Little Black Sheep -- Excerpt

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Chapter 1 — Little Black Sheep.pdf

Chapter 1



I wonder if my mother had any clue that she was marrying a man who had little or no interest in her substance, a man whose desire for her was fully satisfied in the superficial gloss of her Seven Arts skills. The Seven Arts, claiming that “To be poised, lovely, and well-groomed is the inherent right of every woman,” was a local finishing school that offered a social navigation compass in manners and feminine wiles. My mother taught classes with such titles as “Gracious Physical Comportment,” “Personality Development,” “Basic Rules for a Pleasant Speaking Voice,” “Hair,” “Make-up,” and “Wardrobe and Figure Control” to newly minted young society women at Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville, Tennessee—the city where I was born.

My mother is not a classic beauty. She complains of small eyes, skimpy lashes, and too much fullness in her face. These days she says that when she smiles, her eyes disappear and she looks like a boiled egg. She has thick wavy hair, a full mouth, a fine figure, and great legs. But her secret weapon, developed over a long history in fashion and modeling, is an enviable understanding of how to put herself together so that her liabilities retreat into the shadow of her assets. My husband, Kenny, likes to say that when he met my mother for the first time, he realized he’d hit the jackpot by marrying into a family where the women continue to bloom well into their twilight. Now approaching eighty, she was and is quite a package.

I wonder if my father ever considered the utter futility of a dual, duplicitous lifestyle. He was a brilliant, complicated man, the product of a Southern matriarchal family with a domineering mother and a silent specter of a father. He escaped the small town confines of Sweetwater, Tennessee, and earned a degree in Architecture at Yale and then a second degree in Interior Design at the University of Tennessee. He served as a second lieutenant in World War II, an event that he spoke little about except to say that he was in Patton’s army. He was handsome, accomplished, charming—and gay. He met my mother in church, found her to be his equal in style and form, and married her, dreaming, I’m sure, of all the gracious living and fabulous parties that awaited them. He was not looking for intimacy with my mother; he was a man who viewed women as accessories or lapel pins: connected at the surface but meant only for display. When he fell for my mother, it was her presentation skills that won his heart. But he reserved the most honest, accessible part of himself for a secret male world fueled by good gin, where sex, glamour, gossip, and luxury fabrics were what mattered most.

Fortunately for my sister Windsor and me, my father’s view of the perfect marriage included children, and we unwittingly came tumbling, two years apart, into a well-designed household that had already begun to reek of alcohol and silence. My parents were highly visual and reverentially partial to physical and material beauty, which resulted in two pairs of fiercely critical eyes shining brightly in equal parts devotion and expectation on us. We were dressed to match, and I’m sure that plans for our debuts into society were hatching while we were still toddlers. We felt the weight of their attentions and also a darker calling, because though we knew nothing of the psychology of family systems, those dynamics were firmly in place, and we stepped neatly into our roles. Windsor was as good as gold in pursuit of their approval and became the family hero. I took the low road reserved for the scapegoat and provided plenty of ongoing distraction from the issues at hand by acting out our collective pain and dysfunction.

I have a friend who describes her family as “… all alcoholics except my brother, who’s a Baptist.” Mine was a similar drinking dynasty with legendary stories, such as the Halloween when one relative came to the door drunk and naked to greet the trick-or-treaters. She eventually left the candy bowl to her husband and retired to the bedroom where she would call for him repeatedly to come and attend to her. When he failed to answer, she set the house on fire.

My parents were both alcoholics; both were extraordinarily functional for the better part of their drinking careers. I understood the importance of the cocktail hour at an early age, and I have a snapshot memory of tasting my mother’s Budweiser as she sat at her dressing table, preparing—in more ways than one—to go out for the evening.

