Proof of Belonging

“Was I left on your doorstep when I was a baby?” I blurted, and Dad almost choked on his coffee. I considered my parents “a little lower than the angels.” In my early teens, after observing their collective goodness, I began to doubt that I was their child. They were high-quality human beings, and as a teenager, I was becoming undone by “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Based on their model of behavior, I sensed the miss-match in the gene pool. “I mean, we are so different.”

“Different how,” he asked? How could I point out the disconcerting truth that the souls of my parents bordered on the saintly, while mine was developing into more shaded, carnal areas? Why didn’t I share their world view? Why did I not have their immutable faith, their ease with a well-regulated life, their free submission to our religious persuasion? In my mind, all these factors pointed to a suspicious origin.

Dad did not wait for my answer, which was good because I didn’t have one.

“Son, you are blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh; every inch an Arnold. Any differences we might have is your own uniqueness, what makes you, you; the way God made you.”

That was reassuring and frightening at the same time. He was claiming me, but I did not want to confess that I felt as though I was drifting from the shoreline of the goodness of my parents into an uncharted sea that could swallow me whole. I was not sure God was happy with my implanted “uniqueness.”

“How can that be?” was all I could squeak out.

“Much of it is a mystery, but I have foolproof evidence of bloodline.”

Mom took down an old metal box from the top shelf of the closet, opened the rusty lid, and handed me my birth certificate. I held proof of belonging in my hands with the embossed seal of the State of Tennessee stamped on the document. I ran my fingers over the raised lettering of the seal for the tactile assurance of what my eyes beheld.

Certificates are what the state requires as proof of belonging, but what gives the individual a true sense of belonging is when you hear stories shared among family and friends that feature you and reveal the shades of your personality that uniquely demonstrate a universal belonging to our common humanity. I am grateful to belong to the kingdom of heaven…such a big tent…such a rich population of folks…no certificate required.

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Truffling For Trauma

Writers are often encouraged to “write what you know,” which usually means delving into the past and writing about it. I recently read an essay by Parul Sehgal where he used the phrase to describe the direction of much of today’s fiction as being “…dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma.” Some might argue that we are the sum of all our traumas given that personal trauma has become the explanation and excuse for…well, everything.

I believe there is a much broader landscape to expand upon in a literary life. We all might be better off if one’s personal stories were kept to a minimum, told sparingly, and in relation to a much bigger world than the little world we each inhabit. Yes, we all have been abused and sucker punched by life, but do we need to see it on all your social platforms?

There are those who are truly traumatized by cruel situations and malevolent circumstances that defy imagination. Treat those sufferings with care and compassion, giving the one who suffered the dignity and healing they deserve.

What I am referring to is that most of what we “truffle” up from our past does not necessarily reach a level worthy of literary examination. The showbiz world cranks out these stories by the boatload. Our social media fascination with “the next big trauma,” gives such impetus to the purveyors of entertainment.

Perhaps we think that reveling in our traumas gives us identity and thus connection to the wider world. When a person’s story of trauma is so oft repeated it threatens to become sentimentalized. With repetitive telling we begin to believe this is truly who we are as a culture or a society: this is how we choose our stories; this is how we tell our stories; this is how we interpret our stories. Throw all this into a pot and out comes a crazed shadow of what it means to be human.

The question we ask ourselves then is what became of us? Do the stories we craft that supposedly reflect who we are, are they really a grand delusion? Or are they grounded in a truth of the human need for and capacity to give love? It is impossible to insulate our lives from suffering, but we can construct stories around those moments that give real meaning to who we are and who we want to become.

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Know Thyself

To “Know Thyself” is attributed to Socrates and was inscribed on the frontispiece of the Temple of Delphi. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is also from the great philosopher. The Socratic method in its simplest form is a dialogue between a teacher and a student. Or on a deeper level, between your soul and yourself.

We look for instruction. We look for ways of illumination. We look for guidance. We look for revelation. It is way too easy to have others tell us what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what entertainment to absorb, or to explain to us a reason for our existence on this planet; what does it mean if it means anything at all. We are a needy people and dependent on something or someone greater than ourselves to help us navigate our lives before the onset of rigor mortis.

What does it mean to be human? To have the good life? By what standards of measure to we use to know if such a life is achievable? I recently read a quote from Os Guinness’ book Fool’s Talk that says, “What Socrates called the ‘unexamined life’ that is ‘not worth living’ now seems to be the life more people have slipped into than ever before. Most people, in other words, are happily diverted, but not conscious of it.”

