Embracing Yonder Mountain

It had been seven years since I had last seen Jake Jolliff. At that time, he was a freshman at Berklee Music Institute in Boston. According to one of his friends, he was the first mandolin player to get a full-ride scholarship. I don’t doubt that it’s true. When Jake was still a kid, Ricky Skaggs heard him play at a festival in Oregon and subsequently invited him to come on stage and play during one of the shows. Jake was incredibly good at that time and he’s gotten a lot better in the past dozen years. These days, he is touring with Yonder Mountain String Band and people are saying he’s the best mandolin player in the country now. Most of those people aren’t even related to Jake.

As for me, well, I’m a bit more prejudiced in his favor than most, having been close friends with his parents since well before Jake was born. I’m in no place to debate the issue of where he fits in on the comparison scale; I do know that his mandolin playing is nothing short of absolutely amazing. Last night I had the privilege of taking my perspective on that subject a step or two beyond YouTube videos; I got to see Jake up close, live and in-person when YMSB played in Springfield, Missouri, last night.

I reckon the warm-up show achieved its purpose; with more and more Yonderites streaming into Gillioz Theatre, the band came out to a warm welcome. Since it’s a small theatre and everyone down front was going to be standing up, I decided to sit as far toward the back as possible. Soon into the first song, though, with Jake doing a solo, I got up and moved right into the dance section to take a couple of pictures.

I think “dance section” is a euphemism for the place where hyper fans and followers stand as close to the band as possible. While a couple of people actually did dance, most were just sort of bobbing and weaving. Many did all of their bobbing and weaving with only the absolute top part of their being, leaving them looking like a motley collection of bobble-heads on the dash of a ’68 Cadillac. I’d planned to take my pictures and get right back to my seat but when I looked around and saw how much fun everyone seemed to be having, I decided to stay right there in the thick of things for a while.

It was a good call.

I moved over toward the center so I was between the two huge banks of speakers. As I’d hoped, that lowered the decibel level considerably. I could still feel the bass notes through the concrete floor. People all around were standing close together but not close enough to totally inhibit movement. Some dipped their hips and some swung their arms. Some moved their shoulders back and forth, twisting their torsos just barely. Some bounced up and down and others continued the bobble-head dance. What was truly impressive to me was that every single one of them seemed happy as Hindu cows. They smiled at strangers, hugged friends, cheered the band and sometimes sang along. There was a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, kind of like an old hippy festival or church or something. I stood there, looking around me from time to time, grinning like a hungry coonhound staring at a hunk of ham every time Jake did a mandolin solo. Surrounded by complete strangers, having a great time. Pretty soon, I was bobbing and weaving, swinging and swaying.

I couldn’t help thinking about how different our experience of a thing is when we decide to quit being peripheral purveyors and become genuine participants. If I’d stayed in my seat the whole night, I’d still know very little more about what it’s really like to go to a Yonder Mountain concert. Kind of like the folks who go to church but never really immerse themselves in the experience.

I can tell you that those up at the altar, losing themselves in worship, finding themselves at the feet of Jesus and experiencing a foretaste of glory divine, can’t quite figure out why it is that some folks prefer to just watch from their seats. But they’re glad they’re all there anyway and they’d welcome anyone who wanted to come and join in. And I’m pretty sure that everybody inside the house is getting something that those on the outside are missing. Even if they don’t know they’re missing it.

H. Arnett


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Even Better Than Expected

So here I am at a Psychology conference in Wichita, walking toward the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel with my young friend Anna, when out of the blue I hear someone say, “Doc. Doc!” I stopped and turned and saw a young man walking toward me, athletic in build with short-cropped hair.

I immediately recognized him as one of the Quiz Bowl team members I used to coach at Highland. “Hey, Sean, man, how in the world are you?!”

We shook hands and simultaneously did the one-arm man-hug. “I’m doing great, Doc. What are you doing here?”

I explained the reason for my trip and introduced Anna, “She’s sort of my unofficially-adopted niece.” They shook hands and Sean told us that he was there as part of the security detail for the conference. That explained the blue tee shirt with “Security” printed on the front. He apologized, “Doc, I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch with you.” I assured him that I understood, “Everybody gets busy, Sean. Don’t worry about it.”

