice everything about everyone. You are very observant, sometimes annoyingly so.

You are a perfectionist.  Sometimes this gets in your way; most of the time it means that our pictures are hung straight. Which they wouldn't be if I had the nail and the hammer.

You are fiercely loyal to your friends and family.

You sometimes sacrifice your time and happiness for them.

You worked your way into the heart of our ten year old nephew, who needed a male role model. And who loves you enormously.

You abhor the expression "Shut up." More people should - you're on to something with that one.

You can sit at your desk and work for, like, EVER. I can't stay still that long. I don't know how you do it.

You take the most beautiful photographs. We can be looking at the very same thing, two cameras pointing at it. My photo looks like my two year old nephew took it; yours looks like it should be on the cover of National Geographic.

You remind me to take my vitamins.

You are sensitive.

You are a much better vacuumer than I am.

Bless your soul, you are so very allergic to mosquito bites and poison ivy.

You are irreverent.

Sometimes you will walk by me, or check on me when I am sleeping and ruffle my hair.  It's very soothing. You can do that more often if you would like.

You always want me to try a bite of whatever you are eating.

You had an awkward phase in high school when you wore burgundy turtlenecks. I call it your Masterpiece Theatre years.

You are patently not "one of the guys" and don't enjoy competitive sports- I like this.

You brush your teeth for exactly two minutes. This cracks me up.

You really want me to learn how to scuba dive, but I might just like to stay a snorkler.

You walk with a little spring in your step - did you know this?

You are nothing if not a realist, though you seem to enjoy my flights of fancy and day-dreaming ways. Most of the time.

You remember my students, their stories, and their struggles.

You can take apart and put a computer back together. To me, this is magic.

You chaperone high school dances with me and after the dance is over, you always order a pizza to share at midnight.

You enjoy rituals.

You would happily eat whipped cream straight. I don't think I have ever met someone who loves whipped cream as much as you do.

You always want to help people. Always.

 You are particular.

You patiently follow me around in nurseries as I look at plants. For hours. And hours.

You are very left-brained but you have a right-brainedness about you too.

You switched out the fireplace so I could breathe more easily.

You put away the dishes that are too high for me to reach.

You always know where I am in a crowded room.

I know you are always thinking of me.

And I, of you.

Happy Anniversary, Alexander.  I adore sharing a life with you.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The fatted calf

"Chi troppo vuole, nulla stringe."

-He who wants too much doesn't catch anything"
-Italian proverb

For various reasons, I have an odd relationship with things and with want.

There are places in this world that feel like home to me, but I fear becoming attached to them.  This can be hard.

I have a lovely little bungalow with signs of age and need for improvement, and although we have done a number of minor changes to make it more habitable, I fear wanting too much. I find myself growing overly fond of my home, and feel as though I am jinxing myself.  What if something happens and I lose it?  What will I do?

Truth be told, I would probably cry for a little while, look for four-leaf clovers, gather my animals around me, and eat a sandwich.

I have art on the walls, books in my shelves, clothes in my closet, a competitively impressive amount of bubble bath, and I know that if I had to, I could leave it all behind, save a few things.  I know this because I have done so. And it wasn't hard. I can't even remember the treasures I summarily took leave of, and I have no desire to do so. There are things in my home - mostly memories saved: a four leaf clover, a special rock, a book from a dear friend's grandfather, a ribbon from Brazil, a stack of postcard love letters from my husband, a cherry pit, a letter from a deceased friend, my first book of poetry from my Gran that holds the memory of reading the poems with her - things that I would miss. They would fit in a medium-ish sized box.

Some have noted my detachment from things to be a curious part of my personality, given the fact that I do have a bit of a crush on shoes; others (my husband, bless his patient soul) have found it slightly frustrating in that I could probably take better care of some of the possessions I have...

...that cost money.

Which doesn't grow on trees.

Which is really the source of my frustration today. 

I work hard for what I have, but that isn't what drives me to work.  And what I have is more than enough.  It's actually quite a lot, compared to the rest of the world. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wake up and feel lucky: a job I love, a husband I adore, animals that provide endless amusement and joie de vivre, and as I climb up on my soapbox (fair warning given), I am kind of sad that a long walk at sunset doesn't offer the same happiness to people as, say, a new lamp. How could a lamp possibly capture the same kind of light that a sunset does? This is bothering me.  It is bothering me on some level deep in my belly. Despite my hard work and money earned, it makes me want to throw all of my things out of the window in protest.

(One time, when I lived in an apartment a few years ago, the neighbor living above me had the unfortunate habit of throwing things out of her window.  She was on the frayed side of lunacy. She threw money out her windows, mostly quarters.  Jewelry. Clothing, including lots of socks. And also tuna fish, which stuck to my window.  I was bothered by her daily purgings mostly because I could hear her stomping to and from the window in the middle of the night. In clogs. It was kind of annoying and more than a little unsettling. But another part of me celebrated that she did this. Even in her frantic, delusional state, it must have felt awfully good. I collected all of her quarters -a useful commodity for doing laundry- and slipped money under her door for the exact amount. She promptly threw the money out of her living room window. I wrote her family a check for the amount when they came to move her out and into a hospital. It was never cashed. I have always felt guilty about this.)

I can't recall feeling envious of someone else for having "bigger, better, more" - the unofficial motto of the United States, where people are so used to their creature comforts that they refuse to entertain what it must be like to downsize. But now in this economy, people are.

I am all for it. Downsize away.  Most of us haven't lived with food rations, with being permanently displaced from homes and families and towns.  And as an historian, I think about these people who lived on a jar of Marmite and a loaf of bread that was intended to last a week.  I read stories of the fun they had, because they were not focused on what they didn't have.  And I read of people today being displaced and living in makeshift tents. And they don't feel sorry for themselves. They want to know where their loved ones are. That seems a legitimate wish.

