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. 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.

This one.

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 work I am called to, 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 the cloud forest of Costa Rica, 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 bio-diversity 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.

And not to yield.

I’m not sure when it happened.

Maybe it was taking Nancy off the ventilators and watching my friend die as a result of the drugs she just couldn’t beat. Maybe it was when Liz died. Or before she died, when she was just severely sexually assaulted and then went back to the guy who did it. Twice.

Or maybe it was when Eric was murdered in front of me, or when I visited Steve in jail after he killed another guy, or when I watched the woman I promised I would sit in the dark with die in front of me.

But I don’t know. Maybe it was when trusted employees tried to destroy what I had built, or when I got drug out of the mothballs when they needed a talking head on the anniversary of my friend Martha’s murder, or maybe it was just when I realized the big church that wouldn’t give us any money kept referring people to us.

I don’t even know when, exactly. But at some point, I burned out. I just couldn’t watch my friends die anymore. I just couldn’t keep going.

But at the time, I didn’t know that, either. In 2017, the depression came on like a wave and damn near killed me. I was just self-aware to recognize it for what it was, and I got some help. And once the fog lifted, once I wasn’t standing in the storm anymore, I realized I needed a break. It wasn’t so much self-care at that point as it was survival.

11 years. For 11 years I did that work. I was the person you called when you had no one else. Sometimes that looked like fighting the hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge you to the streets when you had no home and sometimes it looked like fighting the city that said you didn’t deserve to eat, but for 11 years, I was that guy. I was really, really good at being that guy, too.

Recently, I tried making a list of the people I loved who died in those 11 years, but they all tend to run together after a while. I know it was dozens. Sometimes they visit me in my dreams. Every winter people I loved would freeze in the woods, and we would find them after the thaw. I would legit get triggered by snow.

I taught classes on self-care, but like many before me, I was better at coaching than I was playing. It isn’t that I didn’t have good boundaries – I did, and do. I just didn’t know when to quit. I didn’t know how to stop.

In 11 years I had one vacation that lasted more than a week. The first five of those 11 years I barely made minimum wage. My wife had a heart transplant in 2015. I only took 2 days completely off work to deal with that.

It wasn’t that I was bad at my job. I was just tired. I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I had a year there where I could not sleep unaided. I would have nightmares when I was asleep, and panic attacks when I was awake.

After the fog lifted in the fall of 2017, I knew I had to leave. I had to. So, nine months later, I did.

* * *

I didn’t just need a rest. I needed to build something new. A new way to be Hugh. A way that was kinder to me. I am still learning what that looks like.

These days I am working on a new way to provide food and community to folks who need it, while allowing myself to stay just half a step back. I am pastoring a small group of people who don’t need me to survive, but who just love me because I am me. For the first time in 12 years of pastoring, I can give my home address to people I minister among.

I get tired faster than I used to. They say that will go away over time, and it is, if slowly. I still have trouble sleeping, but not as much as I used to. I have a lot of fear around money, but that has always been true. I am near my family for the first time in decades, and that feels pretty amazing. I have always been better at loving than being loved, but these days I am trying hard to learn how to do that, too.

I don’t know how to wrap this up – what destination I have arrived at after this journey. I just know that sometimes you can be really good at something, and yet that thing still almost kills you. I, unlike many folks I knew, survived. I made it out the other side. I’m older now. I am not as strong as I once was, but think maybe I am wiser than before I began.

At least I hope I am. And I can resonate, just a little, with the speaker in the poem Ulysses.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

Running for my life.

Back in 2017, when my depression was at it’s worst, I was running nearly every day. And it helped. I am pretty sure it kept me alive, actually.

See, I am someone who feels things in my body. (Insert weird joke here). No, seriously. If I am stressed, my body hurts. If I am tired, all my joints ache. If I am excited, it can be hard to breathe. My mental state and my physical state are pretty well connected. I know this – in fact, I have always known this. (If you are into Enneagram stuff, I am an 8 with a strong 9 wing, which are both body types. )

So, if I want to change my mental state, the fastest way for me to do that is to change my physical state. If I am not physically active, if I am not getting endorphins flowing through my bloodstream, if I don’t get my heart pumping, then mentally I pay a pretty severe price.

Note: This doesn’t mean I enjoy exercise. I do not. It bores me to tears. But I pay the price, mentally and emotionally, when I don’t do it.

Which brings us to February, 20, of 2018.

