Go Pantsers.

It was a muggy afternoon in Midtown Memphis almost 17 years ago, and I had agreed to meet my ex-girlfriend in the Starbucks on Union Avenue. The ghost of Elvis was nowhere in sight. If he had any sense, he was hiding somewhere there was air conditioning.

We had been broken up at that point for many months, but we were still friendly. But tomorrow, I was leaving to move to Raleigh, NC, and when I told her, it made sense to see each other one last time to say goodbye. I was pretty sure I wasn’t coming back.

We sat at a table by the door.

“So, what is your plan for when you get there?” she asked.

“I found a room in a rooming house on Craigslist and sent them the money for the first month to hold it. I’ll find a make-do job, and then work on my freelance writing to make a living.”

She stared at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just remembering why we broke up. You do realize that isn’t a plan, right?”

She was right. It wasn’t a plan. But then again, she was a planner. I am a pantser.

There is an old joke to the effect that there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. I’m one of the ones who do. And I think most people are either planners or pantsers.

We took her kids to Dollywood once.

She had prepared a three-ring binder. With tabs, one for each day we were to be there. Each day had a written agenda. There was a map of the park she had downloaded from the web, with the optimal route highlighted. There was a daily anticipated budget.

My plan had been, “Show up at Dollywood.” But then again, I’m a pantser.

I like the term pantser, and am actively lobbying for its inclusion in the broader cultural lexicon. It’s someone who does not plan but prefers instead to fly by the seat of their pants (pants. Pantser. Get it?).

I first heard it when taking a course on writing fiction, and the teacher contrasted the two styles of plot development. Some actively plan, usually with detailed outlines and charts, the direction of their story. Joyce Carol Oats advocates this view by saying, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”

Others (like me) try to write one true sentence and then another, and the current sentence tells you what the next one should say. All I know for sure is the sentence I’m writing right now. “Outlines,” says Stephen King, “are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

Ouch. But yeah. #TeamPantser

This past Monday, my wife and I celebrated 13 years of marriage. And like the pantsers we are, we did it by taking a whirlwind weekend trip to New Orleans – some three hours down the road. We had a few solid blocks in place before we got there. The purpose of the trip was to see the Van Gogh Interactive Exhibit before it left town. Beyond that, our goals consisted of things like “Eat good food” and “Have a good time.”

The night before we left to go down, I went on Priceline and got us a decent hotel room. When we got to the hotel and checked in, I went on Yelp, searched by “distance” for restaurants that were $$$ and under, and we sat in the hotel and discussed the merits of our options. We ended up eating amazing tacos from a local taqueria. The next morning we grabbed hotel breakfast, then the Van Gogh Exhibit, and then we went on Yelp again, looking for a nearby restaurant for lunch.

The highly praised gumbo restaurant around the corner was a pandemic victim and sat empty and silent. The burger joint with patio dining was a cramped convenience store with a broken picnic table under a tree. Then we tried finding a place that promised “New Orleans Soul Food,” and we never did find it after driving slowly up and down the street three times. Finally, in frustration, we stopped at a barbecue joint just because it looked open. After an hour of driving around looking for food, anything would have tasted good.

But it was delightful. The food was good, if not amazing. The atmosphere of the place was legit, and the people were fun. We talked about the exhibit and marveled at what we had seen, and talked about the 13 years we had spent getting there. It was, in every way, a good meal.

Would the meal have been better if I had made reservations at a fancy place in the Quarter two weeks before? Were we missing out by not having planned the weekend? Had we built an agenda and scheduled more “fun” into the 24 hours we were in the city, would it have been a better trip?

Maybe, but I doubt it. But then again, I’m a pantser.

My Favorite Picture

In 2014, due to the generosity of friends, we had our first (and to date, only) trip out of the country together. Together, we went to Costa Rica, where we stayed with some friends in an amazing house on the side of a mountain near San Juan, overlooking a coffee plantation.

We had several adventures on that trip, and we have some amazing pictures of what was truly a paradise. We played with monkeys, stood in the Pacific Ocean, walked through ancient churches, and met some amazing people with whom we shared long meals and laughed much.

But my favorite part of that trip was that we took what has become my favorite picture in the world.

There is so much I love about this picture. Let me explain some of them.

I guess the first is that smile on Renee’s face. We had been married for almost 5 years at that point, and we were finally on a big trip together. One thing we do well together is travel, and this was (and still is) our biggest trip. She took a big risk marrying someone who does the sort of rarely well-funded ministry things I do and we honestly never expected to be able to go to a place that is legitimately considered paradise.

And then there is that scar peeking out from under her shirt. When we were dating, her heart began to show symptoms of the heart disease that killed her mother, and she had to get a pacemaker with a defibrillator, to shock her in case her heart stopped. Before she would get a transplant a year after this picture, it would shock her at least 8 times, saving her life multiple times.

Her health was precarious in those days. Two weeks before this trip, she had had an ablation to prevent the wild rhythms her heart would swing into. But more about that in a minute.

Another thing is that we are there, in literal paradise, because of friends. It is a reminder to me that I get to do work that some people find valuable, and because of that, they invest in me and us and want us to have good things.  This trip happened because people loved us, supported us, and invested in us. The wealth that sent us on this trip was the wealth that comes from friendships and community.

You see those glasses she is wearing? Those were $14 frames from Walmart she bought because that was all we could afford at the time. It sent me into a spiral of depression that, because of my career choices, she could not afford “nice” glasses, but for the years she wore those, she got compliments everywhere we went, and she would light up. I don’t know that $1000 frames would have ever made her happier.

I bought her that handbag early in our marriage. It was handmade by a Raleigh designer, and we had seen it in a shop downtown while window shopping. It was more than $150, which was a huge amount of money for me then, but I had seen the way her face had lit up when she saw it, and I knew I had to get it for her.

