19 August 2017

Ignorance at Daybreak

I found myself wide awake at 5:20 a.m. on a Saturday. What in the world, I wondered and set about making coffee. Is it the conflict with my son? The stress of transitioning to my new town of residence? Money? National and international socio-political turmoil? Something I ate?

I took my coffee to the porch to sit and sip and watch the light encroach. 

It's been three hours now and I still don't know why I woke up so early, but neither do I know why a mourning dove and then a squirrel felt confident or curious enough to come within a few feet of me this morning. And I am unable to identify most of the sounds that emanated from the trees and shrubbery and sky as I sat. I noticed all the new webs on the porch, constructed since I carefully cleared all the web-lace yesterday and realized I am also clueless about how spiders choose a site and how long it takes them to rebuild and whether their webs are improvisations or careful designs.

It is humbling to remember that although I am a part of nature, I know so little about the community.


06 August 2017

New Neighbors

A little after 1 a.m. I heard what sounded like someone hammering nails in the apartment below mine. Based on the pattern and placement of the sound, I imagined my neighbor hanging a series of framed prints at eye level all the way around the room. Tap-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap....then a couple minutes of silence before repeating the sequence.

I was already in bed. It had been a long day for me since I had awakened spontaneously before 5 a.m. I had actually dozed off and the hammering woke me up.

When the pounding commenced for the eighth time I got up and walked downstairs, thinking to inquire "How much longer?" There was no response when I knocked.  I waited and knocked again. No response.

I returned to my apartment and wrote a note:
Hello -- I'm your upstairs neighbor in Apt. 307. Welcome to the building. So glad you're a musician -- me too! I hear you hammering at the moment -- it's about 1 in the morning. Would you mind please doing the hammering a little earlier in the evening? Thanks. The Lady in 307 
I walked down and slipped the note under the door. No more hammering that night.

Two days later I found a note on the living room floor, written on the back of my note.
Hi there -- Sorry about that. Unsure what you mean by "hammering" but now I know the sound carries more than I thought. I've lived here for several years so I suppose I should welcome you to the building! I've heard you on the piano and it sounds lovely! Sorry again for the late night strumming! Thanks. Best Megan (lady in 207)
I am charmed. Although I'm a little embarrassed, I don't want her to get the wrong idea so I've written a response:
Megan -- I love the strumming.  Strumming guitar is wonderful at any hour. Maybe the hammering was coming from next door? I thought you were new because I've never heard any 🎼 until this week. My name is Alex and thanks for the welcome.



08 April 2017

Dream of a Thousand Students

I am wide awake at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, exhausted, panting a little.  My heart is racing.  I am up because I must capture this dream.  I am still laughing.  "It was just a dream," I assured myself once I was sure that was, after I shouted "Is anybody here?" into the empty house and there was no reply.

---

The Dream

I am sleeping on the living room floor because my bed has not yet been assembled.  It is my first night in a new living space.  It is very early, not yet light outside.  I get up and walk around to take a look at my new home. I thought I rented an apartment but the place feels like a house. The floor plan resembles the house I grew up in but it's larger and falling apart. I see for the first time that none of the doors close properly and the floors are splintering.

The rooms are sparsely littered with my possessions.  Nothing is in order yet.  There are large unopened boxes with BOOKS written in large letters on the sides and open boxes with odds and ends pulled out:  lamps and towels and dishes parked on chairs and the floor.

Returning to the double windows of the living room, I see a few adolescent girls, each walking to school alone, down the middle of the semi-dark street to avoid male predators.

I feel but do not yet see or hear activity on the south side of the house.  Through the window of the south door I discover children and teachers in the yard.  Hundreds of school age kids milling and calling out and chasing each other and .... doing kid stuff while scores of teachers run around trying to get them to line up and stay lined up.  I think they're preparing for a field trip.  There are also puppies and older dogs.  Slightly familiar breeds but not quite:  pumpkin-colored dachshunds and teeny-tiny labs and some breed that walks mostly upright.

A little boy trips over an exposed tree root and falls.  I run out into the yard to find the person in charge.  They can't line up here.  If something happens I might be sued.

I can't find the lead teacher.  While I search, teachers are morphing from the staid, tidy instructors I knew as a kid into interesting people with dreadlocks and nose rings and bare feet.  They speak English in accents from all over the world.  Some of them speak languages I can't identify.  They are an exuberant and good-humored group of adults and children.  Lots of smiles.  Lots of cheerful "I'm not sure who you should talk to" and ... turning their attention back to herding the kids.

