THE SACRED SEASON

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Today, like churches all over the world, my church observed the second Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation to welcome Baby Jesus, the Christ Child, whose humble birth Christians celebrate at Christmas.

For me, an aura of holiness seems to saturate the very air every Christmas season. Christmas Eve, in particular, holds a particular sweetness to me.

One could argue that it’s a carryover from my childhood anticipation of awakening the next morning to the wealth of gifts that the mysteriously powerful Santa Claus would have left under our Christmas tree overnight for me and my brother and sister.

Or maybe it’s the giddiness of having my grandparents spending the night and my grandmother singing, “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and then watching the 10 o’clock news to see the weatherman tracking Santa’s progress across the weather map.

Or it could be the joy of snowing our Christmas tree, decorating it, then sitting in front of its twinkling lights in a darkened room that night before we go to bed, savoring the quiet, letting the peace of just being still calm our hearts and minds.

Or perhaps it’s the anticipation of meeting my cousins at my great-aunts’ house on Christmas Day for a delicious meal followed by an exchange of gifts like socks, pencils and crayons, and Lifesaver books, then watching my brother Bob and cousin Mac setting off fireworks in the middle of the rural Alabama road.

Or it might be the joy of being out of school for several weeks, and the happy near-certainty of getting to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with my first cousins.

But, no…no. No, those are not it. All of those things contribute to the pleasures of the season, but none of them hold the essence of Christmas. They are special things, but in and of themselves they are not sacred.

Every year, I read magazine articles and devotional booklets that rail against the commercialism of the season and moan about how easy it is to become so busy that you forget “the reason for the season.” But for me, the underlying sacredness of Christmas permeates everything: the greenery and candlelight in homes, in stores, in churches, even in offices; the brilliant twinkling colored lights of countless downtown street lampposts; the gala atmosphere of parties with coworkers, families and friends; the favorite music and television shows and movies of the season; the hustle and bustle of stores as people seek gifts to delight loved ones; the sparkle in children’s eyes as they watch the community Christmas parade and run to catch candy thrown from floats and clowns and beauty queens and Santa. Somehow, in all of it, I find the joy of the sacred.

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Christmas also highlights for me, more than any other holiday or season, the strong elements of the Jewish faith that permeate the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The dates of Hannukah coincide with the Christmas season. This year my Jewish friends will celebrate Hannukah beginning the evening of December 24, 2016, and extending through January 1, 2017.

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Many Christmas carols feature melodic lines with minor chords typical of music from the Jewish tradition, as well as lyrics from the Old Testament prophets that predict the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus’ lineage, as listed in the first chapter of Matthew, reads like a Who’s Who of the Old Testament. His parents took Him to the temple as soon as they could, where Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah and proclaimed it to all within hearing. When He was 12, Jesus debated in the Temple with rabbis and scholars, neglecting to tell His parents, Joseph and Mary, of the change of schedule for the trip home.

This Christmas season I find myself feeling even more strongly this visceral connection to Christianity’s roots in Judaism.

I am currently reading a book that reminds me of why I find reading such a delight. On every page of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, I find myself learning something I did not know before, and marveling at how much information exists out there. The more I know, the more I realize how little I know about this world we live in.

And somehow, in reading this book and marveling at the intellectual nuances of the Jewish faith, I find my own Christian faith stronger. Stronger, and yes, sweeter, as we progress through the Advent season toward Christmas Eve, the sweetest, holiest, most sacred night of all.

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In my mind’s eye, Christmas Eve has always been, and still is, overlaid within the embrace of a midnight blue sky lit by the twinkling glimmer of a hundred thousand stars; with the sensation of angels’ wings brushing the air around me; with the ethereal harmonies of a heavenly chorus echoing softly in the air; with the shadows of shepherds and sheep dotting the moonlit hillsides; with the dim lantern-glow of a stable warm with firelight and the sweet musty smell of hay and livestock as a young, overwhelmed couple contemplate their newborn child; with the mysterious Magi compelled to journey across long miles to bring gifts for the King they know the Christ child to be.

