A Bear-Time Story

Kay and I homeschooled our daughters. I should qualify that statement by saying I was more the sub. Kay had the lion share of the responsibility for the girl’s education. My contributions were more in line with artistic field trips: museums, galleries, dance recitals, concerts, theatre (a lot of theatre). I usually was the one who took them to these performances and got them prepped to have a deeper experience with the art form. Kristin went all the way through her senior year as a homeschool student. Lauren decided she wanted more athletic activities and social interaction, and at the beginning of her freshman year we enrolled her in the local high school.

homeless womanNot all of the homeschool field trips were of an artistic nature. Some were inspired by life experience. I think the girls started the conversation about potential causes for homelessness as we would drive through Nashville and see homeless people wandering the streets. The curious and impressionable natures of our then ten and eight-year-old daughters could not fathom why people would choose to live in such a fashion. I know whatever feeble explanation for the plight of homelessness I tried to articulate did not satisfy them, so I suggested that we just try and get to know some of those folks. We chose a soft approach in our initial attempt to connect with this unique population, which was to make sack lunches, drive through downtown and find random individuals, then stop to offer them a pbj and then hope to engage them in conversation.

Over time these field trips led us to a man nicknamed “Bear” who lived in a two-room shack under the bridge over the Cumberland River and within a few feet of the busy railroad tracks. This was a time when there were make-shift tent-villages set up by the homeless population in that part of town. These encampments would eventually be cleared out to make way for the construction of a football stadium.

homeless feetBear got his nickname for obvious reasons; he was hairy in the extreme. Face, arms, chest, head were a thick covering of dark hair with streaks of gray and grime. He was the unofficial mayor of this homeless enclave, and we soon realized that if we brought supplies to him, he would equitably distribute the items among the people. By association with Bear, we were more acceptable to the homeless citizens that would drop by Bear’s home.

Bear’s small domicile was made of plywood and palates, tar paper, shingles, and tin, all scrapes he had gathered on his scavenger hunts. He had grown up in a satellite city not far from Nashville and had chosen a homeless lifestyle over the traditional familial one. We did not pry for more specific reasons for his current living situation. What we appreciated was his expansive personality that was warm and inclusive, and how he approached his responsibility as “mayor” like that of a mother hen extending her protective wing to gather the needy beneath it.

One Christmas when we arrived at his front door with supplies, Bear invited us into his home. Before I could politely decline, the girls bounced up the milk crate front steps and into the hut. The shack vibrated from their unbridled energy, and I half expected it to collapse in on them before Kay and I could drag them out. The first room was a multipurpose space with a camping cook stove on a small table, a ratty love-seat, and piles of clothes and books filling in empty spaces. Christmas lights hung from the ceiling. The other room was the bedroom with a mattress on the floor and a dresser. The two rooms were separated by a bead curtain.

The girls went into the bedroom while Kay and I visited with Bear in the cramped living/dining/kitchen/den area. The call came from the bedroom to come see the Christmas tree. I stepped through the bead curtain and on the dresser was a two-foot high, plastic Christmas tree that had been decorated with some of the traditional Christmas ornaments but peeking through the silver icicles that hung from the branches were different colored condoms.

“Look Daddy,” the girls exclaimed with excitement pointing to the pink, yellow, green, and orange condoms. “Balloons!”

Bear had removed the condoms from their wrappers and draped them over his Christmas tree, which admittedly, added to the festive nature of the tree. We obviously had not gotten to the homeschool sex education curriculum just yet. I embraced the girl’s enthusiasm for Bear’s colorful, holiday decorative choice while cagily deflecting their suggestions to spice up our tree with the same ornaments.

In preparation for our upcoming “Stand” tour, I did an interview on national radio with Father Charles Strobel, Barry Scott, and Jim Reyland. Charlie started the Room in the Inn ministry back in December of 1986 when he offered sandwiches and shelter to twelve homeless men camped outside his parish church. After the interview, I told Charlie my “Bear” story and he said that Bear was one of the original twelve homeless men Charlie welcomed inside his church during that Christmas season, though sadly Charlie said Bear was now deceased. I thought, what a beautiful weaving of interconnected stories of a person who had enriched our lives.

To look into the face of another human is to see God’s reflection no matter how distorted the fleshly features, how matted the hair, how grimy the skin, how foul the odor, or how tattered the clothing. The story of “Stand” has forced me out of my comfort zone of avoiding eye-contact with those I pass by every day. It doesn’t take much to look the other person in the eye, speak, or even touch them. Recognition of the brokenness of our own soul is the great empathetic equalizer.

homless man

man asleepThere is a line in “Stand” uttered by the character of Mark who says, “Every second of your life has value, from the first to the last and everyone in between.” The response from Johnny, the homeless character, is, “So if I sleep in a bed instead of outside on a metal grate does that make the world a better place?”

How would you answer that question?

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Don’t Touch Me
Barry as J.J. and Chip as Mark outside the Cathedral.

