24 September 2013

Speaking in Code

So here's what I don't get (let's say, "something else" that I don't get):

A friend invites me to accompany her to an event. I accept the invitation. The event is scheduled for two or three weeks from the day the invitation is extended. She will pick me up at a specified hour.

"Thank you," I say as type the details into Google calendar.

"You're welcome," she responds. "Now, call me two days before to remind me."


"Oh, are you thinking you may change your mind about going?"

"No, no. I'm definitely going. I wouldn't miss it for anything. I just need you to remind me a couple of days before."

Perhaps, dear reader, this all makes sense to you. So let me explain my confusion.

First, why does one need a reminder to attend something they are "definitely going" to?

Second, doesn't the request for reminder rely on me remembering to remind myself to remind you? Doesn't that sound a little crazy?

Third, how does my friend remember everything else in her life? Does she have a devoted cadre of Reminders who call or email or text her all day to remember all the things she needs to remember? Or are there certain kinds of appointments
that she forgets?

Fourth, what precludes her employing Google Calendar or her "smart" phone or any of the other scheduling technology currently available to set her own reminder? Does she not have a desk calendar?

This does not just happen with social acquaintances. Yesterday I drove to the only VW mechanic in Holly Springs and explained a little "thing" that's happening with the car. I asked if he could fix it today. He said he thought he could and asked me to write down what I'd just said. I complied and handed it to him. He said "OK. I'll come down and get your car at 9:30 tomorrow morning." I thanked him and turned to go.

"Now, just call me about 9 in the morning to remind me," he added. It is now 11:18. I haven't called him. I haven't seen him. The car is still sitting in the driveway.

A few weeks ago we had the dryer serviced. I mentioned we occasionally had "stinky" water from the bathroom sink. The mechanic said he knew what caused it and would come back the following week to address the issue. "Just give me a call on Monday to remind me," he said as he left.

I called him on Monday, got his answering machine, and left a message. "This is Alex Mercedes calling to remind you that you are coming to fix our stinky water this week." That was a month ago. I haven't seen him since.

I understand that in this town, where there is serious shortage of skilled tradesmen, there is less pressure to apply business practices that are commonplace elsewhere, like, using a calendar to schedule appointments, for example. When you're the only guy in town who fixes VWs, folks have few alternatives to doing business with you.

Still, I'm confused. Apparently, even if I provide the reminder, there's no
guarantee you'll come through. And if you know I have no other options, why ask me to remind you? Why add that layer of complexity to the proceedings? Why make me work that hard?

If you want the business, isn't it on you to do what you need to to secure it? If you invite me to accompany you somewhere and your invitation is sincere, isn't your sincerity sufficient motivation to make you honor the invitation?

It's a strange practice. I scratch my head and, officially, move on. I'm implementing my own strange practice, effective today: I no longer provide reminders to remember. It's off the menu.

But might I interest you in one of my other fine products?

19 September 2013

Hanging On to Yourself: The Personal Story

A recent episode of the popular radio series This American Life, entitled "How I Got Into College," tells the story of Emir Kamenica who came to America as a child refugee from war torn Bosnia and, assisted by the generous gestures of a substitute high school teacher, went on to study at Harvard and embark on an illustrious career. With Mr. Kamenica's consent, the TAL team located the substitute teacher, who Mr. Kamenica had not seen or talked to in decades, and brought the two together for a conversation about their shared past.

The teacher's version of the story conflicted with Mr. Kamenica's at several critical points but Mr. Kamenica refused to abandon his version. In the poignant closing of the broadcast the reporter speculated about the reasons Mr. Kamenica (and people generally) cling so tenaciously to certain pivotal life stories.

Our/my investment in our/my stories is pegged to and sustained by many things, including the response a story elicits from other people:  respect, pity, fascination, attraction. Sometimes identity, our sense of who we are in the World, is reinforced each time the story is told. We are still sexy, smart, needed, courageous, pious in our own eyes and retelling the story helps to sustain that image.

Coincidentally, the assignment for the Holly Springs Writers Circle this time was:

Try this approach next time you need an idea for a memoir or personal essay: Pretend you’re standing before a packed stadium, spotlight directed on you. You have one chance and five minutes to share your personal story. What is the story you would most want to tell? What is the story you would never want to tell? Write both.