That’s right – this same day last year.  On that day, I went for a run.

I was running pretty regular through 2017, at the height of my depression. But in the fall of 17, I went on depression medication, which helped with the effects of the depression, but also meant the risk was less if I skipped a couple of days of running. And then it got cold. I hate being cold, so I would go to the gym and run on a treadmill, but I hate running on treadmills too. So, over the winter my mileage was way down.

But a year ago today, I ran. It was a good run.

But then a bunch of things happened.

We announced we were moving. Suddenly, everyone wanted to hang out. And we put our house up for sale, but it needed a new roof. So, I put a new roof on the house, which is very physical (and exhausting) work. Then we moved.

And we lived in a tiny apartment for months while we waited for our house to sell, and then we bought a house and then we did a bunch of renovations and then we moved again.

I was busy and in chaos. And while that is when I should have been exercising the most, it was actually the reason I gave for not doing it. And then one day I woke up and it had been a year since I ran.

It was 55 degrees today. The rain had (briefly) stopped. I live in a new house, in a nice, easily runnable neighborhood. I had unpacked the box that had my running gear in it, so I know where everything was.

In short, I was out of excuses. So, I ran.

It was slow. Painfull. Awkward. A little less than 2 miles.

But I ran.

The key now is to do it again. And then again. And again.

 

Hello to kottke.org readers!

Last week, a Gen-X Nerd’s dream came true, and Jason Kottke linked to my newsletter. Consequently, about five hundred new folks showed up.

Hi there. *waves*

Here is the least you need to know for all of this to make sense:

Several years ago I was doing street level homeless outreach work, and I was getting burnt out. Actually, that isn’t exactly true: I had been burnt out for years and just not recognized the symptoms. In truth, I was fried. Everything seemed so ugly, so desolate, so bleak.

I decided I needed to look for evidence that the world was not as bad as I thought it was. I needed proof that life was, in fact, beautiful. So I decided to do just that: Look for beautiful things, broadly defined, that would give me life, give me hope, and give me proof that hope was worthwhile and that people were good, despite the mass of evidence around me.

But here is the rub: I am horrible at keeping promises to myself. I am much better at keeping promises to other people, though, so I sent an email to a few friends. It said, in part:

Here is the deal: I am going to send you an email every Monday during Lent (roughly the next six weeks). I will link to five beautiful things I liked that week – perhaps a picture I liked, perhaps a funny story, perhaps something of profound wisdom. In addition, if I read a book that blew me away, I will mention that, and provide a link to it, too. And if it is a week when something is happening I think you should know about, I will let you know in the email.

And that’s it. No lengthy prose, no huge commitments. Just five things that struck me as beautiful, books I read that were wonderful and things I think you should know.

If this works (meaning I keep my commitment to you) then I might keep it up – or I might not. I get bored easy.

So I did it. And then I kept doing it, and then it grew as people shared it with their friends, and then I got a little bored and was about to quit when our nation elected our current President and I saw lots of folks who were also dealing with symptoms I recognized all too well – a combination of anger and helplessness you feel when the world feels like it is collapsing around you and yet you are powerless to stop it.

So I kept going, and it grew some more, and then one day I realized that I no longer knew most of the people on the list anymore, and so I gave it a pretty website and a new name, and then Jason linked to it and here you are.

Here is what you need to know about me: I am 46, and my wife and I live in Jackson, MS on a huge city lot. We just moved here last year to start a new nonprofit that works to get food into neighborhoods affected by food apartheid. My self-care looks a lot like long walks, growing beautiful things and reading weird books. We have cats, who often show up on my Instagram account.

I am Southern, and yes, that’s complicated. It is weird to be from a place that loves you, but does not love people like you. I’m a pastor, and yes, that’s complicated too – I often end up pastoring people who can’t do religion anymore. As my t-shirt says, I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.

Anyway – that’s the deal. I’m glad you are here. I hope you will stick around, and if you want to support my enterprise, you can buy me a book, or become a patron, or just share my stuff with your friends.

Concentric Circles of Care

IMG_20190201_101130646

I am the sort of person who needs a schedule. Left to my own devices, I will wander around in my house all day, wearing pajamas and leaving in my wake detritus consisting of the remains of crunchy snacks and coffee cups.

So if I am to be productive at all, I must have a schedule. But the last seven months have been super hard for that. I have moved residences three times, done a major amount of home renovation, began building a new community, and also tried to earn a living, all things which have been a hodge podge of confusion and chaos.

