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!”

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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.

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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.

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.

HOW TO HAVE A GREAT FAMILY REUNION

On the last Saturday of June each year, my first cousins, my siblings and I – and our parents, spouses, kids, in-laws, grandkids, and other cousins and friends – gather for a long weekend in Mississippi to reconnect and strengthen our relationship as extended family.

We started this tradition in 2000. Over the years, as new spouses and other friends and extended family drop in, we have learned that they consider our reunion unusual in that we all like each other, get along well, and choose to be together. In fact, we go to a lot of trouble to be together.

Here’s how it all started.

My dad had one brother, Uncle Yewell Wayne (which Dad, as a child, shortened to “Nayne”) and one sister, Aunt Ella Mary. My brother, sister and I grew up in Mississippi some 30 miles from Aunt Mary and her husband, our Uncle Lyman, and our first cousins Mac, Sarah Lynn and Lisa. Our ages were complimentary: Mac and Anita were the same age, and Bob and Sarah Lynn were two years younger, so Anita and Sarah played together and Mac and Bob ran around together. As babies of our family, Lisa and I brought up the rear and were playmates from the word go.

Uncle Nayne and Aunt Lois lived in Louisville, Kentucky, so we rarely saw our more distant first cousins, twins Perry and Kerry and their younger sisters Patsy and Nancy. But they came to Mississippi for one glorious week every summer, and we had a grand time. Perry and Kerry hung out with Mac and Bob, and Patsy and Nancy and Lisa and I played together.

We were prototypical children of the 1970s. I remember we all went on a hiking trip one year, all riding together in a big Chevy van, and on the way home we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” – still receiving heavy rotation airplay – to the tops of our lungs.

I had a device called a Lemon Twist, a black tube with a loop on one end and a plastic lemon on the other. It was like a one-legged jump rope; you kicked your leg to get the lemon rotating around, and you’d jump with the other leg. Lisa and Nancy and Patsy and I did the lemon twist for hours one summer, accompanied by our two favorite songs of the moment: The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’.”

(If you can’t remember what a Lemon Twist looked like, here’s a link to the commercial. It’s pretty trippy.)

And then we all grew up. We started getting into high school and summer jobs and romances and dating, and college and marrying and starting our own families; the annual visits from Louisville became fewer and fewer and the Mississippi cousins went our separate ways. We all talked by phone on major holidays, but in terms of staying close, we gradually lost touch. I think the last major visit from Louisville was in 1981.

It went on this way for years. In 1992, Mama Ferrell, our mutual grandmother and family matriarch, died. The Louisville folks came for her funeral, and we spent time with each other for the first time in many years. We stood around Mama Ferrell’s grave and said we would not go so long, next time, without seeing each other.

But then we did. And then, one day, it was the year 2000. By now one of the Louisville cousins had relocated to Knoxville, and my sister and her family were in Dallas, I was in Nashville, Mac was in Nashville, and our cousin Sarah and her husband Les were in Phoenix. On one of my visits to Mississippi, Lisa and I talked about it. It had been eight years since we had all promised to stay in touch, and we had not. So we decided we would put out feelers to see how everyone would feel about a reunion. We took a survey to see what time of year would work for the most people, whether they would want to have it in a central location like Nashville or come to Mississippi, what kind of food, what type of facility, etc.

We settled on the last Saturday in June as being after school ended but before vacation time. The Louisville cousins said they wanted to come back to Mississippi, to the place where they had come every summer during their childhood, and the rest of us agreed.

The first few years we rented a pavilion in Tishomingo State Park, a lovely rustic park built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps from locally quarried sandstone and limestone. We reserved a pavilion on a lake with paddle boats. But it was June in Mississippi, and after a few years we found a little building in the Belmont city park that offered air conditioning, a meeting room with tables and a refrigerator for perishables and a sink for washing up, and a large front lawn for what would become the annual bocce ball tournament.