All of this sort of came to some fever pitch to me today as I sit in my new office, which is GREEN. Which I love. I have a green office chair. And it is quite possibly the most comfortable thing ever. And a soft green throw for winter. And a really cool map of the world. I started thinking about how much I love my office, and then was reflecting on the color green and why I love it so. Green will always be here.  If I go blind, green will be something I can still have. Its ineffable greenness will go on.  As a child, I stumbled out of my bed in full sleep and leaned precariously over our balcony, asking my mother, "What is green?"  After explaining to me that it was a color (apparently not a satisfactory answer for a sleepwalking four-year-old), my mother said, "It's not a thing. It's everywhere." Or some such philosophical reasoning. This apparently satisfied me and I went back to sleep. This may be why I ADORE Noam Chomsky's oft-quoted "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."  Why, yes they do.

And that's pretty much the coolest thing about green, sunsets, animals, and other things - like double rainbows.  Hey, I've seen a few.  That YouTube guy had a reason to be totally psyched. He made meaning out of what to many, is meaningless. And I would argue that GREEN has more meaning to me than the green chair, the green vase, the green throw on my velvet couch..and so on...

The fatted calf was for homecomings, reunions, the prodigal son returneth...that sort of thing. It wasn't for every day life. Neither are double rainbows, for that matter - but for that we make no claims to own them. And if you don't want a double rainbow, you have a far better chance of catching one.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

In the Minor Key

I often wake up with a song buzzing about in my head.  I don't know if this is normal or not, but most of the time, it's an awfully pleasant way to greet the day. I have started connecting it to that whole question of  "What songs would you include in the soundtrack of your life?", to which I would likely respond, "Ummm, it varies on the day..and also the song that happens to appear to me for whatever reason in the morning...put them all together and you have a soundtrack. Is that an answer?" Or, to put it more simply, "That is a very difficult question."

At 5:30 this morning, I woke up humming Lou Reed's Perfect Day, a maudlin ballad with some pretty nice little piano sections and a wonderfully impassioned Lou Reed belting out "Oh, it's such a perfect day," a sentiment I can almost always get behind. Alex pointed out that it is actually "kind of a really sad song".  Alex is not a morning person, and I made the premature assumption that he just wasn't quite on my "mornings with Lou" wavelength. Alas. The briefest bit of internet research yielded the popularly-held opinion that the song is about heroin. I suppose it should be somewhat obvious:

This disturbs me. On a few levels. For starters, as someone who can sort of groove with the bittersweet love ballad genre, I fully embraced the whole "you just keep me hanging on" can be about those moments, after all. But heroin?  A love song about heroin?  Having never even entertained the thought of experimenting with heroin, I can't really claim to know anything at all about its powers of seduction and the soporific effect that it apparently induces in musicians, thus rendering them lovesick.  Truly I only know what I witness on an all-too-frequent basis in the streets of Baltimore (if you don't live in Baltimore, watch The Wire - it will give you some insight into heroin use and its damaging dream-state). It wouldn't have even occurred to me, honestly. Which in itself is ridiculous, given the number of songs dedicated to "the altered state."  And I consider myself someone who knows a fair bit about music.

Pregnant pause.

I happen to have two other songs (among others) that would join the ranks of the hypothetical Paige soundtrack.  One is a poignant reminder of a particularly low point in my life and the sort of breathless effort it took for me to clear a couple of  Everest-sized hurdles: Running to Stand Still.  Which was kind of what my life felt like then.  I once listened to this song no less than ten times on repeat. That bit:

"You got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice"

Well, it was my anthem. In my naivete, the "needle chill" was my own personal reference to the many injections, shots, blood draws etc...I underwent when I was very sick. For all of my love of nuance and the layers of the onion and all of that hooey, I can be remarkably literal. Apparently.

The song is about heroin.

The second is a song that Alex often hums: Golden Brown.  This particular version is a cover by Cult With No Name; it was originally written and performed by the Stranglers.  I falsely assumed that it was a love song and thought that it was sweet that Alex so frequently sings this (as an accomplished pianist, he tends to like songs foregrounding the piano), because I guess you could sort of call my hair that the summer...after I've been in the sun for a while.  Okay, it's a stretch.  But it is a pretty song and the piano gets me every time.

And it too is about heroin.

I have to ruefully chuckle at this, and find myself again bemused by my all-too-frequently naive impression of things in general. And though I am somewhat dismayed that my songs of love and human might and triumph actually share a slightly different story, I suppose we choose our soundtracks for what each song offers each of us...which varies, even in our disillusionment. Alex offered the logical explanation that I tend to prefer songs in the minor key, which are evocative of a certain "mood".  That could be the case. Woody Guthrie's lovely conclusion to this (as performed by Billy Bragg and Natalie Merchant) explains it better than I - and thankfully, without any references to heroin. I hope.

Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key

written by this guy, who knew what was up.  The smile says it all:

Monday, July 26, 2010


"The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered...Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in."

It is not humid in Baltimore today.  Which is no small miracle - and this from someone who loves heat most of the time. This morning, I saw goldfinches dancing in my pond (they have their own permanent gold unitards, lucky ones). The air feels more like Maine air. And it's clear and blue. A gorgeous day. My husband just sent me this photo, with the message: "Look outside. I love you." It kind of sums things up nicely:

I live in a neighborhood that embraces summer with an optimism that is as startling as it is familiar to me in some weird way. It is sort of unreal in its genuine civility and warmth.  When we moved here, we were greeted with homemade cookies, preserves, muffins, and so many heartfelt welcomes. My next door neighbors, whom I adore and whose son I wish I could call my own, just stopped over and invited me to spend his second birthday with them on Wednesday at the National Aquarium.  I'm their plus one guest. This little angel boy is quite surely the subject of an entry all his own; suffice to say that we sat on my porch swing this evening as he battled a newly diagnosed bout with the terrible twos and I, my own long and difficult day when I wished I could have used the terrible twos as an excuse for a wee temper tantrum on the floor. And he rested his darling cherub hand on my knee and the world felt alright.

