“And if they stare Just let them burn their eyes on you moving. And if they shout Don’t let it change a thing that you’re doing…
Hold your head up, oh Hold your head up, oh Hold your head high.” (1972) “Hold Your Head Up” Recorded By: Argent Composers: C. White/R. Argent
I admit it. I am an Olympic junkie. I sat on the couch for two weeks, glued to the Tokyo events. I found myself cheering while taking-in certain sports I normally would pass on, like wall climbing. After a few days, I realized I hadn’t even taken a shower. Yeah, sad, I know.
The human spirit in these games was so evident, even in a pandemic. For the most part, no crowds where allowed to cheer the athletes onward toward the goal. Unless a relative was a coach, no parents, wives, husbands, children, significant others were on the grounds. So, in a way, the competitors found the struggle a bit more challenging without the love felt and heard around them.
The human interest stories attached to some Olympians were in abundance. I would list the notables, but the list is way too long. If you weren’t able to watch, trust me, there were plenty of tear-jerking side stories shared.
These games were a bit different for me personally. The daughter of an old friend of mine made the Olympics this year. Melissa Gonzalez is a 27 year old world track contender in the women’s 400 meter hurdles. She has dual citizenship and was able to represent her dad’s country of Colombia. (Her mom, my old friend, was raised in my area.)
Melissa grew-up here in my neck of the woods and attended University of Texas in Austin, Tx. She was a track star there, but her speed times were shy of Olympian competition requirements. She work every day for years on end to better her times. She prayed about the decision to tryout for the Tokyo games, made the choice, and qualified. She threw-off the personal disappointment, in her less than luster times at UT, and grew wings on her shoes for Tokyo. Melissa had broken her own Colombian record for the 400 meter hurdles, and in the qualifying heat in Tokyo surpassed her national record for a personal best. A few days later, in the semi-finals, she had to run in the rain against a world record holder, and the up-coming gold medalist.
Although Melissa fell short of winning a medal, coming in the 6th place slot, she remains in the top 24 for women’s 400 meter hurdles in the world. Because of the joy she possesses from her deep faith, she held her head up and displayed God’s love wherever she went. She vows to go to Paris for the next Olympics in 2024. You go, girl!
Scores of friends and family met her at the airport when she came home. There were lots of tears shed as they cheered for a job well done. Really, a life well-lived. I’m very proud of her.
Although I was distracted, as my focus was on Melissa’s efforts and stats in Tokyo, I was literally shaken by another amazing, stunning occurrence in the women’s 1,500 meter qualifying heat. Did you see it?
Ethiopian-born Dutch distance runner, Sifan Hassan, 28 years old, would be unheard-of for the casual sports fan. If you are a fan of world track competitions, than you may recognize her as a two-time gold medalist in both the 1,500 meter, and the 10,000 meter events from the 2019 World Championships.
Sifan was flying out of her shoes as she was entering the final lap in the 1,500, when all went wrong. A runner from Kenya was in front of her, tripped and hit the track on her belly, tripping Sifan in the process, hitting the pavement as well.
Photo: Matthias Hangst – Sifan Hassa in orange top.
Seemingly out of the race, Sifan looked up, watching the world contenders quickly leaving her behind. There were eleven of them, the fastest runners in the world, were now between her and the finish-line.
Photo: Reuters/Dylan Martinez – Sifan Hassan
To everyone’s shock, Sifan looked down in defeat and then looked up again with another expression on her face. The track star then stood up, and turned on the fuel from behind the running crowd. With nothing short of astonishing inward fortitude, Sifan poured on the speed. At this point, I thought, “Wow. Nice second effort, but she’s done.”
The lady from the Netherlands swept passed each and every contender in high gear. I couldn’t help but stand to my feet in my living-room as I watched the focus in her eyes burning like the Olympic torch itself.
As she was gradually making up lost ground, on the final straightaway, she pushed herself passed the front pack of five finalists to outrun them all as she crossed the finish-line in first place.
Later in the week, Sifan Hassan made it through the semifinals. On the day of the final heat for the medals in the 1,500 meters, she won the bronze for the Netherlands.
If you’re not familiar with the Bible, the Apostle Paul was a sports fan, from what he wrote. In his writings he uses some Olympic events to help us understand how spiritual faith works, and how it works itself out into action. It’s as if he saw the women’s 1,500 meter with Sifan, and the 400 meter hurdles with Melissa, and wrote the following…
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” – I Corinthians 9:24 (NIV)
Whenever the winners were given a screen to see their family and friends cheering them on back home, it made most athletes smile, laugh, and cry. When Melissa exited the gate from the baggage claim back in Dallas, when she saw the cheering, weeping crowds with their signs and balloons welcoming her home from an effort well-done, there was joy in her eyes. And so this encouragement was written for us…
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
Since the days have passed by, I think a lot about Melissa and Sifan. Mostly, I try to get inside their heads when that moment of decision was made. For Melissa, it was holding her head up above the clouds of self-pity as she felt “less-than” from her college track times. She very well could have simmered in the frying pan of loss, holding her away from world competition. For Sifan, there must have been an instant of overwhelming defeat as she tripped over the Kenyan watching the surface of the track come closer and closer to her face. She was faced with walking off the track while calling it a day. But, somehow, someway, she stood to her feet, endured the pain, and found a gear she probably didn’t know she had at the moment.
How about when you have fallen? Do you recall? Do you remember the scrape to the knees as you hit the concrete of life? The losses, the failures, the defeat can be life altering, or even ending for some. I know this all too well. All things CAN BE endured.
Spiritually speaking, we all have fallen short of the target. The goal in our relationship with our Creator is too far away for our arrows to reach. It’s like an attempt at the long jump over the Grand Canyon. You just can’t achieve it. At the same time, God made a way to bridge the great gap we cannot negotiate. Jesus came here to run the perfect race for us, to carry us across the finish-line Himself, for Himself. Otherwise, because of sin in life, which we all are owners, we would be left on the track without a chance to crossover to where we need to be at the end of our heat.
We are born with our backsides on the surface of the track. But we don’t have to stay there.
A race well-done can only be had by grace, through faith, and easily found in fuel for the race.
“Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. So they do it to obtain a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way as not to run aimlessly; I box in such a way, as to avoid hitting air; but I strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” – Paul – I Corinthians 9:25-27 (NAS)
“…And the rush of crashing water surrounds me with its sound. Striking out to reach you. I can’t get through to the other side, When you’re racing in the rapids, there’s only one way, that’s to ride. Taken down, taken down by the undertow…”(1974) “In The Rapids” Recorded By: GenesisComposers:Anthony Banks, Michael Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, SteveHackett
Earlier in June, I wrote of my experiences while attending my daughter’s wedding in Buffalo, NY. My other daughters, D’Anna and Tabitha, and Tabitha’s daughter, Skylar, as well as, D’Anna’s fiance, Nik, all made the journey from Texas to be at the incredible occasion.
Being former citizens of the Buffalo area, naturally the family wanted to check out old stomping grounds, our old house, and iconic places of the area. Nik, on the other hand, had never been there. D’Anna was on a tear to get Nik to Niagara Falls. Before you can say, “Drip-drip”, the family hightailed it over the Grand Island Bridge to see one of the Seven Wonders of The World. I have never gotten tired of visiting and revisiting this magnificent awestruck creation.
Once there, the kids did what they had time for. They visited The Cave of The Winds behind the falls. They explored the panoramic view from the foot of the falls, while on the deck of the Maid of The Mist touring boat, where you can feel the churning rumble beneath your feet. And of course, what’s a summer day if you miss getting sprayed really nicely climbing the wooden staircase next to the American side of the falls. They were immediately reminded the water is always cold in every season.
For me, the drive just outside the falls, in itself, is something to behold. Before you arrive at the falls, you travel a road which stretches alongside the upper Niagara as it speeds toward the falls. The closer you get to the falls, the more turbulent the river becomes. Some 100 yards, or so, before reaching the rim of the falls, the upper rapids churn and toss the waters filling the misty air with the roar of its rage. I have written before about the ominous, “point of no return” warnings set for boaters, which may be about a mile upstream. By the time you see the rapids racing to the brink, the force of the poundage of the water could violently toss the Empire State Building over the edge. It’s massive. It’s powerful. It’s unforgiving. It’s stirring to walk alongside the rapids as you feel its unmatched strength.
Nik and D’Anna did just that.
At some point, Nik noticed something that caught his eye. Most wouldn’t even notice, or even think about how it happens, but someone with a observant mind would take note. It was this…
There, just a few yards from the brink of the falls, a stubborn tree in the middle of the roaring deadly rapids. They noticed it didn’t budge, sway, or even wobble. There was no detection if the tree was rooted beneath the torrent on the riverbed, or if it was an uprooted tree from upstream which found a stabilizing foothold in the boulders beneath the surface. Nik was amazed at the tree’s resilience as the crushing flood crashed into its trunk, pushing, tugging, and grappling through the might of the raging undertow. So astonished by what he saw, he took the picture with his cell phone. My theory? I believe it to be a driftwood tree carried downstream which jammed one of its limbs in a crevice of a boulder, or two, anchoring it in place, forcing the rapids over, or around it. From what they observed, unless authorities remove it somehow, that tree might never see the edge of the falls.
Flying back to Dallas, Texas, while on my layover in the Baltimore airport, as I waited to change planes I took out the phone to catch myself up on the news of the week. I had been so busy while in Buffalo, I hadn’t seen any news reports Of course, as I began to scroll through the headlines, I regretted stepping out of oblivion.
So much anger, rage, and social idolatry has become the norm in such a short time. Hatred, deception, chaos, Marxism, and crime are on the rampage. Oh, and did I mention hatred?
The one giant elephant in the room parents discovered over the pandemic, as their kids were going to school online, was they actually got to see what their children were being taught. One of which, is CRT (Critical Race Theory), birthed out of the BLM movement. If not familiar with the CRT protocols, its statements, and its goals, you should look it up for yourself. In a nutshell, in very seductive undertows, it pits one race against another. The focus demonizes the white race, teaching all white people are born oppressors. How blatant is that? The focus is to shame the white race with the false idea that if born to white parents, you are unable to rid yourself of being an oppressor, a white supremacist, or a flat-out racist. Even our own president has said as much at his podium.
This twisted, deranged lie indicates a white person can, and will, never shed the haughty attitude of automatically degrading, from the very soul, other ethnic categories of color, especially anyone of African decent. According to CRT, this happens in infancy.
This is all where the phrase, “Systemic Racism” is developed. If you are one of my readers who has brown, or black skin, this places you in a cultural psychological pit in which you do not belong. CRT, if it has its way, has a dangerous, venomous seedling to be planted in your mind. The seedling will root itself in the crevice of your brain, programming you to believe that today, tomorrow, and always, you will be an “oppressed victim”. No matter how much income you deposit in your bank, no matter what level of education, no matter what position you take in the marketplace of careers, you will always have this root growing its limbs and branches, wrapping its warped ideology around and around your mind like a grapevine, or like a vicious cancer. In the end, you will never displace its roots once they have taken the foothold within. The result will not have you moving forward in our culture, but backward to the 1860’s after America’s war to abolish slavery. Instead of what Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about, judging by the character of a person, and not by the color of their skin, you and your children, and their children, will be indoctrinated to adapt the lie of being beneath all whites at birth. That is not a free person. That is not the truth. That is not God’s hand.
