Tag Archive - Beauty

A Pilgrim Tale: day fourteen

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Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?

As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.

Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?

To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.

~Zen master to his disciple

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The world is cloaked in mythical clouds of vapor which bring to everything an otherworldly aspect. Rays of early light are bended and refracted by the mist into a delicious kaleidoscope of color. Serendipity is the constant companion of the pilgrim. Extraordinary gifts we could never have planned.

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Mike and I have decided to take advantage of a string of shorter days to add on kilometers and make up the time we gave up on the front end. This will enable us to complete the camino in 33 days, one day for every year in the earthly life of Christ, an idea which appeals to me strongly. This means 31.5 kilometers today.

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We catch up with Jan and David around mid-day and walk into the afternoon with them. When we arrive in Hontanas we discover a brand new albergue right at the edge of town, Juan de Yepes. It is not in our book. David can’t even find it on his Camino apps. But we see Adam who has already settled in here and he says it’s very nice. So we give it a try. SO glad we did!

We are given a room for four with a PRIVATE BATH!! (Toilet and sink. Shower is still down the hall.) Everything is pristine and new and well organized. And there is a foot bath!! Adam joins us as we enjoy cold cervezas with our toes in the chilly water, and our feet begin to forgive us for the many miles we inflicted upon them this day.

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Later, we sit out on the patio which offers splendid views of the village below and, with Jan and David, plan our itinerary for tomorrow. From here on out, the four of us will be inseparable.

The town is very quiet.

A refuge.

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Gear Note:

David utilized two different camino apps. They were helpful in that they often gave information that was not in the printed guide. Also, their information tended to be more up to date, as a general rule. Here is what he had to say about each:

The apps I used were: Camino Frances by Wise Pilgrim Guides and TrekRight. The former was the main one we used to determine distances to towns, the availability of coffee (!) in the various hamlets and towns, details of the albergues, phone number of the albergues, availability of wee-fee, etc. TrekRight was useful to find out how much farther we had to go to get coffee, food, beds, etc. (TrekRight has a GPS element)

A Pilgrim Tale: day six

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When my kids were little, one of our very favorite books was Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School. It tells about a village in Holland where the storks no longer come to nest, and how a group of school children go about bringing them back. It is a magical story and we love it.

On our way out of town this morning, I am confused by the enormous circles of twigs and grass on the church until I realize… They. Are. Stork. Nests!! I am giddy with excitement and immediately wish my children were here to see them. We will continue to see them all across Spain. Apparently the Iberian Peninsula is a favorite nesting place. And every time I see them, it makes me happy. Every time.

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Today there are rolling hills and Templar towns, aquaducts bringing water from the mountains, and grapevines groaning under the weight of their voluptuous burdens. There are snail gardens and more haystacks. (We later learn that Mike and Paul stop to climb all of these. Naturally. :))

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The day has grown very warm, and we eagerly join several others under a medieval bridge where we plunge our feet in a mountain stream. The water is icy cold and I can only bear it for a few seconds at a time. But, my goodness, it is refreshing!! While we are visiting with Shay and Nicole, we are joined by a pair of young pilgrims bearing a bag bulging with grapes. They tell us how the farmer talked with them, proudly showing them the bounty of his labors, then generously filled a bag for them. They have eaten their fill and want to share his gifts with all of us. The grapes are sweet and juicy, a delectable treat.

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We have lost track of the days of the week, but today is Saturday. And when we reach Villatuerta, we are just in time to see a wedding party exiting the church. The bride is radiant in a timeless gown of heavy brocade. I can’t stop looking at her. I ask her if I may take a photo. She hands her cigarette to a friend :), grabs the arm of her new husband, and flashes a smile that is all joy.

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In Estella, we check into the parochial hostel where we find Mike, Paul, and Lasse (Denmark), along with the beautiful newlyweds, Damien (France) and Psicobeta (Brazil), who are still on their year long honeymoon! For the first time, we pay to have our laundry washed in a machine. Though we still hang it to dry, it will dry faster after a nice spin. With the laundry done, we head out in search of a couple of cervezas grandes. On the walk back up the hill, we see clumps of people in traditional dress. I try to find out what’s happening, perro mi Espanol es no muy bien.