Don’t Touch Me

STAND posterA little game my three siblings and I played as kids was poking one another with a finger and then running away as fast as possible. We hated it when one of us got poked by the other…a fear of the transference of cooties perhaps. The victim would complain to the parent within earshot that so-in-so “touched me.” If a threat was even perceived by an approaching sibling the immediate response was DON’T TOUCH ME! And back in the day when there were no seatbelts, when we got into the car to go anywhere, we would draw invisible lines across the backseat and threaten the offender with mayhem should they cross said line and touch the other. Today we can’t hug each other enough.

A few years ago I was asked to perform a one-man show I had developed from the Gospel of St. John, similar to what British actor Alec McCowen had done with the Gospel of St. Mark, for a chapel service at the Nashville Rescue Mission, an organization devoted to serve Nashville’s homeless population. I had agreed to do the performance months in advance, but when it came time, I regretted having said yes, and found myself struggling to summon any enthusiasm. I was tired. I was unmotivated. On the drive to the Mission, I toyed with a number of creative excuses I could use to get out of it at the last minute without just pulling a no-show. I even grumbled to God, ending the conversation with, “I’ll go through with it, but I don’t have to like it.” If I was hoping my little complaint might invoke a divine change of heart, it was not in evidence when I got out of the car and entered the building, or went through the sound and light check, or faked half-hearted interest in the chaplain’s sincere attempt at conversation, or watched as the six-hundred seat auditorium filled to capacity.

Barry Scott as J.J. and Chip Arnold as Mark
Barry Scott as J.J. and Chip Arnold as Mark

Some level of joy began to seep in as I performed the play, but it was hampered by the constant wheezing and coughing and sneezing and yes, snoring, that echoed in the room during the presentation. It was like audible sounds of diseases cavorting and cultivating in a giant Petri dish. I appreciated the occasional interjection of laughter at a humorous moment and the enthusiastic applause at the end, but it was not enough to help me overcome my initial resistance.

This was not the traditional theatrical venue to which I was accustomed, and after the performance the chaplain asked if anyone wanted prayer. So many men came forward that he asked for more staff to help with the penitents. The brokenness displayed by those who came forward began to dissolve the crust around my heart…a little. Then came a surprise. The chaplain announced that if any of the men would like to greet me that I was happy to meet them. Whoa there, partner, I thought. I’m an actor not a minister. I like that aesthetic distance between audience and performer. This meet and greet was breaking the “fourth wall” convention of separation between audience and performer. When the service was dismissed all I saw were swarms of infections converging upon me. There was no escaping. “Iacta alea est” (The die has been cast).  I would make a doctor’s appointment first thing in the morning.

I shook hand after hand with a frequent chest-bump for extra emphasis. The joy of these homeless men at meeting me was undeniable if not reciprocated. But the sucker-punch came when the last man in line stepped forward: scraggly beard, wooly red knit hat unraveling around his moist face, a big smile revealing the evidence of a lengthy hiatus in the dentist chair.  I extended my hand, but he swung his arms behind his back like he wanted to play a kid’s game where I had to guess which hand held the candy. “You don’t want to touch me, man,” he said.  “My hands are dirty. I’m dirty.” Then he gently laid his chin on my shoulder, apparently the one area of his body he decided was clean enough for human contact, held it there for a second, and then quickly disappeared into the crowd.

I was brought low. I had not wanted to be here. I had not wanted to be touched. Do the gig and go home, was my only thought. Now I was immobilized by such humility and awkward kindness; a nameless man respectful enough to be conscious of his “uncleanness” so as not to touch me any more than was necessary to express his love to me. I was in a room full of homeless men and I was the one who felt unclean, abandoned, all safety nets removed from beneath me, unworthy to be in their presence.

 

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

I have not been back to perform since, my cowardice the likely cause. But now I am returning to the scene of my own crime, so to speak. I am privileged to be in a two-man play with Barry Scott entitled “Stand,” written by Jim Reyland. It is the story of the friendship of two men, one homeless, one a Good Samaritan type, both broken in their own right, and their personal struggle to find healing and redemption in the warp and woof of their dynamic, sometimes contentious relationship. There is a preview performance at the Rescue Mission September 19, 2015, followed by daytime performances for local high schools that next week, and ending with three public performances September 25 & 26 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center. After that, we will be doing a multicity tour through the month of October. I encourage everyone reading this post to come and be “touched” by the power of the bond between one unclean man who challenged the confidence of another who came to feel unclean.

For more information on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s September 25 & 26 performances, click this link and watch the trailer for “Stand.”

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Our Friend Sue

Growing up in the Bud and Bernie Arnold household we practiced certain rules that helped stem the tide of chaos and kept certain rituals that over time grounded and centered us giving us a sense of our place in this world. One such regulation/ritual was the dinner hour. Regardless how the day went for the individuals in the family, sitting down to break bread together at six p.m. was a precedent we maintained at all cost, and within that auspicious span of time, our raw humanity was illuminated.

dinner with QueenIt would be safe to say that over the years, thousands of people have sat at the Arnold table and each guest was honored by my parents if not always by their children. Missionaries, actors, teachers, journalists, writers, preachers, freeloaders, boarders, artists, strangers, students, politicians, all racial stripes, all gender stripes, rich, poor, ex-cons, addicts, alcoholics, the terminally ill, the greatest of these and the least of these (a guest list that would rival the Queen); if you were at the house at the dinner hour, invited or uninvited, a plate was set for you at the table and a bed was made if you needed a place to sleep.

