George is Simple
Yesterday, Joe and I went to N.C to see the Biltmore Estate. Needless to say, America’s Largest Home is beautiful. It’s splendid. Lavish, really. Inside is a library that houses thousands of priceless books. What I’d give for a day to spend reviewing them! Luxuries such a heated, indoor pool and three separate kitchens are also a part of the mansion. It took the Vanderbilts an hour to get from the entrance of their driveway to the actual house by horsedrawn carriage. It sits on 8,000 acres and there is city limits sign that proclaims the area to be the “Biltmore Forest.” Several creeks and bridges are part of the masterful landscaping. It is truly a sight to see, especially when you stop to remember that a family lived in that place. Most of the time, when confronted by such outrageous extravagance, I’m in awe and that awe is really all I can think about. I think of when I visited France and saw the castles there. All I could think about was what a magnificent palace I was in, and how big, and how beautiful. I expected to have the same feelings towards the Biltmore.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I walked the halls of grandeur and talked to Joe about bathrooms and about how well (or not) the servants were treated (there were at least 21 servants rooms, more for kitchen maids and it said they were allowed 2 afternoons off and some Sundays. In return, they had their own, heated rooms). We joked when we got to the rotisserie kitchen about how they had probably gone out on the estate and said, “give me that chicken! I need him for dinner!” When we walked the trails, we joked about how we could so camp out on the property an no one would ever know we were there. What I kept thinking about wasn’t the parties, nor the Vanderbilts themselves. What I kept thinking about was George.
George Strait is the king of country music. Every song the man releases becomes an instant number one: he has more number one records than Elvis: he is a legend. We listened to one of his songs on a CD I made for the trip. The man is a living icon. And yet. If you’ve ever actually seen him in concert, you know that I tell the truth when I say that the most he moves for the entire 2 hour show is to tap his foot to the music. Sure, he has good videos playing behind him, and he sings well (obviously). He can play the guitar. His songs are good. But he does not preform. He sings. Garth Brooks performed. Sugarland preforms. Tanya Tucker preforms. George Strait sings—what you get at one of his concerts you can get by buying his CD. He does not give interviews, he does not advertise himself much at all. And yet. He’s a legend.
The servants who worked in the basement of Biltmore were simple. They may not have left the estate much (if any) at all, their whole lives. They worked to make the Vanderbilt’s happy. They worked to make the Christmas parties at which there were over 350 guests successful. They worked to show off the rich. But they themselves were simple. They wore simple clothing and slept in small, simple, identical rooms. Without them, though, it would have been impossible for the Vanderbilts to maintain the Biltmore.
My trip to the Biltmore was splendid but it was lavish, even paying thirty dollars for a picture. I enjoyed looking at the beautifully decorated home. I did. I could have easily stayed in one of the guest bedrooms and it doubtlessly would have made me feel important, like “somebody.” I enjoyed thinking about their life, and wondering about what could have possessed a man to want to build such a castle. My best guess is that he wanted an escape, he wanted his personal sanctuary, and so he built a place he’d never have to leave but on whose property he could find solace, excitement, comfort, frustration (an hour ride to the front door). I don’t know what made him want to do it but I, along with all the other thousand people who visit Biltmore each year, enjoy seeing his home. It was not, however, my favorite part of the trip.
My favorite part of the trip was hiking up the side of a mountain and sitting on a bench, swinging my legs back and forth, my eyes full of nothing but mountains of varying heights and shapes. I could have sat on that bench all day and been perfectly happy, which is saying quite a bit since I normally can’t sit still at all. My favorite part was having time with Joe, which is important, considering we don’t see each other every day. My favorite part was singing songs on the drive that speak to something within me. My favorite part was feeling safe as mountains enclosed me on either side, and my hand was held. My favorite part was the trip’s simplicity.
Which came as rather a surprise, actually. Nothing about me is simple. I don’t think simple thoughts. I don’t have simple nightmares. I don’t plan simple days. I don’t write simple books or notes or articles. Everything I do, I generally do big. I don’t do anything half way. Sometimes I get so caught up in trying to be everything for everybody, in trying to live up to expectations that may or may not even actually exist that I forget to simply stop and breathe. Sometimes I think that if I don’t do everything in a big way, it won’t be noticed at all. In the past, I felt that in order to be considered worthy or important enough to warrant attention, I had to be….extravagant….complicated. Sometimes it is hard for me not to still feel that way.
But then I remembered something.
A baby was born without a bed. His mother had to lay him on a bed of straw, in a manger. As he grew up, he worked with his hands until, as an adult, he began working with his heart and mouth. He never obtained wealth. He never even owned a house of his own, on earth. He was mocked. He was laughed at. His friends were prostitutes and thieves and tax collectors, the most hated individuals in society. Indeed, He was killed as a common criminal, hung on a cross and buried. The events of his life were not extraordinary, only His words were. The truth is, Christ was a simple soul. His message was simple, too: “I love you.” So simple. And yet—-His simple life and his simple message was enough to make leaders in the city believe he was a threat. It was, and is, enough to make people change their entire lives simply because they believe what He said. His simplicity is what makes Him accessible to the human population: it is why He can relate to us and why, when we talk to Jesus, we often feel finally understood. It is what has made millions of people believe in what He said.
My youngest daughter is addicted to books. She has tons of them but her favorites are the simplest: a short one in which Dora asks “What will you be when you grow up?”, a Blue’s Clue’s book that has very few words but tons of pictures, etc. One of her favorite games is racing around the kitchen table and having me chase her. My oldest daughter is addicted to animals. She loves her stuffed animals more than any of the expensive toys she has. She loves going to the church program Daisies on Wednesday nights more than just about any other activity, period.One of her favorite games is speaking chicken to me and having me speak chicken back to her, and both of us pretending we know exactly what the other one is saying. When she is happy, she dances. They both find great joy in dancing with me in the rain. While they can enjoy the more complex, creative games I contrive, their favorite ones are the simplest.
The world fills our senses with complicated messages, subliminal and otherwise. So often, we get caught in a race called progress and our calendars get full of crazy things. But how often do those complicated messages of how to spend our lives actually move our souls? How often do the complicated adult games we play move us to tears? Isn’t it the smaller things, the simple ones, like an “I love you” or a “How can I help?” or curling up with a blanket and a book, or the hair back from your sleeping child’s face, that make us cry and motivate us to change?
Vanderbilt built his legacy through extravagant wealth.
George Strait has built his through simple lyrics.
God created His through the Word.
People think that simplicity is the equivalent of being gauche or naive. I think it’s about connecting to my soul and given the choice between the Biltmore and the mountains, it is easy for me to determine that the thing I seek to emulate most is simplicity.