Sunday, November 3, 2013

In My Life

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living

In my life I've loved them all
- from "In My Life" by The Beatles on Rubber Soul

My friend Alan Mearns is one of those rare musicians who transforms everydayness into art. His original work is otherworldly and so achingly beautiful, I can't listen to it without shedding a tear or two. And his surprising arrangements of well-known ballads add remarkable freshness to old favorites.
His latest effort is an arrangement of a Beatles classic. Juxtaposed with shots of him strumming his guitar are flashes of his beautiful wife and adorable children. His version of "In My Life" haunts me.

Released shortly before this All Saints Sunday, Alan's "In My Life" functions almost as a prayer for our beloved saints - here and gone.

Because my local church commemorates All Saints a week early, I've enjoyed an extended opportunity to intentionally meditate on the saints in my life. 

I often find myself thinking about or talking to saints long gone. Perhaps it is my hidden innate moroseness. More likely, it is my sense of belonging to an unending community of saints.

Though, I choose to not only honor the dead but celebrate the living saints.

This Friday - All Saints Day - began with a quick interchange with one of those dear souls. Mark Andrews is my pastor and a true kindred spirit. His life is marked by living out the admonition I hold up as my ideal: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Because we both work on Sundays, he and I usually enjoy Sabbath on Friday (though he has cultivated a much more successful Sabbath practice). I popped by to deliver a few of his favorite cookies, and in the two minutes we shared on his front stoop, my heart was ministered to with such easy grace, I couldn't help but grin as I drove away.

He inquired after a family member awaiting test results. He asked how I was feeling as I continue to deal with significant pain. He told me, in a manner resembling that of my own dear parents', to get some rest. The earnestness and love I constantly receive from both he and his wife Denise overwhelm me.

I suppose it's not hard to imagine a man a saint when he preaches about love and grace as a vocation. 

But my concept of sainthood reaches beyond those men or women of the cloth, past those who profess a faith similar to my own. Many people I consider saints are hard-pressed to perceive themselves in such a light. But I find tremendous strength in the warmth of friends who may self-identify as either Agnostic, Atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Pagan. 

It's been said that a saint simply helps others become the best versions of themselves. Admittedly, I believe there's a bit more to it than that, but it's a good place to start as we seek to truly see and value all the diverse saints already present in our lives.

Suffering early loss seems to have equipped me to appreciate the people placed in my life - the imperfect love they offer and the fractured beauty that is present in all of us.

When I met Tom Thielemann nine years ago, I immediately recognized a radiance that comes from giving of oneself. We met during the spring my dear friend was dying of esophageal cancer. In the years since, he - along with his wife and son - have embraced me as family.
Tom trick-or-treating on Halloween
On Halloween, they invited me to join them for trick-or-treating. The night was full of laughter and deep conversation. After five hours flew by, I left with a full heart.

Tom and Lynda Lea are both incredible artists. Like many creative types, Tom is fully aware of his deficits. He is eager to see and praise the goodness in others while remaining skeptical of any virtue he might possess. Because Lynda Lea is so faithful and generous, I think Tom sees himself falling short of that standard in his life. But just like his wife, he allows me the freedom to be myself. And just as important, he pushes me to dream outlandish dreams and offers his support as I pursue them. It is my prayer that he recognizes his own brilliance along the way.

Saints abound if we only have eyes to see. I live with one. Edgar Nucamendi and I moved into a small duplex as acquaintances two years ago. In that time, he has become one of the most important people in my life. Like Mark and Denise, Tom and Lynda Lea, Edgar shines.

Just today, after a whirlwind week, he and I shared a lazy afternoon painting and singing together.
Edgar laughing and painting
When I need a smile or hug or word of affirmation, Edgar knows and gives from his heart. He and I can spend hours talking on a Saturday morning and then go days without seeing much of one another. All the while, I know that I am loved. I know that Edgar wants the best for me.

I am inundated with saints. A day doesn't pass without little reminders that I am surrounded by loving, supportive people. My parents call and text. A friend finds a great deal on art supplies and shares the wealth. I'm invited to a bonfire. I receive a handwritten note in the mail. I am greeted with understanding when medical or family emergencies arrive. An old pal stops by work with kids in tow just to say she was thinking of me. An uncle and favorite hairstylist conspire to treat me to a new look. Far-flung family members and distant friends catch up on Facebook. A three-year-old squeals in delight as he sees me walk through his front door. A seven-year-old invites me to live in his dream house with him, his family, and best friend. Dreams are shared in the middle of a gallery.

