Thank you, Hairl

HairlatOprymic
Hairl Hensley, Opry Announcer.
One of the warmest voices in radio broadcasting has fallen silent.

Hairl Hensley was a legend in Tennessee broadcasting, but I didn’t know that when I met him.

It was fall 1993 and I was working as a receptionist for Syndicom Entertainment Group, a television syndication company. My supervisor had enrolled me in a nine-month company-wide leadership training program, and that’s where I met Hairl.

I don’t remember our first meeting, but it didn’t take us long to move to the back of the class where we could crack jokes under our breath and generally create mayhem. This tells you a little something about Hairl’s influence on me; I had a long history of being a straight-A, front-row-sitting, teacher’s pet kind of girl.

He was the afternoon drive air personality on AM 650 WSM, the Air Castle of the South and home of its flagship program, the WSM Grand Ole Opry, both of which have been on the air since 1925. He also hosted a two-hour weekly bluegrass show he called “The Orange Possum Special.” He was a big, tall, jovial teddy bear of a man, but he was smart and he knew and loved radio, and he loved country and bluegrass music. But mostly he loved people.

When the newly renovated Ryman Auditorium began its summer bluegrass series in 1994, Hairl emceed each week’s show. He told me to let him know if I ever wanted tickets, and I took advantage of his offer several times. I had not grown up listening to bluegrass music, but back in 1991 I had caught a live performance of Doc Watson with Jack Lawrence and Jerry Douglas at a taping of The Nashville Network’s American Music Shop (what’s not to like?) and had become an enthusiast.

Lo! and behold, in 1996 I found myself working as the assistant for Kyle Cantrell, who served as Operations Manager over AM 650 WSM, 95.5 WSM FM and 99.7 WWTN FM. If I had liked bluegrass before, I now had an opportunity to immerse myself in it, and I did. Hairl let me hang out backstage with him.

In its early years, the summer bluegrass series stretched for three months, and it featured a diverse list of performers ranging from traditional bluegrass to more progressive styles, including, before his death, Bill Monroe himself. Thanks to Hairl, I had the opportunity to meet many of these artists and learn firsthand why their influence and their careers spanned generations.

I loved listening to Hairl when he was on the air, on the afternoon drive show from 3 to 7

me&HBuddyphotobomb
Me and Hairl getting photo-bombed by WSM news guy Buddy Sadler at a WSM alumni quarterly lunch in 2014.
p.m. He’d spin records and talk over the intro. He’d tell jokes. He’d wish happy birthday to whichever country artist was celebrating a birthday, and he’d play the “Happy Birthday” song on the kazoo. And at the end of his shift, he always thanked the listeners for being a part of the show on AM 650 WSM, Home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Hairl had a warm voice and an easy, convivial way about him that invited the listener in as friend and confidante. But that wasn’t just his on-air persona. That’s how Hairl was with everyone, all the time. Hairl Hensley was comfortable in his own skin. Being around Hairl was one of life’s “warm fuzzy” things, like putting on your favorite house slippers and bundling into your warmest robe and drinking cocoa by the fire. Being Hairl’s friend was like that.

Hairl took time to teach me about the industry we all loved so much. He drew a diagram of sound waves on a napkin to explain to me the difference in AM and FM radio waves. He educated me on various bluegrass performers and their histories. He told me inside stories (especially off-color ones) about Opry stars. One of the greatest gifts Hairl gave me, though, came a few months after I’d been working at WSM.

Kyle had told me early on that as a WSM employee, I could go to the show any time there was room on the backstage list. I knew even then that this was a rare privilege, because frankly I had no official business there. So I made it my policy to go only when my favorite artists were slated to appear, and to be there for the show and only for the show. I never attempted to interact with artists unless and until they indicated they wanted to interact with me. I made myself scarce on Saturdays because the televised segment meant TV crews, VIP and industry types, and artist entourages dominating the space.

The announcer’s podium stands stage left, at the very edge of the Opry stage next to the big red curtain. To the left of the podium (or right, if you’re backstage), tucked behind the curtain out of sight of most of the audience, sits a barstool. One night, Hairl motioned for me to come out from behind the ropes and sit on the stool. Thrilled, I did so.

From then on, especially when Hairl was at the mic, I would sit on the stool if I knew I wasn’t in the way. It offered a good place to observe the artists and listen to their pre-show conversations, or watch them hold their guitars up to their ear to tune before heading out to the circle on center stage. Most importantly, the stool gave me the opportunity to see and hear utterly magic musical performances, more than I can count.

Hairl always announced the segment sponsored by Goo Goo Clusters. Hairl would introduce Carol Lee Cooper, the leader of the house band’s quartet of backup vocalists, by asking mischievously, , “How big are your Goo-Goos, Carol Lee?” That was always good for a chuckle. When he led the audience in applause, he would often reach into his coat pocket for his keys and jingle them into the microphone.