What are the mirrors we hold up that might give us insight and entryways into who we are or who we might become: social media? Political parties? The Kardashians?

We are so easily distracted by the shiny bauble, or drawn to the rancorous rhetoric, or give in to the desire to accumulate, to pleasure, to materialism, to power. Maybe all these mirrors reflect back are the worst representation of ourselves.

If we are seeking only what brings pleasure and there is no higher value to our life than self-satisfaction, are we not Dr. Faustus insisting that our highest good is found only in a preoccupation of ourselves? We must be careful of the bargains we make and with whom.

To know yourself is to give yourself away. Live in such a way that people’s eyes light up when they see you approach, that your tongue speaks kind words, that you slow down as you navigate through life. And from time to time, when you enter a metaphorical “wilderness,” remember it can be for the sanctification of the soul. Don’t try to avoid it, don’t seek distractions, and do not waste time railing against it. There are deeper truths ahead, and deeper meaning to knowing yourself once you emerge on the other side.

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Often Wrong/Never in Doubt

For years I have proved our family motto with my sometime slippery command of facts and history. From the everyday settings to the wider world, I have no limits when it comes to being “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” I perform such self-inflicted ignominy before audiences large and small, and have become so accustomed to those moments, that I am no longer embarrassed by them. I simply quote the family motto and take a bow.

This just proves that we all need fact checkers. My siblings, my wife, my daughters and sons-in-law, my fellow friends and artists, yea verily, many of the members of my entire community have done the honors of busting my “never in doubt” bloviations with the truth, not indulging my “alternative” facts. It always brings laughter and pleasure.

Dr. Oliver Sacks once wrote of a panel he was on where the topic of discussion was information and communication in the twenty-first century. An internet pioneer was proud of the fact that people, including his daughter, had access to information no one could have imagined a few decades before. Sacks said that while one might be “…stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge.” And I would add that such knowledge and information does not guarantee a gaining of wisdom.

We humans are easily bewitched. We prefer perceptions over facts and truth. Too often we gather around us only those who say what our “itching ears want to hear.” And how we humans “turn our ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

I want people around me to tell me the truth, speak truth into my heart and mind, even when it is painful to hear and perhaps more painful to correct. An ancient Hebrew proverb says it best, “Better an open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

The impermanence of life is all around us, and at the end of the day what we are left with are memories. May our memories be full of truth, truth that corresponds with reality and honest relationships, truth that provides a balm to our soul and gladness to our heart.

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Unexpected Pockets of Beauty

My paternal grandmother was a master gardener, a gift she handed down to her only child, my father. The “green fingers” or “green thumb” expression came into existence in the 1930’s and would apply to both mother and son. Their ability to grow varieties of flora or foodstuffs wherever they dug their trowel into the earth was uncanny. But planting and growing was more than a utilitarian exercise.

Just as an architect would dream of spaces of beauty, so the creative natures of my father and grandmother would design unexpected pockets of beauty spaced throughout their miniature landscapes. I say unexpected because both mother and son enjoyed the element of surprise when they rounded a corner and came upon a beautiful cluster of blooms they had planted earlier now exuberant with color and shape.

Once my parents got their children educated, employed, and married off, there was money to invest in the yard. I would drop by and find Dad in the backyard, on his hands and knees digging, planting, or harvesting, his body wet with sweat, his hands and fingers dirt caked, always eager to give me a tour and pick a bouquet for me to take home to Kay. Years ago, I cast Dad as the Gardner in a production of “The Secret Garden” for Nightingale Theatre. The show ran for two weeks at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. Perfect casting. Perfect location.

This spring as Kay and I work up our garden, and I bump into the artifacts inherited from my grandmother and my father, or as I hear the squeals of pleasure from our grandchildren running along the garden paths or playing in the fountain or chasing after the butterflies, and watch with joy as they marvel in wonder at the magic spin-wheel cups on the weather vane catching the wind and twirling through the sculpted holes or as they jump from rock to rock with an occasional misstep that draws blood and tears and requires Band-Aids and comforting words, or listen to them conversing with the statue of St. Francis, or traversing the stone border wall as if it were a balance beam, or racing their bicycles like daredevils down the ramp they have constructed from the large stone steps, I know they are storing up rich and fertile memories.

I am confident that the memories of our two daughters are chockfull of wonderful moments of time spent in their grandfather’s garden. They now have their own gardens that they lovingly tend and nurture. This is a blessing handed down to the third and fourth generation.

