Loner in Tennessee

Eleanor Rigby2

Everyone wants love. Right?
Okay well, maybe not everyone. For I have certainly known at least one guy who said he didn’t much care if anyone loved him or not and his actions, and ways of being with any number of women I knew him with, sure made that obvious. I don’t think he believed in love. Or felt it. Or something. But most everyone wants love.

Some people get love. Some people have high school sweethearts and they never let go. Some people have a great love and when that great love leaves the earth too soon, find that the universe sends another great love along in short order. As if these are people whose journeys through life require great love for the lessons they are working Eleanor Rigby on. Some people find love again and again. So often I’ve been given cause to wonder if it could always be real. And some people – it must be said – don’t find love. (Think of any of those fuktards that kill women because they’ve had a lifetime of rejection, or, more benignly, of Eleanor Rigby and a gazillion other human souls.) (I had a teacher in High School who guided a class through Eleanor Rigby. To see the imagery of the ordinary things and the larger picture it presented. I learned a lot that day Mr. S.)

I thought I was one of those who wasn’t gonna find love.
I’ve had some pretty great experiences with some of the men who have moved through my life, but none of them were real love. A decades long affair that I thought was love. But see… I was wrong… Obviously.
How the hell does anyone know what love actually is?
I’ve had mind blowing dalliances with a guy or two, here and there.
But love.
Not so much

After spending my 20s traveling as a Deadhead in a loving and fun filled crowd of thousands, and my 30s and much of my 40s running the hippest café around. Knowing hundreds of inspiring and worthwhile people, watching them fall in and out of love. After decades of wishing someone could, or would, reach for my heart I finally figured out that wasn’t gonna happen for me. That wasn’t my life story. That wasn’t needed for the lessons my soul had come to learn.
Besides I’d been given some pretty awesome love gifts. Adopted by a mother that trusted me, believed in me and worked with my particular, sometimes trying, personality traits without ever faltering in her love. And in High School the universe delivered up a friend that I could never have predicted would be my best friend and my rock to this day. (But both of those are stories for another time, yes?)

So I gradually came to accept this about myself. I was a loner. That’s just how it was. There would be no one to share my journey. Which in the long run is okay. Because I’m strong enough to be my own person and make my own way.

This is not to say that I ever gave up. Merely that I was prepared to be alone. I like myself and my own company. I rarely get bored. And I can find good sex if that’s what I need.

So going on this road trip alone, seemed my destiny. I didn’t know what I’d find. Maybe I’d find love. I have always promised myself to remain open to it and not let past experiences shut me down. But I sure as hell didn’t expect it or go looking for it. (Spoiler; Nor did I find it on my road trip.)
I won’t say – I went looking for me – because that’s too cliché and because I don’t think I was lost. I have a pretty strong sense of self. I know who I am. But I sure as hell was looking for something.
I mean really. Forty-nine year olds do not jump in the car alone with only a general sense of where they’re going for a few months, calling it a Walkabout, without having to admit to themselves that they’re looking for something.

So there I was in Atlanta. Vette (that’s my best friend) had lived in Little Five Points Atlanta for a while in the 80s going to recording school, between Dead Tours she and I went on, so I was somewhat familiar with the place. I remember the funky little neighborhood that was just a short walk from her house. So I got myself an Airbnb place near Little 5. I didn’t know anyone here anymore and I was pretty focused on that fact that I was alone so my Atlanta itinerary was a full one. So much I wanted to do and see. I didn’t have to look to anyone else to see if they wanted to go to the Museum, or to Clinton’s Presidential Library or to pay homage to Scarlett O’Hara and her creator. These were the things I would enrich myself with – Ha!
So take that world! I’m good! I’m doing what I want!

I stayed with a sweet older man and his dog Otto. The man’s wife had recently moved to a nursing home and he was adjusting to bachelor life. He made me dinner the first night I arrived and we talked. He was a retired government worker, well-read, interesting, methodical. He was winding down and enjoying his life. Walking Otto and running errands for his wife. He lived walking distance to Little 5, so most days I started with a walk to get coffee – ah so many good coffeehouses – Atlanta be proud of that.
One day I went for a walk down Josephine St to look for Vette’s old house. I couldn’t tell which one it was. Too many had a tree in the front yard like I remembered dripping with mardi gras beads the day I first saw it. Too many had the same sort of front door approach. Too many were the same color, and probably different colors after all these years. And Vette couldn’t remember the number. So after a couple passes up and down the street I gave up.

