Beyond the Madness

I haven’t watched an entire game thus far into this year’s version of “March Madness.” I can’t even tell you what teams are in the Final Four. I can tell you that Kansas and Kentucky are both out of it. And I can tell you that there’s only one team that won’t end the season with a loss.

Remembering my own years of competition and my frequent failures as a player and then later as a coach, I’m deeply thankful for grace. I’m glad that my salvation doesn’t hinge on every shot, every pass, every decision. I’m glad that someone else loved me enough to pay the price of my guilt and take that kind of pressure off of me. I’m glad that no one can steal my crown of life, and that no one else has to lose for me to receive mine.

But I’m also aware that in life, the choices that we make and the actions that we take—even when it seems there’s no real pressure—really do matter. And the more that we practice making wise choices in simple situations, the easier it is to make them when the pressure really is on and the stakes are high.

It helps, too, to know that the coach and the ref are pulling for you.

H. Arnett

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Return to Paradise

On the surface, the boys and I had been waiting for the John Prine concert for a couple of months. But in a deeper way, we’d been waiting for thirty years.

My kids grew up hearing his songs—on the tape player during road trips in our old Ford van and in person with me playing the guitar. Sometimes we’d sing “Please Don’t Bury Me” or “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” in the living room and sometimes in their bedroom right before they went to sleep. On our trips back from Columbus, Ohio, we’d drive across the Green River into Muhlenberg County and I’d show them the world’s largest shovel and the Paradise steam plant with its nuclear-like cooling towers. Sometimes I’d cue up John Prine’s strip mining protest song that had made all that somewhat famous for a while back in the early Seventies.

Eventually, my sons would play guitar and sing those songs to their own kids. So when we made our way over to Kansas City just over a week ago, it felt more like we’d been waiting all our lives to go to a John Prine concert.

We found our seats in the luxuriously ornate Midland Theatre in Kansas City, then gawked a bit longer at the architecture and furnishings. After a forty-five minute stint from the warm-up duo, John and his band came out to an enthusiastic welcome.

About an hour into the show, he sang “Souvenirs,” a haunting song about loss. The crowd quietened quickly. Jeremiah reached his arm around my shoulders and gave me a one-armed hug. As I reached over and patted Jeremiah’s thigh, Daniel gave my knee a squeeze. I hugged Dan with my right arm and then stretched a bit and squeezed Sam’s shoulder. A little later, as John played the tender and sensitive guitar prelude to “Hello in There,” a powerfully poignant song about aging parents, loss and loneliness, Jeremiah again initiated that same sequence. That theatre full of strangers seemed more like a cathedral. A sense of respect and appreciation not entirely unlike reverence spread out from the soothing familiarity of old lyrics freshly breathed into new life.

I drew in a deep breath, welcomed the warm rising in my throat that seemed to fill my chest and my mind. “You know that old trees grow stronger/and old rivers grow wilder every day.” I squeezed Jeremiah’s knee, hugged Dan’s shoulders and then rubbed Sam’s back gently but firmly.

In my heart, I gave thanks for all the lessons, all the years and for this incredible night and for all the healing and forgiving that made it possible. For this grace, for this glorious place, for all the sharings that transcend years and wounds, and draw us together. For the values that may sometimes seem blurred but in the end shine even brighter in each life to which they are passed. I gave thanks for this wonderful weekend and for the years of memories that we will carry, both from our own singing and this new expression of listening to John Prine together.

I felt like we’d rounded a big curve on that old West Kentucky Parkway and were rolling right across the Green River. I was pretty sure we’d found our way back to Paradise.

H. Arnett

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Joy in the Midst of Disappointment

It was Sam who found out that John Prine was going to perform in Kansas City on Saturday, March 11th and suggested that we get together for that. Dan and Jeremiah agreed to come over from western Kentucky. Getting together the night before at our big old farmhouse in northeastern Kansas for our own John Prine hoedown was my idea. I invited Neil to join us. He’s become a very close friend since we met in 2010 and a good friend of Sam’s since I introduced them in 2015. All five of us play guitars and sing so we had been looking forward to our warm-up celebration for over two months.

