Returning (Relatively) Wordless from the Deep

Beginning with a word from our sponsors:

Find out why closing the women’s wealth gap matters by reading & sharing this report: http://wawf.org/2lsCEWH #our100days

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Not too long ago, I got an email from “Stella,” someone with whom I’d spent a lovely interlude. Unlike most of our past visits, which took place among lots of people interacting constantly, frequently aided by quite specific direction, this visit was experienced in a quieter setting with far fewer people, and with approximately zero calls for mandatory participation. Crowds, obligatory team-building exercises, hyper-competitive board games, enforced activities: these are situations in which I absolutely do not thrive. Instead, we cooked, hiked, read books, watched movies, and morphed into individual piles of relaxed ooze. It was an unabashedly great time, we all concurred.

In her email, Stella said she felt compelled to tell me “bluntly” that I had finally become a pleasure to be around, now that I had become so relaxed and easygoing. Implying of course that I had been nothing of the sort until now. I’d had no idea that Stella held such an opinion of me; I’d always been comfortable with her, had always opened our home to her, had always extended my hand. It is true that I often sought quietude in the midst of the often crowded proceedings. Quietude is as necessary to me as the rollicking circus is to others. I enjoy other more boisterous beings, and have no problem with them being themselves, but it seems that they frequently find it problematic to let me be me.

On my own, I am as happy as a puppy in a ball pit. Over the decades I have often noticed that those whose energies tended toward extroversion and dominance tended to confront me with their druthers. Why didn’t I do this that or the other thing? They clearly felt it would be ever so much better if I changed my ways to suit them. Simultaneously, I noticed that my children, and my friends and my co-workers accepted me quite well. This was valuable counter-evidence, which helped me to keep my sanity. The lesson I gleaned from all these busy decades is that there’s little I can do when people decide to think the worst.

When confronted with quietude, many hear instead the roar in their own skulls, a breeding ground for insecurities, boomeranging thoughts, and the thousand ills of civilization. The quiet mirror reflects back a multitude of different colors, and sometimes it’s the blackness of thought that prevails. She’s stuck up. She’s angry at me. She thinks she’s better than I am. While I know I can’t control all these jumping conclusions, I still find it shocking when a misfire comes to my attention.

Introversion is getting much more press these days. Quiet Revolution, a book by Susan Cain, lays out the template clearly. I’ve read with interest the many outpourings of my fellow introverts (written output, mais oui), and I resonate with their findings. Basic message: Preferring quiet and avoiding crowds doesn’t make a person abnormal. It’s a simple state of being. Introversion is not an affront to other individuals. It’s a trait as simple as a good singing voice or sharp eyesight. I, like many introverts, am nourished by one-on-one interactions, real conversations, walks in the woods (without bears). While I am largely now out of research mode, I have gotten back to reading widely. I eschew television news entirely because it makes me ill. I write, these days mostly for private practice, in order to make sense of what I read and think, and to reconfigure my education and experience into something I can publish, maybe. I’m enjoying the heck out of spoiling my dog. In this stage of my life, there are no more fussy spectators in the stands, glaring their disapproval. My quiet happiness neither borrows nor detracts from anyone or anything. I’m trying to be of good use, and I think I succeed at that, at least some of the time.

The thoughts another person harbors about you are sometimes as applicable to you as Enceladus is to pancakes. Opinions are wavy and particulate phantasms that at some particular moment are reflecting, and refracting, through the prism (prison?) of another viewpoint. Who knows where these thoughts go? And where they come from?

We are undergoing a crisis in which many ugly thoughts, wherever they come from, are blasting from the rooftops from the many suffering souls who are sick of “political correctness.” Their bladders, it appears, had been achingly compressed all these years, from holding in all that name-calling, the wanting to “call a spade a spade.” Funny, I think I know exactly what they want to call a spade. It’s a well-known and vile two-syllable word. Most of the time I sit on the sidelines, but of late it has been impossible to keep mum.

I have encountered a troll or three on FB. They tend to bomb me with two-word sentences sniffing that my reasoning is suspect, or with involved diatribes about how it’s STILL all Obama’s fault. There are the one-post snarks that are only meant to deliver insult; my fave is the US pipeline map that demonstrates to me that pipelines carry gas to my home, should I have forgotten this fact. More recently a thread of mine got hijacked by an angry person who thinks I should give DeVos a chance, and who accused me of “cherry-picking” while reminding me that DeVos was not hired to be my “friend.”

