People Every Writer (and songwriter, singer and musician) Should Know – Mac Davis

People often say, “When you live in Los Angeles, you never know who you’ll bump into.” Well, I found that out quite literally (and the hard way) one day when I bumped – okay, crashed – into country singer and movie star Mac Davis.

For those of you too young or just unfortunate enough to not know who he is, this is him in his prime –

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I used to watch The Mac Davis Show when I was a kid and was amazed and entranced by his many talents. He was a natural performer. Pure charm. The segment of his show I enjoyed the most was called “Audience Improvisations” when people would give him random song titles and he would write the song to go with it right on the spot. It was incredible to me and one of the things that made me want to be a writer. Here’s an example. Mac’s a bit older now but as sharp and talented as ever. You’ll see my favorite song title improv in this clip. It goes like this –

My girlfriend burned her bra today.
It really was a shame.
Cuz she ain’t exactly Dolly Parton.
That sucker hardly made a flame.

I was driving down Sepulveda Boulevard one day and had just crossed Wilshire going into Westwood when there was suddenly a stopped car in front of me. I went right under it and scooped it up onto my hood. I would find out later that the woman in front of Mac realized she had missed her on-ramp to the 405 freeway and slammed on her brakes. He was able to avoid rear-ending her but because I was glancing left and right in the intersection, I saw Mac’s rear bumper too late. Mac got out – actually, climbed down out of his car – and he was not happy. Because he was one of my heroes, I recognized him immediately. I apologized. He immediately relaxed and said in his Lubbock Texas accent, “It’s okay, kid. It wasn’t your fault.”

As we waited for the police to arrive, he told me a story about how he crashed a Cadillac (I think) he called his “In The Ghetto Car” because he bought it with the money he received after Elvis Presley recorded the song he wrote by the same name. Mac wrote a ton of hits in addition to that one – Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me, It’s Hard To Be Humble, Texas in My Rear-View Mirror, I Believe in Music, etc. He told me he was going to star in a Disney Christmas special at Disneyland the next day and said, “I’ll wave to you.” A pretty damn cool thing to say to someone who just wrecked his rear bumper. 

I tell this story for many reasons – to show that not all celebrities are jerks, particularly those as seasoned as Mac, and those who grew up in Texas, not L.A. Mac is old school not just in terms of writing songs that actually make sense, have a clear beat, and are impossible not to like, but in terms of intelligence, class and charm, too. I was nobody to him. He didn’t say, “Hey, you’re that guy who wrote twenty stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul, aren’t you?” Nobody recognizes writers. He could have easily been unfriendly to me but he wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. He smiled and waved at me from Disneyland. Mac Davis is country, in every sense of the word.

So if you ever read this, Mac, thank you for your kindness, especially to someone who messed up your car. It’s easy to be nice when everything is going right, but one’s true character is revealed when things go wrong. You certainly passed that test. I hope to bump into you again someday – when we’re not driving.

You’re the One That I Want. Wait a Minute . . . Who Are You?

I love the movie Grease for the nostalgia and catchy tunes but it contains possibly the worst message for young girls ever.

Sandy is doing so well with Danny that he ditches his leather jacket for a letterman sweater to impress her. His friends give him a hard time about it but he says, “Come on, guys. You know you mean a lot to me. It’s just that Sandy does, too, and I’m gonna do anything I can to get her, that’s all.”

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But despite both of them being hopelessly devoted to each other, Sandy decides to shed her Sandra Dee sweetness, start smoking and transform herself from the wholesome girl next door to a hussy anyway.

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I suppose the writer pondered whether he should have them break up and then have Sandy alter her basic nature out of her desperation to win him back, but realized that would make her appear pathetic. Why then? I never did get it. The message to girls is, “Wholesome and innocent are stupid. You’ve got to become a slut to really get the boy of your dreams!”

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To top it off, the entire high school dances around to celebrate her transformation. The happy energy is enough to make just about everyone completely miss all the destructive psychological programming.

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But maybe there was a deeper meaning to this in the mind of the writer, such as the loss of innocence America experienced shortly after the 1950’s? The shedding of the restrictive social mores of that era that shocked all their stodgy, old parents so much in the following decade. i.e., free love, the sexual revolution, drugs for “mind expansion”, etc.

Or maybe the writer was saying loss of innocence is inevitable so we might as well embrace it.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking it and this was just a cool song and a cheap gimmick to give Sandy a character arc.

