As we drove away from our house two Sunday mornings ago, I didn't know quite what to expect from our vacation. I had been to Nashville three times before, so I knew I loved the city. But would my health behave? Where/what would I eat? How would it go with meeting new people? And so on. I quickly silenced the uncertainties, remembering that we booked our flights, hotel room, and rental car with an impetus like that of Moses leading God's people to the Promised Land. I didn't know exactly what awaited us, but I knew it would be good.
We popped Matthew Smith's The Road Sessions in the CD player to listen to "O Holy Dove, Return" on repeat. I walked around the airport wide-eyed, having forgotten what it was like to fly. I was reunited with the good and the bad. I looked down at my stinky bare feet as we went through security at a snail's pace, a glimpse of hell for sure. We sat near a window at our gate watching men prepare our Continental Express plane. I also people-watched, wondering if any of those folks might appear on the pages of my future novel. Like the old man with retro black-framed glasses, arm tattoos, an impressive gold belt buckle, and a bolo tie. He looked a whole lot like Johnny Cash's Dad, and his wife had big hair. Or the young Dad wearing awesome black cowboy boots, immersed in a paperback. I began to breathe, Nashville or bust.
Before I knew it, we were up in the air. It had been too long, so I had some trepidation about every single sound - the wheels, the engine, and so on - but seeing as Johnny looked calm, I relaxed. If I trust God to bear me up daily, and to send healing in His wings, I had to trust He'd do the same in an airplane. I looked out the window and wow.
As one who gazes upward quite often, it was something else to be so close to that color blue, and the strong, tame cloud-beasts that God rides upon. Other clouds were the topography of a dream: mountains, desert plains, hill country & the High Countries, rivers, cities, cliffs, and a vast white sea. I read the Bible, listened to music on my iPhone, and attempted to journal amidst a few minor bumps in the air. But mostly, I just looked at that sky. That day there was no miracle greater than a hunk of metal hurled up in the air.
We landed in a gray Nashville, but not even rain could dampen my mood. I was suddenly very happy to be back in Tennessee. Plus, isn't rain a Biblical symbol of blessing? While Johnny retrieved our bags, I sat in a white rocking chair munching cashews & drinking iced green tea. Some things never change, huh? A bit tuckered, I moved my sitting to the floor while my husband snagged our powder blue rental car. Kierstin called to make sure we arrived safely and knew where to grab lunch - hospitality flows through her veins. I could hardly wait to see her the next day.
We settled into our room on the 4th floor of the Millennium Maxwell House hotel, a letterpress print of Loretta Lynn hanging above our bed. (A print of Minnie Pearl hung behind the desk in the lobby.) Is anyone surprised that Johnny's Priceline efforts produced lodging with a brand of coffee in their name? I was not.
We met the Russell family at Fido that evening. Afterward, Rann took baby Finn home for bedtime, and Kristin took us to their Church - The Village Chapel. It meets in a beautiful old convent where Kierstin & Jeremy had their wedding reception. I was in the wedding, and 'twas good to be back in that amazing room full of fun memories and the location of one of my favorite photographs of me and Johnny.
The Village Chapel was a lovely way to kick off our vacation: an opening collective liturgical prayer, good hymns, prayers led by Kim Thomas, and a great sermon by her husband, Pastor Jim Thomas. Come to find out, Kim is a talented painter who created the artwork for the City on a Hill albums; they are both authors, too. Kristin introduced us to them and a few others as, "This is Johnny and Jenni; I met Jenni on Facebook!" You should've seen the look on their faces. I have to say that for all the horror stories you hear about creepy people on the internet, I somehow met the most amazing people online, mostly through Facebook as I've been slowly healing from a mosaic of health issues. I look at these people as manna in the desert of waiting. It's not like I could have cultivated a busy, robust social life while so sick. I happen to think that Facebook is a very positive medium, but like anything else, you have to balance your time accordingly. Plus, I really like what Andrew Peterson said in an interview:
"I think Facebook is our culture’s answer to the disappearance of the close-knit, small town community. Finding out on Facebook that so-and-so has a cold, or stubbed their toe, or is reading a certain book is the 21st Century equivalent of strolling the town square or having pancakes in the diner. It’s small talk. And small talk is okay. You wouldn’t necessarily call your friend to find out if his toe got stubbed; it’s just nice to know. The thing is, even small towns have secrets. I know because I grew up in one. There were murders. Suicides. There was bigotry and alcoholism and despair. Beneath the surface is the same darkness you see on the news in big cities and war-torn countries. Small talk doesn’t address that secret loneliness. Neither does marriage, for that matter. Only Christ can. Only he has the power to step in and throw back the curtains."
