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Ever since our trip to Illinois last week, I’ve been thinking of three men who made an indelible mark on our country: Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. While traveling, we visited sites that filled our minds with facts and an increased sense of appreciation for their gifts and perseverance.

We arrived in Tupelo, MS just minutes after the museum chronicling events in Elvis’ life closed. No problem. The grounds were lovely, and we were able to take as much time as we wanted to see the small two-room house where he was born, the church where he spent many Sundays as a child, a huge statue of Elvis as a teenager, and a brick inlaid time line of major life events. It was all fascinating, but I think what captured my attention and awe was just how humble Elvis’ beginnings were.

Elvis’ music touched people all over the world. From the Graceland tour in Memphis, I learned that his Hawaii concert was viewed by one and a half billion people in forty countries. So no, he didn’t fight for human rights or lead a country divided by war, but his impact on others remains. I’ll always remember, “Another little baby boy was born in the ghetto, and his mother cried.” Powerful song.

While I got a real sense of Elvis’s personality and heart while in Graceland, I felt more sad than glad there. He worked hard, played hard, loved hard, and died far too young—right there in Graceland.

While in Memphis, we visited the Civil Rights Museum, an awe-inspiring collection of photographs, artifacts, movies, news clips, and dioramas that teach and inspire at the same time. The main part of the collection takes part in the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by a single bullet. There’s a wreath on the railing where he was shot. Inside, the rooms where he and some companions stayed are preserved as they were on that day in April 1968. He was an extraordinary man on a mission to improve life for African Americans and all people who were marginalized.

I know he was no saint. But still, when I ponder his role in the Civil Rights Movement and remember King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I can think of no one who did more to move equal rights for all forward.

And finally, there’s Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. As all school children know, Honest Abe, also known as the Great Emancipator, spent much of his young life in a log cabin in Kentucky. He mother died when he was nine years old, and his father remarried about a year later. He was basically a self-taught man whose education is estimated to be a total of eighteen months. He worked at a variety of occupations, including rail-splitter and shopkeeper, before entering political life when he was elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1834.

In Springfield, the facts from history books came to life as we toured Lincoln’s home, ambled through his community, visited the Lincoln Museum, and walked through the old Capitol. In the museum, I learned more of his angst about the war, the slavery issue, and the nation’s economy. I began to see him as a “real” figure, one who loved his country, his wife, and his four boys. Three of the four sons died before reaching adulthood.

 Assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln also died too young. He rose above all manner of issues to become one of the most popular and respected leaders of the 19th century.

 Elvis and Abe came from lowly beginnings; one became a performer who charmed and entertained people all over the globe, and the other became grew up to hold the highest office in the land. Although his family wasn’t poor, MLK had his challenges and struggles too. Regardless of their inauspicious beginnings, all three men seemed destined for greatness.

Seeing evidences of their lives up close and personal makes me ponder for the hundredth time (or more): What makes some people rise above obstacles to fulfill their potential and become instruments of progress, fairness, civility, and yes, entertainment while others do not?

Don’t get your dander up. Although this is a post about the upcoming election, it’s not one that bashes either candidate. In fact, while eating lunch with a friend yesterday, we concurred that while our presidential choice differs, we still feel that both candidates are men of integrity. That said, I’m tiptoeing away from further discussion  and want to write just a little about the importance of voting.

We live, hands down, in the best country on the face of the earth. Naturally, I haven’t visited them all, except in books and other written material, but I feel fervently that this is a land choice above all other lands. I just finished reading The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, and in it she describes the solitary confinement and brutal treatment of Teza who is serving a 20-year prison term for singing about politics and power in a country (Myanmar) where political dissent was (is?)  forbidden.

Here in America, people sing against, laugh at, and show disrespect for leaders and candidates, and nothing happens. I’m not saying that something should. I’m just saying that we take our freedom to speak and voice our opinion for granted. Last night I watched a SNL video of the debate between vice presidential candidates, and while I thought it was amusing, I was again struck by the incredible freedoms we have. In many countries, the actors would probably be dead by now. Or no, I doubt that some spoof like the one I saw would have even gotten off the ground.