CRT divides us into tribes, into mental masters and slaves, and how one race will always be evil. It is also designed to create stigmas of hate within the family unit itself. Ironically, unlike what CRT teaches, so many families are made up of various representatives of races. At American restaurants tonight, many tables will be full of loved ones dining together, who happen to be white and black, Hispanic and white, Asian and black, etc. Not to be missed, there are those wonderful families who have adopted children of various races. I have several white friends who have adopted, or fostered, black children, as well as, kids from other colors of God’s rainbow. CRT targets the family unit at its very DNA strand, which feeds discord. It’s clever, it breeds racism, and it’s deadly.
Is this what we want? Is this leading to a healthy culture, and respectful society? Is it not true that we are all created equal? In the biblical aspect, yes, we ARE created equally. In Jesus, we are no longer these categories: slave and free, women and men, Greek or Jew. (Galatians 3:28 Paul’s writing.) If someone comes along in history with another teaching, they are not of the doctrine of the God of Creation.
Some corporations have adopted the ideology into their HR requirements, especially for leadership positions. The fight to keep it out of our military is a current debate on Capitol Hill as I type this. Now, where various school boards have adopted the indoctrination of CRT into the curriculum, out of social fear or political pressure, some parents are beginning to vigorously speak out at public board meetings. That’s what it will take, patriots who love this nation to stand up for truth, justice, and the rule of law against the rage of a few who wish to see America crumble.
As for me, I hope that tree, in the middle of the rapids in the Niagara, holds tight to its stabling rock. I sure would hate to see it let go due to the sheer weight of the rushing torrent against it, only to see it go over the edge into…oblivion.
A solid rock in midstream was introduced from ancient days in fuel for the race.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, And whose trust is the LORD. For he will be like a tree planted by the water That extends its roots by a stream, And does not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought, Nor cease to yield fruit.” – Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NAS)
“Are we really happy here With this lonely game we play? Looking for words to say Searching but not finding understanding anywhere We’re lost in a masquerade”
(1976) “This Masquerade” Recorded By: George Benson Composer: Leon Russell
As I write this, it’s 104 degrees here in Dallas, Texas, with a heat index (What it feels like with the humidity factor.) of 118 degrees. The last thing I want to do is put on a mask.
If you read my blog posts you already know I don’t write about politics, or political favor, or rhetoric. (At least not directly.) Trust me, I won’t start today.
COVID-19 sure has delivered its punch in various ways. At first we were told masks were not necessary. Soon after, we were told to wear masks if ailing in health in order to protect others. Soon after, we were told to wear them in order to protect our own health from others who may be carriers. Before you know it, we were told to wear them in public regardless. Later we were told it might even be best to wear one in all indoor locations, outdoor locations, and when alone. ALONE? REALLY? So, if you’re hiking alone in the forest, you better have a mask over your big trap. Jeepers, I give up.
Let me start off by saying I want to do the right thing. I’m not one of the rebels you hear about who gets into fights at Walmart because of the lack of a mask on the mug. Beyond all of that nonsense, I have chronic health conditions which COVID-19 targets. To be frank, (and Alan, too) I must wear one when around other people until we have a vaccine. If I contract COVID-19 in my health state, I will most likely die. I know that sounds dark and gloomy, but it’s the truth. So, I do put the stupid thing on.
Yep, that’s what I look like driving up to the bank teller. Times have changed. In case I forget it, I also have a fresh surgical-style mask in my car with the string around the ears.
Before you ask me, I do take off my sunglasses while in the grocery store. Which brings me to a very honest confession. Over the last few months of this pandemic, I slowly began to stop smiling at people I come in contact with. In fact, I find I no longer speak pleasantries to others as I push my buggy around. The only thing I can figure is that I feel hidden, as if no other shopper can see me. Isn’t that the dumbest statement you’ve ever read?
I sing in my church band, but that’s been nixed since the virus shut our normal church services down. For some odd reason I have grown, or shrunk, to feel I am a non-person in public. Therefore, since no one can see my mouth, cheeks, and chin, why bother to smile? Why speak since all is muffled. Mostly, when you feel hidden, what purpose is there to utter a word? Oooh, this sounds harsh. Am I making any sense?
Others must have the same syndrome because I see it in their eyes as they quickly look away from mine. What’s more, I don’t seem to mind the change I am seeing and feeling. Now, THAT’S sad.
If you saw the cover photo above the title, it might have given you smothering memories of Halloween-past. Remember how those loud, crackly plastic masks made your face sweat big-time? By the end of the night’s outing your face looked like it had ventured into a car wash. Then there’s the old saying, “You can throw me in jail but you can’t keep my face from breaking out.” How true of those days.
Speaking of retrospect, this reminds me of a familiar personal mode, which is far too common.
Mask, or not, sometimes we create our own masks. Don’t we? Not shields of cloth or plastic, but inner shields we default to. Like the ancient Greek actors holding up masks on sticks, we tend to hide our true selves in times of emotional turmoil, anger, and fear. As an artistic so-in-so, I buried myself in stage acting, or for various media. As a singer, I would dive into the lyrics, which drove my stage presence to another level different than who I really was. When I began to settle in my radio and voice-over career, I felt more at ease behind a mic in a control room all by myself, even though there were 200,000+ listeners on the other end of the speakers. In short, I allowed these areas in my life to become masks on sticks to hold up in front of my face…which in translation means: Emotions. If thin in some section of the persona, or physical appearance department, we tend to mask it with other tools from abilities, or our personal strengths. This is why most comics, actors, singers, writers are very often shy in their everyday-jeans.
At the same time, if we could only recall that there is Someone Who knows us, every line and wrinkle. There was a purpose for the scripture which states, God has counted every hair on our heads. There was a purpose for the scripture which states, God knitted our tendons inside our mother’s womb. There was a purpose for the scripture which states, God not only knew us in our mother’s womb, but also made plans for our lives, good plans to oversee.
Pay very close attention to the passage below for emphasis. Please don’t miss this. Notice how Jesus uses His words when meeting a man named, Nathanael for the very first time. Check it out.
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One the prophets foretold—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do You know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
“Rabbi,” Nathanael answered, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus said to him, “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” – John 1:45-50 (Berean Study Bible)
No doubt, Nathanael ran back home and shouted, “Look Ma, no mask!”
Although your Creator sees straight through the mask you hold up, others cannot. I will work harder in communicating to others through my eyes. (I’ll act my way through it. LOL)
Knowing, and being known is discovered in fuel for the race.
“And when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was unaware that his face had become radiant from speaking with the LORD. Aaron and all the Israelites looked at Moses, and behold, his face was radiant. And they were afraid to approach him….When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with Him, he would remove the veil until he came out. And when he came out, he would tell the Israelites what he had been commanded, and the Israelites would see that the face of Moses was radiant. So Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD. – Exodus 34:29-30 & 34-35 (Berean Study Bible)
“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free. Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me…” (1968) “The Weight” Recorded By: The Band. Composer: Robbie Robertson
By: Alan Scott Brown
There’s nothing like heat in the desert rising off a paved road. They’ll say, “Oh, but it’s a dry heat.” Just tell that to the sweltering backpacker, Levon “Fanny” Gates. He shockingly found himself in the middle of a wilderness, on the road to a place called, Nazareth, just on the other side of the state line. I say, “shockingly” because before his boots felt the searing concrete of this wasteland, he had been dreaming of the village with its rolling hills, orchards, and well-established vineyards. His freshly cut front lawn was the launching point for a pleasurable outdoor hike through the pines, the cool brooks, and lavish meadows.
As if he had awakened from a dream of the plush land of plenty, he now absorbs the dangerous sunrays, feeling every drop of sweat rolling down his torso. His canvas hat certainly covered his head, but the scorching heat invaded his scalp as if he wasn’t wearing anything at all. Even his denim backpack was soaked in sweat. If it wasn’t 112 degrees Fahrenheit, it would be soon, when the afternoon sun comes piercing through.
Not much vegetation thrives out here, with the exception of sage, cactus, and the occasional Yucca plant. Refreshing rains are welcomed, but scarce and quick. Fanny prayed for, what they called back home, a “gully-washer.”
With each step, he seriously worried about the soles of his old hiking boots. The baking surface of the road is far from friendly, and he felt the waves all the way up to his sunburned face. At first, he wrestled with the thought of his soles melting in the staggering temperature. Then, as he caught up with his fast-forward mind, he envisioned a potential hole in the rubber sole. None of the options were comforting to imagine in this desolate landscape.
Prior to walking into this wilderness, he knew how many miles he had traveled, but now all had changed. His harsh surroundings overwhelmed his calculations, thrusting him into a mystery without a map. A solitary roadside sign mentioned a couple of towns being 200 miles ahead, but they were unfamiliar to him. The miles seemed unending, without a mile marker. Disorientation was setting in as a menacing reality.
Rather than stopping for rest, he made the decision to push himself forward in hopes the next curve, the next hill, or the next valley in the road, would reveal a much needed oasis. Hooked to his belt, he had one full canteen of water, which needed to last longer than anticipated. Fanny was self-rationing his meager provisions with intent.
“I can do this,” he whispered with uneasiness.
Keeping his eyes on the road ahead seemed to help him psychologically. Yet, wild stallions in search for water, a lone service station, or another traveler with a tent would be a sight for soar eyes. But each time he glanced to the left or the right, it proved to be discouraging. In fact, most of the view reminded Fanny of NASA’s photos of the surface of Mars.
The feeling of abandonment was authentic, bleeding from his inspirational thought bubbles of solitude. He tried to be hopeful by telling himself Nazareth must be within 3 miles, 5 miles, or maybe 10 miles. The attempt to distract himself from the tide of broiling air failed at every turn of the road. Before the desert sun could bake his mind completely, he scanned through multiple thoughts, thoughts which could fill a library, only to fool himself with wisps of self-constructed hope.
While pushing his legs to walk an incline in the road, he noticed something he had felt once before on this journey. A pain, a specific pain in his back. Of all the body aches he had endured, this backache was king of them all. Hiking slowly up the side of a hill introduced him again to the racking misery coming from his lower back muscles, mainly from the right of the spine. It was a bit of a mystery in that he hadn’t injured himself, and never had an old trauma from his athletic history. He suddenly was reminded of the adage, “No pain, no gain” from his high school baseball coach. He said it aloud, thinking it would be a magic charm the universe would accept. It wasn’t. Still, his inward need to persevere pushed his weary bones onward.
As he reached the plateau, he celebrated his efforts shouting into the hot breeze,
“BY GOD, I WILL DO THIS!”
As the late afternoon sun played havoc with his vision, Fanny cocked his head to one side as he caught a distant rumble of an engine. Since he had begun to adjust to the mirage of water puddles on the pavement, he tossed it up to “hearing things” due to a bit of dehydration. After a chuckle, he took a couple of strides when he stopped in his tracks. The sound was getting louder. He looked up in the blue sky to see which direction the plane was coming from. It sounded like a single engine airplane from the 1920’s. As he was hunting for the aircraft, he recognized the distinct sound wasn’t a plane at all, but rather a vehicle approaching from behind. He quickly turned to scope out where it originated. Wiping, then squinting his tired eyes, he saw an old blue pickup truck bouncing down the road toward him with its radio blaring a 1940’s big band tune with heavy brass. He wondered where it came from since the area was void of ranches or farms. As it approached, he could see only one occupant in the cab. There was nothing impressive about the old truck, with the exception of the fact it was an older model one might see in a vintage car show, and overly worn, to boot.