The pipeline biz: well dang, I have seen those pipelines with my own peepers, haven’t I? The real issues underlying DAPL are the twin pillars of endlessly screwing over vulnerable populations, and the repeatedly demonstrated inability of large, very profitable corporations to act responsibly if they are not forced to do so. Kerr-McGee. Union Carbide and Bhopal. Phillip-Morris. Monsanto. Bayer. How bout Exxon Mobil and their behavior in Aceh? So let’s dig an oil pipeline under a river. This seems an ideal solution to protecting the environment. Because you know, oil and water don’t mix. And the DeVos thing – oh sweet jesus do not get me started.

The issue is fairness, something that quickly disappears when people want to make big wads of money.

I’m a semi-retired nerd. I’m a bleeding heart, no doubt. When others complain: why should I pay for the poor? I respond, why should I pay for heinously overpriced fighter jets that don’t perform as contracted and which cost tens of millions of dollars per flight, and which earn their underperforming company CEOs a king’s ransom every year? Why should I pay my taxes to support corporate welfare while Apple gets away with its “double Irish” tax haven? It’s all in the same bag we pay into.

butterfly on bridge

Don’t like those pesky regulations? Don’t like the EPA? I saw someone on FB boast that they tested their own water, implying that American softies shouldn’t depend on their government for water safety. Okay. You can easily test for nitrates, surrogates for bacterial presence. Can you test for downstream metabolites of estrogen? Erythromycin? Chemotherapeutic agents? Bisphenol A, an ubiquitously present endocrine disruptor associated with a recent increase in genital malformations in newborns? If not, take a year of biochem, because you will have to learn fast. Anything that billions of humans ingest everyday will end up in the water, everywhere, and it’s even in the water that Nestle makes you pay for. You will, however, be able to easily see coal dust when it is dumped into a stream. It creates a thick black sludge and it smells like those ring-based aromatic compounds that are well-known carcinogens. Because that’s what it contains. You won’t need pH strips to figure that out.

The real irony is that the nerds and “coastal elites” who are currently being bashed apace will still be around when the next Love Canal comes into being, when the next cancer cluster arises, when the next polio outbreak occurs thanks to anti-vaxxer hysteria, when US academic performance falls to the nadir of global rankings, when the next problem caused by a lack of quotidian and boring attention to detail finally causes a catastrophe. That’s when today’s intellectual-bashers will be asking, crying, shouting for help. And you know what? Those quiet, introverted nerds will still be there, having been working away, shoring up the levee while the tide rises. And they will help.

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Stories Matter #our100days

When I feel threatened, I get physical. I walk a few miles, bike a few tens of miles, clean floors, scrub the grout between tiles. If I’m really anxious, I listen to music while moving, at levels that guarantee accelerated hearing loss. My soundtracks include thrash metal, Arcangelo Corelli, and George Harrison. (Someone once took pains to tell me, not once but several times running in one visit, that I am very “eclectic.” It’s true. I guess it was bugging him.)

Pat Metheny is a musician who is extremely all over the place. Smooth jazz, jazz fusion, and other derided musical phrases have described him. I won’t go into that. Lately I’ve been unable to recommend a restaurant or mock an Orange Despot without seven or eight people jumping on me with contrarian insults. There is one album, though, that moves me thoroughly, particularly as it uses sampling from a Cambodian women’s choir. One track includes a sample of Buong Suong, a paying-of-respects ritual. It is the polar opposite of a call to destruction. The voices are rich and distinctive, and they so assuredly sound like my own. I’ve been known to put it on Repeat on long stretches of asphalt. Buong Suong frequently stings my eyes with tears because it lets the beauty of ethereal, female, hopeful entreaty overcome anger, grief, and disappointment. I played it a few times today. It roared in my headphones while I vacuumed every square inch of the house.

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Picture me at 14, stringbean arms and legs, wavy hair down to my waist, taking in the summer breeze. I’m walking to the beach. It is an immensely fine day. I am shaded by venerable oak trees whose roots rupture the sidewalk here and there. An old station wagon pulls up, and the paunchy guy in the driver’s seat rolls down the window and asks me for directions. I smile trustingly, like the helpful Catholic girl that I have been raised to be. I gesture and point, but he says, I can’t hear you. I step closer to the car to speak up, and he leers up at me with satisfaction, one hand gripping the steering wheel, the other waving his erect penis, which has been unsprung from his open zipper. Or picture me in a public library in safe and suburban Fairfax County, in search of a biology book, while some pestilence shadows me in the stacks, one hand stuck down his pants, vigorously masturbating. Or at Stanford University, where I am pressured to not report a graduate student who has accosted me in our own apartment, because we couldn’t stain his reputation, because “nothing really happened.” It surprises me not one whit, years later, that Stanford’s special breed of undergraduate shite, Brock Turner, was spared serious time for penetrating an unconscious girl with a foreign object. What was his GPA, I wonder? Is a sex offender of more value to society when he attends an elite university? How about other crimes? If I start knocking over banks while getting my MBA at Georgetown, does that mean I get only three months in a country-club hoosegow?