Back to The Lizard Cage. I might never have known about this book had I not been introduced to it in The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. In this book, the author also relates three of “The Ten Commandments of Voting,” a pamphlet that his mother had been given while visiting an African country in which people were allowed to vote freely for the first time. I’m listing these three commandments right from Schwalbe’s books in the hope that they’ll move you as much as they did me.

  1. You have nothing to fear. Remember that your vote is secret. Only you and your God know how you vote.
  2. People who promise things that they never give are like clouds and wind that bring no rain: do not be misled by promises.
  3. Your vote is your power: use it to make a difference to your life and your country.

What can I add to these statements written in a pamphlet encouraging people who were able to vote freely for the first time, people who were well aware of the privilege and power of casting their vote? Nothing, unless it’s to remind everyone of our insanely wonderful (and sometimes wacky) American culture and all of the freedoms we have.

This chronicle of our Fourth adventures might be getting a bit old so I’ll keep it short today. Besides, I’m here at the beach again, and the ocean and sky are calling my name. My brother and his wife and daughter and I are going parasailing in just a little while, something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

Back to the travelogue, from Friday the 5th through Monday the 10th, we savored every moment at the beach. Well, I did anyway. Otis doesn’t love the coast as much as I do, but he managed to stay busy helping an old friend with some renovations to his condo. Still, we both enjoyed dining out (Gulfstream and Salt Water Grill) and getting together with some old friends.

As usual, I did a lot of beach walking and reading and people watching. Just a couple of comments about those activities:

*Beach walking is good for body and soul, and evidently a lot of other people feel that way too because there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of us walking along the strand. Going from the hard packed sand and then into the edge of the lapping waves…well, it’s sublime.
*And the reading part. I’ve been re-reading two of Leon Uris’ books, Mila 18 and QB VII, and I just have to say that anyone who’s moaning and groaning about what a tough life she has in America needs to read those books, especially Mila 18.
*
About the people watching, I enjoy watching the children frolic and build sand castles, the people sitting in chairs reading or chatting, and the young people playing ball (or catch or something). Yesterday a little toddler with a huge happy smile gave me a rock. I put it in with my shell collection as a reminder of the morning. One last comment about the people. I have to ask WHY? Why do so many people expose their jiggling tummies and derrieres? It’s painful to see. I know, I know. I don’t have to look, and yet unless I wear a blindfold or keep my eyes shut, there’s no way to avoid those sights.

Oops, time to get my bathing suit on and head to the beach for my adventure. Sure hope the reality meets the anticipation of this. To sum up our week of celebrating America’s birthday,

 “From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.”

Thanks to the generosity of some of my in-laws, we were able to spend part of the holiday week in the mountains of Tennessee. We arrived in Sevierville on the Sunday prior to the Fourth, and shortly after our arrival, the womenfolk went to the local Wal-Mart for provisions. Just gotta say that I’ve been in several Wal-Marts in tourist areas, but I’ve never been in one as crowded as this one. It was “craxy,” extra crazy.

Natrually, I don’t have the time to write about everything we did  and saw (and who would want to read it anyway?), but I do want to record some of our goings-on. So this post is going to be a cross between a journal and a travel diary. Maybe someone reading it will be motivated to go to the Pigeon Forge area and be better informed about what to see and what to avoid.

Before chronicling the events and area attractions, I want to put in a plug for exercise. Truly, there’s no better way go see an area than walking. Every morning we were there, I got up early and walked around Sevierville, and because of this, I saw things that no one else in our group did. I particularly enjoyed seeing the nearby Tanger Outlet come to life as the employees came in to work. I also saw pigs flying at Old McDonald’s Farm. Plus, I ate  ice cream and apple pie without gaining an ounce…carrot cake too.

