Monday, August 31, 2009

The important lesson Walter Cronkite carried with him all those years

I love this essay Walter Cronkite wrote for Guideposts magazine. And I love the introduction he wrote for my first book, Journalism Stories from the Real World. He was one special person.

There came a time when I was growing up in Houston, Texas, that I wanted to own a watch. In fact, I had a particular watch picked out, an Ingersoll on display in our local drugstore. It cost a dollar.

Since I had no money, and no prospects for raising a dollar quickly, I asked the druggist if I could take the watch and pay for it little by little. He agreed, and the next day, when my mother happened to come into the store, he casually mentioned the arrangement we'd made.

My mother would have none of it. She was a woman of scrupulous honesty, and to her, I'd taken advantage of another person's willingness to trust me. She paid the druggist the dollar and hurried home to confront me.

"Don't you see?" she said. "Your intentions are honorable, but even you admit you don't know how you're going to earn the money for that watch. There's no outright dishonesty here, but you're flirting with it. It's one of those risky gray areas, Walter. Be careful of gray—it might be grime."

Then she took the watch and kept it until I earned the money to retrieve it.

Throughout the years since that experience, I've had plenty of reasons to remember my mother's admonition. As a newscaster I've always had to be on guard against gray—a presentation of only half the facts, a story that didn't ring quite true. And there have been such occasions in my personal life as well.

One time, for instance, some speculators offered to give me a large parcel of land. There was no suggestion that I talk about their property on the air. They were not being dishonest; they just wanted to be able to say that I owned land in the area that they were trying to promote. But it seemed like a gray area to me. I didn't accept the offer.

I believe that most of the people in this world are honest, and want to be honest. But honesty, like all other virtues, requires vigilance. My mother, Helen Lena Cronkite, knew this. This is what she had in mind as she helped me to stay clear of ambiguity—the gray areas that might be grime.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New from Carlos Martinez

The dressing room is the place where I take humour seriously,
where fear teaches me to push the boundaries of silence,
where the intimacy of the mirror speaks to me quietly,
where I remember my childhood dreams to work as an actor.

It is where I convince my voice to allow my body to speak,
where I go over the script of my movements and gestures,
where I tune my technique to make it all seem so natural,
where I put on my makeup to tell stories that ring true.

Carlos Martínez

With emotion, expression, and movement, Carlos Martínez crafts silent stories. However, after each performance, the mime removes his makeup on stage in order to recover his voice and engage in a verbal dialogue with the people in the theatre.

Now, for the first time, Carlos Martínez takes his audience backstage and transforms his world of gestures into letters and words in his book Ungeschminkte Weisheiten. The fullness of human nature, with its ups and downs, combines easily with anecdotes from the dressing room of life. As an avid observer of the quotidian, the book brings a few chuckles, many smiles and space for reflection.

The following link gives a preview of the first 15 pages of the book:

Initially Ungeschminkte Weisheiten is published only in German. However, Spanish and English versions are in the pre-production stages. We will keep you updated about further releases.

Ungeschminkte Weisheiten – From the Dressing Room of Life
Hard cover - 128 pages
Foreword by Andreas Malessa

Over 40 full-colour photos

ISBN: 978-3-7615-5729-7

Shop price: 12,90 EUR (DE), 23,40 CHF (CH)

Available 01st of September 2009 in German language bookshops or from the following online shop:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mary-Mitchell Campbell's coming back to Broadway

I’m so excited to learn that Mary-Mitchell Campbell will be the music director for the new Broadway musical version of The Addams Family, coming to the Great White Way next spring. Mary-Mitchell is one of my favorite people in show business, and certainly one of the most impressive because she’s not just gifted, but she’s an extraordinary humanitarian. I met her a couple of years ago when I interviewed her for NCR (click here to read that feature) and by the end of our time together she had volunteered to take part in that year’s Broadway Blessing. She was MD for the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, for which she won a Drama Desk Award.

Congratulations Mary-Mitchell!