The artists all loved Hairl, too. One night when Lorrie Morgan was on the show, Hairl and I were walking out after his shift was over, planning to get a bite to eat, just as she was walking from dressing room to stage for her appearance. She saw Hairl and stopped to hug him and talk for a bit. As they wrapped up their conversation, I apologized for cutting out before her performance and told her I had to choose between that and going to dinner with Hairl. She smiled and said, “Oh, dinner with Hairl! Absolutely. Dinner with Hairl should win every time.”

In 2003 radio station ownership changed, and over the next year most of us moved on, or were helped along. Our radio family has stayed in contact, though, and over the years I’ve made it a point to visit Hairl every so often. I lost track of him for awhile, but I’m thankful to say I caught up with him again in November, in early December, and then, finally, just yesterday.

I knew they’d called in Hospice a few weeks prior, and I knew he had taken a turn for the worse over Christmas. I slipped into his apartment and saw he was asleep. I told him I was there, and he made a soft sound, but he didn’t open his eyes. So I just pulled up a chair and sat with him, sometimes holding his hand, sometimes making out a grocery list or texting, sometimes just thinking my thoughts. Funny how your mind keeps doing the mundane necessary things when you’re facing life’s greatest mystery.

Eventually I began humming and singing whatever song came to mind. He got quite an eclectic concert. The set list included a cappella renditions of some favorite hymns: “All The Way My Savior Leads Me” and “In The Garden.” Then I decided Hairl might want a little more variety, so I sang James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and threw in a good country shuffle with Rodney Crowell’s “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” and a country standard, “You Are My Sunshine.” Finally I sang “Amazing Grace.”

And then, after about 90 minutes, I had to leave. So I squeezed his hand and kissed his forehead and said goodbye and told him I loved him, and I slipped out of his room. And later, in the wee hours of this morning, he slipped out of this life.

I didn’t really realize it at first, but it has dawned on me that saying goodbye to Hairl means saying goodbye – yet again – to the happiest years of my professional life, working with people who loved the music first and foremost, and who loved working for the entities that brought that music into the lives of millions of people all over the world.

Hairl befriended and encouraged and mentored countless artists and broadcast professionals, and he did it all with laughter and kindness. As I read the tributes pouring in to him on Facebook, I realize how blessed we all were to have him in our lives. He was an integral part of my world for many years. I’m thankful I knew him. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

On Being Intentional

I went to see an old friend today.

He’d been on my mind for two or three months. Last time I’d seen him, probably a year ago or longer, he was living in a condominium complex for senior adults, and had had some health issues and lost a lot of weight, but was holding his own.

But I had failed to follow up, and in recent weeks he had tugged at the corners of my mind. Then I saw a Facebook post a mutual friend had posted thanking people who had been praying for him, and a photo of him looking a mite haggard but smiling. I messaged her to see what was going on with him. This time, she told me, she had thought it was all over. But he came through, and was well enough for visitors, she said. “Go see him! He would love to see you!” So I did.

He was in a rehabilitation center recovering after a close call with kidney failure and the cumulative effects of diabetes and congestive heard failure. When I tiptoed up to his room, armed with a bag of Russell Stover sugarless candies, he was lying on his side, covered to his chin in a light blanket, and sleeping deeply. But his color looked good, and at the sight of his familiar features relaxed in sleep, my heart flooded with affection. I thought of all the things he had taught me about radio and bluegrass music, all the jokes he told, all the funny stories about different country music people, how he would play “Happy Birthday” on the kazoo during his radio show. How he used to let me go backstage with him at the Ryman Auditorium when he was emceeing the bluegrass series in its early years, or, backstage at the Opry House, how he would invite me to sit on the stool next next to the announcer’s podium, just behind the big red curtain where I had a close-up view of the show. A large part of what I know of Nashville lore I learned from him. Some of my best Nashville memories happened because of him.

Now I debated whether or not to awaken him. I slipped the bag of candy out of my purse and placed it on the bedside table, and stepped out into the hall, where I flagged down a nurse. She assured me he had been asleep for awhile and would be awakened soon anyway for dinner, and encouraged me to wake him up.

I went back into his room, put my hand gently on his shoulder, and softly called his name. His eyes opened, then he focused on me, and a smile of infinite sweetness crossed his face. “Hiiiii!” he said softly, and opened his arms for a hug. “It’s been so long!”

###

Saturday night I saw an old friend for the first time in three years.  We had gathered at the home of some mutual friends for an informal night of making tacos and watching a movie. (Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them – I thoroughly enjoyed it, muggle though I may be.)

Winnie The Pooh Friend Quote Winnie The Pooh Friendship Quotes. Quotesgram

We caught up on each other’s lives and families, and cars. She gave me a ride around the block in her Subaru, which fit, she said, as though it had been made for her. She demonstrated the inadequate synchronizing of her phone with the car by showing me how it announced, without her requesting it, that it was going to call Couple A and B. I asked her who Couple A and B were, and she said, “They lived across the road from me when I was growing up, and next to my grandmother.”

