Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In The Wake of The Deluge

Sometimes I wonder if the people who come up with names for neighborhoods, apartment complexes, streets, and parks should be required to take a course in literary aesthetics. I think zoning boards should prohibit names which sound stupid.

For example, my neighborhood is called Raintree Forest, which sounds to me like a feminine hygiene product. To my knowledge, there's no such thing as a "raintree". I'm sure of it because the spell-check on my computer keeps highlighting the word in red.

Here in Tennessee, and perhaps in America in general, there is a fixation for naming suburban developments after English towns and villages. Having traveled the UK many times, I know something about the real places that suburban planners steal names from, and often they are not as quaint in reality as one might think. Have you ever been to Sheffield, England? If you had, you wouldn't name your neighborhood after it.

When E and I separated, I moved into an apartment complex called "The Enclave". Given the isolation one feels in the throes of a marriage dissolving, the complex was aptly named. Yet, the solitude I experienced emptied me in a way which allowed my soul to be make room for the love that would come by way of friends, strangers, my children, and Spirit.

My two-bedroom place was pathetically empty- a bed in my room, and two beds in the other for my daughters. They were alarmed by the bare bones, but I liked it. The one luxury we had was a television sitting on a small wooden box.

I put an easel in the dining area, and started painting again. I had stopped painting during the first months of my 25 year marriage, and now felt myself being pulled back into what had been a contemplative exercise.

When the girls would visit, we'd eat on the floor in the living room, where I would lay towels in case there was an accident involving food. I tried to make light of the situation by comparing it to the family camping trips we'd enjoyed in years past, but it didn't lessen my daughters' concerns that my fortunes had truly gone south.

Most nights, after going to sleep, I would wake up drenched in sweat, starting at 1 AM, and continuing til about 5 or 6 until I finally couldn't take anymore. I would rise, and go for a walk, but the neighborhood surrounding The Enclave wasn't much of a walker's paradise, so eventually, I started using the treadmill in the gym of the Enclave's clubhouse.

My isolation and restless nights drove me to exercising, and before I knew it, I had dropped 40 or 50 pounds, power-walking 2 miles early every morning. Since I was already up, I now had a good 90 minutes before I needed to pick the girls up at E's for school. I discovered that my church, Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal, had a morning prayer service at 7, so following my power walk and shower, I'd head for the pews.

There were usually only 3 or 4 of us in those early morning hours, huddled in the first two pews, the sanctuary dimly lit, cold, and quiet. Led by Randy and Cathy, we would quietly work our way through prayers, creeds, and scripture readings. I remember most of these mornings as rainy Spring days which served as a metaphor for my journey, rainy with a slight chance of resurrection.

Randy, who would eventually become a full-fledged priest, had been someone I'd run from in the past. He had seemed a little too flaky to me, and was "Charismatic" like a lot of the crazies of my past who had attached themselves to me like barnacles to a boat's hull. This boat would come about, or turn around, when it saw Randy coming.

Once he told me, "The Lord's been talking to me about you. Don't worry, most of it's good."

I started building a wall right there and then, and told him I had no interest in what the Lord was telling him. And I truly didn't.

The first time I attended morning prayers, the irony of redemption greeted me in the form of Randy's hug. I was informed by our past, yet I felt strangely safe, and sensed that one or both of us had changed.

I became a morning prayer regular for that short yet excruciatingly painful period of my life. Randy and Cathy would embrace me upon arrival, and upon intoning the words "Peace be with you" at the service's end.

One day, I asked him if he remembered what God had said to him back when I had started building my wall. He said, "Oh, that? That was just crazy talk!"

Those days of early morning power walks and prayers got me through the early pain of divorce. Sometimes, departing from the church in my old Mercedes, I would experience a deluge of tears. My therapist told me my heart was thawing out, and making room for love, but I just wanted to dam up the flood of tears and get on with living.

Other times, I'd have a remembrance of a painful event that I had shoved to some dark corner of my memory. I would be taken by surprise, ambushed by a rusty, jagged remark. Often, I would be haunted by the unknown price my kids would pay for my decision to leave their mother. Of course, that is still a viable concern.

Of those tear stained days, what I remember most is the centering experience of being in a house of God Almighty in the early hours, intoning ancient prayers in the hope that I wouldn't completely lose my way.

A few months passed, and the gavel came down, and the divorce was final.

I continued my exercising, but eventually, morning prayers fell by the wayside.

Six years passed. Water under the bridge. Water over the bridge.

In the wake of the Nashville flood, I had a personal awakening. I had no personal losses as did so many other Nashvillians, but those deep waters brought with them a mystical effect on my life. Seeing the mini-islands that the flood created, I faced a reality check. How like an island was I willing to become? How willing was I to isolate from my daughters, my friends, and my dearest companion?