The musical — based on the kooky family of characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams — should be fun. I loved the TV show when I was a child. Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth will star as Gomez and Morticia, Terrence Mann as Mal Beineke, Carolee Carmello (one of my favorite musical theatre actors) as Alice Beineke, Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester, Jackie Hoffman as Grandmama, Zachary James as Lurch, Adam Riegler as Pugsley, Wesley Taylor as Lucas Beineke and Krysta Rodriguez as Wednesday.

According to the producers, "In this original story, the famously macabre Addams Family is put to the test when outsiders come to dinner, hurling Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Fester, Grandmama and Lurch headlong into a night that will change the family forever."

During a career spanning six decades, illustrator Charles Addams created several thousand cartoons, sketches and drawings, many of which were published in The New Yorker. By far the most loved were The Addams Family characters.

"With a unique style that combined the twisted, macabre and just plain weird with charm, wit and enchantment, Addams' drawings have entertained millions worldwide and served as the inspiration for multiple television series and motion pictures," according to production notes.

For more information visit

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Smokey Robinson releases new CD today

A music legend recalls his remarkable journey.

This feature by Nina Hämmerling Smith appeared in Guideposts magazine.

For the past 50 years, his sweet voice and staggering talent have made him a beloved star. But for Smokey Robinson, whose new album, Time Flies When You're Having Fun, will be released August 25, the journey wasn't always fun—or easy.

It was 1958 when he helped his friend and fellow Detroit native Berry Gordy found Motown, which in turn shaped popular music for generations to come.

Over the next few decades, he wrote and recorded dozens of hit songs, including "I Second That Emotion" and "The Tears of a Clown," for his group, The Miracles, and for other Motown acts.

He married his high school sweetheart and had three beautiful children. Robinson's life seemed perfect—until things started to fall apart.

In 1984, some of Robinson's friends who were doing cocaine introduced him to the drug. Robinson had grown up in a pretty rough neighborhood, and yet he'd stayed out of trouble thanks to his love of sports, music and God.

But now, as a man in his 40s, he found himself hooked on drugs.

For two years, he suffered through his addiction; his health declined, his marriage disintegrated, he withdrew from his friends, and yet none of that mattered, because "all I cared about was the cocaine," he says.

One Sunday in 1986, his dear friend Leon Kennedy unexpectedly appeared at Robinson's apartment. Robinson and Kennedy had a special bond, one that had been cemented nearly a decade earlier.

In 1977, Robinson was sitting home alone when he heard a voice. "I was upstairs looking at TV and I heard God's voice say to me, I want you to know my son, Jesus, and I want you to tell your friends. I heard it audibly, and I thought somebody was playing a joke on me. I searched my closet. I opened the bedroom door, but nobody was there. I was kind of scared, and I didn't tell anybody."

At the same time, Kennedy, an actor, was in the Philippines making a movie. When he returned, Robinson recalls, "He said, 'I'm going to tell you something I wouldn't tell anybody else. About two weeks ago, I was in my hotel bed trying to sleep. And I heard this voice saying, Leon, I want you to know my son and I want you to tell your friends.' That was when we both got saved and started our relationship with Jesus."

So when Kennedy arrived at his friend's apartment that night in May of 1986, a heartsick and physically frail Robinson opened the door. Kennedy prayed for him through the night, and in the morning he took him to a service.

It was at a storefront church in L.A. called Ablaze Ministries where the preacher, Pastor Jean Perez, called Robinson up to the front.  She hugged him. She told him that she knew he was coming. She prayed over him. Robinson started to cry, and then he felt a release, and, "It was over," he says. He never did drugs again. "It was instantaneous; I gave it up."

Since then, Robinson has traveled to rehabs, schools and churches, speaking about his experience. "I tell everybody I was not cured or medically helped," says Robinson.

"I was actually healed. I was healed by God. I tell them, 'Rehab can help a lot of people. But you have to get in contact with your spiritual self or you're never going to beat this [addiction].'" 

Robinson knows how blessed he is; not just because he was healed, but also because he's able to share his musical gifts with the world.

"Almost every day of my life, I write a part of a song," he says. "I know it's a gift from God. That's what He would have me do, I guess, because I've been writing songs since I was 5 years old."