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Summer Vacation

In the days of my youth, summer vacations were spent at the Arnold grandparent’s home in Richmond, Virginia. It was a place of magic and mystery. The two-story house built in the 1830’s, had an expansive backyard devoted to beautiful flower and lush vegetable gardens. There was a huge oak tree in the front yard, so tall that its thick leafy crown was visible for several miles in every direction.

Even holding hands and stretching out our arms, the four Arnold kids could not gird the circumference of the tree. At the base of the tree were several Civil War era cannonballs; the house served as a field post for a brief stint during that time. We played with the unexploded ordinance without ever worrying about its potential lethality.

The garden had a main path running down the middle from one end of the backyard to the other. On either side of the main path were floral gardens each with its extravagant variety of specie. At the south end was the garden house and beside it, a mound of compost. The north end opened onto a grassy square with a bordered edge of berry and butterfly shrubs; a haven for birds, squirrels, rabbits, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

I became a collector of butterflies and moths captured with a homemade butterfly net crafted by my grandmother with a broken broom handle, a wire hanger attached to one end, its circular shape covered in old, cut-to-fit stockings. I bagged enough species to fill several shadowbox glass frames that the grandparents displayed on the wall. Their admiration made me feel like an artist, yet one with a mildly guilty conscience for how the captives had sacrificed their lives for my exhibit.

In one corner of this grassy square was a large stone fireplace. It had a tall chimney framed on either side by giant boxwood. When we entered the north end of this space it was as if coming upon the altar of some extinct tribe. This wonderland fevered my imagination. In the reverie of creative adventures with my siblings, I did not know or care about unaffordable vacations to exotic locales.

I am not one to wax nostalgic on “the good old days.” What I now appreciate of those summer vacations was the lack of distractions, the freedom to daydream, to see beauty, to explore the natural world, and imagine new ones. Boredom and lack of distractions can be one’s friend. New worlds await.

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Tell Me a Story

When our girls were young they would badger me with requests, “Daddy, tell us a story about when you were bad.” I think our girls learned about the reputation of my younger days by listening to family stories at the gatherings of the Arnold clan. Do not be tricked. When you think your kids aren’t paying attention, they are.
I never told them all the stories; too traumatic to their little psyches. I usually distracted them by suggesting we create our own stories full of characters that got into trouble.
“Like you, Daddy?” came the innocent question. “Well, maybe,” was my cagey reply. We would create scenarios fraught with conflict, danger, and drama and we figured out how their characters got into and out of these troublesome situations. This freed their imaginations and got me off the hook.
I have lived in the world of storytelling all my life as an actor, a playwright, a director, and a novelist. I have played and written about all manner of saints and scoundrels. Kay tells me I do best with scoundrels. She knows me too well. But to be an effective storyteller it goes back to the advice I gave our girls: pay attention.
I try to look at life from a 360 degree perspective, paying attention to what is happening around me, but also what might be happening within me. Surprises will follow. I am surprised by what other people reveal of themselves and many times surprised by my own reactions. Both responses are real and authentic. I want my characters to be fully believable because they have been fully felt by me.
Refraining from judgment is a test for a storyteller. I seek to describe the action taken by the characters and the possible motives behind the action. There are always consequences to the choices characters make, just like in real life. As a writer, I try to authentically make logical connections between character, choice, and consequence.
This requires daydreaming. “He has his head in the clouds” would be an apt description when it comes to the artist. I see the reality of the world around me, and then I take the time and freedom to daydream about what it was, what it is, and what it might be in relation to my story.
To create a compelling story requires time spent in the clouds to give meaning and depth to our lives here on earth. Defy the law of gravity. Keep daydreaming. Keep creating. The world is a better place for it.

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Manifold Witness

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is a picture of Bernie Arnold, my dear mother, preparing to cook a pot roast on the manifold of our 1958 Impala. The power had not been turned off at the house. The oven had not broken. This was an experiment. One of many creative and clever cooking ideas Mom discovered that made her exceptional. It also helped her win the “Mrs. Tennessee” contest one year and eventually lead to the job of the Food Editor for The Nashville Tennessean and The Nashville Banner.

The early years of the six-member Arnold household were lean. There was no disposable income. There were no luxuries. The bank account was like the proverbial turnip from which no monetary blood could be squeezed. Vacations were never to the beach or mountains. Our vacation was a trip to my paternal grandparents’ home in Virginia.