Not surprisingly, as it combines writing and performance--two of my most favorite activities, I was inspired by the assignment. My colleagues, not so much. As I wrote, I thought about Mr. Kamenica and his commitment to telling and retelling his not-quite-accurate personal story. I tried to imagine what someone
in my family, for instance, or a friend who's known me for a few years would say if they read my "personal story". Where would they beg to differ? What aspect of self-image am I bulking up by telling this story?

And I thought about the resistance or intimidation my colleagues in the Writers Circle felt toward the assignment. Is it that, unlike me and Mr. Kamenica, they don't have a personal story? Or is it that they are resistant to putting their story on paper? Or...

Writers Circle meets tonight. For me, at least, this will be the last meeting. My departure is not a criticism of the other people in the Circle. It's an acknowledgement, at last, that I'm in the "wrong room." What does it matter, standing in a room filled with beautiful bolts of silk, when you're trying to fix the brakes on your car?

I wish everyone all the best. Here's the "personal story" I will share.

Like you, I don’t remember the details of how my life began. Something crucial may have happened at the moment of my conception. It could be the pivotal event of my life, the one that determined the direction, velocity and distance of my path, occurred within 60 seconds of my first breath.
But there is no record and my memories do not extend that far back and so…
What I can tell you is this:  I am just like you and I am one of a kind. I love music and color and bright ideas. I hate stupidity, willful ignorance, and violence borne of greed. I want with all my heart to be fully visible to you and I want to be an honoring witness to the breadth and height and depth of your life. And I know that we are both terrified of what will happen once we are completely visible to each other.
My obsessions are truth-speaking and deep conversation. I constantly crave the fullness of being:  to taste the bitter the sweet the salty.; to feel the hot the cold the rough the smooth; to hear the cries and whispers, the lullabies and the full-throated screams of the human experience. I want it all. As much as I can hold.
I learned only last year that my parents married to legitimize my birth. It was and is a stunning revelation. I spent the first 11 years of my life guided by two God-fearing, aspiring, American Negroes who did not love each other. And I believe that experience, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.” It taught me that piety and social approval are tangential to joy. It taught me that Love cannot be borrowed, faked, stolen or won. I don’t know what my parents learned from the experience. They did the best they could.
I am intelligent. I watch and listen, sniff and taste and “figure it out.” Mind and Intuition are my most cherished and reliable survival tools. I am most attracted to people who are mentally courageous, curious and agile. I am not fully relaxed until my mind is at rest; I am not fully energized until my mind is engaged.
I don’t know what will happen after I die. If there is an After Life, I don’t know if there is any connection between it and the life I am living now. For me, Heaven and Hell are states of consciousness experienced while we live and breathe. It seems naive arrogance to believe that the fragile bundle of psychology and personality that is me will persist in some way after my body expires.  I believe memories endure and strive to live in a way that makes remembering as painless as possible for those who survive me.
My lifelong wish has been to find “my tribe”. My Tribe is a fantasy circle of people, many of them living in close geographic proximity, who are committed to becoming good people and to supporting each other in our work toward that end. We take responsibility for our own feelings and blame no one for our choices. We care for each other. Our interactions start always from a place of acceptance and curiosity. Honesty, unselfishness and respect are our watchwords and the development of these traits is our communal mission. We fall short of these goals and apologize when we do. I have not found “my tribe” but I am grateful to have met a few of its members over the years.
Though I am frequently described as intimidating, I am only dangerous as a tireless advocate and defender of freedom, fearless creativity and unconditional love.
Thanks for listening. Tribe members are sincerely invited to introduce themselves to me after the show.

18 September 2013

Out in That Field

For a number of reasons (including growing up female in the U.S. and the influence of Christian indoctrination during the first 16 years of my life), my first reaction to the emergence of a "negative" emotion in myself is to fix it, to "be nice". Riding rapid transit in the SF Bay area a year ago, a pickpocket lifted my wallet. I discovered it when I exited the train and had neither ticket nor money to get through the turnstile. The first word out of my mouth was "Damn it!" and quick on the heels of that utterance was the thought "Calm down. Anger won't help the situation."