We talked for a couple more minutes. Sean went back to his station by the door of the Exhibit Hall and we walked on to the lobby. I paid my parking fee and Anna went up to her room to change clothes. As I walked back through the hallway toward the parking garage, I wondered whether or not my “chance meeting” with Sean was really just chance. I suspected it might be something more.

I stopped and spoke with him again. There was a question I wanted to ask but was afraid of what the answer might be.

Four years ago, when he was at Highland, he’d come to my office. I knew something was wrong but he didn’t know how to bring it up. So I just asked, “Man, I can tell something is eating on you. Do you mind telling me what it is?”

Sean is one of the most masculine-looking guys I know. The kind of guy you’d sure hope was on your side if you ended up in a bar fight or anything like that. His facial features and mannerisms remind me of the actor Roger Craig. But he did tear up just a bit as he told me about his half-sister. “She’s in the hospital and she’s really sick. They’re afraid she might die and even if she doesn’t, that she might lose her other leg. She’s already lost one.” I asked him if it would be okay if we prayed for her. “Sure,” he choked out, even though he wasn’t sure how we would do that. I got the impression he’d never had anyone pray with him before.

I took his hand and prayed out loud for his sister. I asked for her strengthening and healing; I asked for a miracle. “But Lord, above that, I ask you to give her peace of mind. Take away the fear and the anxiety and just bless her with your peace.” We talked a little while longer and then he left.

Not having heard anything about her in these few years, I was reluctant to even ask Sean about her? What if she had died? In spite of my reluctance, though, I had to ask. “How’s your sister doing?” He looked puzzled for all of two seconds and then smiled and shook his head enthusiastically, “Oh, she’s doing great! She’s got her prostheses now and she’s just doing great.” I told him how glad I was to hear that and gave him another hug. “It really is awesome to see you. Thanks for coming over and speaking to me earlier.”

We said our goodbyes and I walked down the hall with a sudden hit of goose bumps and a tingling along my spine. You see, I realized that if Sean’s half-sister was up and around and doing great with her prostheses, the Lord had given her the peace we’d prayed for. Otherwise, she’d be in a wheelchair, feeling sorry for herself and griping about all the stuff she couldn’t do. People who have been blessed with peace move on with their lives, focused on their capabilities and the possibilities.

Sometimes, the miracle we get is even greater than we expected.



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For Love of the Father

Anna is the youngest daughter of my very dear friends Bill and Brenda. For the past four years she has been studying and conducting research in Psychology. At her college in Arkansas, she is many miles away from her parents’ home in northwestern Oregon. Last Saturday, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit Anna when she presented a paper at a conference in Wichita.

Being as how Wichita is only a couple hundred miles away from Wathena, I was able to get there in time to sit in on her presentation. With her long brown hair pulled back behind her head, wearing jacket and blouse, skirt and heels, she looked very much the young professional. Her poise, confidence, clear calm voice and smooth delivery rather sealed the deal; she is very much the young professional.

After her session, I took her out for lunch at one of my favorite joints in the Old Town section of Wichita, conveniently located within a few minutes of the conference center. As we ate and visited, shared anecdotes and antidotes, philosophies and whimsies, I could not help but see both of her parents in her. There were unmistakable traits of both Bill and Brenda in her expressions, eloquence and mannerisms. But there was also the unmistakable truth that Anna was far more than the sum of contributed parts; she is very clearly her own person.

It would be embarrassing for all parties concerned for me to describe the absolute delight that I found in this getting to know Anna. Some of that stemmed from my love for Bill and Brenda and the aching that still haunts me in missing them, even though it’s now been twenty-seven years since we all left central Ohio. Some of it, too, comes from the soothing of an old regret.

Before Anna was even born, I had sworn to myself that I was going to be a good uncle to the children of these fine friends. That was my solemn yet cheerful intent. But then the fires and storms in my own life derailed a number of my good intentions and I fell quite short. I did manage to send them an illustrated version of Uncle Reemus stories when the oldest, Jake, was just a little kid. It turned out that I was just as lousy an uncle for Bill and Brenda’s kids as I was for those of my own siblings.

