Sunday, April 17, 2011

Getting Down With The Joneses

It was a miracle when E and I moved into our first house.  My parents gave us the $7500 down payment on what seemed like a lot of money at the time- $45,000 in 1984.  Our little log cabin on Nebraska Avenue in Nashville’s Sylvan Park was funky and warped, but cozy enough.  It was small, too, but we enjoyed it.

From Sylvan Park we followed several friends and families out to Bellevue, on the western edge of Nashville.  Wayne and Fran Kirkpatrick lived a street away, which led to a life-long friendship with them, as well as a musical relationship with Wayne.  A few hillsides away lived Bonnie Keen, who was and remains one of my dearest companion’s dearest companions. 

It was in that happy little Bellevue home that we received our two daughters, but we weren’t there long enough for them to have much memory of it.

Next came a move to Green Hills, a popular Nashville neighborhood, which gave us a fine elementary school, and a coffee shop I could walk to every morning.  The home was a large, brick cottage with an English appearance about it.  It had character, along with a damp basement, cracking plaster, and beautiful hardwood floors.

That house stood witness to a marriage that was starting to implode, and it was the site of our attempt to try and save “us”. 

Yet, the happy times outshined the sad moments, and if my children are sentimental about any place they’ve lived, it is that Green Hills house.

But greener hills, or so they seemed, called. 

I found a McMansion in boring Brentwood, with something as rare as a basement in Tennessee.  Its high ceilings would give me a perfect recording environment, and the housing division would provide E with a tennis court, and the kids with a community pool and good schools.

People were shocked and disappointed when we made the move.  One friend decried our situation, “You’re going to live among the Republicans!”

And so it came to pass.

The Land Rover and the Mercedes sat proudly in the driveway.  The piano teacher showed up on Tuesdays.  The pool key hung on the back of the laundry door.  The neighborhood association sent polite warnings about keeping things uniform, along with invitations to cocktail parties.  

Apart from Leon, the friendly neighbor behind us, we never met our neighbors, most of whom were nine-to-fives who drove through yawning garage doors at the end of the day, only to be seen on weekends, tending to lawns and gas grilles.

The neighborhood was called Raintree Forest, which didn’t sound so much like a real place as much as it did a feminine deodorant product.   The mirage of better schools and of a better life dissipated into a reality which included finding a private school to accommodate my daughters' needs which had been so well met in Nashville’s school system. 

The neighborhood was pleasant, but not vibrant.  The house was big and beautiful, but lacked character.  It had no history other than the sad story we would bequeath to these walls.

After the split, which I’ve written about elsewhere, E was smart enough to seek out humbler digs.  I felt like selling the house would bring one change too many for the kids’ already rollicking world.  I wound up staying in the big house, as it were, and indeed the sprawling 4,000 foot house was more of a prison than a home.  I went through seasons of indecision about staying or selling, and when I finally decided to let go, the property had lost an amazing amount of money.

My real estate agent gave me the bad news- “You’ll need to short sell”, she said.  Suddenly, the trajectory of an adulthood of buying, selling, and upward mobility brought me to the bottom.  Years ago, when we bought our first home, we had barely imagined being home owners.  27 years later, I hadn’t imagined a day coming when I would once again be a renter.

In the process of selling, I received a notice from a collections attorney whose name was so ridiculously close to the word cheater, I had to laugh.  This particular cheater was trying to saddle me with thousands of dollars in attorney fees that didn’t add up.   "Cheater" was well-known in the real estate and banking community, and no one was arguing with the uncanniness of his surname.  Somehow, I was led to a person who helped me to get out from under the shadow of a lawsuit, but I still shudder at the precariousness of the situation.   

A contract on my home finally materialized, and I started looking around for a new place to live.  The first place I looked at had its possibilities.  It was about 2/3 the size of my first house in Sylvan Park, and the rent was three times my old mortgage payment.

I continued looking, and while I felt good about the possibility of being debt-free, and tried to embrace the idea of starting over, the American Dream’s indelible thumbprint had pressed long and hard into my psyche.  I felt overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, and thought of how impressive my stock portfolio wasn’t.   