As the truck began to downshift, coasting slowly as it pulled alongside him, he could see more clearly the one behind the wheel. The driver looked as if he had just fallen off a hay trailer. He was donning faded grey pinstriped overalls, like the old train engineers used to wear. His misshaped straw hat went well with the old beat-up truck as it, too, had seen better days. With a metallic squeak, the truck came to a halt. It was clearly in much need of a muffler replacement. The ragged driver turned down the radio and leaned over to roll down the passenger side window. It was then Fanny could take-in what the man looked like. He was an old-timer with a weather-beaten face. His bushy eyebrows were salt & pepper mix. His chest-length beard was white and wiry. He had piercing ice-blue eyes which displayed a kindness, all by themselves. Before Fanny could speak, the old man greeted him.
Spoken with a healthy snicker, “Howdy there, young man. Nice day for a stroll in the badlands, wouldn’t ya say?”
The backpacker detected an accent, which reminded him of the deep south of the United States. He wasn’t sure if he was being mocked by the question, or if it was an attempt at levity.
“Yes, sir. It would seem so,” said Fanny, as he took his hat off and wiped his wet forehead.
Without hesitation the elderly man asked with a nod, “What’s your name, kiddo?”
“I’m Levon. Most everyone calls me, Fanny,” revealed the traveler.
The old man broke out in a belly laugh, “Well, who on earth pinned that nickname on ya?”
Fanny grinned, uncomfortably so, looked away and explained, “Yeah, that’s a long story, I’m afraid.”
“I bet so,” replied the old man. “The name’s, Christopher. Through the years, lots of folks have called me by a slew of other names. But, Christopher will do. So glad to meet ya…Fanny.”
“Happy to meet you, Christopher,” the young man said. “Hey, where did you come from? I’ve been on this road all day and I’ve not seen one house, truck stop, or vehicle coming or going in either direction.”
“Oh, don’t ya know?” asked Christopher.
“Know what?” inquired the trekker.
Pushing his hat back to the crown of his head, the old man responded, “Well, it’s very possible you were never informed. This is a one way road you’re on in this dust. Always been that way. It’s true, only one-way traffic on this stretch. That’s the reason why I drove up behind ya. I’ll tell ya, that afternoon sun is brutal through the windshield.”
“Tell me about it,” agreed the young hiker. “You know, maybe you can tell me something. Would you know how far Nazareth is from here? I really thought I would have spied it by now on the horizon, but nothin’ doin’.”
“Nazareth?” inquired the old one with one raised eyebrow. “Is that where you’re off to?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Fanny.
While pointing his finger, the old man said, “Well, kiddo. I can tell ya this, ya won’t get there carryin’ that anvil.”
Puzzled, the young man froze. He looked behind him, turned back again and asked, “Anvil? What anvil?”
The elderly one broke out in laughter once again at Fanny’s answer. “Boy, it’s that 95 pound chunk of solid iron at the end of the rope, the rope draped across your right shoulder there,” Christopher pointed out.
“Ah, yes. THAT anvil,” Fanny stated with pride. “Frankly, I forget it’s there.”
The elder wrinkled up his nose in an inquisitive expression, “You mean to tell me you’ve not felt every muscle in your body burning from the weight you’re towin’?”
“Come to think of it…yes. Yes, I have,” Fanny admitted.
“Well, if that don’t beat all,” Christopher said in response. “I’ve got the perfect solution for ya, Fanny. Take a look inside the bed of my truck.” Seeing the young man’s hesitation, he continued sharply, “Go ahead, son. The Loch Ness Monster ain’t gonna jump out and bite ya. Feel free, take a look.”
Fanny took a cautious small step toward the side of the pickup. As he leaned closer to get a peek, his mouth fell open with a hushed gasp.
The old man said, “Tell me what ya see, boy.”
Fanny took a big swallow to say, “It’s a truck bed full of…well…full of anvils!”
“A whole stack of ’em, I’d say,” described the old driver.
In amazement, the young man questioned, “But, why are they there? I mean…what are you doing with all of those anvils? Are you selling them? Do you work for a salvage yard or something? I’m shocked this old antique can carry the load.”
“Fanny, I guess you could say I collect ’em,” answered the old rugged driver. “In fact, I’ve been addin’ to my collection for many moons now. I could tell ya how many travelers have allowed me to take the load off their backs, but you’ve been sun-baked enough today to appraise anything.”
The young traveler concurred, “You’re right. I’m a bit fried. However, these travelers you’re talking about, are they on this road? I’ve not seen a soul until you drove up.”
“Yes, but everyone has their own journey, and most have similar burdens,” replied the old man. “At the same time, some heavier than others. As you can see, there’s various sizes of anvils here.” After a brief pause of silence, Christopher added, “Here’s my offer, kiddo. If you trust me with your anvil, every pound of it, I’ll help ya toss it behind us, addin’ to the pile. You can unload, and load-up in the cab with me for a straight shot to where you’re meant to be. I just love playin’ the Uber out here. But…keep in mind, the anvil stays in the back. Alligators aren’t allowed in the cab with me neither, ha-ha-ha…”
Fanny looked down at the scorching concrete between his hiking boots and bit his chapped lips in thought.
Christopher, seeing the struggle to find words, added, “There’s rockslides out here, ya know. As ya get close to a hillside, or an upcomin’ canyon, ya might stumble over a stone in your path. When your strength is wrenched, you’ll find it difficult to keep your stance. It’s even worse to find footing after a heavy fall with nobody around to shoulder the load.”
Shaking his head with a look of uncertainty he replied, “No, sir. I have made this trip on my own strength, and I intend finishing it on my own. Besides that, you’re a stranger to me in a beat-up old clunker. No offense, but who’s to say you could get me to Nazareth? I’m sorry, sir, but your offer doesn’t look promising from where I stand. I will do this on my own fuel, and navigation!”
The old man smiled, put his right hand on the stick-shift, looked deeply into Fanny’s eyes and said, “Boy, ask yourself why. Why don’t ya wanna take your load off?”
After a quick mental search, Fanny answered with a tone of resolve, “Christopher, the only honest answer I can come up with is, I’ve grown accustomed to my anvil.”
With a serious timbre in a lower register, Christopher asked, “And the weight of it?”
“I deal with it, just like this unexpected desert,” explained the young one. “Do you understand, old man?”
“Oh, I do, son. I really do understand,” replied Christopher. “Listen, dusk is knockin’. No need for walkin’ in the darkness. I’d say, grab some winks for a fresh start in the mornin’.”
As the elderly man began to roll up his window, he grinned through his long mustache and said, “Well, I know you’ll give it your all. Still, keep in mind, it’s needless for ya to take this desolation, with all its loneliness, and the weight you’re carryin’ solo.” With that, he put the truck in gear, turned up the radio, and off toward sundown he drove.
Fanny continued his trek with a bit of angst in his steps. Christopher somehow offended him with the offer of a free lift, as if the old man thought him weaker, frail, and without survival skills.
He began grumbling to himself, “How dare that ancient dinosaur-of-a-coot say I needed help through this parched piece of earth.” Still, in the attempt to bolster his decision, he raised his voice a notch, “Who does he think he is? He’ll see me in Nazareth, sitting under the shade of an apple tree, sipping on a glass of their best vintage. He’ll be shocked to see me resting on my anvil, without any aid from his sorry rack of rust.”
With all his energy depleted by his rant, Fanny began to look for a safe spot to sleep for the night. Darkness had fallen, but the moonlight helped in the hunt for a place to bed-down. Soon, he located a soft sandy mound with his name on it. He found sun-dried chaparral fit nicely for kindling.
Overnight hours passed and the silence was deafening. As usual, he used the anvil as a pillow, even though the shape was not friendly for his head. He found the surface of the iron was still warm from the sun, which was welcomed as desert nights tend to issue a chill. Unfortunately for the camper, as the nature of anvils, its surface turned cold.
From time to time he heard a small rock roll off the side of a rise just feet from where he was laying. Another time, he was awakened by what he thought was the flapping of large wings. He imagined buzzards mistaking him for a dead man. He then tried to keep one eye opened, but exhaustion won the moment. Another awakening caused him to jump when he heard an insect scratching on his ear. He began to inwardly acknowledge his sleep would be thin at best.
Without knowing why, he opened his eyes from a sound sleep. It was just before dawn. Across the road from where he camped, he swore he caught a shadow figure racing from the road into a ravine on the other side. Startled, he bounced up to a sitting position while fixed on the area where it vanished. What he wouldn’t do for a pair of night-vision goggles. After a minute or so, and a few hyper heartbeats, he shook his head and took a helping from his canteen.
Unable to go back to sleep, Fanny stretched his legs, and his sore back, in preparation for the day ahead.
“The sun is winking at me from over the hills, ” he said as he reached for his anvil. “There’s no time like the present.”
He peeled back the wrapper of an energy bar from his cargo pants thigh pocket, finishing it in record time.
With the young morning sun at his back, and the anvil dangling once again from the rope hoisted over his right shoulder, Fanny felt new aches making themselves known in his calves, ankles, and feet. He thought to himself that if he just put one foot in front of the other, the pain would work itself out.
As he made his way, his mind was flooded with the movements and sounds he heard overnight. He convinced himself that he was in no real danger…or was he? Like a video clip running through his mind, he couldn’t erase the glimpse of the unknown shadow figure dashing away from his makeshift pallet. As hard as he tried, he remained at a loss concerning its identity. In the end, he boldly rationalized the thought. He determined the quiet swiftness indicated a cougar, or a coyote. The “what might have beens” gave him a sense of authentic fear he had not felt before.
Hill after hill, ridge after ridge, no sight of his goal. With every turn, curve and valley, he had hopes of seeing the ornate village painted in his mind as the heated hours wore on.
During the mid-morning, the searing winds kicked up with a devastating blow of a wall of dust and sand from the west. Immediately, it became a battle for each inhale. Fanny pulled his hat over his nose and mouth for protection. Vision became sparse. Tiny grains of sand stung his skin like miniature darts speeding from a horizontal projection. Through the torrent of hot dust and sand, he spotted a boulder nearby and ran to the east side of it, blocking the onslaught of the turbulent blast. After what seemed like an hour or so, the sandstorm passed. With tremendous relief, Fanny came out from behind the boulder, grateful he had discovered it when he did.
With a couple of clearing coughs, he thought to himself, “What else can happen on this journey?”
By early afternoon, he was running low on water. His fear rose each time he shook the canteen to hear the lessening of the swish. His quads were beginning to burn in his thighs. His shoulder was bruised from the rope slung over it, cradling the anvil. A growing headache, once only a nuisance, now pounded from the top of his head. Realizing he was experiencing a deeper dehydration, he guarded against panic. He was beginning to despise the constant mirages of heatwaves appearing as glimmering bodies of water. Suddenly, he heard Christopher’s words from the day before, challenging him with the question of why. “Why don’t ya wanna take your load off?” He found himself flirting with the question.
Mid afternoon descended. After following a sharp curve in the blistering road, Fanny peered into the shadow of a small canyon wall just ahead. The shade spread all the way across the road, and then some. There, on the shoulder of the roadway, about 40 yards away, was a figure of some kind. Cautiously advancing toward it, there, in the shadow of the rock wall, he saw Christopher casually leaning against the tailgate of his blue pickup.