The day before Randa and I left Arkansas City I woke up with a sore throat. By Thursday evening, I was a noticeably hoarse. As we packed up and left on Friday morning, my voice sounded like the mix of a croaking frog and a dying mule. By the time Neil, Sam and I tuned up around 8:30 that evening, I could barely talk. Nonetheless, I started us off, rasping out the first verse of “Paradise.” By the time I got to “Mr. Peabody’s coal trains done hauled it away,” I knew I wasn’t going to be doing much singing. I nodded toward Sam and mouthed “Take it.”

Just before ten o’clock, Dan and Jeremiah rolled up the driveway at the end of their five hundred-and-twenty-five-mile drive out from Murray. Sam, Neil and I took a break for hugs and hellos. Ten minutes later, five guitars and four voices were ringing out in the living room. As we continued playing John Prine and songs by a few others, Randa would join in every now and then on the piano in the next room. When she wasn’t doing that, she’d sit on a chair and listen.

Every now and then, while the boys and Neil were singing, I’d watch them for a while and then look over at her and grin like a horse eating thistle blooms. I couldn’t sing a lick but I was having a truly wonderful time, surrounded by men I love and all of us doing something we love to do.

Somewhere between midnight and whatever hour comes next, my fingers had endured about as much pressing against steel strings as they could stand for one night. I managed to make them get through “Wagon Wheel/Rock Me, Mama,” though. With Jeremiah taking the lead on that one and with the others helping out, I mouthed the words and played along. I wasn’t able to sing but I sure did enjoy the singing.

Listening to my sons and playing guitars with them transcended whatever distances might have grown up between us at some time in the past. Even those old songs we’d known for thirty years seemed fresh this night. I might have a sore throat but I wasn’t going to let that dampen my spirits.

Even when we have lost our own voice, we can still rejoice in the singing of others. Especially those we love.

H. Arnett

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Stuff That Lasts

There’s just too much to tell in too little space so I’ll try to cut it into parts small enough that the telling doesn’t overwhelm the reading…

Along with everything else that being my kid involved, my children grew up listening to the music of John Prine and Guy Clark. It wasn’t that they sought it out and looked for it; there’s just not much choice when you’re stuck in a Ford van for hundreds of miles and your old man has a thing for folk music. I nearly wore out the cassette tapes that Serena Hersh and Bill Jolliff had given me. Serena was a student of mine and Bill caught the short straw and ended up becoming my best friend while we were all at Ohio State University back in the mid-Eighties. Serena and her boyfriend turned me onto John Prine after hearing me sing some of my songs and learning that I was from western Kentucky, where Paradise lay. Bill got me hooked on Guy Clark’s Texas poetry set to music. Even when he couldn’t tell if I was a blessing or a curse, he’s remained a treasured friend even to this day.

I passed on the favor of those musical acquaintances, playing their songs on long trips back to Kentucky and everywhere else we traveled. At home and on visits, I’d switch from tape player to playing the guitar, singing “Paradise,” “Hello in There,” “Throw My Brains in a Hurricane,” and a couple dozen other songs from both songwriter/singers. Some of my most finely polished memories are of sitting on the edge of bed and playing the guitar while the kids and I sang those songs together. They loved helping me teach their friends “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” when I did storytelling and folk singing stints for their school classes. Dan and Ben and I did a couple of Guy Clark tunes in a talent show at Webster Elementary School in Saint Joseph back in previous lives.

Even in our worst years and lowest points, the kids and I could always agree on John Prine and Guy Clark. They loved the music and began singing the songs to their own kids, passing along tunes and talents that had been passed on to them.

There’s a fine, rich pleasure in seeing the ones we love treasure the things we love. Especially when it comes to things like hope and faith and the third member of that blessed trinity, the one that will outlast the other two. And good to know, too, that even in eternity, we’ll still share both love and singing.

