Monday, June 25, 2012

Something Good (yoga, music, art, oh my!!!)

One of my favorite books of all time is the rather controversial The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. In the book, Little Tree's grandmother tells him, "When you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out where no telling it will go."

So that's what I'm doing, here and now. I'm shouting out from the rooftops (well, metaphorically at least) to share something good, excellent, and wonderful that I recently experienced. I had the priviledge and the joy of taking part in The Summer Yoga Celebration, hosted by Homemade Genius of Abbeville and led by Emerald City Yoga's Jennifer Smiecinski with musical accompaniament by drum4work's Jeff Holland and Lori Parker and friends. (all contact links/websites featured at the end of this writing.)

"Wow!" was all I could say afterwards. Afterwards being hours later, for there was not only the free outdoor yoga session (complete with a guided meditation led by Justin Blackburn) and an open drum circle facilitated by drum4work, but immediately following was Matt Fassas performing at Homemade Genius, followed by Steven Bacon and Kendra Kinsey, all amazing musicians. It made for a perfect, well-rounded night. It's the kind of evening I'd have participated in when I was hanging out in Ann Arbor. It's the kind of events I see regularly going on in Asheville and Black Mountain. It's the kind of thing I saw while cruising through Anchorage in the summer, or walking the brick streets of Helsinki. And yet it was right here, in Abbeville, SC.

One of my biggest problems with living in a small, Southern mill-industry based town in 'group think'. Group think is the mentality that leads everyone to do the same identical things, regardless of what thier actual desire to do is, because 'it is what people are supposed to do.' Greenwood boasts an insane number of restaurants, a number that is consistently growing, because on weekends, people go out to eat. Familes dine out together, couples dine out alone, groups of friends dine out before making the obligatory bar hops. It's an act, ritual of sorts, a way to connect. I participate as well on occasion; my son loves going out to eat. But I don't go out too much in the evenings on my own. Coming from a family where obesity-related health issues reign supreme, I am somewhat particular about food (no amount of exercise can make up for poor dietary intake; we truly are what we eat and people use food in far more ways that just nutrition) and I detest the bar scene for reasons I've already addressed in a previous blog. I dream of real, authentic grown-up activities, things actually worth hiring a sitter and putting on make-up for. I can make my own food; I can also make some pretty mean drinks and enjoy them with friends in the privacy of my own home. Thus, as my friend Ian (owner of and incredible force of nature behind Homemade Genius) said to me Saturday evening, "You don't go out nearly enough." Well, he's right, and since he's know me about 7 years now, I guess he has a right to make such a true observation.

But if Homemade Genius, Emerald City Yoga and Drum4work keep up what they are doing in Abbeville, that's certainly going to change. I have not had this much fun or been this inspired by other people in a long, long time. Ian, Jennifer, Justin, Jeff and Lori are all pefect, shining examples of people taking risks and following thier dreams. PEOPLE LIVING BOLDLY...YES!!! I can't say enough positive things about them, only that I'm honored to call them all friends. The evening began with an outdoor yoga session on the court square. While I have practiced yoga for many years, I've never participated in an outdoor class. It was a fabulous experience that I can barely put into words. There, in full view of the public, we practiced as a group while drum4work provided a deeply spiritual muscial background. Getting into the practice was effortless for me. Lying on my back, breathing, I looked up and saw a blue sky through the leafed limbs of tall trees above. Jeff Holland's singing bowl from India provided vibrations that touched me on a soul level; Jennifer's gentle touch ensured my postures were correct. Lori's drumming kept rythym with the beating of my own heart, reminding me of the pulse of life. When Justin led us through a guided meditation, I felt such a sense of peace. There were cars passing and people on the street; I was aware of none of it. I was only aware of my practice, my breathing, my asanas. When the yoga session ended, I felt more alive than I've felt in months, a feeling accelerated when Jeff and Lori led an impromptu, open drum circle. Strangers joined in, people who had likely never in their lives made music were drumming, thier bodies moving in time to the beat. And they were smiling, too. My own feet could not resist the urge to dance, to move. There was no inhibition, which is a glorius thing; we as humans waste far too much time and energy on the meaningless opinons of strangers. Everyone in our group was enjoying a sense of personal freedom. In that moment, making music together, we were one. It was beautiful.

Later, when the drum circle ended, there was socializing and more music inside Homemade Genius. I met several other artists, one who was there working on a painting, another who was selling handmade goods that were simply phenomenal. The vibe was easy and relaxed. Ian has made the space that is Homemade Genius not only beautiful, but comfortable as well. There is an openess there; everyone is a friend. People you don't know are immediately introduced by someone, or they introduce themselves. It's a place where like-minded souls gather to share; where age makes no difference - teenagers and senior citizens were laughing in the same crowds, learning from one another, enjoying exchanges of wisdom; and where writers, artists, painters, knitters, musicians, poets, activists, yogis, engineers, physicians, housewives, men, women, young, old, thin, stout, hippie, yuppie, found and lost can mingle without concern. It is one thing to hang out with people you already know; it's entirely another to spend an evening with strangers who become new friends. But at Homemade Genius, that's bound to happen. What draws people to this place, in the end, is this very feeling. I can't say enough good things about it.