“It seems we meet again, kiddo,” shouted Christopher with a wave. “The shield of a nice-sized rock in a desolate place is mighty fine, wouldn’t ya say? It’s nice and comfortable to me. Come on over, I’ve been waitin’ for ya.”
Fanny found he was somewhat relieved to see the old man, and a convenient shade. He smiled, shook his head in amazement, entering the cooling shadow of the canyon.
As Fanny got closer to the truck, he scratched his head and asked, “How did you know I would be here at this time of day? Are you stalking me, old man?”
Christopher laughed at the question and replied, “Who knows? Maybe the old truck is equipped with radar for weary travelers.”
Wiping his hands on the front of his well-worn overalls, the elder turned to the pile of anvils in the bed of the truck where he pulled out ice cold bottles of water from a Styrofoam ice chest.
“Here ya go! Fanny, take a load off. You deserve it.” ordered Christopher.
Right away, before breaking the cap seal, Fanny first put the cold bottle against his neck, and then his forehead. With a deep heavy sigh, an expression of relief fell over his face.
“Ahhhhhh, that feels so good,” said the hiker.
“No doubt,” answered Christopher. “Tell me, how did ya sleep last night?”
After opening the bottle for his first couple of gulps, the backpacker responded, “I hate to say it, but it wasn’t that great.”
“Oh, really?” replied the old man.
Delaying his answer with another long swig of water, “Let me tell you, the desert may not be my kind of surroundings. I heard noises I couldn’t examine. There were sounds coming from everywhere, including what I think were buzzard wings. That’s way too close for comfort.”
“Is that right?” Christopher said slowly. “What else?”
“You may think I’m nuts, but I spotted a quick shadow I couldn’t identify just on the other side of the road,” described Fanny. “It’s not something I look forward to seeing ever again. By the way, just how many miles is it to Nazareth from this canyon? As far as I can tell….”
“Ya know, owls are night hunters,” Christopher interrupted. “They keep rabbits and rats on the run for sure. Wingspans can be impressive. Such a wonderful creature. As for nocturnal critters in general, I could write volumes on the kinds and species out here. They’re everywhere in the cool of the night. Some folks just let their imaginations run away with them like a train on grease. Truth is, they all were created with excellent night vision. In that respect, they’ve got a leg up on ya.”
The young traveler admitted, “It sure made for an uneasy night.”
While checking the lose left side of his back bumper, the elderly man stated, “Ya know, fear is an enemy. Fact is, it comes in many forms. You might even compare it to a parade coordinator-sending one flatbed float rollin’ by after another, all designed to frighten every person from every walk of life. Your walk of life happens to be on this very road, in this very desert. But always remember, fear is a liar. It promises the worse case scenario in most all situations under heaven, and yet rarely delivers. Son, it’s always best to think of all things as fleeting.”
Fanny laughed and belted out, “FLEETING? Ha, this desert isn’t fleeting Did you see that sandstorm?”
“Hang on now. A liar’s performance is to convince his audience,” stated the old one. “The sudden desert you approach will be full of woes. Hard things happen. Expect it. It’s part of the learnin’ curve. Oppression bubbles up. Depression develops. Illness lurks here and over there. Pain arrives, creeping into your skin, your muscles, your mind, and even your very soul. Soon, a lacking drains your strength, your joy, and eventually, your reasonin’. Yes, the desert is all of that and more. It’s a beautiful place, too…in its own way. The colors and scattered shades are brilliant. Yet, there’s danger out here. There’s isolation expected, married to obscurity. It’s all about who ya face it with. But the sweet truth is, when journeying through the desert, like ya are, you’ll find it’s only temporary. All parades must end, even sandstorms.”
The young man paused for a moment before speaking, “But if there is a learning curve to suffering, what and where is it? I mean, where’s the final exam in this hellish classroom?”
Christopher stroked his wiry beard for a moment. He turned toward a scenic view of the desert and explained, “The better question would be…Why experience it alone? Look out at this barren ground. Each step is a test. You are gettin’ an education, albeit in a lesser degree without an instructor. My offer still stands, kiddo. Let’s take this anvil off your back and put it where it belongs…behind ya, without a rope attached.”
Fanny bent down to tighten his boot laces during an uncomfortable silence. He then stood up, adjusted his canvas hat, looked at Christopher and responded, “No, sir. I will finish this challenge I’ve walked into. It’s not that I don’t appreciate your free offer, but, there’s something to be said about knowing my own conditioning will push me to my destination.”
The elderly man’s ice-blue eyes twinkled as he challenged the young traveler, “And when your anvil of comfort breaks your fleeting, temporary strength, with no one there who is stronger to save ya…what then?”
“Thus far, I’ve adjusted to its weight. It’s okay, really it is,” said Fanny in a softer, kinder delivery. “It may take me a while, but I will get through this desert. But, I can’t wait to feel the soft, cool blades of grass in Nazareth under my bare feet The universe will give me strength.”
“Don’t count on the universe. She’s unforgivin’, and unable to love, ” said the old one. “You, my young man, will find you’re bein’ schooled in the land of waitin’.”
With that said, Christopher watched Fanny strap on his anvil for the journey out of the shadow of the rock wall. Just then, the old man pulled out a brown paper bag and two more bottles of water from the bed of his truck.
“Okay, kiddo,” holding out the items. “Here, ya take these. You’re gonna need it.”
Fanny displayed a large grin at the kindness Christopher displayed. “What’s all this?”
“Well, there’s various items of protein in the bag, some nuts, dried figs, jerky, and some cold sliced pineapple you’ll wanna eat pretty soon,” explained the elder.
Laughing, the hiker inquired, “Pineapple???? Where did you get pineapple out here?”
Christopher just giggled with a lovely childlike delivery as he opened the door to the truck, got in, and started the rattling engine with a backfire.
“Here’s to hopin’ we will see one another again, ” said the old man. “Ya know, hope is a healin’ thing. Even in a deserted place.”
Fanny replied quickly, “I could use that for sure.”
“I know ya do, son. I know ya do,” stated Christopher as he put on his sunglasses. “Be aware of the shadow figures, Fanny. It’ll serve ya well. But, with that said, I’ve never read an obituary where a shadow killed anybody.”
With a whistle on his lips, and his hands on the wide steering-wheel, Christopher began to slowly drive back into the punishing sun. The young trekker raised his hand slowly to wave the old man off. Just then, Fanny realized he never thanked Christopher for the provisions.
Two days and nights passed. It was about noon when Fanny found himself dragging his feet, literally, across the baked concrete in near total exhaustion. With each painstaking stride, he began scanning the horizon for the old man’s pickup. His energy was virtually depleted, and he knew it. The morning delivered some scattered clouds, which aided the weakened young rambler, but now, nothing but abusive piercing sun shutdown all effort. He felt himself wanting, even craving, a visit with the caring driver.
Just as Fanny journeyed down a slope, from a crest in the roadway, he tripped on something. As if in slow motion, he fell forward, hard onto the hot pavement, in unison with a loud ringing thud as the anvil met the road. He screamed in pain from the impact and fierceness of the raging temperature of the road. He quickly turned over on his backpack as a buffer from the concrete. It took him a minute to collect his mind. He looked for wounds, finding a few scrapes and cuts to his elbows, cheek, and the palms of both hands. He noticed his pants were ripped at the left knee as blood began to find its way through the khaki fabric. Troubled at what caused him to lose his traction, Fanny looked around to find the object which caused the fall. There was nothing there. Unable to bend his left knee, he struggled to push himself up on his right leg. With the rope still in his hand, he tested his body for limping to the side of the road. The pain in his knee was crippling. It was a mammoth project as he slowly hopped his way to the sandy shoulder, dragging the anvil against the hot pavement.
Assessing his ability to trek ahead, he noticed something protruding from the bottom of the toe of his right boot. A closer look revealed a piece of the sole of the boot had come loose, and had partially folded back while dragging his feet during the endeavor to keep walking. Whether it was heat exhaustion, the brutal conditions, or a pure wake-up call from injuries, the young hiker admitted being trapped, for the remainder of the day, right where he sat.
As the sun slowly descended into the western sky, Fanny tried to lift his spirits. Finding a small bit of shade under some brush, he began to sing every hit song he could recall from his teen years-songs that made him smile. He busied himself mentally listing his family tree as far back as the war of 1812. With each mental exercise he was surprised at the slowness to fire-off a thought, or memory. He wondered about heat stroke.
“It would seem the elements are doing a number on you, Mr. Gates,” he sarcastically mumbled to himself. In pain, the hiker laid under the tiny shade of the brush for any relief he could manage.
Sounds seem louder when sleeping. Fanny jumped with a start from a nap he didn’t intend on taking. After a few seconds of clarity, he realized he was hearing the tail of a rattlesnake. By sheer instinct, Fanny turned over from his position, discovering in the sand to his left a five foot rattler, curled up maybe 12 feet away. Fear raced through his senses.
Somehow the young man pulled himself together and looked around for a rock. There, by his left boot, were five golf ball-sized sandstones. His eyes once again shifted back to the poised snake. Visions of film footage of how quickly snakes can crawl and strike ran through his head. Unable to bend his left knee without shooting pain, he grabbed the anvil rope, tossed it at the rocks, maneuvering one within reach. He thought to himself, “I have one shot at this and it better be right, or I’m toast.” He methodically, but slowly, reached the rock, grabbed it, then threw it at the rattler with a shout, all in one motion like a professional shortstop. Speedily, the snake reacted, slithering out to the middle of the road and stopped. Fanny trained his eyes on the reptile as it turned its head toward him again. The hiker pitched another rock toward the snake, but this time unmoved.
“Oh, no you don’t, you little beast! Don’t even think about it!” threatened Fanny.
Keeping his eye on the snake, he examined his precarious position. Unable to move quickly, due to his knee, and without a weapon at his disposal, he knew he was a sitting duck. The unexpected desert miles had been cruel, but he covered much ground. Just as he began to question his endurance to reach the other side of the wilderness, he now might see it end-thanks to a new enemy-and a damaged sole.
Surveying every item within reach for a defense, the young traveler’s anvil caught his eye. His mind landed on the reality of the weight of it. Mentally, he began to blame it for his current dilemma. Ninety five pounds of iron needlessly held him down from where he wanted to be. In the assumption he could’ve run from the snake just minutes prior, the anvil would’ve proven to be the end, holding him back for the snake’s lunge. However, in a sick, twisted thought process, his admiration for the useless anvil melted the angst.
Late afternoon approached, and Fanny’s nemesis remained vigilant in a curl, with its expressionless cold stare from the road. The scene was looking darker for the injured young man. He imagined the worst.
Feeling a bit delirious, the trapped hiker’s anger boiled, “So, do you have a nest around here? Maybe you have a brood nearby you’re protecting. Is that why you’re gawking at me? They’ll all make terrific belts, you pile of scales! How does that make you feel? Tell me, is your crawl really quicker than my hop? Look, I know what you’re waiting for. You can’t fool me,” he said, taunting the rattler. “When darkness comes, you’ll slither your measly self over here and take chunks out of me, as I slowly kill over from your venom. I know your kind. I was married to someone like you!”