I know that faith and the Presbyterian Church were a central part of our lives, but I have only the dimmest recollection of these things in my early childhood. In the South, nearly everyone attends church because it is an indication of good breeding and social standing. A genuine encounter and subsequent relationship with Jesus is not only unnecessary, but it is often considered overwrought and even a bit common. My mother had experienced

that very genuine encounter as a child, though, and carried her faith into adulthood, passing it on to us in such a way that it never occurred to me to doubt the gospel, and I was particularly drawn to the Baby Jesus cradled in the crèche. But I viewed God

the Father as a slightly larger and more impersonal version of my parents, carrying a measuring stick that quickly turned into a rod of reproof. The idea of an Abba who loved me and had plans of a future and a hope for me was utterly alien, and I assumed that if He knew my name at all, it was because He had heard that my behavior was so bad my mother had resorted to having me cut my own switches. Inevitably, my parents’ marriage collapsed. My mother made a valiant effort to keep it alive by insisting on marriage counseling, but she was urging my father to places he had no intention of going, and although he was physically present for the sessions, he refused to participate or even to speak. This pattern continued nearly to the end of his life; he had still waters running deep, but he wasn’t able to access them and confined himself to the shallows that swirled around him like party chatter and never rose above his ankles.

They divorced when I was in kindergarten; their final argument was precipitated by some mischief I had gotten into early one morning. I had collected my mother’s liquid makeup and lotions and mixed them all together into a pinky-beige mess. My father got up and came into the spare bathroom where I was occupied to take a shower but didn’t notice the telltale bowl or empty containers, because I had hidden them behind a large box of laundry detergent. My mother discovered it all fairly quickly when she awoke and accused my father of avoidance—a path he regularly took throughout their marriage and a source of tension and resentment for my mother. They fought briefly and my father left, returning only once to pack his belongings. My mother punished me severely that morning, spanking me and shoving me under my bed to retrieve the caps to the smeared, empty bottles that littered the bathroom. Windsor retreated to the farthest corner of the conflict. She was silent, watchful, and good as gold. After the furor, my mother came to me with a tearful apology, but though I have understood for many years that her grief and rage had little or nothing to do with my part in the whole event, I continue to carry the weight of responsibility for their divorce in the earliest, most fragile images of my childhood. The head is no match for the heart in these formative experiences, and if there was a jumping-off place for me into shame and self-destruction, this was it.

My mother went to work as a traveling saleswoman in the fashion industry and brought in a succession of caregivers, most of them African-American. Some of these women were loving and nurturing to me, and in many ways, they became my other mothers. I particularly loved a handsome woman named Eva who worked for my grandparents, and once in a while, she would take Windsor and me home with her to spend the weekend. We would help her husband, George, in his garden, play with the neighborhood children until after dark, and then collapse in a giant four-poster in Eva’s front bedroom. It was a world away from the trouble and confusion in my own home, and I pestered her often to let us go with her when she left for the day.

My grandfather was a devoted fly fisherman and had, as a young man, won the money in a poker game to purchase a cabin in a little community called Elkmont, located in the Great Smoky Mountains about an hour from Knoxville. He and my stepgrandmother spent the better part of their summers in Elkmont, and I found another refuge there on the Little River, which roared beside our cabin. My sister and I, and our friends, rode the water like rainbow trout, shivering with the cold and thrill. Near the banks, away from the current, we would stack stones to create tranquil, glittering pools where we bathed and washed our hair. Then we would lie on a flat, warm rock in the middle of the river, breathing in the sulfur-soaked air, feeling the flick of the spray and dreaming.

In Knoxville, we were surrounded by the love and support of extended family and friends, and my mother provided as much stability as she could for us. But the upheaval of our lives and the inattention that often accompanies a focus on survival was reflected in the fates of our pets, all of which came to a bad end.

Our first dog, Richard, ran away, and our next dog, Grover, was hit and killed by a car. He was lying in the road at the bottom of our driveway when I came home from school one day while my mother was out of town. Then there were the baby chicks that we got for Easter one year that were promptly eaten by the one-eyed, three-legged dog, Spunky, who lived next door. I hated that dog.

My father continued building his career as a designer and simultaneously became a partner in a local furniture store that he referred to as his shop. He was faithful and constant in his own way to Windsor and me. He spent his Wednesdays and every other weekend with us, showered us with gifts, and never missed a child-support payment. He had an iron will bent toward propriety, seeking and finding his safe footing in doing the right thing, which is similar to modern political correctness—a polite framework but, by itself, disingenuous and ultimately meaningless. So although he was impeccably mannered and tended to the smallest social obligation with the confidence of a man who intrinsically understands the written and unwritten rules, the emotional truth that creates intimacy was nowhere to be found, making him distant and ultimately unknowable.