The journey from Nashville to Richmond began in the predawn hours and ended well after dark. This was before seat belts were standard in most automobiles, which meant for us kids in the back we were in constant danger of becoming human projectiles should the brakes be applied suddenly.

It was also before the Interstate system. Two-lane highways led through cities and towns and along the twisting roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If we got stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler, we would be asphyxiated by diesel fumes before being able to pass.

The fast-food industry had not yet popped up like gastronomic weeds, so Mom would prepare snacks and full meals for the drive. Our favorite was her roast beef and vegetables wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Dad would secure it on top of the manifold of the engine with wire.

While we drove that eight cylinder engine was a natural oven maintaining a steady temperature. What was normally a feast prepared for guests on Sundays after church, would be ready for consumption by the time we reached Bristol, Tennessee.

This picture of Mom reminds me of the lyric in Thomas Chisholm’s hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” In celebrating God’s creation the heavens above “join with all nature in manifold witness.” My mother gave a “witness” of the pot roast on the manifold of our car. It was a roadside feast that no fast-food joint could ever equal.

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Giotto’s O

We’ve all heard the catchy platitude “You’ve got to fake it till you make it.” What that usually implies is a lack of preparation. When an opportunity presents itself you suddenly realize your inadequacies. To fake is to create a false image, and we all know, an image can be easily shattered.

In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote a biography of Renaissance artists entitled Lives of the Painters. One of the artists featured in the book was Giotto di Bondone who lived in Florence two hundred years earlier. Legend has it that when Giotto was an apprentice, he painted a fly on one of his master’s paintings that was so life-like, that when the master looked at it, he kept trying to brush it away. Apparently, the kid had talent.

Vasari writes that at the beginning of the 14th century, when Pope Benedict wanted to spruce up St. Peter’s Basilica with some new frescoes, courtiers were sent out into the country to interview artists and collect samples of their work. The audition process for artists has changed little over the centuries.

Many artists were interviewed for the job. I mean this was the Pope and the paintings were for the Basilica, so just any old painter would not do. Imagine the number of great painters in Italy in that time. So, when a courtier stopped by the workshop of Giotto in Florence, he probably had a carriage full of drawings and paintings he had collected from many artists.

The courtier asked if Giotto would like to submit drawings to his Holiness. My guess is the courtier expected samples of angels and saints or another Madonna and Child. Instead, Giotto took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, he fixed his arm against his side. Then with a turn of his hand, Giotto made a perfect circle.

 

When Giotto gave the courtier his sample, he mistakenly thought the artist was mocking him. The courtier was incensed and asked Giotto if he was to have no other drawing than this? Vasari reports that Giotto replied, “This is enough and too much. Send it with the others and see if it will be understood.”

 

Those artists who submitted angels and saints lost out that day. Giotto got the gig. There was no fakery. There was no image to be propped up. There was no shameless self-promotion. Just years of hard work developing talent so that when an opportunity presented itself, Giotto did not have to fake it. He was prepared.

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Send in the Hypocrites

In the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus had a term for folks that loved to stand in the streets playing to the crowds and drawing attention with public shows of false piety. He called them “hypocrites,” which is the Greek word for play-actor (Ouch, that hurt). He goes on to say that these “play-actors” love to babble on about their beliefs because they think God is sitting in a box seat applauding this theatrical performance. And if they are not playing for God, then they play for an audience of like-minded people.

When the mask of false piety breaks open it often reveals a hidden rage. The voices and faces of rage are all too common, and the selection of rage-inducing topics is vast. Rage is a destroyer. Among many things it destroys is conversation, and once conversation is destroyed, the aftermath can be brutal.

The art of conversation includes the powerful component of listening. One cannot be yelling and listening at the same time. Language delivered at such heated levels becomes high-decibel gobbledygook. All you are left with is a contorted visual of rage on the human face: swollen visage, popping neck veins, mouths agape, and bulging eyeballs. It is the same physical effect as strangulation only self-induced.

We are complex human beings. The fabric of our souls is woven together with delicate threads. Each time we engage in conversation with someone, especially someone who does not necessarily think and believe like we do, we add a deeper layer of human connection and take a step closer to losing ourselves for the sake of each other.

There is a spiritual component at play here. It is more than just reaching across the divide. It is a giving up or losing of oneself. It is self-sacrifice. Jesus said if you want to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. It is a divine paradox that defies all manner of personal vanities, defies all the raging for those self-important rights and entitlements we think we deserve. The way to expand our world is to think less of ourselves, to be curious about each other, to ponder the beauty of another soul, and listen.

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