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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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

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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

 

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Bodies of Broken Bones
The Seven Works of Mercy

Bodies of Broken Bones

I love the stark realism the words of this title bring to mind. It comes from a phrase in “Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton: “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”

Thomes Merton

This spiritual image affords us a super power. We have a potential to have x-ray vision. We can look at other human beings and see the broken bones concealed inside their flesh. They too can see the cracked and fractured bones in our body. One can’t live in this fallen world and not carry inside us a broken nature. Surely, we try to conceal it from the world with all manner of disguises, but it is not hidden for long.

Caravaggio

One of my favorite painters is Michelangelo Caravaggio. He lived and painted in the late Renaissance period and is considered the first artist to bring realism to painting. He was a wild man; some even considered him mentally ill. Who knows? He captured a dramatic truth in his paintings that, when viewed, can bore through your soul much like his frequent use of a shaft of light onto the principal subject made more poignant by the vale of blackness around it. Whether Caravaggio fully understood what he was doing or not, so many of the subjects in his paintings are captured in a moment of brokenness. He never sketched before painting. The final version just poured out of him straight onto the canvas in a burst of impetuous fire.

Merton’s “body of broken bones” and Caravaggio’s painting of “The Seven Acts of Mercy” (one of his last paintings) are beautiful reminders of who we are as human beings and how we have opportunities to “reset one another’s bones” in love to paraphrase Merton. All of the images crammed into this painting are the artist’s reflection of Jesus’ admonition in the gospel of Matthew of how we might show mercy to someone: (1 & 2) a woman visits an imprisoned man and gives him milk from her breast; 3) a pilgrim asks for shelter; 4) a saint gives half his robe to a naked beggar; 5) a saint comforts a beggar; 6) Samson drinks from the jawbone of an ass; and 7) two men honor the dead with a respectful burial (the seventh act of mercy was added to this list in the Middle Ages).

The Seven Works of Mercy

All of us should be using our “super power” to see one another’s broken bones, and then pouring ourselves into acts of mercy like Caravaggio poured himself into his paintings. His vision and unbridled passion went straight onto the canvass. So in this painting, Caravaggio had a vision of the brokenness of humanity and re-imagined it through acts of mercy. He had his vision and applied the paint to make it real. It was not real until the brush spread the paint and shaped the images. Our mercy should come without hesitation, without thinking too much about the cost or consequences (sometimes it may be costly, or at the very least, inconvenient). Caravaggio set about staging his models and then brushing the startling images onto the canvass without sketches. It was his mysterious second-nature at work. For most of us acts of mercy are not second-nature. They require developing our x-ray vision, and then an act of will to respond with mercy whenever a human need gives us the opportunity.

We should be clear-eyed and clear-headed about our acts of mercy. They will require something of us, from us. They can be burdensome. They can even be traumatic. Each act will be permanently etched onto our hearts and minds; the more burdensome the act, the heavier the weight of impression onto our souls and the deeper the memory. But our acts of mercy today get handed down to the next generation, and when the next generation sees such actions, they tend to repeat them. These acts of mercy toward others make the best stories…eternal stories. It reveals the best of human connection. It leaves behind the best historical records. It is an act of transference and ritual that can engage the imagination without it being a sentimental response for one’s self-satisfaction. If self-satisfaction is the sole value of your act of mercy, then don’t bother. Just mail in a Hallmark Card.

Flannery O’Connor

I recently came across this Flannery O’Connor quote: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, down-right repulsive…witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.” She wrote this some fifty plus years ago. Imagine her reaction to the “dark night” of our world today.