And let’s not forget that this picture is taken in front of one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, in the cloud forest of Costa Rica, in the middle of a wildlife preserve. The roar of the water, the mist that hits your face, the sheer amount of biodiversity around you – the toucans in the trees, the birdsong as you walk through the woods – it really is the most beautiful place I have ever been.

But the main reason this is my favorite picture is none of those things. It is because of what happened within minutes of this picture being taken.

The day this happened, we were at La Paz Waterfall Gardens in the highlands of Costa Rica. It is an amazing place, with a wildlife preserve, an aviary, and this long, winding trail down into the valley, past the waterfall, and back up again.

This picture was taken and almost immediately, her heart went into one of its wild rhythms it used to do in those scary days before she was transplanted. This would present itself as crushing chest pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

We had walked for more than a mile at this point, all downhill. When it happened, we had no choice but to walk out – more than another mile forward, all uphill, with probably 500 stair steps in various places. It was walking a few steps forward, and rest. It took us hours to cover what should have been 30 minutes or so.

We had no real choice – we were at the bottom of a valley, on a trail barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The only way out was through.

But she did not complain. She gutted it out like a boss, and worked her way, slowly but persistently, up the side of that mountain with a heart doing a thing that, under other circumstances, would have sent her to the emergency room. The image of her forcing herself up the side of a mountain in the jungles of Costa Rica is a funny one to anyone who knows Renee, but don’t be confused – I married a woman who, when she puts her mind to it, is unstoppable.

And all of that is why this is my favorite picture.

The opportunity to travel

I’m blogging every day of November, with each day being a post about a thing for which I am grateful. – HH

On the 7th day, I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had to travel.

Growing up, travel was a thing other, richer people did.  I lived in rural Mississippi, and we never had money for real vacations. Instead, when my parents got time away from work, we visited my mom’s parents in Texas, an eight hour drive we usually took in the summer, at night, because it was cooler then, and our car’s air conditioner seldom worked. So we would leave home at 8 at night and arrive at my grandparents at 4 in the morning or so, having driven across Arkansas all night. There isn’t much to see in Arkansas during the daytime, but there is nothing to see at midnight.

It would be when I was 16 that I would actually travel someplace other than family – I had placed 1st place in a state level extemporaneous speaking contest, and was invited to compete at the nationals, which that year was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The shop teacher was my chaperone, and he and I drove to Tulsa in his pickup and stayed at a motel that had a pool. It was across the street from a Steak and Ale, where we ate each night we were there. I rode around downtown Tulsa, which at the time was the largest city I had ever seen, just star-eyed.

I was 18 when I first flew on a plane, en route to boot camp for the Marine Corps. I was terrified and exhilarated. A month later, on Parris Island, I would see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. We were on a forced march and came over a hill and there was the ocean, blue green and just a few hundred yards away, spanning as far as the eye could see, surf crashing on the sand. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I came to a complete stop, just frozen, staring at it. Like a slapstick comedy, everyone behind me kept walking and ran into me. I bet I did a thousand pushups as a result, but every one of them was worth it.

I was 26 when I first flew to New England on a business trip, to see a client in Hartford, Connecticut. The car rental place was out of mid-sized cars and they upgraded me for free to a Mustang convertible. I drove around New England for 4 days, including a night in Boston where I sat in a pew in the Old North Church and went on Old Ironsides and stood on Bunker Hill, and my head was so big you couldn’t have told me shit.

At 28 I stayed in Manhattan the first time, in the New Yorker Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden. It captivated me, New York did. I loved the subway the way they spent so much time together and yet gave each other space. I fell in love with the people, their attitude, the can-do spirit, their utter refusal to give in to despair. That spirit was on display to the whole world the following year when the Towers fell.

For the next few years I would travel a good bit, flying into a strange city where I would meet with a client, eat in a generic restaurant, stay in a beige motel and drive a grey rental car and then fly back home. I make it sound boring, but every time was magical, and each place had something to teach me that the last place didn’t.

I then spent perhaps 8 years not traveling much at all. I was no longer in sales and no longer had money to stay in Manhattan.

And then word got out that I knew something about homelessness and I got invited to speak at a small conference in Pennsylvania, and then later another in Upstate New York and before I knew it most months I was flying into a strange city and staying in a beige motel or sometimes a preacher’s guest room and I would get on stage and people would listen to me and I would tell stories about people I knew and loved, and sometimes I got paid well for this and sometimes I got paid poorly, but every time was magical. Truth be told, I had spent several years where I would have paid them to listen to me, so anytime someone wanted to pay me, it filled me with amazement. For perhaps seven or eight years, I flew 10-20 times a year. I had frequent flyer miles and Amtrak rewards and had TSA pre-check status. I kept a bag packed in the closet and had a special briefcase just for traveling.

Since I took that first plane ride to Parris Island all those years ago, I’ve had my feet in both oceans, I’ve been in almost every state in the continental US, I spent a week in Costa Rica seeing parrots, monkeys, waterfalls, and mountains. I’ve been in deserts and above the snowline in the Rocky Mountains, met interesting people, learned about new cultures and made lifelong friends, slept on the beach and in the woods, and on a mountainside, and along the way ate food nobody in Byhalia MS ever heard of.

In short, I have gotten to go to all sorts of places and do all sorts of thing 12-year-old Hugh never would have dreamed of. Nobody could have predicted I would have ever had this life, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

I have places I would love to go still. I’ve never been to Europe, and I have lots of friends all over the UK I would love to see. I think Venice would be nice, and what’s left of the 18-year-old Hugh that was captivated with Hemingway and Fitzgerald would love to see Paris, and eat from that moveable feast.

But if that never happens, I couldn’t complain at all.