Fanny was massaging his emotions to accept his coming death. Dreams were dashed, hope only a dream, and his efforts toward his goal had been wasted energy. In a moment of clarity, he looked over at his companion: the anvil. In the light of his circumstances, he knew it suddenly didn’t seem to hold much value. True, Fanny had grown accustomed to the weight on his back, but in the reevaluation, it seemed foolish to have imagined it to be part of himself in daily life. In an odd, and maybe an ironic way, it took a trauma in a desolate place to see the fulfillment of the truth.
Another hour slipped by, closer to the coming dusk. Fanny suddenly had gained a fever. He could feel chills and cold sweat rolling down his chest. His time waned in the growing darkness. His new enemy seemed to detect Fanny’s weakened state, raising its head off the pavement. Desperation danced through the stranded hiker as he grabbed the empty canteen, the only defense against the waiting venomous reptile.
During a somewhat morbid consideration, Fanny pictured where the fangs might sink in first. Like a strategist, he began to maneuver his body so that the strike of the rattler would target closer to his hands and arms for a better shot at defense. About that time, his ears detected a familiar remote sound. He cocked his head as he zoomed-in on the distant echo of what appeared to be a big brass band, combined with the hum of an engine. The young man smiled as he identified the modulation of old pistons, pushing an antique pickup in his direction. Fanny caught a glimpse of the old blue truck rounding a curve, where it began to slow down with its radio blaring away, until coming to a complete stop. As it did, the right front tire crowned the head of the cunning rattler with a defining crunch. The driver’s side door opened and out stepped Christopher.
“Well, if it ain’t young Fanny restin’ on his laurels,” he said with warm grin as he walked toward the young man.
Fanny had gasped when the truck’s tire parked on the snake.
Christopher sarcastically asked, “Son, are ya hungry? Your mouth is wide open like a newborn sparrow in the nest.”
“You…uh, I guess you know, you rolled right on top of that rattlesnake. How did you manage to do that?” quizzed the injured traveler.
“Oh, practice, I suppose. It happens,” answered the lighthearted elder. “I see ya got yourself all banged-up there.”
Sheepishly, Fanny began to explain, “Yes, sir. Earlier today I was so spent. Not realizing my toes were dragging, my sole separated a bit from my left boot, causing me to trip and…well, here I am.”
While scoping out the young man’s injuries, Christopher mentioned the obvious, “Ya fell on your face, I see.”
“In a manner of speaking, I sure did.” admitted Fanny.
The old man knelt down to get a closer look at Fanny’s damaged boot.
“Hmmm, yep, I’m no cobbler, but I see what happened,” speaking slower and in a softer tone, “Ya know, where the ‘soul’ separates is a lonely place to be. What have ya learned, kiddo?”
One side of Fanny’s bruised lip raised as he said, “Seeking shelter is a wise thing.”
“Is it now?” stated Christopher.
“No doubt, ” admitted the young trekker. “I have come to realize that I’m not ‘all that’.”
“Now, give yourself some credit in this journey of yours,” the old one said.
“What?” asked Fanny.
Christopher explained, “Ya didn’t think about how ya said it. In all your boldness and anger, ya once shouted, ‘BY GOD, I WILL DO THIS!‘”
Beside himself, Fanny raised his voice in astonishment, “Hey! How did you know about…I mean…that was a few days ago now…and on top of that, I was in…”
“In the desert, all by yourself. I know,” interrupted Christopher. “You might as well have had on a wireless microphone. That was actually the beginning of your learnin’ while on this path. With all the wreckage in your life, you were searchin’ for solitude. Most people do. Ya see, there’s a big difference between solitude, and isolation. It’s ironic, isn’t it? In your isolation, ya never really were alone.”
The young man being perplexed raised his voice, “Excuse me, but I still don’t understand how you…”
Christopher interrupted again, “Not many do understand, kiddo. Even the ones who are most scholarly, with all those initials after their names, can’t get their arms around it all. Some, the honest and most humble, will even admit it. I’d say you’re in good company.”
Fanny still reclined there, looked down at his skinned hands and torn pants in a sense of surrender.
Breaking the uneasy moment, the old one spoke up, “Now son, here’s the deal for this time, for this place of desolation; will ya accept my offer? You’re in the middle of this trip, but near the end of your journey. I won’t return to these parts for some time, and here, in the waitin’, is the opportunity for decisions. Trust me on this. Take my hand and I’ll give ya a lift to where ya wanna be. As a brash up-and-comer, a lad once told me, ‘It doesn’t look promisin’ from where I stand.'”
The young man accepted without delay, “Yes, sir. I’m ready to move out of this God forsaken place.”
“Uh, not really… ‘forsaken’,” Christopher said with a familiar snicker. “You have much to learn, young Fanny Gates. Come on, I’ll help carry ya to the truck. Ya ain’t heavy.”
With Fanny’s left arm around Christopher’s neck, and the anvil hanging from his sore right shoulder, the duo methodically made their way to the old truck.
After a couple of steps, Fanny asked Christopher a simple question, “I take it you know where Nazareth is, right?”
The old man opened the passenger side door, helped the younger into the truck and informed him, “Well, of course I know where Nazareth is. As far as the eye can see from this spot, it’s nothin’ but desert. Still, Nazareth is not too far from here.”
Just before Christopher closed the passenger door, he asked, “Uh, son, aren’t ya forgettin’ somethin’?”
Fanny looked bewildered until he saw Christopher gazing at the anvil sitting in his lap.
He responded, “Christopher, do I really need to give it up? It’s been with me for as long as I can remember. Over my lifetime I’ve adjusted to its weight.”
“This is the very crux of my offer, Fanny,” Christopher uttered with a straight tone. “Somewhere down the line, you were lied to. You only ASSUMED ya needed this weight. Ya must unload what has weighed ya down in order to come with me. Now, tell me straight up. Are ya willin’ to allow me to toss it behind us, to put it to bed?”
Seeing the sincerity in the old one’s ice-blue eyes, understanding it meant everything to him, Fanny agreed to let go.
With the anvil among the others discarded in the bed of the old truck, the aged one cranked-up the engine, took control of the steering wheel, and began to make a u-turn.
“Hey, Christopher, you’re going in the wrong direction!”, the traveler said with alert.
“You were hopin’ to go to Nazareth,” stated Christopher. “Number one, ya wouldn’t have been able to get there by your own power. Number two, I’m your only Uber out this way. Number three, you were headed west on a one-way road. Nazareth is east of here. Always east.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll just have to trust you on that.” said Fanny.
With that, the old man replied, “Yep, yep ya must.”
“Christopher, there’s just one thing of concern here,” Fanny said. “I don’t have any cash on me for your fuel.”
After a satisfying smile on his old weathered face, along with a slight shaking of the head, Christopher replied, “That’s another thing, kiddo. Ya never could’ve purchased your way to Nazareth. It’s all been paid for ahead of your arrival. Burden-free, son. Burden-free.”
When loaded down, crushed with the stuff of life’s curses, unload with fuel for the race.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowlera and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”– Psalm 91:1-6 (ESV)
“Every breath you take and every move you make Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you Every single day and every word you say Every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you.” – (1983) – “Every Breath You Take” – Recorded by: The Police (Sting) Composer: Gordon Sumner
Creepy, isn’t it? I always thought so. I felt that way about the lyrics of “Private Eyes” (They’re watching you…) by Hall & Oats. Who would’ve ever thought there would be something so spooky connected with Christmas?
December for me was the anticipation of my mom breaking out my old Christmas pal, Elfie. He was an elf doll dressed in a red velvet body suit with a Santa hat on top of a soft plastic head, along with a face garnished with rosy cheeks. In fact, I believe there was a little jingle bell on the point of his hat. He was skinny and maybe 8″ tall. The mittens on his hands were sown together, creating a loop with his arms for slipping over a doorknob, or a thin bedpost. For this little boy, he not only was a celebratory pal, but he was also the visual symbol that Santa was soon to arrive. He spent many Decembers with me until one Christmas Eve my dog, Tickey, found Elfie’s plastic head to be a chew toy not to be resisted. I cried, but forgave Tickey…eventually.
Many years ago, when producing radio theater plays for a radio network, I had an idea which came to me like a sled on an icy roof. While producing my second Christmas radio theater production, I decorated the recording studio in all things Christmas. When coming into the recording session from a 100 degree July day in Texas, you needed something to help transport the theater of the mind to December. As I recall, I even had the air conditioner set to a frosty level. Some of us even had to wear jackets or sweaters in the session. In honor of my old buddy, Elfie, it seemed appropriate to have a few of his descendants brighten the studio. Some actors found it intimidating while delivering lines from my script.
Of course, all of the above was way before the Christmas craze we now know, and affectionately call, “Elf On The Shelf”. My granddaughter, Skylar has one. If you don’t have children, or grandchildren going headlong into the American Christmas traditions, you may not know who Elf On The Shelf is, or what he is rumored to do. Well, let me enlighten you before December 25th settles upon us. This elf doll sits on the shelf, the bed, the table, the mantle, ect with eyes wide opened. At Skylar’s house he surprisingly appears in the most unexpected places every day. He’s not gazing in amazement at the traditional holiday decor, or the Christmas gifts under the tree, or even the wintry changes in weather. Nope, not at all. Just like the lyrics from The Police, his one and only job is to watch…okay, I’ll use the word “spy”, on the children of the house as he reports back to Santa for his big global flight. The little snitch is all about deduction of potential gifts on Christmas morning. OUCH! I guess Santa is too old to be seeing when you’re sleeping, and knowing when you’re awake. Age has gotten in Kringle’s way when it comes to knowing if you’ve been bad or good. Oh, for goodness sake. Now it seems Claus has a built-in security camera in the form of a sneaky elf, who sits on a shelf, keeping a sharp eye on the do’s and don’ts. Now if that isn’t creepy, I don’t know what is. At least the fat old man in the red suit wasn’t peeking through the closet door of my bedroom each night of the year. I guess that’s of nightmare status, like movies called, “Santa’s Claws” or “Santa’s Slay” Yikes! Okay, I’ve gone amok. I apologize.
Back to sanity now. I will say Skylar isn’t bothered by her Elf On The Shelf at all. She’s had about 3-4 years of having his judging eyes on her for a few Decembers. Frankly, I’m not sure if she is better behaved because of it. So, in the end, I will say he might not cause lasting psychological scars. Maybe we will know more in the next 20 years.
Certainly, if you read my last post you might surmise I am one of those Christians who shuns anything in the fluffy & puffy from the Christmas tradition arena. Well, no, I am not in that category whatsoever. Like a foreclosure sign in the lawn of a palm reader’s house, you didn’t see that coming.
Putting child psychology aside, the Elf On The Shelf, and St. Nick’s omnipresent, omniscient eyes are truly the opposite of the authentic act of the first Christmas. Can you guess what the difference is?
Contrary to a popular belief in our culture, I am not eternally rewarded by superior behavior walking in my shoes today. Let it be known: I AM SOOOOOO IMPERFECT! While I’m at it, don’t take Elf On The Shelf as a picture of what a good Christian does. The Babe in the manger grew up and said we should not judge anyone, or we will be judged. It’s not the Christian’s job to sit on a shelf and search for others to flub, fall, and falter. If you’re under a spiritual teacher which pounds that misnomer into your ears, I say run and never look back. In fact, a better suggestion is to take a pair of your well-worn shoes, nail them to his/her office door with a note which reads, “Walk in these for awhile.”