There were guests who stayed for a few nights or a few weeks and sometimes to infinity and beyond. The weirdest guests I remember was a marginal friend of mine from my college days who brought his new bride to Nashville for their honeymoon and was too broke to afford a hotel so they stayed in my sister’s room upstairs. She was still away at school so no one had to be displaced from their rooms. The newlyweds were very quiet. My brothers and I could only imagine what was going on. The couple was invited to our evening meals, and my friend accepted a few times, but the bride never made an appearance. He took her meals up to their room. How romantic we thought, but no; the romance seemed to be missing like the bride herself for we never laid eyes on her after their initial arrival. They never went anywhere during their stay. On occasion, my friend would apologetically walk through the house offering as an explanation the need to fetch something for the bride. After several days of this absurdist drama, the couple slipped away while we all were conveniently absent, and within a few weeks, we got word that their marriage had been annulled. That explained the silence in the next room. As it has been said, you will never realize how peculiar your friends are until you start to describe them to someone else.

family dinnerTo gather around the Arnold dinner table was always a mixture of the sacred and the profane. It was rarely a Rockwell painting. However, my parents, Dad in particular, did their best to elevate conversation and not stoop to the discourse and behavior of their offspring, especially in the presence of company. But sometimes they could not avoid being dragged down into the mire.

On one such occasion my sister had invited a girlfriend from middle school over to spend the night. Her name was Sue, and Dad, in his southern-gentleman-from-Virginia, fashion (he was “to the manor born” if only in his mind), formally welcomed “Our friend Sue,” to our home and table before we all bowed in prayer to bless the meal. Sue was a first-timer and unaccustomed to the potential for boisterousness at an Arnold dinner table, so at the start we were on our best behavior. Guests were given the first choice of each dish, and Dad would insure that his children did not disrupt the protocol (like reaching across the table and spearing the choice baked potato off the dish with lightning speed), by saying things like, “Our friend Sue needs a baked potato,” or “Our friend Sue needs a refill of her tea,” or “Pass the salt and pepper to our friend Sue.”

Such decorum did not last long. There was no accounting for what might have prompted the rapid deterioration of our manners and conduct, but whatever it was, Bud and Bernie took swift action to stop the descent into madness. One of my brothers cupped his hand under his armpit, pumped his arm several times making crude sounds, and then wiped his hand on top of the other brother’s head. A juvenile riot ensued with groans and jabs until Dad interjected, “Boys, I am shocked at such behavior at the dinner table, and in front of our friend Sue. Both of you go to your rooms.”

There was no reconciliatory love expressed between my brothers as they left the table and stomped up the stairs to their room.

I was wearing a sleeveless undershirt, “dripping with attitude,” as my sister loves to remind me, and had inappropriately propped my elbows on the table. Some manners my parents chose to ignore in spite of their best efforts to impose Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. But that breach of table manners had a worse consequence than a parental reprimand for it exposed the vulnerability of my armpit. I made some derogatory comment to my sister, and as quick as the strike of a snake, she yanked the exposed underarm hair. I howled, and responded by giving her forearm a good Indian burn. When she yanked her arm away a glass of tea was knocked over.

“Both of you to your rooms now,” Mom exclaimed, and brother and sister stormed away smarting from inflicted wounds.

Not being present for what happened next, I had to depend, years later, on the second-hand account of our friend Sue. According to her, Bud and Bernie were so disgusted with their children’s behavior that they got into a minor skirmish about which one was to blame for the terrible behavior of their progeny and both got up and left the dining room. Our friend Sue had the table to herself, which had to be a relief. Sue was undeterred by that first experience at the Arnold home, readily accepted other invitations, and has remained a dear family friend all these years.

eating aloneThe Hartman Group, a leading market researcher on consumer culture in a recent survey revealed that “…close to half — 46 percent — of all adult eating occasions are now solitary eating occasions and 40 percent of all adult meals are eaten alone…One of the most interesting aspects of the trend toward eating alone is the notion that it represents the dismantling of the communal meal and the way we ‘used to eat’,” affirms Laurie Demeritt, the Hartman Group’s president and COO.

Mom and Dad were not movers and shakers in the world, but they never closed their door to the world. The world flowed in and out of our house. I see that now as a rich and incomparable blessing. Regularly scheduled family meals with or without guests were, at times, a disaster, but the routine of sitting across the table from one another meant we and our guests could not escape one another. The reality of life had to be faced.

My parents commissioned our oldest daughter, Kristin, to paint the beam overlooking the dining room with this Proverb, “Better a dinner of herbs where love is.” The number of courses did not matter. Each meal was prepared with love and shared with love. So whether it is in one’s home or at a restaurant, fine dining or fast-food, eat a communal meal with friends and family, share the love, turn off all electronic devices, talk to each other with one’s mouth full if necessary and elbows on the table, and risk making a memory, either tragic or comic, that could be savored for a lifetime.

dinner party

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The Trouble With Icons

Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not read Harper Lee’s, “Go Set a Watchman.” I have every intention of reading it but will probably let the brouhaha die down before I crack the spine of my copy. I did not read “To Kill a Mockingbird” until I was an adult. I did not read much of anything until I was an adult. I was and am a very slow reader; my dyslexic nemesis sits atop my head and loves to trip my brain with linguistic landmines.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I do not remember when I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time, but I do know when I read it the second time. In the spring of 2010, I had gone through a rigorous audition process for the role of Atticus in a play adaptation of the novel that Nashville Repertory Theatre would produce in the Fall. Rene Copeland, the artistic director of Nashville Repertory Theatre had pared the “Atticuses” down to nine, or so, for the final callback. It was an embarrassment of riches for Rene, and she could have cast any of the actors for the role.