May we all recognize those sainted people in our lives before they're gone. May we live lives worthy of them. I want to be able to say that in my life, I've loved them all.

To learn more about Alan, visit
To read Mark's insights, visit
To see Tom and Lynda Lea's work, visit
To learn about Edgar's coffee shop, visit

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Let It Show While You Can

Down in my mind where I don't care to go
The pain of a lesson is letting me know
If you have love in your heart let it show while you can

Yes now I understand
But now my only chance
To talk to you is through my prayers
I only wanted to tell you I cared

from "Through My Prayers" on The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers

Standing at six feet four, my brother Allyn is still my "little" bubby. He was named after my dad's closest confidant and spiritual mentor. The original Alan, just a decade older than my parents, was a young priest when he befriended my grandparents and their children in the early 70s. For over forty years, he has seen my family through everything from births and marriages to illnesses, job losses, and deaths. If there's a joy to share or a burden to unload, we all know Alan will rejoice or grieve alongside us. Wisdom and grace, love and acceptance abound.

As Allyn grows older, I think he recognizes the weight of his name. Next week, my little brother will turn 29. He's done an awful lot of living in those short years. At 30, I feel like I have too.

Amanda Bostain shared my brother's birthday but was three years his senior. She was my best friend. I don't know if I've ever met such an authentic hippie. She loved without hesitation and was a passionate advocate for those who needed justice. Her brother Jason was my other best pal. The three of us functioned almost as a unit. We spent hours laughing, creating, dreaming, debating. Nothing was off-limits. We were free to be ourselves.

Amanda was one of the most important people in my life for half a dozen years. A few nights after she graduated high school, that dear girl fell asleep and never woke up. She died of complications related to the extremely rare genetic syndrome she and her brother shared. I was seventeen when I served as eulogist and pallbearer at my best friend's funeral.

During those first days after burying Amanda, my brother was so sweet. He confided that he couldn't imagine what I was going through. He mentioned the loss I was suffering would be like if his best friend AJ passed. He couldn't really empathize, but in those days and months when I needed my brother more than ever, Allyn was ever-present and sympathetic.

Of course, I never wanted my brother to be able to truly understand the immense pain of losing a best friend. But eight years after I lost Amanda, AJ died suddenly of undiagnosed inherited heart disease two days shy of his 23rd birthday. 

In an instant, my brother, who had been his best friend's rock ever since AJ lost his younger sister in a car accident, knew my pain. In the handful of years that have followed, Allyn continues to show his undying love for his dear friend. He has become a surrogate son and brother to AJ's family. 

Eleven months after we lost AJ, my family welcomed a new little AJ. Knowing the importance of a good name, my brother christened his new daughter in loving memory of his dear friend.

Allyn and Little AJ
My brother is such a good daddy. My niece looks so much like him. Tall and golden, all smiles and legs for days. But she also takes after another Allen. AJ was short for Allen Rufus Estes, Jr. He was known for his big heart, perfect hugs, and ringing laughter. Little AJ carries that same magic with her.

Losing a best friend unexpectedly at a young age does something to a person. A piece of your heart breaks and never quite heals. There is a sense that there could have been more - that there should have been so much more.

Yet, life goes on. Babies are born, new friendships are formed, milestones are celebrated. And in the midst of it all, you always half-expect to see that old friend walk through your doorway or call you up. 

I happen to believe in a communion of saints that reaches beyond the limits of this lifetime. I still feel connected to Amanda and AJ. And, as sappy as it may seem, I live in the hope of seeing them again.

Amanda's brother Jason, who was also very close to AJ, has become my other brother. Not only to me, but to Allyn. He offered his love when we lost our dad's best friend Jeddy to cancer and our darling grandmother Sparky to a heart attack. We all lead busy lives and don't see each other as often as we should, but we are never far from one another's thoughts or prayers.
Allyn and Jason at Jason's wedding

This summer, 13 years after losing his sister, Jason got married to a beautiful girl. My family and I celebrated with tears in our eyes as Jason became a husband to his new bride named Amanda. As I offered a toast, raising my glass to Jason's family, it was sweet to welcome a new Amanda Bostain into our lives.