H. Arnett

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Aging Ain’t Much of a Spectator Sport

I could say “it seemed like only yesterday” but that would be so close to lying I might be expected to run for public office. In fact it seems like about thirty years ago. That was when I noticed that high school basketball players seemed to be getting considerably younger. Much too young to be so tall and playing varsity basketball.

It was a good while after that—maybe ten years or so—when I became aware that a similar phenomenon was occurring with college athletes. “Aren’t they supposed to finish high school before they start playing college ball?” I asked Randa. She smiled and kindly reassured me, “Oh, I’m sure they did finish high school, dear.” I still had my doubts, especially about the kicker.

Time drifted on and I began to notice the hair on my shoulders and the age in my eyes, as Don Williams and Waylon Jennings each sang in their covers of Bob McDill’s “Amanda.” Some while after that Randa observed that my basketball playing had morphed a bit as well. One day I mourned the decline of my vertical jump. In a gentle voice Randa asked me “Has your ‘jump shot’ turned into a ‘hop shot,’ my darling?”

About the time the humor wore off of that one, I was watching a game. “Good grief!” I exclaimed right in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. “That wide receiver can’t be more than a teenager! I don’t think he’s even started shaving yet!”

“Oh, honey,” Randa replied. “Don’t be silly. You’re watching a women’s basketball game.”

Of course, she was just making a joke. She sat down next to me for a while, mostly for giving the illusion of consolation, I imagine. A couple of first downs later, they pulled the kid out of the game for a few plays. The camera pulled in for a close-up while he took off his helmet. “Oh, wow, you’re right!” Randa gasped, “There’s no way that kid’s old enough to play professional football!”

Well, misery does love company I suppose. At least some of the announcers still look my age. I do miss John Madden, though. When you realize that many of the people you’ve admired in sports have retired, it sort of brings home that notion of aging and mortality. And while I do agree that how you play the game is pretty darn important, when it comes to eternity, it does matter whether you win or lose.

H. Arnett

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My son and I sit in the soft light of fading day
and talk of other days to come:
plans for a John Prine weekend
and moving to Michigan from Texas
and how being told
that you’re doing a good job
of raising your kids
is a mighty fine compliment.

It’s hard to figure out
how time spent like this
could be done any better:
talking about things that matter
in an unhurried manner
in the closing hours
of an afternoon
of being together.

The long shadows
stretch well toward the coming night,
light eases into darkness,
and I turn on the lamp
in the adjoining room.
Other days will come soon enough
and for now I want gentle light,
something soft and warm,

Something that will help the forming
of this good day into memories
of better blessings:
time spent with simple food
in the good presence
of people I love
and time taken for sharing things
for which there is no salary.

In the company of good friends
and others that we love
there is something of eternity,
something of treasures that do not fade.
A place in which words are not traded
for some advantage over others,
but given for the giving,
each phrase a blessing

and each touch a gift of heaven,
a leavening of love
in a world often harsh
and cold.

H. Arnett

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The Burden of Authority

I already spent forty minutes writing an essay this morning about leadership, management and showing gratitude and appreciation. (That’s definitely a recurring theme for me.) I’d gone on at some length about the comparative effectiveness of dominating management versus appreciative leadership. I think my points were well-founded and completely justified. After reflecting on my own writing, I’ve decided to go with very succinct summary instead.

So here it is: if you are in charge of others in any setting and you are not treating those people the way that you yourself desire to be treated, then you are not following the Golden Rule and you are not following the teaching, example or commands of Jesus the Christ.

If you are treating people with contempt, arrogance or indifference and you enjoy that, then you are a sadist. If you are treating people that way and that actually is how you want to be treated, then you are a masochist. I suppose both could be true but neither of them is healthy. For you or for others.

Jesus said “From those to whom much is given, much will be demanded.” That applies to authority, income, natural ability and a host of other things. If you claim to be a Christian use your position, role and performance to glorify him. And there is not much that brings more glory to Christ than treating others with love, respect and appreciation.

If you are not a Christian, treat others with decency, respect and appreciation because it is more effective, leads to greater productivity and increases longevity. If you truly are a decent person, you will feel better.

It also makes the world a better place to be.

H. Arnett

H. Arnett

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