There’s no point denying sexuality, either, as many of the movies from the 1950’s did due both to censorship and to the fact that America and art was simply more innocent then. For instance, in bedroom scenes, both actors had to have at least one foot on the floor. Open sexuality was so frowned upon, in fact, that Jayne Mansfield’s career was ruined when she exposed her breasts in a bathtub scene in her increasing desperation to dethrone Marilyn Monroe as America’s #1 screen siren.

Censorship finally ended and the pendulum swung back the other way. It’s still swinging and will never swing back, just as surely as innocence, once lost, can never be fully restored. We can only taste it in flashes, like the aroma of something sweet carried on the wind from far away, and savor it for a moment before it evaporates again, always too soon.

Sex is part of life, of course, especially for teenagers wrestling with the mystery of love and the questions of self-worth and desirability that accompany it. But I’m always surprised when I see a local library or mall hosting an outdoor screening of Grease. Overthinking has got to be superior to not thinking at all.

 

 

Touring Paris with Jim Morrison – My Story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book Angels and Miracles

 

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When I was twenty-seven years old, I traveled to Paris alone. Shortly after my arrival, I met a local woman named Lauren who offered to show me around the city. I asked her to take me to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. She thought it was strange that, of all the sites of Paris, I wanted to see a graveyard first.

At that time in my life, I was obsessed with finding out what happens when people die, mainly because I had lost a good friend to a car accident several years earlier. She was one of the kindest people I had ever known. I was aware of the personal responsibility argument, but I still couldn’t understand why God would let that happen to her.

After she died, I started reading everything I could about near-death experiences and accounts of the afterlife. I also became drawn to old cemeteries, and even conducted a séance in one. I didn’t expect to communicate with my friend, and had been warned by more faithful friends that I might attract malevolent spirits, but I did it anyway because even if something bad happened, I would at least know that there was something beyond life, and that my friend might still be alive in some way. The need for hope made me reckless. Words didn’t comfort me. I needed a real experience.

Pere-Lachaise Cemetery was established in 1806 so many notable artists and luminaries are buried there such as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Frederic Chopin. However, the grave I was most interested in seeing was Jim Morrison’s, the lead singer of The Doors, because I had been exploring his music and writings for months before this trip.

In case you’ve never seen it, here are a few shots of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery – 

I became interested in Jim Morrison’s music and poetry because he shared my obsession with death and the afterlife, perhaps because of a similar experience – he had witnessed the aftermath of a terrible car accident as a child. His poetry and raging vocals gave a voice to the darkness in me. He wrote and sang like an animal crying out in pain. There was no self-consciousness or desire to please, just raw energy. In an era of peace and love, he crashed the party and reminded everyone that the dark side was still there.

The morning of the day we went to the cemetery, Lauren and I were at a Laundromat when a young Parisian man with long, blonde hair and denim overalls came over, introduced himself as Henri, and handed Lauren an Origami rose he had just made. He looked just like a “hippy” from the 60’s and, we would discover, had the same loving nature most of them strived for. We thanked him and complimented his artistry. After talking for an hour or so, he wrote down his address and invited us to dinner that evening. We accepted.

We went to the cemetery later that day. It was very crowded. When Lauren asked someone why, we learned that we had accidentally visited on the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, July 3rd. That was the first coincidence.

A large crowd was gathered around his grave in reverent silence. As I read his grave marker and calculated his age, I discovered the second coincidence . . . I was the same age then that he was when he died – twenty-seven.

As I sat by his grave, I recalled the lines from his poetry that meant the most to me at that time.

“We must tie all these desperate impressions together.”

“I can forgive my injuries in the name of wisdom, luxury, romance.”

“Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of god. Wandering, wandering in hopeless night.”

A man with dreadlocks played People Are Strange on a guitar. A young girl started to cry. Her boyfriend put his arm around her. It began to rain softly, as if her sadness was affecting heaven itself.

I wondered what Jim might say if he saw us all. I imagined it might be something like, “Cheer up. I’m only dead.” After all, he had referred to death as a “beautiful friend” and asked, “Can you picture what will be? So limitless and free.” Unfortunately for those who loved him, he wasn’t afraid of dying.

That night, we took the metro across town to Henri’s apartment. His girlfriend and another couple were there. They all looked like flower children, too. We all got along wonderfully.

It was a warm night so Lauren and I sat by a window. I looked out and noticed a mural of a man’s face on the front wall of an apartment building across the street. I wasn’t able to make out who it was at first, but as I focused, I realized it was Jim Morrison! I asked Henri why it was there. He said, “That’s where he died.” He pointed to a window and said, “That was his apartment, right there.”