But then I was just a little girl, and he was my daddy, handsome and on time. He smelled good and took me to the Golden Arches anytime I wanted. He let me get black-licorice ice cream at Dipper Dan’s and played his show-tune records for me over and over again. And though my first few years of life were equal parts love and chaos, Knoxville was in many ways a safe haven for me. It was a small world where I could run away from home in my mother’s high heels and clatter down the street to my friend Leslie’s house, where I would be taken in and given lunch. It was a place where every landmark and every kid in my neighborhood was familiar to me, where there was an awareness of the ache within my family and an extended community that responded as they were able. Those days offered the closest thing to normal that I would experience for a very long time, but just as I was beginning to have a sense of place and belonging, the twig of stability I was clinging to snapped, and we moved.


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Reply All

Kenny and I are fans of 60 Minutes, the CBS news show that airs Sunday nights and I always got a kick out of Andy Rooney.  His pleasant rants about things that annoyed him reminded me of my grandfather, Paul Parrott.  Papa was a bit more acerbic but no less opinionated or hesitant to say what was on his mind, regardless of potential impact.  Years ago when my step-father, Joe went to ask him for my mother’s hand in marriage, Papa, perhaps feeling that opportunities for his divorcee daughter might be few and far between, interrupted Joe’s heartfelt declarations of love with a terse: “Take her my boy, she’s yours!”

I watched Andy’s swan song on 60 minutes and laughed when he expressed gratitude to his fans and immediately followed that by asking them to leave him alone when they saw him in public.  I was sad to hear of his death and after listening to an NPR tribute that highlighted some of his many complaints I began thinking of my own pet annoyances.

EmoticonsI have mentioned my love/hate relationship with the computer and cyber protocol and so it continues.  I bought something for the first time on Ebay last month and, typically, did not bother to read the instructions for bidding.  Kenny was out of town and unable to help me navigate but he gave me his password–he is a constant wheeler-dealer–and I went looking for a cheap Swiss Army watch.  I bid on 5 watches, thinking that when one hit I’d drop the other bids.  After winning the auctions on 3 of them I realized that there is no delete button on bidding.  Once you’re in, you’re in.  Kenny called the next day from the road where he’s touring with Bob Seger and wanted to know why I’d bought 5 watches.  I did manage to get out of two of them but now I’m the proud owner of 3 Swiss Army watches, 2 of which are identical.  I blame the computer.

One thing I do love and appreciate though is email.  I don’t particularly like talking on the phone and email is direct, expedient and saves time–lots of it.  But there are aspects of this useful tool that I find problematic.  For instance: it is never a good idea to send messages that contain any emotional content by email.  They don’t translate and are easily misinterpreted.  I have offended several people without knowing it because I didn’t use an emoticon to clarify that what I was saying was said with love.  This annoys me.  Emoticons annoy me; I refuse to use them on principle.

However, easily the biggest annoyance in my mailbox is those messages from the users who routinely hit “Reply All’.  I’m not referring to what I’m sure is the original intent for this option–to let everyone in a particular group know what one is bringing to the potluck so that we don’t all o.d. on casseroles made with mushroom soup.  I am talking about the folks who want us to know their schedules, their pithy responses, their immense gratitude, whatever–regardless of whether or not we need or want this information.  For me the epitome of overuse of this feature occurred when Lily was still in elementary school and the office sent out a field trip reminder to every family in the fifth grade.  There was no request for chaperones or for any form of reply but at least 20 parents let us all know whether they would be interested in accompanying the students.

I have been associating this type of behavior with the general human disconnect that the age of technology has brought us but it’s easy for me to be disparaging because of my own ineptitude in this arena.  My kids have a hashtag on many of their tweets called #typical Ashley that refers to something I’ve said or done–like referring to the facebook wall as wallpaper.  Apparently I am consistent enough in providing them with material to warrant a hashtag.  I should be flattered.  But I do seriously believe that more than ever we want to be heard, to matter and exist in the minds and hearts and lives of others.  And many of us are left wanting.  Maybe it’s a stretch to extrapolate this kind of meaning from the obsessive use of “Reply All”.  Maybe its just an overactive, misguided desire to be helpful, to cover every possible base, to be practically–and fully–understood.