That's the thing about my neighborhood - even though the world isn't alright, I live in this little slice of I don't know - Eden? - where people say hello from their bungalow stoops and remind my heart to quiet a moment and be mindful of what a home really is. Neighbors stop and chat and wave at joggers. My new friend Beth (I really like Beth) waves at me as she drives by. Lucas, the recent high school graduate, asks me about my garden and how my grass is growing. He falls asleep at night listening to our waterfall through his open window. That makes me enormously happy. The shy, sweet girl down the street walks her beloved rescue dog while two boys who live a few houses in the opposite direction race by on their bikes, wearing Batman and cowboy Halloween costumes.  Awesome. The boy with the mop of wildly curly hair swings from a tree branch, and part of me wants to stand under him to catch him if he falls. But that child is nothing if not indestructible. He has perfected the art of swinging, and running barefoot --and jumping on the pogo stick, which he continued to do one evening with such abandon that he didn't immediately notice the blood pouring out of a spectacularly scraped big toe after a spill. Ten minutes with some hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin and a Band-Aid, and he was back outside. Tonight, I did a double take. He must have grown a foot since I saw him at  the (wait for it....) Root Beer Float Social that the neighborhood children had at the end of the school year. When he perfected his pogo stick skills. And when he seemed so much younger.

Behind our house, there are two houses with families, each of which have three little girls. It is a constant slumber party, and the girls walk to and from the backyards in their bathing suits, their nightgowns, their sundresses.  They call to my dogs from the top of their fort and they giggle and chase one another and swing in their swings and sing songs. And the parents sit on the porch, drinking a beer, and sometimes admonishing whichever wayward child (not necessarily their own) has hurt another child's feelings. Which you know, with six girls, is easy to do...

And then as I was closing my blinds this evening, I looked out to see a father teaching his son how to catch a ball. I thought of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.  I thought of how much I wished, at various points in my life having read and reread the book over a series of  New York and then Baltimore summers, I lived in such a place, troubled though it was in ways only Bradbury can put into words. And now I do. I also thought of Douglas Spaulding (the young boy in the novel), who declares that his summer will be a time of firsts: first root beer float, first run through the grass barefoot, first firefly caught, and so on...these firsts and lasts that define Green Town as a place where Nature and technology collide, sometimes in miraculous ways and sometimes in ways that point to evil, to a loss of something pure, to overlooking happiness when it sits right in front of you. We are lucky in this neighborhood that at this juncture, living as we do in Baltimore of all places, that a child can still have this, and that selfishly, I can witness it:

"I’m ALIVE. Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really."

Sort of like catch.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Everyone needs their version of a gold unitard

                                                          Viola Farber

On Sunday, after perspiring mightily on a long walk to midtown Baltimore, I had a moment.  It was one of those back-of-the-neck tingling, teeter-on-the-edge-of-my-seat, exclaiming "Oh-my-heavens" under my breath repeatedly moments. I think I may have announced "I'm having a moment" to my dear friend Shannon, who walked with me from Hampden to the Meyerhoff to watch Graham II perform. For free.  In an air conditioned auditorium.

I LOVE attending modern dance performances. LOVE them. Addiction in this case is not too strong a word.  I love bearing witness to the remarkable poetry that choreography holds, releases, and explodes, using music, sets, costumes, and of course, PEOPLE.  The human body is an eloquent thing, after all.  I would venture to say that I feel more alive when I watch a dancer on stage than I do in any other performance setting. Basketball holds a similar appeal, and there is a definite balletic grace in the agility and ragged movements that fly across a basketball court -all of which seem to defy logic. Like dance.

There is something about dance, especially modern dance, that really does make me swoon and feel slightly dizzy.  In a good way. At Sarah Lawrence (where I went for undergraduate studies), I was surrounded by dancers and by a legacy of modern dance that I knew even at the time was really something extraordinary.  Viola Farber, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, was the grand dame and life-force of the Sarah Lawrence dance department, and I came to know her through my friends and one of my professors, her own dear friend. I loved Viola. She walked with the aid of a cane, and had a shorn crew cut that I often found myself wanting to touch. I can still call to memory her sing-song voice, the staccato of which was uncannily matched by her movements on stage. I saw her perform once, and it shook me to my core. I think I cried. And when she passed away, not long after I graduated, I wept bitterly. 

Viola's students (many of whom were my friends) could do things with their bodies that I can not fathom.  Is it odd that I remember so many of their choreographed pieces?  I think not. A number of them are dancers today. One of my dearest friends, Angeline, came to Sarah Lawrence all the way from Hawaii.  She knew how to hula, which basically granted her star status in my book. And when I saw her dance, I understood why my best friend had fallen so madly in love with her.  She choreographed pieces that caused me to leap to my feet in admiration (much to Gaby's embarrassment). I don't think I missed one dance performance in my four years at Sarah Lawrence, and I can still remember costumes, movements, who danced in certain pieces, and a particularly beautiful piece that had me sobbing buckets.  It was choreographed to this song, and I still get chills when I hear it (especially the end)*:

*I had forgotten Sting had a long hair phase. Huh.  And also -  the SLC choreographers blew his video out of the water. 

When I lived in New York, I saw as much dance as I possibly could: Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Elizabeth is insanely fun to go to dance performances in New York, a city where dance happens on subways, streets, in parks, and on sidewalks. There is a spontaneity in New York that is as infectious as its rhythmic and finely measured choreography - the perfect place for dancers and aficcionados of its art. And the feeling of walking into a performance space grasping a ticket, knowing that the next hour or two will be spent witnessing a series of small miracles...well. It rivals only the high one leaves with after the performance has ended, and one is brought back down to earth again, wanting a gold unitard. 