 

“I remember them! He came and got the mouse out of the trap when you had a dead mouse!” I exclaimed.

“Yes!” she said, and we laughed, delighted that we have such a depth of history that we remember such minute details about each other.

We think maybe we won’t wait three or four years to see each other again.

###

Last weekend I went to dinner with a group of people – some friends, some strangers – who had gathered to honor J, a mutual friend who had recently died. Last week J would have turned 42, and her next door neighbor decided she would contact different people who had known J, and we would celebrate her birthday, and speak of her and remember her and all the things we loved about her. It would give us the chance to feel, for a short time, as though she was in our midst again.

As it turns out, we sat around a long table that discouraged mingling, but over the course of the evening we all managed to visit with someone we had just met, all because of J and her impact on our lives.

I had known J for probably 16 years but saw her rarely and had never had the chance to get to know her well. We had mutual friends and hung out together, attended the same Halloween party, liked ballroom dancing and cats and talking politics.

I got to know her best on Facebook. She had a wicked sense of humor. She took a bus to and from her job at Vanderbilt University, and she frequently began her Facebook posts with “Overheard on the bus:…” followed by some astute insight into human nature that could make you laugh until you cried. Or think about something in a new way. Or both.

We knew we liked and respected each other, but we never had the chance to develop a friendship with the depth we knew it had the potential of having. So when I mourned her, I also mourned that lost potential.

After we left the restaurant, we all stood in a circle and shared who we were, how we had met J, and our most vivid impressions and favorite memories of her. Another mutual friend said that she, like me, had not had the chance to know J the way she would have wanted.

“If there’s anything her death has brought home to me,” our mutual friend said, “it’s that we must be intentional in our relationships with one another.”

Amen.

A Peaceful Place to Rest

RussellCemetery

Mom has a birthday this week, so I decided I’d take this weekend and travel to Mississippi to spend a little time with her and Dad. On Saturday afternoon we took a trip to the local Sonic Drive-In for happy hour half-price soft drinks, and then – as we are wont to do – we decided to take a drive through the countryside.

We wound our way through the back roads of Tishomingo County, looking at farmland and houses old and new, remembering whose homestead was at a particular site, where my grandparents lived when Mom was born, speculating as to who wound up where, and as we drove and talked, we drank in the sight of trees budding, daffodils along the roadway, the bright, fresh green of new grass, and fields still lying fallow, stretched underneath a spring blue sky, waiting for the growing season to begin.

Eventually we meandered over the state line into Alabama, and found ourselves in rural Colbert County, turning onto the gravel road that leads to Russell Cemetery.  My paternal grandparents are buried there, along with two great-aunts and a great-uncle, my dad’s grandparents, and his little brother. Other relatives and members from other families in the community also find their final resting place there.

In the South, we have what we call “decoration” days, and the Russell Cemetery Decoration Day is the Saturday before the first Sunday in May. When I was growing up, the families whose loved ones lie there would gather on that Saturday morning in their work clothes, don their heavy work gloves and hats, and, armed with mowers, weed eaters, rakes, clippers, rags, soap and water, would set about cleaning up the landscaping and the tombstones. Then they’d place flowers on the graves.

CivilWarvetWe kids would occupy our time going down into the woods to the spring, watching the Santa Gertrudis cattle in the adjoining pasture (the bull, a particularly handsome fellow, would huff and puff at us, and paw the ground, in equal parts annoyed and curious), and visiting the various tombstones and speculating about the lives of the people buried there.

One tombstone featured an old sepia photo of a couple from the 19th century, the man’s coat sleeve hanging empty where he lost an arm in the Civil War. In another corner of the cemetery, rough-shaped stones – all but one or two uncarved and of indeterminate age – mark the graves of anonymous bones, people whose lives and names and stories are long lost to the past.

With the morbid fascination typical of children, my cousins and siblings and I always paid particular attention to a grave marked by a tiny tombstone on top of which perched a marble lamb. Toy cars, teddy bears, and other toys always adorned this gHallchildgraverave. Our parents had explained to us several times over the years that the little boy buried here had died at the age of three after falling into a washtub of scalding hot water. We shivered at the horror of this story, and at the idea of death visiting a child close to our own ages. Sometimes we would bring a little toy as our own small token to place reverently on the grave of this child that we felt sure was a kindred spirit.

This young boy’s brother, a man named Rick Hall, grew up to found FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, Hall gives a harrowing account of his brother’s death, and it is obvious that he still bears the emotional scars of that tragedy and its aftermath.

But in spite of the somber setting and the unsettling story of the little Hall boy, Decoration Day was, by and large, a fun time for children and adults alike, a day spent in an idyllic rural setting.

One year, the adults noticed that several cows in the adjacent pasture were acting odd. They were clustered in a circle around something on the ground that held their attention. They’d inch slowly up to the center of the circle, then quickly back away, shying away from whatever held their fascination.