But in visiting with Anna, in being able to talk with her and discover the nuances of the wonderful, complicated young woman that she is, I found something of redemption. As a parent, I know that the love that we show to the children of people that we love is also love shown to them. Any kindness, any consideration, any devotion–all that is expressed to the child is expressed to the parent as well.

And in that realization, we gain a bit of understanding of why it is that our heavenly Father is so delighted when we truly invest ourselves in learning and loving the Son that he sent to us

H. Arnett


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Hunting the Easter Money

I guess most people remember when they found out that Santa Claus didn’t really pop down and up their chimneys. Of course, many were suspicious of this particular clause in the story anyway, having figured out that their home didn’t even have a chimney. This fact further complicated the notion of an overweight old guy in a very furry suit zooming his way down and up tightly constricted spaces, making the whole story even less plausible. Of course, such realizations are simply part of growing up in our culture, sort of like finding out that one of your favorite politicians may actually have fudged the truth on certain matters as well. And that even before the election, not to mention all that came afterwards.

At any rate, we endure most of the rites of passage and even embrace some of them, especially the ones that give maximum freedom with minimum responsibility, like getting your driver’s license while your parents furnish you a vehicle, pay your insurance and give you gas money. As parents, though, many of those rites take us sadly past the preferred memories of our children as children and on into the dubious dreams of adulthood.

Among events in that category, similar to realizing that your kids no longer believe in Santa Claus, is finding out they consider themselves too old to hunt Easter eggs. While we take pride in their emerging maturity and developing talents, we have mixed feelings about the loss of certain family rituals.

Our oldest two grandsons are moving right along into and through that territory now. At fourteen and sixteen, Gage and Hunter are definitely a bit past colored eggs and bright plastic shells. They do, however, retain a certain fondness for the color green.

And so it was, in an unusual bit of creative insight, I hatched the idea of hiding dollar bills on the afternoon of our most recent Resurrection Day celebration. Grandma Randa and Christy agreed to help Papa Doc hide the currency before Craig and the boys came over in mid-afternoon.

I was pretty sure if the boys had half as much fun finding as we had hiding, we’d all have a Merry Easter.

Although a bit late for the appointed meal, Christy’s brother, Jay, and his girlfriend, Leah, joined us as well. After we all enjoyed a very early supper or whatever the post meridiem version of “brunch” is, we all went outside on a sunny but quite breezy and definitely chilly Sunday evening. We laid out the perimeters of the search area and offered various hints, encouragement and ridicule at appropriate intervals. It’s actually quite amazing how well paper money blends in with pots, rocks, blocks, siding and natural artifacts such as trees, particularly when the dollar bills are carefully rolled or folded and pushed into tiny crevices. Both of the boys stepped practically on top of slightly visible money on several occasions. As the saying goes, if those little partially hidden prizes had been snakes, Hunter and Gage would have suffered numerous bites.

Eventually, due to the persistence of each member present, all of the dollar bills were accounted for and everybody seemed to rather enjoy themselves, even though there were no eggs to peel or candy to eat. In all honesty, though, it seemed as if most of the adults sort of wished they were teenagers again, at least for this one afternoon.

As for figuring out a thing or two about what kids and grandkids might enjoy, well, I’d say that traces back to well before our beginnings. I think that’s why Papa God went way beyond anything we could afford and offered us all of the grace we would ever need, nailed to a tree. And knew none of us would ever outgrow that gift.

H. Arnett

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I Saw the Sun Rise in the West

I saw the sun rising in the west Tuesday evening. That’s right; I saw the sun rising in the west. No, it’s not a play on words; I wasn’t out West and saw a sunrise. I saw the sun rise in the west Tuesday evening. Just after seven p.m., the last least slice of an intensely red sun barely showed at the edge of the horizon. Thirty minutes later, I saw the sun full and round, completely above the visual edge of the earth. I saw the sun rise in the west.

I was not drunk, I was not asleep and I was not in a trance. I was in an airplane.

So, no, in reality, it was not the sun that was rising; it was me. Along with a couple hundred other people who happened to be on a plane that happened to take off from Chicago at just the right time and headed in the right direction for such a wonderful little illusion. As we gained in altitude, it made it appear that the sun was rising. In fact, the earth continued its customary manner of revolution, time did not stand still or turn back, and the sun did not rise in the west.