Several weeks later I happened to be at a theatre event that Rene was also attending. She asked if I had read the novel before the audition. I confessed I had not, and she said something to the effect of, “Well, you’d better get on it, because I want you to play Atticus.”

Margaux Granath as Scout and Chip Arnold as Atticus
Margaux Granath as Scout and Chip Arnold as Atticus

I excused myself to go outside the theatre and call Kay, followed by calls to our daughters to share this exciting news. I was able to reach Kristin and tell her, but Lauren was unavailable, and I did not want to leave a voicemail. I was to see her in a day or two and would tell her at that time. We had scheduled a little Daddy/Daughter time, and I remember we were driving in the car when I dropped the “I got the role of Atticus Finch” bomb. Her reaction was immediate, no hesitation, no thought taken to formulate a response, just pure impulse: “Oh Daddy, I’m so excited. Atticus Finch is the father I always wanted.”

The second after the words sprang from her mouth was a moment of profound realization for both of us. Lauren knew she had said either the most insulting thing a child could say to their father, or it was the funniest thing that could be said regarding any paternal comparison. And for me, I knew I was about to square off with a quintessential American icon seared into the consciousness of our society. Five years later Lauren and I still laugh at her faux pas. But it is not easy for any actor who has played the role of Atticus for the stage to go up against the iconic Atticus portrayed in the film adaptation of the novel.

For a nation that suffers from amnesia on most subjects, the lawyer from Monroeville, Alabama, was an icon not easily forgotten or replaced. I remember one patron’s comment as he stopped me outside the stage door after a performance, “You out Gregory Pecked, Gregory Peck.” What in the world did that mean? It’s a mystery. The patron could have meant it as a compliment, but the truth cannot be denied: the image of Atticus Finch will forever be associated with a specific actor. He, the iconic Atticus, has his own stamp for heaven’s sake.

Atticus makes a stamp collection
Atticus makes a stamp collection

The trouble with icons is that they are first and last human beings prone to all things human, and whether these icons are fictional or real, they never set out, be they born of literary imagination or born of woman, to be icons. When a kid gets asked what they want to be when they grow up, the answer is never, “I want to be an icon.”

In the mind of the public, such recognition for being an icon carries with it the implicit expectation of a virtuous character. Family members and friends of the icon know all too well the fallacy of such a notion. When the spotlight is not on the icon, he/she must continue their daily, mundane routine of just being human, like the rest of us, and susceptible to those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

In reading the early press on “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise returns home as an adult and is shocked to find that her hero of a father is a member of a local citizen’s group that could be characterized as little more than a benign brand of the KKK. How could this be? How could the man who stood against the entrenched racism of the times now, decades later, be possibly considered a bigot? Oh, the humanity.

Stain Glass images of Sophocles and Shakespeare
Stain Glass images of Sophocles and Shakespeare

Without having read the novel, I cannot comment further, but suffice it to say, we now have an icon with actual biases. I must reserve judgment as to whether or not that puts Atticus in the category of a bigot. It does make him, however, a genuine human being, and is that not much more desirable an aspiration than to be an icon? We mortals put our icons on pedestals and in stain glass and create mythologies around them. In each of her two novels, Harper Lee created a character that was and is authentic. My attempt in playing the role was a quest for authenticity, to be human, down to the last wart and shiny attribute. Being authentic, sans bigotry, of course, and sundry other character shortcomings, should be enough of an achievement for all us humans.

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Curiouser and Curiouser

A couple of years ago Kay and I took our kids and grandkids and my mother and uncle on a family vacation in north Georgia. We rented a house with lots a space inside and an expansive yard, more like grounds. Other family members came and went during the week. The best feature was a front porch the width of the house with enough rocking chairs to accommodate most everyone. Evening meals were communal affairs and the table conversation lasted well beyond the bedtimes of grandkids. The reluctance to get up from the table was not for dread of cleaning the aftermath of a delicious meal but bringing a premature end to the stimulating and often raucous conversation that would make my mother blush just before she gave in to a grand cackle.

new white rabbitIt was during one such meal, in the middle of one such conversation that Kay blurted out, “I saw a white rabbit today.” Now imagine the sound effect of screeching tires on a vehicle as it comes to an abrupt stop as did our table conversation. All eyes came into unified focus directed toward Kay like the spotlight she hates. She had been out for a walk that day and claimed to have seen a white rabbit scampering across the grounds and disappear in the dense brush; admittedly, an unusual sight. Something in the table talk had triggered the memory of that experience, or Kay had disassociated from the conversation indulging in the private pleasure of seeing a white rabbit once again in her mind. We all began to laugh at the joy of so spontaneous a thought, and Kay had to endure some good-natured kidding from her family.