Every day was unique in its own way, but Monday was probably my favorite because we went to the Smokey Mountain National Park and enjoyed some of that “purple mountain majesty.” While the rest of my party enjoyed a film in the Sugarlands Welcome Center, I walked to Cataract Falls and communed with nature. It was a short walk, .4 mile each way, and relatively flat. At the falls, I met some new friends from Florida, Maya and her grandmother and aunt. I took several photos of them posing on the rocks, and Maya took a couple of me.

I rejoined the group, and we then traveled through the park until we found the perfect picnic spot. And yes, I mean PERFECT. It even had the proverbial babbling brook (or creek?), and there were picnickers all around us. Although the temperature was around 100 degrees, we were shaded by magnificent trees that cooled us off a bit. After eating the sandwiches (complete with fresh summer tomatoes) and chips, Tammy and I walked out on the rocks (love her youthful spirit!) to join the other people enjoying the cool mountain water. That’s when I noticed my Florida friends approaching. They too wanted to walk out on the rocks. Naturally, I took their picture again, and they took ours.

We packed up the remains of our lunch and headed to Cades Cove. I just have to tsay that although I LOVE the beach, this is an awesomely beautiful area. Even though I took several photographs, none do justice to the peaceful, lovely spot in the Smokies. It’s an 11-mile auto tour with several stops along the way. Time prohibited a stop at all of them, but we did visit two old churches and a gift shop disguised as a general store. At the latter location, there were (are) several other structures including an old house and barn. Just walking on the property and absorbing the positive vibes of the place is an experience I’ll always remember. I didn’t want to leave!

If you’re fortunate enough to go to Cades Cove and are wrestling with which stops to make along the way, make sure that the churches are among them. The Primitive Baptist Church has the loveliest resting place (cemetery) that I’ve ever walked through…and I’ve been in my share of cemeteries! Inside, the church was hot as all get out, and I wondered how in the world those worshipers of long ago  kept that spiritual feeling going.

We also visited the Missionary Baptist Church down the road a bit. Originally part of the Primitive Church, its members spilt because of a disagreement about whether to do missionary work or not. The second church was a little larger and had wonderful lighting (from the large windows); it even  had a small vestibule, and I liked thinking about those long ago people stepping through it on their way to the sanctuary. As the icing on the cake, we even got a little religion that day since Tammy read some verses from John to Karen and me. Interestingly, there were several Bibles and hymnals in each church. Nice.

Even the exodus from the park was memorable. The trees, the deer, the turkeys, and the blue haze of the mountains all around us combined to make it an unforgettable ride. Too, being surrounded by my fellow Americans on every side added something to the excursion too! We all especially loved watching the antics of the little boy sitting in the back of the convertible in front of us. Full of life and energy, he kept us entertained.

Back at the resort, the men grilled chicken on one of the community grills. After a delicious meal, we watched the Olympic trials and made plans for the next day. Stay tuned for traveler information!

Since this is my personal blog, the one where I can post on topics ranging from single mothers and social issues to my family and life experiences, this afternoon I decided to jot down a few things about the Fourth. I love everything about the holiday and the values and principles that it represents. Yep, I even like the golf cart parades, and it makes my day when I see someone wearing a red, white, and blue bathing suit.

This Fourth was quiet compared to many of the others I’ve celebrated. It was just the two of us in Myrtle Beach on Independence Day, and here’s what we did. We began celebrating the night before with a cookout at Carol and Randy’s house in Windy Hill. Loved the huge strawberry shortcake! On the morning of the Fourth, we hit the beach early and stayed there for a couple of hours. We walked, talked, read, and people watched, and I hope to always spend at least a part of our nation’s birthday doing just that.