I expected to feel more of a connection to the place. I’d spent so much quality time here. But it all felt a little empty I must admit. I chatted with the store clerks in the decorated retail world of Decembers in America, with waiters and waitresses, security guards, receptionists and artists, but it was all so very surface.

Maybe I was looking for my life.
I’d sold the coffeehouse I’d created so I could free up myself to find the next thing. Owning a coffeehouse had been enjoyable for many many years but I’d come to feel like my world was shrinking. Honestly. It was like life had been reduced to ordering large cups. I wanted more than that.
And here I was.
And Atlanta was not the place where my life was. All good. I hadn’t expected or wanted it to be. I just wanted to stop by and say “Hi Atlanta. Hi Little 5. Good to see you again.”

My next planned stop was to go see Vette’s parents in Alabama and hit up Birmingham. There I had been able to find some of the folks we’d been friends with back in the day. None of the closest friends but I figured I had people there nonetheless. Reaching out to them on facebook I had finagled an invitation to crash and attend a Christmas play. It would be good to reconnect.

One of my rules for myself on this journey was this – I can stay anywhere I want to stay as long as I want to stay. I can leave anywhere sooner than planned if that’s what I wish to do. And I can change plans and change direction any time that looks like a decent idea.

That was why I blew off Alabama and headed to Tennessee instead.

I saw something on facebook that changed my direction.
I wish I’d seen that there was a big Xmas Jam concert in Asheville because I’d have gone there and I would have gotten to see a bunch of friends. One especially that I was excited to visit. He wasn’t on my original idea of what my direction would be but now that I was going to Tennessee… Except he had gone to the Xmas Jam that I didn’t know about and I missed him too. I didn’t worry much about such things as missing people. I knew I wouldn’t see everyone I would love to see. A lot more of that happens later in this trip. And my fall-back thought is always – I’ll catch ya next time I come by. For I always always always imagine there will be a “next time I’m in the area.”

What I did see, and what I decided to do, was go to McMinnville Tennessee to a bluegrass Pirate Christmas concert at an underground venue. Underground! Bluegrass! Pirate! Sign me up!
It was held in a cave! Cumberland Caverns to be exact.

But here. Here is where I came face to face with really being alone.

I got there early. The cave wasn’t open yet. The gift store and surrounding porch were filling with small crowds. Families. Friends. There was some stereotypical mountain folks. Some families that looked like they could have come from Hartford. And a crowd of six friends that caught my eye. Big men with beards and their women. One of the men wore tie dye. I struck up a conversation with one of the women when only four were present. “Been here before? Is it nice?”
She was friendly and then the last two of their group appeared and she turned from me and never looked back. They were my people in this crowd. I could tell. I heard their conversations as we waited in the line now forming outside the cave. I tried again and again to find another way into saying “Hello, I’m alone, you’re my people, can I hang with you for the next couple hours and enjoy some camaraderie and newfound friendship?” But none came. I gave up.

I immersed myself in the cave. The way they turned it into a venue. The placement of the bathrooms, the concession, the backstage. Nature made a perfect little theater here.
The show was mediocre. I expected top tier talent at a celebrated underground bluegrass venue playing me some twanging xmas music. What I got was second or third tier talent, dressed as pirates with a Santa roadie, playing decent, but not memorable, sorta Celtic, sorta contemporary, xmas music. And I guess I should have expected that something so obviously cheesy (What the HELL was I thinking – Xmas – Pirates!?!?) was going to be aimed mostly at the many children in the audience.
“Let’s let them all come up here and sing badly!”
I don’t begrudge the hopefully great memories those kids made that day, but a stage full of pirates talking down to children wasn’t what I wanted from all this. (And I didn’t yet know I was missing Asheville’s Xmas Jam.)
I spent some quality time with my camera. Pirates and kids can be quite photogenic.

Oh and I did get a bit of recognition there when they asked from the stage “Who has traveled the farthest to be here today?” That got me a couple stickers and a poster.
And when it was over and we climbed the winding passage that leads back to the topside of the world, I thought – so much for Tennessee – guess I’ll head back towards the original plan and head back on down towards Alabama. I could hunt up people along the way. There’s a diary enthusiast I know in Signal Mountain or in Chattanooga my mother’s brother’s ex-wife’s sister. (Yeah follow that. Billie and David had been divorced forever but she remained family. Billie had told me before I left to look her sister up.)

Ah but then I got out on the road, those winding hill roads of nowhereville, and I took a bit of a wrong turn that got me headed north.
I looked at the map.
Ah. Fuck it. Guess I’ll go to Nashville. I’ve got an ex employee who plays clubs there – maybe I’d find him playing. And to Nashville I went.

 

[This series of posts is brought about by my attempt to relive what I did on my road trip which lasted from December 8, 2013 to May 3, 2014. I’m attempting to sorta keep pace with myself last year.]

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Atlanta Whirlwind

I had these images of having plenty of time to write interesting, informative and pleasing blog posts about the things I’m doing.
Instead I find myself running ragged ever since I left CT – with no end in sight.
Yesterday in Atlanta I visited The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library, the historic home that Margaret Mitchell lived in while she wrote the majority of Gone With the Wind, and I ended the day visiting The High Museum of Art ( It was half price on Thursday nights!)
I really enjoyed The Carter Center. As a child my first awareness of politics was Watergate. (Wait. What? What’s a President? We have a President? And he lied?) So by the time Carter was being elected I totally wanted him to win. I had a teacher at the time who made us engage with the political process by choosing sides and visiting the local Party offices and volunteering.
I was so displeased by what I’d seen since becoming aware of politics that of course I chose to campaign for Carter.
Since leaving the Presidency the man has done many commendable things in this world and I enjoyed immersing myself in the facts of it all.
Plus it was kind of awesome to stare upon an actual Nobel Peace Prize.
A helpful museum guide named Tony broke the rules and took some pictures of me. He also gave me the Jeopardy-worthy little bit of trivia: There are only two cities in the world which house two Nobel Peace Prizes. One is Atlanta (I went and saw King’s today!) and the other is Soweto, where medals for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela reside.
Somehow I enjoyed that tenuous connection, what with the week’s news being filled with the goings on at the memorial ceremony to honor Mandela’s passing.

(More text below photos.)

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Here in Atlanta I’m staying with a nice older gentleman named Al. It’s a booking I made via Airbnb – a service born of the sharing economy whereby you rent out extra bedrooms in your house, or pay a cheap price to stay in someone else’s extra room. I’ve been renting out my extra room that way for a few years but this trip is my first chance to really utilize it for myself. (If you don’t know Airbnb yet, do check it out.)

Anyway, Al lives just on the outskirts of Little 5 Points. I spent a good amount of time here in the 80s when Vette (my lifelong best friend) lived here.
Today I started the day with a short walk to Little 5. Truly worthy coffeehouses and a collection of stores I wish I had access to on a daily basis. I spent a few hours wandering and browsing. Enjoyable day.

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A Facebook post, saying where I was, got me a message from a friend saying she had people not too far from here and that I should visit and deliver a hug and greeting.
So I did.
That introduced me to the Lake Claire Land Trust.
What a fantastic place! With land bought from Marta, they have created a meandering little city oasis with playgrounds, sweat lodges, a small amphitheater, performance spaces, and I met an emu named Lou!
That was a great detour and addition to my day!

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Then I jetted off to The King Center to pay my respects and learn a thing or two. The complex is rambling and covers many blocks. I got to see Atlanta’s second (or was it the first?) Nobel Peace Prize.
I was somehow humbled to stand near his tomb. The gravity of it all. A friendly pool cleaner named Lawrence took my photos for me.
I really like meeting real people to chat with.