But just in case there’s a deeper longing involved: I want to be more mindful in my interactions, to look people in the eye, to listen without interruption or distraction, to avoid flipping the topic to me.  In this day and age when “friends’ can number in the thousands, I want to be personal as much as possible.  I suppose you could call this a resolution.  Happy New Year and may our paths cross often in 2012.

The Little Whistler and The Enforcer

Years ago I went through an intensive therapeutic experience at a place called OnSite.  It was a game changer for me and I was able to address issues springing from my childhood that had plagued me and dulled my ability to engage more fully in my life and loves.  There were many surprises during the week I was there and perhaps the best one came from my experience of one of the members of my small group.  She was remembering the loss of her mother as a ten year old and the impact on her life and she began to speak of her pets and what a comfort they were, both then and now.  I found myself in tears which I initially thought were prompted only by compassion but I realized quickly that they were also personal.

In my own early life every pet we had came eventually to a bad end, an ongoing reminder that my crumbling family was in survival mode and unable to be attentive to the bigger picture.  I had had pets since then but had held them at arms length, mostly relegated to the back yard and neglected.  At OnSite, listening to this woman I found that I was unable to stop weeping and I began to think about how much I had loved our dogs as a child.  There was Richard, the rangy mutt who kept an eye at all times on my little sister and me; then there was Grover, the black Cairn terrier, who waited in our driveway every day for me to return from school.  The animals in my life provided the consistency, companionship and pleasure that I was missing.  But Richard disappeared and my mom told us he ran away.  Grover was hit by a car; he was lying in the road by our house when we rounded the corner one afternoon.  After that my parents divorced and we moved from Tennessee to California.  We continued to have pets but I had already started to hold pieces of my heart in reserve.  To give all to anyone was just too much.

I came home from OnSite and told my husband, Kenny some of my experience there.  I finished by saying: “Also, I’m getting a dog”.  I began a search and read training books.  I had long admired German Shepherds and discovered a town in Kentucky where several breeders were located.  I went for visits, looking at puppies, looking at the parents.  I found a breeder I liked and put a deposit on a male from his next litter.  I told him what I was looking for temperament-wise, a dog on the other end of the spectrum from the Shepherds that were tightly wound and destined for police work.  He said they routinely did a series of response tests on the puppies and would pick a dog that was a bit more laid back.  He did and I brought King Curtis home in January 2000.  I threw myself into training, taking lessons, buying hot dogs in bulk and throwing balls until I could hardly lift my arm.  Curtis grew and grew and grew.  He was big and beautiful with one small physical flaw.  His ears wouldn’t stand up.  I threw myself into working on that too, taping his ears to frames for months which he would reluctantly tolerate, his only complaint a look which seemed to say: “Really?”  Inevitably though, I would remove the frames and the ears would wobble and fall.  Eventually I let it go and as time went on one ear gradually came up while the other one kept its fold most of the time.  And I liked it.  It made him look a little softer, which he was.  He was wonderful with children and I distinctly remember a trip to the Smoky Mountains with the Girl Scouts.  We visited one of the swimming holes of my childhood and Curtis, who loved water, spent the afternoon swimming circles around the girls, herding and supervising, making sure all were accounted for.  He was well socialized and got along with other dogs most of the time but once in awhile he would inexplicably lunge at a neighborhood dog walking past our yard or at a dog passing us in the park.  It was maddening but I never could get him completely past that nor of his terror over storms.  Otherwise he was a great companion and I credit him for starting me on a path to consistent exercise.  I made a decision early on that I would not put a fence in my yard preferring to keep Curtis with me wherever I happened to be.  This meant a lot of walking and playing and we hiked the trails at Edwin Warner Park, which was conveniently located near my house, every day and sometimes twice in a day.  I lost 22 pounds that first year and discovered a love for walking, and eventually, running. I entertain a fantasy of being a guide for the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in my twilight.  He was amiable to other adults too, although once in the park a man started walking towards me and I was startled to hear Curtis growl.  The man turned on his heels and went the other direction and I always wondered if the dog had sensed something other than good will in his intentions.  I felt free to go anywhere at any time though because I had him with me and I felt confident about leaving my children with a sitter when Kenny and I were working.  He had a low, loud bark and where his family was concerned, he was the enforcer and meant business.