I finally get a business card from a tall, male teacher with a Midwestern accent and return to the house to telephone the school.  Back inside, I discover the kids and puppies have wandered in.  For the rest of the dream I am trying to get the kids and the teachers to leave my house.  They are everywhere:  in closets, under and behind furniture, popping out of boxes and spilling my stuff all over.  I hear footsteps and realize they are even upstairs and  I didn't know there was a second floor.

Teachers are pursuing  the kids, who also have accents and are every skin color I have ever seen. Kids and teachers alike are well-dressed and ragged, skinny and plump, talkative and shy, on crutches and wearing braces, with sticky hands and dirty knees and giggles and "reasoning" in that voice that teachers use and my house is starting to smell like a school.

I attempt to explain to a trio of teachers that I can't practice piano with all these kids in the house and it's important that I practice every day. And also I just got up; I haven't had any coffee yet.  And....  A male teacher with an Eastern European accent, as a kind of thanks-for-letting-us-use-your-space and sorry-about-the-chaos gift hands me a cloth bag containing four obviously-recycled bottles, corked and filled with wine he made from ingredients found around my house.

Some kind of joy is infecting me.  I want to capture the fun and post it to FB but I can't find my cell phone.  "I think one of the kids has my phone," I say to the wine-gifter.  "Here, use mine and dial your number," he says.  I do and we hear my phone ringing somewhere out in the yard.  We locate it and I take pictures of the kid and his friends and teachers nearby.  The picture looks like it could have been taken at a music festival.

A female teacher who looks like me with very long hair explains "This house has been vacant for a long time."  She says the school outgrew its original facility and appropriated this abandoned building.

As the queues finally begin to move, I yell some kind of farewell and in unison, a thousand voices take up my words and turn them first into a chant and then a South African freedom song.  Children's voices and teacher voices harmonize.  They are on their way.

I am making coffee when I discover some kids were left behind.  There's no phone number on the business card.  These kids are gonna be here all day, maybe through the night.  I'm not going to get any practice time today.  It's going to be frustrating trying to unpack and set up my house with them running all over.  I mostly don't care.  But I'm running out of steam......

--------

I wake up because I'm exhausted.



25 February 2017

Troll Litter

Last night I donated about 30 minutes of my life to engagement with a troll on FB.

I deal with trolls as I deal with litter. If I see it while I’m driving, travelling at 70 mph up US 78 to Memphis or 65 to 80 mph on SR 7 to Oxford, I feel a quick stab of disappointment in “people” at the back of my throat and in the pit of my stomach. I’m moving fast so I don’t stop. It costs less than a minute of lifetime and I drive on.

If I see it in my yard or on the block where I live, I grumble about it for a few days -- not all day, just every time I leave the house or stand in the 14’ windows of the music room, watching styrofoam cups and empty potato chip bags tumble in the agitated winds of an oncoming storm.


Eventually I set my jaw, put on my moccasins, and go out to collect the litter.

I live on what is considered a busy corner in this small town. The public library occupies the entire block south of me. A huge historic Presbyterian church and the dainty two-story City Hall face me on the street that forms the western leg of the corner.  Lots of foot traffic as well as vehicular.  It's mostly young people who drop the litter; but the library also attracts older people, unemployed or retired or single moms with kids or the handful of ageless men who seem to spend the entire day walking and loitering. Some of them litter, too.

Usually everyone disappears after sundown but a few months ago a middle-aged couple with a dog took up residence on the library grounds for three or four days.  They caught my attention; the only time I'd seen white people loitering around the library and the only people I'd seen sleeping -- at night -- on the grounds.  I think they were on the road and just resting in Holly Springs for a few days.  Both of them looked like people who'd been spending a lot of time in sun and wind.

I gather the trash from my side of the street on both legs of the corner.  and deposit it, usually, in one of three dumpsters that hug the front wall of my neighbor’s place.  I feel good after I do it and the street looks better. It never takes more than 20 minutes.

So last night was put-on-the-moccasins night for me on FB.  A few weeks after The Election of 2016 (yeah, it's certain to appear in caps from now on), aware of the deepening divisions between people
along political lines, divisions spreading like hairline cracks shattering relationships, eroding the discourse and fracturing the psyches of the nation's people, I wondered will we ever mend these
breaks?  How?  Won't communication, the ability to talk to each other, be essential in any strategy of healing?