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Christmas Eve is sweet anticipation that yields to the joy and relief of Christmas Day, when Love came down, when all that is sacred became flesh and they called His name, Emmanuel, meaning, God with us.

via Daily Prompt: Sacred

SWIMMING AWAKE

Here’s a little something I literally dreamed up last December. 

It’s No Alarm Saturday, so of course my conscious mind abruptly surfaces from my dream at 6:30 a.m. Then I remember: though it is Saturday, I did set my alarm because it is the morning of the Hartsville Christmas parade, which starts about the time I would normally be pouring myself a bowl of cereal.

Still, I am awake a full hour early. And it’s kind of a relief. I had been struggling for some little while, dreaming I was back in college, and had returned to my dorm from a trip to find I had been assigned a new room.

I was trudging down the hall from one dorm room to another, a giant Christmas teddy bear tucked under one arm as I lugged a boxful of CDs. I passed the room of a law school friend who happens to be a musician. (Apparently my dream returned me to the days of co-ed dorms, which had not yet dawned when I was actually in college living in a dorm.) He was getting ready to go out to play a gig, and he had a musician friend with him, waiting for him to grab his banjo – Merle Haggard. Not old Merle Haggard: young, Bakersfield-era, 1960s handsome, devil-may-care Merle Haggard, propped insouciantly against the doorframe of my friend’s dorm room.

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The Hag sized me up as I passed by. He looked at the teddy bear – why, oh why, did I have to be carrying something so atypically girly-girl when I ran into a reprobate like Merle Haggard? And why did I even care? – and disdainfully raised one surly eyebrow. He did not smile or nod or speak. I did not pass inspection. I did not merit his effort. I was not surprised.

Aaaand…I wake up, feeling vaguely relieved (but not yet sure why), and conscious of a pounding headache. I lie in bed, taking stock. This is a BC Powder level headache. As the details of the dream come flooding back, I realize I am relieved because in the dream I was unexpectedly having to put forth a major effort to get myself situated in Life. This morning, I am relieved of that responsibility. I am lying in my own bed, and for now, there is no hurry.

However, I do have this headache. Why? Was my blood pressure elevated during the dream? Is it a stress headache? Suddenly I hear, from somewhere up inside my nostrils, a small “snick.” I feel a shifting of pressure behind my eyes. I raise my hand underneath my nose and experimentally huff out a breath onto the back of my hand. Air (and thankfully nothing else) comes from the right nostril. From the left, a faint wheeze. Sinus. Definitely sinus.

I get up and take the BC and a shot of Flonase, and return to bed, pondering the dream. Its elements are familiar.

  • I come home from vacation facing upheaval over which I had no control, but which requires major effort from me to get re-settled.
  • Music and Christmas décor are important trappings that I want in my environment wherever I go.
  • I am dissed by an attractive Alpha male who makes no offer to help me with my load.

Yep. Familiar ground. Can I go back to sleep now? Wait…do I want to? I can do without that kind of stress.

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®.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ON ANXIETY: GLEANING NEW WISDOM FROM OLD WORDS

 

 

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“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

“To have and to hold from this day forward…”

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“For God so loved the world…”

Words mark the passages of our lives. The most powerful or memorable words of all – such as those at the beginning of this post – become so familiar they require no explanation. But sometimes their very familiarity can lessen their impact.

Let me pause right here to explain something for the benefit of new readers. I write this blog for a general audience. Because it is personal, it inevitably reflects my spiritual beliefs, which run deep. But I have many friends and readers who respect those beliefs without sharing them, and if you fall into that category I hope you will keep reading today, and that you will find something to take with you.

Last week I found a particular Bible passage popping up multiple times. It showed up in different devotionals that I receive from two different denominations (Methodist and Baptist), and in my Facebook newsfeed from a couple of different people.

When something or someone repeatedly shows up on my radar – especially from unrelated sources – I take note. So when I read Philippians 4:6-7 for the fourth time this week, I gave it some thought.