Vale. (Spanish for, it’s all good.) Shortly after we return to our lodging, they come parading right by us, stopping occasionally to dance. It is fantastic!! I follow them down the hill and across the bridge before my legs refuse to carry me any further. Later, we will go back out to a market for picnic provisions. We sleep in close quarters with mostly people a lot younger than us. Next morning, we enjoy a communal meal of bread and jam and coffee. And begin again…

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Every second of the search is an encounter with God. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous…I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible…

~Paulo Coelho

A Pilgrim Tale: day four

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At its heart, the journey of each life is a pilgrimage through unforeseen places that enlarge and enrich the soul.

~John O’Donohue

Before leaving Zubiri, we tuck into a bustling little coffee shop for one of the more decadent breakfasts we will have on the camino. The proprietor offers to warm our chocolate chip muffins, and when we break them open, we discover a gooey, molten center. Oh! My! Mike will tell stories about these muffins for the rest of our trip, stopping at one bakery after another, trying to find them again.

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Today’s walk is up and down hills, past grapevine clad houses and trees heavy with fruit. We pay a brief visit to the Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz, the ruined church of Santa Lucia, which has recently been purchased by a former pilgrim from South Africa and his Spanish bride and is being lovingly restored in the hopes of creating a museum of Basque culture and possibly an albergue.

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We also pass a house that will be familiar to you if you have seen Emilio Estevez’s film, The Way. Do you remember a long table in a garden, Tom’s first encounter with cynical Sarah from Canada, and the innkeeper who would have liked to be a bullfighter? Yeah, that house. Cue James Taylor. 😉

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We take a most meaningful detour up to Zabaldika to visit the 13th century church of San Esteban (St. Stephen). Here we are invited to climb the winding stone stairs up to the belfry and ring one of the ancient bells, sending our prayers out over the valley.

The trail leading away from the church is lovely, along a dry desert hillside where lavender and anise grow in profusion. The scent is intoxicating. I stop from time to time and run my hands over them, drinking in their fragrance. Also, there are dry stems covered in what I first believe to be white blossoms, but they are actually snails. Hundreds of snails. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I will, again and again, before we are done. And there is a farm with turkeys and ducks, chickens and goats. A fun surprise.

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The entrance into Pamplona is impressive, leading us under and around and finally through the ancient walls that once protected her. We secure beds at the albergue Jesus Y Maria, built into the nave of a 17th century Jesuit church. A clean room with rows and rows of bunks accommodates several of our friends including Rhys and the lads–who we will find practicing some restorative yoga later–David and Jan, Shay and Nichol.

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After a shower, Mike and I head out for an explore. First up, the art deco masterpiece, Cafe Iruna.

“The square was hot. The flags hung on their staffs, and it was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs around the square…We take coffee in the Iruna, sitting in comfortable armchairs, while from the cool shadow of the arcades contemplating the great square.”

~Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

We forego the coffee, but do share a piece of chocolate cake. And there is an accordion player. And the square is hot.

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Mike runs for a bit with the bulls. Then, like the bulls, we make our way to the famous Plaza de Toros, where I have my picture made with a bust of Papa Hemingway.

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Dinner turns out to be another of our more memorable meals. We feast on pintxos (pronounced pinch-ohs, Basque for tapas)  at a table on the plaza directly opposite the lovely town hall. Many of the cafes offer pintxos specials. Our plate–chef’s choice of nine pintxos–and bottle of wine is only 12 euros. There is plenty for both of us and it is so good. Padron peppers (amazing!!), tortilla con papas, chorizo, another type of sausage that is tasty but it is best to not ask too many questions about, seafood salad, calamari, chicken wings, and a couple of things I have forgotten.

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Travel notes:

It is entirely possible to do the camino on the cheap. Though we anticipated spending the occasional night in a hotel, we ended up electing to stay in albergues all the way. These ranged in price from 5-12 euros/person. Some are donativo, meaning pay what you can. We usually paid the same amount at these, or more if a meal was included. We probably averaged around 15-18 euros each for food per day.

Also, a word about bedbugs: It is one of the great preoccupations for pilgrims. Hospitaleros do what they can, but anytime you move this many people through the same space day after day, it is always a possibility. We personally did not encounter them, but we met people who did. Here are a few tips: Pretreat your backpack and sleeping bag before traveling with a natural product called pyrethrin. One treatment is good for 30-40 days or so which will be just about enough. Also, lavender oil is said to repel them. We always travel with lavender oil, so any time we felt like the risk was higher, and especially toward the end of our trip when our spray was wearing off, we used it as well. Some people made a spray with lavender or clove oils which they used to spray mattresses. Finally, bedbugs tend to leave droppings in the seams of mattresses, so that is a good place to investigate before bedding down.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day two

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They serve us BOWLS of coffee for breakfast, and I kinda want to kiss them. There is also orange juice, and toast with butter and marmalade. We pick up our preordered chorizo sandwiches and stuff them in our packs for lunch. We thank our innkeepers, fill our water bottles, and begin.