That gift is evident on “Time Flies When You're Having Fun,” which features 10 tracks of original material, as well as a cover of the Norah Jones-popularized "Don't Know Why". Joss Stone, Carlos Santana and India.Arie lend their vocal support on three of the songs.

Unlike many other contemporary albums, “Time Flies” was recorded "the old-fashioned way," says Robinson, "by having all the musicians playing while I was singing.

"There's another kind of feeling when you have that, you know? It's almost like you’re doing a concert in a studio. Everybody feeds off of each other; it's a fun way to record."

The album's title is a pretty fair description of how Robinson feels about music—and life—these days. He's been remarried for seven years; he's recording great new music; and he's sharing his inspiring story.

"I know that's one of the reasons probably I'm still living," he says. "Because I get the chance to go and spread that message.

"My life is wonderful. I'm very happy."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Debbie Reynolds: Grandma on the Go

This feature by Nina Hämmerling Smith appeared in Guideposts magazine.

Back in the golden age of moviemaking, Debbie Reynolds was the sweetheart star of classics like “Singin' in the Rain” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

Now, at 77, Reynolds is still at it, touring the country with her one-woman variety show. It's full of song, dance and laughs, including impressions of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

But perhaps her favorite role is one closer to home: being a mother and grandmother.

She lives "ten steps away" from her daughter, writer-actress Carrie Fisher, and 17-year-old granddaughter, Billie Catherine Lourd, who calls Reynolds "Aba Daba"—as in "Aba Daba Honeymoon," the song she popularized in the 1950s.

"They can never ignore me," Reynolds jokes, "because I'll lie on the driveway…Grandma always receives a hello, otherwise I won't get out of the way."

Reynolds enjoys being with her granddaughter, but she knows when to butt out, too. "You can be a part of their life without interfering," Reynolds advises. "If you try to influence too much, you can get in the way."

Billie has learned a lot from her grandmother, including, when she was a child, how to play jacks and other "games that my mother and my grandmother played with me," says Reynolds.

"I think that's the way it should be, that each generation has the experience of different ages around them."

According to Reynolds, Billie, like her show-business vet mother and grandmother, has a talent for performing. "She is a very nice pianist, plays the guitar and the drums, and has a wonderful, lovely voice," says her very proud grandma.

But Reynolds never pressed the idea of performing on Carrie, and she's certainly not doing so with Billie. Nonetheless, she says, "I think sometimes God gives you a talent and he has a plan."

Following God's plan is something Reynolds learned from her own childhood in Texas. "I was raised in religion," she says. "My grandfather was what they called a lay preacher. He'd go to different homes and lay his hands on and read the Bible to the sick. We went to tent meetings and revival meetings.”

“My life is based on faith. The most important thing is to have faith and believe in the wisdom beyond your years," she adds.

Reynolds admits that her granddaughter keeps her young. In return, Reynolds shares her considerable insights and life experience.

"I've always been very outspoken if I feel that there's some advice or knowledge I can share," she says. "After all, I should know something of value at my age."

Though Reynolds loves being home with her family, she wouldn't give up performing for anything. "I love the audience," she says. "The audience has been with me 60 years and I hope they'll continue on till I take my final bow."

Nina Hämmerling Smith is an editor and writer based in Weston, CT.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Smile, God loves you!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Psalm 100

Enjoy this lovely e-Psalm from Guideposts magazine's Our Prayer newsletter.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ken Alston Jr.

Ken Alston, Jr. didn’t just share his extraordinary voice with us in his Sunday night concert at The Triad, he also shared is deep faith and that combination made for a blessed evening. Singing songs ranging from Stevie Wonder to Psalm 23, he was skillfully accompanied on piano by James Spears, whom he had known since they were students at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.

From an early age Alston knew he was gifted, but that his giftedness would have a shadow side in his life. “It meant I was going to be lonely,” he said. But as his show, “An Evening Of Love Songs and Inspiration,” demonstrated, he found a way to conquer -- trusting God.

“Faith comes by hearing and not by speaking it into yourself,” he told his approving audience. He sang and he spoke of his vulnerability; at one point he had cried out to God, “Are you still in love with me?”