Sorry for my rabbit trail on thought. I’m no Scrooge. Really, I’m not.
As cute as Elf On The Shelf is, he is theologically off. The child in Bethlehem’s manger Christmas night was a free gift wrapped in swaddling clothes. You don’t get a free gift because you necessarily deserved it, but because someone loved you enough, thought of you enough, cared for you enough to go before you arrived and purchased it with a tag which reads your name, in whatever language you speak. Moreover, this free gift, the Baby in the manger, was given BECAUSE of misbehavior, BECAUSE of abuses, BECAUSE of flubs, falling, and falters, without condition. Let me write that again…WITHOUT CONDITION! Try that on some stranger. No, I mean it. Find a criminal who abused, or injured, or killed your family member, withdraw all you have in the bank, purchase a gift of great price and present it to the guilty law-breaker. Do I see any hands for a volunteer? No, I didn’t think so. Yet, that’s what God, the Author Of The Law did for us all. Today, we call it…Christmas. His unconditional free gift is truly the opposite of Elf On The Shelf.
For anyone who accepts this gift, who believes the adult Jesus when He said, “For God so loved the world that He GAVE…” – John 3:16a (KJV), will have the Spirit of His very essence within. He reminds me inwardly what is best for my life as He writes His law on my heart. It’s a good thing because I could never have a perfect behavioral stat concerning the Mosaic Law from the Torah found in the Old Testament.
So maybe if you see an elf hanging out on a shelf, it might bring to mind the idea of an elf inside yourself (In the flavor of Christmas trinkets.) whispering wisdom, guidance, and unconditional love. However, when diving deeply for a close-up excursion, you find the lacking of an elf, but rather, “RUACH” in Hebrew, the “Breath” of God’s nature.
Christmas can always be merry with a cup of good cheer, spiked with Fuel for the race.
“For the eyes of Yahweh roam throughout the earth to show Himself strong for those whose hearts are completely His.” – 2 Chronicles 16:9 – (Holman Christian Standard Version)
“Oh, crumpled bits of paper Filled with imperfect thought Stilted conversations I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got…So we open up a quarrel Between the present and the past We only sacrifice the future It’s the bitterness that lasts. So don’t yield to the fortunes You sometimes see as fate It may have a new perspective On a different date…Say it loud, say it clear You can listen as well as you hear It’s too late when we die To admit we don’t see eye to eye.” – (1988) The Living Years, Recorded by: Mike and the Mechanics. Written by Mike Rutherford and B. A. Robertson
The hallway was busy between classes that day. The platform shoes were loud on the polished hard floor like horses on a brick street. Everyone was running to their next classroom before the final bell rang. I, in my bell-bottoms and bell sleeves, was coming out of the choral department rehearsal hall after an a cappella session. My steps were already inside the broad hallway, but had yet to fully walk through the threshold as my hand remained on the thick heavy wooden door. That’s when I looked up and saw her. It was Lori Kennedy high stepping it toward the choir-room door from B-Hall. She was running a tad late to get to her place on the rehearsal risers just inside the entrance for Women’s Select Choir. It was a Friday, game-day at our north Dallas suburban high school of 3,500 students. I recall it was a Friday because Lori was decked-out in her Lionette drill team outfit from a pep-rally earlier the same morning. As she approached the doorway, I quickly made my way through the entrance while holding the door open for her. By the time she was within two, or three steps from me, her dark brown eyes pierced mine as she sternly stated, “I can open my own door!” as she swiftly rushed by me. OUCH! That was unexpected. It wasn’t like me to freeze, but I did due to shock. It was best because it also kept my mouth shut.
Lori Kennedy, 1978 R.L. Turner High School Yearbook.
Lori and I were 16 at the time, in 1976. She was about five weeks older than your’s truly. Our social circles overlapped, so we had mutual friends, but the two of us were mere acquaintances. In fact, I don’t think we ever had a conversation before that uncomfortable moment. It’s not that we avoided one another, or even ignored the other purposefully while within earshot. We both certainly knew about the other, but distantly. From time to time, over four years, we even dated our close shared friends, but never one another. There were multiple occasions where we hitched a ride with other friends while stuffed in a 1973 Chevy Camaro. We were on the same bus during our music concert tours with the choral department’s Spring trip each year. We also found ourselves sharing a bus for choral UIL contests performed in other cities. Then there were gatherings at picnics, parties, and popular hangouts, etc. I should stop here because as I write this I’m remembering many more circumstances where Lori and I shared space through high school. We, for what ever reason, never made the effort to get to know each other. One might say, we knew each other through our fellow classmates.
With all that said, it makes her stark, rude remark, (the first words she ever spoke to me), that much more odd. Maybe she was having a bad day. Maybe her boyfriend just broke up with her. Possibly life at home had hit a wall. Could she had slipped on a banana peel in the cafeteria line? Maybe there was a social undertow of knowing we didn’t see eye-to-eye on life itself.
One thing is for concrete sure, she didn’t know my mom and granddad taught me how to treat the opposite sex going back to my toddler years. Chivalry was the order of the day in my family. I must have been three years old, when walking down the sidewalk with my mom and grandparents, my granddad gently instructed me to always walk closest to the curb when walking next to a lady. When I asked why, in his rural Texas fashion and verbiage, he explained that if a tire splashes a muddy puddle onto the walkway, she will be spared from the splatter. He followed it up with, “That’s what men do.” He taught me to remove my hat if a lady enters the room. If a lady walks by, you tip the brim of the hat. If a lady is about to sit at a table, you pull the chair out for her, followed by the adjustment to table-side. If the lady is ready to remove her coat or sweater, you help remove it from her shoulders. When she is ready to wear the same, you hold it open for her as she slips her arms through. You always allow the lady to walk in front, choosing second place. You always open the car door for a lady before placing yourself in the car. And yes, you always open the door for a lady as she approaches it. In fact, I do that for men, as well as women. To be honest, I still practice all of the above to this day. It’s an act of courtesy, kindness, respect, and honor. I’m branded with it. So, what was up with Lori?
At the time, the women’s liberation movement was well above surging, at least in the U.S. It would be foolish to believe that 100% of women living-out the movement appreciated chivalry with its old Victorian manners. Because I neglected to get to know Lori, the real Lori, I may have missed my cue. It very well may have been Lori was exercising her newly discovered rules of engagement as dictated by the women’s liberation movement of the times. I would have been clueless. Nevertheless, she may have very well been offended by my gesture of holding the door open for her entrance into the choir room. Sure, I meant well, but she may have seen my action in another angle, unbeknownst to me. Just like one can peek through a glass of water while another may see a different distorted view. And here is where I went wrong.
My mind washed my hands of her as I walked away from the moment of friction. Lori Kennedy and I never had a potential conversation throughout the balance of our school years together. Never once. In fact, I totally avoided her. My misdirected thoughts went something like, “Well, if she’s going to treat me like a doormat, than I don’t have any use for her.” This is what unchecked anger can do. And so, in my bitterness over the incident, I made sure I ignored her each time our paths crossed, wherever it was. And what’s worse, I allowed our very quick moment in 1976 to stain my view of her from that time forth. Afterwards, the name Lori Kennedy was held in my grudge-peppered heart. My new title for her was, Little Miss Rudeness. Yes, it was wrong. Very wrong.
One would think in adulthood, with all its twists, turns, and teachings, I would’ve eventually understood better, loved more, and forgave even if I never saw her again in life. However, we did. God had other plans.
Lori Kennedy at a 2018 casual reunion with old friends.
A year ago, I attended two reunions with old friends and classmates. One was a casual gathering of about 200 as we paid tribute to a friend who had passed away the year prior. Two months later, it was our 40th high school reunion. Lori Kennedy and I bumped into each other at both events. During the first reunion, I saw her before see saw me. My first thought was to stay away from her, using my old searing angst as justification. With so many people attending, it would’ve been easy to just remain on the other side of the large club. Two months later, the 40th high school reunion gala would be upon us where most likely we would find ourselves in close proximity with mutual friends. Deep inside, I hated the tensity felt over seeing her again. Getting lost in the crowd was my first thought.
August 2018 at the casual reunion at the Fox & Hound Pub in Dallas.
Someone called out to her through the noisy event. With a turn, my eyes caught her. There she was, laughing, drinking, eating and enjoying a cluster of old friends. My reaction was to look away to protect the sore spot in my psyche. After looking down at my shoes for way too long, I filled my lungs with lots of air, slapped on my big boy pants, and made my way across the room of revelers.
She had changed so much since our teen years. Age hadn’t been particularly polite to her. Lori always lived fast and hard, so I just assumed it all caught up with her. She was a bit pale and thin, and the spark in her dark eyes had faded. Name tags are a gift from God in these cases, but not at this casual gathering. Often, at our age, it’s guesswork. I acted as if I wasn’t sure it was her. “Lori? Is that you?” She turned toward me, cocked her head and smiled. “Alan! Well, as I live and breathe! How are you?” I initiated a quick shoulder-hug. (Still showing signs of my grudge in a tiny gesture. I know, it’s all so stupid.) We spoke very kindly for another couple of minutes. After all, there’s not much to “catch-up on” when you didn’t really have a relationship to start with. I found out she lived alone with her two beloved Chihuahuas. Still, it was somewhat a relief to see her genuine greeting. Surprisingly cordial with a true smile, we shared good words between us. Simultaneously, there was this voice coming from deep inside me delivering a statement I never would’ve believed. It was so clear. Despite our differences, we could have been friends. Part of me began to feel ashamed what I had secretly held against her over the decades. Of course, I never brought up our one and only verbal encounter from the days of yore. Actually, she may not even recall the day she was snarky to me, the “doorman” from early in our junior year. Frankly, the thought had never occurred to me. Just because I always remembered it, shelving her as a tyrant and a princess prude forever, doesn’t necessarily mean she remembered our game-day intersect whatsoever.
Monday morning, October 7th, I got in my car, turned on the radio to my favorite classic rock station, and there it was, Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young”. It was the tripwire to heavy tears as I left my driveway for an hour’s drive to Lori Kennedy’s funeral.
After doing some digging, I discovered Lori was told by her doctor how early tests indicated she had Multiple Myeloma. This form of blood cancer wasn’t new to me. A church friend has been battling it for two years, as well as my brother-in-law, who is in the final stages of this life-sucking illness. An MRI had found a mysterious spot on her pelvic bone a couple of years prior. At that time tests were inconclusive. Apparently, Lori shrugged it off. She had been told most Multiple Myeloma patients have 3-5 years after diagnosis, maybe less. She was looking forward to her first oncologist appointment to confirm, plus discuss various treatments. That was during the last week of September. She passed away in her sleep at home less than a week later. After the very touching service I spoke with her parents. They told me she had been suffering from symptoms for at least 2-3 years, but had no idea she had been stricken with cancer until a few days ago.
Before the minister spoke, they played Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven. As it washed over the the ones gathered, I bowed my head and listened intently for the first time.
“…Would you know my name If I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same If I saw you in heaven?
Would you hold my hand If I saw you in heaven? Would you help me stand If I saw you in heaven?