Shannon loves dance as much as I do.  She comes to my student dance performances with me, and we gush over the incredible talent so many of my students possess.  Seriously.  One of my former students was recently told in her first year of college that she was "too good" for the dance department and they recommended that she transfer to a university that would adequately challenge her.  Watching her dance is akin to experiencing some sort of angry angel, who has the singular gift of transforming that raw venom into a divine elixir. I could watch her dance for the rest of my life and never tire of it.  And when I first saw one of her choreographed pieces, I felt like a student at Sarah Lawrence again, memorizing the costumes, the movements, who occupied stage left, whose leg could kick higher in the air, and so on.. When Shannon first saw my former-especially-insanely-talented student dance, she GOT IT too and I remember leaving the auditorium with her, both of us giddy.  Both of us over-the-moon, ridiculously happy.

So it makes perfect sense that we would go to see Graham II together.  Sunday was the first time I had the gift of seeing any of Martha Graham's companies perform a full show. Which is kind of funny, given that she is the irrefutable mother of modern dance.  I mean, look at her and tell me that you don't feel every single emotion in the spectrum when you study this image:

If that isn't some sort of heaven, I don't know what is. How can a face be so still while the body does THAT?? How does that hand say so much?

Graham II is a company of young dancers, and on Sunday, they performed a small number of Martha Graham's pieces, choreographed during World War II, the Cold War, and so the midst of all that ugliness, people had THIS.  Had I been alive, I would have clung to these choreographies like rosary beads. One of her most famous pieces (a bit of which was performed on Sunday), Appalachian Spring, had a score of Aaron Copland and a set by Isamu Noguchi.  Collaboration at its finest.  

My favorite piece was the final performance: a section from Acts of Light, choreographed in 1981.  It has to be one of the most technically difficult performances I have ever seen, with dozens of Graham's infamous contractions unleashed in double-time. I think I held my breath through most of it. At the end of the performance, the dancers looked like I did when I walked in off the street, "glowing" profusely (as my grandmother taught me was the proper word for perspiring).  I have seen another part of Acts of Light, and it dawned on me, watching the dancers wearing nothing but these amazing gold unitards, that this piece is really kind of a painful thing. All of these contractions - so eerily beautiful, are like bee stings, and like a bee sting, they make one feel more alive than before. Which is kind of the point of most things, I think.

And so Acts of Light rivals my favorite Carracci in its celebration of the human form, and of the complicated dance that life and death engage in so arduously. "There are daily small deaths," Martha Graham once noted.  A realist thick and through, she was also able to marvel in the magic that dance offers us, while regarding dance as something that we all must do, and CAN do to keep the human spirit intact, vibrating, alive.  Donning the gold unitard (which is something I desperately covet now) is really a form of personal truth, and we need these truths to find our own planets. It is a gift to throw one's arms in the air and make magic.

"I am absorbed in the magic of movement and light. Movement never lies. It is the magic of what I call the outer space of the imagination. There is a great deal of outer space, distant from our daily lives, where I feel our imagination wanders sometimes. It will find a planet or it will not find a planet, and that is what a dancer does."
-Martha Graham

Thursday, June 10, 2010


As a free person I can always come and go,
Not caught in ideas of is and is not.
Not caught in ideas of being and non-being
Let your steps be leisurely.
Waxing or waning the moon is always the moon
The wind is still flying. Can you feel it my dear?
Bringing the rain from afar to nourish the nearby cloud
Drops of sunshine fall from on high to earth below
And the lap of earth touches the clear vault of the sky.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

This is M.  And that is me, looking like the unfortunate result of Harry Potter having a one-night stand with a chipmunk (I knew I wasn't meant for academia after my first run-in with the black robe).  I was trying not to cry in this picture, which is pretty much true of every single photo taken of me (and there were many) at Tuesday's graduation.  It is humbling when a beautiful, beaming  just-graduated young woman is comforting ME, telling ME to dry my tears.

This senior class, now beyond the world of "senior", starts at the bottom rungs of the hierarchy again in the fall.  And we sent them off with all of the regalia that befits this rite of passage.  In my case, this included a fair dose of tears and a little bit of my heart fluttering away with white dresses, flyaway hair, and bright smiles that held hope, confidence and excitement about the journey ahead.  I can't say that my heart feels completely OK at the moment. I'm not good at goodbyes, and I'm awfully good at getting misty. A lethal combination after grading exams, writing and proofing comments, and general end-of-school edginess which proved to be the Perfect Storm. Every girl with whom I had even the slightest connection made me cry, and MOST of the pictures the girls have so lovingly (ahem) posted on Facebook are heartwarming but decidedly NOT flattering.  And that is okay.

The class of 2010 sort of stole my heart from the moment I met them. I was a new and nervous teacher who basically relied on instinct and internal pep-talks to get through my first year of standing in front of a bevy of girls and trying to impart knowledge about that most dreaded of subjects: history.  I shouldn't have worried as much as I did. They are intelligent, spirited, hilariously funny, courageous - in sum, full of character and compassion.  They are my cup of tea.  And I spent my first year of teaching doing a happy dance over the fact that I advised and taught such wonderfully vibrant young women.

I didn't teach M. as a freshman, but she often stored her lacrosse bag in my classroom, always asking hesitantly - kind of skittishly - before she deposited her gear on my floor with a half-smile, half-grimace expression that is so quintessentially hers.  As a sophomore, she was in my European Civilization class, and within a few classes of watching her and interacting with her, I knew that she was different from the rest of the girls.  Unlike so many of her peers, who with good reason, don protective layers that shield their hearts and their hurts, M. has a heart that permits itself to be hurt and allows others in, with little cautionary tape defining her borders. Beyond that, she is just plain funny. In one class, she assiduously typed what I was saying verbatim (this was her habit, actually), and when in the next class, I prompted the girls to recall a specific fact about Versailles, she calmly opened her notes and proceeded to read what I had said...again, word for word, perfectly capturing my intonations and speech patterns. Have I mentioned that dignity is not something you should overly privilege as a teacher?  Apparently, I wax poetic when I talk about fountains and art (go figure)...and we all remember that class to this day. 