I learned early to view certain emotions and thought streams -- anger, greed, vengeance, jealousy, sorrow, etc. -- as negative. I learned that negative emotions are bad and need to be changed. I learned that being "nice" is the ultimate goal. People will like you...you'll go further in the world...it's what God wants me to be.

I spent several years studying the teachings of Gandhi. In my applied interpretation of the teachings, I strove for a perpetually happy face and contented heart. "Happy" and "content" were positive. No matter what happened around me or what knee-jerk emotional response arose, my task was to return to happy face and contented heart.

There was a battle to be fought, over and over again. Happy and Contented and Peace-Loving faced Pissed Off and Sad and Vengeful with "Put up your dukes! You're going down! Get outta here!"

Sometimes victory came after a minor scuffle; sometimes the battle raged for hours. While the conflict played out, it was hard to focus on anything else; there was often a lot of noise in my head while the forces of good and evil floundered. It required a lot of energy and attention to bring about the change.

This morning, after a pleasant walk, my first encounter with another human being was challenging. For many months, this person has behaved as though he has a complaint with me. He has so far declined to reveal the specifics of the complaint though I have indicated a willingness to hear them on more than one occasion.

I experienced some "negative" emotion in response to his overtures this morning. The "be nice" prompt arose quickly but was just as quickly slapped down by Be Hard. The words that came out of my mouth were nice or, at worst, neutral  but the feeling in my mind and body was "hard."  I was listening, I was responding AND I was not budging. I was not smiling. I was holding a line because he was "wrong" (and not deserving of "nice" from me) and I viewed his grumpiness as negative and in order to "rise above" him, I needed to not be grumpy even if I couldn't make it all the way to "nice."

And then, of a sudden, I felt my consciousness detach from "him" and "me" and all the analysis and rationalization in my head. I floated out to an energy field that surrounded and permeated us and just hung out there for awhile, watching the whole scene. Divested. Detached. Observing with "no dog in that fight." There he was:  saying what he was saying, his face wearing the expressions it wore, his body looking and moving the way it was looking and moving. There I was:  thinking what I was thinking, saying what I was saying, my face wearing the expressions it wore...

None of it meant anything. There were no positives or negatives. It was just two bodies in motion, like leaves in the wind...like water in a stream, flowing free where it flowed free and impeded by boulders and logs here and there. None of it meant a thing.

And a stillness came over me. Spread through me. Something like contentment but with not even a trace of a smile. It was like pure presence. Pure being. Vital, boundless, timeless, meaningless.

I taught a piano lesson after the exchange. I felt rested and very present during the  lesson. My student had practiced more than usual since our last meeting. She played well and integrated new concepts quickly. I praised her work and noticed, too, that I was detached from the praise. My commentary was neither positive nor negative; it was a statement of facts "Your timing was impeccable in that exercise," "Your execution of the two-note slurs was precise," etc.

"Netherlandish Proverbs", oil on oak, 1559, Pieter Bruegel

It just goes on and on. Life unfolding. Every moment holds something to claim and something to deny, something to rale against and something to embrace, something to cherish and something to destroy... Each perspective unique to the eye of the beholder:  one gal's ceiling is the other man's floor. The Holocaust was a righteous campaign to the Nazis and an abomination to peace-loving people. Slavery was a nightmare for slaves and a road to riches for slave-owners.


Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.


13 September 2013

Simple Math and Light at the End of Tunnels

Lately the thought arises "I came to Mississippi to die." Maybe the thought relates to my age. Maybe the thought would arise now even if I lived somewhere else -- Denver, New Orleans, Boston...  Hard to say.

I experience MS as a beautiful land. My awareness of insects, seasons, animals, trees, and the "natural" world generally is keen here, perhaps more sensually acute and stimulating than at any other time in my adult life. At the outset this first year was designated as The Year of Relationship Building. Little did I know then that the relationships would be between myself and the pecan tree in the front yard, the neighborhood cats, early morning birds and a baby grand piano in an Episcopal church rather than next-door neighbors, local merchants and school administrators.