It is difficult to keep my eyes on the road because there are fathomless views in every direction. As we climb over and through the mountain passes, new vistas present themselves at every turn. Freely roaming flocks of sheep (and herds of horses) are everywhere. We sometimes hear their baaing and bells before we see them. We watch a shepherd moving his flock. He drives along the road (with his sheepdog leaning over his shoulder) whistling through the open window. And his sheep scurry along the grassy hillside right alongside him, as if he were walking with them.

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We leave the path to climb up to the Vierge d’Orisson (the Virgin of Orisson), the first of many shrines along the Way honoring the Mother of God. The setting is breathtaking. And it is good to reflect on her example of humble submission here at the beginning of our pilgrimage.

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The wind is ferocious. The shirt and socks I safety pinned on the outside of my pack because they were still wet have dried completely by mid-morning. We attribute the wind to the altitude, a theory supported somewhat by the many trees that have grown with a permanent lean in one direction. But this is unusual, even here. Later this afternoon, pilgrims will be removed from the mountain, and tomorrow the pass will be (unofficially) closed. The winds are clocked at 120 kmp (80 mph).

We have packed a lunch because we have been told there will be no food til we reach Roncevalles. Imagine our delight when we happen upon a food truck cozied into a little indention in one of the hills. We buy fruit and hot cocoa and homemade sheep cheese. Sheep cheese will become an obsession. (There might be some in my refrigerator, even as I write this.) Here we meet Steve, who some years ago quit his job, sold everything, and bought a sailboat. He has a water catchment system and mostly feeds himself on the fish he catches. He is on pilgrimage while his sailboat is undergoing repairs in Trinidad.

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We pass a stone hut built into the mountain. It was formerly used by shepherds, but is now sometimes used as emergency shelter by pilgrims caught out in bad weather. It will be used tonight. Not far past this, we cross the inauspicious cattle gate that marks the border between France and Spain. The path is littered here on both sides with clumps of heather and delicate crocus blossoms.

The descent into Roncesvalles is the steepest I have ever encountered. Anywhere. Ever. I am grateful for both my ankle brace and my poles. And for the trees that now protect us from the wind.

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The Albergue Colegiata at Rocesvalles is one of the most efficient we will encounter in our whole trip. We are pointed toward a large, orderly closet where we deposit our boots on shelves. We check in and are assigned numbered bunks, and directed to our respective floors. Large, spotlessly clean rooms are divided into tidy cubicles of four bunks, each with a locker at the end. You insert a coin to turn the key and lock the locker. Your coin is returned when you unlock the locker and take your things. Showers and toilets, also pristine, are arranged in a long room at the end of the hall.

We have the pilgrim supper at the nearby hotel which consists of soup, bread, wine, and a delicious local trout. Our dinner companions are Mike and Paul, two Mennonite boys from Winnipeg who have just finished college and are out adventuring and figuring out what comes next. Thresholds seem to be a common theme on the Camino. Later they, and we, are joined by Rhys, a vivacious young woman from Oregon they have come to know already, and who will later adopt Mike and me as her Camino uncle and aunt.

This evening we attend our first pilgrim mass. Though we understand little of the language, it is good to be in this sacred place with these people who are already knitting themselves into our hearts…

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Travel notes:

All photos in this and all other posts taken with my iphone 5c (sometimes edited/compiled with instaframe/instagram). When every inch and every ounce counts, a smartphone is a marvelous multi-tool. Camera, computer, repository for notes and contact info, ipod, etc… We did not activate our phone service, we kept them in airplane mode with wifi activated. Wifi, pronounced “Wee Fee” :), was inconsistent and sometimes, like at Orisson, completely unavailable. But we found it often enough to be able to stay connected to family.

Also, there are a great many travel guides for camino travelers. The one we used, and saw most often among English speakers, was John Brierly’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago.

 

Metamorphosis

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My blog has had some security issues this year. As a result, it was offline in the spring when my baby boy turned 18, and when he graduated from high school. So here I offer a woefully belated coming of age post. The words are from a blessing that Mike and I had the honor of speaking over Josh at his senior formal. They give a tiny glimpse into the life of this remarkable young man that we have had the profound joy to parent.