But now things are beginning to settle a bit, and I have a desk and a chair and a schedule of sorts and so I am beginning to write regularly again.

That picture up there is the view from my desk chair. Some might find it distracting, but I actually find it centering. The view is of concentric circles of my life: My desk, my yard, and my neighbors. Just like concentric circles of influence and care.

The area of my life I have the most influence on is me, followed by the area immediately around me, which is then followed by my neighbors. It seldom works in reverse. Ironically, the better job you do of self-change, the easier it is to influence your neighbors.

Today I wept in a coffee shop.

Today I wept in a coffee shop.

The last four months have been both the best of times and the worst of times. I have all of the excitement of starting something new. No limits, nothing is off the table, no traditions or sacred cows. A blank slate. But also the complete lack of funding to go along with that, and then we spent from March to the end of September trying to get our house in NC sold, and then from the end of September until now trying to get a house here bought. The house selling and buying process is stressful as can be – largely because I have zero control over so much of it.  But this Tuesday we close on our new home, and the sheer amount of relief I will feel to be done with that part of the transition is near indescribable.

So today, I was early for an appointment, and so I ducked into the coffee shop. A large coffee, with room for cream, in a latte cup. I am so high maintenance. And while I waited, I pulled out my phone to use their free Wi-Fi.

I scrolled Facebook, and the post after post of the sheer weight of the pain people in my circle – Queer people, Black people, Jewish people, Latinix people, women, and those who work with those populations – are carrying is immense.

Reading the news these days feels less like an exercise in receiving information and more like an endurance test – one that I am failing more often than not. We had three major hate crimes last week. Soldiers are gearing up to go to our borders to prevent refugees from entering. And I was preparing myself to go stand in a prayer service to honor the slain Jewish people from Pittsburgh.

I had to look away from it all, and so I checked my email and received an email from one of the readers of my little newsletter, and he told me he ran into a formerly homeless man who was volunteering in a pay-what-you-can café ran by my former employee, and they had talked about my being gone and that they missed me.

This is one of three or four notes I have gotten in the last week talking about the impact I had when I was in NC, which reminds me each time that I did important, life-saving work there – work I walked away from. It was totally the right time to leave, and the people running it now are doing an amazing job, but for 11 years it was my reason to get out of bed, and I let it go.

I am not finished grieving that.

And so this morning in that coffee shop it all combined to wash over me and I was sitting there on a couch of questionable cleanliness, feeling it all. The pain, the loss, the relief, the joy, the fear. It was all there, and it all came out.

Today I wept in a coffee shop.

The Conversation

They were the loud table in the restaurant.

It was Friday night, and Renee and I were out on a date at a little Tex-Mex restaurant not far from our apartment. We generally go to this one not because it’s awesome, but because it is seldom crowded and the food is dependable and there aren’t as many TV’s as there are some places. (Side note: What in the hell is it with Tex-Mex restaurants putting TVs all over the place?)

Having ADHD, I often overhear other people’s conversation. Under the best of circumstances, I can’t avoid it, but these folks didn’t care who heard it. It was two women, obviously friends who hadn’t seen each other for a while. The huge margaritas on the table indicated they were here to have a good time, and it was obvious they were not on their first margarita, either.

The conversation went like this.

Woman #1: You dating anybody?

Woman #2: Oh yeah. There is this one guy sniffing around. He alright, but he is pushing too hard.

#1: Oh? What he doing?

#2: He just wants to be with me all the time. He wanted to come on this trip with me, but I told him I was going to Florida for work.

#1: He thinks you in Florida?

#2: Oh yeah. And that’s a mess too.

#1: What you mean?

#2: I was in my hotel room here in Jackson and he texted me, asking how the trip was going. I told him fine, but I wished I was at the beach instead of the class I was in. Then he said he had seen the news and was worried about me in the hurricane.

Well, I didn’t know nothing about no hurricane, so I didn’t say nothing, but went and checked the news. Turns out where I told him I was going was all up in the storm. So I waited, and then told him I was being evacuated.

#1: What?

#2: Yeah. In fact, I told him this morning I was staying at a shelter and couldn’t come home yet. He told me he wanted t come down and get me, but I told him not too, ‘cause the roads are too bad.

#1: He wanted to come get you?

#2: Yeah. See what I mean? He is just all up in my business.