In 2005, within two months of landing in storm-ravaged New Orleans, I had tossed what remained of my anti-depressant medication in the trash. I didn't need it any more. I needed what I saw in the people there, a combination of fortitude, good humor, creativity and sass. A mysterious joie de vivre that permitted (compelled?) them to walk through Hell with laughter in their bellies and a song on their lips. I didn't know where they got it but I wanted some of THAT!

"The Dance", 1909, Henri Matisse
I truly believe that every moment is made possible and is the direct result and sum total of every preceding moment. A different choice at any of the countless forks in the road I've encountered prior to this moment...and I would not be sitting where I'm sitting, doing what I'm doing, feeling as I feel. And though it is usually impossible to precisely track and explain any of this I feel pretty sure that in the absence of the New Orleans experience, I would label my current orientation as "depressed" and would be seeking therapy and medication.


I attribute my feelings of listlessness, bafflement and panic to the ways of thinking about this place and its people that I lapse into from time to time. It is a toxic thought stream and it produces dis-ease in my mind and body. It's like chemistry or basic math: toxic thought ---> emotional discomfort/cynicism.

When I focus on the dawn chorus of birds or the dappled light in the backyard when wind and light play in the trees or the smell and song of fresh baked loaves or the light and love in my students' faces when they "get" something they've struggled with....ahh, there is no listlessness, bafflement or panic in me. I am surrounded and suffused with light, laughter, energy....Love.

When I stand on the shadowy side of this phenomenon, it looks like basic math. "I feel bad because I'm thinking toxic thoughts." When I stand on the shimmering light side, it looks and feels like magic. "Why, what a marvelous coincidence: I was just thinking beautiful/generous/loving thoughts about __________ and a door of opportunity opened"

This week I revisited an email received three months ago from a friend in Brazil. I suspect I was standing in deep shadow when it arrived and, consequently, did not write a response. Standing now in a relatively brighter spot, I wrote back. She mentioned that she was no longer in a position to send me a plane ticket; I responded that I wish I'd known when she was in that position because I'd have been on my way to Brazil in a heartbeat.  She also wrote that a colleague was in search of a low-cost way to come to the U.S. to study English. I responded I would do some research and get back to her.

Within hours she wrote back, attempting to refresh my memory about an offer she made a few years ago. (I still don't remember it.)

The next day she wrote again with a report on inquiries she'd made on my behalf in the 24 hours since her last message:  work, lodging and social connection possibilities in Brazil.

My heart leaped and sang as I read. It felt like discovering an escape hatch.

That was yesterday. Beginning around 4 this morning, I entered a "not quite asleep, not quite awake" space. Something like lucid dreaming but closer to being awake than being asleep, floating back and forth along the awake-asleep spectrum. Busy thoughts accompanied by visual imagery:  I saw the little house mentioned in my friend's email and I saw myself walking barefoot in the garden...I thought of teaching English and piano in Brazil (a couple of the work possibilities my friend mentioned) and saw a pair of tiny brown hands on a keyboard.

I thought of writing about the "life of things"--the flora and fauna of Brazil--and I saw myself sitting with coffee at a window table in a Brazilian cafe. At this point in the waking dream, my mind spun into a more strictly writing mode: I began to think about adverbs and first-person voice and the impact of sentence structure on "tempo" of a story...

"Exuberance", oil on canvas, R. J. Newhall
I don't want to get carried away (why not?). As excitement began to percolate in response to my friend's email, I remembered that another friend has been touring South America since early this year. I stopped by her blog and dropped her a note suggesting I am thinking of coming to Brazil. This morning, she responded with excitement and cheer, generously offering to share the contacts she's made in Brazil and other South American countries.

I don't want to get carried away (why not?). I am looking back on the last 25 years of my life and seeing certain events in a new light, seeing them as directional arrows or portents to Living in Brazil. I am seeing color and hearing music like lights at the end of a dark tunnel.

Don't get carried away (why not!?). Send the resumes and letters of introduction to Brazil. Start researching (the kind of research I regret not doing before moving to Mississippi). Get a passport. Resume Portuguese language study (dropped 10 years ago...damn!). Take it easy, Miss Alex. Help this happen. Let it happen. Breathe.