Kristin gave us a great tip for dinner - Jackson's - and I enjoyed a grilled salmon salad, marveling at the open windows and cool breeze. See, we don't do that in humid Houston with the exception of a few cool months. I really wanted Twinkie beignets, but that'll have to wait until our next trip to TN. We walked around the corner back to Fido, passing a man playing accordion and beating a drum with his foot. (Johnny was not impressed. He's not really into street performers.) I ordered chamomile + peppermint tea to-go for a nightcap.
The next day, Johnny drove out to Franklin to deliver Texas' own Central Market hatch green chile salsa to a former Texan, Rev. George Grant, then he worked out in the hotel gym. I spent the day with Kierstin doing what we do best - meandering. It had been way too long since her wedding festivities five years ago. I'm forever grateful to have stayed in touch with her and a few other gals I worked with in Houston - I believe we're all lifelong friends - but I miss them so. The internet has been a blessing in this way, too - Facebook, e-mail, iChat, and the like (we do snail mail as well).
So, we started at Crema, Kierstin informing me that that is the best coffee in town. I really liked the size of the place (similar to Antidote) and I could tell they were serious about coffee. Also, they served creative espresso drinks. Had I been able to do sugar, I would have ordered the concoction with coconut milk, cardamom, simple syrup, and lime in a heartbeat. Kierstin insisted I bring Johnny back that evening, and I made an oath, sipping the last dregs of an amazing dark roast.
We drove back to Hillsboro Village (where Fido is) which I've loved since my first visit to Nashville. We had plans to quickly hit Pangaea and Bookman/Bookwoman as Kierstin had limited time before picking up her son, Eli, from school. Well, I foiled our schedule by asking if we could step into Davis Cookware. It had a promising storefront with "Coffee Club" painted on the red brick wall outside. It was the kind of little store you'd want to leisurely roam around since the inventory was not really organized - it looked as if the owners just set the pots, pans, utensils, and coffee/tea apparatuses here and there, or better yet, threw them on the shelves. We saw bags of good-looking coffee, but not the bulk tea. I made the mistake of asking one of the owners, just where is this tea? Now, he was very kind and I appreciated the knowledge of his wares, and the small town feeling of a long conversation. I mean, he really knew his tea and talked forever. He also bounced the entire time. Not sure why. Part of his tea dissertation was fascinating (to me), but we really didn't have another minute to spare, so we bid him goodbye as quickly as possible.
We did step into the beautiful used bookstore that is Bookman/Bookwoman for just a minute, but when I didn't find any Wendell Berry on the double-stocked shelves, I made a mental note to return there with Johnny, too. Dying of hunger, Kierstin took me to her favorite Greek place, Kalamata's. Hummus? Yes, please. It was very yummy, and so, so good to just talk with my faraway friend face-to-face. To make it even better, instead of dropping me off at the hotel as we'd planned, she "kidnapped" me to pick up Eli from school. On the way, we passed a legendary restaurant recommended by Mary McCleary: Loveless Cafe. However, Kierstin said that I probably couldn't eat anything there this time around since they serve delicious Southern food including pies and biscuits. So she talked me into being a dork instead:
Oh my sweet Lord, Eli was even cuter in person than his photographs. It was the most amazing thing to watch my cute pregnant friend (due in November!) be a Mom. She's a natural. Eli didn't know what to think of me at first, but I'm happy to report that we became friends within the hour at Trader Joe's, which he called "the sample store." Dear Houston, why do we not have a Trader Joe's?? I gobbled down the unsweetened/unsulfured dried Bartlett pears and I'm already craving more. I can tell the one package of lavender dryer bags won't last long, so I'll need more of those, too . . .