“A snake,” everyone decided, and several men, armed with garden hoes, made their way into the pasture to kill the snake, only to find the cows spooked by a plastic grocery bag tumbling around in the spring breeze.

 

Generally, the morning’s work would go quickly and then we would haul lawn chairs out of our cars, set food out on two huge picnic tables comprised of cinder block legs and giant slabs of concrete for table tops, and feast on a great pot luck meal. The eating and the visiting would last a good two hours.

Many years later I was working in an office on Music Row and explaining that I was going home for the weekend. “It’s Decoration Day,” I said, explaining our family tradition to my office mates. My coworker Hal, a native of Long Island, New York, couldn’t get his mind around the concept.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You go to a cemetery…and you have a picnic?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I said. Thereafter Hal would use that story to tease me about how weird Southerners are.

My cousin Mac likes to tell the story of how one year after dinner he and my brother Bob locked themselves in one of the cars and consumed the remainder of a chocolate cake my great-aunt Martha had made. Apparently they got in big trouble, and also got sick. And apparently they had taken both possibilities into account and had decided it would be worth the risk to eat the cake.

Over the years, the number of people attending Decoration Day has dwindled, and the pot luck dinner is no more. The little Hall boy’s grave has no toys on it. The silent unmarked graves keep their silence. The pasture is empty of cattle. But the beauty and the peace remain, unmarred by the modern world. Wind sweeps through the tree tops, across the sage grass in the fields, and over the occupants, ever asleep in tranquility’s quiet embrace.

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BEING 51: Mindfulness and the Lush Life

via Daily Prompt: Lush

 

makeoverI started my makeover on January 4.

“What makeover?” you might ask.

“Why, my new Endeavor!” I might explain. “I’m starting from scratch, at age 51, to become physically and fiscally fit, and culturally relevant!”

It’s not really a makeover in how I look that I have in mind (although I certainly hope the end results will bring at least some improvement, so that my always-lush curves will go back to just being lush instead of…Rubenesque).

 

foodlog_article_300Rather, I want to work on transforming how I think, so that I am more aware. I want to bring awareness to how I approach daily life and my habits: the amount of sleep I get; making exercise a regular part of my routine instead of a sporadic effort; what I eat and when, and how much; learning to stop eating when I am no longer hungry.

And fiscally, too, I’ve begun to track my spending habits. I’m evaluating my monthly expenses to see if I truly need everything I am paying for. I’m developing strategies for saving more and looking at different ways financially successful people make money with secondary and passive income sources.

As I ponder these things I realize I’ve lived over half a century being reactive, rolling passively along with my circumstances and whatever life throws my way. Eeh…that’s really not how I want to be. I want more input. I want health. I want financial security. I want…lushness. I want to experience things. I want to savor life. That requires discipline and planning, and… well, I’m 51. Have I waited too late? If I set these goals, how long will it take me to achieve them? How old will I be? As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way, the same age I’ll be if I don’t.

slowprogressBut I know myself well enough to know I’m not a Type A, go-get-‘em type, and I have no interest in becoming one. Over time I’ve learned to be assertive, but I’ll never be naturally aggressive. And I don’t really want to be. I can hold my own; no one will walk over me. I can certainly push back when I’m pushed, but that’s as assertive as I care to get. And really, is there ever a need for more? I’m not out to best others. I just want to be my personal best. Some might see that as weak, but I consider it a strength. Everyone else can knock themselves out competing. I’ll just toodle along over here at my own pace, happily doing my thing. Slow and steady wins the race, right?

The key, I guess, is to find a mindful balance. But nobody has ever accused me of being high-energy, and to achieve my goals, I need to step it up a bit.

Changing your mindset to change your habits, your health and your lifestyle is a very Big Project. It’s best to start with manageable goals. I met with the trainer at the gym when I first started thinking about all this, and he gave me some great advice.

  • Lemon water at room temperature is as good a cleanser as you’ll find. Good to know.
  • When you get to be in your 50s, strength training is equal in importance to cardio exercises to lose and maintain a healthy weight. I’m thrilled about this, because while I like cardio well enough, I really enjoy weight machines.
  • Drink lots and lots and lots of water. My goal is about 96 ounces a day.
  • He likes the Paleo diet. I prefer the Mediterranean diet approach.
  • He recommended lots of dark green leafy vegetables. I’m good with that. Except spinach. But there are other things.
  • Cut out caffeine. “Oh, noooooo!” I said, carefully explaining my Diet Coke® habit. He said I’d have to wean myself off. I’m down to one in the morning when I get to work, and a little decaf carbonation at night.

But the most important thing he had to say about diet and exercise was this little gem:

“You can’t outwork a bad diet.”

So there.

#####

In the five weeks since I started my Awareness Project, I’ve logged virtually every bite of food and every ounce of liquid that has gone into my mouth. (Except for the Communion wafer and grape juice last Sunday. That would just be wrong.) workoutrewardIn those five weeks I’ve lost three pounds (my goal was one pound a week), and had one week of regular exercise and three weeks of sporadic exercise.