Literally, I can't, because y 7.5 year old son wants to paint and I need to facilitate that, as it's rarity he wants to paint, and I want to indulge the urge completely when it presents. But I also want to share the 'something good' that was my experience on Saturday. Ian is right, I do need to hang out there more, where all the good stuff is happening. And I need to take classes yoga with Emerald City Yoga, because Jennifer is an amazing teacher, and I need to attend more events where drum4work is going to be, and I need to hang out with Justin more, because it's impossible to be in his presence and feel negative. I have not stopped feeling alive since I left them all on Saturday.

And if you know none of the people I mentioned in this blog, you need to remedy that situation as quickly as possible. Trust me.

It's all very, very good!!!

Homemade Genius on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Homemade-Genius/47099654060
Emerald City Yoga on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/EmeraldCityYoga
drum4work: http://drum4work.com/
Justin Blackburn: http://www.justinblackburnlovesyou.com/
Bands playing at Homemade Genius that particular evening: Matt Fassas http://www.mattfassas.com/
Steven Bacon and Kendra Kinsey http://www.stevenandkendra.com/

And thank you to Kerry Smiecinski for taking so many wonderful photos, including the one featured in this blog!!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Containing Multitudes

Earlier this week, I bought a brand new car.
I mean brand new, as in 2012.
Twenty-nine miles on the odometer.
KIA Soul. Color: Dune
Even the name and color are beautiful, and never has a vehicle suited me more. It was a bold as hell move that I was delighted to have the guts to undertake.
I had to laugh when a well-meaning friend said, “I’m just surprised you, of all people, would buy a new car. Doesn’t that kind of contradict your style?”
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
I’d like to take credit for that quote, but those are actually Walt Whitman’s words. Still, they resonate strongly with me. In this person’s mind, I’d contradicted myself by purchasing a brand new car.
Who did they think I was, really? What style did they see me possessing that made purchasing expensive new items a contradiction?
I can tell you who I used to be. I was once a glamour girl, or rather I made ever effort to be. I knew what Chanel No.5 perfume smelled like and what designer clothes felt like. I had a Prada purse. I wanted Manalo Blahnik shoes, although I never found a pair I could justify the cost of. I loved watching Friends and Sex and the City. My nails were always painted. I would not have dreamed of leaving the house without make-up. My hair was generally perfect, and I had all the best salon products to keep it that way. This was, basically, the entirety of my 20s.
But I was still me, I knew how to rummage – my Prada bag was $3.00 at a garage sale. I was an Ebay and outlet-store fiend. And more importantly, I had time to devote to things like keeping my nails polished and making sure my hair was perfect, and reading InStyle magazine like it held all the answers to the universe. I’ve been reading Cosmopolitan, after all, since I was 10. My attitude reflected my confidence; It was the first thing people generally noticed about me. It was what caught the eye of my son’s father, who would later tell me I ‘walked into his restaurant like I had a million dollars tucked away in each shoe.” But even through all of this, I still painted. I still wrote. I still felt more at home sitting on a trail in the woods than I did in a mall. I still got filthy rescuing animals. I still climbed trees. I was still real.
And then I became a mother. My priorities were rearranged in a way I’d never imagined. I suddenly didn’t care if my nails were painted or my hair was perfect or what I was wearing. Getting dressed was just a requirement to go outside the front door, not something that I looked forward to and planned and really, really, enjoyed, not during this time. My only care, my only concern in life, was my son. He was (and still is) the center of my universe, the best thing, hands down, I have ever created. And everything in my life revolved around doing what was best for him. Television had to go, it’s not good for children to watch at early ages and I didn’t want to be distracted by it, either. I dressed my son like the Prince of Monaco, but I hardly noticed what I was wearing. I was exhausted most of the time, single parenting is overwhelming. I operated for almost 2 years on 2-4 hours of sleep a night. I began to adopt a more bohemian style of dress because it was easier to put together, and it was still fashion, which I’ve always considered fun. No heels anymore, though, because I was always carrying a baby. No linen or slacks or pencil skirts because I had no time to iron. Hair could just be natural, messy and wild, because it matched my attire and required no effort. When I had to buy a new car, I purchased a used mini-van, a Dodge Grand Caravan because it, too, would be easier and money was so tight back then. And I honestly had no idea what I wanted in a car, or in life, beyond my baby to be okay, and safe.
And guess what? My 'baby' is almost 8 years old now. Parenting alone is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it’s not quite as overwhelming to parent a young child as it was an infant and toddler. Patches of time free up as my son matures, becomes more settled. And slowly, I’m finding pieces of myself scattered in the debris of spare time my child’s independence frees up.
And you know what? I find that I’m growing out of one self and into another. I like having a new car, even if it contradicts the hippie-image of having a junky van. I like wearing heels and shiny, swingy shirts in the evenings, even though most days you can still find me knee-deep in the creek with my son or elbow-deep in mud in the garden. Television isn’t evil, as a matter of fact, I have found I rather enjoy having it on while I’m knitting or doing my nails. And while I am still most at home in the woods, I am still and artist and a writer, I am still me, the good thing is I know well and good who that me is – a person who loves beautiful things, including cars, clothes, and yes, shallow as it sounds, shoes. I was reminded of who I am in Helsinki 2 years ago, a fashion mecca where even the men dressed flamboyantly and fashion knew no age or size requirement. I was in heaven and came home with a suitcase full of Euro-fashion.
I also know that the image of ‘overwhelmed mom in a used minivan’ is one I’ve been eager to shed for a long, long time. It worked at the time, and for a long time. But it’s done, over, sayonara to that time of life. If my buying a new car is a contradiction to someone’s idea of who I am,, then I’d say there’s a good chance they don’t really know me, and they clearly didn’t know me before I had a child. So be it. As my child grows, I do as well. As he becomes who he is going to be, I go back to who I have always been. As Whitman said so eloquently, I am large; I contain multitudes.
I’m delighted to be a contradiction to myself.
It would be a terrible thing to be obvious.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Time for Courage

I’m sitting at my desk, for the last time this year. Not the calendar year, but the school year…when you teach, you measure time differently. A year begins in August and ends in May. Summer is a season of its own.
I’ve taught for 8 years now, long enough to pass from my early thirties into my late thirties, to see my students grow from children into young adults. Eight years…long enough to raise a child from an infant. This is what is on my mind as I write…I think.
The view from my window on the last working day of the year has never remained the same, I’ve taught at 5 locations during my teaching career. I’ve never closed out a year with the same view I had the year before. As I write this now, I’m gazing across the room at stools stacked upon a counter top, supplies tucked neatly away, and a painting of a Dalmatian hanging above the sink. I painted that picture back in another life. I was a college student who had shucked off her Southern roots, packed up her Dalmatian and her two cats, and headed to live in the metropolis of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Only it wasn’t really Ann Arbor, it was Plymouth, a suburb of Detroit, a town pretty much identical in size, population, and well, pretty much every other way to the small Southern town I’d left behind. And I didn’t end up actually graduating from The University of Michigan as I’d intended, for their class schedules made it completely impossible to hold down a job, which I had to do to survive. So I ended up graduating from an obscure, tiny liberal arts college that had evening classes. Life doesn’t always follow the scripts we plan; so be it. On weekends I hung out in Ann Arbor. I was happy, even though in time I came to realize that Ann Arbor was very much like Columbia, SC: A university town engulfed by students and political protestors. I’d moved about across the country to hang out in a place that was really not so different than one I could have driven to in little more than an hour. But I learned a lot while I was there. Although I missed the mountains with an ache that was almost physical, I learned to love the Great Lakes State… there was good to be found in flatlands: trails to hike, rivers to kayak, and beautiful path to take long walks around the neighborhood. I found I had a deep affinity for cider mills, towns with names like Bad Axe, and the sly way Northern men looked at me when they heard my accent.
But more importantly, for the first time in my life, I experienced real seasons. Winter was not just a cool break from the blistering heat of summer, no. It was its own time, with its own gifts. My second winter in Michigan, I learned to love the season for the same reasons I previously despised it – the complete and total absence of sun, the starless sky, and the ridiculous levels of precipitation. Years have passed since I lived in the north, but I still maintain that there is no sight in nature as beautiful as the untouched landscape after a snowfall, bare trees streaking black against a white sky, evergreens seeming to melt into the snowdrifts from the weight of their ice-laden branches. I tried to capture this with charcoal and paper so many times, but I could never stay out of the landscape long enough to render it. It would be a lifetime later that I finally managed to capture a winter landscape on paper, using a photograph from a friend and my own memories of new snow. It was a commission; I hated to give it up.
But in Michigan, it could snow in October, and continue until May, and the untouched white landscape would grow slushy and dirty, crusted over, hard. Bored with snowfall during a month when I craved spring, I decided once to try and capture snowflakes in a rain gauge. I pulled it from the garage and staked it into to frozen ground.  But the snow turned into rain, and that night, the temperature plummeted. The gauge shattered. In a week, the snow was gone. Spring moved in. The sky was still starless; smog, I was told.
But that starless sky held something else, a great surprise I never expected: The Northern Lights.
I’ve always been fascinated by the far north. I dreamed of vacationing in places most Southerners have never heard of, places like Ely, Minnesota and Canada’s Hudson Bay. When a friend moved to Alaska in 1997, I was ecstatic. Visiting him 6 months later, I wanted see snowcapped mountains, wolves in the wild, and the infamous Northern Lights. And while I saw the glory of the Western mountain ranges and a lone Timberwolf (which is a little more frightening to stumble upon in the wild than I let on at the time), no matter how long I stayed awake, I never saw The Northern Lights. So imagine my surprise when I stepped outside the door one late fall evening in Michigan and was greeted by them, dancing before me in amazing neon waves. I was at the country home of a friend; we made a bonfire and stayed outdoors most of the night.
 In 2010 my son and I traveled to Finland, where I was sure I’d see the Northern Lights again, but the sun doesn’t set in the arctic during the month of July. It’s not like Alaska’s midnight summer sun that doesn’t set until the wee hours of the morning. During Finnish summer, the sun just doesn’t set at all. Continuous, 24-hour daylight. Imagine my surprise. Imagine my child’s delight.
I couldn’t measure time in Finland because day never passed into night, it just remained. I lost track. We slept when we were tired, ate when we were hungry, went outside whenever we felt like it. A week before our arrival, my friend had seen a bear in the woods by her home. We walked through birch forests and places where huge ferns spread like moss along the ground. I saw a hedgehog and was giddy as a child. My friend laughed. There was a sense of freedom in the Finnish wilderness unlike any I’d experienced. We spontaneously swam in lakes and ate wild raspberries that grew along the trails. Our children spoke two different languages while they played. We never saw the bear. I cried when I left.
I don’t cry now. Rather, I leave my classroom and head for home. Slowly, day passes into night. I measure time in many ways – how many weeks of summer I have; how many more years until my son is grown; how many days until the garden yields a harvest…but not with seasons. My roses bloomed in January.
I often tell friends who aren’t writers to try it. Not for fame, not for fortune, but for themselves. It never ceases to amaze me what comes out when I sit down with paper and pen. I’d intended, on this day, to write about the mixed feelings that the end of the school year always brings up, how my son is growing up so fast, and how the endless expanse of free time that I’m facing can be a little daunting…for that was what I thought was on my mind. But instead I write about the Northern Lights. This is the beauty of delving deep within; you find out what’s really on your mind, in your soul, what your true thoughts are. Looking out at the night sky, I think of a friend who speaks often about going back ‘home’. I encourage him to consider it, for if it is truly his heart’s desire he won’t be happy unless he does…but I know from experience that the person who returns to a place is never the person who left it. Better to seek a new place altogether is what I’d like to tell him, better to delve a little deeper before you end up waiting to see a night sky in a place where the sun doesn’t set, better not to hedge all your bets for your future on people and places that are part of your past. I think to tell him about my seeing the Northern Lights not in Alaska or Finland where I’d expected to, but in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a place they rarely appear, about my failed attempt to capture snowflakes…but something inside tells me it would not be the right thing to do. Everyone must follow their own heart; have their own experiences; come to their own conclusions about life. Instead, I give him a book I bought second-hand that has the previous owners notations scrawled along the pages. I hope he’ll read it, and understand. If he doesn’t, he’ll most likely end up writing one like it one day, a book that years from now I’ll stumble across in some faraway bookstore where my eyes will light up when I recognize his name. Either way, this is his life, his journey. I have learned that caring about another often means stepping aside…I’ve read the book.
It did not snow in Carolina this year; winter was nothing more than a cool respite from the heat of summer past and the heat of summer to come. I remember how spontaneously I made the decision to leave Michigan years ago, and a week later, did…but I have a child now…any decision I make about my own future changes the entire course of his as well; it’s an awesome power I yield with care. Still, I was a person, a woman, before I was a mother. I forget that at times, just as I forget it is impossible to measure time in seasons in a place where they don’t actually occur. My son thinks snow is something that only happens in a Chronicles of Narnia movie. While the sky is laden with stars, it’s highly improbable that I’ll ever see the Northern Lights here in the South. But there is no real guaruntee I'd see them in Hudson Bay or Ely, Minnesota, either.
I take out a small journal I simply call ‘Lessons,’ where I jot down bits of wisdom I hope to pass on to my son one day. There a page where, weeks ago, I enthusiastically wrote down a line from the movie, We Bought a Zoo - 'Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.' To that, I add my own amendment. “But other times, it takes a greater courage to remain quiet than it would to roar.”
I hope he’ll know the difference.
I close the book.