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Last Thursday night, I found myself wondering if life could get more precious than this:
My 6-year-old daughter Lucy stood next to me on an old yoga mat, holding steady in warrior pose while my mother looked on from her mat a few feet away. In front of us, our instructor, Brad, smiled as he watched Lucy concentrate, her tongue balanced on her lower lip. Brad is 40 – part Texan, part Canadian – and by day, a bus driver for our region’s social-services agency. He got yoga-certified a couple of years ago and teaches our little class in Julie and Jerry’s Art & Frame shop on North Jackson Street in downtown Athens, Tennessee.
We sit on the stoop outside Art & Frame every Thursday night and wait for Julie to unlock the door. I started bringing Lucy because I love the feel of this space and the closeness of our group, and I wanted Lucy to get a glimpse of how we make things happen in Athens. We use what we have and most of the time we have what we need: in this case, a SETHRA bus driver, mats, and a solid floor beneath us.
In my early 20s, I lived in a big city, and my yoga experience was much more complicated. It involved expensive stretchy pants and a monthly membership fee, a name-brand water bottle and endless mirrors.
There are no floor-length mirrors at Art & Frame, or smooth, window-less walls, only exposed brick and mortar, and Brad just asks us to stick a few dollars in a tin can on our way out.
All around us hanging in the shadows are newly framed pictures, many of them by beloved local artists. As I change positions, I can see floating between my legs and upside down Betty Grater’s watercolor of her grandchildren, Emily and Katie. Some of Julie’s pieces are nearby, artful tangles of found objects brought together on canvases and pieces of wood from her backyard.
On this Thursday night, holding the warrior pose, Lucy doesn’t know that life could be any different. She probably assumes that all SETHRA drivers are yoga instructors and that this type of gathering naturally occurs in frame shops no matter where you live. Her world is small and connected, and her days are a flurry of interactions with people she knows in a variety of settings and capacities, from church to school to the grocery store.
She doesn’t know that she is part of creating something everywhere she goes. Just her presence and her participation in this room is a life-giving force. Her round, confident face and eager blue eyes tell us that we are creating something wonderful in this room.
I wonder if there will come a time when those eyes will dim a little bit and she will look around and ask me why we chose to live in Athens. If she follows in my footsteps, her dissatisfaction will begin around middle school and reach a fever pitch by her senior year. She’ll apply to colleges in metro areas only, and she’ll declare her interest in international studies.
And maybe like me she’ll arrive in the big city and discover a kind of loneliness that hurts so badly it brings you to your knees. Maybe not. But if she does, that loneliness will fuel that flame inside her and she’ll start to re-examine her memories of our yoga nights at Art & Frame. She’ll look back on us gathered there, surrounded by Betty Grater paintings and Julie’s monster mermaids and decide she wants that experience again, for herself and for the people she loves so much.
Or, maybe she’ll never question why we are so devoted to this small yet imperfect town.
Looking at her on Thursday nights with her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, I almost sense that she knows how precious this is.
Whitney Kimball Coe works for the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. She’s a native of Athens, Tennessee, a city of about 13,500 residents in the southeastern part of the state.