Time can bring you down Time can bend your knees Time can break your heart Have you begging please, begging please…”
My hands trembled as I realized my judging heart. Deeply convicted, I acknowledged my stupidity in not letting go of one moment in time of offense. At my age, how could I have remained so immature? When we engaged last year, I was unaware she was in severe pain throughout her skeletal structure. As we stood there and chatted at the reunion, I was unaware Lori was constantly dehydrated, with bouts of deadly low blood pressure and visits to the ER. Little did I know she was choking down powerful pain killers just to stand, walk, and sit. As it turns out, she rarely left her house to socialize due to her struggle. The reunions were a goal she wouldn’t deny herself. And there I was, trying to be tempered, holding back my old resentment as she smiled at me, even though she should’ve been in the hospital. What a moron I was. So much time wasted. So much life experience gone. So many chances crumbled away in the living years.
After the service was complete, I approached the opened white coffin where an unrecognizable body was displayed. The remains of this person looked as if she was some 25 years my elder, resting among the satin lace. Even though it was way too late, I looked at the face, which once belonged to Lori, and whispered, “Forgive me, Lori. Forgive me.”
As I drove back home, I asked the Redeemer to forgive my unsettled anger.
True lessons in life come at the most heartbreaking times. Lessons of humility learned easier when filled with fuel for the race.
“And whenever you stand to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone, so that your Father who is in Heaven may also forgive you your faults. But if you are not forgiving, neither will your Father in Heaven forgive you your faults.” – Jesus – Mark 11:25-26 (Aramaic Bible In Plain English)
“…In my thoughts I have seen Rings of smoke through the trees And the voices of those who standing looking…” (1971) Stairway To Heaven. Recorded By: Led Zeppelin. Composed by: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Have you ever found yourself on your back, underneath a tree, just looking through the branches as a breeze sways them from side to side? Have you ever walked through a wooded area and heard the unique creaking of timber as the branches and limbs wave to the rhythm of the wind? For me they are mesmerizing moments.
Then there are the wrecking storms which reverse the pleasantries of our trees. Snap, crackle, and pop! Suddenly those precious branches that speak in their unique language are left broken, split, and hanging from violent winds. Afterwards, the clean-up is launched…if procrastination doesn’t have its way.
They say October is a good month for pruning select trees, depending upon where you live, although I know very little about it. However, we had to swing into it recently.
Over the last several months we have had at least four damaging storms rush through our immediate neck of North Texas. This blog tells of some of those trying times. We have a few trees on our property, and they always suffer after major wind events. If you came over for a backyard BBQ you would observe limbs and branches, some dead and dried up, left dangling, or loosely swinging from larger branches. One rather large branch, maybe 20 feet in length, has been hanging vertically way above the back steps of our sun-room leading to the backyard. Literally it has been clinging and swinging by a few strands of the broken timber up top. Something had to be done. When September proved to be a rather hot, but calm weather month for us, we felt like the gettin’ was finally good.
A family owned lawn care service was recommended to us by a good friend who lives not even a mile away. We called for an estimate. They came out, took a look at the job, which involved a total of four large trees, and gave us an outstanding price. I just love the sound of chainsaws in the morning.
Little did we know, the tree-trimming team wasn’t insured. What’s worse, they only do lower hanging limbs and branches. YIKES! Okay, so they didn’t tell us that when they presented the estimate, but onward and upward they went. I sat in a lawn chair under the pecan tree to observe. After all, if there was going to be a Texas chainsaw massacre, I at least wanted to be an eye-witness for the litigation to come. All-in-all, without too much trouble, (although there were some vertigo moments), they did a fine job. I’ll give them a B+, considering the tree climber wore cowboy boots to scale the trunks. There were some high limbs they felt were too risky, but we let it slide. In less than two hours they cut on the troublesome trees, sawed up smaller lengths of the branches, placed it all in a pile by the curb, raked and swept-up residual twigs and leaves, and off in their truck they went. Quicker than you can say sawdust, they eagerly took my $50.00 tip.
Those in the know call it an “Umbrella Cut”, which sounds like something I might hear in a barber shop. After the job was complete, I could see why they give it the name. Of course, not only do the trees have a better appearance, but they will be healthier, not to mention safer.
As I looked at the pile of dead, or dying limbs and branches by the street, I couldn’t help but think about my own tree of life. Inventory, a true, honest inventory of life, can suck. Look, there is a dangerous branch up top from my past which still dangles when the slightest gust comes my way. Duck! If unaware that 45 year old lower limb, once badly-placed from wilder days, can knock you flat, and its got plenty of bark left. Ah, on the other side, observe the crooked hanging limb in my years, ready to extract all the sap intended for the healthier, sturdier branches above it. Careful, don’t walk under that long branch hanging vertically. To this day it keeps the young branches stunted in growth. Do I miss them all? They were important in my life at one time, or so I imagined, but God broke them from the trunk because there was a danger to my house. Except for that one right over there. Do you see it? Unfortunately, day and night, it nourishes my messed-up thought-life, spreading its twigs and seeds. It shouldn’t remain. No doubt the great Arborist will remove it from my trunk when He decrees. When He does, I will be a healthier person with rock solid roots.
Can you identify? It’s true, we all need pruning sometimes. A life pruned tends to hurt. Why should the living be among the dead? Right? The dangerous, menacing dead wood needs to be taken down and shown to the curb.
I’ve learned when it comes to a choice of life or limb…life is better. After His chipper does its work, the mulch can be added to my fuel for the race.
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” -Jesus- John 15:1-2 (NLT)
“I Went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends, a chance to share old memories and play our songs again. When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name. No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same.
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.” Garden Party (1972) Written and Recorded by: Ricky Nelson
Did I catch you singing? I know. It’s got a terrific hook on the chorus. Truly, it’s the iconic song Ricky Nelson was known for at that stage of his short life. The lyrics sound as if it was a pleasurable garden party with old famous pals, but it was birthed out of rejection and sourness.
It was October of 1971, the Richard Nader’s Rock ‘n Roll Revival Concert was a huge gathering at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was billed to showcase older American Rock ‘n Roll giants, prior to the British invasion, from the 1950’s and early 1960’s, with acts like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell. They were among many kickin’ it on stage that night. Back stage, and in the audience, the ultra-famous were in attendance from various corners of the entertainment and sports realm. The lyrics in the song, “Garden Party” point that out.
It was his turn at the mic. Ricky Nelson came out on stage in the fashion of the times, bell bottoms, velvet shirt, complete with bell sleeves, and long hair down to his shoulders. Keep in mind, the order of the concert event was to reminisce with early American Rock ‘n Rollers, so the look was expected, too. Well, unfortunately for Nelson, he didn’t take it to heart who the nostalgic demographics were holding tickets. He performed some of his early songs from the late 50’s and early 60’s. But then he played a peculiar country rendition of The Rolling Stones’, “Honky Tonk Woman”. At that, the crowd began to boo, and boo, and booed some more. He wrapped up his set and left the venue, not even waiting to show up for the all-star finale at the end of the night. However, it worked out because he wrote a song about the experience in, “Garden Party”. And I must admit, “…ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”
In the late 1990’s I created an award-winning radio theater department for Criswell Communications Network. I absolutely adored those years writing, acting and building those audio movies. Later, I did the same in Buffalo, NY for the Crawford Broadcasting Network. From time to time I am asked to voice a character for special commercials, promos, or projects. But back then, life got in the way and now it’s been a few years since I was a regular working voice actor.
About a year ago, I was asked to voice a character for a dramatic read of a new novel and CD due to be released simultaneously. Although it was a small walk-on role, I was thrilled to do it. It was like going home again for me, even though I wasn’t the author or director. What was very different, and a bit nerve-racking, was the author himself was in studio with me. Being a hands-on kind of guy, he directed me while I fashioned the vocals needed for this particular character. Don’t get me wrong, the author was/is a terrific guy. I’m sure we will be working together in the future for more projects.
This morning, before I could pour my first cup of java, I got a voicemail. It was the author. He made me aware of the recently released book and audio version. He then invited me to a cast party he was hosting at his very lovely home. I responded before lunch, letting him know how much I enjoyed the recording session, developing the character, and his invitation. Then I politely declined to attend the party. Why, you might ask?
For as long as I can recall, I have never been good at cocktail parties, social dinners, or dances were strangers want me to do the Macarena. Sure, I can act my way through it, which is what I’ve always done, but that’s work, not pleasure, and certainly not comfortable. Being an old stage actor and radio personality, you would think I would be a hoot at a gathering of pre-friends. Trust me, I’ll be the quiet guy in the corner with a china saucer full of chilled shrimp in one hand and a cup of punch in the other. Yes, there’ll be clusters of revelers in a circle laughing, kissing cheeks, along with lines like, “What do you do when you’re not acting?”, or “What a lovely tie. Who are you wearing, sweetie?”, or “So what project are you working on now?” I just don’t mingle well. It’s as simple as that. There, I’ve said it. Arg! I would likely run off stage left like Ricky Nelson.
Cast parties are fine, in fact I have attended lots of them through my acting days, even hosted many myself. Most all cast parties I’ve been a part of were packed with fellow cast-members I had the pleasure of working with face-to-face. Those were actors and crew in which I developed relationships with, or at least decent acquaintances. Those were parties where we could let our hair down and enjoy reminiscing about lines being dropped, favorite scenes, and wardrobe malfunctions. (In 1978, while playing Johnny Brown in The “Unsinkable Molly Brown”, I walked out on stage singing with my fly opened. Thank the Lord it was only a dress rehearsal. Orchestra members noticed it first down in the pit.) Cast parties are always a grand time laced in lots of laughter. Here, the difference is, I never played against another actor in last year’s session. My recorded lines were like a looping studio session where the dialogue was digitally dropped into scenes in post production. There was no actor but me, myself, and I. I played to a mic and a music stand. I never met any of the actors on the bill. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of session, it happens more often than not. At the upcoming get-together I would know the author, his wife, and the recording engineer/producer. It’s not that I am really anti-social…or am I? Ouch! What am I admitting?
If you’re a psychologist, you probably know why I am bent this way. The ugly truth is, I am probably afraid of rejection, even eyes of rejection. I’ve been at award shows, green rooms, and backstage at concert venues where you’re chatting with someone who won’t look you in the eye because they’re way too busy scouting out the next celebrity to be cornered. You find yourself answering their question about family, career, or which hotel you’re staying at when suddenly they quickly interrupt with, “Oh, there’s Amy Grant with Vince Gill right behind you. Gotta go.” Is it just me, or is that not rude? I’m guilty of that behavior as well. So awkward. Again, I say, Arg! In the end, I dislike “…players who only love you when they’re playin'” (Fleetwood Mac)
Has it occurred to me that maybe I’m wrong about all this? Maybe by now you’re saying silently, “Hey, this is weird. He needs to loosen up.” Okay, I’ll accept that. But as I’m being super honest with you, hear me out.
To truly engage with another is to be associated with, connected with, to be in tune with the other, even if in a small way. This is me. If you and I are having coffee at a local spot, I will fully hear you, see you, and meld with you. In fact, I like to make people feel that they are the only person in the room, complete with eye-contact and real chuckles, not out of nervous laughter for the sake of sound to fill up dead air. This is how I was raised to believe.
Poor Ricky Nelson. Every time I hear “Garden Party” I listen for the rub, the angst, the sore spots between the words. Bottom line, he didn’t “know” his audience. Moreover, he didn’t take in serious consideration of the theme of the event. Of course, the audience lacked true love for Mr. Nelson. They only loved him when he played what he was known for ten years prior. In those quick tunes he scratched their itch until he ventured onto something new from a British band. It was a mismatch moment, a sting he took with him to his grave. He died in a tragic plane crash on New Year’s Eve 14 years later.