In the meantime, friends from Colorado had signed me up for a daily quote from a monk named Richard Rohr.  Every day, it seemed as if Richard were reminding me that ownership was a myth and that I might as well let go of everything.  I’d go to sleep at night and wonder if, like Jesus, I would wind up with a rock for a pillow.  This wasn’t what I’d signed up for, but in my heart I knew that the American Dream had never been my dream.

My Southern Born Woman was encouraging and sweet, affirming who I was, not what I’d accomplished, yet hopeful that my aspirations and efforts at rebuilding my material life would pay off.

One afternoon after leaving her place, I couldn’t find my prescription Ray Ban™ Wayfarers,  the nicest sunglasses I’ve ever owned.  Without flinching, I had sold vintage guitars that meant the world to me, rare old Ludwig drums that I’d never see the likes of again, and even the beautiful piano I’d written a few bona fide hit songs on, but somehow losing those replaceable Ray Bans was a sad thing to me.  They’d been around the world with me, and (let’s face it), gave me some needed cool factor in the face of my uncool circumstances.

I drove as the sun sank low, and I pulled the visor down and squinted.  I’m in the middle of a short sale, and I’m sad about my sunglasses!  What’s wrong with this picture? 

As is often the case with lost key rings and glasses, they turned up a few hours later under the passenger seat of my car.  I was overjoyed, frankly.  They’re prescription glasses, i.e., expensive; and they only work for me.  Anyone who finds them, assuming I lose them again, will just get a headache from wearing them.  (But they will look cool.)

A few days later, my Dearest Companion and I walked to the Belcourt Theater, a landmark in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village.   We watched “Of Gods and Men”, a beautiful film about the Martyrs of Atlas, 7 monks who were martyred in Algeria in 1996. 

Watching the portrayal of their life of simplicity, and the wholesome affection these brothers had for each other, was almost disturbing in its beauty.  In contrast to my downsizing from 4,000 square feet to 1600, here were men living in small cells, silently going about their menial tasks, and ministering to the small Muslim community with medical aid and other comforts. 

In one beautiful scene, one of the brothers walks into the kitchen where the others are waiting to eat.  He opens two bottles of red wine, and blasts Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on a cassette player.  The joy of communion, of sharing a common cup, elicits laughter and beaming smiles from brother to brother, yet as the music gains intensity, tears of joy mingle with tears of loss, tears of the inevitable, ultimate Letting Go.

I’m writing these words midway through Lent, at which time I’ve chosen to let go of alcohol, fried food, and sugar.  I’ve never enjoyed the burn of club soda as much as in the last few weeks.  I’ve never enjoyed a “feast day” (Sundays or Holy Days) as much as in this particular Lent, when a taste of Bushmill’s isn’t taken for granted, but savored and sipped and contemplated.

There are times when I’ve flat out given up Lent for Lent.  Let’s face it; it’s a miracle that I have anything to do with “organized religion” after all the years of punching the clock in Sunday School, youth group, Wednesday night church, and a childhood of Sundays voiding out fun. 

This year, I’m embracing Lent like it’s a brother monk come to teach me something of the Spirit.  There’s a sensitivity that the self-imposed lacking has rewarded me with.  Tomorrow, I might be my brash, carpetbagger self, but today, I’m listening.  My Dearest Companion has spoken wisely of these days of letting go.  “Baby, you’re going through a death, and what better time than Lent?  Soon enough, Easter will be here”.  

I’m looking forward to Easter, at which time I am going to get sick on a few morsels of chocolate.   I’m going to take my Dearest Companion to the park before the sun comes up, and we will spread a Tennessee Titans blanket on the damp grass that overlooks a wide field, with a hilly backdrop, which will slowly glow blue to green to orange to yellow as we ponder the Resurrection of Jesus, and the power tangled up with letting go.

I’ll fire up the Coleman Stove (which I guess I won’t be letting go of) and I’ll cook bacon and eggs over its blue flame while she reads me The Times or Flannery O’Connor, or better yet, a poem of her own.   Who knows, maybe we’ll bring the Book of Common Prayer just to organize things a bit.   Maybe I’ll be done with letting go, for a season, and no doubt, we’ll lift a glass of Bushmill’s to our broken stories, while we’re thinking of Resurrection. 