I may die in Brazil. Or on my way to Brazil. But, ah, what a happy corpse I'll make.

08 September 2013

Well, I've Done It Again

What follows is a cut-and-paste transfer from FaceBook. I'm giving it space here because, in some ways, it feels like the story of my life:  making what is for me a "neutral" observation and watching people go off the deep end in response to it. Often, when it happens, partly to soothe my own discomfort, I remind myself that Beethoven and I share a birthday and he was notoriously difficult to get along with and famous for offending people. (See excerpt from his Wikipedia listing at the foot of this post...)

If I haven't already said this in a previous post, let me go on the record now:  I am in agreement with a school of thought that advises taking nothing that anyone else says personally. If I am personally offended by something I read or hear it is because I believe it to be true on some level. Otherwise, from what would the comment derive it's power?

A component of the discussion below glances at "art" and the appropriate way to consume it. The suggestion is made by the woman who re-posted the photo that it's necessary to temper our reactions and impressions of an image to "fit what [you're] seeing." In a private message to her, I confessed I have no idea what that means or how one accomplishes it. So, I'm looking at Van Gogh's Starry Night. Is she saying I should refrain from public comments like "Makes you wonder what it would be like to see through his eyes" or "I actually feel high when I look at this painting"? Because the first comment infers he didn't see things as I do and, perhaps, there's something "wrong" with his vision and the second comment because it could be seen as condoning the use of illegal (in this country) hallucinogenics?


I am ready for us all to grow up and grow deep and take a breath and trust the divine energy underlying this great circus experiment we call Life. You'll be OK. Even if the world stops revolving around you and your needs. Nobody gets out of this thing alive anyway....
Debbie  shared Vickie's photo.
I think I see a fashion trend! You look so awesome, Vickie and Cosette!

  • 6 people like this.
  • Alex Mercedes: Very provocative photo: natural hair.....to altered hair.....no make up.....to full make up. Food for thought. Thanks!

  • Vickie:  i have to correct you on the hair...my hair is not altered as you so speak of...that is my natural hair.
    Vickie:   this photo has nothing to do with natural hair vs altered hair or no make up vs full make up.....this photo IS about two beautiful women taking a picture together with some BEAUTIFUL artwork by our own beautiful Debbie at the studio of an amazing photographer....to make a presumption as you have made Alex Mercedes just shows how closed minded you are....have a nice day!!

  • Debbie:   Whoa, Vickie! Though Alex's comment was assuming too much she is hardly one to be called closed minded. Alex is one of my extremely contemplative friends whose artistic vision and analytical mind sometimes gets ahead of her commentary. You are very passionate. These qualities don't always mesh on a forum as limited as Facebook.

    Be aware, everyone. I enjoy spirited discourse on my Timeline (formally Wall) but because I am blessed with a wildly diverse Friend base everyone must be very judicious in their comments. Courtesy, restraint, consideration and netiquette are always advised.

    Carla:      so well said!
  • Alex Mercedes: Thanks for the follow-up, Debbie. To be clear, my comment was just me saying what came to my mind when I looked at the picture. I don't know either woman and was not making a personal statement about either of them. I meant what I said -- it was food for thought. I currently live in the Deep South and these are issues that I face in a REAL way every time I step out of the house. I looked at the photo as art, as an extremely timely posting, and I was sharing my impression. I appreciated Vickie informing me that her hair is natural. That only deepened my contemplation of the image and my response to it. Surely we're still allowed to look at art and have different impressions of it in this country? I hope....

  • Debbie:  I think this lends itself to thinking about imagery on social media. There are so many types of pictures presented on Facebook in particular that I sometimes have to temper my responses to fit just what I'm seeing. Surely, a picture of someone's favorite aunt may differ significantly from a picture of, oh say, the exquisite Maya Angelou? ...unless it's a pic posted by Ms. Maya's niece.

    Is a picture of a cute kitten different to me than pictures of my cat, Lucy...to you? Are your responses to my posting pictures of cute cats different than my postings of pictures of Lucy?