Later we ate lunch, shopped a little, ate burgers, splurged on ice cream at Cold Stone in Market Commons, and watched a sad fireworks display. We usually go to the 2nd Ave Pier with throngs of other people, but this year we opted to stay at the Commons to view the spectacular display we had seen last year. It didn’t happen; we saw a total of six fiery bursts. Live and learn, right? Next year we’ll be down by the ocean.

Reliving last week’s Fourth has conjured up memories of past celebrations, and in keeping with the Fourth, I’m going to share my top four.

At the top of the list is one in which my son and I went with a buddy from Loris and her daughter to the nation’s capital. Talk about a fireworks display! We joined what seemed like thousands of our fellow American on the mall and watched an awesome sight and  sound show. Something that makes this memory special is that it marks the evening when I realized that my son was growing up and away (from me). He was probably about 10 and VERY ACTIVE. Not content to stay with “us gals,” he climbed on statues and monuments to get a better look at the people and festivities. I was a nervous Nellie, afraid that some crazy person would kidnap him.

Another top memory goes back years ago. It took place in Myrtle Beach. My first husband and I were big into running in those days, and on the Fourth we got up before dawn and went down to the beach for a three-mile jog. My mother was visiting with us and stayed behind to watch the children. We had barely begun our jog when we saw them, a family of about six (maybe more—it was a quick glance) Vietnamese huddled together on the stairs of a beach access boardwalk. To me, they all looked scared and uncertain as they stared out at the ocean. Were they thinking of the land they had left? Were they wondering what this BIG DAY was all about? Were they anxious about what lay before them in the land of the free?

Another favorite memory is of a day when my daughter Carrie and I left the coast to spend the day in the midlands with various family members. My brother and his family were in town visiting my parents for a few days, and we wanted to share a burger with them. My other brother and his family joined us, and if I’m not mistaken, that was the last Independence Day we shared with my parents. Wish we’d taken some pictures.

After lunch and some “hanging out,” we took off for Sumter to visit my sister. She and her husband owned a restaurant at that time, and we (visiting brother and his family and Carrie and I) dined there that night. We have a funny looking picture to prove it. Dave’s wearing a Panama hat, and the rest of us are just standing there looking like dorks. After good-bye hugs, Carrie and I headed east again, but before going home, we stopped in Florence. The parents of a young man whom she was dating at the time had invited us to come by, and we did. They had a pool, and in and around it were a couple of dozen people mingling and talking and lying on floats. There was also lots of food, especially desserts, but Carrie and I restrained ourselves. Tired but happy, we made it back to the beach around midnight.

This post has gone on long enough! I’m just briefly mention last year’s celebration at the beach. Although I can’t remember what happened during the day, I’ll never forget watching the fireworks with my grandchildren at Market Commons in Myrtle Beach that night. In a word, awesome. Afterwards we walked the mile or so back home, and the entire way back, Brooke talked nonstop to Otis. He kiddingly told her that she needed to save her breath for walking, but she chattered on and on. Sweet girl.

I’m sure everyone has special memories of families and friends and flags and burgers. I just wanted to share a few of mine. You know, I think seeing that Vietnamese family is the one that tops the list. For me, it marked the first time I knew that change was happening at breakneck speed, that America was indeed a refuge for millions, and that cultural diversity was becoming more important. I hope the family has found opportunity here and that they love America as much as I do.

 

The moment had arrived for the Thanksgiving feast.  Everyone stood around waiting, knowing that I’d be making a little speech. It was undoubtedly the least profound of my life. I think it went something like, “Well, welcome to Thanksgiving 2010.  We sure hope everyone has a great time, and now I think Otis wants to say something.” He looked surprised and said, “Amen to that” before asking Paul to say a blessing on the food.  

I wish I’d said more. I wish I’d said something deep and moving, something memorable that my children and grandchildren could ponder later. I wish I’d said something like, “As we celebrate this special season of the year, let us be ever mindful of our multitudinous blessings, things like our health, these beautiful children, our great country, our ancestry, our family, laughter, music, the gospel of Jesus Christ, love, stars, the sacrifices of our forefathers and mothers, the power of prayer,….” By that time, one of my children would have probably said, “Mom, we know. We know what you’re saying.”

