Yes, we are one nation.

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Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

This country is big. HUGE. And while there are many differences across the states, we are also all ridiculously, similarly human. I present a handful outrageously over-simplified findings from over three weeks on the road:

  1. People are bad drivers everywhere. I repeat, everywhere.
  2. Mexican is the go-to cheap, yummy food that you have when visitors are in town.
  3. There are kind, generous people everywhere – they let you stay in their houses and feed you and show you around their town.
  4. Using turn signals has gone out of style.
  5. Using the left lane for passing only has also gone out of style.

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    Straddling the Texas-New Mexico state line

  6. People are fiercely proud of the place they live; regardless of whether they moved there and never regretted it, or whether they feel ambivalent and/or mildly trapped there, it is home and is something to be loved.
  7. Having visitors is a good excuse to revisit your favorite places.

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    Inside the Texas state capitol building

  8. People have very strong opinions about where you park.
  9. Outside of New Mexico, a New Mexico license plate is an oddity to be stared at.
  10. Anywhere, a car that is packed full to the gills is an oddity to be stared at.

 

Social Justice in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

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Kentucky dirt roads

“What were your impressions of today?”
“My impressions are that if I’m not careful, I might move to Kentucky.”

Almost as soon as I crossed over the border from Tennessee, the landscape changed. There were more hills. Thicker trees. It reminded me of home in Vermont.

The weekend was spent drinking tea, eating garden-fresh veggies, walking, and discussing matters of social justice. Berea is a unique place. A small city of about 14,000, it boasts a lively artistic community, the first abolitionist church in the south, and the liberal arts Berea College. It is a hub of progressive thinking located in the buckle of the Bible belt.

On Saturday afternoon we went to a panel on community policing and police brutality. It was hosted by Berea College students and featured four community panel members, including the city mayor and the chief of the Berea police department. The dialogue in that room was incredible. There were high tensions due to recent events in Ferguson, MO, which is just under six-hour drive away. This being the first meeting between the Berea police chief and the Berea college students, it could have been an ugly conversation. In fact, I’d say that in most communities it would have been an ugly conversation. But there was a stronger force held in the room than anger or frustration or sadness or fear: respect. All parties ultimately respected themselves and each other to such a degree that real, productive dialogue could occur.

I couldn’t help but think back to events that I have witnessed in Albuquerque over the last several years, with a police force that now has a national reputation for excessive brutality. There is so much anger in Albuquerque over the killings at the hands of APD officers. How could some of the earlier conversations gone differently if all participants agreed to the same rules of conduct that were followed in Berea this past Saturday? Could they be implemented now, or is there such a thing as it being “too late” to expect respect?

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Sunday afternoon concert by Dr. Javier Clavere

On Sunday morning I attended the worship service at Union Church, where Rev. Kent Gilbert (also my wonderful host for the weekend) preached a powerful sermon on forgiveness. Stakes were high here, too, because the church is working hard to pass a fairness ordinance in the city that would protect LGBTQ individuals against discrimination due to perceived gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. The final public hearing on the ordinance was Tuesday. No one knows how the city council will vote.

These kinds of communities are so inspiring. Rev. Gilbert told us in his sermon about how back in the early days of Union Church, many men couldn’t attend the Sunday service. They were too busy riding shotgun around the church – literally, riding around with shotguns at the ready – in case anyone decided to attack the anti-slavery church in a slave-holding state. Shotguns aside, how much have our politics really changed?

I left Kentucky wondering when I could return. And I haven’t even mentioned the new English Country Dance series, the Berea College professor who played all of Mozart’s sonatas in a weekend, or the lively contra dance in Lexington. All of these things make up what a community should be: joyful living, plus a fierce drive to work towards social justice and equality for all. Someone get me an “I ❤ KY” tshirt or something, because I’ve gone ALL fangirl.

Road signs

A funny thing happens when you travel. You re-learn how to say “yes,” and also how to say “no.”

“Why yes, I will stop to take that photo.”

“Sure, why not check out a honky tonk bar?”

“Awesome, that exit looks like it has something cool to check out!”

“No, I will not go back to your apartment with you.”

“Nah, I don’t need to pay that much to sit in some hot water.”

“Thanks for the invite, but I think I’ll enjoy some alone time today.”

The words “yes” and “no” are our basic markers as we navigate our day-to-day lives. We can choose to get off at exit 1A, or we can choose to stay on I-40 for another 7.2 billion years.

NM2VT_7_TN IMG_0788 bw squareYet when we are at home with our friends and our routines, the opportunity to shape our day by choosing one option over another isn’t always as pronounced. At home, our days can feel driven by obligation, or expectation, or sheer habit. On the road, every moment feels like a momentous choice.

Texas: YES.

Arkansas: YES.

Tennessee: YES.

Adventures: YES.