This is America. The more money and privilege you have, the easier it is for you to rationalize your bestiality, cover up your behavior, and walk away from your crime. Our new President, who sexualizes his own daughter and smirks knowingly when presented with evidence of his lechery, reminds us that certain people can do anything they please. When I see his face, I become sick with rage.

I proudly marched on 21 January and I am lending my voice to this cause, for many reasons. For one in particular: that I might save a girl, maybe even a future granddaughter, from just a sample of my troubling experiences, experiences that for many years made me want to hide. Today they make me want to shriek and burn down buildings. I’ve been bullied for so long that my emotions call for redress; I definitively and viscerally understand the urge to riot. Instead, I listen to Buong Suong. And I’m knitting one of those pink hats.

This is MY COUNTRY. In MY COUNTRY, little girls and women are supposed to walk in safety, free from lechers and creeps, and especially free from criminals who pay lawyers the handsome sums that ensure they can get away with murder.

In MY COUNTRY, I will vehemently oppose, and work tirelessly to end, the reign of the proto-fascist, genital-grabbing, perverted-pig-and-proud-of-it, Donald J. Trump.

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Moderately Safe for Work

I don’t do well with the tweeting thing, mostly because I’m a writer and I get hemmed in easily by character restrictions, and partly because tweeting of late has been a medium of highly-placed, depressing inanity. But I have committed to #our100days, so here’s a plug for Ayuda, an immigration help center for the DC/Virginia/Maryland area (http://ayuda.com/wp/). Any tweeters out there, please share.

I woke up on January 1st with a big, burgundy shiner. Out of nowhere. Being a writer, I instantly thought: Metaphor! 2017 punched me in the eye last night! Well, the shiner was an omen, not a metaphor. I marched on January 21st. I am signing petitions left and right. I am volunteering as an activist for the upcoming Science March. I am actively thinking up some clever retorts for the blowback I am seeing (many are expressing hatred for all those women and their offensive vagina hats! Heavens, those sensitive beings! You’d think after centuries of wagging their privates and telling us to smile, they’d be happy to see what they’ve been after all this time!)

Anyhow, I am bloody exhausted. And it’s only January 26th.

Ode to the New (Dis)Order

Beware these men who would watch the world burn

The lecher, the liar, the rich greedy worm

The stumper, the master, the profligate beast

The grasper, the trumper, the wolf at the feast

The bloated, the hateful, the smirking elite

The goose-stepping goon squad, the sheltered effete

Beware their crass slogans and hide all your daughters

Protect your young sons from their newly planned slaughters

They laugh at your helplessness, scoff at your pain

While dreaming up schemes to ensure their own gain

You can cringe while they strangle the dreams of the many

While rifling your pockets for every last penny

Or better yet, rise, shake awake from your dream

And vote out those f@¢&εrs in 2018

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Ma Belle Solange

Monday night ballet class is known as Ladies’ class, an oblique reference to the fact that few of us who appear on this weekday are des poulets de printemps. Some of us are former students returned, some are entirely new to the discipline, but most of us are here for the creampuff treatment. Unlike Thursday class, where Madame puts one through one’s gasping paces, the 7pm Monday class is designed to accommodate the experienced, the beginner, and the in-betweener. We perform about a half hour of barre exercise, followed by what Madame generously refers to as dancing. There is usually much chattering as we catch up with each other’s news. On most Mondays, there are one or two of her seasoned en pointe ballerinas to lead the way when we have derailed ourselves with our inattention. We watch their young, elegant backs as they jeté and piqué across the diagonal of the studio floor, and we mimic their steps as best we can. I am a latecomer to ballet, slowly corralled into the fold in my late 30s by the ridiculously charming Madame Solange Binda Maclean, who was teaching my young daughter at the time. Nearly 20 years later, I am slowing down a bit, but I come to class to stretch and condition, and to visit with Madame, whom I love. Madame would likely forgive me for saying that she is slowing down too, but she is not slowing down by much. She is 94 and sports a pair of bright aqua eyes, which are topped by a chic coiffure of soft silver-white waves. She is usually dressed in a flowing black tunic and trousers, unfailingly elegant and sharp. She calls out instruction like a crystal flute, except when she issues commands. In individual correction she maintains her ladylike lilt, but when harnessing a dozen pairs of feet, few of which remain in perfect turnout  (particularly on Monday nights), she injects surprising power into that delicate soprano. All heads snap to when that happens. She is a supreme teacher whose career and life constitute a tale.

