One Wild and Precious Life

You are not a baby any more. But I remember the soft warmth of you, wrapped in a blanket, only minutes into the world. I remember being sorry, a little, that you were not my secret any more; the tiny miracle inside me whose movements were a mysterious knowing. I remember being amazed that, with two other little ones already such an important part of my life, you could carve a unique space in my heart, wholly your own, that would only ever be yours.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver

You are not a little boy any more; the precocious one running ahead on every hike to climb something, or crawl inside or over something, just to know what lay beyond. And yet, you have done a better job than most of retaining the best parts of being young.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
~Pablo Picasso

Curiosity: The way you used to enter a hotel room and within minutes know the combination to the safe, which toiletries had been provided, and where to find all electrical outlets, as well as the Gideon Bible. Now, your curiosity leads you to the best music and YouTube videos, to killer electronic equipment, to stories about the Holocaust and human suffering.

Optimism: Not so much naivety as a conscious choice to believe the best about everyone. To give your all to each relationship, to every endeavor, with a firm belief that others will do the same. Perhaps you have been disappointed at times. But I also believe that sometimes your faith in others calls from them something they do not know they have to give. And that is a gift. To them. To the world.

If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget standing in the hallway of the humanities building at your college, waiting to lay down a couple of piano tracks for your digital audio recording project. The hall was full of students between classes who must have wondered what this strange old lady was doing loitering in the hall. Then you walked through a door, and the hall erupted with “Josh!!”, “Hey Josh!”, “Joshie!” And I knew, for a moment, what it must be like to be the mother of someone famous. 🙂

Audacity: Kids always believe they can do or be anything they set their minds to. It is only as adults that we begin to place borders and qualifiers and excuses around all our best dreams. And yet, you dream on…

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

~Marianne Williamson

You are not a teenager any more. And I don’t even know what to do with this. Though you will always be my baby boy, you are a man. You make grown-up man choices like working a job you need even if you don’t love it, like buying insurance and your own clothes, like choosing the next right step in your life even if the way is unclear…

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~Wendell Berry

This is a threshold moment. You are on the edge of ripening into that which you have long been preparing to be. And I can hardly wait to see where all this leads. Know that wherever life takes you, Dad and I will always be here, cheering you on. The world needs you, best beloved. We need your compassion, your courage, and your creativity. Give us all you’ve got.

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

~Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Happiest of birthdays, my dear son!! I could not be more proud of you. I love you! May God grant you many, many years!!

*Bottom four photos, taken by Josh. The one just above those, taken by Kari. Photo of tiny Josh and Gatlin taken by Wendi.

 

I’ll Be Seeing You…

My darling, you know I adore The Notebook. The romance, yes, and the fury of new love. But mostly, the deep, enduring love that doesn’t know how to let go. The kind of love that shows up day after day to tell the same story over and over again.

It occurs to me that, with 30 years under our belt, we are coming to share more with that seasoned couple trying hard to remember than with the combustible pair of young lovers. It also occurs to me that, in the event that I am Allie some day and you must be the custodian of our memories, you might like a little help…

Please don’t ever let me forget that Sunday morning when first I saw you, bursting through the back door of the choir loft at Laguardo Baptist Church with a bundle of music in one arm and a Mellow Yellow in the other. Or that week volunteering together at VBS…and the grapes. You might want me to forget that you borrowed money from me at Taco Bell on our first date, but I probably won’t. 😉 Remind me of the fast and furious knowing, the summer evenings sitting on the floor at Robbie and Clayton’s, talking late into the night, asking all the questions, until  a sleepy Clayton would call out from the back of the house, “Mike, don’t you think it’s time to be heading home?”

Tell me stories about our “young married” days at Haywood Hills; about Paul and Debo, Chris and Trisha, Rebecca and Katherine; about house-boat trips and Sunday night Pictionary. Tell me about our first house on Debra Drive and how we didn’t notice there was no dishwasher til I was standing there with a dirty plate in my hand, about the horrible grasscloth we ripped off the walls, and the night the water heater exploded and flooded the basement. And don’t forget the tiny furballs.

Make sure you tell me about our babies and how you “conducted” them into the world (always patterns of four despite the nurse’s instructions to count to ten). It seems to have worked. They are all musical. 🙂 Talk about homeschooling and children’s choir, about cub scouts and sports teams, about the puppies and the farm, about talent shows and camping trips and church camp, about watching these remarkable humans grow into themselves.

Remind me of all the places we have been. Of England and France (This is your chance to tell me we saw Prince Charles on the Chunnel Train with none of the children to correct you.) It might be best if you do not mention that we almost lost each of the boys in separate metro incidents. Mind the gap!

Include something about Venice, the Cinque Terre, Meteora, the Hagia Sophia, Costa Rica, Alaska, and the Dingle Peninsula. Tell me that once I stood before the Book of Kells. Remind me how we crossed the Grand Canyon on foot. Twice.

I might be surprised to learn that we have run marathons, even an ultra-marathon. But tell me about those. Especially the one up Pikes Peak. And in the Tetons. Tell me about the crazy cold Disney Marathon when the sports drinks and gels froze, but fire pots were burning in Epcot and I cried all the way through the Magic Kingdom.

Be sure to include stories about the long walk across Spain. Don’t forget David and Jan, Samra and Perry, Rhys, Otto, Jose, Jorge and Kelly, Paul, Mike, Adam and all our other beloveds… Talk about the hill towns, the vineyards, and the Botafumeiro.

It will be difficult to tell me about the hard time, that season when we weren’t sure we would make it. You will want to be self-deprecating because that is your way. But DO NOT let me forget that you loved me fiercely, even when I made it so hard. Remind me of friends who stood with us, who challenged and encouraged. Never let me lose sight of the fact that seasoned love is a miracle and a gift.

Talk to me about the ancient Church. About how it is so different than anything we have ever known, and yet, how arriving here was like coming home. Talk to me of the beautiful sensuality of worship, about the deep theology, about how it asks so much of us, and yet gives us so much more. About how we found healing here.

And please, please, tell me about our granddaughter. Remind me of sleepovers and duplos and make-believe, and how she gave us the opportunity to see the world like it was brand new. Tell me about the sweet surprise of godchildren and how they have blessed our life.

And when you have told me all the stories, just be with me. Sit beside me. And let the knowing between us keep us company.

Thank you, my darling, for living and loving long with me. I know it has not always been easy. Perhaps it has never been easy. But God has made something very good of our love. And I am glad you have all our stories. And I am glad neither of us has to begin again. May God grant us many more years of growing into one another, til all borders become permeable and the knowing is complete.

To be continued…

A story thirty years in the making is far too much to cover completely in one blog post. Here are a few previous posts that tell a little more:

The Martyrdom of Marriage
23
Gift
I Choose You
Further Up and Further In
Ripened Love

 

 

 

Regarding Oscar

There is a certain magic in good storytelling; a chance to slide inside another’s skin for a space; to see the world through new eyes.

Mine is a great heritage of story, from my grandpa, from my mom. Perhaps that’s why I love it so. I love it any way it comes: across a table, around a fire, or flickering across a screen in a dark room with sticky floors and a prevailing scent of popcorn.

For several years now, it has been my objective to see all the best picture nominees before the Academy Awards. In a good year, I will have already seen a few before the candidates are announced. In other years, well, let’s just say January and February get really busy.

While I am no expert, I offer herein a few thoughts on the nine films nominated this year for best picture. They appear in the order in which we saw them.

La La Land
In her Golden Globe acceptance speech, Emma Stone said La La Land is a film for dreamers. That description is pretty apt. In a year when most of the films are heavy, when life itself has been heavy for many, it is a gift to spend a couple of hours with two creative, passionate people who are giving their all to pursue those callings that are uniquely theirs. It doesn’t hurt that all of this is wrapped inside some fabulous music, enchanting dance numbers, and a generous dose of whimsy. It also doesn’t hurt that it features two of my favorite actors. While it lacks the happy ending one might expect, it concludes in a way that feels honest and right.

Moonlight
Moonlight is a courageous film that took me inside a world completely foreign to me. A world of complex, nuanced characters: a mother who is doing her best, except when drugs turn her into a monster; a drug dealer who becomes an unlikely protector and father figure; a best friend whose love is sometimes called into question and other times takes unexpected forms; a little boy who has to figure out how to navigate between all of them to build some kind of life. Juxtaposing this raw, rugged world against an exquisite classical soundtrack is disorienting, yet it bespeaks the epic nature of the questions being explored. This film stretched me. In a good way.

Manchester By the Sea
Grief and guilt are experiences common to us all. This film dives deep into these, and into the idea of family loyalty and responsibility, and how love sometimes makes unreasonable demands, and how taking care of another might be the only way to move past the stain of the past and learn to live with yourself. The bleakness of the landscape mirrors the interior landscape of our main character, played compellingly by Casey Affleck. I have to say I found the ending abrupt and frustrating. Given some time to ponder it, I suspect this might have been intentional. One last device to allow us to completely enter into the bitter desolation.

Lion
Lion is a love story. It is a story about the love that compels a mother to make profound sacrifices for her family; love that causes a boy to bring his little brother along on a great adventure; love that causes a man and woman to make a home for a chosen child born in a far away place and make him their own; love that persists; love that seeks out; love that gives wings; love that returns. The film is gorgeous and generative and inspiring. The one great horror was coming face to face with the plight of the many thousands of children who are lost and misused in the world every year. I have not been able to forget about them. I hope I never will.

Hidden Figures
Marianne Williamson says, “…There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine…We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

If you have ever doubted that, you must see this hero tale about three women of extraordinary intellect, tremendous courage, and indomitable human spirit, who work inside an impossible system of prejudice that every day attempts–without success–to steal their dignity. Still, they shine. They “make manifest the glory”, and their elegant nobility elevates everyone around them. A beautiful, heartening film.

Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is a modern day iteration of the classic western. We find ourselves cheering for a couple of outlaws because we know they have been hard used, and we believe the establishment to be in the wrong. Our lawmen, who do in fact wear white hats, are sturdy and honorable, but not invincible. We get glimpses of their soft underbelly, but this makes sympathize with them. The film offers an intriguing exploration of the concepts of honor and loyalty, and just how far we will go for each.

Fences
I can’t make myself like Denzel Washington’s character in this film, but his performance is spectacular, as is that of Viola Davis. His long, gin inspired rif early in the film where his words come so fast and furious I can’t think how he has time to figure out what to say next is pure genius. That said, I found the story heavy and hard. Troy and Rose Maxson seam to have far more than their share of heartache, and his unfairness to his son is almost unbearable. And yet, there is generosity here. And great strength. I imagine I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, though I strongly suggest you have La La Land queued up to watch after just to make your heart stop hurting.

Arrival
To be honest, this was the film I was least interested in seeing. However, it surprised me. The premise is far more complicated than it first appears, but you don’t understand this til near the end. Also, there is a whole lot in here about language and words and who doesn’t love that? 🙂  It will mess with your mind a little, but it’s a good kind of mess.

Hacksaw Ridge
War movies are hard for me because I abhor the gore. But this one is so noble and inspiring that it is worth enduring those terrifying images. Andrew Garfield turns in an Oscar worthy performance as army medic, Desmond Daws, the first man in American history to win the Medal of Honor without firing a shot. His strength of conviction and his dauntless courage have much to teach us all about what it means to be truly human.

We the People…

PotusMy eighteenth birthday fell in an election year. I had the distinct pleasure of helping elect Ronald Reagan to his second term. An auspicious beginning. Inspired by my grandparents who made the long drive into town for every election, despite the fact that for decades they cancelled out one another’s vote (she voted democrat, he republican :)), I have never missed an opportunity to exercise this important right and responsibility.

Out of the nine presidential elections in which I have now voted, my candidate has triumphed only four times. That means that today, for the fifth time, a man I did not choose will be inaugurated to the highest office in the land.

Never has my heart been heavier at that prospect.

And yet…

Today, Donald Trump becomes MY president. As such, he merits a certain measure of respect. As such, he will be remembered by my congregation, and many others, at each liturgy in our prayers for “the President of the United States and all civil authorities and our armed forces everywhere”. As such, he will receive my own personal prayers that he will grow into the office he has attained, that it will call something out in him that none of us know is there. As such, he should be accorded something I have so often needed myself, grace.

Does this mean I am done disagreeing with him? Certainly not. Our forefathers–none of them perfect either, by the way–were wise enough to craft a system that makes space for challenge, that limits the powers of one individual to wield position as a weapon. It is our duty and the duty of those we have elected to speak out against injustice.

Truth is, we have had some legendary Presidents; individuals worthy of emulation and accolade. And we have had a few that were abysmal. While these may have left a certain havoc in their wake, they did not single-handedly destroy our nation.

Today I choose to be curious; to wonder if behind all the bluster and hyperbole is a man who, whether for reasons altruistic or just his own personal legacy, will find creative ways to help those desperate and disillusioned people who saw him as their best hope.

Today I choose to be hopeful; to imagine that the gravity of the position, once it lands squarely on his shoulders, will make him more circumspect and more generous. That as he is charged with the duty of protecting all the people, his borders will become broader and he will remember that one of the most radiant characteristics about this grand nation has always been its colorful and delicious diversity.

Today I choose to be responsible; to do my own bit in making the world better right where I am. Because, while presidents certainly have the ability to shape the world in large gestures and policies, most of the work that truly changes lives happens on the ground, in communities and families, in simple stubborn kindness and the messy work of loving.

 

Memento…

pepe

It all started with the Pepé Le Pew ornament. As I placed it on the tree, I tumbled down a rabbit hole of remembrance. Each ornament from your box carried me further and further…

Perhaps you thought you would get away without a birthday post this year, since Dad, Josh and I spent that day driving across the state to be with you, then trotting all over Knoxville trying to find some establishment willing to feed us on Thanksgiving, then hugging you and saying goodbye and driving home. No such luck, dear one. Your old mama is too full of recollection for that. 😉 Our life together has been composed of so very many sweet moments. Here are a few personal favorites…

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Let’s begin with Pepé… When you were a little boy you had this wonderful habit of hugging everyone. You might see someone you loved across the church foyer. You would start running, picking up steam along the way, and crash into them with all that love. Even if the object of your affection was slightly terrified, he or she couldn’t help but be delighted. While your physical approach has become considerably more refined, you still only know how to love full on, with everything you have. It is one of your most endearing qualities.

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Somewhere, there is a picture of you, walking stick in your hand, dogs around your feet, as you explored our farm. Those were delicious days of discovery. The misadventures of “bloody peaks” were more than redeemed by the “tree of wonder”, skipping rocks in the creek, and the ancient tobacco barn with its mysterious tunnels and its steady supply of bones and fur and snake skins. That explorer is in you still. Whether trekking along the Appalachian trail or the trackless wilds of Alaska, you seem to be more yourself in untamed places.

Do you remember when we adventured abroad for the first time, and ate warm Viennese rolls every morning, and traipsed through nearly every art museum in Paris? I could hardly look at the art for watching you look at the art. Always, it seemed to me that you were seeing something I could not see. The intensity with which you connected to those glorious works was mesmerizing. And that moment, on the airplane, as we were flying home–I asked you what was your favorite part of the whole trip–and with this long, slow, exhale, you closed your eyes and breathed out “standing in front of the Mona Lisa.” I would have flown all the way to Paris just for that.

joel

It’s not surprising, of course, because you have always been an artist. Even in pre-school, teachers at church would remark on your extraordinary abilities. And drawing was necessary to your well-being somehow. I remember once, we went away for a few days and, inexcusably, I forgot to bring your drawing materials. As we were driving home, you were almost trembling as you talked about getting back to your pencils and paper. The way you call into being that which is not, simply by moving your hand across paper, is miraculous. I have never stopped being in awe of it.

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Then, of course, there is your love affair with music. When you were little, it was all about speed. Every piece. Even the ballads. Didn’t matter. Only fast, all the time. 🙂 Later, you became the ultimate pick-up man playing piano, saxophone, guitar, banjo, accordion, melodica, mandolin… And every gathering of family or friends, usually ends up with you attached to some instrument and–whether it’s “Boots and Cats” or bluegrass, or something in between–there will always be music.

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How fun it has been to cook for you (and with you) lo these many years! To explore the culinary world with you, at home and abroad; to have you introduce us to the gastronomic standouts of your adopted city; to watch the exquisite delight you take in food, have all provided me with great joy.

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There are a thousand other memories rollicking around my brain right now, and you know I could wag on forever. But in the interest of brevity, I won’t even mention Legos, Redwall, gymnastics, cub scouts, camping, long talks into the night… I will only say that my world is richer and deeper because there is you. I love you immensely.

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I thank my God every time I remember you. ~Philippians 1:3

25 Reasons Why…

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Truth is, I have never required a reason for loving you. Not since the first time I looked into your pretty pink face, breathed the sweet scent of you, and pulled your soft, warm body into me. In that moment, our hearts made a covenant: all the time, no matter what.

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If, however, I was ever asked why I delight in you, here are some of the things I might say…

 

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I love the way you have always been able to hold an audience spellbound.

  1. When you were a baby, dad and I would go to dinner and set you (in your car-seat) on the table. You were our dinner show.
  2. At your second birthday party, you told the story of David and Goliath, beginning to end, with all the proper drama. I have never forgotten that, nor, I dare say, have our guests.
  3. One of my favorite Christmas photos is you in your green velvet dress, standing on the hassock at Grandma and Grandpa Nelson’s enacting some performance, all eyes on you. (Forgive the blurry photo. Remember, this was pre-iPhone. Back then, every shot was a crap shoot. You never knew what you had till the film was developed. Some were better than others. This is one of the others.)
  4. You are a gifted singer. You have a lovely voice and are remarkably good at finding harmonies. It was fun watching you use these gifts in children’s choir, and in our many family sing-alongs, but my favorite of your performances are the unintentional ones; when you are busy at something and do not realize that you are singing. I could listen to that all day. 🙂

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You are the most generous person I know.

  1. We got our first glimpse of it just after you turned two. Dad and I were decorating the Christmas tree and you were worried that your brand new little brother would feel left out. So you decorated him. 🙂
  2. One morning, you woke before us, and by the time we got to Jake, you had filled his crib with pretty much all of your toys.
  3. Then there was the Christmas when you, as a teenager, asked for only money from everyone so you could give it to Bloodwater Mission to provide clean water to precious ones in Africa.
  4. The gifts you give others always say something about them. They convey to the individual the fact that you know her. You have studied her and chosen something that is uniquely suited. Regrettably, I do not share this gift, but I admire it ferociously.
  5. And then, you had a baby. And every time you went to buy something for yourself, you came back with something for her and totally forgot whatever it was that you needed because, all of a sudden, you didn’t need it any more.

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You make a place for everyone. This is one of the things I most wish I could learn from you.

  1. When you were just a toddler, you had next-door best friends. You were never happier than when Jillian and Julia or the other Kelsey came over to play.
  2. As a teenager, friends were essential to your happiness, and were the sources of your greatest delight, and sometimes, your greatest heartache.
  3. You have always had a remarkable ability to find the ones who feel left out and make them feel seen and known. Whether it was the awkward kid at church or that person at work that everybody dreads working with, but somehow engenders sympathy from you, you make room in your life for all the “misfits”.
  4. I suspect that one of the reasons you were most keen to have your own home was so that you could invite friends over. You are at your most natural when you are welcoming and feeding friends and making them feel loved and enjoyed.
  5. In this year following the death of your Papa, I have watched you make a determined effort to love on Nana the way she always loved on you as a child. Most 20 somethings are too busy living their own lives to stop and imagine how lonely it must be to navigate life without the one person who has always been at the center of everything. But not you. Thank you for that.

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You have an inimitable sense of style.

  1. From fairy tale dresses to flip flops, from blonde hair to black, purple, pink, etc…, piercings, tattoos–your body has been a canvas onto which you have projected that which is inside. Sometimes it has been painful, most of the time exquisitely lovely, but always, always honest.

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You love extravagantly.

  1.  Those who have had the great good fortune to float into your orbit, be they family members or friends, have hit the jackpot. Your love is unconditional. I, personally, am very thankful for that. It is the type of love that pursues, forgives, and makes bold.

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You are brave.

  1. When you were 5, you wanted your ears pierced. I took you to one of those stores at the mall. When they shot your tiny little ear with that awful gun, tears slid down your face, but you didn’t make a sound. Frankly, I was panicking a little, wondering what I would do if you said no to the second side. But, you took a deep breath and told the lady you were ready. Just like that.
  2. You bought a home of your own, in which to raise your little one, when you were 21 years old! Twenty one! This astonishes me still.

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You are funny.

  1. I love your laugh, but mostly I love that it is always easy for you to find something to laugh about.

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You are a wonderful mother.

  1. You take obvious delight in your daughter. Kenzie will never need to wonder whether she is loved.
  2. You have made a great many sacrifices to insure that Kenz has a good life; from rising early and working multiple jobs to provide for her, to teaching her to enjoy clean and healthy food, to showing her how to esteem others and treat them with kindness–by your own example.
  3. You are the fun mom; going all out to decorate and dress up for Halloween, helping your baby girl collect wildflowers and small critters, playing in the rain. And the sand. And the snow.