Spending a rainy day inside this hostel with tea and grad school application essays: YES.

Remembering to live in the moment: Oh, yeah… I mean, YES.

Texas Part 2: Dallas Life Lessons in Perfection (and lack thereof)

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Sound check with Sibling Revelry at the Dallas dance in an old converted movie theatre in Carrollton, TX.

As a one-year old caller, there are some aspects of calling that I am starting to feel confident in. I feel confident that I have a pretty good stage presence. I feel confident in teaching a hey to groups of beginners. I feel confident in using creative, rhythmic calls, and in dropping them as the dance progresses. 

Then there are the things that actively challenge me. I feel shy when asking a band to change tempo if I haven’t worked with them before. I am wary of getting lost while calling a double-progression. I don’t know how to handle peer-to-peer “corrections” from well-meaning dancers to other dancers on the floor – especially when the “corrections” are incorrect.

I also have now twice had difficulty getting first-time contra dancers to do any sort of bicycle-chain (some call it chainsaw) formation. What about these moves am I not teaching clearly?  Whether I have taught it as a promenade, or a whole-set circle, or a grand right-and-left, something has gotten muddled each time I am working with more than 30% beginners. And in Dallas this weekend, this challenge was combined with another: very chatty beginners.

So here’s the scene: What looked like about 40% absolute first-time dancers, 60% pretty experienced dancers, fifth dance of the evening, decided to do “Salute to Larry Jennings” by Ted Sannella. The dancers had been progressing really nicely and I was able to drop out calls for each of the first four dances. I wanted to keep the experienced dancers engaged and thought the new folks could handle this dance with a good walk-through.

Then the grand right-and-left happened.

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My office! Dallas dancers as viewed from the stage.

There was lots of chatting on the floor. There was a group of new dancers clumped together in the back. There were experienced folks at the top of the line who were looking antsy to dance. And there was absolute confusion at the bottom of one set. The grand right-and-left just wasn’t working, the chatting was getting more restless, I was being asked questions from the floor, and… I got completely flustered. Do I answer the specific questions from individual dancers? Do I start the walk-through over, yet again? Do I go out on the floor and rearrange couples myself? Do I choose another dance? (Tried that, by the way, to disappointed shouts from the experienced folks.) 

Finally some of the experienced dancers helped out by breaking up the new folks in the back. I still don’t think many people actually heard the instructions because there was too much chatting. I wasn’t able to drop the calls during the dance. And some of the new folks looked utterly bewildered throughout. 

End result: We got through it. But the walk-through was painful, and I lost the confidence of some of the dancers on the floor. I don’t blame them. I would have been frustrated with the caller, too. In this dance I didn’t succeed in teaching clearly, or in facilitating fun for all people on the floor.

Lessons learned: Two days later, I’m still not sure. Maybe I shouldn’t have called it in the first place. Maybe there was a way I could have gotten the rapt attention of everyone in the hall first. Maybe there was a better way I could have asked new dancers to dance with experienced dancers. Maybe I was using the wrong language to teach the move. Possibly all of the above are true. 

When all was said and done, it was still a fun night. The dancers in Dallas are lovely – welcoming, experienced, and very kind to this visiting caller. They dance in a converted movie theatre on first-Saturdays, which has a way cool vibe. The band, Sibling Revelry, was very pleasant to work with and I had several great chats with people during the break and after the dance.

I do feel like I failed the dancers for that one dance. But I also am trying to keep in mind that I was able to successfully call 11 other dances that went smoothly and gave (I think) the crowd a good time. I guess you can’t win ’em all – although, of course, I wish I could.

Texas Part 1: The Austin Allure

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Rich MacMath calling before me at the Austin dance.

The Hancock Rec Center was already buzzing with activity when I arrived for the dance. A group of people milled about on the wooden floor, waiting for the lesson to start. Rich MacMath started the lesson by getting everyone to laugh, and it only got better from there.What. A. Dance!

The dancers were experienced, responsive, and joyful. The music was energetic and fun. The house band changed throughout the evening as players came and went, skillfully led by Max (fiddle) and Earl (mandolin).  And when it was my turn to call, this crowd gave me the warmest welcome I could have asked for on my first night of my tour.

What can I say? I love Austin. This is a welcoming, funky, sultry city. My host, Elise, graciously welcomed me into her home where we chatted over coffee about music, politics, travel, family, and change. The first night I arrived we went to an old-time jam (scroll down for a recording!) and took a nighttime drive around the city. She gave great recommendations of things to do, and we even got to work together when she played in the contra dance band.

Oh, and did I mention: HONKYTONK. I two-stepped. Is that even a verb?

Austin, I love your strange antiques-shop aesthetic, your warm residents (and residences), and your commitment to having a good time. Thanks for the wild ride. I hope to see you soon.


Clip from Tuesday’s old-time jam: