Piggly Wiggly and Me

I was a bag boy. That is to say, my first job was working as a bag boy when I was 17 years old. I started out for a brief few months working at a grocery store chain called Winn Dixie. My family shopped at this store’s competitor, Piggly Wiggly, which was much more prevalent in our town. One day when I was in the Piggly Wiggly where my folks shopped, the store manager stopped me and asked if I wanted a job. I accepted and ended up working there for the next five years. By the time I left, I had advanced to the position of front end manager, which meant I was responsible for supervising all the bag boys, running a cash register when necessary, and scheduling all the cashiers’ breaks. There were plenty of related duties as required, including making coffee and keeping a cup in the manager’s hand whenever he wanted one.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I learned so much about life and people during those five years. I witnessed blatant racism and discrimination against black employees. I saw my share of gender inequity too. I saw sexual harassment for the first time. Admittedly, as an older teen and a man in my early twenties, I got away with inappropriate behavior and language that would have earned me a reprimand 20 years later. I had not yet learned to respect people, especially women, as I should. My college education would eventually help me overcome my immaturity in this regard.

I had lived a sheltered life before starting this job. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home, had attended a Baptist private high school, and had very little contact with anyone who drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, much less weed. Some of the people I worked with at the grocery store had lives drastically different from mine, and I saw glimpses of an unfamiliar world on many occasions. By the time I was 21 years old, I was working closely with women who were anywhere from 10 to 15 years older than I was. There were generous portions of flirtation and provocative language served all around, and more than my share of stupidity. I was a little more than infatuated a few times. And yet, I have no doubt that these women cared about me and had no intention of hurting me. To the contrary. They were incredibly patient with me. I hope they were never truly offended by my childish behavior.

Some of my fondest memories from those days involve the times the bag boys and I had to stay after hours to strip the wax from the floors throughout the store and rewax them. This was a laborious project that kept us working sometimes 5 or 6 hours after the store closed at 9:00 p.m. Most of these guys were slightly younger than I was, and we had developed a bond working so closely together week after week. Sure, we wasted more time than we should have, and we got distracted too often playing practical jokes on each other. Some of the pranks were over the top, and I would never confess them in writing – just hilarious. I had hints from time to time that some of these fellows had much tougher home lives than I could have imagined, and I probably wasn’t grateful enough for the safe environment I took for granted. I made more than spending cash at Piggly Wiggly. I got schooled. I learned to lead. I found new values. I made friends.

I Will Miss You, Rick

I lost someone recently, and the space left behind seems unimaginably large right now. For over 30 years Rick was my close friend, longer than anyone has been a close friend to me. Others were probably friends with him longer than I was, which is quite fortunate for them. I don’t remember the first conversation we had when he came to my church as minister of music and youth. I can’t really say why we forged such a close bond. We had some things in common. We both loved BBQ; we liked bike riding together on farm roads back in the day; we both liked to travel, especially out West; we liked reading and occasionally made book recommendations to one another. In fact, I was reading a book that he had recently recommended when his sweet wife called to tell me Rick had suffered a serious incident with his heart.

We both loved music, but our abilities in that regard were not equal. I’ve always been a lazy musician, learning how to play something just well enough to get by, and he certainly knew it. He never said it, but he knew it. Rick was anything but lazy. He was quite accomplished at the piano, but that’s because he worked and worked at a piece until he got it right. He was like that with a lot of things, which made him so good at what he did in ministry, and then later as a piano technician.

We also shared a similar sense of humor, and for those who know me best, I hope they won’t hold that against him. He was so patient with my endless disruptions during choir practice. We ribbed each other mercilessly, and Facebook was just like . . . fuel. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to Rick less than 24 hours before he passed away. I had texted his wife asking about his condition, and a minute later he called me. He told me he’d had a good day and was feeling much better, which is such a deceptively cruel but common occurrence with critically-ill patients. During the conversation, I said something — I don’t know what — but it was most likely ridiculous, as I am wont to do. Rick chuckled lightly and said, “They’ve got me hooked up to all kinds of monitors here, so I can’t laugh, or I’ll set off the alarms.”

Rick and I certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But that’s not what defines true friendship, is it? One of the many qualities I admired in Rick was how honest he was. He would give it to you straight – always. And if he were able to speak right now and I could hear him, I have no doubt he would say, “The least you could do in my memory is get a haircut.”

I don’t really know what Rick got out of our relationship over the decades. I hope somehow I made life better for him, because he definitely did that for me. What I do know is that I became friends with Rick at a pivotal point in my life. I had serious questions without a lot of good answers. He was only a few years older than I was, but his maturity far exceeded his age. On those Thursday mornings we got together for coffee before heading into work, we had some really deep discussions that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. I told my wife and his, I can’t imagine the world without Rick in it. I’m not going to get used to that. I love you Rick, and I’m going to miss you for as long as I’m still around.

A Charitable Manifesto

Thanksgiving Day and the religious holidays that follow tend to make me more conscious of how fortunate I am to have a spouse and partner who adores me and who means the world to me. I also have two sons that I love dearly who are independent and responsible people, finding their own path in life. I am proud of them. I have an extended family that loves me; we have a lovely house in a good neighborhood; I have a great job; and as far as I know, we are in pretty good health for our age and habits. I know how lucky I am to live in a country that is mostly prosperous, reasonably governed, and quite beautiful. In so many ways I have lived a charmed life, which I cannot necessarily attribute to wise decisions or abundant skill sets. On too many occasions to count, I have been in the right place at just the right time.

What I am also reminded of at this time of year is the contrast between my comfortable existence and the plight of so many people here and around the world. I know that living conditions have improved for most of the world’s population over the last hundred years, but the disparity between the haves and the have nots has only widened further. Throw in a pandemic, a few civil wars, wide-spread political unrest, and several natural disasters, and the last two years have presented a setback for a whole lot of people. Those of us who never have to worry about our next meal, a place to sleep, or adequate healthcare have a moral responsibility to share from our abundance with those who struggle just to survive.

I have spent a good portion of my career trying to raise money for charitable causes, mostly associated with education and historic preservation. For me, philanthropy was a commodity I peddled. As important as these activities were, they did not address the most serious challenges that people face. My wife and I also work with and financially support organizations that provide services to people in our community and elsewhere who are in need. We enjoy being involved in directly helping local folks, mostly through our Episcopal parish. On the rare occasions that I pause and give it much thought, I know I’m not doing enough.

If all goes according to plan, we will be retiring in a few years, which means that our schedules will drastically change with a lot more free time on our hands. Like many retirees, we hope to travel and enjoy leisure activities that entertain us. But we also have talked about the desire to volunteer for local organizations, and I am feeling more compelled these days to concentrate my efforts on helping the most vulnerable people in our town. I haven’t been generous enough with my time and resources through the decades. Promoting philanthropy is fine, but I need to spend the last chapters of my life living it.

If You Want the Best Fruit, You Gotta Climb Some Trees

I have written in previous posts about the fond memories I have of my maternal grandmother, who lived with us and was instrumental in raising my sister and me while both of our parents worked outside the home. She was a faithful Southern Baptist with hardcore Biblical beliefs that could tame the hounds of hell, not to mention her only grandson out of five grandchildren. At the same time, she had an almost raunchy sense of humor. Flatulence could easily be summoned at just the right moment to break the wind of monotony.

My grandmother had a sister who lived in our town in middle Georgia. They adored each other and shared many lovable and peculiar characteristics. My grandmother didn’t drive, but her sister did. They were ever mobile, always ready for trips to the grocery store, the mall, church events, the farmer’s market, or the countryside to see relatives who had remained outside the city limits where the family’s roots were firmly planted. They both carried oversized, patent leather purses (think an inexpensive version of the Queen Mother’s favorite accessory) that could carry a week’s provisions while also functioning as a weapon that would give even a Central Park mugger pause. Middle Georgia can be miserably hot and humid in the summer, almost necessitating short pants; however, these were two ladies who clearly had not abandoned the practice of wearing hosiery to cover bare legs. They compromised by pairing their shorts with low-heal pumps and knee-high hose – ever fashion-conscious.