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You make the world more beautiful.

  1. Your photographs open our eyes to a world that we might otherwise pass by.
  2. You coax beauty from the earth.
  3. You make food an art form with creations delicious, nutritious, and gorgeous.

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Darling daughter, when I held you for that first time, twenty-five years ago today, I had no idea how spectacular my life was about to become. Thank you. Thank you for being. Thank you for being you. Exactly you.

I love you.

Always.

 

The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph…A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments…

~T.S. Eliot
Little Gidding, Four Quartets

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Franklin, Tennessee is a town steeped in history. And we never tire of telling, and retelling, our stories. We preserve old houses, we name our streets after fallen heroes, and we do a brisk trade in antiques.

Why this preoccupation with the past?

Because we understand that stepping inside the lives of these real flesh and blood people who lived in a time very different from our own ironically helps us to see ourselves more clearly.

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Studio Tenn Theatre Company is presently retelling one of the most poignant and heart-rending of our stories in their first completely original play, The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided.

On November 30, 1864, 20,000 federal troops met 20,000 confederate troops in the town of Franklin (which at that time had a population of less than 800 persons). A bloody five hour battle, most of which took place after dark, resulted in 10,000 casualties.

These are formidable statistics, but they are just numbers. Pete Peterson, writer of the screenplay, takes us deep inside the human story. The focus is primarily on the family of Fountain Branch Carter whose home, requisitioned by General Jacob Cox as a headquarters for the union army, will be at the very epicenter of the battle. To add to the drama, Captain Tod Carter, beloved brother and son is out there somewhere in the battle, and has finally come home…to die.

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It is Tod, in his guise as Mint Julep, who tells the story. This is appropriate since one of his duties during the war was as a correspondent for The Chattanooga Daily Rebel. Tod is only ten years old in the first scene and fresh off a day on the river with his young friend Henry, a slave. Henry will be an important character in the story, as will the river. In this very first scene we taste tensions present within the family; tensions that parallel those festering in the nation.

Fact and poetry are creatively woven together to convey a story that plunges directly to the heart. The spiritual We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder roots the story in time, while haunting new compositions from Patrick Thomas give voice to longings, dreams, and prayers. Instrumentation is appropriately spare enabling us to hear every nuance of anguish in the voice when Carrie Tillis sweetly sings the wistful I Will Comfort Thee.

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The play also gives a glimpse of the excruciating plight of slaves, even those who are “well treated”. The otherwise sensitive Mary Alice prattles on to Retha about needing a husband that is as easy to control as Henry and laughingly asks Callie her secret, much to Callie’s obvious discomfort. When Henry is told to tear up his copy of the Emancipation Proclamation with its radiant words “thenceforward and forever free”, I involuntarily gasp. And when Callie stands all alone on the stage and exquisitely renders a lament for a life of hurt, and a plaintive plea on behalf of her husband, my heart aches.

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The story is, of necessity, solemn, but not without hope. Taking a cue from Eliot, the play explores the cyclical nature of life and how revisiting our stories, even the difficult ones–perhaps especially the difficult ones–is necessary because each visitation helps us see farther and deeper.

Time rolls ever on as we repeat our forgotten histories. And in its turn it reveals the faithful freedoms that bind and keep us. It brings us face to face with all we tried so hard to push away until, in a whirl of apocalyptic vision, we see clearly, if only for a moment, and do our best to remember what we’ve seen.

~A.S. “Pete” Peterson

Do not miss this important and compelling play. Tickets for remaining shows are selling fast. An extra show has been added to accommodate high demand, but I encourage you to act quickly. Find tickets and more information HERE.

*Music links in post feature composer Patrick Thomas and are available for purchase. All photos property of Studio Tenn.

 

 

A Legacy of Turtles

Whimsical is not a word I would use to describe my Grandma Howard. Oh, she had a fine sense of humor, and a wonderful smile–the kind that requires the whole face to get in on the act, chin to forehead, ear to ear–this despite the fact that as long as I knew her, she had nary a tooth.

Certainly she had an appetite for beauty: filling her home with handmade quilts, crocheted rugs, and embroidered dresser scarves; and her garden with peonies and cleome.