In 2005 we decided to surprise Lily, our youngest child, for her tenth birthday with a puppy.  She had shown her love for animals and her willingness to be responsible with a high maintenance hamster named Oreo who delighted in clinging to the side of his cage like a bat and spraying the nearest wall with pee.  After Oreo’s demise, which I did not grieve, I started looking for a small dog for Lily.  There was a family in our neighborhood with a Maltipoo, a cross between a Maltese and a miniature Poodle.  He was a darling little dog and had a nice temperament so I decided to try and find a local breeder.  I found one in Manchester and put a deposit on a female, sight unseen, over the phone.  I took Lily to get the puppy shortly after her birthday; she named her Trixey and we brought her home to Curtis who was appalled and immediately went on a hunger strike.  Trixey was a pocket pal, tiny but with a distinct alpha streak that made her fearless.  She would bound up to Curtis and leap in the air, trying to lick his nose and engage him to play.  He would turn around and swat her with his tale, sending her tumbling.  I thought he would never get over her arrival but one day I walked in the door to find them playing and from that moment on they were inseparable.

They were an unlikely pair, this enormous Shepherd and this little lapdog.  She looked dainty but she had a lot of the junkyard in her and would scrap around, looking for dead things to roll in and garbage to eat.  As she came into her adulthood, Trixey found her yap, much to Kenny’s dismay.  She announced anyone’s arrival with a series of high-pitched barks that exploded out of her mouth and could not be stopped.  It was like doggy Tourette’s syndrome.  Lily would try and hold her little snout closed when she started to clamor and the barks would shoot out sideways.  She even barked at Kenny and Henry when they returned home in the afternoons and evenings, acting like someone with short-term memory loss.  In spite of her annoying little traits and the fact that technically she belonged to my daughter, I had an experience with this little whistler that I hadn’t had with an animal since I was a girl.  I gave her my whole heart.  I didn’t mean to.  It just happened.  I loved her spirit and how the mention of a walk, even spelled, would send her tearing around the living room, attacking her toys until they squeaked in submission.  I loved her looks, like a miniature black bear that sprang rather than ran and had a hitch in her step like Grandpa Walton.  Curtis would have been content to attach his self to my leg at all times; he was often a black hole of emotional need, which I interpreted as a weakness in the gene pool and although I loved him, I didn’t always like him.  Trixey, on the other hand, had a strong independent streak and although she was long on affection, she liked her space.   I like my space too so we clicked.

I structured my routines around caring for these pets and we all benefited from the disciplines.  I often thought: “How did I get so far into my life without recognizing that I’m a dog person?”  In the movie, “The Kid”, Bruce Willis’ unlikeable character, Russ, discovers a younger, chubby version of his self named Rusty, sitting in his chrome and black leather living room one morning.  Rusty helps Russ reattach to his inner child and become a more fully realized human being in the process.  On the whole, the movie is a bit treacly but there was a scene in it that I loved where Rusty is trying to get through to Russ and in frustration shouts: “You are such a loser, you don’t even have a dog!”  The additions of Curtis and Trixey to my life were, as much as anything, an indication that I had made a deeper investment in the land of the living.

Three years ago I discovered a growth in Curtis’ mouth that was gnarly and smelled funny.  The Vet removed it, had a biopsy done, told me it was a malignant melanoma, told me it was terminal and gave him three to six months.  I went home preparing for the loss of my dog but he continued on without the slightest sign of illness for nearly a year.  Then one day we were out walking the neighborhood and a man passed us jogging.  Curtis wheeled around and bit him on the butt, grazing the skin and causing an endgame change of events.  Though he had bitten other dogs in fights, in nearly ten years Curtis had never bitten a human and I called the Vet asking if maybe that was an indication that he was starting to fail.  She said to check the tumor site and sure enough, another one was emerging.  I was looking at a fall season with an inordinate amount of travel, which meant that my kids would be walking the dogs.  I could tell he was having a difficult time; when I would leave the house, my family said that he would stand at the front door and bark until he heard my car returning in the driveway.  I felt that I couldn’t take the chance that he might bite someone else and decided to act preemptively and have him put to sleep.  I don’t know that I considered the potential impact that my decision would have on me; my aim was to act responsibly on behalf of everyone concerned.  I talked it over with my Vet and made an appointment a few weeks out.  On that day he was upbeat and frisky.  I was miserable and felt as though I was betraying him.  I sat with him at the Vet’s office and told him what a great dog he had been and all the ways he had changed my life.  He drifted off to sleep and then, he was gone.  I could hardly find my way home.  I went into a period of mourning that I was unprepared for; I thought I would be relieved but I was bereft and missed all of him, including the annoying parts.  But I still had Trixey.

