Ancient Voices – Part Deux

When we returned home to Nashville from our one-year sojourn to Washington State in search of holograms and lazar-lights for our biblical epic, I heard about the British actor, Alec McCown, doing a one-man production of “St. Mark’s Gospel.” He had memorized all of Mark’s gospel, KJV no less, and given performances in London and New York to packed houses. I knew no one was going to hire me for such a venture (my name had no marquee value, nor did I have a British theatrical resume), but I began to test the waters of the church world to see if any might be open to having someone dressed in Levi jeans and a J. Crew shirt tell stories from the Bible in their sanctuary.

Poster for Alec McCowen’s production of “St. Mark’s Gospel.”
Alec McCowen in “St. Mark’s Gospel.”

After our second daughter, Lauren, was born, I took the hologram/lazar-lights show of the famous apostle and transformed it into a simple one-man show with two wooden benches for a set. And, inspired by Mr. McCown’s success with his “St. Mark’s Gospel,” I created a second one-man show on the life of Jesus. Instead of using one Gospel as my source, I cherry-picked stories of Jesus from all four Gospels and compiled them into a dramatic sequence. I asked a few area churches to allow me to showcase my one-man shows of Paul or Jesus, and because of their kindness, I was able to get a few more churches to open their doors.

The Word Made Flesh Trilogy of my one- man shows of biblical characters.

When it came to setting a fixed cost for those performances, I did not have the business savvy or plain old chutzpah to demand a set fee, so I accepted what was referred to as a “love offering.” After a performance the collection plates would be passed, and whatever came in, I took home. At times those love offerings did favor me with love, but many times what arrived in those receptacles was little more than a “like” offering, or a “This guy wasted an hour of my time that I will never get back” offering. And there were those times when my fingers and toes outnumbered the audience. Often discouraged but not defeated, I created a third one-man show on the life of David, which made up my “The Word Made Flesh” trilogy, and I pursued my quest to give live performances of these great biblical stories whenever possible.

An actor’s life is never predictable so I was pleasantly surprised when I was hired to produce a dramatized version of the New Testament using multiple actors. The text would be the King James Version chosen by the executive producer, i.e. “The Money,” because it was public domain and royalty free. Because of my theatrical experience and classical training, “The Money” wanted me to read the role of Jesus. The King James Version is similar in style and language to that of Shakespeare, so I was thrilled to have this opportunity. I embraced this project, heart and soul, but with no practical sense of what it meant to produce such a mammoth project. When I rode in “The Money’s” Silver Cloud Rolls Royce to the lawyer’s office to draw up the contract, I regretted not taking that business class in college. The contract favored “The Money.” I was given a fixed budget, which meant, by the time I turned in the finished recording, I was paid the equivalent of a convict’s wages. But I did get to hire several actor friends, including my sister and my father, which was a supreme blessing.

When the project was complete, “The Money” began a direct-mail sales campaign. His hope was to get a big-time televangelist to endorse the product and pick our dramatized New Testament as a give-away for their fundraising appeals. When “The Money” got word from the leading televangelist of the day that he liked the product but could not stand the guy who played Jesus, “The Money” made an executive decision: re-record the Gospels with a new Jesus. I was replaced by the silky-smooth voice of a small-time radio host. I only found out about the switcheroo because the radio host called me to apologize. The televangelist had not liked the way I spoke the King’s English with such passion or dramatic intent. I guess Jesus used his silky-smooth voice when kicking the merchants out of the Temple, or sweating blood in Gethsemane as he prayed, or crying out to God while dying on the cross. So silky-smooth beat out the classically-trained actor. But it was not long before the big-time televangelist got his show canceled because of inappropriate behavior outside of the marriage bed. It was hard not to gloat when witnessing the proverbial “pride goeth before the fall” on full display.

Poster for The Mighty Have Fallen

It was my father who picked me up and dusted me off after that experience. My father was always a rescuer. As head of the theatre department at Lipscomb University, Dad produced and directed two full-length plays I had written on biblical subjects. One was entitled “The Mighty Have Fallen,” about the rise and fall of King Saul, the first king of Israel. This beautiful production spurred my imagination to dream of writing a series of novels on the first three monarchal dynasties of ancient Israel. But at that moment in my life I had to make a living and writing biblical/historical fiction was not paying the bills.

During those years I was experiencing an intense soul-crushing. God was not cooperating with my transactional, quid pro quo plan I had so carefully laid out for Him to endorse. My theology was misguided. My ego was being broken and it hurt like hell. Kay and many other dear people held onto to me as I went through that emotional, white-knuckled period in my life. I was deep inside a spiritual crucible and there was a lot of dross to be burned out.

MWS and moi on The Acoustic Tour.

Then in the mid-nineties, Michael W. Smith asked me to open for him on his “The Acoustic Tour.” We had performed together off and on for several years. He would play his songs and I would do an abridged version of my show on Jesus. But on this tour MW had a full band, and we played twenty cities, in mega-churches or arenas, with a combined audience count of over ninety-thousand people (Far beyond the count of my fingers and toes). And it began to dawn on me that all those years of performing for those small houses and small love offerings, that not only was I improving my craft as an actor, but my soul was beginning to experience an imperceptible transformation.

The next year I was in Africa shooting “Acts of the Apostles,” a film based on the book of Acts that was word-for-word New International Version. I played the role of the apostle Paul, and had to memorize long passages of scripture. Because it was an exact translation, there was no wiggle room when it came to the wording. It was hard work, and the discipline was good for me. This was all a part of a “slow drip” process allowing those sacred words to flow through my system with a power and a truth that I had not expected.

St. Paul’s horrible, no good, very bad day
St. Paul pre-Damascus Road

Once I complete a play or a film, the effects of the skin and bones of my character and their words of dialogue begins to evaporate in a short amount of time. But not the role of the apostle Paul, or any of the roles in my “The Word Made Flesh” trilogy. The words I memorized and spoke are true, and most important, the words reveal the One who was and is the true source of power and life, and I am not the same man.

From these collective professional experiences, I began to feel a deeper sense of calling and purpose, a deeper sense that what I would write in the future might bear more of an eternal weight. By “eternal” I don’t mean a “stand the test of time” longevity like great literature that survives for centuries. My literary skill is modest at best. Rather it is the source from which I draw inspiration that has already stood the test of time. The Scriptures bear the eternal weight of its truth, and I am only borrowing from it to write my stories. I take very little credit for originality. All these experiences played their part in sharpening my focus to become a writer. In the next installment of my story/blog I will write of how all of these events came to a head, and I finally sat down to begin writing “The Song of Prophets and Kings.”

The banner says it all

Cover Art: Roseanna White

Comments Off on Ancient Voices – Part Deux
Ancient Voices
Cover Art designed by Roseanna White

Ancient Voices

What do all these factors have in common: engagement, marriage, unemployment for one spouse, pregnancy, eviction, multiple living quarters including an unfinished attic, the kickoff of a writing career, the arrival of a first child, unemployment for the other spouse, all followed by a cross-country move with their four-month old daughter leaving behind kith and kin in search of fame and fortune? You guess it…Kay and Chip. Oh yeah, and cram all these events into just over a year’s time.

Fertile Green Turtle

I can think back on some of the decisions and choices I’ve made in life and wonder, “What was I thinking,” but marrying Kay was not one of them. The hardest job I’ve ever had was to convince her to be my wife. It wasn’t easy, but we signed, sealed, and transacted the ceremony on May 12, 1979, and headed off to Green Turtle Cay for our honeymoon. Green Turtle is a three-mile long, one half mile wide island accessible only by boat. There were a few bungalows scattered about on both ends of the island, and on the central part there is the yacht club and a small gated community of luxury homes owned by the gentry from other countries. We were the only ones to have rented a bungalow for that week, so the whole southern end of the island was ours. To see other humans required a walk into the village. We made the trek a couple of times.

Once we returned from Green Turtle, life rapidly descended into chaos: lost jobs, lost housing; and within two months of our “I do’s,” lost autonomy of our couple-hood. My mother fondly called our honeymoon spot, “Fertile Green Turtle.” Nine months and four days after the wedding (Yes, Mother was counting the days), we were blessed with our first daughter, Kristin Alisabeth. Now when faced with the heavy realities of life, I should step up and take responsibility, get that “real job,” I was told by one relative, and “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” I was informed by another relative. Well-meaning advice, I’m sure, but I did not have “ears to hear.” In the midst of our topsy-turvy world, I had the brilliant idea that it was the perfect time not to look for that “real” job, but to write a play, a biblical play on the apostle Paul that would turn the world upside down just as the original Paul had done in his day (He had a “real” job until he took that road to Damascus). What had Kay gotten herself into, you ask, and was it too late to get out? The simple answer is no, she did not know what she had gotten herself into, and yes, it was too late to get out.

If you think the cover looks bad, you should see the inside

My parents gave me my first Bible on my eleventh birthday in 1961 with the inscription written in my mother’s hand: “To our son with the hope that this book will serve as your guide all the days of your life. Our love and prayers will always be with you. Mother and Daddy.” It was the standard KJV translation. “If this translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough for us,” was the occasional argument heard among the brethren back then. It sits on my desk: dog-eared, held together with a rubber band and petrified masking tape, with the pages inside marked and worn.

Now do not be deceived. As sweet as this sentiment might be, I tested the inscribed words of my parents. Their “love” was tried and their “prayers” were many when I took a prodigal turn and remained “in the wilderness” for what, I’m sure, seemed like ages to them. At one point Mother said that she stopped praying for me to make good choices and have good friends. Instead, she began praying for the Lord to just keep me alive. I am very grateful to the faithfulness of my parents, and like the prodigal son, when I “came to my senses,” a discovery of an active, loving relationship with God and an intense thirst for Scripture came with it. A devotion to tell or retell stories from the Bible would soon follow.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles; Valentin de Boiulogne; 1620

By the end of our first year of marriage I had written several drafts of “The Voice of the Lion” on the life of Saint Paul and had sent the latest one to a director friend in Washington State who I had worked with for a couple of years in several professional productions before getting married. He loved the play and agreed to help me develop it with the hope that we could mount a production that could tour theatres and churches up and down the west coast. When we announced that we were taking the first grandchild in the family and heading west, the fat hit the fan. Mount St. Helens had just blown her stack and the atmosphere was thick with volcanic dust. Some family members were sure we were dooming our child to a lifetime of lung diseases. Forty years later, the child is fine, thank you very much. And so are we, by the way.

Star Wars; L to R: Mr. Skywalker, Ms. Leia, & Mr. Kenobi

The first “Star Wars” movie had come out, and the director and I thought this play deserved laser lights and holograms. Surely every potential investor we approached would catch our vision and write those checks. To keep body and soul together, I worked all sorts of jobs from a well-digger’s assistant to production stage manager for an orchestra. After a year of energy and money spent on the “pitch,” we were exhausted and down to a few hundred dollars in the account. We moved to Washington with four hundred dollars and returned to Nashville one year later with that same amount.

Before we returned home, the small country church we attended honored me by devoting a Sunday night service to a public reading of the play. My cast consisted of a farmer, a postman, a teacher, a well-digger (former employer), the pastor, and an ex-witch and warlock from a local coven who had been born again. I’ve always believed in equal opportunity. And I read the role of the great apostle. Our dream of laser lighting was reduced to the on/off switches of the ceiling lights (no dimmers in this house of worship). But the house and the stage lights were separate, so we were able to darken the house and keep the stage lights on to create some level of theatricality. And there were no holograms, though the suggestion was made by the ex-warlock that we could hold flashlights under our chins during a couple of the more dramatic moments. Perhaps being born again had not taken its full effect, and he still had one foot in the coven. Ours was a flesh and blood production, warmly received, and shortly afterwards, we returned home with our second daughter, Lauren Blair, in utero.

Horizontal version of book cover

The experience of forty years ago has brought me to this point in my writing life with the coming publication in December, 2020, of “A Voice Within the Flame,” the first volume in my biblical fiction series “A Song of Prophets and Kings.” Inspired by Old Testament stories, this series takes a 3,000 year leap back in human history. In tenth century B.C., three great kings ruled the nation of Israel and three great prophets asserted their divine authority to hold them accountable. These ancient stories show the inevitable tension between the human and the divine, replete with murder, rebellion, romance, and betrayal. No matter how much time we are given or how hard we might try, Homo sapiens have changed little; nothing new under the sun, as the ecclesiastical saying goes.

Between that first public performance in the small country church forty years ago to the coming release of “A Voice Within the Flame” this December, there were many adventures for Kay and me. In my next story-blog, I will recount a few more, some disastrous and humorous, some poignant and tender, on our journey to this moment. And not once in my artistic and literary odyssey did I ever encounter a hologram.

So stay tuned. More to come.

Book Cover Design by Roseanna White

Comments Off on Ancient Voices

Two Old Men Telling Stories

Barry Scott and I loved telling stories to each other about our childhoods, our families, our work, our faith. Between us we had well over one hundred years of stories. I recently walked the grounds of St. John’s AME Church where, two years before, we had done a performance of Jim Reyland’s play “Stand” and saw the ghosts rising from the concrete pad and grassy plot. It was all that was left of the church property after the tornado went through North Nashville in March of 2020. Before the show, Barry and I sat in the Sunday school turned make-shift dressing room. By then, we had performed in so many schools, theatres, and churches, and gotten into costume in so many dressing rooms from the luxurious to the storage closet. We loved performing in churches. In all the places we performed “Stand,” church was where this show was meant to be.

A large fruit basket sat on the center of the table filled to overflowing like a cornucopia basket of wonderful edibles. Barry and I ignored it. Neither of us liked to eat anything before a show. After the show, after the talk-back, after the sweet reception and the joy of fellow-shipping with the congregants, Barry and I went back to our dressing room to get out of costume. Barry asked if I wanted the fruit basket or anything in the fruit basket, and I told him no, for him to take it. He said he and Schuronda would take it, that as they drive around town they would hand out its contents along with a bottle of water and a couple of bucks to those who stood on the Nashville street corners selling The Contributor or those with cardboard signs asking for help. Inspired by his action, the next week I went to Sams, bought a case of water, a large box of granola bars, and then to the bank and got a stack of ones. Barry Scott made me a better man.

On one of our many tours of “Stand,” we were in Asheville, NC. It was our last show in our last city for that year. After several days of being on the road performing in churches at night and in schools during the day, that morning was to be the last show. A school group was coming to the church where we had performed the night before for the general public. Barry and I were in our dressing room, another make-shift Sunday school room waiting for Jim Reyland to come tell us to get into places. About ten minutes before the show, Jim told us the school had canceled at the last minute and that the handful of people in the audience were a few of the church staff and Asheville locals. The pastor of the church said that we did not have to do the show since the school was not coming, and Jim offered us the option to pack up and go.

Barry Scott as J.J.

Now I’m like a horse to the barn when I know it’s time to go home, and the thought of getting on the road two hours early appealed to me. Jim looked at me, and I said I was open to loading up right then and heading out. When Jim said he could do the same, I started smelling the hay. But since we live in a democracy everyone got a vote and we both looked at Barry. And in his beautiful, stentorian, Mustafa, Darth Vader voice said, “This is what we came here to do.” For Barry, the size of the audience did not matter, it was the commitment to the performance. Jim called “places,” and the show went on. Barry Scott made me a better man.

Last year my computer got hacked and notices went out to hundreds of folks saying I needed money. Many people reached out and asked if I was okay, and I so appreciated their concern. But Barry Scott went straight to the hackers and gave money on my behalf. And then he called me later to see if I had gotten the money he had sent. You might say Barry was duped, conned by the hackers, but I say no. Barry loved me, and believed I was in need, and he came to my rescue, he gave of himself, and he gave sacrificially. Barry Scott made me a better man.

Barry Scott as J.J. and Chip Arnold as Mark in “Stand”

At the end of Jim’s play “Stand,” Barry’s character dies. In his last monologue he addresses the audience from his place in heaven and in essence asks us to see other people as we would like to be seen and to forgive and love others as we would wish to be forgiven and loved. After his speech, we would walk upstage as the lights fade and a beautiful starry sky appears around us; we would turn to each other and throw our arms around one another in a big manly embrace, and Barry would whisper, “I love you Chip Arnold.” And I would respond, “I love you Barry Scott.” Barry Scott made me a better man.

In these last few years when we were together, all we talked about was our faith and what in meant to be broken men of God. How the shared stories of our lives were different but the same. How our faith informed our art. How our faith informed how we treat people. How, when we were together, just being together, just being in one another’s presence, we were better versions of ourselves. In these last weeks I would call Barry, and if he didn’t answer, I would leave him a voice mail of a prayer or read a passage from the Bible. He would call back just to say, “I love you Chip Arnold” and give me the chance to say “I love you Barry Scott.”

Cover of SCENE magazine: Barry Scott, Jim Reyland, and Chip Arnold

But the last time we spoke just days before his passing he said, “I got a story for you.” He was energized. His voice was a mere rasp of its former power, but the joy he was feeling at the moment gave him strength. “You ever heard of the Kings of Junk?” I told him no. “They came to my house today. I had a bunch of stuff in my garage and they came to clean it out. A few minutes before they were to arrive, I went out to the garage to open it up. I had to climb about three steps to get to the door to unlock it. I got to the bottom step and I couldn’t lift my leg to start to climb up. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t climb. I didn’t have the strength and my brain wasn’t communicating to my leg. So I sat down and used my arms and climbed up the steps backward on my butt. But when I got to the door, I couldn’t stand up. So I sat there and waited for the Kings of Junk to arrive. When they arrived the man in charge came around to the side entrance and I told him the situation. He asked what he could do for me. I told him I need to be carried into the house. So the King of the Kings of Junk wrapped his arms around me and lifted me up and he helped me back into my house. Once in the kitchen, the King held me against his chest. He just held me, until he gently sat me down in a chair. Then he knelt in front of me and looked into my face, really looked at me. He saw me, saw inside of me, saw the broken me, and he said, ‘Can I do anything else for you, Mr. Scott?’ I swear, Chip, it was like I looked into the face of Jesus.”

Barry as J.J. and Chip as Mark outside the Cathedral.

I told Barry this story would be added to his collection of great stories. He needed to tell that story. He said I needed to come to church and we would tell our stories together. I said, who would listen to two old men telling stories? He said, “Men need to hear our stories together. Men need to tell their own stories to one another. Men need to hear and know that they are loved by God and that they are loved by us. Men need to look other men in their eyes and ask is there anything else I can do for you? Men need to know that in weakness they have strength, in pain they have power, in sorrow they have joy, and in God they have love everlasting.”

Two Old Men Talking

Barry Scott made me a better man. Barry Scott made the world a better planet. Barry Scott has now made heaven a little brighter. Flights of angels have welcomed him home, and I can hear God saying to him, “I love you Barry Scott. Well done.”

Cover Art: Poster by Tommy Staples

Comments Off on Two Old Men Telling Stories

The Art of Conversation

I met Joshua back in the Fall of 2019 at one of the exits off Interstate 40 that cuts through the middle of downtown Nashville. Joshua is a newspaper vendor who sells The Contributor, a street newspaper focusing primarily on social justice issues involving poverty and homelessness. At peak morning hours (pre-Covid-19), there can be a steady stream of cars driving onto the exit ramp. These vehicles approach a traffic light where Joshua operates his business on this prime real estate. Then drivers must choose one of three different directions to take, and so become absorbed into the vast web of city streets. Drivers caught by the red light are usually so taken up by the self-absorbed process of destination driving to notice anything other than the irritating slowness for the light to change to green.

The Contributor newspaper

Those early meetings with Joshua were what I call the “baton hand-offs.” It was the type of transaction that offers minimum reward: Joshua and I trade a couple of bucks and some snacks for a copy of The Contributor; we also swap a cheerful greeting, an exchange of “thank you/you’re welcome”–those obligatory marks of good manners, and, if the light is red, then time for a casual comment on the weather or an inquiry into the other’s well being…platitudes in place of real conversation. When the light changes to green, I’m off to my appointment, and Joshua goes back to his place at the top of the intersection to repeat his march down a fresh line of cars.

To see Joshua was not an everyday occurrence. I don’t regularly drive into Nashville, and when I do, my destination does not always take me to his exit. But in the last several months I have had the good fortune to grab hurried seconds with Joshua. Here is what I have observed in our numerous one-on-one’s: Joshua is reliable; always at his post unless inclement weather prevails. He has a business-like deportment that includes a smile. While his attire may not be the latest fashion, his wardrobe is clean and neat. Only once have I seen him on the phone when I pulled up, but he was conversing with his worried mother arranging for her son to get a protective mask against Covid-19. Otherwise, he is paying attention to potential customers, holding an opened copy of the paper in one hand, while offering a friendly wave with the other. The rest of the papers are neatly folded and placed inside the pouch hung over his neck with its cover of clear plastic revealing the headlines and a sticker with the price of the paper below it. On a separate laminate is a picture I.D., also draped around his neck. He is a professional.

Usain Bolt

Over time, our conversations, while brief, have deepened and become more meaningful. We’ve met so many times now that he recognizes my car even when I am way back in the pack. I am greeted with the “Usain Bolt has-left-the-building” pose and a bright smile. He will head straight for me ignoring the other drivers as he briskly walks in my direction. After fist-bumps and the standard business exchange, Joshua offers updates on his life: a need to be closer to work, so he temporarily moved in with his aunt until affordable housing could be found; he walks or rides the bus to Downtown Presbyterian Church where the paper is published to purchase his papers, and then on to his work location (the earlier the better); and the economic effects of Covid-19 have meant fewer cars are taking his exit because fewer drivers are coming into town to work, thus fewer papers sold. He never complains. He is grateful to be making a living and achieving a measure of self-reliance. And then there is a confessional moment when he told me he gave the Girl Scout cookies I recently gave him to his aunt because he doesn’t care for them. Loved his honesty.

I shared with him my background in selling newspapers back in the day, and we commiserated on the newspaper vendor’s vulnerability to unpredictable weather, one among many other dangers. In my confessional moment I told Joshua of the tough times my two daughters and their families have experienced in this time of pandemic. Underlying each of these snippets of conversation is a sense of urgency for we know the light will soon turn green and we must part. So what we share has a traction of depth.

On the surface, these conversations may not have the qualities of what we expect from long-term friendships. But the words spoken are the forays into a deepening relationship. It is the frequency of encounters that matters. It is the generosity of spirit that counts. It is the respect and dignity we offer each other by pausing in our day to look each other in the eye and speak kind words and even blessing.

The world right now is topsy-turvy. If the forces of Mother Nature and Covid-19 weren’t bad enough, or high unemployment, there is a malignant disease let loose in the land, odorless, colorless, tasteless. It is the sound and fury of cruel language and savage behavior. We need only observe the revilement between many of our political leaders…all stripes; between many of our religious leaders…all stripes; between many of our social leaders…all stripes, down to the common man and woman on the street to see that the bully pulpits do not lack for bullies. However ornate or simple in design, pulpits are pieces of furniture that do not encourage conversation.

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. (When the mask of false piety breaks open it often leads to rage.) He calls 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 not for God, then for an audience of like-minded people.

The voices and faces of rage too often carry the day, 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.

King Solomon

When I was age twenty there was a lot of raging going on in this country: Vietnam, Civil Rights, street riots, burning buildings, mass demonstrations on college campuses with multiple killings—remember Kent State (white kids murdered)? Remember Jackson State (black kids murdered)? Those were the daily headlines back then.  There was a “famine in the land” for a true word. I am only days away from my seventieth birthday, and I can say with King Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun. We still rage. We are still brutal. Just witness the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery, one in a ad infinitum line of senseless murders of young black men. Our souls are wasting away because our conversations lack true words.

We are complex human beings. The fabric of our souls is thin and woven together with delicate threads. The space between us can be measured in widths of hair follicles. Joshua and I could not be further apart in so many ways, but each time we meet and with each conversation, a layer of human connection is added and we 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. Self-help is not the way. 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 privileges. What are we willing to trade for our souls?

Conversation by Arnold Lakhovsky; 1920

We are capable of civility. It begins with conversations that are equal parts listening and speaking, equal parts conviction and empathy, and equal parts understanding and forgiveness. We all desire it. We must first be willing to offer it.

Cover Art: Attributed to Belgian painter, Rene Magritte

Comments Off on The Art of Conversation

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Never thought I’d be standing at a baker’s bench. Never thought I’d be up to my wrists kneading dough. Never thought I’d be driving a delivery van to multiple locations giving out bread. But here we are in this not-quite dystopian world of pandemic and sequestration. Nothing like a plague to get the attention of the world. And yes, I ripped off the title of my piece from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera;” an excellent addition to one’s literary life experience.

Instruction from the Master Baker; photo by Lauren Zilen

Kay and I were in New Zealand in mid-January when we became aware of Covid-19 shutting down Wuhan, China. It was surreal, because the Chinese were celebrating their New Year, and we kept seeing busloads of tourists from China going about the Queenstown sites and landscapes snapping photos and seeming to enjoy themselves. Most of the tourists had their faces covered by masks.

I had two pleasant encounters with tourists from China both on the same day: 1) While on a solo trek in the mountains, I had under-estimated my arrival at the rendezvous point to be picked up. I had over an hour of hiking left, well beyond the time to meet the family. I had my daughter’s phone number (Having flunked Boy Scouts, I am always just “mostly” prepared), and asked a young woman I met on the trail if she could call a New Zealand number. She was quick to oblige, and even dialed the number for me. I was able to contact my daughter before the family left the house and delay our meeting time.

And 2) As I was approaching the end of my nineteen mile hike, I met two young Chinese women who had just gotten off their tourist bus. They were beginning an ascent up the mountain, one in sandals and the other in pink, Croc-like shoes. They stopped me with a wave and asked how long it would take them to hike the first couple of miles. We struggled to communicate in broken English, but I tried to explain how deceiving this path was: a pleasant start at the trail head that quickly turned steep and strenuous. Then pointing to their shoes, I tried to explain that their footwear was not right for this trail. They seemed to understand by nodding their heads, and we smiled as we parted.

Plague Doctor wearing mask; you could put your eye out with that beak…thank goodness we’ve upgraded the technology

These three tourists were sans masks which allowed for clarity of gesture and expressions of gratitude and concern. While our conversations were brief, I was shown kindness in the first encounter, and passed on what I hope was kindness in the second encounter. When Kay and I got home in early February, the world was beginning to wake up to the potential destruction of the Covid-19 plague.

In mid-March we were hit by some shocking news: our New Zealand kids were in a nation-wide lock-down, the status of their visas and employment now in limbo; our Chattanooga kids had to layoff twenty-seven employees at their bakery. While we were thankful that no one was sick with coronavirus, these very personal micro-scenarios were a close-to-home economic picture of the uncertainty of what the whole world now faced.

When the plague became pandemic the first word that came to mind was “barren.” From the airports to the grocery shelves. When Kay and I flew back into Los Angeles from New Zealand, we waited in line among the multitudes for over an hour just to have our two-minute interview with a Customs Agent. Lucky for us, we had enough time to catch our connecting flight to Nashville. At present, the lines at airports are nonexistent.

Many of the shelves in the grocery stores are also barren. Regardless of one’s income bracket, people are stocking their Plague Pantries with supplies to protect against the unknown, the unseen, and the unexpected. When we humans are unable to hold the chaos at bay, then stuffing our Plague Pantries to overflowing may be our last and only action that gives us a false sense of being in control. Community is swallowed up by the conscienceless process of survival of the fittest. It is a terrible feeling to stare at an empty cupboard.

Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian McKellen as Gandalf

In a time such as this one I am reminded of a moment in the first volume of “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo and Gandalf have a brief exchange about the perilous quest they share: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

There was little comfort we could offer our New Zealand kids other than encourage their hearts and do what we could to help make it possible for them to return home if they decided to do so once the lock-down was lifted. Our Chattanooga kids were a different story. The city had deemed their bakery “essential,” so bread had to be baked, now with twenty-seven fewer employees. They had a skeleton staff to work during the day for the pickup orders and local deliveries, but for larger orders, extra hands were needed.

Kneading dough while listening to Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T; photo by Lauren Zilen

And that is how we found ourselves at the baker’s bench. My grandson asked his father why the baker’s bench was so long, and he replied that it took many hands to prepare the bread dough for baking. The heartbreaking fact was the professional team of bakers that once formed the assembly line along the baker’s bench were now in the long virtual lines of the unemployed. The larger orders for bread had to be filled after hours and by unprofessional hands. So four adults and two bratlings (“bratling”; singular possessive – a term of endearment coined by Uncle Tad to refer to all his nieces and nephews under the age of ten; whenever two or three are gathered together we have a conference of “bratlings”), took up positions along the baker’s bench and went to work.

I have this mental picture of Covid-19 being like an unmanned fire-hose swinging wildly about randomly spraying a poisonous trajectory in every direction. Some are hit with its full force while others are only covered in a light mist. Nearly every human will be effected in a personal way by Covid-19 before the disease has run its course. The secret and shadowed parts of our souls will be revealed in the heat of this crucible; blame and shame will go to the deserving, but from what I have witnessed so far, most people are responding with a unified grace and dignity and a desire to help one another.

Drawing on Antique Dictionary

The medical communities and other first-responders are glorious examples of bravery and sacrifice. These are the big heroes of the hour with no superpowers other than their human skills and personal dedication to serve us in the face of great odds. They are deserving of our praise and honor, prayers and encouragement. We should all take note, take heart, and have hope.

Agents of Rescue

While most of us can’t be in the vanguard of providing healing and comfort to the stricken, we can in this time, begin to think less of ourselves and more of others. Great disasters open wide the existing fractures of our society, and in these situations, we all experience some level of personal distress. In this unifying moment, we are offered opportunities to show simple acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion toward one another, those little “cup of cool water” offerings that often go unseen boosting the morale of the world with demonstrations of love to our neighbor.

Niedlov’s Breadworks…oh yeah; photo by Erik Zilen

Cover Art: Compassion Hands by Ringo Turchin of Tuchin Jewelry

Comments Off on Love in the Time of Covid-19

Who Fired That Shot

I don’t know who fired the first shot, but I do know when and where the war began. It was in 1991, at Fontana Resort in North Carolina at the ninth Pryor Family Reunion. The war continued for decades; family “water warriors” from five states gathering once every two years for great battles with intermittent skirmishes among members of the clan in several other locations between reunions.

Cain; Fernand Cormon, 1880

Back in the day, humans roamed the landscape on foot. We were nomadic individual families that turned into clans that turned into tribes that, with a steady birth rate and population increases, eventually turned into nations. The personalities of dominate family members shaped the family as a whole, which in time, evolved into distinct, cultural qualities of clan, tribe, and nation. Today’s family is no different than the families of early humankind.

Battle of Barnet; 1471 – so where is Waldo?

Water is essential to all plant, animal, and human life. But our clan took it a step further, and no, I’m not talking about baptism, although that is an important component to our clan. I’m talking about the “Water Wars of Pryor Reunions,” which might be considered our cultural distinction.

In Great Britain there was the “Hundred Years’ War,” which led to the “War of the Roses,” which led to the “Seven Year’s War…” all that death and mayhem can wear a body down. And don’t forget our little dust-up with our English cousins starting in 1775. But the marked difference between the civil wars of nations and the Pryor Reunion “Water Wars” is that no one died. There was an occasional injury, but that was usually a stubbed toe from running barefoot or a bashed noggin from running into a tree while taking cover.

In honor of the recent passing of my Uncle Tad Wyckoff into the heavenly realms, I give him credit for the idea of starting the “Water Wars” at our family reunion in Fontana, N.C., and for firing the first shot heard round the world. He was the mischievous instigator. Team-Uncle Tad, which consisted of my brother Cris, U.T., and me, slipped out of the family dinner undetected. We went to our cabin, gathered our munitions, loaded up the ”water barrels,” and got into the car; Uncle Tad in the back seat, I in the front seat, and Cris driving the getaway vehicle.

With darkness as our friend, we lay in wait as the families unsuspectingly strolled down the road after dinner and split off to their respective cabins. Cris drove us by those families we knew would appreciate, yea verily, enjoy this sort of sport; a perfect activity on a hot summer night. We rolled down our windows, and like the old black and white gangster movies, we unleashed H2O hell. Yes, it was a senseless drive-by soaking.

The gauntlet had been tossed. The “Water Wars” declared. With each reunion that followed, Uncle Tad would visit the toy stores or go online to purchase the latest models of super-soakers months in advance. We would study the locations and layouts of each facility where a reunion was to be held for the coming year to determine what could be classified as a “war zone” and what was considered a “wet-free zone.” Some of the people in our families frowned on the notion of being soaked…party poopers.

Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”…you gotta love a man in uniform
Please notice the stark difference between warrior groups: the uniform, the weaponry, and lack of war paint. UT (far left) with his water bazooka in upright position

 

 

 

 

We would plot and scheme optimal positions for surprise attacks and always were prepared for the unexpected ambush from other family members. We could have drained or filled swamps with the amount of water used to drench the “enemy.” The cover picture for this story was taken by my brother Cris at the Pryor Reunion in 1997 at Salt Fork State Park in Cambridge, Ohio just before we stormed the cabin of our Colorado family.

The last time Uncle Tad wore his stars and stripes outfit was at Lauren and Erik’s wedding in 2007. We had rented Hidden Hollow Resort for the weekend. The property included a four acre lake equipped with paddle boats, a dock, and a rope swing. Even though it was not an official family reunion, there was enough family (and good friends who were game), to warrant a time of all-out water battles. You think with an unlimited supply of water, plenty of weapons, and an armada of paddle boats that we would let that opportunity go to waste?

The Bride and Bridesmaids treading water

During a lull in the battles, Lauren and her bridesmaids lined up at the rope swing, and one-by-one, took flight over the pond and dropped into the lake. They began to form a cluster just beyond the drop-zone, treading water as they cheered on the next rope-swinger. Lauren was the last to fly over the watery abyss and make her splash.

UT on the rope swing with my brother Tim, my cousin Christopher and yours truly firing rounds of H2O at the human cannonball

Then it was Uncle Tad’s turn. He grabbed the rope in his left hand, but before he launched out, one of the bridesmaids began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in honor of Uncle Tad’s patriotic swimming attire. He immediately came to attention and saluted. All the bridesmaids joined in the song…a chorus of water nymphs honoring the red, white, and blue patriot. And then he flew off into the wild blue yonder creating a wake with his splash that rocked the paddle boats floating around the “drop zone.”

In Uncle Tad’s last days, the immediate family would sit at his bedside and read cards and e-mails sent to him from family all over the country. Of course, everyone had an “Uncle Tad” story to tell (many recounted their various reunion baptisms at his hand), several of them humorous, all of them celebrating the joyful exuberance of his true nature: his generosity, his readiness for mischief, his quick wit, the kindness of his spirit that never ran empty and always on offer to family and friend. He was truly everyone’s uncle.

UT, photo by Derek Pearson

I have often said over the years to anyone within earshot regarding the likes of Uncle Tad, “Every family should have an Uncle Tad.” We were just the lucky ones to have gotten him. Flights of angels escorted his soul to the heavens on March 2, 2020, but the memories of his high-spirited life remain with us forever.

Cover Photo by Cris Arnold just before the battle of 1997. Notice how dry U.T.’s clothes are, and those sexy legs with the sock demarcation circles just above ankles.

Comments Off on Who Fired That Shot
Rocko Ride of Shame
Rocko Ride

Rocko Ride of Shame

I have embarrassed myself so often in life that one could accuse me of being an accomplished Performance Artist in the trade. For humiliation to work there must be witnesses. Doing something humiliating in the privacy of one’s personal space doesn’t count. The whole “dance like nobody’s watching” thing is a bit self-inflated. Unless, of course, you are Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes. But the trouble with the Ms. Benes’ character was that she was quite pleased with her “moves,” never seeing the disgrace.

Julia-Louis Dreyfus does her moves as Elaine Benes

The humiliation only works when both the audience and the humiliated see the humiliation in action and together recognize it for what it is…abject debasement from which there is no recovery and leaves the indelible mark on the memory.

State Fair

Back in my middle-school days – peak years for prize-winning humiliations – a group of us decided we would go to the State Fair. While we had to depend on the parents for transportation, I did not have to ask them for the money to pay the admission fee and for incidentals. I was a paperboy at that time, and made my own money. I did not depend on the parents for an allowance. With four kids to feed and clothe on one income, the topic of an allowance was a non-starter. There was no such item in the Arnold household budget. Besides, I wished to impress my girlfriend at the time with my economic independence; quite proud to pay for our tickets with money earned by the sweat of my brow.

Midway

As we strolled along the Midway, our senses were bombarded with enticing sights and sounds and smells. My girlfriend and I indulged in a Cumulus cloud of pink cotton-candy on a paper cone, followed by the deep-fried goodness of a funnel cake. Our spirits were high after such fair fare.

I saw an opportunity to continue this good feeling by winning a stuffed animal for the girlfriend at the shooting gallery. While I was no Frank Butler – male counterpart to Annie Oakley – I had shot my neighbor’s air rifle many times at targets set up in his backyard. So I slapped down my quarter for three shots and missed every one. I slapped another quarter down, not for the chance to save face, but to examine the trajectories flying out of a crooked barrel. My aim didn’t matter. The pellets veered away from the targets no matter where I sighted. My complaints to management were met with a surly, “Face it, kid. You can’t shoot. Now get outta here.” The girlfriend had to walk the Midway empty-handed. Humiliation number one.

When the group spied the Rocko Ride, the girlfriend’s excitement was tangible. Maybe the first humiliation would be short lived. I approached the monster bravely concealing my trepidation. The steel cages were shaped like the old manual pencil sharpeners, and attached to a metal frame similar to that of a Ferris Wheel, but the seats were enclosed and designed to rock and roll as the ride circulated. With sufficient momentum, the seats would flip upside-down and end-over-end. The seats could be locked so that during the revolutions the seats could flip and spin erratically. A wheel-within-the-wheel effect.

Rocko Ride

My brave face began to melt when the Carney locked us into our seat and closed the cage top over our heads with a sinister chuckle. Did he do this with everyone, or was my fear so palpable that he was anticipating a sadistic pleasure at my response to the first free fall?

Rocko Ride

The first few circles were slow paced and I was lulled into thinking that I might be able to survive this experience. But the Carney kicked the machine into a higher gear and the speed of the rotations increased. When the cage suddenly flipped on its head, my world fell apart. For a second or two I watched the screaming girlfriend, her face in an ecstasy of the thrill of it all. If I had been smart I could have masked my terror by matching her scream-for-scream, but no. This out-of-control motion had to be what it would feel like should gravity fail and the axis on which our planet spins snapped in two.

My screams turned into appeals for the Carney to stop the ride and let me get out: “Please stop! Please stop! Let me get off! Please!” But with each lap the Carney’s wide grin widened further revealing a handful of stained teeth lodged inside the black hole of his mouth. Just imagine the torturer’s glee during the Inquisition.

When the ride did come to an end, the girlfriend and I were the last to be let out of the cage. The Carney kept us inside the chamber for as long as possible. During the long wait to be set free, I might have been able to conceal the tremors in my body or the tears streaming from my eyes, but I could not take back the screeching pleas for the Carney to stop the torture. The words “had proceeded from my mouth and would not return void.” Humiliation number two.

And speaking of “void,” once released from the death cage, I staggered passed the line of people waiting their turn on the ride of medieval torment and lurched into the Midway just as the pink-colored and deep-fired tasting barf spewed out of my mouth. Humiliation number three. If there was a fourth, it was the long, quiet ride home in the car.

The dissolution of the girlfriend/boyfriend relationship came within the week. Who could blame her?

F. Nietzsche

Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This from a guy whose life was short and miserable. We are wired to find meaning in the narratives of our lives. While my Rocko Ride was a low-profile mortification, it left an enduring, what…emotional scar? My soul must be covered then top to bottom.  Humiliations are a recurring theme in my life. Just ask Kay. She has witnessed forty-year’s worth. But as I have collected the short stories of my humiliations over the decades, I have discovered a meaningful link between living a well-rounded joyful life and the absurdity found in all humanity. If nothing else, I can provide interesting stories at parties.

Comments Off on Rocko Ride of Shame

Don’t Try This At Home

It was not until my mid-twenties that I began in earnest to read western classic literature. Growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia kept me from reading much of anything except comic books, Mad magazine, and newspapers—I was a paperboy for four years. For academic assignments I relied on the student’s best friend, CliffsNotes. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I discovered that I was not “slow of mind,” but that my brain/eye connections were malfunctioning when it came to reading. I just had a problem decoding language, so I decided to slow down and read for pleasure.

Fyodor Dostoyevsk; 1872

While in my Russian Literature phase, I was reading Dostoevsky’s major works, and my brother, Cris, happened to see me plowing through “The Idiot.” His comment was, “Hey Big Brother, when did you publish your autobiography?” Nothing like family to keep me grounded.

The word “idiot” may be offensive to some, but I use it here in the vein of “fool,” “ass,” and “knucklehead.” I am particularly fond of how the Irish spell and use the word “eejit.” Bonus points when elongating the “eeee.” Through the art of literary conjuring, the Irish have expanded such a word into an art form. “Eejit” is one of more than a dozen words used in good-natured insults, though there are a few pejorative uses that can incite brawls.

Recently Kay traveled to Spain and Portugal with friends and family while I stayed behind to do a play. Her car was sluggish when I started the engine the first few mornings after she was gone, and by the third morning the engine would not even crank. I had a dead battery. I could not deal with the issue right away because of my daily rehearsal schedule, but I knew I could take care of this. Now whenever someone says, “I got this,” be warned. The “eejit” demon lurks in the shadows waiting for the perfect moment for a surprise attack.

Once we opened the show I was able to give the dead battery my full cognitive powers. The morning was cold and frosty; the temperature in the low twenties, so I knew it would be more difficult to jump the battery. But, I’m in my “I got this” mode, and confidently pulled my car in front of Kay’s car, popped the respective hoods, and let my car warm up before attaching the cables. Jump-starting dead batteries is not something I do on a regular basis, but still I had done it before, and “I got this” could do it again.

The battery posts on my car were easily marked positive and negative so I could attach the metal clamps on my jumper cables to the right connections on the battery. But when I looked at the battery in Kay’s car, it was not so marked. I looked and looked. Got a paper towel and wiped the thin sheen of grease and dirt away and still saw no plus and minus markers anywhere. She had a newer car and I was given her hand-me-down, but didn’t every car have these standard markings on their batteries regardless of the country of origin?

Now the wise person would have paused here and begun the process of thoughtful deductions: look at the manual in the glove-box (never crossed my mind), call the auto parts store and ask for help (no way), call the mechanic at our service center and ask for help (ditto), call a friend and ask for help (ditto, ditto), watch an instructional video on YouTube (ditto, ditto, ditto). Do you see a pattern here? Asking for help was not an option. Remember, “I got this.”

I took a step back, looked at the battery posts, then at the cable connections and I thought I have a fifty-fifty chance, so what could go wrong? Even if I blew it the first time I could just switch the metal cable connectors. There was no one around to watch me make an eejit of myself. I checked one last time for the markings on Kay’s battery, and when they remained elusive, I said, “I’m going in.”

When I touched the negative clamp of the cables to the post on the left of the battery, it sparked. For most people that should have been a sign to switch clamps. But not me. I interpreted such sparks as a sign that I had made the right choice. I was not going to let a little thing like sparks get in my way. If I just powered on, I could resurrect this battery back from the dead.

I clamped the cable connectors onto the posts, and jumped into the front seat of Kay’s car. Remember, it was a very cold morning and her windshield had frosted over. I had not bothered to scrap it off. Also, the hood of her car was elevated, and I could not see what was happening with the batteries. When I turned on the ignition, I got no response. Yes, it was cold and the battery was dead, but, at the very least, I expected the engine to give me some sign of life; a grumbling turn-over would have been encouraging. Weren’t those sparks a indication of an energy flow? I kept trying and nothing. Then I noticed a trail of smoke floating by the passenger side window. I thought it must be the condensation of exhaust fumes from my car, but burning rubber and melting plastic does not smell like exhaust fumes.

I hopped out of the car, and to my horror, I saw smoldering cables and a dark spot on the ground between the vehicles where the melting cables had burned the grass. I dashed into my car to turn off the engine, and raced back and yanked the clamps off the two batteries. Then I looked at the front of each car and saw where the burning rubber cable had melted the plastic leaving a permanent scar on each bumper. I held up the clamps from the cables and saw the exposed copper wiring dangling from the clamps like the viscera of the central nervous system. Following the example of St. Peter, I called down curses upon myself in what can best be described as non-church language. I closed the hoods on each car, tossed the burnt cables into the trash, and accepted defeat.

There is no way to spin this to my advantage. I told my story to a room full of family seated around the table. After I finished, my grinning nephew responded, “You know, Uncle, people have gotten hurt by doing what you did.” I scoffed with a “I laugh in the face of death” wave of my hand. In the end, I had to involve two mechanics (one to replace the battery, the other to replace the blown fuses), and an auto parts store before I finally got it fixed. In my weak defense, the red “positive” cap on Kay’s battery had been pushed down below the platform, well hidden from view. But still…

One likes to make one’s wife proud of oneself. One likes to think of oneself as rescuer in times of trouble. At the very least, one likes to think of oneself as handy and useful when it comes to simple domestic tasks. But alas, for Kay, she is stuck with a husband who only knows the difference between stage right and stage left and is able to construct a few simple paragraphs to tell a story. And each time I look at the front bumpers on either car, the scars are a silent reminder that at any moment the earth could open up and swallow this “eejit” whole.

Kay’s Car
Eejit’s Car

Your Honor, I present Exhibit A regarding the defendant’s “ee-jit-o-cy.” The courtroom gasps. His Honor slams the gavel for silence, and then booms out “Guilty!”

Comments Off on Don’t Try This At Home

The Christmas Tree Fairies

Our Christmas tradition was born out of a refusal to have a fake tree in the house: the same one pulled from storage each year, a trunk of hard synthetic with drilled holes for the perfectly tapered limbs to fit, and reeking with a musty smell of aged plastic. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” (thank you Jerry Seinfeld). We had to have a live tree, which meant finding a cedar tree on the wooded acreage behind our house, cutting it down, and lugging the felled beast home. The adventure always happened the day after Thanksgiving. We rose early anxious to be on the hunt, found our prize, brought it home and stuck the base of the tree in a five gallon bucket of water for it to slurp from during the day, and then that night had a full-on decoration party. We have carried on this tradition for decades now.

The Dach, Clara Larie, and Kayme
The Dach and Clara Larie

In those early days, trees were found on the family farm until they became scarce or too scrawny. Then we met a man who owned property not far from where we lived, and he invited us to come and chop down a tree every year. We’d pile into my brother-in-law’s pickup and drive out to the man’s property, split into groups, tramp through the woods, and pick out the candidates. After careful scrutiny, comparing height, form, and majesty, we made our choice, cut it down, and threw it into the pickup. The girls and I rode in the back with our “kill,” and Kay drove us home.

Griswold’s House – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

There were several years when we ran outdoor lights all along the roof-line and dormers of the house. Kay would be on the ground laying out the miles of stringed icicles, and I went up and down a twenty-foot extension ladder fastening them onto the wooden frameworks. We gave the Griswold’s of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” a run for their money. When the girls brought home their friends from college for the Thanksgiving holiday, they would be welcomed with enough lights to be seen from outer space and cause retinal damage when they pulled into the driveway. Once I reached a certain age, I put the “Bah! Humbug!” on climbing up and down that ladder and lugging the twenty-foot, metal monster to and from the shed in freezing temperatures. Ain’t nobody got time for that. From then on the Christmas lights would just have to live in our hearts. I have lived to a ripe old age for taking my stand.

When the girls got serious about the respective “man of their dreams” (good choices both), we upgraded the tradition and found Christmas tree farms. We would stroll through rows of neatly laid out Fraser Fir trees, and had the pleasure of picking the one we wanted, cutting it down, and throwing it in the back of the pickup. By this time, I had put the “Bah! Humbug!” on riding in the back of the truck with the tree. Ain’t nobody got time for that either. Riding home in a nice warm cab with my bride at the wheel was more to my liking.

This variation of our tradition continued until the grand-kids started to show up. About five years ago we were all sitting around the dining room table after a hearty Thanksgiving meal, and decided we needed an infusion of creative energy for this new generation when it came to procuring our Christmas tree. So from our collective geniuses, heavily under the influence of tryptophan, the Christmas Tree Fairies were born.

Fairies hard at work

STOP READING NOW IF YOU STILL BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS AND FAIRIES AND ALL THE WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS MAGIC. My disclaimer is on the record. Proceed at your own risk.

The plan was simple: That night we announced to the grand-kids that it just so happened we had gotten word from the Christmas Tree Fairies that they had left us a Christmas tree back on the farm. All we had to do was go find it in the morning. This meant that I was up with the sun the next day before the grand-kids were stirring and went to our local Food Lion where dozens of freshly delivered Fraser Fir trees were lined up on the outside wall of the store; all healthy specimens, and each one neatly cut at its base. Yes, I had put the “Bah! Humbug!” on cutting a tree by then too. So you can see the progression of my “Ain’t nobody got time for that” grumpiness.

I would pick out the tree and drive to the backside of the farm where I would enter the woods unseen by the grand-kids. I would find a concealed spot in the middle of the forest to place the tree and return home. After a big breakfast it was time to go see where the Christmas Tree Fairies had left our tree. We would jump in my brother-in-law’s Side-by-Side/ATV—yes, he’s the man with a vehicle for every occasion—and head back to the farm.

Erik, Lauren, John Erik, Patton Blair, and the Dach

I never made the tree easy to find. We had to tramp through woods, overgrown shrubbery (back in the day, this part of the farm used to grow nursery stock), fallen limbs, brambles, and bogs. And then when we got close to the spot, I said I had gone as far as I was going, so you’d better find the tree. Funny how three grand-kids can get focused when the stakes are high. Once they spied the tree, there was great rejoicing throughout the land. We would drag it back to the Side-by-Side/ATV, climb in, drive home, happy hunts-people all.

Over the years we have even created some Christmas Tree Fairy folklore about the expertise these fairies have in creating and delivering Christmas Trees. But a couple of years ago we thought the magic of the Christmas Tree Fairies would be blown when our eight-year-old nephew, Henry, wanted to tag along with us to find our tree. Henry was just about to hit the Age of Enlightenment. His doubts about all-things Christmas were beginning to get the best of him, yet he wasn’t quite ready to shed his long-held beliefs. He was intrigued by our tales of the Christmas Tree Fairies, and wanted to find out if such stories were true.

When we were riding over to the wooded area of the farm, the ever-observant and precocious Henry asked me why I had not brought my ax or saw so we could cut down the tree. I was stumped. Kay and I looked at each other in fear and trembling wondering if our fairy myth making would come to an abrupt end with Henry’s insightful question. Kay came up with a quick, “let’s just wait and see what happens,” which bought us a little time. We would have to scramble to think up an appropriate answer if Henry’s doubts would become the plague of disbelief infecting the others. Pressure was on.

We went through the same ritual of merrily tramping through the woods in search of our Christmas Tree. Henry spotted it first, and directed everyone’s attention to where it stood. They all ran over to where I had propped it up against a large tree, and Kay and I were preparing our hearts for the reckoning of truth that would be posed by our young nephew. But when I raised it into the air, Henry said, “Look, the fairies even cut it for us.” Well, God bless the child. We hauled it home, I stuck the base into the five-gallon bucket full of water, and we made hot chocolate to celebrate. The magic of the Christmas Tree Fairies survived for another year, and I am happy to report, the lore survived for 2019’s venture as well. However, Henry’s doubts have gotten the best of him. He has bought into the “Ain’t nobody got time for that” philosophy.

Patton Blair, John Erik, and Kayme’s left shoulder
The Dach and Clara Larie
The Dach, Patton Blair, and John Erik

A full-circle-full disclosure: It has also been an Arnold tradition to take the same tree given to us by the Christmas Tree Fairies, and on New Year’s Eve, at the stroke of midnight after filling its dried branches with a wheelbarrow full of fireworks, we set it ablaze and watch (at a safe distance, of course), with wonder and delight, the great conflagration of colorful explosions. We deem it a fitting sacrifice of thanks to the Christmas Tree Fairies for their bounty each year.

Cover Art: Designed Fabric by Cecely Barker

Comments Off on The Christmas Tree Fairies
You Can Go Home Again
The Prodigal

You Can Go Home Again

I never thought I would see this day. I did not even dream about it or hope that it might happen. It just happened. I did not try to make it happen; no strings were pulled; no favors called in; no money exchanged. It just happened. This is not some random act of stars aligning. Dare I say it, but this might be something ordained, and it took fifty years to get here.

Bright Star

When I walked out onto the stage of Collins Auditorium to perform in Beki Baker’s (Chair of the theatre department at Lipscomb University) production of “Bright Star” in the role of Josiah Dobbs, I felt a powerful moment of coming home. At the age of twenty I did the role of Biff Loman in Jerry Henderson’s production of “Death of a Salesman” on this very same stage.

Chip as Biff Loman and Sharon Farmer as “The Woman”

To say that my relationship with the school was tumultuous would be an understatement. In high school after numerous infractions, I had been invited to seek education elsewhere, and when allowed to attend the college a couple of years later, I had to agree to be placed on all probation’s with the exception of “Short Skirt” probation. Yes, that was a thing. Any infraction of any probation and it was sayonara.  (A Japanese term used in situations where you will either not see the person for a long time, or ever again.) Quite a tightrope to walk for a rebel like me. We parted ways shortly after “Death of a Salesman,” shaking the dust from our feet and with a “good riddance” on our lips. I do not blame the school. I was a handful during my high school years and for those few semesters I attended the University. We were not well-matched, and it took time and distance to bring us back together.

My father taught music and drama at Lipscomb University for over thirty years, plus he was the worship leader for the chapel services. During my period as a prodigal the a strain on the father/son relationship was evident. But in time we were reconciled, yea verily; more than just reconciled. We took joy in our relationship and worked together in countless productions. That was a miracle I attribute to divine Providence; I needed the miracle of repentance while Dad needed the miracle of patience.

Way back in the 1990’s I was touring the country with some one-man shows I had created. Dad invited me to perform a shorten version of one of these shows for the chapel service he led at Lipscomb. This was followed by an invitation from the powers-that-be to do a full show for the University’s annual “High School Day” where kids came from all over the country to spend a weekend on the campus and get the spiel for why Lipscomb University was a great choice for their college career after graduating high school. I was to perform my show on that Saturday night. The Collins Auditorium was packed with high school seniors. I mean every seat in the house was occupied. My dad sat up in the audience-right balcony. His guest that night was a recovering alcoholic, someone he was mentoring. That was so Dad.

Let me just say it. I played a few high schools back in the day and I hated it. That night was no exception, but it was a gig. I was pacing backstage, waiting for the house lights to go out, and listening to the hubbub of 1,500 rowdy kids on the opposite side of the curtain. I believe in the principal of “aesthetic distance” (a degree of detachment between actor and audience), and this crowd was way too close. I kept wondering how in the world did I get here, how could I get out of here, and where was the quickest exit.

Then something happened in my heart. I’ll never forget it. I made a bargain with God. Yeah, you read that right. I had never done that before, and I have not done it since. In general, my advice would be to never negotiate a deal with God using terms you lay out, but for some reason this heavy conviction came upon me and I said, “God, if these kids give me a standing ovation at the curtain call, then I will confess my past life and new faith in front of them.” Why did I do that? Just imagine me hitting my forehead with the heel of my hand and repeating “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.” I mean that bargain just flew out of my mouth before I had time to think about it or put it back…back where, I don’t know. The words were in the air, and words are powerful, and they would not return void no matter how much I regretted saying them.

You guessed it. Those kids sat still for over an hour, laughing when appropriate and quiet and attentive when the story turned somber. At the blackout at the end of the show, I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t stand. Please don’t stand.” But when the lights came up for the curtain call the audience was already on its feet. They had not waited for the lights. Can you hear the laughter in heaven? There was no “aesthetic distance” now. There was no soaking in the adoration. It was confession time, and I asked them to be seated.

I told them that in the not-so-long-ago I used to be them, and that during a dark period of my life I had embraced a waywardness I regretted. And then I pointed to my father up in the balcony and said that he was the reason I was here tonight; my earthly and my heavenly fathers had enabled me to be forgiven, to be justified, and to stand. The kids weren’t really sure what to make of this. I guess the moment wasn’t really for them anyway. But I thanked them for their kind attention and made my exit.

So now when I enter Collins Auditorium to get ready for the show, I walk past the wall outside the Buddy and Bernie Arnold Rehearsal Hall and see dozens of pictures of past moments in my parent’s history with Lipscomb University. And on my way to the dressing room, I touch some of those pictures as I pass by like a mezuzah nailed to the doorpost to receive the blessing of a godly heritage.

From left to right: Chip Arnold, Hatty Ryan King, Annika Burley, Reese Twilla, and Connor Tarpley
Chip Arnold as Josiah Dobbs and Easton Curtis as Jimmy Ray Dobbs

And when the lights go up for each performance of “Bright Star,” I get to go on stage with a talented group of kids that I have watched throughout the rehearsal process achieve a greatness in their roles. I get to work with a director, and the artistic staff and backstage crew that have been professional in every way beyond what I ever expected. When Dad did music and theatre for the University, he was the department. Now the department is an overflowing cup of talented faculty and staff that would make him so proud. It makes me proud to be on that stage, to walk the boards he walked, to stand where he stood, leading worship and directing plays. Maybe that bargain with God wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Henry O. “Buddy” Arnold II

 

Comments Off on You Can Go Home Again