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.


21 September 2016

Turn the Page

I want to remember that the morning after I learned about the shooting of Terrence Crutcher, I woke up with tears in my eyes. For the rest of the day, it felt like I was wearing a 50-pound lead cape. And I kept tearing up. My thinking and emotions careened from utter despair (yeah, suicide crossed my mind) to brainstorming some monumental action I could take as one human in hopes of stunning ....the System? Police? Obama?

into doing SOMETHING to stop the killings.

I settled for changing my cover photo and profile picture on FaceBook. Hardly moved the needle on the gauge of my distress.

I want to remember that I attended a book signing in Oxford that afternoon and listened to an author/editor talk about Hunter S. Thompson's drug and alcohol ab/use with sufficient humor and goodwill to elicit comfortable chuckles from those in attendance.  I thought about how many people were currently behind bars for drug and alcohol ab/use and I did some online searching when I got home to find out whether Thompson served time for drug possession or use. (I haven't found any arrests yet.)

I want to remember that one of the tires on my car was flat when I returned to it after the book signing. And that AAA never answered their phone. And the sunset, as a kind stranger reinflated the tire, was magnificent.

Something turned in me when I learned of the Crutcher murder. It may never turn back. I am not ready to die.

My new "relative" Meghan and I blazed an invigorating chat late last night, scheming and strategizing a project that will challenge the capitalist behemoth that is devouring every living thing in its path -- including hearts and minds. I am excited. My heart is permanently broken and I am excited.

17 August 2016

Watcha say?

I have lots of questions.  About Life and how to live it.  And about people and the choices they make as they live Life.  And about my particular life as I live with myself and interact with people.

I'm not talking about the deep mysteries:  why are we here?  what happens when we die?  If there's an after life, is there also a before life?  I ponder those mysteries too but that's not what I want to talk about today.

Today I'm looking at a little thing that I experience over and over in social settings but I just don't "get".  I've always considered myself an intelligent person but the absence of intelligence in this regard -- an apparent inability to look, learn something and apply the acquired knowledge -- makes me wonder about my so-called intelligence.


So here's what's up for consideration today:  In more than 9 out of every 10 verbal exchanges with people, their response to my first statement or question is either "What?" or "Huh?"  I don't include my students in this number because, given the context in which we interact, I understand that much of what I say is probably new information for them.  I encourage them to question what I say.

Yes, I recognize the issue of regional dialect. I've lived a lot of different places, each with its own distinctive dialect.  But this place, Holly Springs, MS, is the first place I've lived where people routinely seem unable to understand my speech. Judging from past experience in other places, I speak a kind of generic American dialect that is decipherable for most American listeners. 

But not here. 

I was sitting in Wendy's recently, one of the few wi-fi spots in town, taking care of online business and browsing social media.  Fox News blared from the big screen TV while a female crooned a pop tune through the restaurant's sound system. At a nearby table, the adults in a rambunctious family group were engaged in a lively discussion of something they'd just heard on TV, apparently able to understand everything the news anchor said.

As I passed the table I paused to alert the young woman holding the infant that "Her little shoe fell off." 

"Huh?"

"The baby's shoe fell off.  It's under your chair," I intoned slowly while making eye contact.

"Oh!"  She bent to retrieve it.  "Thank you, ma'am."

I proceeded to the counter to order a beverage. "Welcometowendy'smayItakeyourorder," the young cashier trilled as I approached.  After considering my options for a few seconds, I said "I'd like the green tea, please."

"What?"

"The green tea," I repeated, speaking a bit louder and a lot slower.

&&&&&&&

So.

Is it easier to understand newspeak than everyday conversation?  Or is it easier to hear the human voice through a TV speaker?  Or is real-time human interaction so off-putting as to disrupt cognitive processing?  Or do I talk funny and it's only coincidence that people in New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Colorado Springs, Rio de Janeiro, ETC., are able to understand my funny talk? 

Or ....?