“Kaymi, where rabbit?” John Erik asked, his eyes big as Mad Hatter tea saucers. Our two-year-old grandson at the time was the only one who ventured true belief. Everyone deserves to see a white rabbit whether others believe or not.

“’Curiouser and curiouser!’” cried Alice…she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to alice stretching neckspeak good English.” That was a quote from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as she remarks on the effect of eating some cake that caused her neck to “open out like the largest telescope that ever was.”

Everyone knows the common and versatile definition of the word “curious:” being inquisitive; prying; showing keen interest; defining something as odd or strange. But the archaic Latin meaning has more depth: “something made or prepared with skill, something done with painstaking accuracy, with obvious signs of paying attention to detail and marked by intricacy.” Over the years I’ve watched Kay go to work on a creative project, and whatever she sets her mind to, be it painting watercolors, making Santa’s, precision cutting crown-molding with a saw, flower arrangement, or hand-carving a bird house or blocks, she epitomizes the deeper meaning of the state of being “curious.” And by being in such a state of curiosity, the work she produces has a quality that goes beyond mere craft and touches the hem of art.

We all have some degree of talent in some area, but it will not take one far unless the spark of curiosity ignites the imagination. The standard practice of most educational systems is to teach to the test. So the kid in class who gets distracted by the “white rabbit” scampering past the window is too quickly diagnosed with some disorder, medicated, and instructed to get in line. The imagination which could open a child to multiple possibilities of discovery is too often forced to take a backseat to standardized thinking, which when children become adults, too often becomes corporate thinking.

Alice was curious about the white rabbit and followed it. She was engaged, and when she came to the cake with the sign that said, “Eat me,” she did so. She had no idea what she would discover by chasing a white rabbit or consuming a magical cake. The formula was simple: being curious fired the imagination which afforded discovery. Think of all the discoveries Alice made about herself, her family, her society by following that white rabbit down the rabbit hole. In other words, when the white rabbit appears in the imagination anything can happen. The act of creating is an act of bravery. Something is always at stake to the creator because they may lose something and never recover. That is the nature of creation. But there could be so much more to gain when one takes that risk: learning secrets, learning lessons, learning harmony in daily life.

alice follows white rabbitThe morning we left from our vacation, Kay was driving the lead car in our four-car caravan down the driveway. I was driving the second car and saw the brake lights come on well before we were to exit the compound. Kay leapt out of the car and pointed across the street to the white rabbit in an adjacent yard sitting beside a tree munching on some tasty, verdant morsel. And so in the end, all of us agnostics had to admit the existence of “white rabbit,” and Kay took a well-deserved bow before getting back into her car. Vindication was sweet, and the joke was on us.

Lewis Carroll wrote his story about children, for children. He started the story with Alice being very bored and in her boredom she discovered the white rabbit. I wonder if children today don’t have time to get bored. Perhaps if they were allowed that freedom, more white rabbits would come along and beckon them to follow. Alice and Kay saw the white rabbit and followed. When the opportunity for a white rabbit crosses your path, be curious enough to follow.

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Celebration of Tradition and Character

The Constitution
The Constitution

On July 4, 1977, a group of families in Nashville, Tennessee led by Dan and Pat Burton, along with my parents, threw a neighborhood birthday party for America. This was not a backyard barbeque where good friends gathered to eat and shoot off some fireworks. The celebration was conceived to honor our country, to honor those who served and serve in our military, to honor political leaders of every stripe for their dedication as public servants, and to honor citizens who live each day with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as we go about our lives pursuing those truths that are “…self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

Henry Arnold reading the Declaration, 2001
Henry Arnold reading the Declaration, 2001

There was a parade of kids who rode their age-appropriate vehicles tricked out in red, white, and blue decorations; there were speeches; there was singing; there was the Pledge of Allegiance; there was the orchestra that played patriotic songs; and there was the recitation of a portion of the Declaration of Independence underscored by the orchestra playing Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which my father had the honor of performing each year from 1977 to 2001. A couple of times I filled in when ill-health prevented him from giving his best performance. In 2002, with the death of my father, the mantle was passed to me. My sister, Nan Gurley, has been the featured singer at this event even longer than I have been doing the Declaration.

Nan Gurley sings "The Star Spangled Banner"
Nan Gurley sings “The Star-Spangled Banner”

There have been special moments that stand out in my memory like the time when a bagpipe band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Amazing Grace,” or the time a World War II, Native-American veteran and winner of the Medal of Honor was honored by a younger member of his tribe dancing in full regalia a beautiful ceremonial dance, or that stirring moment when a Federal Immigration Judge spoke eloquently of why people from all over the world wanted to be a citizen of this country and then turned to a group of more than twenty people from a dozen different countries and led them through the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. I stood beside this multinational group listening to a dozen different accents saying the words that shed the skin of their old nationality and unified them in the new attire of an American citizen. That collection of families gathered to celebrate our country’s birthday back in 1977 has continued to this day growing in attendance from a few dozen that first year to several thousand. This year there was a special moment when Mayor Megan Barry honored Col. Sal Herrera for his service in the U.S. Army. My sister and I got to visit with Col. Herrera and share with him how our Dad had been a paratrooper who jumped in the Philippines in WWII and was a part of the first occupying force in Japan.