Trixey grieved Curtis as well, searching for him in the house and sitting by the front door gazing out the side light, waiting.  But over time we both recovered and Trixey became my constant companion.  She rode in the car with me, ran with me, walked with me, traveled with me and was always nearby when I worked at home, inside or out.  She learned to shake for a treat and would grudgingly lie down when someone came to the door instead of accosting them.  She wasn’t silent about it; she continued to trumpet the slightest change of events, even while prone.  I found this more amusing than annoying; she was a joy to me.

Two weeks ago I was packing up my middle child, Henry to head for his first year of college in Texas.  Trixey woke up that morning not feeling well and didn’t want to go for a walk.  We had been in the park the night before and I thought maybe she’d eaten something and had an upset stomach.  Later in the evening we took Henry out to dinner and when we returned she had died.  Just like that.  I don’t know what happened; friends asked if I wanted to have an autopsy done but in truth, I didn’t want to know.  I rarely reacted to a dog not feeling well one day because often the next day, it was over.   But if I’d had her autopsied and discovered that getting her to the Vet immediately would have saved her, I would not have been able to recover.  The Lord was kind to me and gave me grace after a sleepless night to have a couple of days enjoying my beloved son and getting him squared away.  When he was elsewhere I would let myself come apart for a few minutes, walking across campus to the car.  Other parents passing would nod in sympathy saying : “It’s hard to let them go isn’t it?”  They had no idea.  Henry is so excited about school and so ready, it isn’t at all hard to let him go.  It’s time–we know it and he does too.  But Trixey, that’s another story.

I am a homebody.  I travel for a living and my idea of a great place to spend my down time is at my house.  But on the drive back from Texas I dreaded returning to my refuge, dreaded putting away the toys and the beds, dreaded the emptiness.  I wasn’t wrong about that, it was silent and stark and awful to all of us and we sat on the couch and cried.  Then Kenny’s father died after a fall and he left for Las Vegas to sit Shiva with his mom and brothers.  His father had dementia and his death was expected and, in many ways, a blessing but it heightened the emotional upheaval.  After he left I wandered the house, unmoored and unable to focus wondering: “What in the world am I going to do?”  A couple of days passed and our friend Mills called to express his sympathy and fondness for Trixey.  I came unglued again and told him I didn’t know how I was going to get through this loss.  He listened and said after a moment, “Ashley, get another dog.”  I had known I would get another dog eventually and maybe two, but the thought of getting one right away felt as though I was dishonoring Trixey’s memory, as if she was in any way replaceable, which she is not.  A part of me will long for her for the rest of my life.  But I was sitting at the computer later that evening and I thought I would have a look around.  First I looked at a Shepherd, a retired police dog that needed a home and was already trained.  But that felt like more dog than I could get into at the moment.  Then I looked at Brussels Griffons.  Then I typed in “Maltipoo” and up came a local breeder whose grandfather was Lester Flatt.  She had Poms, Yorkies, Morkies and, at the bottom of the page, a litter of Maltipoos, born in July and available in September.  And there he was.  I looked at him, looked at the other puppies, looked at him again, filled out an application, made a deposit and named him Samson.  Kenny checked his email from his mom’s house, saw the deposit receipt and sent me frantic messages: “Slow down!!”  He forgot that he was talking to the girl who proposed to him on our second date.  George W. Bush and I have that in common: we are the deciders.