Alston has received that answer in the affirmative and now plans to serve God as a deacon in his church as well as in song. He had support along the way from, among others, his mother. In an especially moving moment he left the stage to sing “Did You Ever Know That You’re My Hero?” to her in the audience. I also liked his combining of one of my favorite songs, “What a Wonderful World” with “From a Distance”: “God is watching us and he thinks to himself/Oh, these are my children and I’ve made a wonderful world.”

And Alston made a wonderful world for us that night. His performance was part of Lee Summers' Just A Piano concert series at The Triad. It was the first time I had heard him sing solo, but I have enjoyed him twice in concert with Three Mo’ Tenors and once two years ago when the Tenors sang for us at Broadway Blessing.

In addition to performing live, Alston also has just released a CD of spiritual music. Inquiries about that or about booking him can be addressed to or by calling (410) 908-3486.

For upcoming Triad concerts visit

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Time to Dance

I had tears of happiness in my eyes at the end of Libby Skala’s one-woman play, A Time to Dance, about her great aunt, Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk. As portrayed by Skala, Polk, an award-winning dance therapy pioneer, is bursting with joy, humor and a glowing life force.

It’s always uplifting to be around positive people, and Lisl certainly was that, in spite of hardships that included having to flee Vienna after the Nazis invaded and enduring a loveless marriage for more than a quarter century.

On a bare stage at the Lafayette Street Theatre, with no props other than a tambourine and maracas, Skala captures a life that spanned the entire 20th century. For an earlier presentation of this show, she won the Best Solo Performer Award at the 2007 London Fringe Theatre Festival. Now she brings this extraordinary story to the New York International Fringe Festival.

Right from the start as she dances onstage shaking her tambourine, she becomes Lisl as, with an Austrian accent, she tells her story. Born in 1902 to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Lisl was a tiny baby who was not expected to live. Skala is funny as she describes the parents waiting to their child to hurry up and die, but that child wasn’t going anywhere and so her father, who sold ladies’ notions, had to take on extra work. This led him to a man who had just invented the snap but didn’t know how to market it. Lisl’s father knew, though, and all became rich.

“I knew there was a reason I stayed alive,” Lisl says triumphantly. She adds to this by revealing that after the Nazis took over she and her husband, who was Jewish, were allowed to leave Austria because they were guaranteed jobs in the New York snap factory. They then got out the whole family. “Thanks to me,” she says, gleefully shaking her tambourine.

That spirit is upheld throughout the 70-minute performance. When a youthful Lisl says she wants to be a dancer, her father is adamant that she cannot. “You will bring shame on this family,” he says, so she goes to work in his factory “where I cry over the typewriter.”

Without her father’s knowledge she does take dance lessons and this decision, like her staying alive as an infant, has a major impact on many lives years later through her work teaching dance to emotionally, physically and mentally handicapped children. She became a pioneer in creative dance and taught at the Children’s Center for Creative Arts at Adelphi University and in her own studio. A cofounder of the National Dance Teachers Guild, she would go on to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Therapy Association.

Lisl drew strength throughout her adulthood from a voice that told her “I will take care of you.” She trusted that voice, believing that she had lived before her earthly life and that she would live on after death. “I am protected,” she says at one point.

Luckily, thanks to her great niece, Lisl’s life story has been protected as well. It seems Lisl’s spirit refused to die, just as her body had when she was a baby, because it was actually her grandmother that Skala had initially been interested in. In 1998 while writing her first solo play, LiLiA!, about her Oscar-nominated grandmother, actress Lilia Skala, Libby Skala interviewed her aunt Lisl. (Her grandmother was nominated for her role as the mother superior in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”)

“To my frustration,” she writes in the Playwright’s Notes, “Lisl diverted each question with stories from her own life. . . Disappointed that I hadn’t found the material I sought, the interview tapes were stashed away and forgotten.” But after Lisl died in 2001 at the age of 99, Skala wanted to hear her voice again and remembered the tapes. “What a gift she gave in that interview,” Skala writes. “She is indeed a star in her own right.”