There were patterns of behavior that might isolate me if I continued on. No, there was nothing scandalous, nothing extraordinary, but like so many Americans, I was easily lured into feelings of self-entitlement.

Looking around at the massive damage the flood brought to Tennessee, and seeing peoples' homes and lives put in disarray, I found myself with a crowbar and a hammer at the homes of a few friends whose places had been decimated. I was reminded of how good I had it, and of how blessed I was in friends, family, love and work.

Witnessing the generous spirit unique to Middle Tennessee, and exhilarated by the experience of volunteering, even in the most basic of ways, I was reminded that this is how we're supposed to live all the time, not just while in dire straits.

The flood had swept across my eyes, and cleared my vision, and revealed the island I might be unto myself, if I didn't find my center.

So, on a Tuesday morning, 6 years to the day of my divorce, I walked into a small neighborhood church at 7 am, and bent my knee before God Almighty, hoping I'd find myself surrounded and grounded by Spirit in the wake of the deluge.

Monday, May 10, 2010


The flood came slyly, soothing my ears with its rainy, new age soundtrack tempting me to crawl back into bed on a Saturday morning, and curl up with a good novel for the third time through.

It had been a sad enough week, and like Stevie Ray Vaughn once sang, the sky was crying, perhaps for the two suicides that had rocked our town within days of each other.

One was a schoolmate of my daughter Maddy’s, who had driven to the highest bridge in these parts, the Natchez Trace Bridge, which sits high above Highway 96 near Franklin, Tennessee. I guess the fear of living fueled whatever bravery was required for her to make the 155 foot leap to her end.

A few days later, a guitarist friend was having a conversation with his parents at his Franklin home. He casually went down into his basement, and hung himself. Bill, as I remember him, had always been troubled. A few days after his death, a mutual friend and I noted that we’d both been shocked but not surprised.

The Kyrie was at the forefront of my mind, even before the deluge crept down the Cumberland. Lord, have mercy.

While I made a pot of coffee, the rain started seeping through the same old spot near my chimney.

It was the weekend, and I had work to do. Dennis Holt had come over to play drums on some music I’d recorded. As a rule, I like to record drums first and let the other instruments fall in line with their rhythm, but I had something I’d recorded “live” in my basement with John Paul White, a most passionate singer, who can croon, soar, twang or roar. We had recorded what we call a “Guitar Vocal” version of the song, and I couldn’t leave well-enough alone. I decided it needed some architectural supports, so I brought in Dennis.

If Dennis were a doctor, he’d manage to find the pulse of a corpse, so keen is his ear. I’ll often bring him in and have him play on a haphazard recording, needing the cohesion, camouflage, and excitement his drumming can bring.

I like living in this community of musicians, who can drop everything and show up 30 minutes after an idea has been spawned. In no time, Dennis delivered the elements that had seemed lacking in the original recording.

When he left, it was raining pretty hard. A few minutes passed, and I continued working on the music. Dennis called and began talking about high water on Crockett Road and asking about alternate routes back to town. I sent him up to Concord Road and then shut my computer down, showered, and headed to town. I was thinking my Southern Born Woman and I would enjoy the cozy sound of rain on the windows while reading a book we’d started.

Also, we had some tasks that needed doing in preparation for her upcoming mixed media event called “Jezebel’s Got The Blues and Other Works of Imagination”, so I sure didn’t want to be stuck in the sticks. I was ready for an afternoon of working together, and enjoying her company.

As I drove, I checked in with my daughter Kate, to see where she was hiding out at. She was working her checkout job at Target, and couldn’t talk, so I left a message asking to be informed of her whereabouts once work let out.

About a mile from the Interstate, Concord Road was under water, and people were turning around. I took a right on Wilson Pike, a little two-lane road which crosses several streams on its way north. I’m a determined guy, and until a door slams in my face, I’ll assume its open. That character trait usually serves me well; not always, but usually.

Sure enough, I wasn’t a mile up Wilson Pike, when the low riding Lincoln in front of me slowed down and surveyed the submerged road. It didn’t look so bad to me, and I was feeling impatient. The Lincoln lurched forward and made it across the brook with me in tow.

I thought, this is nothing.    That kind of thinking relates to yet another character trait, and perhaps that has served me well, too.    Not always, but usually.

The drive was oddly beautiful, surrounded by lush lawns and trees, but muddy waters continued to rise.  Near the end of Wilson Pike, I came to a wide river burying all trace of the roadway.   I waited as a southbound sedan tested the waters and passed me, water rolling from its wheel wells.  Giving my car some gas, I faced the flood and plowed through, exactly where the southbound car had come from, while oncoming traffic waited to see what would become of me.  I could feel the water splashing against the fenders, and pushing against my tires, but I made my way through, pumping my brakes once across.