The matriarchal sisters were proud masters of the kitchen and faced the challenge of every major meal with the skill and determination of a battlefield commander. It started with the shopping. They didn’t have to give too much thought about what to put in the grocery cart – that would be referred to as a “buggy” in the native tongue of Georgia – because there wasn’t a lot of money to spend, and we generally rotated through a menu of about 5-6 major courses. They procured the staples from the only grocery store in town worthy of their discriminating patronage: Piggly Wiggly. They supplemented the store’s imported produce with indigenous fruits and vegetables from the town’s sizeable farmer’s market, where shoppers could find all the home-grown favorites such as corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, collards, turnips, and of course, sweet onions that are still the pride and economic bedrock of a south Georgia village called Vidalia.

Like all good commanding officers, the sisters would gather the troops, or in this case family members, to assist in the initial steps of the culinary campaign: shucking corn, snapping beans, hulling peas and butter beans, etc. At our house, my mother and sister were quite adept at these essential tasks. I am several years younger than my sister, and although I occasionally attempted to work on the peas and beans, if for no other reason than to be included, I was extremely slow and lost interest quickly. My grandmother took care of the most complicated and dangerous preparatory chores, such as wielding a sharp butcher knife to split the ears of corn on the cob, shear off the kernels, and magically mix them with ingredients to create the best creamed corn I have ever tasted. By the time she finished, her glasses and a good portion of her face and gray hair were speckled with little pasty globs of mutilated corn. She took no prisoners.

Many young boys approaching adolescence from my generation spent considerable time outdoors riding their bikes, playing in the yard, and finding ways to burn off energy. I was a skinny, short kid with long fingers and toes, shaded by the “shadow of forgotten ancestors” with all due credit to the late Carl Sagan. Summoning my recessive hominid genes, I was comfortable climbing small trees. It was fun. In our back yard, we had a small grove of plum and pear trees, and the ripened fruits of summer provided another incentive to defy gravity among the limbs and leaves.

With their keen awareness of all available resources and opportunities, my grandmother and great aunt wasted no time putting my arboreal dexterity to practical use. They both loved peaches. My great aunt had the telltale yellow-orange peach stain permanently emblazoned on the front of practically every blouse she owned. My father was unsuccessful in cultivating this fruit tree in our yard. The grocery store, roadside stands, and the farmer’s market had plenty of peaches available, but the freshest and sweetest ones were still attached to trees and ripened to perfection in several large orchards just a few miles away in the surrounding counties. When I was coming along, Georgia truly lived up to its nickname as the Peach State. Visitors to the peach farms could get the greatest value and the best fruit by picking their own.

Always on the lookout for a bargain, the savvy sisters drafted me to “help” them pick a bushel of peaches at one of the farms. We lit out for the territory in my great aunt’s Chrysler sedan. All the windows were rolled down to welcome in the thick, steamy air typical of a summer in Georgia. Wearing stringy cutoff jeans, my legs stuck to the vinyl back seat like chewing gum on hot pavement. We arrived at the farm wasting no time, marching toward the orchard with the singular mission of finding the most delectable peaches in the southeast. When the ladies identified just the right tree, its branches encumbered with fruit almost to the breaking point, they dropped their peck baskets to the ground and turned their sweet, smiling faces toward me.

“Son, if we point to the ones we want, can you get up in there alright and pick them?” My great aunt almost always called me “son.” Peach trees in a mature orchard are typically 8-12 feet tall, but they are trimmed and trained to have four or five major branches off the trunk a few feet from the ground. These branches project outward and upward from the trunk and support the many smaller branches that bear the fruit each season. So, you can climb into the cradle of the large feeder branches without too much difficulty, but then you must reach from that position to pick the fruit, which can get a bit precarious. Even a scrawny kid weighing 90 pounds soaked in summer sweat could easily snap a tree branch laboring under several pounds of peaches. Doing so would not only cause damage to the tree and ruin a peck of peaches, but it would likely send the tree climber crashing to the ground with scratches and bruises or a punctured eye.