So tomorrow we open our lives and hearts to a little man who will top out at about 8 pounds of power, might and yappiness.  He is not a replacement but a continuation of my devotion to the canine kingdom.  And maybe next spring…

Becoming Episcopalian

Last Sunday I was confirmed in the Episcopalian Church.  This feels like a major statement considering that I’m a lifelong Presbyterian but I’ve never been particularly exclusive denominationally, finding truth and beauty in nearly every expression of the faith that I’ve been exposed to.  When I was in college and succumbing to alcoholism and drug addiction, I would emerge from a long dissolute run, sweating a liquor cabinet of fumes, overcome with despair and self-contempt and return to the Presbyterian church of my childhood, confessing as I went.  In those days I didn’t know what the cure was, I just knew it had to be spiritual in nature because nothing in this world could help me, so I began with penance, thinking that if I was sorry enough–and I certainly was sorry, I would be released from my bondage after an appropriate and severe punishment.  But the Presbyterians were entirely too forgiving so I marched over and joined the Baptist church, submitting to full immersion, hoping the cure was in the water level.  I credit my time with the Baptists for introducing me to in depth bible study and expository teaching.  Ultimately it was many years before I understood that only the Lord could relieve my suffering and that my part was to simply let Him.  Simple, yes.  Easy, no.  I had to come to the end of my own ways and means, my own self-will, and then sit in the ruins of my own making for awhile.  In the years of my recovery the Lord has taught me a great deal about life and faith and, in particular, community  through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I have deep relationships among my family and friends but am a person who tends to solitude and even more so as I age.  The awareness that my solitude has become isolation usually occurs at the grocery store where I have animated discussions with myself over what I came for or what else I might need and get sidelong glances from the people around me, clearly puzzled (or maybe alarmed…) by the absence of a telephone.  In AA I discovered the beauty of coming together with a diverse group of people around a common purpose, to get and stay sober.  There the playing field is level and we are all “friends among friends and workers among workers” according to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  So it is with the body of Christ where our Lord calls us to devote ourselves.  Nashville is considered a belt buckle in the Bible Belt but I have a number of friends who don’t go to church, saying that they can’t find one.  It’s impossible to walk more than a block or two here without trespassing on church property so what they are really saying is that they can’t find one that suits them.  I get that.  People are difficult.  I am difficult.  But we are exhorted to live out our faith in the community of fellow believers and I would add, fellow believers not of our own choosing.  Rich Mullins used to say that the church was the hope of the gospel.  I too have a strong sense of calling in regards to church membership and I believe that in my years here the Lord has led me to three churches.  One church seemed an obvious fit for me–and it was.  I was loved, taught, tolerated, befriended and included there and continue to feel connected even though I have been elsewhere for many years.  The second church was, on the surface, not an obvious fit.  My son, Henry was invited to go to their kids club on a Wednesday night, loved it and asked if we could start attending.  We visited the following Sunday, which was Missions Sunday-not one of your more compelling worship events. We were different from the majority of the members there, in lifestyle, in politics, in income, in dress and thirty minutes into the service my husband looked at me and said “You have got to be kidding me.  No way”.  At the same time I had an overwhelming sense of the Holy Spirit, telling me “This is the place”.  So, with numerous fits and starts, we began attending and over time it became apparent to all of us what an oddly perfect fit it was.  We had great friends, great teaching, great pastoring and, we were (mostly) appreciated for our differences.  It was the first church that my nice Jewish husband became comfortable in. It was the place where my son was so deeply mentored by the older young men in the youth program that he decided to become a discipleship group leader himself and has consistently grown and thrived in his faith–even as a teenager.  It was also the place where I led worship once with Steve Winwood (who was also attending there with his family) and had the nearly out of body experience of hearing him play organ with his characteristic double Leslies on my favorite hymn Come Thou Fount.  I was constantly reminded of the foolishness of judging a book by its cover but even in the people who were decidedly “other” from us in every way I understood the  multi-facets and vibrancy those differences brought to the whole.  Our likemindedness is Christ and we are His ridiculous priesthood.