And perhaps for a moment, we will bask in the joy of love and communion, and of not keeping up with the Joneses, while a tear falls, unseen behind my sunglasses.


  1. The simplicity of true thanks-giving. Thank you!

  2. Out of the 7,000 things that have crossed my computer screen and I've chosen to ignore, I chose to read yours. I have this thing about keeping a distance...not getting too wrapped up in the web.

    I feel like I just took your journey with you Phil, and if there isn't a song titled "The Timing of a Tear" -- someone should write one, about how right at the time a writer - you - writes about a tear falling, one falls from the reader's eyes.

    If it was the olden days, and what you had written was on paper, my tear would have fallen on yours.

    I wouldn't say I've been there Phil, unless I have. And I have. Not where you are, not in the same neighborhood, but in the same state -- of mind. You articulate things that escaped me, and your "presence" comes though in what you write.

    You are here to stay.

    You are a special man Phil Madeira, and

  3. and...I am glad to know you.

  4. Thanks Mr Loren.

    Chris, thank you for your words. I have not forgotten your story. Like you, I am grateful for this journey, and if I have not expressed the great joy in the midst of "letting go", I've failed.

    Looking forward to seeing you out West in the Fall if not sooner.


  5. Glad you're back to your blog. You see well. You feel at a deep level. And you write well. You haven't changed a bit. I'm impressed with your lent "give ups". Mine were undefined this year. Happy Easter. (He is Risen, indeed!)

  6. Beautiful post, Uncle Phil.

  7. @Morning Coffee, my Episcopalian gut will have to wait on the "Happy Easter" until Holy Week brings us to its pinnacle. Thanks for the kind words, and perhaps we'll meet at Telluride this summer.

    @Jennwith2ns, thank you for reading.


  8. I'm not sure how I discovered your blog but I am so glad I did. I remember many years ago you got a new Mac, I think from me, and you started writing a story and brought it by for me to read. I was impressed with your writing then, and even more so now.

    There is much I relate to in your stories... I started back from the beginning and have been reading through them. I have been through my own journeys with love, loss, and the religious, and even now I am contemplating simplifying my life and letting go of many things I have held on to for too long. Your words have been cathartic.

    Drop by sometime if you are in the area. I'm not there yet, but my plan is to eventually open a coffee shop and make my store into a Franklin Musician hangout.

  9. Thanks for sharing this Phil... what a feast for Lent! Indeed this most precious of weeks will bring much internal conflict to all you are honest. Thanks for setting the bar of transparency.


  10. Thanks Doug and Jerry for reading, and for leaving comments.


  11. @Joan- Thanks for reading~

  12. Solveig Chaffee19 April, 2011

    Thank you.
    After a hurried morning, it was good to pause here
    with you and reflect over loss, letting go and embracing the
    beauty of moments that nonetheless are available to us,
    like taking a day to spread blankets on a damp field in the park.
    Appreciate you.

  13. Phil, thanks so much for sharing your beautiful naked soul in this writing. I love that you are a student of life and you can then teach us what you are learning. The lessons are profound. Margaret

  14. Thanks Solveig and Margaret, for reading and for posting your kind words.


  15. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I love when you write. Thank you for opening a window on your heart experience... Reminds me of a quote from "Shadowlands"..."We read to know we're not alone."

  16. @Gwen,

    Thanks for the kind and encouraging words.

  17. I cannot even begin to explain how timely this was for me to read today. Thank you for being brave enough to be so honest about your life. My heart is moved. -brandon

  18. @Brandon,

    Glad this was of meaning to you. I'm in a place of real joy about the whole thing, while recognizing that "letting go" is something that we're constantly being asked or perhaps even forced to do... sooner or later.

    Thanks, and may your own letting go become a joyous dance.

  19. Phil, I don't get here often enough, and when I do I find myself immersed in the posts I've missed. This one really hit home for me, as I've been pondering the idea that I have too much stuff, and need to simplify. Thanks for your words.


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm