Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Passing Over, Celts Askew

Picture: Menfolk in Seder Recovery

Now that Passover has, well, passed over, I find myself turning back to thoughts of this year's seder dinner again and again. It's not just a matter of savoring the memories of a good, hot and sweet charoset and horseradish sandwich. Although I have to tell you that you haven't lived until you've eaten my godson's homemade sweet potato latkes. It's not the bottles of excellent wine -- or the ritualized excuse to drink so much of it! It's more than all those small things or their blessings.

What sends me back to Passover is the spirit it brings into my house every year. Maybe it's really this spirit that the rules of the haggadah, the book that guides seder participants through the rituals of the meal, sets out to capture. Maybe it's this spirit that we are trying to embody in the name of Elijah, the prophet who Jews set a place for at every seder table and for whom they leave their doors ajar. I'm not Torah expert, and couldn't say. I'm not even Jewish. But I do know that, for me, the family and friends who walk through my door bring Passover right in with them like a comforting elixir. And there is a lot of room at the table for this embracing libation.

And it's also the open acceptance that we, as a family of relatives and friends, bring to the table that has me musing. Over the years, we have stitched together our own holiday traditions. It's a mixture of my Catholic background, my inlaw's strong Jewish identity, my godson's African heritage, and our dear friends' Irish customs -- all rolled together into one enjoyable and memorable calendar of holidays. I don't think one of us could possibly give up the other's traditions anymore -- or even think of them as other.

For some it might be heresy, for others just a natural progression, but I wouldn't be surprised if Elijah was joined by St. Padraic one of these days. I can almost picture them pulling up some chairs, having a couple "scoops." I bet they'd have a lot to talk about. And then there are those sweet potato latkes that even saints and prophets must surely covet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Appalachian Spring

From 1978 to 1981 I was a student at Virginia Tech, something that (26 years later) I haven't thought about much. Until this week. Actually, that's not quite true. When I do recall my years there, it is almost always at this time of the year. Spring in Blacksburg, Virginia is a spring that I have experienced no place else. It is an awakening, a reprieve from the harsh winter of the mountains, a touch of grace in the trees, a force of nature. One spring day, when I was a sophmore there, I listened as the local radio station played "Appalachian Spring," Aaron Copeland's rousing symphony. I thought, "This is the place that music was written for." Even today, when I hear that piece of music, I picture the new greens of those Virginia trees, the wild flowers blanketing hillsides, the lavender redbush branches nestled with white dogwood blossoms, the bright air.

Now my spring memories have a horrible replacement -- and one I am not sure I can ever push away.

The brutal murders that happened at Virginia Tech this week ripped away the lives of innocent kids and their professors. It ripped apart memories too. I have watched the TV news for two days, and I though I understand what has happened, a part of me just can't take in how or where they were killed. On the TV I see the building where I struggled through international economics, the dorm where my highschool bandmate and friend Brian (tenor sax, marching band) lived, the sidewalk that leads you to the architecture department. I see hundreds of kids huddled against the wind on the drill field, just as I used to when I crossed its expanse to get to class. They are huddled together against a darker force, though, and one I hope they never have to face again.

The Virgina Tech I remember is one where you lived side by side with other kids studying horticulture, philosophy, agronomy, accounting, or Russian history. It was the "cow college" of the state, the landgrant school shaped by the New Dealers for those kids wanting a practical education. It didn't have the prestige of UVA or the history of William and Mary, the other state schools. It was for the daughters and sons of Virginia who maybe didn't come from as much, but wanted better -- and the teaching staff made us work hard for that.

As I watched the Tech students interviewed on TV, I saw in them the same practical, unflappable attitude of the students I remember from my time there. It doesn't surprise me that the shooting victims were reported to be calm and alert by the EMT staff, or that the students immediately organized vigils and support groups, or that people quickly focussed on healing and getting back to their studies. When you are the working backbone of a place, that's just what you do. And this is a place with alot of backbone.

Way back when, I took alot of ribbing for being a Hokie - like alot of us did who had friends going to more "fancy" schools. Today, I find myself humbled and saddened by the horror that took place at Tech, but reawakened to a pride in that place and its students. I pray for the people who died there. For the survivors, I hope they can reclaim their spring. And for me, saying I'm proud to be a Hokie will never feel the same again.

Friday, April 6, 2007

You Better Git On Home....Again

This week I did something I have never really done properly before: I went back home. In this case, it was back home to a place I only lived for a few sweaty, metamorphic years -- Savannah, GA. And I took a witness, my 10 year old son. We had a ball. This was all a new experience for me. In my family, we are slash-and-burn transitioners. We go to a place, we leave, and that's that. How would I know the pleasure of returning to a home that had actually gotten better while I was gone?

The Savannah that was my home in the early 80s was a Southern grande dame carrying around an empty martini glass and still wearing a torn ballgown on a Tuesday morning. The one I returned to was a chic, eccentric heiress with polished gams and a penchant for hanging modern art in her grandmother's parlor. (More on this transformation in a later post...) I had moved to Savannah on a whim. One cold February night in Blacksburg, VA as I tried to get warm in my virtually unheated house by sitting in a hot bath, I was playing my favorite game -- Rand McNally. I'd open the road atlas, propped on the side of the tub, close my eyes, and stab my finger onto a page. The game was to then imagine myself living in that place -- from home to job to tree out front and pool out back. Even. That night I was playing for keeps. Tired of college, directionless, on my third major, and fed up with my boyfriend, I promised myself that I would move that week to wherever my finger landed. The first time, it landed on Tulsa. (I decided that was a test run.) The second, I opened my eyes to Savannah. The next day I borrowed somebody's mother's station wagon, took all my money (about $300) out of the bank, and left.

Savannah was exotic, funky, and more Deeply Southern than even I had experienced (despite my growing up in Richmond VA, capital of the Confederacy). Savannah was not only segragated strictly by race, it was also divided between two kinds of white people. Both groups nursed a vehement disdain for eachother. Category One, the bigger one, was made up of the so-called "true Savannese," people who actually said things like "ma family has been he-ah since evra thud dog died of yella feevah." (Actual documented event.) Category Two was the smaller subset and included drifters, seekers, and the dissolute cousins and unacknowledged offspring of Category One. This small, but rambling group tended to drink cocktails for breakfast, move into their relatives homes unannounced, and run boats into things like stop signs. Since I was neither in One or Two, my very existence in Savannah was questionable. The true Savannese could honestly not understand why a stranger would be in their city without some alternate malevolent reason, e.g. burning, sacking, looting. This, and the fact that I was a vegetarian, might have been enough to get me locked up as a matter of public safety alone. Fortunately, I rented my first apartment from some friendly Category Two squatters ("jus watchin' ma uncle's place while he's off makin' money in some Naw'thin pisshole"), who took an immediate liking to me because I could make a perfect batch of Pimm's Cup before 8AM.

With $40 left after paying rent and a security deposit (!) to the squatters, I shaved my hippie legs, hit the pavement, and (based on my excellent math skills), got a job as a bank teller at a pile of marble downtown. A few months later, I changed up to work at the brand new Savannah College of Art and Design as their first assistant librarian. (More on that later). Somewhere in between, my disgruntled boyfriend joined me down south. In a stroke of genius, I got one of the best dogs I've ever had there, who turned out to be an even better companion than the boyfriend. And I learned a lot -- both good and bad -- about that ubiquitous and contradictory thing called "southern living." (More on that later too.)

Fast forward to this week, 25 years later, and I am standing in my old bank, pointing out to my son the till where I cashed old men's social security checks and tucked a few dollars into their redbook savings accounts. The 20-foot walnut walls are polished to a high gleam and the old security guard smiles at us while I explain my old job.

"The fishermen from the islands brought in their money everyday at 11, and it smelled like fish, and they spoke Gullah to eachother and English to me. That sounded like a little Jamaican, a little Ivory Coast, a whole lotta I don't understand. Their head man did the banking for everyone on the island, and that could take a whole hour, and I'd have to close my line."

"Mom, you're talking funny now."

At first I don't understand him, and then I realize that, over the past couple of days, my vowels have been getting longer and taking some mighty wide turns. The old "yes ma'am" training has switched back on. And that morning, when a car whizzed by too close, a "Have mercy!" popped right out of my mouth. I swear.

"Ah guess ah'm gittin' ma accent back, shugah," I tell him.

Sometimes it's really good to go home again.