I was a proponent of "reach out to them" for a few weeks.  Breathe deep and don't get emotional.  Be rational and nonjudgmental.  Tell the truth and back it up with documented facts.  Walk a mile in their shoes. Meet them where they are.

It didn't go well.  There were a few instances where after a few exchanges the troll stopped screaming.  A couple of them thanked me for the exchange.  But overall, things quickly devolved into a train ride to Crazyville; at least on the troll's side.  I'm not angry at trolls.  I don't feel like screaming at them or smacking them.  They're like litter.  Pick it up and throw it away or drive on by.

Last night's encounter was with a young woman I'll call Lindsey.  She said something about libtards in response to this photo Robert Reich posted.  I commented that to view the problem and the fix for what's messed up in the U.S. through a liberal vs conservative lens misses the mark, quickly garnered a few Likes in the two minutes it took Lindsey to respond in all-cap word-salad rage about atheist liberal scum something or other.

I responded ...  she responded ...  I'm still working the kumbaya angle with her.  I bounced one more; by now, she was way over the ledge in the long grass sputtering and spitting without punctuation.

I lost interest.  I mean, how much communication is possible with an angry person who is screaming lies and cliches?

Some slightly perverse curiosity that I can't explain to you at the moment led me to click onto Lindsey's page.  She looked nothing like I'd imagined.  She is perhaps 20 years old.  Single.  White.  Pretty brunette.  Lot of family photos. 90% God- and Church-related posts in her newsfeed -- and 99% of everything slanted toward anger or outrage or indignation or some really mean humor.

I asked myself:  what are they so mad about?   "They" as in Christians, conservatives, and Republicans.  The Christians have their faith, the conservatism permeates the entire culture and the Republicans have the White House, both Houses of Congress and most of the governorship posts across the nation. What are they mad about?  No, it's beyond "mad" and "angry". Lindsey was enraged.

I almost went back, though I had signed off our exchange with something like "I hope your rage subsides at some soon point and you join the movement to restore democracy in our homeland.  It will take all of us to get this straightened out." I almost went back to ask her "Why are you so angry?  What is it?" but I didn't.  She had been incoherent throughout our discourse and I had little hope of a transformation being sparked by my question.

So

I blocked her.  No more Lindsey.  Litter removed.







11 December 2016

Meandering Thoughts as I Try to Decide

Anna E. Blunden (British, 1830-1915), Dawn in an Ancient Land, 1871, watercolor, T

It is time to move on.  I think....

I'm looking at Kansas because I have family there:  will the tender, newly-forged bonds of affection between us hold fast in the coming storm?  Will regular, frequent exposure to each other reveal fatal flaws? Am I brave enough and true enough and strong enough to face the Family, the Final Frontier?

Here's a poem by Mary Oliver I found recently:

A Pretty Song
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn't it?
This isn't a playground, this is 
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods 
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.
And I say to my heart: rave on.

This is where I've lived my whole life if truth be told.  Scared shit-less and trying to care less, or appear to, a lot of the time but, yeah, this is basically where I live, what I believe in and reach toward with my life.

By contrast, the tone of this personal blog post by Michelle R. Smith reads like something my fantasy Self might write:  confident and strong and uncompromising and unapologetic.  She is certain of what she thinks.  A certainty that offers muscular critique and persuasion away from whatever the reader believed previous to reading it.  There's some truth in the post, some points I agree with; but it isn't really my voice.  Not really my attitude. I'm softer than that.  Less certain.

And I still believe in the power of Love in a way that Ms. Smith obviously does not.  As scared as I am, I still believe in the power of Love.




I'm also looking at relocating to Springfield, Massachusetts where I have a friend who called me "family" the other night on the phone.  I'm considering it because it's in the direction of Portugal which is, except for the serious extenuating consideration of my grandchildren residing in Kansas, my consistent reply when I face the mirror and ask myself "If money were no issue and you could go anywhere at all, where would you go?"



I don't know anyone in Portugal and have only one friend in Springfield, Mass.  Portugal looks like a beautiful place and my friend is Massachusetts is reliable and generous

but wouldn't it be awful to find myself brokenhearted and regretting my decision in either of those places?  I don't know my friend in Massachusetts very well; I speak Brazilian Portuguese haltingly and Portuguese Portuguese not at all.  Either of those two contingencies could prove disastrous.

I have imagined myself in Portugal, gazing across the Atlantic ocean towards Kansas, where the only real love I've ever felt resides, sick or desperate to get home but unable to afford the fare.  At least in Massachusetts, Love would be not as far away.