Here’s the New American Standard Bible version.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

And then, Friday night, I was having an online conversation with a friend when she shared with me a particular issue that was worrying her.

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I wanted to ease her mind. The passage from Philippians came to mind, but I didn’t want to come across as having an “abracadabra” approach to prayer, treating God like The Great Magician – you know, just say your prayers, and poof! – all worry is gone, all problems immediately solved.

In fact, my friend actually asked me that. Did these verses mean that if she prayed, God would just take away her worries? Suddenly I knew she needed more than a pat, orthodox answer. And just as suddenly, I realized the Apostle Paul had written words with a very practical application that in all my years of reading these verses, I had never comprehended.

“This is very practical advice,” I found myself responding. “In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see that even for someone who doesn’t believe in God, this is practical advice.

“First, in the process of articulating your request (or, at least your need), you’re identifying the source of your anxiety, which reduces it from a huge cloud of amorphous YUCK to something specific and finite. This step alone helps it to seem more manageable.

“Second, the verse tells you to focus on the positives and enumerate the things for which you are thankful. This also reduces fear. Either or both of these steps can help free your mind up enough for your natural problem-solving abilities to kick in and for you to think creatively toward a solution.”

Obviously, these exercises in positivity begin their work by helping us to alter our internal mental landscape. That can, in turn, lead us to solutions for the external sources of worry. It’s a tried and true approach to life. “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Or, as the Carter Family sang, “Keep on the sunny side of life.”

But much is beyond our control. And for those of us who believe in a loving, personal God, that faith brings an added measure of hope and comfort.

I come from a long line of worriers. Whether it starts as a general sense of protectiveness and concern for loved ones, or mulling over personal issues and struggles, a certain amount of worry is a knee-jerk, natural human reaction to the stresses of life. But I’ve found that if I indulge in it, over-thinking can easily cross the line into chronic anxiety, gnawing fear and downright panic.

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Next time, I’m going to follow the advice the Apostle Paul first gave to the church at Philippi, that still resonates in our stressful, harried world: first, prayer, putting your fears, hopes and needs into words; and then, thinking with gratitude about all that is good in your life, and in the process, remembering that everything changes and the current difficulty will pass.

It’s still a winning formula.

A Safe Place To Write

Recently an acquaintance posted on Facebook to express her disdain for the word “compelling,” calling it “the dullest, most non-descript, dead-giveaway word” that people use “to prove…value instead of contributing actual value.”

This startled me. I had never thought of “compelling” as a posturing sort of word. I found myself anxiously scanning my most recent Bemusings post to see if I had described anything as “compelling.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute. What if something I read or heard or watched compels me to take some sort of action? To reevaluate my priorities or my opinion of something or someone, to make a phone call to someone I’ve not talked with in a long time, to volunteer for something? What if ‘compelling’ fits? I’ll use the word ‘compelling’ if I want to.”

I get it. I do. I get the need to stay away from clichéd phrases that lose their impact from overuse, or lose their meaning from misuse. I have a few pet peeves of my own: for instance, “each and every.” I personally would like to fish-slap everyone who uses that phrase.

And then I remind myself that I’m not always right. That not everyone agrees with me. That not everyone who uses the phrase does so without thought. That legitimate uses for the phrase do exist. That some people use the modifying phrase for its original purpose: to give extra emphasis to its object. (That my 10th grade English teacher would give me a big fat zero for writing an entire paragraph composed of sentence fragments.)

In short, I remind myself that I am not the Language Police, and I should not judge others harshly for using a phrase I despise. Some people like the phrase, and (*sigh*) that’s ok (I guess). Some people just haven’t thought about it one way or the other. Should they be told to sit down and shut up? And if someone tells them to sit down and shut up if they can’t use a more original phrase, should they?

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I am slowly but surely working my way through a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The book’s premise encourages readers to trust that creativity exists inside each of us. Encouraging us to tap into our own creativity, Cameron tells us to give ourselves a safe place to start trying. We must give ourselves permission to be a beginner, and to not hold our first stumbling efforts at whatever we’re doing (writing, painting, singing, knitting, whatever) up to professional standards. The goal, initially, is to simply take the first steps on the creative journey.