As is Libby Skala. She betrayed not one false note or step and was shimmering as Lisl. She is accompanied by enchanting music from a CD entitled “Wake Up! Calm Down," the music her aunt used when working with children. (It can be purchased at

I strongly encourage you to see this beautiful show. Performances run until Aug. 24 at the Lafayette Street Theatre (Venue #5), 45 Bleecker St. between Lafayette and Mott Streets in NYC, on Tues. 8/18 at 8pm, Thurs. 8/20 at 9:45pm, Fri 8/21 at 3pm and Mon. 8/24 at 9:45pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at or by calling 1-866-468-7619. For more information on the show visit

Excellence Equals Success: Why you should focus on beng the best you can be

This essay by Jon Gordon appeared in Guideposts magazine.

Success is often measured by comparison to others. Excellence, on the other hand, is all about being the best we can be and maximizing our gifts, talents and abilities to perform at our highest potential.
We live in a world that loves to focus on success and loves to compare. We are all guilty of doing this. However, I believe that to be our best we must focus more on excellence and less on success. We must focus on being the best we can be and realize that our greatest competition is not someone else but ourselves.
For example, coaching legend John Wooden often wouldn’t tell his players who they were playing each game. He felt that knowing the competition was irrelevant. He believed that if his team played to the best of their ability they would be happy with the outcome. In fact, John Wooden never focused on winning. He had his team focus on teamwork, mastering the fundamentals, daily improvement and the process that excellence requires. As a result he and his teams won A LOT.
A focus on excellence was also the key for golfing legend Jack Nicklaus. His secret was to play the course not the competition. He simply focused on playing the best he could play against the course he was playing. While others were competing against Jack, he was competing against the course and himself.
The same can be said for Apple’s approach with the iPod and iPhone. When they created these products they didn’t focus on the competition. Instead they focused on creating the best product they could create. As a result, rather than measuring themselves against others they have become the measuring stick.
We have a choice as individuals, organizations and teams. We can focus on success and spend our life looking around to see how our competition is doing, or we can look straight ahead towards the vision of greatness we have for ourselves and our teams. We can look at competition as the standard or as an indicator of our progress towards our own standards. We can chase success or we can embark on a quest for excellence and focus 100% of our energy to become our best... and let success find us.
Ironically, when our goal is excellence the outcome and byproduct is often success.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ever wonder why it rains cats and dogs?

In The 1500's

The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s, sent to me by my neighbor Lydia Colon.

These are interesting...

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, Don't throw the baby out with the Bath water.

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath.. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying It's raining cats and dogs.

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house.. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, Dirt poor. The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance way. Hence the saying a thresh hold.

(Getting quite an education, aren't you?)

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme, Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat..

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous..

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days.. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.

And that's the truth...Now, whoever said History was boring ! ! !

Educate someone. Share these facts with a friend.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lovin' God's Green Earth

Today everyone is into living green. But it's the only way this country-music legend knew growing up in the Smoky Mountains

This essay by Dolly Parton appeared in Guideposts magazine. I'm sorry I missed Dolly at our Drama Desk nominees cocktail party this spring. By the time I got there she had always come and gone -- accompanied by body guards on either side. She was nominated for her music for Broadway's 9 to 5.

Did you hear? I got a new job this year, one I’m thrilled to pieces about. It’s the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and they’ve made me their ambassador.

Don’t look so surprised! I know I don’t seem like much of a nature girl and, okay, I probably won’t be going hiking in my heels anytime soon. But the Smokies…they touch my soul. Let me tell you why.

All that I am comes from those mountains where I was born and raised. If I close my eyes, I can see the mist on the peaks, the bluebirds on the fencepost, the meadows filled with purple ironweed and wild daisies.

I remember chasing butterflies and hummingbirds and tying June bugs to a string to make what we called ’lectric kites (don’t worry, we released them). I loved running barefoot in the hills, my feet tender in the spring then brown and tough by summer’s end. Just hearing the word “barefoot” still conjures up a sense of wonder and freedom for me because that’s what I had growing up.