There's a full length mirror on the door of the shower stall.  I step out of the shower and look at my body as I dry off.  I look into my eyes.  What!? I ask.

What are you doing?  What do you want? I ask myself gently.

I want to find my place and my people before I die.

It's the same answer as always.

I want to be somewhere, among people, that feels as right as New Orleans felt to me. Minus the destitution.  Am I asking too much?  Is Kansas my place and my people?  There's Love in Kansas.  I am sure of that.  Is Love enough?




06 December 2016

The Christmas Pageant

Last night was the Christmas pageant at Marshall Academy, the local Christian academy. Three girls who study piano with me attend Marshall.  All three of them mentioned the upcoming pageant and asked me to attend.

To my students (and anyone else who wants to pay compliment) I am Miss Alex.  On occasions when my signature is required, I might sign either "Miss" or "Ms." Depends on my mood.  In the privacy of my mind -- is that where emotions reside? -- the Miss Alex "thing" gives me a lot of pleasure. I have felt respected, loved, feared, recognized, and protected at various times when addressed as Miss Alex.

In that way that many women begin to see their mothers in themselves, I see my mother in me most prominently in "Miss" Alex. She's fancy and proper.

So 3 students asked and Miss Alex consented to come to the Christmas pageant. It gave me pleasure to be asked. It gave me pleasure to grant a request. I felt very teacher-ly and correct.

The actual experience of attending gave me little pleasure; and what pleasure I felt was purely fabricated on my part. For example, I became aware at one point after entering the gymnasium where the play was to be staged that I was scowling. I was in public and I was acutely aware of tension along my jaw, across my forehead, and around my eyes. I did a little "Now, now, Alex. Be nice..." adjustment of my attitude and consciously rearranged my face.

I looked around the gym and spotted the mother of one of my students. In real life, I like the woman a lot. We made eye contact and she smiled and waved. I waved back. The moment was pleasurable. Wherever I've lived, running into people I know in public has always engendered a sense of arrival-at-last and belonging. I felt a brief but authentic joyfulness wash over me. The tension left my face.

I have said many times that "Holly Springs is where good ideas come to die."  Of course, as with any of the many things each of us finds ourselves repeating, it is a statement about myself.  Like the "introvert - extrovert" identity.  Myers-Briggs.  Optimist - pessimist.  Christian - not. Anything I say repeatedly, no matter the topic, any identifier I claim and pronounce, is a label I wear.

So

yes. I've thought about dying in Holly Springs. Not a lot but it has crossed my mind more than once. And I have thought of myself as "a good idea."

Anyway

the pageant was exhausting. Mentally.  Spiritually.  Twice I was this-close to leaving.  I stayed because I wouldn't hurt my students for the world.  And they would be hurt to see Miss Alex leaving the gym before the show was over. Miss Alex is fancy and proper...and she loves kids.

Before the lights went down, while people were still arriving, I noticed not for the first time since coming to Mississippi, that the majority of people in the immediate moment and vicinity are plump. I checked myself for bigotry or unkindness and found a trace of bigotry, a smattering of mild disgust; I abandon those perspectives fairly easily these days -- after years of consciously working on it through improvisation and other strategies. It's easy now to return to a more open, non-judgmental analysis; to look at the environment with curiosity and willingness. To ask questions and say "Yes."

The lights went down and a woman (perhaps the principal?) took the mic to give welcome and make public acknowledgement of Miss Donna's hard work since Labor Day putting the show together.  She also said something like "And if you haven't got the Christmas spirit by this time, we have a wonderful show!" which made me frown again. She said some more but the PA system failed....and they fixed it...and the show began.

The curtain opens.  Stage is crowded with students standing on three-tier risers along the back of the stage and others standing downstage. I check the printed program:  appears that every student in grade 3 through 6 is in the pageant.  I scan the stage, looking for my students.  I see tiny, twitchy little bird-like children in a variety of seasonal costumes -- snowflakes and wise men and elves and ballerinas; older children, some of them clearly experiencing a physical growth spurt, fidgety or slouching in costumes connoting ski vacations and cowboys and snowmen.  Most of the kids are wearing mic/headset contraptions.

Recorded Christmas music blasts into the room.  My scowl deepens:  I'm a music teacher.  I know for a fact there are at least three pianists on that stage. I scan again.  There is no piano in the room.  The children onstage begin to sing to the recorded music.

Cacophony.  Some one or more of the kids might have been singing on key, but you could not tell from where I was sitting.

Oh the agony...  I will spare you more details.

The grandmothers of one of my students sat in front of me. When the show ended (yes, there was the obligatory standing ovation that American audiences now grant every performance by anyone anywhere...)  As I stood to leave one of them said, "Wasn't that wonderful?"  "Do you want an honest answer?" I asked her.  "Why, yes, of course," she crooned in that quintessential Southern belle voice.

"I am disappointed that after three months of work, this show is the result. I know for a fact that three of those kids are capable of much more than this production allowed them to practice or share."

Both of them were aghast and speechless. Southern social protocol offers little guidance on how to respond in the face of bold truth. Bold truth is generally perceived as rude but it was obvious to me that one of the grandmothers agreed with what I was saying though she would not have dreamed of saying such a thing herself. She recovered from her initial reaction and offered that Miss Donna was a full-time teacher who had taken on the Christmas pageant on top of other responsibilities. "I wish they'd just hire her as a music teacher. She plays at our church and she plays beautifully."

So there were at least five pianists in the room.  Over a hundred people got dressed up and drove through cold rain to sit on battered folding chairs in a gymnasium and listen to recorded music and kids singing along off key, rattling off or mumbling their spoken lines with zero stage presence while five trained musicians were in attendance?! Sorry...I said I'd spare you the details.

I really wanted to get to am "all school plays are like this...the value is in the community coming together and the kids being celebrated and having the learning experiences of performance and public speaking" sort of perspective with this but when I tried I ran into all kinds of but-but-but walls.

I was a kid once.  I was in lots of school plays and pageants. As an adult, I've attended a lot of performances and presentations by children. It just isn't true that all school plays are like this.  This bad.  I've enjoyed every school play I've ever attended.  Until this one. With some shows, a few bright stars are revealed, some kid with exceptional abilities; with other shows, the entire ensemble is amazing (shows at art magnet schools, for example, are exceptional for the array of artistic ability and imagination on display). I've seen wonderful shows in churches, gyms and vacant lots; shows with unlimited budget for spectacular sets and costumes and others where everything is made from cardboard and bed linens. Shows with an unforgettable, poignant or funny script; and others where the relevance of one event to those that precede or follow it is negligible.

I loved them all.

For me, what distinguishes those shows from what I saw last night are profound seriousness, enthusiasm and pride --- in the performers, the teachers involved and the audience members. Last night very few of the kids exhibited any of those distinctions and I believe one reason is that the production, in its development and presentation, did not offer or allow or facilitate seriousness, enthusiasm or pride in the kids.  If the kids had felt any of that, their teachers and parents and family would also have felt it. Creative activity is pervasive magic.

This morning, thinking about all the plump bodies, I believe they are bodies gone to seed.  These bodies are the end result of years and years of going-through-the-motion lifestyles that include scenes like being a kid, standing with a herd of other kids singing songs about glorifying God without actually experiencing the glory, a profoundly exhilarating bold-truth kind of experience in my memory. It's going through life consuming without the internal calorie burner of passionate enthusiasm activated. It's not weight that I find abhorrent.  It is the denial or suppression or focused extinguishing of seriousness, excellence, enthusiasm, creativity and appropriate sense of pride.

I am agnostic or atheist or something but I am moved to belief and wonder where truth or beauty present.  Denial and suppression are the antithesis to both.

Note:  This is NOT a photo from of kids at Marshall Academy.

I didn't want to be polite and laudatory last night. I wasn't feeling it.

To be honest, I haven't been feeling it generally lately. Not in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election season. I have never been one to indulge in false praise (another one of those things I'm aware I have said multiple times).  I am often willfully inept as re politeness or social etiquette.  Of late, it all seems ridiculous to me. We are a people content to shuffle our feet and try to be nice or at least be thought of as nice, living within a system that depends upon our conformity to the artifice of niceness.  Much of the time, nice is a mask for mindlessness, resignation, and fear. These are not, in my opinion, our most attractive or life-affirming human traits.

I was one of two black faces in that audience last night. I live in a system that insists I take note of that.  A system that operates so that every white person I spoke with last night was aware of my blackness first and foremost.  It's the premier pre-screen for whatever I might say to them.

Lately I'm feeling like "why not speak the truth? I'd just as soon be seen as Miss Alex, The Black Lady That Speaks Truth as Miss Alex, The Black Lady That's So Polite."

I really and truly must get out of this town.