“Sure,” I said with foolish enthusiasm induced by my pre-teen confidence. I vaguely remember taking my shoes off to improve my footing. Again, I embraced my primate taxonomy. I weaseled my way between the feeder branches, and carefully stepped up into the tree’s cradle. The analogy of “low hanging fruit” was not in my lexicon in the early 1970s, but even if it had been, the sisters would have promptly dismissed any suggestion of the kind. They had already set their sights on loftier specimens. After surveying the entire canopy, they began pointing at succulent globes just beyond my reach. Through unnatural contortions and absurd acrobatics that had been unnecessary for any of my previous adventures, I was reasonably successful in satisfying their quest for a bountiful bushel of goodness while managing to escape serious injury or banishment from the property.

My grandmother must have been pleased enough with my aerial harvesting abilities. More than once she sent me scampering up our trees at home to procure what she judged to be the best pears for making preserves that our family and relatives savored throughout the year. If the nuclear holocaust we all feared during those years had materialized, I would be forever grateful to my grandmother and her sister for preparing me to survive in the new stone age as a hunter-gatherer. They loved me more than I could have imagined. They were the sweetest Georgia peaches of all.

A Big Move

We received the exciting news while we were taking a long weekend at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida. My wife got a call from an official at a university in Springfield, Missouri, informing her that she had been offered a position for which she had applied almost two months earlier — an opening that she only discovered because a search firm agent specifically identified her as a strong candidate for the job. She proceeded through weeks of submitting paperwork, studying for interviews, meeting administrators, answering the tough questions, and patiently waiting through the elimination process. We were expecting a call that afternoon at the beach but were not sure about the offer. While still on the phone with the university, my wife came out on the balcony of our motel room with an exuberant expression and a fist pump that made it clear she was the university’s top choice. We both were elated.

Downtown Springfield
Downtown Springfield

My wife has lived in three different states: Kansas, Arizona, and Georgia. She has traveled extensively around the country and to several foreign countries. Before I met her in 2007, I had been out of the country only once (study abroad in England as a graduate student) but otherwise had never left the South. I was raised in central Georgia and traveled to several southeastern states until we were married in 2008. We began traveling outside the South together for work-related events, to see family, and for vacations. We even made it to Europe a couple of times. Traveling is truly one of our favorite activities. We subscribe to the recent slogan adopted by Delta Airlines (we are good customers): “Good things come to those who GO.”

Traveling far from home and moving far from home are two different things. Did I have any apprehensions about leaving Georgia? Not one. What about the South? Nada. I have never had a sentimental connection to the region as so many of my friends do. I love its beauty, the diverse geography, and so many of its people. I am less fond of how provincial many southerners are and how they romanticize certain aspects of the region’s checkered past. I don’t like the strongly-conservative tide that has washed over Georgia in recent decades, a surge that has continued to shift further right with each passing year. Of course, Missouri is emphatically a red state, so I am not escaping the South’s political persuasion. However, Missouri doesn’t seem obsessed with the Civil War, even though quite a few battles occurred here during the conflict. I have yet to see a rebel flag, an unavoidable and ever-present icon in Georgia. Best of all, the “Show Me” state is not inhibited by the Southern Baptists’ lingering resistance to alcohol that characterizes so much of Georgia. You can buy liquor (not just beer and wine) in the grocery stores, pharmacies, and even Wal-mart.  Some grocery stores even have full bars where you can buy a drink and then walk around shopping with it in your hand. Sweet! I’m beginning to think that Chick-fil-a is the only place spirits are not sold.