Madame was born to Belgian parents on February 1, 1922 in the city of Chengchow (Zhengzhou), in the Hunan province of China, close to Peking, as she still refers to Beijing. Chengchow encompassed one of the colonial stations made possible by the treaties established after the Opium Wars, and the family lived in the Russian concession, the “prettiest one,” according to Madame. Chengchow was a small town at best, with few modern amenities, and the first child of the de St. Huberts was delivered into the world by a Japanese veterinarian. Her name at birth was Solange Jacqueline Elizabeth Constance de St. Hubert. Be sure you do not omit the de, the remnant of aristocracy that is evident in her features and manner, brought to her through her father, Georges de St. Hubert. Solange’s mother, Simone, a Red Cross nurse, married Georges in 1919. They met when in the French Riviera at St. Tropez, where M. de St. Hubert, an officer with the Belgian Cavalry, was recovering from mustard gas injuries acquired during WWI.

Before the second World War, Georges worked for a Belgian railway concern in China, and gradually rose through the ranks. In 1925 he began work with the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême Orient, a large credit union and mortgage banking institution, becoming a sous directeur (deputy director), and finally director in 1928. Solange’s brother, Christian, was born in 1927 in Tientsin (Tianjian). By 1928, the family had settled in Peking.

In the early 20th century, while China accommodated European trade within its borders, it was also fighting off regular incursions by the Japanese. For most of Solange’s early life, however, her existence was untouched by these perturbations. She lived opulently in what she describes as “fantastic” homes, complete with servants and a busy social calendar. Her family took the long journey back to Belgium every 3 years and spent 6-7 months on the home front, where Solange would attend Belgian school. Summers were often spent at beach houses. In China, she attended a German school, accounting for yet another of her several languages, and she grew up among the children of other European tradespeople and the diplomatic corps. Her family often hosted Belgian missionaries for weeks at a time, before they trekked into Mongolia.

Today she switches easily between her native Belgian French and adopted English like a lively painted songbird, but she also conducts complete conversations in Mandarin, which she spoke almost exclusively in her toddler days. Add to that farrago a spice of Italian. When she is searching for words in her voluminous vocabulary, she flutters her fingers and reaches for them in the air, and sometimes resorts to quixotic imitations of bubbling cheese or whatever phenomenon she is trying to describe. Most of the time, however, I believe she is thinking in the language of music.

Solange began ballet instruction at the age of 5, studying under an expatriate ballerina, Mme. Agrippina Voitenko, a White Russian who had fled from the Reds in St. Petersburg and had settled in Peking. Madame continues to employ a modified “Russian method” as a didactic technique for her own pupils. The method loosely translates to “throw ‘em in the deep end, where they will learn to swim.” More precisely, she places adult newbies in moderately advanced classes, where they learn by doing, and she steers the shaky aspirants through the waters with corrective pointers that become more exacting as each student learns and improves. She can observe an entire class undulating and jumping through a dance routine and instantly pick out a failure to point toes or to properly extend an arm. (Note to students: Don’t hide in the back. This does not work. Don’t ask me how I know this.)

In 1937, Japan took Shanghai over the course of a three-month battle. Nanking followed, and a swath of cities afterward. As the armies advanced further, Europeans in the various concessions were issued armbands to indicate their nationalities. In 1941, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, China sided with the Allies, and the occupying Japanese promptly rounded up any Allied foreigners into prison camps.

“They came from the North,” said Solange, when I asked her how the Japanese announced themselves. She still remembers the dread she felt when she saw the concession flag being taken down and the Japanese flag put in its place. She and her family were taken to the Weihsien internment camp, an old Presbyterian mission in Shandong province whose dormitories and hospital wing had been gutted, surrounded with electrified barbed wire, and thus repurposed. Weihsien translates to “Court of the Happy Way.” Unhappily, there were no cots, chairs, or tables, nor was there running water available in the assigned rooms. Water had to be carried from a communal kitchen. Showers were taken in a common area and were greatly restricted. There was no kindling wood; internees carried small quantities of coal from a slag heap located a fair distance from the living quarters. Large dormitory-style rooms had one small coal stove, while smaller rooms rarely had one. There was a plentiful supply of near-starvation, sticky heat, summer monsoon rains that flooded the compound, bitter cold in winter, enforced squalor, and constant fear.