It is no mystery that being a teenage girl is pretty difficult at times, and that pressure from your peers can cause your brain to take a temporary leave...until the age of 22 or so.  This is not some great secret. M. struggled with honoring her enviable moral compass while keeping her friendships intact.  She did so with such integrity, and I often wondered how she maintained her smile...I noticed and I hurt for her when it went missing - deeply. Despite the fact that she is a star athlete and has oodles of friends, she was very lonely a lot of the time. She loves her friends. She is a loyal friend.  She can empathize with anyone about anything, and she can validate the smallest hurt and the greatest heartache. She can put into words what others cannot. She owns her mistakes and she questions EVERYTHING.

And she sees the things in people that others cavalierly overlook.  She would chalk this up to the fact that two of her senses are diminished: she can't taste or smell.  As a result, she notices things around her that pass the rest of us by...her observations go well beyond the superficial; while her peers are sniffing one another's hair, she is noticing the way their eyes close when they laugh, and how her history teacher folds her legs beneath her when she sits and talks to her class. She would be an excellent therapist, because she so quickly picks up on a fleeting facial expression that, with complete accuracy, reflects how a person is feeling on any given day.  I chalk it up to M. being acutely aware of the wonderful symphony of many hearts struggling to find safety, solace, happiness, and love - and part of it may be the sensory thing - but a huge part of it is her own huge heart.

One of the things I love most about my calling is that I get to learn from so many amazing individuals on a daily basis.  I've come to the conclusion that if a teacher doesn't learn as much (if not more) than her students, perhaps a different career is in order.  And I have learned so much from M. about friendships, about endurance, about the importance of levity in the classroom (I need only mention Lionel Ritchie), and the gift of an ongoing conversation that spanned three years and will hopefully continue a lifetime.  It is hard to place a value on the impression an individual (or an entire class) can make on your heart, because over time, that impression takes a different shape.  It changes in the same way that a handprint in concrete does once it dries. And people walk on it.  And leaves gather in its crevices. Moss creeps in and changes its texture. And a child takes sidewalk chalk to it and temporarily declares it to be a different color.  M. would appreciate this notion because despite our differences (i.e. the thought of me holding a lacrosse stick should fill you with dread), we think about the world similarly. Oftentimes, our slightly slanted view of the world is captured through the same rainbow prism, and when the light passes through, it is somehow comforting to know that someone else understands. So I know that she will understand what Thich Nhat Hanh meant when he wrote so beautifully, in such simple prose:  "And the lap of the earth touches the clear vault of the sky."

So, M., may your steps be leisurely.  May you always come and go.  May the lap of the earth always provide a soft landing. And may ideas of "is" and "is not" never cloud the clarity your perfect vision.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mama Mia

Today is Mother's Day, a time for celebrating one of the most difficult jobs anyone could possibly have and the many women who, in the process, open their hearts entire gulfs wider than most do to offer their vulnerability, their wisdom, and their love to someone they will worry about for the rest of their lives. I am not yet a mother, but I spend a fair bit of time thinking about what kind of mother I will be.

And I hope that I am able to approximate a small percentage of my mother's talent at being Mom. 

When I was a child, I used to lie in bed at night and vividly imagine a scenario wherein parents were nominated for "Best Parents Award" by their children.  In my reverie, I gave a speech, extolling the virtues of my parents and the many reasons why they should win the award.  As fantasies often play out, my parents won. I was PROUD to have such loving parents; the fantasy (still a vivid memory) is testimony to that pride. 

So much of this is thanks to the woman who took me to my gymnastics and ballet lessons, who walked the long oyster-shell lane to meet my school bus each day, and the woman who agreed to play adult Wendy to my childhood appearance in our school production of Peter Pan.  And of course the woman who, with epic consistency, can butcher the words to almost any song but remain beautifully in tune while enthusiastically singing along to the radio in the car.  Seriously - other drivers waiting at a red light have been distracted by my mother's ardent devotion to the 80's love ballad and watched with a combination of humor and fascination as she earnestly belted out Celine Dion, nailing every fourth or fifth word... maybe....on a good day.  Really, there is so much to love in someone with so many talents.

My mother was a full time mom for most of our childhood, and while she made it look easy at the time, she worked incredibly hard to bring us stability, routine, and a sense of self from the moment we were born.  She did so many things RIGHT, from instinct and from what she knew was best for her daughters, all of us very distinct individuals with sometimes very different needs.  Television was permitted on very rare occasions, and not only did I learn to read at an early age, but as a result it was (and still remains) my favorite past-time. While most children feasted on bologna sandwiches at lunch, my lunchbox was packed with healthy foods like raisins and whole wheat bread (this was rather forward-thinking when I was a child).  She believed in "less is more" and so although we had scheduled activities as children, we also had free time, a luxury that few of today's children seem to enjoy.  Naps were permitted, reading outside for a couple of hours was encouraged and writing poetry in the middle of the night (while not completely endorsed) was deemed alright because it was a creative outlet. In sum, my parents agreed that they would not shape us to be something we were not.  We were permitted to be ourselves, another novel concept on the brink of extinction among too many parents today.

My mother did hold us to certain standards though, and for that I am eternally grateful to both of my parents.  The Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them done unto you"), to which she often refers, was the guiding principle of my parents' parenting and our sense of what is right and what is wrong.  We were taught to treat others with unwavering kindness and the benefit of the doubt.  We were counseled not to judge others, and to be open to all cultures, faiths, and lifestyles.  Rudeness was anathema.  A sense of entitlement of any kind was viewed as shallow and selfish.  The absence of compassion in our interactions with others was simply not tolerated.  At a very early age, I was taught the basic principle of kindness that both of my parents embody to this day. Thank goodness for this.  Thank goodness that my parents' standards embrace moral courage and character, and that my mother patiently explained these things with love and hope for our bright futures.