01 August 2016

The Landlord's Gallery

On the morning of the day I moved into the Yellow Fever House, the landlord and I spoke by telephone. I asked when I could move in and was told "If you can give me a few hours to take down the art, you can move in this afternoon." I offered there was no need to remove art from a space I would inhabit. We met an hour later, I signed the lease and was given the keys.

The photos below chronicle the current installation of paintings by Del Stover. One painting was removed a few weeks ago. The ghosts in the house are fond of nudging the hung works into slightly lopsided alignment. Straightening the paintings is part of my housekeeping regimen. Last fall one of the paintings was nudged so forcefully that it fell off the wall and was separated from its frame. After repairing it and rehanging it, only to have it forcefully ejected again, I returned it to my landlord.

Many of the paintings hold little to no appeal for me but I don't find any of them disturbing enough to remove from the gallery.  As far as I know, none of the works is titled.

The paintings hang in every room except my bedroom.  I've informed Del that that space is reserved.

I won't live here forever. These photos are for the record, documentation of one the stops along the way.














How Our Children See Us

"How foolish to think you can tell your children about yourself before they're at least fifty. To ask to be seen by them as a person and not as a function. To say:  I am your history, you begin from me, listen to me, it could be useful to you." from  The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

In a few weeks I'll travel to Kansas to visit my son and meet second grandchild, a girl named Georgia, for the first time.  The last time we Skyped she hardly noticed me, more interested in crawling around and exploring the stuff on her father's desk. She'll have no recollection of me when we meet face to face.

Her older brother Henry calls me Gramma Alee. She'll probably follow his lead. It's evident she adores him from the photos I've seen. I haven't seen Henry in four or five years.

Georgia doing Frieda
Even though I'm always a little insecure with people under the age of 15 or so, once we've introduced ourselves in our own words I am usually able to focus more on them and less on my anxiety and we do just fine.

Georgia and Henry are both exceptionally bright children and, from what my son tells me, Georgia is as graceful a conversationalist as her brother. That always helps -- I like to talk to kids that enjoy conversation.

My son was that way when he was very young.  Curious about everything and courageous and highly gregarious.  I loved that about him and encouraged his fearless engagement with the world. I still love that about him. He knew I "had his back" as they say.

I still love that about him but his sense of me having his back has diminished. He just turned 38. I don't hear from him very often. Since he found his life partner -- a beautiful woman who mostly presents as my temperamental opposite -- he's been intent on protecting her and the children from me (his word).

When he was about 11, he asked me to tell him the story of my life and I did. I hope some day he'll ask me again to tell him the story of my life. I think he'll understand it better this time. I think he'll meet me at last and realize I was never a threat to his family.

31 July 2016

Approaching the Tipping Point

I am losing sleep. And chain smoking. And crying a lot. 

I am (as of two days ago) committed to taking my vitamins more consistently. 

I must have coffee in the morning.  Two cups is standard quota now -- up from the usual single cup.

I am finding succor in a virtual world among people I have never met. 




I am holding my tongue and filtering the audience that can hear me when I break silence.

There must be a word to describe the experience of a heart breaking and a brain exploding at the same time.

I watched portions of the Republican National Convention, sitting at a counter in my kitchen. Not surprised that their message of "everything is horribly wrong and it's Their fault -- not ours and our guy is gonna beat them up for us" has an appeal but pained to see the numbers, just how many humans have no trouble, suffer no incapacitating cognitive dissonance while standing under the "liberty and justice for all flag" while spewing hatred.  Some of them even call me "friend."

I watched portions of the Democratic National Convention, sitting at a counter in my kitchen. From time to time I wished I was in Philadelphia. I have not been a registered Democrat for many years but lots of Independents showed up in Philly, too, and I sighed with longing as I watched them marching and chanting and sitting-in.

I struggle to reconcile the hopeful enthusiastic fervor of HRC supporters inside the Wells Fargo Center with the hopeful enthusiastic fervor of Sanders/Stein supporters outside and inside the Wells Fargo Center. I note the frustration and animosity of both groups toward the other, struggle to understand what any or all of this has to do with me, to ascertain where, if anywhere at all, my place is in the tumult. 