My husband picked me up at Trader Joe's and we returned to Crema, already feeling like honorary regulars. Johnny took a tip from Kierstin and ordered the Cuban: espresso and sweetened condensed milk. I took a sip - wow-ee. We chilled for a bit, returned to the used bookstore to browse, then over to one of my all-time favorite shops, Pangaea. I purchased an Indian-esque headband and vanilla grapefruit incense before I looked around any further and depleted our budget. Perhaps I should have selected that wooden peacock (in honor of Flannery) for our fireplace mantel, but the incense does smell good.
We had a hankering for Indian food and through the glory of the iPhone, we found Bombay Palace in the West End area of the city. We truly feasted. Johnny ordered the best lamb rogan josh he'd ever had (his words), and my tandoori salmon was one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. The kind waiters ladled food onto our plates. Soft tabla music played in the background and a candle glowed on the table. I couldn't eat naan (bread), but I ate a lot of papadum (made with lentil flour), and their iced masala tea hit the spot. After my diagnosis, I avoided Indian food restaurants for a long time because I missed creamy dishes like chicken tikka masala too much. But lately, God has inspired me to think a bit more creatively about food. Really, I still think about that tandoori salmon; I wasn't missing anything.
On Tuesday, we drove out to the Art House to meet Andi Ashworth and her husband, Charlie Peacock. Believe it or not, I also met Andi via the internet. I read her book - Real Love for Real Life - a few years ago and sent her an e-mail or two. I'm very inspired by her vision of "the art and work of caring." She kindly replied and we bonded over our bookish preferences. So I was over the moon when our travel plans were in sync with Andi's & Charlie's busy schedules, and grateful that they invited us to the gorgeous old Methodist Church they've renovated into their home, Charlie's studio, and a transitional space for film screenings, concerts, artist retreats, and many other creative events. They gave us a tour and I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped the entire time. I used to literally dream about living in an old Church, so it was surreal to walk around the geography of my dreams. Andi prepared a delicious meal according to my strange diet, but everyone else liked it, too: an amazing sausage stew, salad, bread (for the others), and fresh fruit & nuts for dessert. At times, simple, healthy meals are the very best. The stew was so good that their son kissed Andi's cheek and said, "Thanks, Mom. This was amazing, like medicine." Really, that's true of just being in the Art House - a very inspiring, peaceful, healing place.
[photo by Charlie Peacock]
After lunch, Johnny and I sat in the big main room with Andi & Charlie and discussed a project I'm now working on for the Art House. Yes, I'm überexcited. Andi served tea and we decided that life is too short for weak tea - we both brew a bit longer than is suggested. Oh, and Andi even had the coconut milk beverage I use as creamer on hand - she understands that coffee, which we had earlier, has to be "just right." Can you believe it? So kind. I made a mental note to be that thoughtful with guests in our home.
It was a blessing to sit and talk with two people I've admired for a long time. I know good and well that such opportunities are rare - very literal gifts. We had a little time to kill before driving to the Casellas' house for more coffee (ahem), so Andi & Charlie invited us to stay for awhile and just relax. Andi described part of her vocation - hospitality - in her book, and she and Charlie really live that out. They both have encouraging, kind spirits, and Andi has a very calming personality as well. She listens so selflessly, a reminder to slow down and listen to Johnny and those around me, and that very possibly, there aren't any interruptions in life. We need to focus on who and what God puts before us. Johnny and I were actually sad to leave these new friends, but we shall see them again for sure.