But before we point an accusing finger to the culprits of the present chaos in our world and its collective disregard of truth, we must recognize our own dark hearts and the lies we choose to embrace. Truth may be lying on the ground in a pool of blood but it is still breathing and it is still truth. Just because we might choose to exchange the truth for a lie and attach our personal biases to that lie, does not mean that truth is dead. It does not even mean that the truth is dead in one’s own heart. The faint pulse of eternal truth still beats deep down inside. We must have ears to hear and eyes to see truth. If indeed “the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul,” then what better time to bring the true light into our world by the transforming acts of mercy? Let it be born from an extravagant love, a creative, unconditional love, a foolish love, that can’t be explained but can be quantified. It is that type of mercy God has offered for our broken bones.

Cover Art: Sette opera di Misericordia; Caravaggio; 1607

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Don’t Be The Bunny

I have delayed my monthly story because I’ve been a little preoccupied ruling the world and “snuffing out popular resistance as if it were a naughty baby bunny.” It really is exhausting. There are just so many decisions to make—when your decisions are the only ones that matter, and there are so many people to keep in line—these people insist on having opinions contrary to my own. So yes, I have been busy playing a character that has created his own evil empire in a production of “Urinetown.”

Me as Caldwell B. Cladwell singing “Don’t Be The Bunny;” photo by Dalton Hamilton

I have played bad guys before, but to give me an idea of the nuances of this particular role, Jason Tucker, the director of Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of this hysterical musical, summed it up in a one-sentence character description: “Caldwell B. Cladwell is as comfortable on the dance floor as he is in the board room.” Now I can do evil, however, singing-and-dancing evil is a stretch for me. But I’m an actor with a job to do, so I have to make the audience believe the evil while singing and dancing along the way.

I have to confess when a character requires me to sing and dance on stage it puts the fear of God in me. All those who asked what I did for my summer vacation, I have told them that I spent it learning music and lyrics, working on character development, and doing my “slow-drip” process of absorbing the dialogue of the character into my system. Kay was so ready for me to start rehearsals and get me out of the house. If she had to listen to me sing “Don’t Be The Bunny” one more time, she threatened to lock me in the shed.

Medea: Jack Ashley is Jason, Larry Craig and Chip Arnold are Jason’s sons

This brings me to the real reason for writing this brief opinion piece. I have had a career in the theatre since 1970. Well, actually my first time on stage was in 1955 in a production of “Medea” playing one of the sons of Jason and Medea. It was an easy gig; just look cute, and then play dead. I was a natural. So after a fifteen year gap between jobs, I got the role of Paco, the Muleteer in the musical “Man of La Mancha.” My dad played the role of Don Quixote. I never looked back after that. I was hooked. An actor I would be, for better or for worse.

For the last few decades I have had the great good fortune to work with the professional theatres in Nashville in a variety of roles. People have asked me why I never went to New York. When I reflected on what a privilege it has been to work in Nashville, it dawned on me that New York came to me. Kay and I have seen a lot of theatre in our married life, and in some of the finest theatres in the world. And yes, while we can say we have been wowed from time to time by what we’ve experienced; we can also say that we have been equally wowed by the productions we have seen in this city.

Urinetown cast; Megan Murphy Chambers as Mzzzz Pennywise; photo by Michael Scott Evans

I’ve got a few shows under my belt, so I know what it takes to mount a production. It takes a community, all with one mindset in service to the story. Theatre artists are storytellers. When civilizations first gathered around those campfires, there were storytellers and there were those who wanted to be told a good story. During rehearsals of “Urinetown” over these last four weeks I have been astounded at the professionalism of the cast, the designers, the running crew, and the management of this team of artists as we prepared. From the youngest in the cast to the oldest (yes, that would be me), I never saw signs of false choices or laziness or being uncooperative or flagging interest. I have rarely seen that among the theatre artists in Nashville. Those few who might try to skate through the rehearsal and performance process do not remain long. The consistency of the theatre artists’ commitment in the pursuit of a great story is exemplary of the Nashville theatre community. From the people who put on the shows, to the company management who promote the shows, to the media who covers and reviews the shows, there is this bond of fellowship all centered around telling our audiences a wonderful story and telling it well.