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That was the third and most chilling coincidence. We had not mentioned to Henri at the Laundromat that we were planning to visit Jim Morrison’s grave that day. In all of Paris, what were the chances of ending up across the street from the apartment where he died a few hours later? I imagined Jim had guided me there through Henri, a free spirit he would have liked and identified with.

I looked at the window of Jim’s old apartment again and saw the silhouette of a male figure passing behind the curtains. My rational mind knew it was just the current tenant, but my imagination had become unhinged. It was Jim, alive and well, pacing the floor, working on a new poem. 

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I looked at the portrait on the wall again, illuminated by soft moonlight, and it seemed to be smiling playfully at my bewilderment. But that feeling turned into comfort as I imagined it was Jim’s way of thanking me, not just for reading his work but for getting to the soul of it. I like to believe that artists who have passed on know when someone is savoring their creations, and that they smile for a moment before returning to whatever they’re doing in heaven. I hope so.

Lauren and I said goodnight to our new friends and walked down the street toward the metro. When we reached the corner, I asked her to wait for me. I walked back to the portrait on the wall and looked up at the window of Jim’s former apartment, lit with a soft, yellow light. I tried to remember the William Blake line that inspired the name of Morrison’s band . . . “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

I had been living in a cavern, but for the first time in years, death didn’t seem so final. Everything did seem infinite. I thought of the friend I had lost and finally felt a little peace. I closed my eyes, touched the mural of Jim’s face, whispered “thank you”, and walked away into the Paris night, into life.

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John Denver – In Memoriam

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Twenty long years ago, it happened, the day every John Denver fan wishes he/she could go back to, swarm that airport and sabotage the experimental plane John Denver would crash into the Pacific Ocean that day, or at least beg him not to fly. But he did, and all his fans have left is his music and the memories of the time when he was alive, when they and America were younger and more innocent.

It’s easy to be sad and cynical, but listening to the treasure trove of music John left us doesn’t allow it. Every song is an embrace, a conversation with a good friend, a celebration of the sweet and simple. Collectively, it is a call to live life the way John did – deeply, completely, fearlessly, and with great love for all living things.

I wrote a poem many years ago after my brother died. Ironically, he died only four days after John, on 10/16/97, but it applies just as much to John or anyone else we have loved and lost. I hope it gives some comfort.

Rest in peace, Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.

– Mark Rickerby

Dirt Road King (story poem for Elvis fans)

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I took a long road trip a few years ago,
Just exploring old Route sixty-six,
When I passed through a sleepy town
Somewhere way back in the sticks. 

I stopped at a run-down filling station.
With a run-down old man sitting inside.
He gave me a wave and yelled out to me,
“Hey, man! Now that is a beautiful ride.”

He was admiring my classic Cadillac,
A bright white, 1960 Coupe De Ville.
He said, “I used to have one just like her.
Drivin’ that beauty was a heck of a thrill.”

I had nowhere to go and plenty of time
And the old man’s smile had taken me in
So I said, “Tell you what, lock up for a while
And you and I will take her out for a spin.”

“Hot dang!” he said. “Don’t mind if I do!”
He ran back to the shop and locked the door.
I dusted the seat and said, “Your chariot, sir.”
He said, “Alright! Let’s hear that baby roar.”

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We left a cloud of dust at that old station
And headed out due south on Route 66.
My new friend and I barreling along
To obey the old song and get some kicks.

A scraggly beard covered most of his face,
But I just had to love the crazy, old guy.
There was something in the way he laughed
And the mischievous twinkle in his eye.

His mind seemed to drift back to the past
To when he was young and the car was new.
I got a tape out of the glove compartment
And said, “Here – I’ve got something for you.”

It was an old Elvis tape, one of his best.
The old man looked at me, oddly surprised.
And as If You Could See Me Now played,
I noticed tears start to well in his eyes.

If you could see me now,
The one who said that he would rather roam;
The one who said he’d rather be alone.
If you could only see me now.

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A long time passed as we drove along.
We didn’t talk much or feel the need.
He said, “This really means a lot to me.
I hope you’re rewarded for your good deed.”

We drove for miles along the winding highway.
The tape ended and returned to the start.
If You Could See Me Now came on again.
And I noticed again how it tugged at his heart.