As All Saints' Day approaches, I give thanks for the saints in my life. For Amanda and AJ, for Jeddy and Sparky, for so many. 

I find myself wishing I had said, "I love you," more often than I did. 

At my grandmother's funeral, hundreds and hundreds came to pay their respects. Sparky, a fifth-grade teacher in a little community in West Virginia, had impacted the lives of thousands. Every single person who came through the receiving line told one variation or another of the same story. My grandmother had made them feel special. She had taken the time to find something unique about each person. And then, through her authentic warmth, she helped them see their true worth. 

I don't think my grandmother left this life with too many words left unspoken. She spent her life loving people. When she died, she didn't have much more than some funky jewelry to pass to family and friends. But she left a legacy of wisdom and grace, love and acceptance. Perhaps she learned it from Alan. Perhaps he learned it from her. More likely, those two saints helped one another along this life. In the journey, they found the best in each other, and the goodness multiplied.

May it be so for us who follow after them.

Friday, October 11, 2013

You're Free to Go

She hit that highway / With every ounce of faith she could summon
When courage finally comes / You never see it coming
Right outta nowhere / You open your heart / And that changes everything
You're going somewhere / And all you need to know / Is that you're free to go
-from "Right Outta Nowhere" on Kathy Mattea's album Right Out of Nowhere

The first time I met Kelsey Cooper, I thought to myself, "this little chick is going somewhere." The angelic 16-year-old with flowing turquoise locks had a voice that belonged on Broadway. 

She was one of the shining stars of a traveling youth choir. I had been a part of it when I was a teenager a decade earlier. My colleague Ron, the director of the choir, asked me if I would lead the group's drama troupe. I was excited about the opportunity to utilize my old musical theatre skills.

Kelsey was a natural. She owned the stage. But she didn't suffer from the all-too-prevalent diva attitude that has plagued so many talented performers.

For the past two years, it's been my privilege to work with Kelsey. I still get chills when she sings. I'm moved to tears when she makes one of my characters her own.

But I've known and loved an amazing number of talented people. If Kelsey was simply a great entertainer, I would be impressed. But she is so much more than that. Kelsey radiates love and goodness. I think her main concern in life is being kind. 

She drives forty-five minutes to volunteer with a children's choir every week. If I need help, she's one of my first calls. She makes time for her friends. She's a giver. 

Kelsey being funny at her AMDA audition
And she's leaving. In a couple of days, she'll be moving to Manhattan to study musical theatre at my alma mater - The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). I couldn't be more delighted, but I hate to see her go.

I moved to New York when I was eighteen too. I didn't know a soul living there. Manhattan seemed overwhelming to this West Virginia native. Living most of my life in western North Carolina had not prepared me for the hectic pace of the city that never sleeps.

But I grew to love New York. 

There's a creative energy there that I don't think exists anywhere else. 

The city was exotic and beautiful. I felt incredibly out of place but somehow also at home. I think it was the odd group of friends I was beginning to collect that helped create a sense of unexpected comfort. Drama queens, divas, serious thespians, dancers, and belters infiltrated my life. This behind-the-scenes girl was learning what it meant to express herself outside of words and paint.

To this day, some of my dearest friends are those I made as a fledgling actor in Manhattan. Just this week, while I was recovering from a painful surgery, I received words of love and encouragement from Jeremiah, Luis, and my old roommates Greg and Rahannah.

I seem to stay in a perpetual state of shock at my good fortune. How is it that one person can have so many diverse, brilliant friends?

Within a year of moving to the city, I realized I actually didn't want a life on stage. I loved writing and directing, but being the center of attention had never set well (and still doesn't). I enjoyed the craft. It was thrilling. Rehearsals were energizing. But performing in front of an audience - even a small one filled with my supportive classmates - made me sick. I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and chose to leave the city that had quickly captured my heart.

I never expected I would ever encourage anyone to leave all they know and head to New York with dreams of marquee lights. Until I met Kelsey. She's the real deal. I see in her what I saw in those friends of mine - the ones I knew from the very first day of rehearsals would spend their lives in theatre. Kelsey, along with my old roommates and classmates, share this extraordinary passion and ridiculous talent. I fully expect to see Kelsey's name in bright lights one day.

And, like my still-working-in-the-field friends, Kelsey will find some semblance of balance. She will keep her authentic sweetness and joie de vivre. 