    This fascinates me.
  • Vickie:   well the comment offended me simply because I have to fight comments like that all of the time and I still stand by what I said in my response.....your comment should not have been said period because it was out of line and uncalled for!!!!

  • Karen:  Debbie, I agree.
    Fascinating inquiry about images in media. The ear ornaments are lovely, the two women are lovely, the love between them is evident. The question of choices we make, to alter appearances or not, to determine how we wear our hair, to add ornament or not, to use cosmetics, the clothing choices.
    Also, the question of ---
    you can't always trust what you see.
    you can't always trust the ideas in your head.
    you can't always trust your first impressions.
    even when you think you see a relationship,
    and you know it's some sort of love not war,
    you can't tell if it's sibling, friend, or lover ...

    I remember during one phase of my grad school addiction, I was following a feminist criticism of literature, or history, or print media depictions of women, of women of color, of arctic peoples.
    These are important questions that are mostly 'in-visible' to us, because we are accustomed to making our way through social settings based on what we see.

    Some of the reactions hit close to home, because of cultural or ethnic differences that are also in-visible to us, like the water to the fish: we can't step outside of where we live.

    I often can't distinguish, in some issues, if my dealings are because I'm my mother's daughter (like all the other mother/daughter issues) or if because I'm part of a cultural thing: my mom is Alaska Native and I'm a 'native Mainah!' --- what ever those two things mean, and how do I feel both Alaska Native, and not?

    And now that I have a son who came to us with an extra gene ... I have observed sometimes that people take pause, when they see him: hmmmm .... does he have Down Syndrome or does he simply look 'native' like his mother?

    fascinating if difficult inquiries.

    Beethoven's Character

    Beethoven's personal life was troubled by his encroaching deafness and irritability brought on by chronic abdominal pain (beginning in his twenties) which led him to contemplate suicide (documented in his Heiligenstadt Testament). Beethoven was often irascible. It has been suggested he suffered from bipolar disorder.[88] Nevertheless, he had a close and devoted circle of friends all his life, thought to have been attracted by his strength of personality. Toward the end of his life, Beethoven's friends competed in their efforts to help him cope with his incapacities.[89]
    Sources show Beethoven's disdain for authority, and for social rank. He stopped performing at the piano if the audience chatted amongst themselves, or afforded him less than their full attention. At soirées, he refused to perform if suddenly called upon to do so. Eventually, after many confrontations, the Archduke Rudolph decreed that the usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven.[89]
    Beethoven was attracted to the ideals of the Enlightenment. In 1804, when Napoleon's imperial ambitions became clear, Beethoven took hold of the title page of his Third Symphony and scratched the name Bonaparte out so violently that he made a hole in the paper. He later changed the work's title to "Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uom" ("Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man"), and he rededicated it to his patron, Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, at whose palace it was first performed.[citation needed]
    The fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony features an elaborate choral setting of Schiller's Ode An die Freude ("Ode to Joy"), an optimistic hymn championing the brotherhood of humanity.

04 September 2013

The Wall of Prayer

Just returned from teaching two new piano students, a brother and sister who rode into Holly Springs with their mother from their trailer home in the next county. Originally, the plan was for me to drive to their home, twice a month, and teach the 10-year-old daughter there. The children are home-schooled by their mother. The little girl started piano lessons with Mom at age 6 and, according to Mom, "I've taught her everything I know. I can't go no further."

Scheduling had required two telephone calls. After what I'll call an "exploratory" conversation, Mrs. W said she'd have to check with her husband and get his permission to proceed She called back two days later and we set a start date for 4 weeks from that day.

They live in a remote rural location on a road with no sign that's called by two different names. I drove out yesterday in advance of the first lesson just to get my bearings. When I discovered it was an hour and a half round trip, I called to say I was sorry but the drive was longer than I realized; I would not be able to teach in their home.There was no answer when I called so I left a message.

Mrs. W called back a few minutes later. Though she had been unquestionably resistant to the idea of driving into Holly Springs for the lessons during our initial conversation -- intimidated by the distance as well as "coming into town," stating that they usually "try to stay close to home" --- she now expressed a commitment to her daughter's continued piano study and a willingness to come to Christ Church where I teach. She also asked if her son could study since they were driving "all that way" and I agreed to teach him.