She has always held herself to very high standards as a parent.  From the earliest reaches of my memory, birthday cakes were a big deal.  On the year of my fifth birthday, my mother, seven months pregnant with my younger sister (and thus donning TWO birthday hats) painstakingly made me a Wonder Woman birthday cake. Hours before the party, I leaned too far into the cake while inspecting it and fell into the golden lasso. All too familiar with my lack of grace, she sighed and redecorated the cake.  And then played host to some twenty-odd five year olds who jumped off the deck into her impatiens, swung upside down from the bars on the swingset, and wreaked general havoc.  It's a wonder my sister wasn't born early. It's a wonder too that my mother didn't go postal. But pictures of her from that day depict a beaming, beautifully pregnant MOTHER, whose love for her daughter was forever a cause for joyfully picking up those rose-colored glasses and seeing things through the eyes of a child.

As we grew up and away, I watched my mother grow too.  She went back to school, and became a nurse, graduating a mere few days after my graduation from college.  She has spent her whole life - at home and at work- caring for others, something she does exceedingly well.  Her patients may as well be her children; she is not afraid to correct a doctor, question a dosage or advocate for more immediate care.  Now a grandmother to three, she still makes cakes, including the Emerald City, Dora the Explorer, brown sugar pound cake, train cakes at Christmas, and even desserts that avoid dairy and wheat.  She attends recitals and she pulls out my old books for my niece.  She is never tired of loving. 

When I left my husband, when I was diagnosed with Lupus, and whenever I need an ear, my mother has always been at my side.  She hasn't judged me.  She has picked me up and put me back together again so many times and in so many ways.  She has gone to doctors with me and I've seen her brow furrow with concern when I cough or seem stiff from joint pain.  But she puts a smile on her face, brings me a glass of water, and reminds me to take my fish oil.  She has watched as I fall in and out of love again, and she has cried with me as I sometimes struggled to find my equilibrium. When I succeed at some small thing, she exclaims, "Well, hot damn!" and when I tease her (which is frequent), she laughs until she cries. What a gift it is to have someone always there to hold your hand and soften the blow when you fall.  She planted dahlias for my wedding at my parents' home last summer, tending to each blossom with all the love she feels for her three daughters.  With her bell-like laugh that can erupt at any moment, she has shared the gift of laughter with me, and has taught me that laughter is medicine, a tonic for the soul.  She has told me to "buck up" when I needed some tough love and a gentle reminder of how blessed and beautiful my life is.
In so many ways, she has made it so. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

The shopping cart

Damn you, internet. Damn you for forcing me to confront one of my secret obsessions-hobbies-"issues":  the online shopping cart in spring time. Anyone who is an avid gardener can empathize with the heart-wrenching pangs that the spring garden catalog induces in one. It is lethal.  It is cruel. And for the past decade or so, it has been online.  

I love springtime so much that at the age of ten, I wrote a poem about it.  And drew illustrations with pastels of flowers, tree branches, robins' nests (the latter has a prominent, if somewhat overly saccharine role in the poem).  I love it so much that I confess to being one of those annoying individuals who exclaims at every lavender sunrise, every weeping cherry, every new sign of life in my garden.  Hyperbole, you've met your maker.  And she happens to love to garden.

Now that I once again have my own garden, I devote a sizable portion of my mental energy to thinking about it.  It is a living, breathing thing, my garden - and I can easily lose at least 20 minutes of a morning staring at a single euphorbia and wondering if it shouldn't be a little to the left. And oh look!  It has another set of bracts! How brilliant. I  should have ordered a few more...and I need something blue (caryopteris? baptisia?) to off-set the lime green...and crikey, there's that spot there that practically weeps for a mock orange.  Should it be a double or single blossom?  And if I get a mock orange, maybe I should just throw in some of those gorgeous near-black pansies edged in white...

(When I was in first grade, my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Boardley, had a teacher's aid stand by my desk and tap on my shoulder when I daydreamed out the window. I'm just saying: I come by this naturally)

There is much left to be done in my garden, and the spring of 2010 is devoted to the front beds.  Easy-peasy, one might think. But I've done a half a dozen variations of what the front beds (which now, on May 2nd, boast a rampant case of morning glory and very little else) should look like.  I have performance anxiety when it comes to the front beds. Plain and simple.  After all, they are the first things one greets when approaching our house.  Do I go all architectural?  Colorful? English cottage garden? Japanese Zen?  Monochrome?  


To date, I have roughly $2300 of plants in different "carts" - none of which, mind you, are a) the perfect front bed combo, b) affordable, and c) thus, not so much a reality. Fortunately, I collect seeds from my plants each year.  And I love to divide iris. And 
the unthinkable happened: I found a kind of hosta that I actually like and it happens to have really taken a liking to my garden.  So the front beds will be cobbled together with pieces of what is already here - a generative process, actually.  Which in its own way, is much more satisfying than the shopping cart.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Making it down the mountain

Today is my first full day of a week in Park City, Utah. Park City is known foremost for its top-rate skiing, which to those of you who know me AT ALL, at least invites a bit of mirthful incredulity. "Paige? Skiing?"  I know.  I know.  At the age of thirty-five, I can do a split. I can ice skate, and I can run stadiums better than most lacrosse players.  Skiing?  Ha.  

And then there was the whole debate over what constitutes a vacation. I recognize that even sitting here as I am in a lovely hotel, I am rather spoiled to bring this to the table.  That said, after a very long year at work with ongoing challenges, and as a hothouse flower in the truest sense of the word (I kid you not. I am like one of those heat/humidity loving banana plants. I love hothouses. Steam rooms. HEAT. Bring it on.), spending my break in more cold doing something for which I have a cool and distant appreciation - well. It didn't seem very vacation-like to me. And seeing as I am bunny-slope-bound, and Alex speaks the language of quadruple-black-diamond-with-zigzags-and-exclamation-points, it didn't seem to involve to a whole lot of "couple bonding" which I admit, I want and need.  And to be fair, my admittedly narrow definition of this does not involve watching me careen down a mountainside for days on end.

And sometimes the truth is in the challenges, and in learning to work through them with the balance, respect, and acceptance that they deserve.