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You were born curious. Five minutes in any hotel room and you have found all the best gadgets, secret hiding places, snacks, toiletries, AND the Gideon Bible. Never one to stay on the path, you run ahead and climb things. Ingenuous, you can figure anything out, from all things technical to how to drive a stick shift, nothing scares you. Stay hungry. Never stop learning.

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Senior formal with sweet friend Ashley. Outfit designed by Josh. Shirt hand sewn to his specifications.

The world is more beautiful and festive because there is you. Fashionista and interior designer, you integrate loveliness into all you do. As an accomplished food stylist, you transform the most humble offerings into a feast. Thank you for teaching us to celebrate every season, every day, as gift. The world is starving for beauty. Feed it.

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Convincingly incarnating both a lecherous wolf and a dashing Prince Charming in Into the Woods at the Franklin Theater

When you were 12 years old, you sang Amazing Grace at a school talent show. With the first clean, clear notes, the room fell silent and still, awed by the beauty of it. Whether leading worship, singing with friends, or acting on the stage of the Franklin Theater, you continue to leave us breathless and blessed by your artistry. Your photographs and your words compel us see the world afresh. Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Keep seeing deep, and helping us see too.

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Best uncle ever

Your love knows no bounds. You are a generous and loyal friend; a trusted confidante to many, kind to all. Kenzie adores her uncle Joshie. When dad and I are old and can’t remember our names, we will remember the extraordinary Christmas gift you gave us two years ago, at great cost to you. Heck, we’ll probably lug it to the nursing home with us. Continue to love well, and allow others to love you.

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*photo and editorial credit Josh F Mullican

You are a true man of faith. Like every person, your life has had hard places. You have walked these with great courage and persistence. You have not been afraid to wrestle with God, to be raw and vulnerable and to ask tough questions. The result is a faith that is authentic and personal. Never stop chasing after God. He loves you so.

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Dear one, Dad and I labored over these words, wanting them to be the right ones. But, they are inadequate. We are proud of you and love watching your continual metamorphosis into the person God has designed you to be. May your days be many, and may you know much joy. I love you. Always.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young

~Bob Dylan

 

The Mystery of Art

MysteryThere is a fairly good chance that you know Jonathan Jackson as an Emmy award winning actor from television shows like General Hospital and Nashville, or from films like Tuck Everlasting and The Deep End of the Ocean. You might even know him as part of the band Enation. What you might not know is that he is also a philosopher poet, a budding theologian, and an Orthodox Christian. All of this coalesces in his new book, The Mystery of Art, a beautiful and compelling articulation of what it means to be “an artist in the Image of God.”

Following in the tradition of artists like Flannery O’Connor, C.S Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Makoto Fujimura and others who have spoken insightfully about the intersection of art and faith, Jonathan stitches together wisdom from saints, authors, filmmakers, and friends with stories and observations of his own to clean the lens of our perception.

This is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long time. I frequently find myself recalling passages and ruminating on them even though it’s been two months since I read it. I wanted to include more than twice as much of the author’s content in the post than is here. Whittling it away has been excruciating. So, I will keep my remarks brief and mostly let the author speak for himself. I hope you will be intrigued and read the book so that you too may be nourished and inspired.

Whoever wants to become a Christian, must first become a poet. ~St. Porphyrios

In the introduction, the author invites us to remember a Christianity that “experienced Christ by means of a holistic, sacramental, and artistic reality” and to embrace art’s unique ability to penetrate to the heart of things.

Whenever an artist brings someone into the presence of meaning, in that moment his work becomes incarnational instead of ideological…he awakens the heart to a deeper significance.

Art as Beauty:

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because we are made in the image of the Creator, we ourselves are creative, regardless of vocation. “We are artists in the way we love. We are poets in the way we pray.” In this, we operate in concert with the Trinity:

The artist is never more himself than when his heart is united with the Holy Spirit; when he approaches his craft as a kind of symphony with God.

Art as Mystery and Madness:

Man is at once glorious and broken–magnificently radiant and deeply wounded.

We are all familiar with the image of the suffering artist. This suffering can be “destructive, narcissistic, and tormented” or “therapeutic, selfless, and holy“. Dostoevsky is given as an example of one whose “inner illumination” made it possible to “transform his suffering and give it meaning.”

Art as Prayer and Intercession:

The artist is to become a living prayer.