Urinetown cast; Mitchell Ryan Miller as Bobby Strong; photo by Michael Scott Evans

Under the leadership of great directors and in partnership with actors and designers, I have been privileged to work on stories that not only entertain, but have illuminated the souls of both artist and audience alike. I personally did not need to go to New York, and I own that choice. It should not be everyone’s choice, but what I have found over all these years is that while New York might get the big production budgets, the big promotional machines, the big names to put the butts in the seats, it does not automatically mean that the productions are of any better quality. The distinction of Nashville productions can compete, and Nashville audiences have been fortunate to have these experiences given them by such dedicated local theatre artists. Sure, go on your tours to New York and London and catch your shows on Broadway and the West End, but when you come home, you will find theatrical gems right under your noses.

I have observed something unique about the theatre artists I have worked with in Nashville over the years…we care. We care about the work, and we care about each other. We want our work to be exquisite, and our professional relationships to function with harmony. Personal egos submit to the unity of making art together, telling a story well to the audience, and bringing light to a dark world. There is nothing I enjoy more than to be in a rehearsal hall or a dressing room or on stage or around a dinner table with a bunch of theatre artists. There is an energy that exudes when two or more theatre artists are gathered together. When there is a room full of us, watch out. Stories fill the atmosphere, for we make the best storytellers.

I will be blunt: you should be so lucky to see “Urinetown.” Don’t let the title fool you. While there is humorous fun made of this bodily function, there is a powerful theme in this story about our human condition and the health of societies. And isn’t that what a good story is supposed to do? Give us insight into who we are and how we treat each other?

Urinetown Cast; photo by Dalton Hamilton

Kay attended opening night, and since then she has repeated her critique to anyone willing to listen, “I could not help but smile from the beginning all the way through to the end.” So be glad she didn’t lock me in the shed. You have multiple opportunities to see “Urinetown.” Go to Nashville Repertory Theatre’s website for all the details. I dare you to be entertained, and should you take my dare, I dare you not to smile.

Cover Photo of Urinetown Choir under the direction of Bobby Strong; photo by Michael Scott Evans

 

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Reservations in Heaven

I was raised in an era when our particular church persuasion believed that we were the only ones going to heaven, and only then if you behaved according to the rules and had done enough “good works” to get in, and if not, well too bad. My own heart knew that I would never be good enough or do enough to qualify. It took me awhile to ask the question that if our church affiliation was so unsure about its future hopes of heaven how then could they be so sure that anyone from another denomination had no chance of making it? But if you were from the “true” church and you did make it, then you were part of a very exclusive club.

Saint Peter by Sir Anthony van Dyck

There is an old joke about St. Peter leading a group of new arrivals on a tour of heaven. When they get to a certain neighborhood in the heavenly city, St. Peter asks the group to remain silent as they pass by, “Because these people think they are the only ones here and we don’t want them to know any different.”

This notion of theological exclusivity is nothing new. The Catholics developed it into an art form, from indulgences to the Inquisition, and the Protestants co-opted their distinctive takes on salvation as the Reformation movement dissolved into splintered factions. This belief of being right on all points is designed to make the ones who believe they are right to feel superior and create human structures where oppression of others is allowed to thrive.

The same oppressive result happens among people groups whose tribal instincts encourage one race to feel superior to another. Bad things happen when that instinct is allowed to run rampant. I remember my parents facing down family members and others in their church community who held to beliefs of superiority in religion and race. It was a brave thing for a son and daughter of the south to declare that such beliefs were racist and wrong. They taught their offspring by example.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well in Sychar
The Good Samaritan

Jesus got into trouble when he embraced the outsiders of society; those who were marginalized because of race, economics, politics, gender, and even physical disabilities. He faced great opposition from the powerful elite and even from his closest circle of friends. The Samaritans were considered an inferior race in those days, and brothers James and John, dubbed the “sons of thunder,” were soundly rebuked when they offered “to call down fire from heaven” upon a Samaritan village for not showing the proper welcome to their leader. Such a story would be laughable were it not for the racial bias exposed in the passage and the arrogant, misuse of power the brothers’ thought they possessed. On another occasion, Jesus exposed their bigotry by treating the Samaritan woman he met at the village well with respect. When Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan, he is asking us to get over ourselves and embrace the other with love regardless of skin color or social status or religiously and politically incompatible beliefs.

Noli Me Tangere (Do Not Touch Me) by Giotto Di Bondone

Add sexism to the list of no-no’s Jesus kiboshed. He elevated the status of women in his respectful treatment of them. The fact that he entrusted the news of his resurrection to a woman was mind-boggling for that day and age. Mary Magdalene preached the first post-resurrection sermon in the history of the church—“He is risen. Go tell the others”—and she wasn’t believed by her male counterparts.

Peter and Paul by El Greco

Then there was the apostle Paul who records in his letter to the Galatians about a time when he confronted Peter and those of his entourage who separated from the local members of the church in Antioch because of differences in race and theology: these were people of other nationalities who were uncircumcised. Paul went so far as to say that those “agitators” who insisted on the exclusive theology of circumcision if one was to be a “true” follower of Christ should just “go the whole way and castrate themselves.”  Ouch! Paul could have done the polite thing and just called them hypocrites, but no. To castrate in Greek means the same in English. We can’t spin this into a spiritual metaphor.

So what do we do? Admit the truth. We are all guilty of racism either overtly or hidden in the heart. Whether we espouse a faith in God or hold to secular values, we are all guilty of feelings of superiority. When we look down on those who are different in any way, it is the action of a corrupt human heart. This corrupt condition starts in very subtle ways: telling lies, nursing grudges, refusing to forgive, revenging wrongs, selfish ambitions, societal and individual narcissism, sowing discord, being greedy, envious, or jealous. Every action we take reveals the condition of our hearts. How we treat others, how we act out our politics, how we conduct our business, the way we serve. Do we take a certain action for personal profit and advancement, or do make a thoughtful, compassionate decision for the benefit of others? Do I seek out only those who look, think, believe, and act the way I do? If you believe that God only likes the things you like and agrees with you one hundred percent of the time, then your god is you.

There is nothing new under the sun. Race and religion have always been hot-button issues. When hostile words fly through the air, when fingers of blame are pointed in every direction, good and innocent people suffer and die when this rancor is unchecked and turns to violence. One can place one’s hopes in some guru, teacher, politician, philosophy, capitalism, governmental systems, or your personal self-improvement/self-centric set of rules and try to follow any of these options to the best of your ability. The hard truth is, none of these options will have lasting effect, and when your hopes in others or in yourself fall short, you end up being your own judge, jury, and jailer imprisoned by a set of rules and expectations that failed.

I submit that we don’t need to find the best example to follow, and yes, I include Jesus in that list. He did not come into creation to just be a good example. No one can come close to his example, and the Sermon on the Mount alone proves he is impossible to follow. Jesus came as a substitute to stand in the gap for our corruptible human natures. He invites us all into the embrace of his love, and his willing sacrifice distinguishes him from any other great teacher, philosophy, or human system in the long history of the world. That is an eternal status not achieved by human effort. What a mercy. What an act of grace.

St. John on Patmos by Juan Ribalta

At the end of his life while living in exile on the island of Patmos, St John had a vision of heaven. He saw those celebrating around the throne of God “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” So if you are clinging to the false hope that your skin color or stanch beliefs make you superior to everyone else and that you expect your future mansion in heaven to be located in a neighborhood of like-minded, like-colored, and like-nationality as you, I suggest you go ahead and cancel your reservations. And should you find yourself in a different location after shuffling off this mortal coil, I leave you with this final thought from my niece, Erin Gurley: “Even there you will still find people who don’t look like you.”

Cover Art: Hieronymus Bosch; Ascent of the Blessed

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