If you could hear me now,
Singin’ somewhere in the lonely night;
Dreaming of the arms that held me tight.
If you could only hear me now.

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Finally, I said, “Is something bothering you?
Is there something you’d like to talk about?
I know I’m a stranger but I’ve found it helps
If you talk to someone and just let it out.”

The old man pulled the car onto the shoulder.
The evening stars were beginning to shine.
He said, “I’ve kept a secret for many years.
There’s so much sadness in this heart of mine.”

“But maybe it’s time that I shared my secret.
My health is failing. I could go any day.
We seem to have a lot in common, you and I,
This road, this old car, the music you play.”

He said, “You see, that’s my music on your radio.”
I said, “I know what you mean. It’s my music, too.”
He smiled and said, “No, son, you don’t understand.
I recorded that song back in seventy-two.”

Oblivious, I said, “Really? Were you in a band?”
He laughed and his upper lip came up on one side.
“You’re not listenin’, man,” he said. “. . . I’m Elvis.”
Then he laughed harder as my eyes opened wide.

He said, “It’s hard to see me under these whiskers.
My hair is gray now and a lot thinner on top.
But I wouldn’t’a been able to stay lost too long
Without hidin’ my face and that big ol’ black mop.”

I said, “Sorry but this is just too hard to believe
Though you do look like Elvis would at seventy-five.
The only reason I’m even accepting it’s possible
Is because so many people think he’s still alive.”

He said, “Well, they’re right. It’s all true, I’m afraid.
I was in a lot of trouble and had to start a new life.
I had nothing left to give so I just started over.
I went back to my roots. I even took a new wife.” 

“She knew my secret and took it with her to the grave.
I haven’t had much to live for since she passed on.
So you’re looking at a man with nothing left to lose.
Life falls away like Autumn leaves till everything’s gone.”

Eventually, I stopped caring about who he really was
And just felt compassion for the poor, crazy old guy.
I decided to surrender to this strange experience
And let him keep talking until the words ran dry.

I was amazed at how much he knew about Elvis,
As if he’d studied his life to the smallest detail.
It didn’t matter to me if he was Elvis or not.
I sat completely enthralled as he spun his tale.

He spoke of how hollow fame and fortune can be.
He spoke of love, heartache and shattered dreams.
His old life had gone from heaven to hell over time.
He said, “Being rich and famous ain’t all it seems.”

Whoever he was, he seemed to need my help
Or for someone to listen to him in his final days.
He was sure he was going to die any minute.
He said, “Only God’s love never dies or decays.”

He looked and sounded so much like Elvis,
I could even see why he believed it himself.
It was easy to imagine him belting out “Hounddog”
Before he became this wizened, old elf.

Hours passed before we went back to the station.
I never really believed him but I never said so.
If I could have cured his madness, I wouldn’t have.
If being Elvis made him happy, who was I to say no?

He made me swear to never reveal that I saw him,
And if I did, at least to never tell anyone where
Because he didn’t know how much time he had left
Before he went to what he called “The Big Up There.”

He got out of the car and said, “Hold on a second.”
He went inside and came out with an old paper bag.
He said, “This is to thank you for listening so well.
I sure went on. I hope I wasn’t too much of a drag.”

I said, “Are you kidding? Man, I got to meet Elvis!
And you chose me to tell your biggest secret to!
I just hope you know how much you’re missed.
Millions of people would still love to meet you.”

This seemed to make him happy for a moment.
He looked down the road as if wanting to return.
Then, just as fast, he snapped back to reality
And said, “Man, it’s true – some fool’s never learn.”

His act sure was convincing, if that’s what it was.
I really started feeling like I was with “The King.”
So I said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking but
Would you mind – I mean, could you . . . sing?”

He smiled and said, “For you, man? Sure I will.”
He walked under a lamp and slowly inhaled,
Then sang Love Me Tender softly and sweetly.
And old as he was, his voice never failed.

Love me tender
Love me sweet
Never let me go
You have made my life complete
And I love you so

He looked up at the night sky as he sang
As if serenading someone waiting up there,
In his voice, I heard joy but also sadness,
A deep passion for life, but also despair.

Love me tender
Love me true
All my dreams, fulfill
For my darling, I love you
And I always will

When he finished, I put my arm around him.
We both stood silently, staring up at the moon.
He said, “I miss my wife so much, and my mama.
I hope I get to see her sweet face again soon.”

No longer caring what the truth was, I said,
“Can you feel them smiling down on us? I can.”
And finally, he broke into tears and we hugged.
The wandering kid and the sad, lonely old man.