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I was going to go back to the Lake Claire Land Trust tonight for a Friday night friendly jam but that’s not gonna happen.
I walked a couple blocks from Al’s for dinner at a place called Babette’s and, at 9pm, have landed next door at JavaVino – a coffeehouse wine bar combo and I’m downing more wine than would allow me to be comfortable driving back to the Land Trust.
Here I sit writing this bit on my iPhone in hopes that when I get back to the house I’ll upload some photos and make this a real blog post.

My original plan for this trip was to cruise along the northern reaches of these southern states as I head west but a Facebook post last week from a friend might be sending me north from here to Tennessee – to McMinnville – where there is a concert tomorrow known as Bluegrass Underground. Once a month they have concerts that (I think) are filmed for PBS and December’s is tomorrow and billed as “A Pirate’s Christmas.” So yeah. I think I’m changing my plans and going north tomorrow.

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Ode to a Teacher

I have a friend who pays an inordinate amount of attention to obituaries.

It’s not like he’s of an age where one would watch to be aware of the passing of friends. He’s always been like this.

He’s the one who tells me when a friend’s parent has passed, or perhaps the untimely death of an old acquaintance in our age group, or an important yet little known person who influenced our chosen brand of American culture.

Earlier this week I got a text from him that said “Mrs. Sokolowski died. 89 years old.”

Wow.

Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Eighth grade? Seventh grade?

It seems some of my best teachers came from that time of my schooling. Anthony Dyer was middle school too.

These are the teachers who pushed me. These are the teachers who knew I could do better than what I did.

Mrs. Sokolowski was a hard-ass. No excuses were good enough. She insisted on work done well. She scoffed at efforts less than 110%. She scowled and growled and hissed and snapped. Right now my mind pictures a viper.

She was the matriarch of Memorial Middle school, possibly I have that impression because her daughter worked there too. Miss Sokolowski taught French which I took two years of (and passed) but with which I was completely lost and decidedly unfluent in, when I was in France. Mrs. Sokolowski taught English and writing. (Not that this is any of my best writing but it’s just coming off the top of my head – and yes, I see the awkwardness of some of the previous sentences.)

Along with the babysitter of all my young years, Mrs. Bostock, Mrs. Sokolowski was very important to the shaping of my writer-brain. And Mr. Dyer was there to teach me how to think, how to see the big picture as well as the details and comprehend the nuances to the shaping of civilization.

I was an excellent student in Middle school. Hungry for the knowledge these people could give me, rebellious slightly and always a bit of a lazy student, they drew out the best in me.

When asked most of my life who was my best teacher ever, I was always inclined to point the finger at Mr. Dyer. A large man with piercing blue eyes, a shock of yellow blond hair, and the voice of a Viking, he was flamboyant, loud, intimidating and endlessly entertaining. Mrs. Sokolowski was old even then, with her curled grey old-lady hair and glasses. And she was a little mean. She was the kind of teacher who might have a ruler in her hand to slap loudly on a student’s desk. She was relentless and maybe not so well liked. She may not have been as entertaining, and it may have been harder to sit in her class, but she was without doubt a force to be reckoned with and a remarkable teacher.

Beyond Middle school my thirst for schoolwork waned considerably.

My teachers were less interesting, less motivating. They seemed to be sort of bumbling and ineffectual.

This may have been due to my own lifestyle changes, it was the start of high school where I met a whole new crew of fascinating long-haired boys. Boys more interested in music and marijuana than in schoolwork or knowledge. But it seems to me, when I look back on it, that part of the problem was that I had come up against teachers who were not as smart as me. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I felt then as if they had little to teach me. Certainly I was learning new things in circles I hadn’t even known existed and school didn’t afford me opportunities that interested me as much as watching ‘the band’ learn new songs, hanging out in sand lots on mountain tops having keg parties and learning to know a whole new crowd of people, and a whole new introduction to music.

It’s probably wrong of me to blame this disinterest and this turning from school on my teachers, there were other factors in my life that precipitated these changes in me.

Certainly there were a few memorable teachers in high school, including Mr. Adams and Mr. Seibal(?) but this post isn’t about them.