The struggle is familiar. Feels like a life-long struggle. The context this time is national politics, a presidential campaign but I know about suppressing personal desire and revamping principles and breathing through delayed gratification and seeking a mature serenity with a making-the-best-of-It compromise, glimpsing a shining city on a hill while slogging through a decimated ghetto full of frightened, disheartened people, all of us in shackles.

And I know my life nears its end. And I wonder will there come a day when I can/will simply stand up and walk toward the city on the hill?  Find the courage to press on, this time toward the Light and only the Light? 

I am likely guilty of the naivete, selfishness, and delusional thinking that some accuse me of. I am not appreciating the magnitude of the danger we face, they tell me. A danger whose devastating potential outweighs whatever truth and beauty I imagine I see on the shining hill. A danger that will make current deprivations look like paradise by comparison.

I am so tired, so aware of my mortality, so aware that time is running out. Something in me is screaming "Enough is enough. No more. The time has come." 

Whatever the particulars of its presentation, the struggle is sometimes like a choice between slow death by torture with nothing to wear or eat and slow death by torture with clothing inadequate to the weather and a steady diet of toxic food. It's a hard choice, right?  

I am told repeatedly that abstaining from either option, choosing a third way that lies along the path to the city on the hill, is foolish, for just around that curve up ahead I will learn that this road actually leads to one of the other two options. 

In the fantasy, somehow I die on the road. Maybe before the curve or maybe just as I enter it. 


14 July 2016

The Long Haul

I was yanked from sleep this morning by what felt like every cell in my body (and the equivalent of every cell in my soul) taking a deep breath and shouting with a determination to be heard at the furthest corners of the Universe. "We are ready!" I felt strong and determined and ready for a slog through Hell.

As a teen and a young woman I wondered why my mother didn't love me. Now and then, my mother and I would have an especially painful (for me) exchange. Seeking comfort (or something) from a relative or friend of the family, I'd hear "She loves you. She just doesn't know how to show it." This never comforted me. Not once.

And I didn't believe it. Any more than I believed "You can be anything you want to be" or "Good things come to those who wait" or "Everything happens for a reason." How could I believe? Real life experience was telling me that she did not love me. The people I consulted didn't want to believe that such a thing could happen, that a mother could not love her child.


In the early days of Donald Trump's candidacy for President of the United States, he made outrageous statements. He lied. He was rude. He was mean. He was stupid. People said "He won't last. He'll be gone before the first primary election." They didn't want to believe that such blatant bigotry and incompetence would appeal to the "good people of this country" (the assumption being that "people are basically good." Add that one to the list of platitudes in the previous paragraph.)

As time went on, real life experience delivered a different message. Blatant bigotry and incompetence appealed to a great many people.

"Well, he'll never be nominated," they said as Trump's march through the primary season began.

"Well, hell never be elected," "they" are saying now. People from a variety of political persuasions don't want to believe that a man of such blatant bigotry and incompetence could be elected and hold the highest office in the "greatest nation on earth."


A few months ago a big brown envelope was delivered to me via USPS. It contained the Amended Final Settlement of my deceased mother's estate. She died on Valentine's Day 2012.  My name does not appear anywhere in the document, only on the address label affixed to the envelope.  As far as my mother was concerned, as indicated in her Final Will and Testament, I did not exist. The document acknowledges the existence of my son but not me.

She did not know how to show her love for me (if she had any) but she did know how to show an enduring disregard. As the recipient of this disregard, I must say it feels a lot like not being loved.

And I've survived it. For the last 30 years of her life, my mother refused to speak to me, to answer or return phone calls or acknowledge cards and letters. It hurt -- hurts still on certain days -- and I survived it.


There is a strong possibility that some day in the not-too-distant future, Barack and Michelle Obama will give Donald and Melania Trump a tour of the White House. The Obamas will not be happy about it but they will survive it.

I don't want to see Donald Trump elected. I hope he isn't. If he is, the consensus in the entirety of my sensorium is that I will survive it.