But more than anything, Elsie Goldie Collins Howard was practical. Life had asked too much of her for her to indulge in frivolity.

Perhaps that is what makes the turtles so unexpected. And so special.

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The first turtle quilt was a baby gift, given to my parents not long after I was born. It has been well-loved and much used in the intervening years and is barely hanging together in places. But I count it among my dearest treasures.

When I was a little girl, I thought it was so funny, all those colorful little fellas, some wearing familiar cloth, parading across a white ground, linking arms as if to play Ring a Ring o’ Roses. It was not til I started sewing and quilting myself that I realized how much work it had required. The basic block is similar to the one used for the familiar drunkard’s path. But to this was added a hand-appliqued head and tail. For every. single. turtle. VERY impractical.

I don’t think I ever told her how much I loved the quilt. It didn’t even occur to me, in the way it seldom occurs to children to say thank you for dinner or for new socks. Making quilts was so much a part of who she was I might just as readily have thanked her for breathing.

When she died, she left a number of finished quilts that had never been used. Additionally, there was a stack of quilt tops that had yet to be quilted. These were distributed among the children and grandchildren. When my mom saw that one of the quilt tops was turtles, she thoughtfully chose that one for me. She quilted it herself on my grandmother’s frame. I spent a few summer afternoons in the cool of the basement working on it myself, alongside Mom and my Grandma Nelson. I sleep under that quilt every night.

turtles1

Out of the attic of our new old house, we have carved a little playroom for Kenzie, and for the other grandchildren we hope are in our future. We included two sleeping alcoves, each sized to accommodate one twin mattress. As I contemplated how to dress the beds, I decided to make quilts for them–not to save money, you understand. Truth is, I will have as much money in supplies as it would cost to buy a nice enough, mass produced, machine quilted quilt.

But when my grandbabies climb under those quilts, I want them to feel the love I feel when I crawl into my own bed. I want them to know I have stitched something of myself and my love for them into the cloth.

One of the quilts is butterflies, in honor of Kenzie’s summer of butterflies. But the other, is turtles. I was intimidated by the curves and made one practice block first, just to make sure I could do it. Also, I should confess that I am considerably less patient–and far more lazy–than my grandmother, so I ran borders between them to cut down on how many turtles I had to make (a decision I have regretted somewhat because you lose the turtles linking arms).

turtles3

The top is finished and I have bound it to the backing, but a great many fall evenings will find me with a parade of turtles across my lap as I push a needle in and out, paying forward a legacy of love, and whimsy, and turtles.

p.s. The treadle sewing machine in the top photo is the very one my grandmother used to make all those quilt-tops, including my turtles. 🙂

East of Eden

“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden…”

eden

My people are people of the soil.

My grandpa made his living as a dairy farmer. And now, when he sits on his porch in the evening, he looks out over the fields where he pastured his cattle, and where he made hay for their winter sustenance. In the middle of those fields sits the timber frame house where, one hundred Aprils ago, he was born.

grandpa

Over the past forty-nine years, my parents have planted gardens, fruit trees, and flowers; dug a pond and built some barns; raised kids, dogs, farm cats, and beef cattle; snow sledded, cut firewood, and canned a million quarts of green beans on the wild twenty acre plot of Eden they bought when I was just a baby.

river-ridge-barn

My brother and his bride have reared their babies and built a beautiful life, and now a business, on the very same farm where my dad was once a boy.

Deep roots.

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Mike and I have been somewhat more transient. Gypsies. In June we moved into our sixth house in twenty-nine years of marriage. And yet–something of this need to plant things, to intimately know my portion of earth, has pursued me.

garden

So I lovingly lift out my mama’s irises and haul them with me, wondering if any of the soil of Appalachia still clings to their rhizomes. I sift cleome and larkspur seeds into the new ground and bless my grandmothers who loved them so and who, though immensely practical, could not live without beauty.

lilies

I study the vicissitudes of sun and shade. I tuck columbine under the dogwoods and border the walk with lavender. I make a home for Samra’s calla lilies and Lorri’s Lenten roses. I stand perfectly still when the hummingbird comes to drink while I am pulling weeds. I watch Kenzie charm the butterflies.

butterfly

And slowly
thread by thread
I stitch myself into this new soil.

thread

p.s. The barn pictured above has been transformed into a gorgeous event space. If you live in the East Tennessee area and are planning a wedding, reunion, or corporate event, check out River Ridge Barn HERE.