They reached the church early. I was still in session with another student when they knocked on the back door of the church. I wish I had a photo of their faces when I opened the door. My impression of her and their home, from our phone conversations, was rough. Rustic. Back woods. "Hillbilly" came to mind. Two or three dogs barked incessantly during each of our conversations. My gut said she had no idea I was black. Their faces this morning confirmed that suspicion. Three shocked-but-not-frightened expressions on three slightly dirty white faces. Only the boy's face offered a modicum of humor or goodwill. The smell of them made me glad I'd decided not to teach in their home.

I asked if they could wait outside until I finished the current lesson. Though mildly incoherent, Mrs. W agreed they would sit on the shaded concrete steps until I called them in. I fully expected them to be gone when I returned but was pleased they did not run away.

Findings:  Not surprisingly, though they've studied in tandem for four years, the girl has greater technical proficiency than her brother. Her playing is stilted, mechanical, unimaginative and unemotional. Her posture is good. Her hand position is outlandish, the fingers effecting strange contortions and "flying" in unnecessary motions when she plays. She speaks only with repeated promptings from me, proffering one-word responses. She seemed either tired or sick or sullen. Her longest oral response -- and the only ignition of light in her -- occurred when I asked what else she loved besides music. "Horses. I'm more of an animal person," she said.

The boy is not technically proficient but plays with more heart. He also plays a little by ear. He is two years older than the girl. He responded "Yes, Ma'am" consistently throughout the lesson and responded in full sentences when asked a question. He smiled often, laughed at my corny jokes. He is a ready and willing student.

The boy possesses a greater innate sense of rhythm. The girl is better at reading music.

At the beginning of our time together, I informed Mrs. W that I prefer to teach one student at a time, in private and, though it was alright today for everyone to stay in the room, next lesson it would be only me and the student during the 45-minutes lesson. Her face registered dismay but she said nothing.   At the end of the lessons, she explained that her husband would not permit her to leave her daughter alone with me but she would inquire about the son. Reluctantly, I agreed to respect her wishes (she had spoken two or three times on behalf of her quiet daughter during the lesson) and suggested that she sit in the furthest pew during the next lessons. She agreed.

They brought a large stack of music with them:  three-ring binders holding photocopied sheets as well as standard bound books. 98% of it was "church music," e.g, simplified arrangements of "What A Friend We Have in Jesus," "Sweet Hour of Prayer," and, the piece the daughter is currently working to learn, "The Wall of Prayer."


The dominant notion on my mind after meeting the W family is "the disadvantages of isolation." Meeting them feels like the next chapter in the "foreign cultures" curriculum that began when I moved to Mississippi. I am about to learn first hand about a people I've only read about.

I believe in Love. I believe in Music. I believe in the power of Music.

Unfamiliar with "The Wall of Prayer" and taking another stab at "explaining" to the students a comment they found baffling -- "When we play music from our heart, it touches the hearts of those who listen" -- I sat at the piano and sight read the piece. As the final notes faded in the vaulted ceiling of the church, Mrs. W spoke into the silence, "I love that song so much..." with evident emotion in her voice. I turned to the boy and said "I played the music from my heart and your mother felt it in her heart. I want to teach you to play in a way that touches your mother the way she was just now." I still don't think he fully comprehends but there was something in his face that suggested the beginning of understanding.

01 September 2013

A Rare "Happy in Holly Springs" report from FaceBook

Alex Mercedes
August 14 at 1:21pm ·
Here's a rare Happy in Holly Springs report: For the second time in one year, I woke up with my wonder and bodaciousness intact and let these feelings guide my choice of clothing and walked out onto the streets of this spooky town. And for the second time, as I strolled (the first time sporting a bright green turtle parasol and today my form-fitting batik sundress) I observed little girls getting visibly excited as I approached. Both times, when I got within earshot, they called out to me, clearly anxious to engage, to say something to this strange lady. Their delight, when I look right at them and respond to their giggly "I like your dress!" or "I like how you look" with "Well, thank you, Darlin'!", is like champagne rain. I love when this happens. I cling to the memories of these little encounters on days when Holly Springs is being Holly Strange.
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A, A Taylor, J Martinolich and 24 others like this.