I’ve recalled how cool it feels when you can tell, from the way your muscles feel internally, that you are beginning to become more firm even if no one can see it yet.

I’ve learned how good it feels to eat exactly the right amount, not too much, and you’re satisfied with that quiet steady sense of being sated, but you don’t feel all blorpy.

 

I’ve learned that when you can’t get something off your mind – i.e., a cheeseburger – hold out as long as you can. But if and when you give in, eat it, but don’t pig out on it…just enjoy the taste and the satisfaction, and then don’t beat yourself up; just get up the next day, and start again.

in-n-outburgerThat felt good, too, eating that cheeseburger. I wish I could say it didn’t feel good, that I felt awful and blorpy and the cheeseburger sat like a rock in my stomach, and that I deserved it for failing so miserably. But in fact it was every bit as fabulous as I thought it would be, and I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. I didn’t get fries, or onion rings, I just got the (double) cheeseburger, and I felt fine.

I didn’t lose a pound during cheeseburger week, but, still not feeling the guilt, I decided that was the choice I made and it was mine to live with, and as long as the scales don’t go up, I can regain (re-lose) whatever ground I might have lost (weight I might have gained). It’s been a few days now and I’ve not felt a need for a cheeseburger since. As my dieting GPS might say, “Recalculating!”

Tax refund on its way, paying extra on my car note, putting some back in savings. One day I’ll see a fabulous pair of shoes that will hit my wallet like that cheeseburger did my tastebuds, and my financial GPS will pipe up, “Recalculating!”

There’s always a way back onto the path to the lush life.

REFILLING THE GLASS IN 2017

colorful_2017_sign

Happy New Year to you, my dear readers! I wish for each of you a wonderful 2017.

Like any year, 2016 brought much personal happiness to some individuals and great sorrow to others – or, possibly, some of both.

Social media indicators show most people feel that in terms of the collective American experience, 2016 was a stinker – social unrest, an utterly loathsome presidential campaign season, and the loss of numerous cultural icons whose contributions to the arts over the decades broke new ground, broke down barriers, and helped define us.

As for me? Well, 2016 held some wonderful experiences for me, but I also fell short of several important goals, and in fact regressed in some areas. I’m not particularly pleased with me.

But you know what? 2016 is in the rearview mirror.

Bye, Felicia.

(I have no idea where that expression came from but it makes me laugh.)

So. Now what? My friend Tim posted a comment on his Facebook page earlier today and I asked his permission to share it, because he’s absolutely right.

pouringintoglass
“People who wonder whether the glass is half full or half empty are missing the point. The glass is REFILLABLE.” – Tim Pierce

Time to refill the glass.

A recent study on www.statisticbrain.com shows that just under half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and of those who do, about eight percent of those succeed in achieving them. But it also states that people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than those who never set any goals in the first place.

I’ve found two completely different approaches to making New Year’s resolutions, and have found both methods to be effective. Sometimes circumstances allow for the more thorough method, but sometimes life demands the other, more succinct approach.

Right after I moved to Nashville in October 1990 I answered an ad for a job interview. When I got there, I learned I was one of about 30 people at the “interview.” It turned out to be a sales pitch for a company trying to recruit sales staff for time shares.

I almost walked out, but I didn’t, and I’m glad. Because from that unlikely source – the modern-day snake oil salesman who led the meeting – I gleaned a bit of very practical advice that has stood me in good stead over the years: a simple three-step process that helps you define what you want out of life, and clarify how to get it.

  1. Write down five goals you want to achieve in three months’ time.
  2. Write down five goals you want to achieve in one year’s time.
  3. Write down five goals you want to achieve in five years’ time.

He encouraged us to take our list home with us and write down specific steps under each goal to help us achieve that goal. He wanted us to understand that without specifics and without a realistic plan, you can’t reach your goals.

I never became a time share salesperson, but I did set some goals and define some steps I wanted to take. That proved helpful for me at a time in my life when I was living in a new town, looking for a new job and new friends and a new life.

There is something powerful in forcing yourself to take your vague longings and look at them to see what, exactly, it is you want and need – out of life, out of your job, out of your spouse, out of yourself – and to say so in very specific terms, and to verbalize explicit steps you can take to get wherever it is you want to go.

The beauty of this three-step, incremental goal-setting strategy is that you can have 15 completely different goals, OR you can use the short-term goals to help make more realistic, reachable, incremental marks toward achieving the longer-term goals.

You can do whatever you want to. They’re your goals.

But you know what? Sometimes life runs over you like a freight train.

You have a health crisis, a marital crisis, a period of anxiety or depression, or even a spurt of increased business that makes you work 60-hour weeks or longer, where you barely have time to do your laundry and get your garbage to the curb, much less have meaningful conversations or read a book. Much less get to the gym, or have a quiet time for meditation and centering yourself. Much less plan a healthy diet or grocery shop for diet-friendly fresh fruits and vegetables that will survive until you have time to cook them. It’s all you can do to keep your mail sorted and make sure you’ve got clean underwear.

Those three sets of five goals? You just sort of wave to them in passing.

And in those times, when you’re frazzled, overworked, overwhelmed, despairing, when you can’t see the way forward, that’s when my other approach to New Year’s resolutions kicks in.

do-the-next-thing

Do the next thing. Ancient words from an anonymous Saxon poet, with a simplicity and  a wisdom that struck a chord with Christian writer Elisabeth Elliot, who in turn passed it on to her readers, one of which was me.

When you can’t see your way forward, when you can only see the step immediately in front of you, just take that one step. Do the next thing. And then you can see what to do next. You do that next thing. And then the next. And the next, for as long as it takes to get out of the fog.

Here’s the thing about New Year’s resolutions. People think that if you’ve stopped doing them by the third week of January, you’ve failed. But you’ve not failed. You didn’t set a new January resolution. You set a new year’s resolution. You’ve got all year to try. And you’ll need it. Because most of us start and stop, and have to start all over again. The key is to keep trying.

My friend Tim is right. It matters not whether the glass is half empty or half full. The point is, the glass is refillable.

Bottoms up, and Happy New Year.

champagnetoast

via Daily Prompt: Year

CHRISTMAS TREES I HAVE KNOWN

Friday night after Thanksgiving my parents helped me put up my Christmas tree.

I love my Christmas tree. I spend a lot of time with it every year – usually at night, just before bedtime, in a darkened room, where the tiny colored lights shine their message of the season’s peace and soothe my soul as I contemplate life’s questions large and small.

I prefer a fairly traditional tree, with the traditional fire engine red (not burgundy) and dark green colors (not lime or citrine or turquoise), tiny multi-colored lights, and garland. I trim it with garland and wooden cranberry beads, red bows and peppermint canes, and a hodgepodge of ornaments collected over the years – some with sentimental meaning, some gifts from family and friends, some just because I thought they were pretty. I call it my red tree, and it might not be everybody’s idea of a pretty tree – it’s not trendy, you know – but it suits me very well.

It’s not the same as having a live tree, of course. But several years ago I reluctantly bowed to expediency and purchased an artificial pre-lit tree. I had had one too many battles involving berber carpet, six-week-old dry pine needles and an old vacuum cleaner; and one too many battles with the city’s refusal to haul away my old tree, and having to rely on the man who mowed my yard in the spring to haul its dried carcass off at the first mowing. And even then, some years I would have to postpone getting rid of it because an enterprising bird would have built a nest and begun a family, and I would have to wait until the eggs had hatched and the baby birds had flown.

So, no more real trees for me until I have hardwood or tiled floors, and until I have a vehicle big enough to haul it away, or friends willing to do it for me.

But my tree is missing something else: Ivory Snow®.

 

Ivory Snow Box with Marilyn Chambers-8x6.jpg

The Christmas trees of my childhood

The scent of Christmas for me will always be the clean smell of fresh evergreen mixed with the scent of Ivory Snow® laundry detergent. When I was growing up, my mother carried on a tradition from her girlhood of mixing Ivory Snow – first in flakes, then, as technology “improved,” in concentrate – with water and a little salt to harden it, then taking a dishpan full of the sweet-smelling “snow” outside to “snow” the tree.

Snowing a tree was a grand excuse for my siblings and parents and me to get into “snowball” fights. Hey, it was soap, right? It could only make us cleaner.

We would let the Ivory Snow “snow” dry and harden overnight, then bring the tree in the next day to decorate it with lights, gold and silver garland, and ornaments.

We put peppermint canes on the tree until we got our miniature poodle, Penny, when I was 10. Penny liked to eat the peppermint canes off the tree. Within a day the bottom two feet of the tree would be bare of candy. Eventually my parents decided to stop putting peppermint canes on the tree for fear that Penny would pull the tree over one day while we were all at work and school. But she never forgot, and until the end of her days, whenever we brought a Christmas tree into the house, Penny would immediately begin sniffing its boughs for peppermint.

For many years, after Christmas I would pull a sprig off the tree along with one of the peppermint canes, and stash it in a box, sometimes writing a note of a Christmas memory from that year. Eventually I tired of hoarding small jewelry boxes of dried pine needles, but I always hated to say goodbye to a tree.

I still do the peppermint canes, but as far as I can tell, Ivory Snow® is no longer available in powder form, thus ensuring I will never be able to completely replicate the Christmas trees of my childhood.

 

Dick and Jeannette and Russ and the kindness of strangers

I’ll never forget my first Christmas tree as an adult living on my own. It was Christmas 1989 and I was living in an apartment complex off Lawndale Drive in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I lived for my first two years out of college. Across the way from me lived a middle-aged couple named Dick and Jeannette. She looked like Tammy Wynette, and he looked like a lumberjack, and in fact he owned a Christmas tree farm up in the Blue Ridges somewhere.

I didn’t know Dick and Jeannette except in passing, but one day we ran into each other outside our respective apartments, and they asked if I had my tree up.

“No, I’ve never had a tree,” I said. “I’ll be going to Mississippi for Christmas, and I don’t have a lot of extra money for one and I won’t be here for most of the holiday anyway.”

“You should get one,” they said, and I promised to think about it.

About a week later I came home from work and found standing in front of my door a little Scotch pine about three feet tall, in a red and green metal Christmas tree stand. In its top boughs perched an envelope with a Christmas card that said, “All it needs is a few lights, a little water and a lot of love. Merry Christmas! Love, Dick & Jeannette.”

I went to Walgreen’s and bought a box of peppermint canes, one strand of gold garland and one silver, two cards of tiny red bows to tie onto the tree, and two 50-light strands of lights, one white and one multi-colored. It might have been the most perfect tree ever. I wish somewhere I had a picture of it, but I don’t think I do.

When I lived in south Nashville I would go to a tree lot next to Harding Mall at the corner of Harding Place and Nolensville Road. My first year, as I was looking at trees, I found one then looked around for help, and approached a man in Carhartt coveralls.

“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked.

He looked at me and said, “You.”

We went to get my tree.

“Can you put it in my tree stand?” I asked.

“Yep.”

He put it in the tree stand then wrapped it in netting.

“Can you tie it into my car trunk?”

“Yep.”

And he did.

Then, finally: “Do you take a check?”

“Yep.” A long pause and a small upward tug at the corner of his lips. “You have an honest face.”

Every year thereafter, Russ would help me put the tree of my choice into the red and green tree stand that Dick and Jeannette had given me, wrap it in netting, then tie it into the trunk of my tiny car, first a Hyundai Excel, and later a Toyota Tercel.

I never really got to know Dick and Jeannette or Russ, but I think about them every Christmas with gratitude.

 

Going artificial: the blue tree, the peppermint tree, and the traditional red tree

Pre-lit trees were still pretty new to the decorating scene when I first decided to go the artificial tree route. My first artificial tree was a 7½ -foot blue spruce in K-Mart’s Martha Stewart line of products. (The K-Mart guy said some choice words trying to fit that box into the back seat of my Tercel.) It’s a beautiful tree and it looks wonderful when it’s put together but it’s almost as much trouble as a real tree. It is not pre-lit, and it has branches of differing lengths with color-coded tags on the end of each wire branch to indicate into which level holes of the “tree trunk” I should insert the branch.

Eventually I purchased my current tree, which is pre-lit and a thousand times easier to put up and take down than the Martha Stewart tree or a real tree, and although it’s not as full as I would like, it is still pretty. But for a few years I lived in a partially furnished house that allowed me room to put up both trees. The lady who owned the home had a blue formal living room, so I decided to decorate the Martha Stewart tree in blue, white and silver. It was lovely. I thought it might be anemic-looking, but instead, it gave an air of serenity, its blue and white colors reminiscent of moonlight on snow.

bluetree

Then in 2014, after I had returned to Tennessee from law school and both my pre-lit and my Martha Stewart tree were in storage, I purchased a solid white Christmas tree for my little apartment and decorated it all in red, as my “peppermint tree.” In 2015, in a more permanent home and once again in possession of my belongings, I took the white tree to work, where it adorns one corner of my office.

pepperminttree

One day when I live somewhere that allows room for two trees, I’ll have the blue tree again. I might even have a peppermint tree there, too. But in the meantime, I must limit myself to my old-fashioned red and green tree, which comes as close as I can currently get to looking like the real Christmas trees of my childhood.

redtree

And I’ll fix a mug of tea and sit before its lights in the quiet of the night and think my thoughts, dream my dreams, hope my hopes and pray my prayers. And its ornaments will remind me of loved ones and memories. And its evergreen boughs will remind me of everlasting life. And its lights will remind me of the Light of the World. And thus it fulfills its purpose, artificial though it may be, just as a real tree gives its life, to spend these few weeks every December honoring the One who gave His life for us, Whose birthday we celebrate this holy season.

And I’ll go to bed and sleep in peace.

THE EMBRACE OF HOME

Above: Mom and Dad leaving for church on Easter Sunday 2016.

Like most jobs, my job entails duties of a certain cyclical nature. It holds a certain natural ebb and flow, so that – while it’s a stretch to say it is ever stress-free – periods of long hours and high stress alternate with periods of manageable work loads and lower stress.

For the last lingering weeks of this summer, I found myself suddenly feeling spread thin. It caught me by surprise. By Labor Day I found myself mentally and physically drained when I stumbled through my front door at the end of the day. At night I would sink into the mattress, but often could not rest my muscles until my mind finally slowed itself down. In the mornings – two alarm clocks notwithstanding – I would find my body reluctant to accept that I was indeed asking it to get up and propel itself through a shower, to the office, and through the demands of the day.

adulting

I needed a vacation. Being an introvert, I longed for nothing more than to go somewhere – preferably to a beach somewhere – alone and do nothing except sleep, eat, read, and go for long walks in nature, with no need to meet any demand or expectation of anyone.