One of the things that I am "working on" is confronting my self-doubt with a little more determination and a little less "meh". When I face scenarios with which I have a tenuous sense of enjoyment at best, I tend to be a little bit of a stick-in-the-mud.  This is a difficult personality trait, I recognize...when it comes to tending the soul of another, caring for someone, or trying most new things, I am perfectly fine.  You can also count on me to try almost any kind of food on the planet, so long as it doesn't involve American cheese. When it comes to anything involving snow, skis, heavy boots, and poles - none of which feel at all like extensions of my body - trepidation takes hold like a lamprey. It isn't fun for me, and it isn't fun for my husband, who in his expert-skier mindset understandably has a difficult time understanding my stubborn difficulty with negotiating so much equipment while careening down a mountain. Quickly.

This morning we went skiing for the first time together with our dear friends, Dominic and Eliza.  Eliza used to race - so, umm, she's really good.  Dominic is an expert rock climber and an improving skier. He's also one of the best cheerleaders I have ever met. I wanted to high five him when I fell down for the twentieth time and he was right there, saying "Good job, Paige!" and meaning it.  Before we set out though, panic set in.  The boots - they felt like concrete blocks.  The skis had me tripping over myself like a new-born colt. This had man-down written all over it. And I admit it - I panicked. "Take me OFF this mountain," I muttered under my breath, completely aware of all of the skiers on the mountain who in my mind, were stopping to watch the free entertainment wobbling, sliding, and slipping with all the knock-kneed grace of a giraffe. The first run down felt like an eternity, and I had sudden sympathy for my students when I charge them with completing a new assignment that I expect in two days - an eternity of effort, focus, and pushing bounds to many of them.

The second run, which Eliza patiently guided me down, took less time. I fell, laughed, got up again, had a few brief moments of euphoric disillusionment during which time I imagined myself winning Olympic gold - it was awesome.  And then I would fall again. And ski lifts - why are ski lifts so darned difficult? I can never gauge when to jump. Alex was good at explaining this, but I am really bad at following directions with any consistency, I find. It was a lesson in finding patience with myself, with my co-skiers, with the mountain, and with the ski equipment, which I secretly wanted to hurl off the nearest cliff.

All in all, two and a half hours in, and I was done. I do enjoy aspects of skiing - in small doses. Like aspic. But I am not a skier. I can approximate good cheer and I can wear cute ski clothes and feel all sporty, but in truth, it's a bit of a paper-thin veneer.  Tomorrow, I'll get back on the slopes, and I will ski for a few hours, and I'm sure I will improve. Slightly.

But then, I'll want to read. And maybe nap. Or sit by a fire. Or find a cool art gallery. Or decide where we should eat dinner. And shed my ski-bunny pretensions for who I truly am: an apres-skier.  I am trying to make peace now with maybe not being someone who can be labeled "a skier" and instead trying to reach another place entirely. Perhaps making it down the mountain means confronting the things that one simply will NOT excel in, and finding simple happiness in this alone.  Perhaps it also means working on that always-challenging but ever-rewarding balancing act with a partner, when we together stare a situation in the face head-on and say "Okay. So we want different things at this moment. And let's figure out how to make both people happy."

This week, we will make it down the mountain.  And we might take different trails. Perhaps what matters is that we share in the spills, physical and figurative. And also that we recognize that we DO share common interests: hiking a mountain, for instance. Give me Maine, New Hampshire, the Alps, and I will want to reach the summit. It's the ups and downs that make things interesting, and make things worthwhile.  

On our shuttle back to our hotel today, one of our favorite songs came on the radio. And I looked at Alex, this man I married for all of our shared loves and for all of our differences, and I thought to myself "there is nowhere I would rather be."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do-Re-Mi redux

Now this just makes me really, really happy:

Do-Re-Mi, train station - the anti-anger agent

Seriously, I am not sure how anyone can watch this and not smile a little wider. As a lover of public spaces, and as someone who could happily watch The Sound of Music on repeat, I fought tears (and lost) when I saw this for the first time.   Strangers!  Dancing together!  In a beautiful Belgian train station!  What could be better?!

For some, better might be this...

Spanish Market, Opera

Who doesn't enjoy an aria or two while purchasing sausages and tomatoes?  Why not have champagne while doing so?  What's wrong with waltzing in the middle of a bustling market? And why not find so many different ways to fall in love?

If every lunch had a little impromptu Verdi, and if every commute was set to the tune of a little Julie Andrews, the world would be a better place. We must find reason to dance and sing sometimes. Thank goodness some people realize this.  Thank goodness that there are those for whom spontaneity is something too beautiful to pass by. To weep at something heavenly is a very good thing indeed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

On bravery and on Brian

"Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change." -RFK (via Brian Kinsella)

I think that bravery and moral courage are wrapped in all sorts of packages.  It is important to me to make a mental note when I witness or experience acts of bravery that defy our sometimes watered-down use of the word. In a previous post, I made mention of what it is (for me) to be humbled, and I suppose the two go hand in hand. I admit to having a short fuse when it comes to people who are so enamored of their own activities that they don't allow the actions and deeds of others to sit with them a while and push them to reconsider the cost/benefits of their self-absorption.  Maybe this is why I dislike Twitter and why increasingly, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook.  Are we spending too much time "on the grid" and waxing poetic about those beautiful and poignant moments that delineate our protective bubble?  Could we instead be just doing instead of documenting? Maybe there's a balance.  