Resilient people survive by orienting their minds to something other than their present circumstance. Solange summoned her considerable energy and directed her artist’s eye to the task at hand, which was to improve her surroundings. She was in good company, despite conditions. The prisoners, in the main intelligent, educated, resourceful, and altruistic, gathered themselves and their limited supplies and made the most of their situation. Among them was Eric Liddell, the British Olympic runner, who died just months before the camp was liberated. Arthur W. Hummel, Jr., American Ambassador to China in the early 80s, and Alice F. Moore, principal of the Peking American School, were there as well. Solange’s brother, Christian de St. Hubert, later served as Belgian ambassador to a plethora of countries, including Costa Rica, Kenya, Uganda, and Panama.

The denizens of Weihsien formed a council, organized a school, assigned janitorial duties, and made do with what few facilities were available. They kept their culture alive with home-grown plays, musical recitals, and ballets. When the Japanese forbade musical practice, the musicians would continue their études by playing with silent gestures on their instruments. In what Solange and others termed the “black market,” Chinese neighbors smuggled in food and supplies, despite the risk of torture and death, both of which befell more than one sympathizer. Coal was scarce. Numerous survivors recall that one of the duties of the children was to collect precious coal dust and roll it into marble-sized balls for combustion.

Solange, and everyone who survived and wrote about Weihsien, would remember the overwhelming sensation of hunger. Parents crushed eggshells and fed the powder to their children to stave off rickets. Meat, often equine in origin, was rare, and most often rotten. Milk was sour. Solange did not experience permanent ill effects, but Christian suffered from spinal problems throughout his lifetime, which were likely acquired through malnutrition.

Solange’s girlhood friend, Jolanda (YoYo), was brought to the camp in 1943, two years after the arrival of the de St. Huberts. Married at 15 to an Italian officer, she had her small son with her. In a brief memoir, she writes of the icy cold day of her arrival, and of her intense fright and confusion. Her anxiety was instantly soothed as she registered with great surprise the sound of Solange’s tinkling, melodious call from far across the camp. She could scarcely believe her good fortune. Late in the evening of YoYo’s arrival, the incoming prisoners were secretively instructed to come to the boundary wall, where in the darkness they were handed bundles of supplies, liberal outpourings of whatever anyone could spare—pots and pans, blankets, a soup plate. Solange had even included for YoYo a rag puppet, for the little boy, Valerio.

While the Allied prisoners were kept separately from the Axis prisoners, the two factions found ways to meet. YoYo and Solange often crossed the brick wall separating the camp sections. On one occasion, after delivering some promised vegetable seeds to YoYo, Solange became trapped in YoYo’s room when the guards sprang a surprise inspection. Big Head, a guard so named in reference to his fat cranium stuffed into a small green cap, muscled his way into the room just seconds after Solange had slipped under YoYo’s bed. Petrified, YoYo picked up Valerio and sang him a lullaby as Big Head ordered one of his men to search the room, pointing his flashlight behind curtains, beneath sheets, and under the bed where Solange was hidden behind bricks and balls of coal. All the while, YoYo repeatedly sang her lullaby tune, but her Italian words were: Don’t you worry, my dear friend, all of this will very soon end, please don’t move my dear friend, they will leave and all will end. By sheer luck, Solange was not discovered, and hid until darkness fell and the guards disappeared into their huts.

On August 17, 1945, an American B-2 bomber buzzed low over the camp, and from its rear doors it disgorged seven parachutes: six paratroopers and one translator. These were members of the OSS dispatched from Chungking (Chongqing). Upon reaching the ground, they accosted the camp commander and relieved him of his duty without resistance. The rising sun flag was lowered and an American flag was raised in its place. In a matter of months, the camp was evacuated and many prisoners were repatriated to their respective countries. Given the turmoil that persisted in Europe, however, the de St. Hubert family remained in China for some long months as they rebuilt their lives.

Prior to entering Weihsien, the family had given many of their household goods to some Russian friends, who had held them in safekeeping. They returned to their home and resumed a somewhat normal life. Beautiful Solange did not lack for suitors, and at the well-chaperoned social events, she encountered many American Marine officers who wished to dance with her. She struck up a close friendship with one of them, William Maclean, Jr. He eventually asked her to marry him, but she declined. Instead, she married another handsome Marine, Jeffrey Binda, and soon found herself following her husband to points around the world: Boston, where Binda’s family lived, New York City, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Wiesbaden, the Hague. Son Mark was born in 1950, and daughter Carinne in 1954. Mr. Binda, however, was not the person he had seemed to be in China, and Solange struggled with the knowledge. Her Catholic family frowned on divorce, and she tried very hard to make things work. In 1955, however, she took the leap and divorced, an unusually courageous decision at the time, particularly as she had two young children.