We try to keep the food relatively simple. On Friday nights we gather at my parents’ house and have baked ham sandwiches, chips and dip and desserts. Saturday, the main day of the reunion, happens at Belmont City Park. For the first few years, we would grill burgers and hot dogs and bratwurst, with everyone contributing side dishes and desserts. Later we branched out into smoked pork loin or chicken quarters or barbecue, and fried chicken. We visit all day, talking, playing Apples to Apples or Pictionary or Scattergories or charades inside, and bocce ball and frisbee outside. The little ones run through sprinklers and blow bubbles and draw chalk drawings on the sidewalks. We stay until dusk, when the bats dive for mosquitoes and the swallows are roosting in their nests above the door to the building, then we clean up and load the cars to go rest. On Sunday morning, Lisa hosts a brunch at her house. By noon we begin our hugs and goodbyes (usually with a few tears), then those of us who are traveling hit the road to return home.

Everyone who can come, does. My sister and brother, now in Colorado, manage to make it about every other year. My generation’s children became instantly hooked on it, and now their children are the ones running through the sprinklers. This year we had three newborn babies, the oldest one not quite four months old. Every year there are those who cannot come, and there are some who have never been able to make it. But everyone is always welcome.

So we have a set weekend, decided upon by majority vote, that is inviolate; we have a food routine, always subject to change as circumstances change; and we have a location that works well for us. But it takes more than that to make a family reunion a success. Here are some (heretofore) unspoken rules that our family follows from year to year that take our reunion from obligation to a highlight of the calendar year.

  1. No one postures. No one brags about money or material gain or success in this or that field. As Lisa’s husband Arthur once said, marveling, “Y’all don’t try to outdo or out-talk or out-anything. Nobody puts on airs. Y’all all just like being together.
  2. No one gets into politics. Our family members’ views rank from pretty far right to pretty far left, but we leave that at the door. We may not have a lot in common in some ways, but we have a shared history, shared grandparents, shared blood, shared memories, shared values, a shared love of music, and a shared need for the enrichment that extended family brings. We love each other. We are committed to staying in touch with each other. We don’t care about our differences. We knew each other as toddlers, long before we developed those differing views. As a result, we know, love and accept each other for who and what we are. All are welcome. Anything that might cause unnecessary dissent or hurt feelings is just not on for us.
  3. Likewise, any hard feelings between individuals are either non-existent (usually, in fact, which is amazing) or, like politics, are left at the door. Everyone wants to be considerate of everyone else. No one wants to embarrass everyone present with an unseemly public display of emotion or conflict. Except love. Everyone pretty much wants to demonstrate love.
  4. No one forces anything on everyone else. No one is forced to endure long stretches of anything they don’t enjoy. No one is forced to play contact sports, no one makes everyone else a captive audience to their karaoke skills. Everything is optional. We do have a prayer over the food (of which there is a staggering quantity and variety). We do sometimes have a “hymn sing” at the old piano, which once graced my grandmother’s living room, for a few songs, anyway. But no one takes over.
  5. Profanity is left at the door and blue humor is shared discreetly one-on-one or not at all. Children are present, and while we’re not angels, there is an unspoken rule that we keep the main gathering family-friendly.
  6. By the same token, alcohol does not play a role at the three main gatherings on Friday night, Saturday during the day or Sunday morning. What people do when they return to their homes or hotel rooms is up to them.
  7. We don’t have a program. We don’t have an agenda. We don’t have a dress code (other than, hey, it’s Mississippi in June, so be cool). We don’t have a schedule. We have no pride, no ego. Our relationship with each other means more than self-promotion. Our sole purpose for the entire weekend is to just be together.
  8. Underlying all the above rules is this: we respect one another.

The bonds between cousins get stronger every year, helped along by social networking and texting. The value of extended family as friends, apparently a rarity in the world at large, is the norm for our family. We consider it a great gift, and we cultivate it and do not take it for granted. We are committed to it. Like the song says, love isn’t just something that we have, it’s something that we do.