Over the river and through the woods…oh wait, wrong story.
One of the things I looked forward to the most on my crazy road trip was driving across the Smoky Mountains from Raleigh-Durham, NC to Nashville, TN to spend some time with my sister and her family. These ancient hills have always wooed me with their forested splendor, waterfalls and mists. Ridge after ridge of blue-green glory for miles and miles awaited me. I couldn’t wait.
Then the rain set in. Large, ominous clouds soon obscured my view in all directions. Blinding lightning and shredding thunder became my roadside companions. Construction forced me and my many, varied co-travelers into one lane for all the miles I had hoped to be viewing glorious surroundings. It seemed within a nanosecond I was simultaneously stuck behind a tractor trailer and engulfed in water as the heavens opened their great storehouses in sheets and buckets and waterfalls from the sky. I could barely see the tail lights of the truck in front of me, only ten feet from my bumper. Gone were my hopes of lovely vistas. All I could see were spotty, red beacons ahead of me letting me know where to drive next. And I was grateful for them. I had been on these mountains once before in this kind of rain and almost drove off the road because I couldn’t see. Now I was given a light to follow, a large protector clearing the way ahead of me just enough so I could keep going. A deep peace enveloped me as I settled in for a couple hours of slowly creeping across the misty mountains I would not see on this day. I felt cocooned, somehow, in the great hands of God.
When we reached the other side of these magnificent, storm-shrouded hills, the skies cleared. I looked back in wonder at the beauty of the hills and the thunderclouds, grateful to have made it safely across the divide and now longing to hug my sister’s neck.
After a few more hours, Nashville and its bat-tower loomed on the horizon. The pale yellow, ranch house, nestled amid age-old trees, looked like heaven to me as I turned into the long driveway. I had only been here a handful of times but it felt like coming home. Neck hugging, loud talking and jostling to find the familiar ensued. There is a warming up period when you only see your family a couple times a year. Younger ones stand around a little boldly shy, unsure of what to do with their hands as older ones comment on the ever changing landscapes of the younger frames. Flashes of our parents and the stories of our lives welled up within me as I held my sister a little longer than normal. I was still standing in the driveway, unloading my car when I began dreaming of moving closer and living nearer this part of my family. An ache started swirling around the corners of my soul that I am feeling still, even as I write this.
Our moments and days together were fraught with the ordinary. Meals, sleep, errands, laughter, endless cartoons with the nephew, short, but great conversations with the teenage niece and my bro-in-law all swirled together to fill my heart. One of the highlights was attending church and worshiping God together on Sunday. BONUS? The adult Sunday school class I attended was doing a study based on the LOTR. SCORE! Following church I was privileged to enjoy a Father’s day meal with my sister’s family and in-laws. Being in a lovely home and breaking bread together made my heart ache a little less for my missing hero that day.
Aside from time with my sissy and her clan, my time in Nashville was marked with The Gathering. Within an hour of Music City live some amazing people from my younger days: My youth pastor and his wife; one of my dearest friends from said youth group and her husband; the family that gave my mother and my sister some of their very best friends; and many more folks. We all gathered at my sister’s house to enjoy a meal and try to cram thirty years worth of living into a few hours of conversation. It was more than I have words for. Seeing all these people, strong followers of Jesus, sharing life and love together strengthened my core and beckoned some tears.
Then there were the grits. Sure, there was barbecue and all its fixings, slaw, a wondrous nephew-carved watermelon and lots of other lovely things. And there were grits. Not just any grits. When my sister asked what kind of grits to order, what kind I would prefer, she read through the list. I heard the words BACON and GRITS and CHEDDAR all close to each other and said YES! I love grits. I love bacon. I love cheese more than life itself some days. If you put them all together in one mashed-up dish, well, I am fairly certain I got my “southern” on and swooned a little. So, so good. Good friends, good food, good life-giving moments.
What did I learn?
When life’s road becomes difficult, when the view of the joy around you is obscured by darkness, be grateful for the small beacons of hope in front of you.
Take the road you long for. Maybe it will look different once you arrive, but there will be beauty, even if only when looking back at the way you came.
Look for the LOTR everywhere. No, seriously.
Days of ordinary can feed your soul if you let them.
Gather. Break bread. And again, hug.
And always, always, choose bacon cheddar grits when given the option.