J  Edrozo I like you.
August 14 at 1:28pm via mobile · Like · 1

M  WD love
August 14 at 1:42pm · Like · 1

Alex Mercedes J  Edrozo Yes! It's like they're saying "I like you" with no reservation. Feels sooooo good and resonates with my years-old fantasy of opening Miss Alex' School for Girls.
August 14 at 1:47pm · Like · 4

J  Edrozo
I visualized you and felt the same thing as those girls.
August 14 at 1:48pm via mobile · Unlike · 3

D Rohde
What state are you in, Alex? Not . . . of mind, but as in the US?
August 14 at 2:05pm · Like · 1

J  Edrozo
 Champagne rain
August 14 at 3:34pm via mobile · Like · 1

Alex Mercedes  D Rohde I'm in in MS.
August 14 at 6:51pm · Like

D Rohde
Thanks Alex. I was just curious. If you're ever back in this area I would love to see you.
August 14 at 7:47pm · Like

Alex Mercedes I'm planning to make the Girls Night Out in October.
August 14 at 8:56pm · Like

M Steuart
I would like to have seen the bright green turtle parasol.
August 14 at 9:16pm · Like

Alex Mercedes I can't photograph myself with it but will post a picture of the parasol in the next day or so.
August 15 at 12:09am · Like · 1

 Thanks for sharing this. It gives me hope.
August 15 at 7:11am via mobile · Like

How Smart?

I might have mentioned being advised by a local resident soon after I arrived in Holly Springs to be careful about letting folks see that I'm "smart." "People in Holly Springs don't respond well if you're too smart and, Alex, you've got 'smart' written all over you."

Part compliment and part warning, the comment amused me. (I still had a healthy sense of humor at the time.) I wasn't worried or intimidated.  For one thing, I have some experience managing situations in which other people have a problem with my "smarts". For another thing, if I've learned nothing else over the last decade, I know for sure that I'm not 'that smart'.

That early counsel, with its focus on how I might manage or modify my self to get along with folks here, conceals what I believe is an important reality in the mid-South, something anyone considering relocating here should keep in mind:  a substantial percentage of local residents are poorly educated and/or "not that smart." (I am not being mean; it's just true.) It's important because the culture of a place is what's gonna drape itself around you. You'll drink it in every sip of water. It will shape your dreams. 

CIH is seeking for an individual that can teach music, sports, and/or dance to students in elementary school. Your job will consists of overseeing 5 schools. You will serve as a monitor and a sub if teachers are out. You will go to multiple schools. Email me a resume. We will train you for this position. You must have transportation. You must be a well groomed individual whom doesn't mind dressing up each day. You must be available from 2pm until 5:30 daily.
Call today at 901-334-xxxx.

This is the sort of ad I find when I'm feeling scared about living on $500 a month. For better or worse, no matter how cash poor I am, I'm never even remotely tempted by this kind of ad. It reads like a train wreck waiting to happen. I acknowledge it's a snobby, arrogant point of view: to think that the unreasonableness of the job requirements and the poor writing in the ad is evidence the employer is not "smart". I never said I was perfect.

In my dream locale there are more smart people than not-smart people but everybody mingles and gets along. There are no stigmas attached to either type. It's a simple designation with very practical ramifications. Similar to asking for a tall friend's help when you need to retrieve a mixing bowl from a top shelf or calling your friend who fixes cars when the driver's side window gets stuck. In my dream town, everyone's gifts are recognized and appreciated. It takes a village, ya know?

And in this far-away utopia there no stereotypes:  being a classical pianist doesn't mean you're excluded from the zydeco shindig next weekend; no one assumes that because you're 81 you don't have a sex drive or that because you're a farmer you won't be interested in a haiku workshop. Everyone is free to be interested in everything else, cordially included in all aspects of life in the community.

It's not like that in the Real World. And the imaginary separations that so regularly prescribe the social order, the fact that I observe them in operation, is one of the hardest things about "smart".