In the beginning, when you’re just finding your way, you sabotage yourself if you apply harsh self-criticism to your endeavors. Plenty of other people will happily point out the flaws in your creations without you doing it to yourself. And no matter how much experience you gain, you will find your faith in your creative worth sorely and repeatedly tested. You will need to muster every ounce of your faith – specifically, faith in the belief that God, the Creator, created you in His image and therefore created you to create as well – to keep moving forward. You simply have to give yourself permission to sometimes produce work that just isn’t that great. And even when others write scathing commentaries that (even if they’re not about you) nearly paralyze you with feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, or make you wonder if you’re setting yourself up for ridicule and humiliation because you’re just too cliched, or naive, or whatever – well, what of it? Nobody died of humiliation. So, take courage. Persevere. Work to get better at your craft.

When I began this blog a few weeks ago, I set a goal to post on a weekly basis, as I had essentially done for nearly five years as a small-town newspaper editor, with a weekly column. There were times when inspiration came slowly, if at all, and I was pounding out a column mere hours before press deadline. Sometimes quantity trumped quality.

In my few short weeks as a blogger, I’ve encountered a new element: the capacity to measure my own writing against that of other bloggers. I find it exhilarating. Perhaps I should find it intimidating, but, I confess, I do not. Rather, it challenges me to be more mindful in my approach to writing, to pay attention to and be more adventurous with the use of design, photos and videos. It challenges me to be mindful of the quality of my content. But it also provides a place for me to grow, and to learn from others: iron sharpening iron, as it were.

Before reading The Artist’s Way I preferred to write well or not at all. You would think that blogging would make that more of an imperative than ever. So many people out there – some who don’t even consider themselves writers – write beautiful, witty, emotive, powerful, substantive prose and poetry. Some include artwork to go with their writings. Some focus on particular topics, while others, like me, write whatever comes to mind.

I tend to follow the adage to “write what you know.” Occasionally I find my own company so boring I wonder why anyone would want to read my work. But sometimes I find myself in the throes of an experience many others have shared, and I know people will relate.

It’s been a few days now since I posted anything, and I haven’t felt particularly inspired. But I feel compelled (see what I did there?) to write anyway. Some weeks will just flow more easily than others. And that’s ok. I’m writing again. The rest will come.

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.

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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

MAGICAL MUSICAL MOMENTS

Picture this: a standing-room-only crowd in Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, everyone in the audience on their feet, clapping, dancing and singing (in harmony, because, well, this is Nashville), “Help me, Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda, help me, Rhonda, yeah, get her out of my heart.”

On stage, legends Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin backed by a band of multi-talented musicians, performed for well over two hours: Beach Boys original songs, some later works, some deep catalog pieces, then the entire Pet Sounds album, and finally, a rousing sing-along of hit after hit songs I have heard my whole life. Then Brian closed with a tender rendition of “Love & Mercy,” and we filed out, subdued but suffused with…well, with love.

I had the great joy of experiencing this moment last Friday night. I’ll be singing Beach Boys songs for the next month or so, probably. They make me happy.

You don’t have to live in Nashville, or L.A. or New York, to know there’s something incredibly special about hearing a song performed by the person who created that song. It’s a transcendent, magical moment. Anybody who has ever been to a concert to hear a favorite artist has experienced it. But some places make these moments more accessible than others, and Nashville is one such place.

I have been fortunate to experience such moments more times than I can count. But no matter how many times I experience it, it never gets old. It’s new every time. It thrills me to my toes, every time. It seems like a miracle. And if creativity is an expression of the divine inside each of us, then I guess maybe it is.

When I first arrived in Nashville in late 1990, I found myself working for a television syndication company on Music Row, in an office on the first floor of a music publishing office building. Soon I was having the time of my life. I fell in love with the live music experience and I have embraced it ever since.