Solange had not attended university, but she was surpassingly well educated, multilingual, and a complete ballerina. It was not long before she established herself as a teacher through sheer willpower. Before founding her ballet academy, she taught French at the Kilmer School in Arlington, as well as at her home, and was soon adding ballet to the curriculum for her language students. She established the Ballet Academy of Northern Virginia in 1951, in the city of Falls Church. Over the decades, which are well represented in the photos that line her studio, she has sent many pupils on to successful careers in dance. Her own daughter, Carinne Binda, enjoyed a long career as a soloist with the Boston Ballet. Carinne’s daughter, Alexandra Cunningham, now dances for the Sacramento Ballet, which is incidentally directed by Carinne and her husband Ron Cunningham. Carinne’s son, Christopher, did not heed the call to dance, but his tall good looks would have lent themselves well to the stage.

Solange’s dynastic talent, perhaps absorbed in her native China, found rich rooting in America. She singlehandedly supported her young family, and even took in her elderly Tante Suzanne, whom many Monday “ladies” remember sitting by the piano in the basement studio, where they took instruction as children. Tante Suzanne figures into an iconic family story.

In 1964, the handsome Marine colonel, Bill Maclean, who had once danced with Solange in China, was living in Arlington, Virginia. One evening he found himself dancing with a Belgian lady. Bill remarked on her accent, as it was hauntingly familiar to him, and he described to her his experiences of 20 years before. The lady, by amazing coincidence, happened to be acquainted with Solange. Upon discovering this, Bill asked the lady for Solange’s address. The lady took pains to caution him, for no reason I can fathom: she warned him that Solange was greatly “changed” due to her “hard life.” This statement proved to be of little deterrence to Bill. With what I imagine to be a high degree of dispatch, Bill set about planning to ring her doorbell in Falls Church as soon as he dared. Now, it must be noted that Solange and Tante Suzanne had a strong family resemblance, particularly in the bright aqua eye department. As Bill stood patiently on the doorstep, waiting for the door to open and possibly speculating on just how hard Solange’s life had actually been, Tante Suzanne answered the doorbell and trained her ancient blue peepers on a perhaps ambivalent man. I further imagine Bill’s immense relief minutes later, when Solange appeared behind her. So greatly relieved he was, that in 1966, he married her.

Countless students have passed through the academy’s doors, many of them having gone on to careers in dance. Today Solange flies across the continent regularly to watch her granddaughter spin away on the boards in Sacramento. She can easily watch 4 or 5 performances of the same ballet over a few days’ time, and return to the East Coast with minimal jet lag. In her basement in Falls Church, there are hundreds of ballet costumes in a variety of sizes and colors, most of which she has designed and sewn herself. While she has finally retired from staging full-scale recitals, she does plan mini-recitals for the little ones, and most of her “ladies” have assisted her once or twice in the grand enterprise of extracting, and then re-inserting, the tutus and headdresses and streamers and vests, from and into their labeled boxes. On the walls in her second home in Aldie, VA hang some of her accomplished watercolors, and upstairs, her sewing machine sits in a large room lined with fabrics. Having evolved from her costume-sewing habit, she has repurposed yards of fabric into scarves for her students, and I have several in my closet, some fringed with beading, others shot theatrically with gold thread. There have been many babies over the years, and to greet each one Solange has created innumerable, sumptuous, ribbon-bedecked bassinets. She still makes tender Belgian crepes that are beyond description. Each evening after class, there are two spoiled poodles to let into the yard. There is still that handsome Marine colonel to kiss goodnight.

Solange et al 2016

When my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009, I managed to attend class most Mondays, as we endeavored to maintain a routine as much as possible throughout his palliative treatment. I could feel Madame’s eyes on me as I went through my steps, and as 10 pounds rapidly slipped off my frame. She immediately stepped up her crepe regimen, frequently sending me home with a baking dish or two, in addition to her healthful potages made with all manner of green leafy things. When Chris died in late 2011, however, I withdrew into myself, completely exhausted by grief and the arduous months of caregiving. Undaunted, Madame had me to Thanksgiving dinner three weeks after Chris’s death. She threw me a birthday party 9 months after that. She called me from time to time, and sent me warm and inviting notes in her exquisite loopy cursive writing. I would promise to come back to ballet, soon, soon, soon. While I had resumed working, walking 6-7 miles every day, and biking many miles in the temperate months, for the longest time, on most evenings I was too spent to attend a one-hour class. Nearly three years elapsed before I quietly returned to her Falls Church academy, stepping over bags and books and the detritus of young ballerinas who were finishing up the 6:00 class. As I changed my clothes in the anteroom, I heard Madame’s voice in the studio, calling out steps. I could scarcely believe my good fortune.