He wiped his eyes and said, “You should get goin’.
You’re young and there’s a lot of highway out there.
I wish I was your age again so I could join you
But I’ve lived long enough. I’ve had my share.”

We walked back to my car and he opened the door.
He said, “I need you to do me one last favor, y’hear?”
“Anything, Elvis,” I said, “Just name it, my friend.”
He said, “Don’t look in that bag for at least a year.”

At this point, nothing shocked me much anymore.
His Elvis act, or delusion, was so darn complete.
“And no matter where you go, remember,” he said,
“I’m always beside you, right there in that seat.”

“I’ll remember, Elvis,” I said. “You have my word.”
Then he shook my hand and I drove into the dawn.
I watched him get smaller in my rear view mirror.
He waved one last time and then he was gone.

I would often talk to Elvis, or whoever he was,
As I drove that Cadillac under the same moon.
And I kept my promise and didn’t open the bag,
Though I decided he was just an amazing, old loon.

I had stuffed the bag into the back of my trunk
To make it easier to resist the urge to peek.
At first it was easy but as the year passed,
That old paper bag took on quite a mystique.

The day finally came the following summer.
I rescued the old bag and went for a drive.
I didn’t want to open it just anywhere.
It had to be somewhere great and alive.

Playing Blue Hawaii, I drove to the beach
And parked on a cliff overlooking the sea.
I looked at the empty seat and smiled,
Imagining the old man sitting there next to me.

Then I slowly peeled back the wrinkled paper
And pulled out a white, sequined jumpsuit.
It was an exact replica, complete with tassles!
Crazy or not, his commitment was absolute.

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I laughed at the absurdity of the whole situation
And at the seed of doubt still alive in my mind.
Was he Elvis or just some delusional crackpot?
Whatever the case, he really put me in a bind.

I said to his memory, “You got me good, old man.
And whoever you were, I hope you’re finally free.”
Then, in a pocket, I found a yellowed note that read . . .

“I love you and miss you, daddy.
~ Lisa Marie.”

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RIP Erin Moran

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There are plenty of bad photos of Erin Moran on the Internet when she was having problems that the tabloids were happy to exploit, but I will always remember the energetic, innocent girl, the quintessential little sister, on my favorite TV show as a child.

It was initially reported that she died of a heroin overdose, then corrected to stage 4 throat cancer. However, her drug use and excessive smoking were well-publicized for years before her death. Every untimely celebrity death is another example to me of what the world can do to us if we let it. We’re all going to get old, but we don’t need to speed the process along with substance abuse. Successes will come and go, but how much we let the low points define us is always our own decision. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in it we make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Maybe she didn’t care enough about herself because of personal tragedies, or because Hollywood stopped calling, or maybe she was just wired that way. Whatever it was, the tragedy is that it (cancers and overdoses) are often preventable.

Her death is also a little personal to me because my brother and only sibling died of a heroin overdose. I watched his gradual self-degradation the same way I watched Erin’s over the years. He went from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who played baseball with me in the street to a tattooed, toothless convict. It was horrible to witness. He told me he saw Erin Moran once. They may have been traveling in the same circles. I also saw my dad unsuccessfully fight an addiction to cigarettes his entire adult life. When he died of aspiration pneumonia, he couldn’t breathe on his own because of all the damage he had done to his lungs. So it’s safe to say I’m anti-drugs and anti-smoking. To me, it amounts to throwing our lives into the trash.

Erin was born in Burbank, California, which is where I live, but she moved to a place called Palmdale, about thirty miles north of Burbank, which is a cesspool of drugs and crime. That’s probably where her heroin addiction started. It’s sold there like soda pop.

Take care of yourselves, friends. Embrace life and health. Reckless living and bad health decisions only help old age and death find you sooner than they deserve to. We can’t remain children, but we can prevent the world and others from stealing from us the things that are childlike – joy, hope, trust, innocence, purity, excitement. It may be true that nothing gold can stay, not completely anyway, but we can hold on to most of it by keeping a healthy body, mind and soul. Those who allow this world to pollute and invade them ruin their lives, hasten their deaths, and break the hearts of those who remember them when their eyes were clear and bright and anything was still possible.

Rest well, Erin. I wish you were still here, happy and healthy, enjoying your status as one of America’s sweethearts. I hope your health and mind are fully restored to you in heaven. May you have an eternity of Happy Days there.