As it was, I finished my pitiful speech, and we proceeded to heap turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and other delectable goodies on our plates. Using the alphabet as a guide, we sat around our bounteous table and took turns stating things we were grateful for. It’s a corny tradition, but one I still insist upon.  One year Paul tried to take a shortcut by saying, “Everything,” and Thursday I gently chided him about it and told him he’d have to do a little better than that. “What’s better than the truth?” he asked.

What’s better than the truth is specific truth. Specifically speaking, I’m grateful for Braden’s more grown up demeanor. He’s a second grader now and has become quieter and more cooperative. He told me that he wasn’t too good at math, but I’m sure he’ll improve. I probably had a challenge with subtraction too! I’m grateful for Brooke’s sweet little spirit and her motherly attitude with the little ones like Colton and Olivia. And Emma, crazy Emma. I love everything about that little blond tyke, and I enjoyed painting her fingernails and toenails a sparkly pink color.  I painted Brooke’s nails too, but Paul said NO to my offer to paint Olivia’s tiny nails. I’m grateful for Colton’s energy and determination. And Olivia…I’m thankful for her beautiful blue eyes and her serene essence.

I’m grateful that these five children are surrounded by love and that they receive guidance and encouragement every day of their young lives. When we went around the Thanksgiving table recounting our blessings, Rich said darling daughters when he was hit with D and kids when he ended up with K on his next turn. His children know how much their father loves them.  I overheard Paul say, “You’re awesome” to his six-month-old daughter, and she grabbed his face with both of her chubby dimpled hands and squeezed his cheeks.

As I enjoyed the days with my children and grandchildren, I couldn’t help but think of my parents and grandparents and days of yesteryear. My paternal grandfather worked for the railroad, and as luck (?) would have it, there was a train track on a hillside near the villa where we stayed in Asheville. It was the first thing I noticed as I looked out the window Wednesday afternoon, and as we listened to the trains ride by during our stay, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather. Who knows? Perhaps he rode those very tracks where decades later his granddaughter and her family spent Thanksgiving, 2010.

Announcement to my husband and children:  I won’t be buying any more soft drinks to serve in my home.  Nor will I buy them for any of you in a restaurant…not even the diet variety. And not even Sprite. I’ve always suspected how unhealthy they are for us, but from listening to NPR this morning, I learned that they are “uniquely bad” for humans.

Anyone who’s even halfway aware of what’s going on in our society knows that we have what’s been referred to as an obesity epidemic. Beginning in infancy, obesity (defined as weighing 20 percent above recommended weight  for height, etc.) has become a growing (pun intended) problem. We also have more problems with diabetes than ever  before, and according to the interview on NPR’s On Point, soft drinks are one of the chief culprits. High in sugar and low in nutrition, Americans gulp them down, sometimes several a day, and a doctor (didn’t catch her name) on the program believes that this habit is primarily responsible for the rise in diabetes and in obesity.

How has this happened? Some of my friends and children would say it’s because they taste good. True, but what else? A commentator on the show mentioned that soft drinks are far less expensive than 100 percent fruit juice. When people on limited incomes are trying to economize, it’s cheaper to buy Pepsi than cranberry juice. And children love the sweet syrupy taste, just like their parents do.

In addition to talking about the zero nutrition of soft drinks, the animated discussion covered the controversial topic of using government money to buy cola drinks. Naturally, people who use food stamps are upset about the possibility of having this privilege curtailed because they feel that it isn’t fair and that it robs them of their choices. One caller asked (paraphrase), “So as a taxpayer, I not only have to work to support the people on assistance but now I have to support, even encourage their poor health too? I have to buy their groceries and promote obesity too?” It should be interesting to watch how this situation plays out in New York, especially if Mayor Bloomberg has his way.