Over the last few years my theology has begun to change and though I am mostly reformed, I am not entirely sold out on the Westminster Confession.   My friend Bill speaks of knowing the truth verses being known by the Truth.   Knowledge is important but if knowledge trumps experience, it is empty and didactic.  At this stage of my life I can honestly fit my faith into one short verse from Colossians: Christ is all and in all (3:11) or, as Brennan Manning puts it, “There is only Christ and He is everything”.  My desire is less for information and more for formation, less like Martha, more like Mary.  To that end, the beauty and repetition of the Episcopalian liturgy which is built on the scripture, the common worship, the symbolic gestures and the centerpiece of  communion have given me a rich experience of worship and a place for practice, regardless of my spiritual fitness at any given time.  I’m attaching a piece I wrote for my church newsletter after attending the membership class that elaborates a bit more on my decision to receive confirmation.  I’m also attaching a demo of a song that I wrote around the Colossians verse called Everything.  We are nearing the home stretch on the new album and have added another gospel song: Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus.   And that is just another way of saying there is only Christ and He is everything.

Anglicanism 101

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

A Little News, A Lot Of Gratitude

Ashley in York, PA in 1995.

Ashley with her son Henry in York, PA on the Brother's Keeper Tour in 1995.

I am thinking this morning on how a chance encounter in York, PA led to one of the most consistent, foundational tools of my career.  Rose showed up at a show I played with Rich Mullins in an old theatre and asked me if I had ever thought about having a web site.  This was 1995 and my knowledge of computers consisted of my exposure to Hal on 2001, A Space Odyssey.  As you may recall, Hal was a villain.  She offered to create one for me and followed through promptly and brilliantly.  She has been following through ever since, creating and recreating with the twists and turns of technology.  I am frequently complimented on my web site but I am quick to disclaim and put credit where it’s due because the truth is that for the first few years of the sites existence I had to have Kenny’s help to get to it.  I have only recently become proficient on email and learned how to cut and paste a couple of months ago.   The learning curve for me is perpetually steep but more than that, I feel threatened by the whole thing and generally disinterested.  I still write the bulk of my letters by hand; I still go to the bank; I still buy books and newspapers; I still make cds.   I have recently begun attending an Episcopal church and my friend Deb commented that the Anglican worship was made for a tactile person like me.  I love making the sign of the cross, I love going to the alter and receiving the host, I love to kneel.  But Rose has outdone herself again with this new site.  She created this blog spot for me, knowing, I’m sure that it might be wishful thinking on her part and I want to honor her efforts because outside of recordings and performance, she has done more to keep my career alive than anyone.

Kenny and I are half way through recording a new disc, tentatively titled Beauty In The Curve.  Most of the songs are original but my love affair with traditional gospel continues so we added a couple of those songs as well: Walk In Jerusalem and Born To Preach The Gospel.  I plan to post songs as we finish them so that anyone interested can have a listen.  I have also begun a book, a memoir.  If there is one activity I am more reticent about than trying to navigate computers, it’s writing.  It took several years and constant encouragement from others for me to start.  I immediately stalled on chapter 2 and thought, I have nothing to say, I can’t remember my life, I quit.  I had already agreed at that point to play a writers conference in exchange for participating in a workshop with Lauren Winner who is not only a wonderful writer but an equally wonderful teacher.  In response to my moans and groans about what a struggle it was to get anything on paper she helpfully replied.  “Do it or don’t.”  It was the kick in the ass I needed and a reminder that the creative life is really only essential to the creator.  I discovered this in one of my many music career deserts when I was so brokenhearted over my commercial failure that I put down my guitar and started deep cleaning and organizing drawers.  And I benefitted from that time; my house was shiny, I knew where everything was and I had some immediate gratification.  But ultimately I realized that I needed to start  writing and playing again, not because anyone was clamoring for it, not because there was a paycheck involved but because if I don’t use my gifts, they die and part of me, perhaps the Image bearing part, becomes shadowy and Martha-like.  Immediate gratification has a short shelf life, the good stuff is in the crucible; I know this. And there is something beyond serendipitous about sitting in a chair, staring at an empty legal pad and suddenly it begins to fill and the memories float to the surface with a clarity and immediacy that fill in the blank spaces.  It’s like a crossword puzzle; the first time I read the clues, I have no idea what any of the answers are but then one word comes, and another and the whole time I’m thinking, how do I know this?  I think of my subconscious as a disorganized library; I don’t know where anything is so I just have to stumble across it.  So I’m stumbling through this memoir, maybe titled “Little Black Sheep” and I’m also planning to excerpt the book here as I get further into it.  Thanks for coming to the site, thanks for reading this and thanks Rose–for everything