When I was in my early 40s I went to the post office one random day and Mrs. Sokolowski recognized me. Many people from my past recognize me because somehow I look just the same now as I did when I was 8, and 25. It took a moment for me to place her, then I smiled. A few moments of chit chat and she got serious and said “May I ask you something?”

She asked me – “Did we do right by you? In school? I know we did okay with the average students, but I always worried about you smart kids. Did we challenge you? Did we set you on the right path? Did we do okay?”

It seemed such a burning question inside her, I was surprised.

I was moved by her query. I guess I’d never thought about a teacher’s perspective on someone like me. I guess I didn’t know, that back then, they knew I was smart. Isn’t that silly? I knew. I knew they treated me differently, placed me in advanced classes and whatnot. And I knew they worried about me in high school when my grades began to drop, (when they pulled me into the guidance office and told me I was hanging with the wrong crowd,) but I didn’t know I mattered to any of them. Not really.

I saw it though, that day, in her eyes. She truly cared to know if she’d done a good job. Not for her sake, but for mine. I mattered to her. This was literally stunning.

I didn’t know, other than theoretically, that a teacher truly cared about the trajectory of a single student, like an arrow she’d had a part in aiming.

I told her the truth.

She’d done the best she could with me. She engaged me and taught me well. I told her I’d lost interest through high school, perhaps because I didn’t have teachers of her caliber. I’d not gone to college, instead I traveled the country for nearly a decade, then I’d opened my own successful business (which I was 12 or 13 years into owning at the time) and that I’d have to say yes, she had, they had, done okay by me. They’d taught me to think and learn and I couldn’t have asked for better.

We parted happily and I thought of that encounter often. I related it to friends many times through the past bunch of years, with awe at her concern, and honor that she thought of me at all.

Before I relate what it was like when I went to her wake (which is the point of this post) I’d like to tell how after the wake, I went to dinner with a teacher friend. He assured me that teachers do indeed think often of individual students and lay awake at night wondering if they’ve done right by these kids. And when talk turned to other areas of our lives, and an idea came forward that he could utilize in his teaching, and I watched his eyes light up with the possibilities of this new idea and how it could and will affect the experience his students will have; I thought of her.

I felt compelled to go to the wake. The point of a wake is to pay one’s respects to the departed. I didn’t expect to know anyone there, unless Miss Sokolowski, who was surely no longer Miss Sokolowski might be there, and I hoped she was.

I walked in to a mostly empty funeral home. The emptiest wake I’d ever attended. There were a few people looking at the photo board. There were pictures of her in the 40s, a glamorous looking woman with  perfect 40s hair. There were pictures of her as a young girl, grainy sepia toned photos, a little girl on a red wagon, a little girl looking into a stream. There were pictures of her as an old woman, smiling around a table with other old women. None of them looked like my Mrs. Sokolowski. But then, there was one small photo, from an instamatic camera, with film color that’s not holding up well, of her accepting an award or something at a podium among diners. Ah! There she was.

I looked around – I wanted to tell someone – look! There she is – my teacher!

There was no one to tell.

It was an open casket.

I walked over and stood before her. Her skin was grey and she was old and didn’t look like anyone I knew. But I looked past that, I looked through to the woman I saw in the photos, to the woman who waggled her finger at me and INSISTED I do as well as I could.

I thanked her for caring. About me and about all the many students whose lives she had undoubtedly touched as much as she did my own. I thanked her for our encounter at the post office. I thanked her for all that she gave of herself. I told her I hoped her life had been satisfying in all those realms a kid never imagines for a teacher. I told her that I hoped her journeys beyond this planet would afford her heart and soul much peace. I told her she had mattered.

And when I turned from her, I wanted to tell this important information to someone else. I wanted to tell someone that she mattered. There were chairs there for the family, but no one was in them. There were a couple of small groups of people talking amongst themselves. I looked for Karen – Miss Sokolowski. She was not there.

I stood not knowing what to do.

I wanted to shout to the room – hey! This lady over here! She mattered! Do you know that?!

I looked back at her for one final Thank You, and then I left.

Goodbye Mrs. Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Thank you, you did good. You mattered.