As Kelsey hugs her family and friends goodbye this weekend, I hope she knows our love goes with her. I hope she makes interesting, unique friends who fill her heart with a sense of home. I hope that when the city becomes a little too much, she finds a sacred spot amid the craziness. I hope that her reality surpasses even her biggest dreams.

Sweet girl, you're free to go.

To learn more about Crossflame Youth Choir - the incredible vehicle that brought Kelsey and Lindsay together - visit

Saturday, August 10, 2013

In Between Days

Let me learn from where I have been
Keep my eyes to serve and hands to learn
-from "Below My Feet" by Mumford & Sons on Babel

It doesn't surprise me that most of my friends are teachers or artists of one stripe or another. My family has been graced with educators, musicians, painters, and writers for generations. I find that my own life and work are imbued with the whispers of those ghosts.

My great-great grandfather Fred, with his wife and three children in tow, earned a meager living as an itinerant portrait painter. My uncle still takes out Fred's letters on occasion and reads the scrolling German handwriting. Amid the faded ink, an old family story comes to light. Fred and his father George shared heated correspondence. A violinist and pianist in his youth, my great-great-great grandfather eventually remarried into wealth and pressured his son to accept a stable position as a bank clerk. Apparently dismissing his own love for music in pursuit of a more lucrative lifestyle, George could not fathom his son's unwillingness to abandon his art.

I'm thankful my own parents and extended family are - and always have been - extremely supportive of my artistic endeavors. Over the years, I have been compared to Fred and a handful of other long-dead relatives. While I'm certainly inspired by those dearly departed, I find my contemporaries influence me the most.

Nine years ago, I met one of those heroes. Damon Hood was an unassuming assistant teacher for a community college drawing class. Soft-spoken yet intense, elegant yet down-to-earth, Damon immediately intrigued me. He was too good for that class, that school. (I came to find that was wonderfully true for the entire fine arts faculty of the small college.) He measured every word. He rarely offered an unsolicited suggestion, but I often sought his advice. His critiques were honest but always encouraging. I owe much of my technique and sensibilities to this unique man.

Over the years, Damon has become a dear friend. Thomas Thielemann - the professor of that drawing class and my close confidant - once said of Damon: "Damon is not simply a painter. He is the coolest guy I know. And the only artist I have ever met." While I would add Thomas and a good handful of friends into the 'artist' category, I understand his meaning.

Our Damon is special. Damon is art. He appreciates the unnoticed and overlooked. He somehow absorbs it all and manages to release it in the most exquisite, heart-breaking work.

Both Damon and Thomas have managed to find soul-mates who share their awesome abilities. I recently joked with Amber Watts, Damon's love, about how perfect they are for one another. It's not quite fair when so much talent exists in one couple, but surely, it wouldn't make sense any other way. Lynda Lea Bonkemeyer, Thomas' graceful wife, balances him in every aspect. These men and women - all of them artists and teachers - add so much beauty to my life.

This week, Damon, Amber, and Amber's son packed up and moved away. Amber - truly one of the real artists of our time - is beginning graduate studies. While I'm thrilled for them as they embark on this new adventure, I grieve for our community's loss. 

It seems our artists and teachers aren't fully embraced in western North Carolina. Our area is lousy with artists, musicians, writers, dramatists, educators. While there are pockets of support, budgets for education and the arts are slashed. Teachers scrape by, painters need to be represented out of town before many locals will consider their work, musicians have to be their own promoters, and venues struggle to keep their doors open.

Many of our first heroes were teachers. They made us believe in our own worth. We were told to write our own stories, to follow our dreams. As children, we all loved to create. The souls who escaped the 'keep the colors in between the lines' mentality continue to enrich our lives. 

I wonder how many of our best will feel pressured to leave the beautiful hills of Appalachia. Will our communities come to realize the value these creative spirits add? Will we work together to ensure artists and educators have a place here among us?

Perhaps we're in between days. Maybe we're only now waking up to the grim realities. North Carolina continues to make national news - not only for the unfortunate political decisions coming from Raleigh lawmakers - but for those among us voicing concern. Ordinary citizens are gathering together and discussing important issues like the arts and education. We've been asleep too long. The days of apathy and indifference are behind us. Days of caring and action are ahead.

In Between Days by Damon Hood, 2009. Acrylic on Panel, 42 x 48 inches. 