With personal examples of roles that brought him close to the sufferings of others, Jonathan explains how these became unique opportunities to intercede on behalf of these people; to stand with them in their pain.

The artist’s performances are destined to become not only seamless acts of prayer but also holy acts of intercession. The spiritual artist creates from a place of wounded love and humility–like Christ.

Art as Listening:

If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet…maybe we could understand something. ~Federico Fellini

Silence teaches the artist to listen–it creates space inside of him to discover secrets and encounter mysteries. To be silent before anything or anyone is an act of humility…Humility has no reason to hide or falsify itself. Therefore, silence teaches the artist how to tell the truth.

Art as Belief:

The most brilliant artists possess the gift of faith, whether they are conscious or subconscious participants in this grace.

Art as Prophecy:

Creating is meant to be a form of prophecy…To be prophetic means to live in communion with the Spirit. His intentions become the artist’s intentions, through ceaseless prayer, love-filled repentance, and the transformation of the mind…When an artist abandons the illusion of autonomy, he becomes a vessel of the Divine Flame…

Contrived art for the sake of preaching to people is an offense to the mystery and sacredness of creation. Beauty and honesty are the primary inspirations of the artist: he trusts the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit to lead hearts into the truth. The prophetic artist is one who breaks open the remembrance of humanity, creating an atmosphere for the Spirit of God to breathe new life into creation.

Art as Sacrament:

Poetry is unhindered paradox and contradiction. It seeks to communicate something mystically before that thing can be apprehended cognitively. It is the music of words.

We have become a dualistic society, opposing the physical world to the spiritual. But this was never meant to be. We were created to be fully integrated beings. There is a physicality that is absolutely essential to faith. “Human beings are, in a very real sense, symphonic creatures.”

Art as Offering:

It may seem strange to portray events and characters that are not holy and beautiful or to write songs about troubled souls. But, in reality, it is not strange at all. Who better to prophetically enter into the depths of humanity than those who are living in ceaseless prayer with God?…The holiness of Christ brings us closer to humanity: closer to our true beauty and fearsome darkness. Any talk of Christianity that displays a haughty distance toward the brokenness and vulnerability of humanity has nothing to do with Christ.

Rejoice, O Artists:

Our society seems to think that joy is a conflict-free, lucid state of contentment. It is not. It is an act of rebellion: a holy and sacred rage…It is not placid, passive or docile. It is the madness of love.

One of the lovely gifts of the book is the inclusion of several original poems and prayers. I close with a short excerpt from one of those (from the chapter Art as Mystery and Madness).

O Spirit of Grace, you are complete and utter bliss. You are the ecstasy of a thousand kisses beneath the ocean. You are the rain of restoration and hope. You are the trembling inside my frame. You are the tears that have no end. You are the lightning of inspiration within my temple of wanderings. You are the heart of desire and the warmth of intimacy…Wisdom is your presence. Salvation is your embrace. Heaven is to be seen by you. I fall into your arms of love…

*All quotes in the post taken from the book. All unattributed quotes: Jonathan Jackson.

The Cash Legacy

I had the great good fortune to be born into a family that sings. All the time. Rare is the family gathering without guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, piano, or at least a hymnbook. The afternoon after we laid my grandmother to rest, we crowded into the front room of the farmhouse on the hill, still so full of her presence, and sang with my grandpa. The old familiar hymns were balm to his aching heart. And ours.

Maybe your family doesn’t look like that. But you can get a little taste of what it might be like. Of course, in this case, your family will be made up of Broadway caliber vocalists and Nashville front line players. And the songbook: all Cash.

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The Cash Legacy: A Musical Tribute to the Man in Black is the newest original offering from Studio Tenn. Billed by its creators as a “theatrical concert”, it has the ease of those family gatherings. One song moves fluidly into another without the intrusion of dialogue. Now a rip-roaring hand-clapper with everybody piling in. Then a ballad that is so tender, so personal, all you can do is listen and let the hurt of it, the beautiful truth of it, seep into those places inside you that need it.

It is an evening of memorable moments, but here are a few that have been playing themselves over and over in my head all day…

The evening opened with “Daddy Sang Bass”, plus a little taste of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. It was a lovely invitation to all of us to enter in. My brother and I liked to sing this one when we were little, so right from the get go I had my first personal connection. In a poetic turn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” came back round at the end, except by then we had cried and laughed and sat in this rich music together so that we had grown into one another and all felt part of that circle. I don’t think anyone wanted it to be over.