But I found a different (and as it turns out, a better) option. Last week I took a few days off from work and drove home to stay a few days in Mississippi with my parents, who obligingly cleared their calendars and stocked their fridge so that I felt no obligation to go anywhere nor do anything – neither cook nor clean nor help fold a single dish towel – nor see anyone that I did not choose to go or do or see.

“Whatever privacy you need, you just take it,” Dad said.

“Sleep as long as you want, and do whatever you want,” Mom said.

And they were as good as their word. They went about their business, including me and happy to have me whenever I chose to go along, but leaving me to my own devices. So instead of being alone in a strange place, I found myself in familiar surroundings, with ample time to sleep, journal, pray, surf the Net, watch TV, read a couple of books, and – as always when I go back to Mississippi for any length of time – to reconnect with my childhood self.

In bed at night, I would listen to the barking of the little Shih Tzu in the fenced yard of the neighbors across the street, tied to a tree with its crate nearby. Deep into the night the little dog would yip and howl its loneliness, begging to be with its owners in the house. I would find myself carrying on an imaginary conversation with it in my head.

“You matter, little one,” I would send out to the dog mentally. “I wish I could take you home with me and play with you and love you and show you that you matter.”

“But this is my family,” I would imagine its reply. “My family that gets off the school bus, and that plays with me and feeds me. I appreciate your concern but I know them. I would rather stay with them. One day they will love me more.”

And eventually both the dog and I would drift off to sleep.

I would awaken in the mornings to the “Cheep! Cheep!” of a family of cardinals bustling in the bushes outside my bedroom window as emerging morning sunlight began to outline the edges of the window blinds. Mourning doves would trill and coo softly. From the other end of the house I would hear the shower running as Dad got ready for the day, and the clacking of Mom’s house slippers as she made her way to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.

During the day I would drive the streets of the little town and pass the house where my grandmother lived and my siblings and my cousins and I spent hours in our coming-of-age years, an era where innocence and optimism ruled our young lives in spite of social upheaval and racial unrest in parts of our country and a war in distant Asian jungles. I would feel stirrings of that same eternal optimism. I would remember that, because of my parents and brother and sister, my grandparents and cousins, I am, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians, “rooted and grounded in love.”

I visited with my nephew, and my niece and her new husband and my brand new great-nephew. I visited with my first cousin Lisa and her husband, children and grandchildren. I enjoyed Bible study with my parents’ Bible study group and a sociable meal with the group that my parents meet for dinner most Friday nights.

Some vacations involve seeing new places and experiencing new things. Those vacations are a lot of fun and rejuvenating in their own way, but they aren’t always restful. I hope I can have a vacation like that sometime next year. But for now, this vacation worked for me. It offered just the right balance of rest, privacy, and interaction.

My parents – who happen to also be my best friends – plan to travel to Colorado soon to visit with my brother and my sister and her family.

(They have always been “have suitcase, will travel” people and they love road trips. They never fly when they can drive. For them, traveling truly is as much about the journey as it is the destination. I find it strange sometimes that I didn’t inherit their wanderlust. I like going to new places, and then if I like that place, I’ll just keep going back to it over and over again. There’s a place for the familiar, but I have to fight getting into a rut.)

Even though my visit with my parents is over and I’m back in my Tennessee home tonight, I will miss them while they’re on the road. I’ll worry a little and anxiously track their progress and visit Accuweather.com at least once an hour to check out the radar between Mississippi and Colorado. I’ll pray there’s no snow and ice on the roads in Rocky Mountain National Park, which I know they will visit while they’re out there.

Let’s face it. Even though I am about to wrap up my first half-century of circling the sun, even though I have a job with many responsibilities, and am responsible for my own finances and my own life, even though I haven’t lived closer than a two-hour drive away from my parents since 1983 – there is a part of me that remains a child, emotionally tied to my parents in a visceral, immutable way. And based on what I have observed of others, I’m not alone. We all grow up, but separation anxiety appears to be a permanent condition.

Today my parents left for church while I stayed behind to pack and get on the road for the drive home. Before they left, they hugged and kissed me. Mom packed food for me to bring back and slipped me a $20. As they started to back out of the driveway, Dad poked his head out and called out, “The angel of the Lord encamps round about those who fear Him, and He delivers them!”

Thus blessed in practical and spiritual ways, I took to the road. A cotton field bursting with big white bolls waved me goodbye, and the Natchez Trace Parkway took me over the Tennessee River, a figurative gateway from childhood to adulthood. But the child in me still feels the warm embrace of home.

Below: Cotton waiting for harvest; the Tennessee River flowing beneath the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge.

cottonfieldnatcheztracetennesseeriver