Wednesday night, as Amber and I took inventory of the many large-scale paintings that needed to find their place in the moving truck, Damon pulled out a striking, emotionally-charged piece. He related the story of its creation. He had attended his father's funeral and had to be back for a painting class that afternoon. In three hours, he completed a 42 x 48" panel. 

To see In Between Days is to almost know Damon. In the most beautiful, unexpected act of generosity and friendship, Damon gave this masterpiece to me. I will treasure it.

More than any brilliant work of art or song or lesson, the life-enriching relationships our area's artists and educators are willing to give us have the potential to transform our communities. As we see ourselves through the eyes of these gifted individuals, we can critique our priorities, motives, and actions. Where we are lacking, they will guide us and offer new insight and ways to make something beautiful out of the mess.

See more of Damon's work at
View Amber's work at
View Thomas and Lynda Lea's work at

Friday, July 26, 2013

All My Mistakes

I have some "friends" they don't know who I am
So I write quotations around the word friends
But I have a couple that have always been there for me
- from "All My Mistakes" by The Avett Brothers on Emotionalism
I was one of those kids who preferred painting and reading to group activities. I enjoyed playing with my kid brother and the neighbor boys, but I was content to be a bit of a loner. On every visit to West Virginia, my grandmother would ask me if I had made any new friends. Growing up poor and practically fatherless during the Depression, she had come to understand the importance of friendship at a young age. Until her death five years ago, she was still regularly seeing her childhood chums. 
It was the boy who would later become the husband of her best pal who first nicknamed my grandmother Sparky. The name suited her sunshiny personality and brilliant red hair. It stuck. I'm grateful that Sparky lived long enough to see that my life has been filled with the most amazing collection of friends.

Today, I caught up with one of those dear kindred spirits. I met Becca shortly after our mothers began working together in the late 80s. She was this vision of petite blonde loveliness. I, on the other hand, resembled Toula's self-description from My Big Fat Greek Wedding - a 'swarthy six-year-old with sideburns.' Becca and I couldn't have looked less like one another. And yet, there was an immediate recognition in our young hearts that we shared similarities that were infinitely more important. We were sensitive souls, and in an instant, she became my first bosom friend.

Becca and Henry

The last time Becca and I were able to spend time together was over the holidays. She was six months pregnant but hardly showing. The Jennifer Aniston-like figure she had sported since high school was still very much intact. Today, she brought her 16-pound 4-month-old son Henry with her so I could finally meet him. I was immediately smitten.

I've only seen Becca a handful of times over the last five years. She fell in love with a wonderful man. They married and moved to Georgia. She finished her dental hygienist degree. And now she's the doting mother of a darling boy. I remain happily single. (I'm one of the last hold-outs of my generation it seems.) A fulfilling job, art projects, and family and friends keep me on my toes.

But I miss my friend. I miss being able to drive ten minutes to Becca's house whenever I want. Five hours separate us now, but on these all-too-rare occasions when we manage to get together, the miles and months fade. Remaining are those initial feelings we first shared as children - unconditional love, deep joy, and real peace. The years have only served to strengthened our bond. We have a history. So many of my favorite stories include her.

When I try to see myself through Becca's eyes, I can almost glimpse the woman she says is beautiful and talented. What a gift. With Becca, I am free to be myself. She loves me just as I am. 

I should write and call more often than I do. I should take a few days off and drive down to Georgia. I should spend more time with Becca's family (my 'second family'). They still live close by. 

I'm thirty. I feel like I should have this grown-up thing figured out by now. Somehow, I usually end up relating to Jo March from Little Women. I celebrate the joys that come with getting older. The ones I love find their own stories and fill them with partners and babies, careers and adventures. I rejoice. But I also acknowledge that part of me longs for the days when we are all young and lived within minutes of one another. 

I know we can't go back. So I am determined to journey ahead. Sparky and I always had such fun together. I now know it's because she never really lost her love for life. Inwardly, she was always her bubbly 14-year-old self. That gives me hope. As I notice more silver hair and a new wrinkle, I remember Sparky's laughter. I remind myself to try to look through Becca's eyes.

Every year, more and more friends are added to my life. Old hippies and misfit artists, young theatre kids and unsure new parents, and so many others make unexpected appearances and remain. I really don't deserve the wild assortment of friends I enjoy. I could easily write essays on hundreds of people who have enriched my life. Through all my mistakes, my true friends stick with me. I will always lift prayers of thanks for such a life.