 

 

 

 

 

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Travels with my Aunt

I lost my aunt Edie in August 2015. She was getting close to 90 and had beaten back lung cancer, but she had begun to falter last year. She took her first and last breaths in the sooty arms of fabled Brooklyn.

Edie was born into modest means, which turned into poverty; her father died a young man, leaving her mother to raise three children in a series of tenements and small apartments. Coming of age during the Depression, Edie loved to run track, read, and sing. She used to sneak into church services so she could stand in the back and raise her voice in song, because the only one who is allowed to sing in the synagogue is the cantor. She also told me that young American half-wits would ask her to pull back her hair to reveal her Jewish horns. (Anyone who complains about political correctness these days should only know from real prejudice, to use a Yiddish turn of phrase. They should only know how it feels to deal with rank ignorance.).

My aunt took my mother, brother and me into her small Brooklyn apartment 47 years ago, our arrival crowding the 7 of us into 5 small rooms. I was 10 going on 11, trying to make sense of my world exploding. One day I was living in a plush suburban house with two parents, and the next I found myself sharing a bedroom with two cousins in a stark linoleum warren. Both of my parents were lost. One was AWOL, the other was living in the same apartment, but inside a liquor bottle. My aunt held us all together somehow, working I-don’t-know-how-many-hours per day. I rarely saw her in that apartment for the year that we lived there. She was busy surviving after having left an impossible marriage, and I was busy fitting in with a new school, dreading my days with a monstrous teacher who loved to get under my introverted skin, encountering the new, regular experience of getting mugged for a dime on a sunny day, learning the rough ropes of East New York, a competitor with Bedford-Stuyvesant for one of the most murderous places in the city. Years ago, I wrote a few stories about those days, ones that my daughter used to co-opt for high school essays, adding her inventive spin to them. There are many more tales to tell. But PTSD therapists are starting to learn that it is counterproductive to go over old trauma repeatedly. That’s something I first learned from Edie, who had figured that one out on her own. She shipped off from a dreadful shore and while it took many years of Sisyphean effort, she succeeded in building a new life, steering straight ahead.

Another thing I learned from Edie was the vital importance of unconditional love. I certainly needed it, and was at times saved by it, locked as I was into my shy personality, dealing every day with a volatile mother who regularly pursued death via alcohol and tranquilizers, sometimes at home, sometimes in a speeding car, oftimes with my brother and me in the back seat. I gripped that love while I worked hard in school, maneuvered through the daily upheavals, earned a state scholarship to attend college, and got the hell out of hell. Over the years she couldn’t always intervene for me, because to do so often invited even more trouble onto my crowded agenda, but she managed to put her hand in at critical times. I could always count on her bolstering praise: “How are you, my beautiful girl?” was her standard greeting. She loved to hear me talk about my studies and my work, and she would tell me how proud she was of my accomplishments. I could also count on her honest assessments: “You’re too skinny, your hair is too dry, would it kill you to wear a little eyeshadow? And what is with those clothes?”

Edie started to decline rapidly this past summer. I had a very busy upcoming schedule with NASA and other travel, so in mid-July I took a quick train up to New York expressly to see her in her rehab facility, where she had been off and on since she had suffered a pneumothorax in June. I stayed with her son on Long Island, and drove his car to Sheepshead Bay one afternoon, where I visited with her in a Cadillac-grade nursing center for a couple of hours. She was sitting in her wheelchair, wearing a gray sweater and a full application of makeup. Anyone who had never seen her put on her face in the morning, nose thrust into a lighted magnifying mirror, had missed an opportunity to witness theater of the highest caliber. Surrounded by pots of color, her exacting brushwork rivaled that of Michelangelo on his scaffold. We had a good talk, and she got a bit teary toward the end, recounting that a close friend of hers had just died. She knew what was afoot for herself, and while she was tired of suffering, she was also ambivalent. It’s hard to leave this life.