Crown Royal display in Wal-mart
Crown Royal display in Walmart

Both of my sons and my extended family still live in Georgia. The driving distance from Springfield back to Georgia is anywhere from eleven to fourteen hours, depending on the final destination. I have never lived that far away from my sons, but they are both adults now and quite independent, which made it much easier for us to make the big move. Fortunately, there are four flights a day from Springfield to Atlanta, and the flight is less than two hours. We still have our house in the north Georgia mountains, so we have a base for returning to my home state for visiting friends and family and for vacations. We are already enjoying the amenities that a city of 250,000 offers: wonderful restaurants, great shopping, cultural resources, good healthcare, and more. Coming to Missouri opens up professional doors for us now and has the potential to provide more opportunities in the future, even after we retire. We are on a new adventure, and we love adventures.


“You need to clean your room, honey,” my grandmother says in her soft but commanding voice, and I know that doesn’t mean just shoving everything scattered on the floor into the closet. Why put everything away only to be bothered with pulling it all out tomorrow when I’m ready to play with it again? My mom’s mother lives with us, maintaining the household and making it possible for both of my parents to work. She knows how to hug and spank with equal skill.

I’d rather be walking out the back door, across the brick patio to the exterior two-bay garage to find my red bicycle waiting for me like a faithful companion. That bike takes me to the convenience store five blocks away to buy bubble gum. It takes me to my cousin’s house less than a mile away to play outside or curl up inside reading comic books. My bike has had many reincarnations: firetruck, racecar, motorcycle, roller coaster, spaceship.

I ride down the street, past houses of people my parents know casually but whom I only recognize as neighbors in cars and front yards. I would be shocked to learn, years later, that some of them drink alcohol, a substance of sin never permitted to cross the threshold of our baptized home. I cannot fathom that the housewife I never see next door beats her husband, and his shouts we hear from time to time are most likely cries of anguish, pain, despair.

My bike and I are unaware of nearby marriages crumbling, family financial crises, chronic illness, depression, or the fear of impending death. It’s inconceivable that some people on our street never go to church. Perhaps there are even parents who don’t pay attention to their children’s cluttered rooms. We are saved from the unimagined horrors that are carefully concealed behind neatly trimmed shrubs and front doors always closed.

Our Final Destination

One of the most magnificent places I have ever seen is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. My wife, younger son, and I combined a visit to this park with our exploration of Yellowstone during the summer of 2015. Formed by a series of earthquakes dating back about 10 million years, the Teton Range rises an impressive 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The jagged, rocky peaks are quite a spectacle and can be seen for miles across the expansive meadows, forests, and flood plains that make up so much of the park’s terrain.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

There are numerous options for staying overnight in the park, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort hotel that features a spacious lobby with two-story windows looking out on Jackson Lake and the 40-mile-long mountain range beyond. We didn’t actually stay at this lodge, but we spent some time in the lobby, out on the deck, and on the nearby trails where we could gaze at the ascending peaks still dressed in patches of snow even in July. As I wrote in a previous blog about this view, “Grand” doesn’t do it justice.

Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake
Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake

Human occupation of this region of the state began approximately 11,000 years ago when Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. The first euro-American explorer who may have entered the area was John Colter. He served as a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, but he left the expedition in the fall of 1806 and traveled through this region in the winter of 1807-1808. As America expanded westward, survey expeditions mapped the landscape, documented natural resources, and scouted for future railroad access. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. More land from the federal government and from private donors was added over the next few decades, and by 1950 the park was the size that it is today: 310,000 acres.

Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a place that holds special meaning for my wife and me. The tiny Chapel of the Transfiguration was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble. It was constructed so that the early settlers would not have to make the long buckboard ride into the nearby town of Jackson for Sunday services. The structure also served guests and employees of the dude ranches that stretched north of Jackson along the base of the Teton Range. It is still a functioning Episcopal church and is operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. Services are held at the Chapel from late May to early September each year. A large window behind its altar frames the magnificent beauty of the Teton Range. A good friend of mine and a former Baptist minister of music once said, “It wouldn’t matter what the topic of your sermon was in that chapel. You’d always get an ‘amen’ at the end.”

Grand Tetons - Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Tetons – Chapel of the Transfiguration

My wife is a cradle Episcopalian, and I joined the denomination after we were married in 2008. We sometimes visit Episcopal churches when we are traveling, especially in historic locations. Although we did not attend a service at this little chapel, we were quite taken by its simple construction and its beautiful surroundings. In the summer of 2012, St. John’s created a Garden of Memories at the Chapel of Transfiguration for those who would like to repose their cremains on the grounds of this unique sacred place. Instead of being spread, ashes are poured into the ground and covered with soil. The names and dates of the deceased are inscribed on a plaque mounted on a large stone in the garden. We both decided a long time ago that we wanted to be cremated when we die, and after visiting this lovely place of worship in the valley below the Grand Tetons, we have chosen to make this garden our final travel destination.

Celebrating Ten Years in Sedona

Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.

Casa Sedona Inn
Casa Sedona Inn

My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!



For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.

Sedona's red rocks from Devil's Bridge Trail
Sedona’s red rocks from Devil’s Bridge Trail


Scenic views from Devil's Bridge Trail in Sedona
Scenic views from Devil’s Bridge Trail in Sedona

Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic  energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.

The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village
The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village

On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.

Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross
Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross


Blooming cacti near Sedona
Blooming cacti near Sedona

On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing  water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.

Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek
Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek


Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch
Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch

Decorating for Christmas

Aside from gorging on turkey and football, one of the strongest impulses generated by Thanksgiving Day among so many Americans is the urge to head to the attic, basement, or garage and pull out the holiday decorations. At this time of year, any sense of good taste is tossed out like moldy green-bean casserole that was pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten for two weeks. Thanks to the development of inexpensive plastic, PVC, fiberglass, large-scale inflatable statuary, and sophisticated electrical components, some American homes and properties are transformed into dazzling spectacles that almost put to shame the illuminated facades of Las Vegas casino resorts.

The amount of time, energy, and financial resources that families dedicate to decorating varies considerably, but I suspect those who celebrate Christmas tend to be a bit more profuse than their Jewish counterparts. Muslims and Hindus use much less extravagant decorations for their special celebrations at other times of the year. Even among the folks who celebrate Christmas, the amount and type of decorations are quite diverse, with everything from simple nativity scenes to the construction of a North Pole Reindeer Flight School in the front yard that backs up neighborhood traffic for several blocks. The true zealots start their decorating activities the week before Thanksgiving, perhaps even earlier, and it can take them up to two weeks to get the job completely finished. I know a family that puts up a Christmas tree in every single room of the house, including miniature versions in all three bathrooms.

Such enthusiasts have a difficult time giving any decoration a well-deserved sabbatical or even retirement. They have an attachment to or fondness of every piece they ever purchased, so decorating through the years has a cumulative effect. At some point, all surfaces of the house are adorned with festive accessories in an attempt to display every single item they have accumulated. It can be a tad overwhelming. Some manage to pull it off better than others. Lest I be perceived as a decorating snob, I hastily confess that I have in years past clearly fallen into the camp of the unrestrained and over-exuberant. My wife has done an admirable job of intervening and helping me understand that less is better when it comes to Christmas ornamentation.

Christmas Tree and decorations
Christmas Tree and decorations

For most of its history, Christianity has been a remarkably adaptable religion, which partly explains its rapid expansion after the 4th century and its durability throughout a good portion of the western world and across many different cultures. A fine example of this adaptability can be found in Christmas decorations. Ancient Romans brought evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the winter solstice. They also hung bright metal ornaments on trees around their homes. Pagan societies believed that the holly bush had magical qualities to repel evil spirits. Even beyond decorations, Christians managed to incorporate customs from other faith traditions into the celebration of Christmas.

Americans are a population heavily influenced by capitalism and commercialism. We market everything, including Christmas. We are also a flexible bunch, and we don’t mind bending the truth a little to sell the product. Again, we can see this characteristic exhibited in a fairly common holiday decoration: the nativity scene. We like to portray this pivotal point in human history as a nice package that can easily fit on a small side table or night stand. So we take all the elements of the story — the baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, the shepherds, the ox, the donkey, the star, and the wise men with their camels — and we fold them altogether into one, compact decoration. It is irrelevant that the wise men were not there on the night of the Christ child’s birth but at least a month or so later (perhaps much later) after he was presented at the Temple by his parents. We cannot be expected to have a separate set of figurines in the house to represent this part of the story. After all, we need to make room somewhere for a sleigh and eight or nine reindeer too!

The older I get, the more I appreciate celebrating the spirit of Christmas with simplicity and humility. Over the decades I have purchased, displayed, and discarded any number of decorations. I have suffered through finding just the right tree at a farm in the country, cutting it down, paying way too much for it, and hauling it home only to find that once we wrestled it into the stand, it was as crooked as a Washington politician. We have gone through several different artificial trees and are thrilled with the two we have now, one inside and one on our back porch, that came with lights already installed. Over the last few years we have started buying what my wife calls “timeless” decorations — pieces that are reminiscent of generations past. Some people would refer to them as classic decorations. A close friend of ours paints marvelous Santa faces on gourds, and we include our collection of them on the living room mantel every year.

There are two decorations that my wife and I cherish perhaps more than any others, and we put them out every year then carefully store them away until the next Christmas. One is a small, resin angel that her parents gave her when she was a child. It is beautiful and precious. The other is a little plastic illuminated church that houses a manually-wound chime player that plays “Silent Night.” It belonged to my mother, a woman to whom the Christmas story was fundamental and factual. The miraculous birth of Jesus was a mystery she embraced without question, with little or no struggle. She has been gone now for over a dozen Christmases, but that little church keeps the memory of her fresh and close for me. I am grateful to have this modest decoration that is somehow a perfect expression of her faith and this holiday.

Church and angel
Church and angel

Our Mountain Getaway

In the early 1970s, my parents purchased a small, three-bedroom house a few blocks from the downtown section of a sleepy little hamlet in the north Georgia mountains.  They intended to use the house as a vacation spot for their family, relatives, and close friends.  The house was about seventy years old and had been abandoned and neglected for quite a long time. As a skilled electrician and carpenter, my father was able to take what was an almost uninhabitable shack and, with the help of family and friends, turn it into a comfortable summer cabin. With all her characteristic love and gentle kindness, my mother turned the cabin into a second home.  When my parents first bought the house, there were two large oak trees growing in the front yard, so they decided to call the place “Twin Oaks.”  Even though one of the trees had to come down several years later, the name had already become so associated with the house that they decided to keep using it. 

Over the years, Twin Oaks provided four generations with a great place to escape and relax, to enjoy the beauty of the Georgia mountains, and to have SO much fun.  My sister and I continued to maintain the house and property as best we could after our parents could no longer make the trips to the mountain getaway.  Unfortunately, a house like this one was never intended to last for a very long time, and as a new century approached, Twin Oaks began to suffer from wear and tear and too many cold winters. In the fall of 2015 my wife and I, as the current owners, decided to demolish our little mountain vacation house and build something new in its place. I wrote a post in December of that year about our decision titled Letting It Go. We had some apprehension at the time, and it was not an easy decision to make. But, there was no doubt that we loved the location and wanted to continue having a place of our own for family and friends.

We contracted with a builder who is also a family member to construct a three-bedroom, two bath house, which was completed in December, 2016.  The wood frame house with a rock foundation is built basically on the same footprint as the original house.  It is still conveniently located within walking distance of the ever-expanding and vibrant downtown area.  However, this house came with a few significant upgrades: central heat and air, modern kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, and DISH TV.  It can be enjoyed year-round and doesn’t have to be “put to bed” for the winter. For over four decades, Twin Oaks was a place to create wonderful memories.  That tradition continues with a new house — Twin Oaks 2! 

Twin Oaks 2
Twin Oaks 2