Some of these magical moments have happened in the intimacy of a dark, smoky little dive of a nightclub watching a handful of songwriters in the round. Some I have shared with hundreds of thousands of other fans, such as the three times I have seen the Rolling Stones in concert. Some came as an extraordinary privilege granted to me by virtue of the years I worked for WSM Radio, where I often stood to the side of the Opry stage and watched the artists performing from the famous center-stage circle of wood, or sometimes even listened in a dressing room as they rehearsed before going out.

I’ve seen John Prine singing “Paradise” and Paul Davis singing “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” and “I Go Crazy” at Douglas Corner. I’ve seen Mac McAnally singing “All These Years” at City Winery. I’ve seen Keith Urban at the Bluebird. I’ve seen writer’s nights in nightclubs, in hotel lounges, in church fellowship halls and elementary schools. Kenny Chesney, Neil Diamond, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Beth Nielson Chapman, Dean Dillon, Fred Knobloch, Radney Foster, Larry Carlton, Ed Bruce…and on and on.

I watched and listened to Vince Gill singing “When I Call Your Name” on the Opry House stage with the incomparable Dawn Sears by his side on harmony vocals. I heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band singing songs from their first, second and third Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, along with hits like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Fishing in the Dark.”

I saw Eric Clapton rocking “Layla” at Bridgestone Arena. That’s also where I went to hear Simon & Garfunkel with Phil and Don Everly. When they sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” their voices intertwining, Art Garfunkel’s clear tenor soaring, “I’m sailing right behind, like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind…” I wept.

After the Ryman Auditorium reopened in the early 1990s, I began attending events there. I saw the King’s Singers, and the Canadian Brass Quintet, and the Harry Connick Orchestra, winter Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and innumerable Bluegrass Night at the Ryman performances.

I danced the night away at Vanderbilt Stadium when I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time on their 1997 Bridges to Babylon tour. Sheryl Crow opened for them. I didn’t sit down all night. On the shuttle ride back to our car, my friends and I named about 20 hits they hadn’t had time to sing. I saw them again in 2002 at Bridgestone Arena and yet again in 2015 at LP Field.

In July 2012 I attended the Friday Night Opry the night Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees performed there for the first time. It was barely two months after the death of his brother Robin, and Barry was the oldest and the only living brother left. He sang “To Love Somebody,” one of the Bee Gees’ standards and probably their most covered song. Then he began singing “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” a song which Robin had traditionally opened on lead vocals. His voice cracked, just the tiniest bit. But he soldiered on, because that’s what professionals do.

In my mid-40s I left Middle Tennessee to go to law school. When I returned, one of the first things I did was go to Ryman Auditorium to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza, ablaze with its contagious rockabilly cheer. Afterward, as I stood in the shadows and lights of the Batman Building, I felt Nashville welcoming me back home.

Once my sister Anita came to visit me, and I had a chance to share with her firsthand how easy it is to find this magical experience in Nashville. We went down to the world-famous Station Inn on 12th Avenue South to hear the Sidemen. One of their standard numbers was a song written by songwriter Paul Craft called “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” which Anita and I knew from Linda Rondstadt’s 1974 album Heart Like A Wheel.

On this particular night, Paul Craft was in the audience. Terry Eldredge, then one of the lead vocalists for the Sidemen, invited Mr. Craft to the stage to sing the song with them. Anita turned to me and said, “Liz! Liz! The man who wrote ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away’ is on stage, and he’s singing ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away!'”

“Yes,” I smiled. “Yes, he is.”

Clockwise, from top left: 1) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Jumbotron at Nashville’s LP Field in June 2015, performing “Far Away Eyes.” 2) Me with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen, Bob Carpenter and Jimmy Ibbotson – backstage at the Opry House, 2002. 3) The Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza 2014, Ryman Auditorium. 4) Me with Barry Gibb backstage at the Friday Night Opry, July 27, 2012. 5) The Del McCoury Band at the 2009 International Bluegrass Music Association awards show at Ryman Auditorium.