I tried to keep the conversation upbeat while I watched all the signs, sitting between us like vengeful gods flashing their everlasting lanterns. Love was thick in the air as I ripped open bags of condiments and prepared her lunch (kosher hot dog and fixings), and urged her to drink a can of Ensure (even though that stuff is vile). Nurses filed in and out to dispense her medications and check on her lunch tray. I finally made movements to depart. I bent down to hug her, and she looked up at me from her diminished vantage point. I briefly glimpsed her as the woman who once towered over me in her stiletto heels, dressed to the teeth for her decades of unsung work in a tiny, dusty office on Nostrand Avenue. “Joanie,” she said in her entrenched Brooklynese, “you’re a beautiful woman, but ya gotta get ya neck done. It’s all wrinkly.”

Yeah. I’m pushing 60. My neck is definitely wrinkly. But no one loves me like Edie loves me. That’s what I remember thinking. She died a little more than two weeks later. I was not mentioned as a relative at her graveside service, but I was and always will be the daughter of her heart.

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Works and Days

logan kitchen logan moice

No agricultural advice today, or moralizing. Hesiod took care of that a couple or three millennia ago. Though do check him out, because his Theogony is a thorough account of the early gods, Greek version.

In my semi-retired state I have plunged into a habit of mostly doing and rarely saying, something most beings on the Internet should do much more often. Never that talkative in my youth, I appear to be re-establishing that persona in my dotage. For the last couple of months, aided by a very chilly, eternal-seeming snowy winter, I’ve been reading, knitting, and being. Now that I have Logan, my 13-week-old grand-dog, on my daily schedule, being smells very canine all the time. Mochi is a good mentor, beleaguered but patient. There is much wrestling, growling, yapping, cheek-pulling, whomping and flailing. I stalk the corridors of my home equipped with a spray bottle of Resolve and a roll of paper towels. Each morning I jam two restive, four-legged octopi into the front seat of my car and spend hours attempting to civilize one of them. I have been here before. It’s amazing I’ve gotten anything done at all. Doing is everything, I remind myself. I am making a good dog.

Got on my bike for the season’s first ride yesterday. According to my spotty record-keeping, I haven’t ridden since late September 2014. Twenty miles felt roughly like the circumference of the Earth (24,901 miles). But it’s just the beginning of the season. There was still a smattering of ice and snow on the trail. No frog song yet in the swampy byways. I saw a few swollen buds here and there, however it appears that few are fooled by this warm spell. Except the first Concord-purple crocus I spied in my front yard today.

We are T-minus 17 days until Varin’s wedding. She is currently employed at an interventional radiology practice, wearing the scrubs she bought 4 years ago when she was working as a medical assistant at a surgery practice, preparing for graduate school. She landed a good position, especially for a fresh-out, at one of the best hospital systems, if not the best, in Virginia. Pardon my obnoxious bragging, but if I had kept that one in any longer, I would’ve said something much much worse. I blame the Internet.

on the needles knit rabbitknit mouse

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Now We Are Two

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It’s hard to believe, but 28 months have flown by like one of the manic, shouting crows that populate our neighborhood. Varin has completed all the requisite hard work, and in 5 days we will be attending her commencement ceremony in New Haven. Cat is flying in this Friday, and on Saturday we will be Amtraking up the East Coast to meet up with her grandparents and Andrew’s parents. Promptly on December 9th, she and Andrew will be loading up my mom’s old French provincial coffee table (who knew she would like this relic?) and driving home to the warmer embraces of Reston, VA, where they now have a very nice apartment. It will be good to have her around again!

Mochi celebrated her second birthday on October 20th, which seems to have stimulated her consciousness in several ways. She is far more affectionate, playful and bossy, as well as obsessed with Jack the parrot, whom she had successfully ignored for lo these two years. Now it appears that she wishes to eliminate him, with extreme canine prejudice. Over the past week I have spent some part of my day, though increasingly less often, grabbing her by the collar and steering her away from becoming the snarling, snapping virago that appears when she passes his cage. For Jack’s part, I believe he is secretly amused, buffered as he is from her attempts on his life by sturdy metal bars.

I am working less and knitting more, but still have some NASA duties. A bit past the New Year I mean to ramp up my workload with another contract. Christmas will be in Tucson this year, with my children and Chris’s parents. I am looking forward to cacti, coyotes and long walks in the sunny mornings.

Meanwhile my dear darling Linnea remains in splendid form, kicking keister on her latest trial drug. She says the agent has been affecting her cognitive functions, but her functions are evidently too sophisticated to be entirely put out.  Linnea has spoken eloquently on behalf of an organization called GRACE:

GRACE, by the way, is an excellent online resource for lung cancer patients, run by the redoubtable and infinitely kind Dr. Jack West. I contribute heavily to the cause every year in Chris’s memory.

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