It’s easy for me to spout off about this topic because I don’t have a craving for Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, or any other cola beverage. For a long time, however, it’s bothered me to see people consume such huge quantities of it when it has zilch in the way of nutrition. I was just thinking about Thanksgiving and how yummy the sweet potato soufflé is going to be.  I’d also like to try Connie’s recipe for hummingbird cake.  Those items are loaded with sugar, but somehow I can justify it because of the vegetable/fruit ingredient. But what, my friends, is the healthy ingredient in cola beverages?

Maybe I’m just like everyone else, able to rationalize about the merits of what I like while failing to see it in the preferences of others. That’s too much for me to ponder this evening. All I can tell family and friends is that if you want a soda at my house, bring your own bottle. I can’t purposely contribute to diabetes or obesity, two of the major causes of premature death in America today.

P.S.  Just have to add this afterthought. When I walked into the building for my afternoon class, I heard an interesting conversation coming from the break room. A young man was stocking the drink machine, and one of the people watching him asked when he was going to put the real Mountain Dew in the machine, not the diet stuff.

Lately I’ve been thinking more about how fortunate I am to have been born in America. It’s never too far from my consciousness, but lately I’ve seen a couple of movies that have reinforced my gratitude.

My grandson Colton loves to gnaw on bananas. So do his sisters and brother. I saw a movie last week, Babies, in which one of the tots gnawed on bones that she picked up from the ground. For entertainment in her country (Namibia), Ponijao knocks rocks together while here in the USA, Colton explores cabinets full of fascinating items like pots, pans, and Windex. One night last week I watched as he danced with his sister Brooke, both of whom had Wii remotes strapped on their wrists. After the dancing, his mother changed his diaper and put him in a nice comfy bed in a temperature controlled house.  Ponijao was naked as a jaybird through much of the movie, and her mother cleaned her little bottom with a corn cob. Where she slept, I don’t know. I do know that it wasn’t in a “bedroom” in the American sense of the word.

My husband rented The Stoning of Soraya M. from Netflix, and we watched it one evening last week. I’m still having nightmares about it…all through the day. Her husband became interested in a 14-year-old girl but couldn’t marry the teenager without a divorce from Soraya. When she refused to grant him a divorce, her husband Ali hatched an evil plot to have her accused of adultery. Though the charge was completely untrue, Soraya was found guilty and was promptly stoned to death by the men in the village, including her husband, father, and two sons. The stoning was too painful to watch. Sure it was “just a movie,” but it was a movie based on a real story.  It happened, and four children were left motherless. I wonder what Ali is doing today and if his sons ever think of the beautiful, loving, and innocent mother they helped to kill.

The purpose of this post isn’t to berate other lifestyles. It’s to say that despite our myriad challenges and problems, America is still the best country in the world. It’s mind boggling to think that many of the world’s children never learn to read and write, much less eat a Happy Meal or play a computer game. It’s almost too much to absorb that some women can be stoned to death on trumped up charges while here in America, women (and men) often have several intimate partners, sometimes even AFTER they’re married. There is often a “punishment” involved, and at times divorce might ensue, but I don’t know of any stonings that have occurred.

The very fact that I’m free to see movies that enlighten me about different cultures of the world would be incomprehensible to many of the people I saw in these two movies last week.  In America, every child (even a girl) has the right to an education, and women can become doctors, lawyers, and golf course superintendents without fear of censure. They can own property, vote, choose whether or not to marry…and to whom. They can even file for divorce and be granted child support. I’m not advocating that more women do that; I’m just saying that being a woman in America has its pluses.

Enough said for tonight. I think I might Skype Colton and his family before he has his warm bath in preparation for bedtime. Hmmm. Wonder how little Ponijaro is faring in Namibia tonight. Bet she hasn’t watched adorable little Dora on television today.

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Love this picture taken by Allie Bowers and sent to me. It's so awesome that someone as young as Allie appreciates the beauty of our world.

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