John Dickinson
John Dickinson

In 2007 I had the privilege of playing the role of John Dickinson in Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of “1776” directed by Rene Copeland. The most powerful moment in the musical was when each delegate was called by name, handed the quill, and asked to sign the Declaration of Independence. John Dickinson, a delegate with Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, chose not to sign. He had written what was known as the “Olive Branch Petition” in the Second Continental Congress’ last attempt for peace with Britain. A devout Quaker, his hope was for reconciliation, not independence and revolution.

Dickinson knew signing the Declaration of Independence was an act of war. And

Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Signing of the Declaration of Independence

though his petitions for reconciliation were voted down by the majority in Congress, he made the bold choice to stand with his new country and fight against the British. More than that, Dickinson was the only founding father to free his slaves in the period between 1776 and 1786. Here was a man who was brave enough to stand up for his belief and not sign the Declaration of Independence, but then he turned around and committed himself to make a success of our fledgling country. He became brigadier general of Pennsylvania and led 10,000 soldiers to Elizabeth, New Jersey to protect the area against the British.

As evidence to Dickinson’s honorable character, Thomas Jefferson wrote after he learned of his death, “A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”

May we as citizens of this country be bold to raise our voices for principles we hold dear, and bolder still, when our principals might be in the minority, not to rail against the majority or wring our hands in despair, but turn our energy toward making our nation succeed and thrive. My father had a similar character as Dickinson, and I can only hope that I may emulate those same admirable traits in my life. It is an honor to follow in my dad’s footsteps and read the Declaration of Independence every July 4th.

Chip Arnold reads Declaration of Independence; 2016
Chip Arnold reads Declaration of Independence; 2016

For the July 4th, 2015 recitation of the Declaration of Independence click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anQAclsDn8U&feature=youtu.be

 

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The One is Not
Poster for Alive and Free

The One is Not

Where did I put my wallet? I can’t remember where I left my purse. Have you seen my cell phone? Little things lost, yet important, not for the intrinsic value of a wallet, purse, or cell phone (insert brand name of your choice here), but because of what they contain…identity, real and imagined. If lost or stolen who are you?

Poster for Alive and Free
Poster for Alive and Free

When Kay and I have traveled, domestic and foreign, she drives and I navigate. I use maps, landmarks, and road signs, not G.P.S. I take pride in that applicable life skill, doing the work myself and not have Siri do it for me. But on occasion, I have gotten us lost. It was only temporary, and while a little unnerving in the moment, who better to be lost with than your best friend. That’s adventure. And yes, when all else fails, I stop to ask directions from other human beings who have always been happy to oblige.

The only time I do not like being lost is on stage. When people who have paid good money watch as you perform with your fellow actors and you suddenly lose your line. That is terrifying. Drop me in the wilderness with a compass, map, and some water, but God help me if I forget my lines while on stage in the middle of a performance.

The sense of loss or being lost can be discombobulating. I don’t know why I relate this particular childhood memory with the feeling of being lost, but when I was thirteen or so, I looked at the world around me and wondered why I was put in this particular microcosm at this particular time because I believed I was nothing like the people around me, even my family. I assumed if I had not come from outer space, I must be adopted. One rainy morning Dad drove me on my paper route instead of me riding the bicycle I used to deliver papers, and I asked him if I was really his son. He stopped the car and looked at me; stopping the car and looking at me, his face a mixture of pity and consternation, meant the world had come to a standstill and I was the center of his attention. A feeling of dread crept up my spine as I awaited his answer.

“You are flesh of my flesh, and I have the paper to prove it.”

What a relief it was when he removed my birth certificate from a metal box on the top shelf of a storage closet and read aloud the details of my birth that included my full name, my father and mother’s full names, the full name of the attending physician, the full name of the registrar, and the embossed official seal of the state of Tennessee at the bottom left corner of the page. I was lost, but now I was found.

Writer/Director, Neil Hoppe
Writer/Director, Neil Hoppe

In the fall of 2014 I acted in a film written and directed by Neil Hoppe entitled “Alive and Free.” The story synopsis in a publicity package reads: “The day their mom disappeared, life at the Wilson house stopped. Imprisoned by the utter lack of closure, the family has spent years adrift in the numbness that followed her absence. After ten years, the sons, Matt and Josh, embark on a search for their mother that will push them further than they thought possible, in search for the answers that broke their family.”

Jacob gives coat to Joseph
Jacob gives coat to Joseph

“Disappeared” is the key word in the synopsis. The Mom/Wife vanishes without explanation, not died, not ran away, not abducted, but disappeared…“the one is not.” In reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book, “The Beginning of Desire, Reflections on Genesis,” I came across the Hebrew word, einenu (the one is not) in reference to the story of Jacob, a patriarch of ancient Israel, who was told by his deceitful sons that Joseph, his favored son, was killed by a wild beast. As evidence they produced Joseph’s bloodstained robe, not Joseph’s body. This news left Jacob bereaved, which as Zornberg explains, can mean that Jacob believed his son was dead, but can also mean in this case a feeling of, “an absence, a distance, shimmering with perplexities and possibilities.”