In the end, I believe it’s all about “knowing” someone, or at least making faithful efforts in doing so. Because inside that other person is a story which comes from their hearts. A story worth the fidgeting, even if booed. If we “play” at socializing, we do not do justice in the connection. How else will we learn to love others, as God would have us to love?
Still, I remain shy with strangers in close settings. I shared an elevator today where my total sum of verbiage was, “Third floor. Thanks.”
Engaging another may start out with “How are you?”, but if they begin to tell you about their gout, making you’ll want to slip away with, “Ya know, I need a refill.” If so, then where is the honest interest?
More and more I understand why Jesus told us to love others as we love ourselves, and to treat others as we want to be treated.
You know, maybe I should go to the cast party after all. If I do, the boldness won’t come from my clipped persona, but from a deep well of fuel for the race.
“If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for this? Even tax collectors love their friends.If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about this? Don’t even unbelievers do that?” – Jesus – Matthew 5:46-47 (Contemporary English Version)
I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in
When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin…” (1981) “Memory” from Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber
The young Dr. Frankenstein meets Igor, for the first time, at a foggy depot railway platform. As they introduce themselves, the great Marty Feldman, who played Igor, presents himself as “I-gor”. Dr. Frankenstein, played by the fabulous Gene Wildman, thought the pronunciation was a bit odd. He remarks that he was told it was pronounced, “EE-gor”. Without a slip of a beat, Igor cocks his head, leans in and says sharply (in his very British accent), “Well, they were wrong then, weren’t they?”Young Frankenstein, from 1974 from the brilliant Mel Brooks, is not only considered a classic, but it’s also one of my all-time favorite comedies, if not my #1 favorite. So much so, I have it on both VHS and DVD. I just cackle at the late Marty Feldman’s comic timing in the unforgettable scene. He was a comedic genius. To this day, my finger gets busy on the rewind button, just to treat myself a couple of times before the movie moves on.
As I date myself by the following line, I will be straightforward. As a teenager, when graduating from vinyl albums, I had to replace most of them with cassettes for my car and tape player in my apartment. That was a chore. However, the ease of the rewind button allowed me to quickly scan for my favorite cut from the artist I was listening to. After all, you couldn’t do that with the vinyl LP. You had to be steady-handed as you carefully picked up the needle, while locating the correct grove, when hunting for Elton’s “Crocodile Rock”.
Admittedly so, when on my DVR, or On Demand selection, the rewind button is one of my best friends.
Have you ever noticed, the rewinds are usually not for searching that gruesome scene where the stabbing took place? My guess is that you rarely push the rewind button to “re-watch” the tragic scene where the little boy, along with his dog, can’t escape the burning house. No doubt you never raced for the rewind button to capture again the flogging scenes in the movie Amistad. If so, there’s counselling available for that itch. Yet, I’m afraid we do it all the time…mentally. Think about it.
My last post on this format was about too many windows in old hotels. Well, I’m about to pull back the drapes on one of them for you.
Over 40 years ago, I had a troublesome relationship that went on much too long. This individual was my friend through much of the 1970’s. As time went by, we grew close with a very tight bond, which seemingly was permanent. Fast-forward to December of 1979, things abruptly ended hard with a resounding thud. Most all of my old friendships are still intact and loving. I don’t lose friends, for the most part, and I am grateful. Still, this one was substantially significant in my life…or so I thought. The relationship needed some healing, which never took place, and fighting became our norm toward the bitter end. Truly, it was a downhill slope into quicksand. We were teenagers with mounds of maturity which had yet to settle-in. Regrets? Sure, at least for me. I went back to my friend a few times, during the following days, in attempts to mend, soothe, and restore. But I learned quickly that it takes two to do so. Believe me when I say, it was a nasty split. My friend was wrong, and I was wrong. Nobody was innocent. I have been mourning over it ever since. How sick is that? There have been 40 years of rehashing the “what if’s”, “why this”, or “why that”. The questions roll along, wondering what I could have done differently, as it pertained to me and my chosen actions. If the other person is not able to do the same, it makes it almost impossible to make peace in the heart. But I know you can’t go back and change anything. If you pull out a nail in the fence post, you still have a hole. There’s not been a resolve in my own heart. Thoughts of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comes to mind. Like Jerry and Dean, in retrospect, I believe our lives have been better without each other.
You don’t have to tell me how unhealthy this species of mourning and regret can be. I know all too well. If you’re like me, then you know you can beat yourself up over and over again. Of course, just as you think you have conquered the pain and trauma, you drag out the old dusty remote, hunting for a decades old mental movie from your life, and hit the rewind button. <<
How sad, that we keep an old dusty remote in our minds just to relive heartbreaks which don’t have to be replayed. We lie in our beds, refusing sleep, as we replay infractions from the days of yore. Other times we scan back to a fork in the road, where we turned left instead of right, wondering what might have been. Am I accurate? The scene WILL NOT CHANGE! Oh, sure, you want to see a different outcome, but it is what it is. Yet, in acknowledging that truth, it is also history, where it belongs.
Recently, to my surprise, I discovered my old friend may be struggling emotionally more than I have. While on Facebook, the morbid side of me decided to look for my old friend’s Facebook page. Shockingly, this social butterfly wasn’t anywhere to be found. Later, I sadly learned my old friend blocked my name so that I would vanish when on our mutual friend’s pages. I guess it shouldn’t bother me when thinking someone wants to scrub me from the earth, as if I never existed. There’s not been one word of any communication since January 1980. I was blocked as if I were a troller, stalker, or a monster to be shunned from the town square. “Sanctuary”, cried the hunchback in his chains. I thought it interesting that after 40 years, my name was a curse in the eyes of this person. Wow, maybe I unknowingly inflicted more harm than I received. Somehow, it added salt to my wounds.
Why do we do this to ourselves? What betterment does it apply to our mental and emotional state? Better yet, why do we crave it? We do, you know. We pick up the mental remote, push rewind to find the old scabs in life way too often. What’s more, we push the pause button to gaze for a bit, which makes matters worse. It’s a choice, isn’t it?
I don’t have a psychology degree, but I do know a bit about human nature. Under my belt, there is a ton of biblical advice in which I have marinated. In God’s camera angle, guilt, self-damning, and judgement is what we are to ween ourselves off of. Sure, biblically speaking, when we recognize our own wrongs, we are to loosen our grip, while placing them at the feet of the Righteous Judge. It is written, so we would understand, when wrapped in His forgiveness, there is no divine condemnation staining the humble who apply His forgiveness in a true, heartfelt confession. In doing so, we are to learn to forgive others…and ourselves. The old dusty rewind button should only be for scenes of joy, love, and laughter. Otherwise, take out the batteries.
Thank you Marty, Gene, and Mel.
When in play >, or fast forward >>, always expect fuel for the race.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” – Psalm 103:11-12 (NAS)
“I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins.” – Isaiah 43:25 (NAS)
“Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.” – A prayer by King Hezekiah found in Isaiah 38:17 (NIV)
“She was just sixteen and all alone when I came to be. So we grew up together…mama-child and me. Now things were bad and she was scared, but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fear and dry my tears with a rock and toll lullaby…” (1972) Rock And Roll Lullaby. Recorded by: B.J. Thomas. Composers: Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil.
With age, I have learned that…
If I were the teen who fought through a sexual assault, then carried an unwanted pregnancy, debating the heart’s choices, then allowing life to grow, I would be a spectacular teenager wise beyond my years.
If I were a parent who protected my newborn from assault and murder at the hands of the father, with a sacrificial unselfish front, I would be a medal of honor recipient.
If I were to end an abusive marriage, to defend and shield my innocent toddler, knowing there would be no child support, I would be a heroine authors would write about.
If I were a single parent constantly contending with the voices of psychological demons, chanting accusations of worthlessness, depreciation, and shame, all the while rising above it all to raise my child, I would be the dragon-slayer described in countless novels.
If I were to defeat my fear by moving into an uncharted world, away from family, to make a life for my young child, I would be a courageous warrior with monuments anointing the landscape.
If I were one who taught my toddler the true value of the gift of grandparents, I would be a brilliant educator with my name on the walls of universities.
If I were to faithfully read scripture to my young child each night, combined with the simplicity of personal prayer and church attendance, I would be a righteousness seeker with my statue erected by the world’s cathedrals.
If I were to seek out the finest pre-schools and kindergartens, in the attempt to assure my only child got a leg up, I would be a proactive parent to be noticed.
If I were to be rejected for loans and credit, due to being a single parent in the 1960’s, only to exercise faith while tackling a life of poverty with my head held high, I would be a fearless champion in my child’s eyes.
If I were to knock on every door to find a job waiting tables, or struggle with an overnight shift on an assembly line, I would be a humble workhorse of a provider for others to impersonate.
If I were to give away the opportunity to have a brilliant singing & recording career, just to be home with my child at the end of a hard night’s work, I would be self-sacrificing, worthy of a screenwriter’s time.
If I were to provide for my child after several lay-offs, by way of two or three jobs, I would be Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman combined, never being poor in spirit.
If I were to train my child well enough to leave him alone overnight, in order to work the graveyard shifts, I would be an example of a strong tower of faith.
If I were to work overtime to aid in the development of my elementary age child with raw musical abilities, by paying for piano, violin, guitar, and voice lessons, my portrait would hang in Carnegie Hall.
If I were to be a staunch, independent single parent, refusing financial aid from my parents, I would be wealthy of heart.
From my granddad’s cedar coin box. The two of us from 1969.
If I were to resist the temptation of suicide, while being beaten down by company lay-offs, Green Stamp submissions, and accepting government blocks of cheese, I would be a brave ferocious fighter for my child’s future.
If I were to support my teen’s sports and musical interests, which differ from mine, I would be a liberally devoted parent of love and understanding.
If I were to tirelessly stand up to my rebellious teenager, with the possibility of damaging our relationship, I would have attributes resembling the God of the Bible.
If I were to sit all alone in a church pew watching my child wed, I would have earned the vision of a soldier adorned in glistening armor after a long battle.
If I were to bless my grandchildren with my physical presence, my mind, as well as my heart, I would be worth my weight in gold.
My mom with my middle daughter, Megan. (1992)
If I were to deny myself, for the betterment of my child, to the point of self-injury, while killing my own pursuits, and avoiding life’s trinkets that shine in the night, I would be Joan of Arc, Boudicca, Anne Sullivan, and Rosa Parks rolled into one.
If I were to be an example for my adult child, by being the caretaker of my aging parents, suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia, along with other elderly ones in my community, I would reflect what I have always been…a mountain of love, compassion, and selflessness.
If I were to describe a fictitious character from my own dreams, they could not come close to the one I have held in my heart for my entire life.
I don’t have to write the words “If I WERE…” The reason being, I simply could never measure up. The one described above is my mom, Carolyn Atherton-Brown.
I am her portrait. I am her monument. I am her novel. I am her screenplay. I am her statue. I am her champion. I am her armored soldier. I am the medal of honor.
To be gracefully broken, brilliantly strengthened, and beautifully poised is to be one who drinks deeply from the well of fuel for the race.
“…As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given to the Lord…” – The words of Hannah – I Samuel 1:26b-28a (NIV)