Not that life in the Smokies was easy by today’s standards. I was the fourth of 12 children of a sharecropper and his wife. It was so cold the day I came into the world that when the kitchen in our one-room cabin was mopped, the water left a film of ice on the floor. The doctor rode up on a horse, and I like to think God guided their steps along the snowy mountain ridge leading to our cabin, much the same way he guides my every step today.

The land Daddy farmed then belonged to an old woman named Martha Williams. We called her Aunt Marth. She had an old spinning wheel that seemed as big as a Ferris wheel, and I’d watch her make yarn. It was magical to me, like spinning dreams out of thin air.

Aunt Marth would put me up on her knee and sing: “Tip toe, tip toe, little Dolly Parton, tip toe, tip toe, ain’t she fine…” I was amazed that she knew a song that had my name in it, never thinking that you could put anybody’s name there.

Later on, Daddy bought us our own place way back in a mountain holler. It was overgrown, the fences were down, the roof leaked, but he worked day and night and made something of it.

I like to joke that we had two rooms and a path and running water—if you were willing to run to get it.

In all seriousness, though, we had everything we needed. I should say, God gave us everything we needed, and almost all of it came right from his good green earth. Everyone’s into living green now—for good reason—but that was the only way we knew how to live back then in the mountains.

Daddy planted beans, corn, pota?toes and turnips. He hunted, so we’d have meat—bear, turtle, rabbit, squirrel, groundhog. We went fishin’ and froggin’ and ate whatever we could catch. Sometimes people will say to me like they can’t believe it, “You ate possum?!” and I tell ’em, “We ate what we got and we were glad to have it.”

We raised chickens that peered up through the cracks in the floorboards for bits of bread and crackers. We picked berries from the bushes, fruit from the trees. Mama canned everything and put it up for winter. About the only things we had to buy from the general store were coffee and sugar.

Mama was a great cook and taught us all her tricks. But she was always cooking for 12 growing kids, so even now when I get a hankering for chicken and dumplings, I can’t make just a little bit for my husband and me. I make a huge pot, enough to feed a family of 14, and then I’ll have company over or put the leftovers in containers and freeze ’em for later.

Finding a way to put everything to good use, that was a way of life in the Smokies. It wasn’t just about taking care of what we’d been given. It was about survival, about trying every day, every minute, to make things a little bit better.

Our whole family would work for days to clear trees and move rocks just to scratch out enough land to plant one more row of corn. Our labor was worth it. There was gold in that fat ear of corn and the home-churned butter we rolled it in.

We kids never had any store-bought toys, but we made up plenty of games to play with each other. One time I decided we should dig a hole to China. We picked a spot and started digging with tin cans and knives and forks, just about anything that moved a little bit of dirt.

One of my brothers insisted that if we got to China we would all be standing on our heads, but the rest of us pooh-poohed that notion. Even if we never did make it to the other side of the world, we learned how to dig for our dreams…kind of like the way people put feet to their prayers. We discovered that powerful combination of imagination and hard work.

My sisters and I played house with moss. There was a kind of thick, luxurious green moss that grew in the shady places up in the hills. We’d use it to cover stumps and pretend they were upholstered chairs and sofas or we’d lay it on the ground for carpet.

Even today I’d be hard-pressed to find anything more beautiful in a store. Spend a little time in nature, and you just have to marvel at the wonders of God’s creation.

Take pokeberries. They’re dark purple and when you mash them up, the juice is like a dye. We painted our skin with pokeberry juice so that it looked like we were wearing bracelets or wristwatches.

Sometimes we would paint what we called Jesus sandals on our feet. We would dress up in gunnysacks for robes and carry tobacco stakes as our walking sticks and go gallivantin’ through the holler pretending we were the disciples. We felt real holy, but somehow our kinship with Jesus was lost on Mama when we came home covered with those awful purple stains.

I don’t know how he found the time, but Daddy made us little toys, cars that he whittled out of branches. He’d use old thread spools for wheels and rubber bands to make them run. You’d wind them up and off they’d go, clattering across the front porch.