In “Alive and Free” the father and sons of the Wilson household are bereaved, and in their bereavement, all deeper communication between them becomes impossible. Fathers and sons can have difficulty communicating on multiple levels for far less reasons than the disappearance of a wife and mother. At the start of the film we witness the individual and collective emotional and spiritual effects on the two sons and their father as a direct result of the disappearance of the wife/mother. The patriarch Jacob began to behave irrationally from the moment he heard that his son Joseph became “the one is not.” The father and sons in “Alive and Free” experience their own moments of irrationality. The sudden absence of the one you love with no explanation as to why throws the family into a state of turmoil, and gradually father and sons drift into their separate worlds of equal parts despair and hope; one despairs at the sudden absence, yet one hopes there might be a sudden return.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The quote is attributed to Aristotle, but others have coined the phrase over the last two millennia. The truth remains: a vacuum created by the absence of the wife/mother must be filled, first by desire, a desire to fill the void, then a plan of action to seek “the one is not.” And so, in well-crafted storytelling fashion, we have a road trip with the two brothers, the older brother’s would-be girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s grandfather. The grandfather, who has suffered the loss of his spouse, immediately empathizes with the boys’ far-fetched quest to search for their mother and is willing to risk everything to help them. That’s the power of the story, the willingness to risk everything to find “the one is not.”

Alive and Free Logo
Alive and Free Logo

Do they find her? Is it a happy ending? Is the relationship between father and sons healed? Well, you will just have to wait until the film is released. But in the meantime, visit the “Alive and Free” website.

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A Father’s Day Memory
Dapper Dad

A Father’s Day Memory

I was home on a Christmas break from Pepperdine University in 1973 and my father was taking me and my younger brothers on the Virgin Falls hike. A mutual friend who lived in the area had taken them on the hike a few months earlier and Dad and my brothers couldn’t wait to share the experience with me. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen,” they all kept saying as we drove the three hours from our Nashville home to the trailhead in eastern Tennessee. “They can’t find the source of the waterfall. It comes out of a cave on the top of this big hill, drops over a hundred feet and disappears. No one knows where it comes from and where it goes.” That, along with the promise of exploring deep caverns, climbing boulders, and being taught by my brothers how to “ride down trees,” raised my expectation for adventure.

It was like walking into a primeval forest. For the first mile the trail meandered along a creek through spacious groves of indigenous tree varieties before it began a steep decline beneath thick canopies of mountain laurel until trail and creek converged into a large stream. We had to forge the wide stream hopping from rock to rock that rose out of the churning water in random patterns. While not life-threatening, a misstep meant wet boots and clothes for the next eight miles, and since it happened to be winter, that would add to the misery and ridicule from my brothers. The unofficial Arnold gauntlet was to see who could use the least number of rocks to get from one bank to the other. This crossing was probably twenty feet wide and the water flow was high, which meant there was minimal rock exposure to use as a landing and launching platform through the swift current. It required thrust and agility to leap across the stream bounding from rock to rock. Dad went first, pathfinder that he was, and my brothers and I followed. I don’t remember who won; I just remember marveling at dad’s ability to leap from rock to rock with a dancer’s grace and then the joy he took in watching his sons follow after him. Long gone were the days of having to hold our hands through precarious crossings of any kind. We all had been set free to stand or fall on our own; the momentum of manhood.

We followed the stream for another mile and a half; it’s steady and gradual descent a deception we would come to see as a liability on our return trip. The footpath remained narrow, but the course of the stream would expand or contract as dictated by the contours of the landscape rushing around large boulders, tumbling into small waterfalls, or cascading down a natural rock slide into deep pools that during summer hikes afforded us opportunities to refresh our sweaty bodies with a dip in nothing but Adam’s original suit.

Big Laurel FallsAt the halfway point we came upon this great cavern in the shape of a giant’s mouth full-open; an outcropping of rocks forming a misshapen jaw line and jagged teeth while the upper lip was smooth and curved by the eroding flow of the stream we had followed. At this point the water dropped fifty feet splashing onto the rocks below before disappearing into the giant’s gullet. The opening was so wide we could make our way around the falls and deep inside the great chasm. We had stepped into Jules Verne’s adventure story, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and at any moment I expected prehistoric creatures to emerge out of the immense, dank walls.

After a brief rest we trekked on until we came to a boulder field and next to it was a stand of young sapling trees that fought for survival against boulders crowding in on one side and old-growth trees on the other. My two younger brothers scampered up the side of the boulder excited to educate me in the art of riding down a tree. They hurled their bodies at young saplings, and then rode down their tree as it awkwardly bent double to deposit the passenger onto the ground. This was all the instruction I needed, and I followed their example while Dad chose to keep his feet firmly planted on the land taking pride and pleasure in watching his sons leap into the tops of the nimble trees in our attempt to test Darwin’s theory of evolution.

side view of V.F.After collecting a few scratches to the face and a rip or two on our shirts and jeans from the branches that fought against being manhandled, we journeyed down the trail. Within a quarter mile of the falls I heard the relentless rumble of water pounding the earth. The only trail access to the falls was from the southeast side of the hill so as we rounded the bend my first sight of the falling water was in profile. It was as if we walked into a crater with the south side rim missing. There was a loop trail that went around the rim to the cave at the top of the hill where the water flowed out. The trail then continued on until it dissolved onto the top of a cliff wall that dropped down to our original starting point. The cliff was treacherous, but still scaleable to the nervy rock climber.

mouth of caveDad and my brothers told the truth: the water did come out of a cave; it did drop over a hundred feet and disappear into the dark, saturated earth; it had no visible source, no headwaters, no obvious current feeding into another body of water. Local scientists had attempted to discover its source by exploring the cave until it became impassable and searched for the waters’ destination point by dropping tracking devices into the hole at the bottom of the falls, but to no avail. So mythology took over and it was named Virgin Falls for its mysterious, subterranean, circulatory system with no beginning and no end.