Take my friend Brian. Brian is not afraid to burst a bubble, if it means that we have a deeper appreciation for life and for the people whose lives are not as gilded as our own. I met Brian in 2004, when he was an undergraduate student at Hopkins. He was in ROTC; I was a graduate student in the history of art. Brian worked at The Wine Source, an amazing wine-beer-spirits-cheese store in Baltimore where my two graduate school friends Heather and Jen also worked to make extra money.  Our $13,000 annual stipend only went so far, after all.  Side note: Heather and Jen both met their husbands at the Wine Source. I love that.  Social outings included "the guys from the Source"  - a welcome reprieve from grad school socializing which invariably centered around discussions of Panofsky, Donatello, and what Bernini was really up to in his Ecstasy of St. Theresa. As scintillating as these discussions were (and still are), I couldn't help but feel that all of this intellectual banter wasn't really all that illuminating after all, and I often found my inner dialogue wondering just how much I should care about whether the latest Rembrandt attribution was correct.  Why not just love the painting for being what it is - something that none of us participating in the conversation could ever possess the talent or the agency to sign our names to?

Conversations with Brian, on the other hand, consistently pushed me to shed my pretensions and the widely-held belief that intellectual might held great moral merit. His perspective on the world - at the time, an intriguing combination of naivete and wisdom - challenged me to embrace my moral courage and what little bravery I felt I had at such a watershed moment in my life. He also taught me one of my most valuable lessons: do what you are. Don't say what you are and expect the Ganges to rise up to greet you. It has more important souls to tend to.

A New Jersey boy, Brian speaks with a slight New Jersey accent that reminds me so much of so many childhoods spent on the Jersey shore with my family. Brian used more product in his hair than I ever have, and he was always a perfect bronzed tan - even in February. His teeth are white as innocence.  I found this so charming and endearing.  He was a body builder for a time, and he shaved his entire body of all hair.  He once showed me photographs from bodybuilding competitions, and I remember being amazed by what people choose to do with their bodies.  Brian was in a fraternity, SAE, and he was the soul of his fraternity house.  He was a shameless flirt, but rarely dated, because he is particular.   He also had NO time, given the number of jobs he worked: the Wine Source, an internship at the Secret Service, his obligations to ROTC, among other part-time commitments.  I am not a fan of sororities and fraternities, though I respect and understand the appeal they have to some.  In my estimation, spending time in the gym pumping iron couldn't be more boring.  And tanning beds make you smell weird.  But Brian and I got along like a house on fire.  We were instant friends, built from a shared locus of honesty, mutual respect, and the unspoken acknowledgment that we had a whole lot to learn from one another.

Despite his busy schedule, Brian always had time to come by my office in the library.  He frequently left me notes, and I still have one he wrote me that is truly one of the kindest letters I have ever received.  He made me watch The Ring, and I will forever curse him for falling asleep 15 minutes into the film, while I sat perched on the edge of my couch, stiff and trembling with terror.  He challenged me to make fun of myself at a point in my life when I had a very hard time doing so.  He hated compliments, and whenever I would thank him for carrying armfuls of art history books for me, or checking in on me after I had a medical procedure, he would shrug it off, "No, no, no, P.  That's nothin'," he would say.  He was a friend -  a real friend.  I needed this in a member of the opposite sex - even if it was an undergrad with whom, on the surface, I had very little in common. 

Baltimore is a place for hard-knocks lessons, though - even Hopkins undergrads are not immune to its breezy callousness.  The back door to the SAE fraternity house where Brian lived was left open one warm April night in 2004, while Brian slept because he had to be up early for work and his housemates finally dozed off after a typical evening of revelry.  Brian awoke in his first-floor room to the sound of his housemate screaming from the living room, and he ran out to discover his friend pleading "Help me," covered in blood from being stabbed by an intruder.  "So much blood, P," he later told me.

Brian knows how to save lives.  This is what he was trained to do and this is what he does now.  He held the wound together with both hands, and yelled for his housemates to help him. No one heard. One girl, who stayed over at the fraternity that night, heard the screams and was too afraid to do anything. Brian doesn't blame her, because his heart is just that big and forgiving.  His friend died the next day from multiple stab wounds.  Brian spoke at the memorial service, and I listened to his voice cracking and quivering as he mourned the loss of a brother - someone he couldn't save.

I worried for a time that Brian's understandable anger and sense of helplessness might wipe away that amber warmth that he shared with such consistent altruism and sincerity.  I worried that he would become jaded, and that his heart, which is so very open to the world, would close.  I worried that he would find the nearest corner, and reside THERE, with his back against the wall.  But Brian doesn't have time for such things. He also doesn't have it in his make-up to be an Atlas to his own heartache, when he has bigger loads to carry:

Brian in Haiti, 2010

After graduating from Hopkins, Brian started active duty, first in Europe.  "P!" he wrote, "I finally understand what the big deal about Renaissance art is!!!" Brian was stationed in Italy and in Germany, before spending over a year in the thick of our current war with Iraq.  When I heard he was being stationed there, it was from a simple post on facebook, and then a short letter. No fanfare. No "pray for me."  My heart sort of sat in stunned panic for a good day after I learned he was going, because part of me didn't know that Brian would survive (despite the fact that of anyone I know, Brian could survive almost anything). He doesn't believe in "think before you leap" when it comes to helping people, and my overactive imagination had scenarios of Brian taking bullets for others on rerun.  He could very well have medals of honor galore, and I wouldn't know about it. He doesn't boast of his meteoric rise in the military, of the many things he has done to, in small but significant ways, make our world a little bit better. He just does it.  He does not agree with this war, but he went. That takes moral courage, bravery, and a strong stomach to boot. 

Brian is now in Haiti for the next few months.  Having only recently joined us stateside after his time in Iraq, he left immediately after the earthquake. While everyone posted on facebook about where to donate (which is very important), Brian posted simply, "Off to Haiti."  This kind of makes one think twice before boasting about something that doesn't involve saving a life, unloading 50 lb bags of rice, or organizing housing for the so many millions of displaced souls.  We don't have time for our own hubris. We don't have time to give ourselves daily "shout-outs" anymore than our time is wasted if we don't spend a bit of our day leaning into discomfort to help someone who lacks the wherewithal to help themselves. Brian understands this.  He understands that we can write and post and paste links and bemoan all of the ways that the world hemorrhages, and that to truly honor these souls in crisis, one has to help them.  

And I wish I was more like him.