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Carrie Tillis sat on the edge of the stage with an autoharp in her lap and brought her easy grace to “I Still Miss Someone”. Others began to add harmonies so gentle that I was not sure when they began. Ridiculously talented guitarist, Jake Bradley, showed us his vocal side when he joined Tillis for “Long Legged Guitar Pickin Man”. Their exchange was so playful and fun to watch. Clearly both were having as much fun as we were.

One of the most compelling ensemble pieces was the bluesy “Five Feet High and Rising” where they sang into and out of each other so seamlessly I swear they were breathing together.

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The first time Griffin House stepped up to the mic, my mouth fell open. He sounds remarkably like Johnny Cash. Not in an affected way. Just a tone that is so very like. He and Laura Matula joined forces on the iconic “Ring of Fire”, and both honored it and made it their own, their voices a delicious pairing.

House made me laugh til I hurt, not once, but twice. First on “Busted” which he began singing and strumming while lolled out on the couch. His facial expressions while he poked fun at his ill fortune were priceless. But even better was “A Boy Named Sue”. Sitting on the steps with a bottle in his hand and confiding to his listeners his ironic story in rapid cadence with the most hysterical faces, he had us all laughing out loud.

Laura Matula broke my heart with “Give My Love to Rose”. Truth is, I might have teared up just writing about it. It was a powerful moment. She poured herself out in this song and sang it with such empathy I could see her kneeling at the railroad tracks with this dear, dying man, holding his face in her hands. I have included a video of her singing the song at Sun Studios, where Johnny made so many records, so she can break your heart, too.

I have seen Matula in several Studio Tenn productions, but last night she was dazzling. Girl got some pipes and when she is singing all out, I feel it in my chest. Because she is also a gifted actress, she is captivating to watch. Especially fun was her sassy delivery of “Cry, Cry, Cry”.

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Patrick Thomas was one of my favorites in last year’s The Hank Legacy, and he did not disappoint last night. His powerful voice was just right on “I walk the Line”. And when he sang “The Man in Black”, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. But I especially loved seeing him with Matt Haeck on “The Unclouded Day”. Face to face, guitar to guitar, they sang this favorite hymn from my childhood like they meant it, and it was all I could do not to sing along.

Sara Jean Kelley showed considerable range, from the quiet, plaintive “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the lively and playfully vindictive “Jackson” (a duet with Haeck).

All three girl singers gathered round the piano for a sweet and spare trio setting of “Flesh and Blood”. Do you remember those albums Dolly, Linda and Emmylou recorded a number of years ago? Their exquisite harmonies reminded me of those. I kept forgetting to breathe.

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When Matt Haeck stepped quietly into the spotlight with only his guitar and began to pick broken chords, slow and purposeful, I knew it was time for “Hurt”. I had been waiting for it all night, but wasn’t ready for it. Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords. And every heavy, sorrowful day was in that moment. When you can barely put words to the grief. Then the grieving builds and you feel like you are dragging an impossible weight and everything is so loud and the piano is pounding those incessant octaves and it builds and builds until you think your heart will burst.

And then…

Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords.

And the silence hangs after.

And still it ends too soon.

I beg you to do yourself a favor and see this show while you can. It plays til March 6 (including Johnny’s birthday, Feb. 26). Get your tickets HERE.

*All photographs and videos in the post copyright Anthony Matula www.ma2la.com

Like Beads on a String

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Sometimes it seems we assemble our days
like beads on a string. Now and again
we take them out and run our fingers
over them. And remember…

First flutter.
A movement inside.
Tiny growing miracle.
Secret and wondrous.

Born. Suddenly the world
has more color. Deep, vivid,
vibrant. The fierceness of my love
startles me. And I know I would give my life
for you.

Blue eyed girl seizing the world
with both hands. Drinking words like milk,
creating imaginary realities, telling stories.
Dancing through life with abandon.

Young woman, pouring yourself out for those
without water, those destroyed by war. Seeing
the invisible ones.

Gypsy soul stamping your passport in Paris,
London, and Rome. Traipsing across
Europe and Asia with a backpack. Sipping cappuccino
in an outdoor cafe in Salzburg. Smoking
a hookah in Turkey. Leaving a fragment of your heart
in the warm soil of Africa.

Life giver. Ushering your little one
into the world. Weaving your own thread
into the great tapestry of women that are
your heritage.

Mommy. Tender, gentle, radiant.
Laughing and loving.
Planting, playing and praying.
Teaching your daughter to be generous
and kind, with your words, but mostly
with your life.