And yet, it did.

Argue all you want; I saw the evidence for myself and it is irrefutable. There might even be other witnesses, if anyone else in a window seat on the right hand side of the plane happened to be looking out and paying attention. Okay, maybe there weren’t any other witnesses, but that’s their fault, not mine. It happened. I saw it.

“No,” you say, “the sun did not rise in the west. You’ve already said yourself that it was an illusion created by the plane gaining sufficient altitude above the earth so that the sun became visible once again. We all know that the sun does not rise in the west. It sets in the west; it does not rise.”

Well, if we’ve going to get all technical about it, the sun never sets in the west, either. The sun never rises, nor sets. It’s all about the illusions created by the rotation of the earth as it orbits the sun. The sun appears to rise in the east and it appears to set in the west.

Except for Tuesday evening, when I saw it rise in the west.

And I’m not about to let my explanation or yours ruin the wonder of what I saw. Knowing the explanation does not ruin the miracle of my nightfall sunrise anymore than the explanation of conception ruins the wonder of birth. I can accept the refractory effects of moisture in the atmosphere and still marvel at the sight of a double rainbow against the backdrop of storm clouds on the prairie.

And worship the God who has created both beauty and understanding.

H. Arnett

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Running on a Rainy Afternoon

For the first time in two weeks,
I feel well enough to seek the solace
of running in the woods:

the dizziness of the ear infection
and the pain of a six-week series of migraines
are somewhat diminished
and sometimes feeling better is more choice than chance.

The ground has thawed deeply enough
that the mush has turned into mud
and much of the mud into something
that seems more solid.

I push up the first steep slope,
taking the deep fast breaths
of a man not yet at race stamina,
forcing my feet to something faster than walking.

Blotches the color of fallen leaves
mark the trace of the trail,
giving way to the blonds of winter grass
in the pass at the top of the hill.

I trot along the brief flat,
then turn faster on the first downward run.

“Quick feet, quick feet!” I urge myself,
wanting to keep this pace
but knowing that sudden slowing
on wet leaves in a place this steep
would not end well.

As I turn off the trail onto my own path,
I note sudden movement high in the trees,
see the graceful swoop of a huge horned owl,
startled from its roost.

A four-foot span of brown wings
sweeps silently through the maze
of trunks and branches
as I jump across the unfrozen creek.

The owl disappears quickly
and I run on up the next hill,
where black cows graze in the green field
bordering the barren woods.

Less than five minutes in,
I have already been given
much more than I seek.

H. Arnett

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A Delicate Balance

Sometimes the morning comes a bit too bright; the light feels harsh against eyes not yet ready for the seeing of another day. Mostly, I like the sun and the sight of a cloudless dawning, a brightening red forming the beginning. Sometimes, though, especially when sleep has come slow and restless, the night measured too closely, I prefer to wake to a gray day.

It seems that the expectations are a bit lower, not so much demanded of a day that has its beginning in a cloud-shrouded dawning. The light eases in bit-by-bit and it might be mid-morning or later before a glaring brightness finds its way around me. Sometimes, when the front is low and long, I might make it through the whole day without a disturbing light to ache my eyes and remind me that this is the season of migraines and vertigo.

It is a selfish thing, I know, to want the rest of the world to walk in sorrow and grayness just because of my private pains. Even more selfish once I admit that the headaches aren’t really all that bad; it’s just that they’ve become an almost daily thing over the last six weeks or so. It doesn’t take much reflection, though, to remember others I know who are dealing with cancer and loss, surgeries and darker fears, the nearness of death’s coming or passing. And if the storehouse of sympathy be a bit limited, it is better shared with them than me.

I can take my waking slow and my bending and raising even slower and make it through this day just fine. I will find good in this day and share its unfolding in good appreciation. I will pray for those in greater pain and deeper concern. I will remember the good my Lord has given me and draw upon his grace to face whatever petty trials might come my way.

But I think I might also finally schedule a call to the doctor. Sometimes we waste ourselves in struggles others can help bear. Even a virtue as fine and precious as determination is best tempered by wisdom and humility. Otherwise it passes into sheer stubbornness.

H. Arnett

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