Moments later, I was in Brentwood proper, out of the woods. I drove the remaining eight miles to my dearest companion’s without incident.

She greeted me with a smile and a hug, and we chatted about her paintings and her theatre pieces which she was preparing for performance.  I was to provide the background music with my old National guitar and a slide, moaning the blues as actors gave voice to her musings about some troubled Old Testament characters, Jonah, Jezebel, Lot’s wife, and others.

She asked for details about Bill, and I gave her what sketchy information I’d been given. We wondered about his ex-wife and their sons, and talked about the impossible sadness of a funeral service when someone passes on in this manner.   We talked about the button suicide pushes with my daughters and me, about how their maternal grandmother’s choice to die raises its grotesque head when others give the gift that keeps on giving.

We worked for a while on her project, experimenting with canvas, paper, acrylic paint and other media, then drove a few blocks away to a showing of paintings of trees by her friend Mindy.  Little did we know that trees were falling fast at Radnor Lake, one of our favorite walking places. Nor did we know that the same was happening at other parks in our fair city.

We had no idea that there were neighborhoods being submerged by the overflowing Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers, or that a grass-roots rescue effort would soon be underway.   At Symphony Hall, the massive pipe organ was taking a beating, while the concert Steinway grand piano was being twisted, warped, and strangled. 

Over at Soundcheck, where I used to keep my Hammond Organ, and where many of Nashville’s musicians rehearse and store their gear, the Cumberland was rising.  Eventually the uncontained river would destroy over 1,000 instruments, including priceless vintage guitars owned by Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and other fine musicians.

The Grand Ole Opry was underwater, but the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, was on high ground, for the moment at least.

Meanwhile, we huddled under a wide umbrella and walked up Belmont Boulevard to PM Restaurant. We ordered our food and watched the TV overhead, with its sobering news, she eating sushi, and me eating a wasabi cheeseburger.  If PM Restaurant isn’t washed away one day soon, try their cheeseburger; it's the best in Nashville.

Kate called in tears, wondering where to go from Target.   I suggested she drive to our friend Derri's, who lives nearby.  He was ready for her, as is the way of Nashville in crisis.  It wasn’t the first time our family had been scattered across town in bad weather.  Instead, she hightailed it to my place, which was a blessing in disguise.  My basement was slightly wet, and she dutifully unplugged electrical gear, and moved instruments to the living room.

Maddy was stuck at Kate’s apartment, getting to be the little sister of Kate’s room mates, thoroughly enjoying her independence, yet wondering when she’d get to go home.

Over the next 24 hours, we heard rumors and news of homes being damaged, and even a few lives being lost.   My Southern Born Woman discovered 3 feet of southern bound water in her basement, destroying her furnace and her water heater, but in light of what was going on elsewhere, she was grateful.

Eventually, I was able to reach Maddy and drive her back to my place. We passed the YMCA, where cars were completely covered by water. My neighborhood was untouched, perched as it is on high ground.

The next few days, the rest of the world didn’t seem to be engaged with what has now been called The Thousand Year Flood. The only reason my family, scattered from Seattle to Connecticut to Ireland, knew anything was because I’d sent them pictures.

In the meantime, the Volunteer State lived up to its name. People with boats appeared on streets and rescued old timers and newlyweds.  Entire neighborhoods came together with a community spirit that is uniquely American, and gathered up the debris in the flood’s wake, stacking sidewalks high with sofas, televisions, and miles of carpet.

People lost all possessions, only to find out that they had no flood insurance. I know of no reports of looting or gouging.   I only know of a friend with a boat cruising up and down Sawyer Brown Road, searching for loved ones of strangers, ferrying helpless folks across a river that didn’t exist the day before.  I only know of songwriters and bands performing benefits, and tacos being delivered to volunteers who worked waist deep in rank basements, dismantling what the deluge had left behind, before any rebuilding would be possible.

They held Bill’s funeral in Alabama, where he’d grown up. It was packed with Nashvillians, but all the Volunteers in Tennessee couldn’t pick up the pieces of the deluge he’d left his children swimming in. What can you say at the funeral of someone who takes his or her life? I wanted to say, “Bill, are you happy now?”

I imagine he is.

There are some changes that come with no explanation or warning from Mother Nature.  The “Act of God” clause in insurance policies has always miffed me; why blame God?  Who’s to say who sends the sunshine or the rain?  When we need the rain, we thank God when it arrives, as we do when the sun relieves the dreary weather.  But what of the Thousand Year Flood?   I think all God has to do with it is in the hands of those who pull people to safety, who make sandwiches for workers, who clean out the debris, and who brush fingers across each other’s brow, and whisper, It’s gonna be alright.