Woman. Courageous, curious, and
wise beyond your years. Receptive and open
to experience, to people, to ideas.
Crazy, mad cooking skills, and deep devotion
to food that nourishes both body and soul.

Friend. Grace giver. One who loves
extravagantly.
Intuitive.
Hospitable.
Loyal.

Beloved.
For all the reasons.
For no reason at all.

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Dearest Daughter, when I run my fingers over the string that is my life, some of the most brilliant beads belong to you. Thank you for coloring my world. I pray that your string will be long and full of dazzlingly beautiful beads.

beads

Steel Magnolias

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I’m crazy about the new venue. So intimate, it feels like you are all mixed in among the characters. It was true during Fiddler on the Roof. The actors began to wonder onto the stage a few at a time and it was like arriving in a new town early in the morning and watching it come to life around you.

And it was especially true during Steel Magnolias. So far as I knew, I was sitting in Truvy’s shop, among that lively bunch of wild and familiar women waiting for my own turn in the chair.

From the time Truvy walked into the beauty shop, adjusting her more than ample bosoms, slathering a new coat of lipstick over the old one, and varnishing her bleached blonde locks with enough Aqua Net to create her own personal ozone hazard, I knew it was going to be a fun evening. She dished up plenty of wisdom with her beauty treatments, just like most hairdressers I’ve known, but she also had the good grace to laugh at herself, and pretty much everyone else. 🙂

And boy did we laugh!

We laughed at Annelle whose every action screamed the fact that she was uncomfortable in her own skin. Over the course of the next couple of hours, she would blossom, in fits and starts. But that hunger to fit in, to be liked and accepted was ever a palpable reality. So much so that I was astonished to see the actress afterward and observe that she was nothing like her character.

We laughed at Clairee whose polish and good manners, confidence and subtlety, did not for a minute hide her vivacious interior. Instead, it gave it precision and potency. Her humor always took me by surprise. A truly elegant Southern lady AND an untamable spitfire.

We laughed at Shelby who we first met on her wedding day. Shelby who arrived in curlers with a bag of baby’s breath and a magazine picture of Grace Kelly. Shelby who, for all her lithe, sweet, pink prettiness, possessed within her the iron will she had absorbed from these strong women. Shelby whose wedding colors were blush and bashful. Feisty, mischiefmaking Shelby.

We laughed at M’Lynne whose matter-of-fact humor frequently bordered on sarcasm, but was too Southern to dip over the edge. We laughed at her husband who was out that morning shooting all the birds out of the trees.

We laughed at Ouiser before we even saw her. At dinner, friends and I predicted that Nan Gurley would incarnate Ouiser. And we laughed just imagining how she would play her. It was so much better than we imagined. Ouiser with the outlandish fashion sense and psychotic dog. Ouiser who has been in a bad mood for forty years. Ouiser who people are nice to only because “I have more money than God.” Ouiser who decides to go have her colors done?! Ouiser who will be offered as a punching bag in a moment when we all really need a good laugh.

Woven all in and through the laughter are strands of memory and difficulty and hard things that have been weathered and walked together. There is a love and a belonging. There are the things that don’t have to be said because they are understood by all.

Some of the most poignant moments came at the mirror. A mirror is a very vulnerable place. In this production the audience sat just back of the  “mirrors”. So when one of the women had the moment of considering herself, the way she looked or who she was (and maybe those are too tangled up most of the time) we saw it. For a space, I had this feeling it was only she and I in the room. It was raw and exposed, intensely intimate and tender.

If you know the story, you know that it takes an excruciating turn. This was powerful in the extreme. It was played with restraint, not manipulative or sentimental. But deeply honest. And the honest wrestling, the yearning to make it somehow make sense, the uncomfortable place of not knowing what to do or say or be was so true that it pierced me to the heart. All the sorrow and longing I have ever known seemed to be connected to that moment.

Steel Magnolias is a profoundly human story. Southern women, to be sure, are their own peculiar brand of human. 🙂 But anyone who has lived life, truly and deeply, will find parts of their story in here.

I highly commend to you Studio Tenn’s performance of this wonderful work. It is intimate and artistic, cleanly and beautifully articulated. I have seen a great deal of theater in my life, and this was, without a doubt, one of the most moving experiences.

You have nine more opportunities this weekend and next. Buy tickets HERE.

Cavorting With Angels

“Don’t Die.”