Mama made us things too. Once she made me a doll out of a corncob with a corn-shuck dress and corn silk for hair. I named her Little Tiny Tasseltop, and she inspired my first song.

Daddy said that I sang before I even talked. That might be something of a tall tale (we mountain folk love a good yarn), but music ran deep in me, that’s for sure. I could latch on to anything that had a rhythm or tune and make a song to go with it.

I would hear two notes of a bobwhite or the sound of Mama snapping beans, and before I knew it, I’d be tapping on a pot with a spoon and singing. I loved it when wild geese flew overhead. I would get into their honking and snap my fingers to their cadence and sing with them, yearning to fly myself.

Life in the mountains wasn’t always blissful. There were scary things too. Bobcats that let out blood-curdling screams in the middle of the night. Panthers that supposedly could reach through a crack in the wall and grab babies from their cribs. I never actually saw a panther, but I knew the cracks in the wall existed.

Once a tornado swept through the holler. We heard the wind howling and we could even feel it through the cracks in our walls. Mama had us all on the floor, praying “that the storm will pass over us and leave us unharmed.” Those of us old enough to know what was really going on prayed like we’d never prayed in our lives. We—and our house—survived the tornado pretty much unscathed.

That was just one of the miracles of my childhood. Another came every year—Christmas. The mountains looked so stunning in the winter. Snow had a way of making even our humble house beautiful…the glow of the fire through the windows, the crackle of a pine knot burning, even the smoke that curled in the clouds.

We’d bring in fresh snow and mix it with vanilla, milk and sugar to make snow cream, the closest we ever got to ice cream. Daddy would go out to find a tree, a cedar with an old bird’s nest in it. We added to nature’s ornaments with strings of popcorn and Mama’s gingerbread men.

There was an unspoken truce among us that allowed the gingerbread men to hang in peace until Christmas Day. After that, forget it. We’d be looking at a tree decorated with gingerbread heads.

I knew there was a world beyond the Smokies—the geese and butterflies had to be flying somewhere, after all—and I wanted to see it for myself. So I moved away after high school. But I always came back for what I discovered growing up there: wonder and wisdom, music and inspiration, freedom and faith.

Even today, in these hard economic times, I think, well, if the worst happens and I lose everything, I can always go home to the mountains, plant a vegetable garden, maybe raise a few chickens.

I’ll go back to God’s green earth and he’ll give me everything I need, just like he always has.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty."
~ Einstein

Friday, August 7, 2009

Psalm 23

Enjoy this beautiful video of Psalm 23 from Guideposts magazine's Our Prayer newsletter.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Burn the Floor

The dancing is spectacular and the costumes are to die for, but the other major elements of a Broadway show -- story and characters to name two -- are nowhere to be found. Being called the first Broadway show of the new season, Burn the Floor is miscast in that role. It would be more at home in a dance hall. As it is, it’s glitzy and sometimes exciting to watch, but not proper fare for The Great White Way. Your eyes might love it, but you can leave your intellect and emotions at home.

This dance revue, inspired by a floor show for Elton John’s 50th birthday in 1997, has been touring the world for a decade. The dancing partners, introduced at the end by name and country, reflect nations far and near. Director and choreographer Jason Gilkison oversees a cast of 32 without one false move. Janet Hine is responsible for the gorgeous costumes.

The band is great, playing everything from waltzes to disco to salsa. Rebecca Tapia sings for several of the numbers and her electrifying voice makes those performances even more exciting. Ricky Rojas also sings; they are backed by the fabulous musicians Henry Soriano, Roger Squitero, David Mann and Earl Maneein.