Vincible: A Riff on Aging…

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When the cardiologist’s office offered me an appointment on the same day I was seeing the dentist, I figured this was efficient. I would already be out — and showered (never a given).

I did not realize that these two were engaged in a secret conspiracy to steal my invincibility.

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Despite the fact that it has been five years since my last visit to the dentist, (Don’t judge, I have trauma issues.) I am praised for my hygiene. No cavities. Hardly any plaque.

“There is, however, the matter of these silver fillings. While they will last forever, they are much less flexible than your teeth and with the passage of time have begun to cause cracks. If left untreated, you will begin to have breakage. We need to replace them.”

“Wait, what?! Let me get this straight. Because I am old, I am going to need to come in once a year for the next four years to have silver fillings dug out of two teeth at a time, and those same two teeth fitted with crowns?!”

“Yep. That’s pretty much it.”

“Awesome.”

I walk out into the stifling heat feeling seriously deflated. And old. I think back to my check-up a couple of years ago where the answer to every question I asked was “Well, at a certain age…” I contemplate taking up day drinking. Then I remember the cardiologist and think better of it…

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I had my first episode of tachycardia when I was a teenager. My mom and I were sitting in the living room having a pleasant conversation when my heart abruptly went from beating 70 beats a minute to more like 180. As if someone had flipped a switch. It lasted about five minutes, then was over. It was weird, but I didn’t think a lot of it. I have continued to have these episodes randomly, and infrequently, ever since.

The impact on my life has been minimal for the most part. Only twice has it been problematic. The first time was when I was pregnant. A woman’s heart rate naturally accelerates because of pregnancy. In me, this translated to more frequent episodes that sometimes lasted an hour. I finally saw a doctor who diagnosed the problem and taught me ways to help restore my rhythm.

The other time it was a problem was when I had an issue with my thyroid. But that only lasted about three months. In the ten years since, I have been back to the old pattern of infrequent and short.

Until the morning of July 6th.

That morning, Kenz and I were on our way to explore the playhouses at Cheekwood when I had an episode while driving. It was so severe that I had to pull over til it stopped. Over the course of the morning, I had four more episodes, the last of which persisted almost two hours until, at my doctor’s direction, I went to the emergency room and had it corrected forcibly. (Mike had joined us by then and was driving, lest you fret.)

Because there was no obvious explanation for this sudden craziness, my doctor wanted me to see a cardiologist.

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Dr. Estrada is calm and laid back, and I think to myself that this is going to go well. He sketches an illustration of the heart and its valves and shows me how the several types of tachycardia work, including the one he believes I have. It is not as dangerous as some of the others which is good.

“However, with age, these random episodes like you had a couple of weeks ago are likely to become more frequent, and possibly more severe. At that point they can cause damage to the heart and you may find yourself in the emergency room more often. We don’t have to fix it now if you want to wait and see how it goes. But it is probably just a matter of time.”

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When friends and family have asked about, and even challenged, what they perceive as an overly rigorous commitment to eating healthy and to exercise, I have explained it like this: There are a lot of things about our health we can’t control. Mike and I both have strong family histories of diabetes and heart disease, for example. It seems to me that we have a responsibility to be wise about the things we can control.

That is what I have said.

But apparently, what I actually believed was this: If I do all the right things, I will be invincible. The ravages of age will have no authority over me.

I was wrong about that.

meteora

Wise men and women in the Church have always urged us to be very aware of our mortality. It is a potent reminder to be fully present in the moment. For this reason, it has been common practice in many monasteries to keep the bones of those who have gone before on display. As I understand it, this awareness should be a voluntary practice. Failing that, I suppose some of us must have it thrust upon us.

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And so, I am working to come to terms with the fact that I am vincible. Yes, that is a word. I looked it up. I spent yesterday morning in the dentist chair getting thirty year old fillings ground out of two molars and am now sporting fine, fashionable new crowns. And while I still believe that we have a responsibility to steward well the bodies we have been given, I am being disabused of the illusion that this guarantees a life free of physical adversity.

There is a price to be paid for the wisdom that hopefully comes with age. All that learning takes a toll on the body. And maybe the toll itself has a wisdom in it.

I’ll let you know.

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