There were several hikes between that first time and the last one my brothers and I took with our father.  Dad was nearing seventy by this time, gone through a couple of pacemakers, and yet was still honorably resistant to the encroachment of age. While the stream that had to be forged in the first stage of the hike was now made easier by a cable and strung over the rushing waters attached from one tree to another, the mile and a half ascent from the cavern to level ground in the last stage was more difficult. Dad needed to stop every thirty or forty yards to catch his breath. A couple of times I felt impatient, my legs eager to keep a pace that was impossible for Dad to maintain. I wish I could have those seconds back, reframe them with a more positive sentiment instead of the baser one I felt. I wonder now if he might have been milking the time just for the few extra minutes with his sons. At one of those “rest stops” along the trail he seemed to acknowledge his mortality when he said, “This might be my last time here, boys.” It was, but he expressed it in such a way that revealed his true nature as the eternal optimist.

front view of V.F.I have hiked on trails all over the world, many of them more stunning in beauty than Virgin Falls, but like a first love, there will always be something special about that hike that can never be surpassed. I saw Dad in a new light on that hike: a father’s joy at sharing with his sons the wonder, the mystery, and the beauty of a small part of our planet. I have taken this trail with Kay and my daughters, and then with their husbands who are now my sons. In a few years, I expect to show my grandchildren the incredible sights and sounds of Virgin Falls, and they too might get impatient with their grandfather when he has to stop to rest with more frequency. And someday I expect to say, “This might be my last time here.” But not anytime soon. My final trek will be a one-way trip. I will be carried in, my ashes in a box, and then scattered at the mouth of the cave to become part of the unfathomable, eternal flow of Virgin Falls.

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Old Dog/New Tricks
Life is a Balancing Act

Old Dog/New Tricks

I recently turned sixty-five, and while it is a milestone of sorts, it did not really seem worthy of a big celebration. Ten thousand of us Baby-Boomers turn sixty-five every day, so big deal. For a number of years I considered getting a tattoo to mark the occasion. My daughters and their husbands all have tattoos and they have been very encouraging of the idea. Even my mother got a tattoo on her eightieth birthday, which I thought was way cool. I even toyed around with some designs I thought I might like that included varied symbols referencing the spiritual, the aesthetic, and the familial. When Kay and I went to New Zealand last fall and saw some indigenous peoples who had taken the concept of family tree to a whole new level by tattooing the ancient images of their family tribe on their necks and faces, I decided my family tree could be better displayed in a picture frame and not on my flesh.

I am very slow to make decisions when it comes to upgrading technology that might improve my daily life. Living in a high-speed, full-scale digital cosmos does not appeal to me. I still use a flip-up phone and I don’t text; my reading material comes in magazine, paper or hardback forms; I play pool, poker, and pinball not video games, and I have a high-definition antennae on the top of my house that gets me about a dozen free channels two of which I might watch. And when people have tried to get me to open a Facebook account so I could potentially have a half billion friends, my eyes just glazed over. On the rare occasion I received a “friend” request in my e-mail inbox, I just deleted it without so much as a twinge of guilt.

Life is a Balancing Act
Life is a Balancing Act

I live like an animal, you say, but no more. This old dog has decided that he can learn a new trick. Not only did I have a website designed for my professional work, I also joined the Facebook team to make it a half billion and one…at least for a split millisecond of time. Now to all of the professional Facebookers out there who know me and my disdainful, even snarky, attitude about participating in such social media forums (much like the nay-sayers in the early days of television who considered the technological phenomenon a “vast wasteland”), I deserve all the slings and arrows of snide commentaries you care to throw at me. Be brutal. Be brutal. I accept the barbs.

So on the day of my birth instead of Kay dropping me off at a local tattoo parlor for my birthday tat, she dropped me off at Sam and Zoe’s to meet Jill Lafave, my web designer, and have her set up my Facebook accounts. And in the twenty-four hours or so of going “live” I have received over one hundred “friend” requests. I take that to mean that you are not holding any grudges about my scornful attitude in the past now that I have been “born-again.” But I still don’t know what to do with this flood of requests. I have already forgotten my password and have had to request a new one. If I don’t properly “friend” you back, trust me, I have not back-slid into my former snarky ways, I just have limited skills of navigation in this wide, wide world of the web we all live in.

While my journey from cave-dweller to enlightenment is still a relatively short one on the evolutionary highway of social media, I have made those first initial (or fateful) steps. Who knows? Someday I may trade in my flip-up for an iPhone…but I will NEVER text, and I still might get that tattoo.

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