The cast features Henry Byalikov ("Superstars of Dance"), Sharna Burgess ("So You Think You Can Dance"), Kevin Clifton (International IDSF Open Champion), Sasha Farber (three-time Junior & Youth Latin Australian Champion), Jeremy Garner (six-time Australian Amateur Latin finalist), Gordana Grandosek (Italian Open Champion), Patrick Helm (Welsh Open Champion), Sarah Hives ("Dancing with the Stars"), Melanie Hooper (two-time Australian Professional Latin Champion), Peta Murgatroyd ("Dancing with the Stars"), Giselle Peacock (four-time U.S Champion), Nuria Santalucia (two-time Australian Latin Champion), Sarah Soriano (8th in the world, British Open Championship – Youth Latin American), Damon and Rebecca Sugden (three-time Asian Pacific Ballroom Champions), Trent Whiddon (Australia's "Dancing with the Stars"), Damian Whitewood (Australasia Champion), and Robin Windsor (Ballroom & Latin International finalist). Now through Aug. 16 they will be joined by special guest stars Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

The high point of the evening for me was the finale done to “Proud Mary,” which brought dancers into the aisles and filling the stage. It gave meaning to the expression “rock the house.” That theatre was pulsating!

Overall the show is entertaining, but it dragged for me at times. Two hours of watching nonstop dancing was too much. (Now if it had been the ballet that would be different.) I would have preferred 90 minutes with no intermission.

Burn the Floor plays the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., through Oct. 18. Tickets are available by visiting or by calling (212) 239-6200. For more information go to

Shining Like the Sun: The Chants of Transfiguration

When I listened to this beautiful CD for the first time it had me so peaceful and relaxed and moving at a much, much slower pace that I was almost late for church! With the only instruments being their lovely voices, Gloriae Dei Cantores Schola, under the direction of Dr. Mary Berry, had transported me to a quiet monastery with their presentation of these timeless Gregorian chants.

The feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, is one of my favorites, partly because it is placed in late summer during the church season known as ordinary time. It comes along simply, without the build up of Advent before Christmas or Lent before Easter, and recounts the story of the appearance of Jesus in his glory during his earthly life. (It is related in Mt. 17: 1-13, Mk 9: 2-13 and Lk 9: 28-36.) The Lord is briefly radiantly transformed before three of his disciples, which is significant for revealing the Messiahship of Christ and foreshadowing his future glory.

The late Rev. Canon Edward N. West of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine also loved this feast and always preached on the Sunday on which it was celebrated. He believed it wasn’t that Jesus was transformed at that moment, it was that for just a time the disciples were able to glimpse him as he truly was.

This CD captures that sense. Divided into three parts, Prophecy/Vision, Manifestation/The Moment of Transfiguration and The Promise of our Personal Transfiguration, it features chants and hymns based on prophetic texts of Psalms and the Book of Wisdom, the accounting from St. Matthew’s gospel and The Letter to the Hebrews, among other sources. Listening is a reminder of God’s glory, and how we can share in that glory through faith and the gifts, like these magnificent voices, that God gives us. Shining Like the Sun: The Chants of Transfiguration is a perfect CD for warm summer days and evenings.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Casey Groves to join Redgrave, Hall and McVey in blessing Broadway

I’m so pleased to announce that gifted actor Casey Groves will be joining the previously announced Lynn Redgrave, Carol Hall, J. Mark McVey and others for this year’s Broadway Blessing.

Casey will be performing a scene from Damien, Aldyth Morris’ one-man play about the life of the Belgium-born priest who ministered to the lepers of the Hawaiian island, Molokai, before dying of leprosy in 1889 at the age of 49. Fr. Damien will be elevated to sainthood by Pope Benedict this fall.

I’ve been fortunate to see Casey perform Damien several times and each time has been a blessing. It is a beautiful play, beautifully performed about a life beautifully lived. I interviewed Casey about his decades-long devotion to this work and to his craft for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.

Damien is the powerful story of a man who went where no priest would go -- to a rock of an island surrounded by forbidding cliffs and pounding surf, a “place without sunset,” where lepers were shipped by the board of health to die. It is graphic -- Father Damien describes the lepers’ “maggot-bloated sores” -- and it is transcendent. He copes “by remembering those worm-infested ulcers are the wounds of Christ.”

Casey will be performing Damien around the country this fall and winter to coincide with Father Damien’s canonization. For information, visit

Broadway Blessing, now in its 13th year, is an interfaith service of song, dance and story that brings the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season. It is free and reservations are not needed. Please join us at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

“The glory of God is a human life fully lived.”
-- Irenaeus