[Andi & Johnny via the iPhone]
We set out through gorgeous tree-covered hills toward the Casellas' house on the outskirts of Nashville. That may be the thing I miss the most about the Nashville area - those hills, especially during autumn. We drove through their peaceful, charming little town abounding with front porches and rocking chairs. I've seen photos on Kierstin's blog, but words cannot describe the beauty of their old house. Their hard work is evident, but even the works-in-progress are beautifully rustic - it's like walking around history. Thankfully, my Mom did not disown me when I reported that I didn't take any photos of Kierstin's home. (I didn't have the heart to tell her that I also forgot to pack our real camera.) I have a very good reason: at this point, Eli had warmed up to me completely and kept handing me his favorite toys (including a wooden plank), and running around making all of us laugh. And he entertained us in Jeremy's Map Room-studio, performing "It's a Beautiful Day" and other U2 covers. He has his own little guitar case and everything.
We hopped in the Casellas' car for a short tour of their town and oh my, was more beauty to be found. We drove through an amazing tree tunnel much to Eli's glee. We smelled tabacco in the evening air. We rolled down the windows and Eli kept asking, "But where are we going??" Jeremy had been pret-ty sick just the day before, and Kierstin that very day. But when we arrived, they swore up and down that their health had taken an upswing and kindly invited us to stay for dinner, this after the most amazing Peet's coffee. Eli in bed, they prepared yet another delicious feast according to my diet: hickory-smoked kabobs, sauteed veggies, and a sundried tomato salad (and Shiner for the guys). Jeremy knows his tea, too, so he prepared an English-style teapot of Harrods Assam for my nightcap. In fact, he sent me home with the rest of that Assam since he didn't really care for it. We stayed up late talking and laughing and drove back to our hotel sleepy, happy, and thankful for good friends.
The next morning was our last in Nashville, but oh, what a day. We met the lovely Katy Bowser at Crema (our 3rd time now) and she handed me a beautiful gourd from her garden! I'm telling you, I kept receiving all manner of gifts on this trip. I still can't decide whether I want to eat that pretty Shishigatani pumpkin or not. Katy tells me that some folks in Japan believe it gives yearlong health, so I might. I mean, I need all the health I can get.
Katy and I have decided that as writers, we do much better with the writing than the speaking, but it was a treat to hear her brilliant thoughts live, so much so that the three of us migrated to Marché in East Nashville for lunch at Katy's, Kierstin's, and Andi's strong endorsement. What a lovely place and a delish custom omelette.
We discussed Twilight which Katy loves, and The Book of the Dun Cow (thus I'm reading it now), and she literally stopped eating when I said I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books yet.
"Did you just say that you haven't read ANY of the Harry Potter books??" she said.
See? I assured her that every single one of those books are on my to-read list, right after Dun Cow. Then she calmed down. Our time with Katy was way too short - you could spend the entire day with her and become a better person. We all hugged goodbye and off to the airport Johnny and I went. We flew near another beautiful cloud-laden sky, and landed in the city of our home sweet home. Nashville, we already miss your country ethos, so we'll be back. Mark my words.
So here I sit, once again feeling puny, but I know good and well that more surprises are in the works for me and Johnny, more than my faithful imagination can muster this rainy night. Who knew that after basically sitting on our brown couch for two years, focusing on one Curator article at a time, that God would double my work load with the Art House, and a few forthcoming Comment articles. I sure didn't. Grateful doesn't cover it. Chronic sickness can make life look one way, when really, God is creating and restoring life in another way entirely. Sometimes we just have to get out of the house to see it. It's like Edith Schaeffer said:
"Our Heavenly Father is in the midst of preparing fantastic surprises for His children while they are suffering difficulties now."
[--from A Way of Seeing]
Ain't that the truth.
[not the iPhone]