It was the last thing my seventeen year old said to me before we headed out the door to the airport. I confidently promised we would not. But now, as I leaned into the stone, gripping a hank of chain for dear life and feeling the great yawning chasm 1400 feet below, it occurred to me that I might have been a bit hasty.

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I blame Hugh and Lisa.

Last fall we sat across the table from them, comparing notes on some of our favorite hikes, and Hugh began to talk about Angel’s Landing. He talked about sharp drop-offs, about walking along slender fins of stone, about the lengths of chain that were sometimes the only barrier between you and falling, about the sections with no chain, about the lady who just last year dropped to her death. My heart pounded as he talked about it. It sounded terrifying. And amazing. And somehow I knew in that very moment that one day I would find myself there.

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Angel’s Landing sits atop a towering stone spine with dizzying drop-offs on either side. It received it’s name in 1916 when Fredrich Fisher, while exploring the canyon, observed, “only an angel could land on top of it.” Yet, on this day, a number of less than angelic beings were clawing, crawling, pulling and praying their way to the top. And we were among them.

When we decided to give Mike a little more time at altitude to acclimate for Grand Canyon, visits to nearby Bryce and Zion Canyons seemed the perfect solution. Both were places we wanted to see and the combination would give us a chance to hike high (Bryce) and sleep low (Zion). And as soon as Zion was on the table, so was Angel’s Landing.

We began researching the hike. We watched a number of YouTube videos including this ridiculous one shot with a GoPro. They made my stomach hurt. Most of the time I thought we were insane to even be considering this. But, every now and then…

We had decided we would go as far as Scouts Landing, and then evaluate whether to attempt the remaining half mile along the ridge. I did not feel one bit better about it when I got there. What those people were doing looked impossible. A couple of strong, athletic looking guys who were just coming down stopped to talk to us.

“You going up there?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t either.  Just kept taking the next step. I might have even crawled a few times. But then, somehow, there we were.”

I told Mike I could do that much. I would start. However, I reserved the right to turn around at any point.

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I’m not going to lie to you, I was scared pretty much the whole time. But here is what I quickly learned. What ever was out there–ahead, or behind–looked impossible. But what was right in front of me was doable. Pull yourself up over this boulder. Grab the next chain.  Lean into the rock here because there are no chains and the path slants sharply.

Any time I stopped to look back at where we had been, I wanted to throw up. But I could always do the next right thing.

I kept thinking of my friend Gail. I don’t know how many times she has said to me, when I am in a situation that seems too hard and I can’t think how I am going to get to the other side and I wish everything were laid out nice and clean before me and it never is, “Just do the next right thing.”

There was always an awkward little dance as we encountered hikers coming down and we had to figure out which of us had the safest place to lean into or wrap arms around to let the other pass. Unintentional intimacy made us fast friends. Many spoke kind words of encouragement as we passed, and their generosity was like a long, cold drink of water. Refreshing and invigorating.

When we finally crested, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. After I had securely installed myself against a cleft of rock to keep  me from falling, I think I did a little of both. Then I took deep, full breaths of the cool air and felt the sun on my skin. I looked out over the valley and drank in the astonishing beauty of it. I gave thanks for safety and strength, for exhilaration and joy. And for the boy at my side with whom I had shared it all.

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Of course, we still had to get down from here. On the way up I had refused to look down at the valley floor below. But on the way back, that would not be possible. Occasionally, I caught myself holding my breath. But by some combination of walking, and scooting, and turning around and backing down particularly challenging sections, I finally found myself back at Scout’s Landing with all my pieces and parts still attached.

That night I lay in bed thinking back over the hike. My stomach started churning and my heart pounded and I found myself as frightened as I had been standing there at Scout’s Landing. Something about seeing it from afar and not having a task that demanded my attention made it far more terrifying. I have been thinking a lot about that ever since. There is a truth in there that I need to keep close to me.

A friend asked me recently why we do crazy things like this. It’s a fair question. And maybe this is it: It’s good practice. Frequently life throws circumstances at us that seem insurmountable. In those moments, it is easy to despair and lose hope. But, every time something we thought would kill us doesn’t, we are made stronger. And hope becomes more resilient. I will never hear Gail’s words–Just do the next right thing–again without thinking of this day.

Of how the impossible became possible
one terrifying step at a time.

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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

*Special thanks to Mike who took all the photos in the post except #2 (public domain), half of the bottom shot, and the obvious selfie. 🙂

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