I’m writing.

I’m writing.

At least, I think I am. I’ve applied my ass to the chair, I’m hitting the keys.

Yep. I’m writing. It’s been a while, and I was uncertain of the symptoms.

I’ve been sick – really sick and then low-grade sick – since Valentine’s Day. After two years and 11 months of dodging it, COVID caught up with our household. Fortunately, we both had relatively mild cases by COVID standards.

But sickness never comes at a convenient time, and so I was in the midst of moving my desk from the front room, where I posted up “temporarily” during the 20200 lockdowns, to a dedicated office I built for myself in a former storeroom in our carport. Right now I am functionally in both places, and thriving in neither. But yesterday I drew a line in the sand and said that today was the day I sat down in the chaos and started writing again.

And here it is, 6:30 AM, and I’m sitting at my desk, surrounded by various bits of debris, discarded cardboard boxes, and office implements that I am unsure where they will belong. I have soft, classical music playing on the small cheap stereo I rescued from the thrift store, and the window is open, and I hear the birds waking up outside. My chickens are playing in their coop, not 20 feet away, and they are fussing at each other as the sun comes up.

And I’m writing.

I have a timer on my desk, just under the monitor of my computer, that shows how much longer I have left to go on this session – right now it’s 24 minutes, the remaining time in red, and as I type the red diminishes with the passage of time. This is sort of an ADHD hack, a way of making something that is invisible to my brain, like time, visible, and thus real.

These are the sort of things I need to do if I’m going to be writing.

The office isn’t complete yet. It’s a narrow room, a former storeroom at the back of our carport that I began turning into dedicated office space over the winter. It’s a bit under six feet wide and 17 feet long, with six feet of the eastern wall devoted to windows that look over our back yard. It’s honestly one of the better views in our house, yet another sign that when this house was built it was built from a plan in a catalog and was divorced from the actual site. There is much I love about this house, but it’s lack of views and vistas is not one of them.

It is not a house built for writing.

As I said, it’s a narrow room, this new office of mine, and it has 10 foot tall ceilings, which emphasizes the narrowness all the more. A friend last night said it looked like a shipping container. The door to the room is in the middle of the long wall without windows, and my desk is to the right as you walk in the door. Immediately in front of you is a waist-high counter with cabinets underneath, where I have hidden my printer on a pullout shelf.

If you turn left as you enter, you face a blank wall and a space 5 and a half feet wide by 5 feet deep, which will eventually hold a bookcase along one wall and a chair for reading, because reading is an essential thing if you intend to be writing.

And I’m writing. In the debris, in an unfinished room, amidst the chaos, but I’m writing.


Earlier this week, I was sitting at a kitchen table in the North Mississippi Hill Country, sipping coffee and talking to someone who, on the one hand, was much like me: He was white, of my generation, married, had gone to the same sort of schools I had, and was baptized in the same sort of church I had been. 

But we absolutely voted for different people in the last Presidential election and have very different views on most social issues. If they saw the bumper stickers on his Ford Super Duty truck, some people would consider me a traitor to them by even talking with him. 

While we sat there, drinking good coffee and eating mediocre grocery store cookies, we talked of many things: People we had known who were now gone, lessons we learned from our ancestors, how the children in our lives were growing, and how proud we were of them. We also talked about politics, race, economics, and religion. Neither of us hid who we were, and neither of us got angry. When I had to leave to go to my next meeting, we both commented on how much we had enjoyed the conversation, and I have a standing invitation to come back and drink more coffee the next time I’m in town. 

* * *

How do people change? How do bad ideas die, and good ideas grow in their place?

In 2018, after nearly 30 years away, I returned home to Mississippi, the land of my childhood, of my father, and of his father before him. We lived with my grandmother before her death, and 5-year-old me ate breakfast in the kitchen my grandfather had built. I climbed in the same trees my ancestors had played in, and like them, I was raised in the same culture of white supremacy. 

The little country church in which I was baptized as a child, where we sang that Jesus loved all the children regardless of the color of their skin, where I learned about the love of God and the healing power of a potluck meal, had, two years before my birth, decided to leave its denomination rather than admit People of Color to membership. Or heck, for that matter, allow them to attend. 

In the late 1980s, my high school had separate yet equal prom kings and queens and homecoming courts, and we students voted on which Black person and which white person was most likely to succeed or that we thought most beautiful. 

A white farmer I knew had sent his daughter to Ole Miss, and she came home from school with a Black boyfriend. She was ten years older than me, and I remember that we were all excited she was coming home, and then we all hushed it up when the farmer disowned her, and she moved away. I never saw her again until after her father died decades later. 

So white supremacy is not some novel idea I am learning about after my book club read Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was “borned to it,” as Huck Finn liked to say about his sinful nature. It was the water in which I was raised and, to all appearances, the natural order of things. 

We did not think of ourselves as white supremacists. No, by all accounts, we believed we were good white people. We were not permitted to say the N-word. We had Black friends and co-workers. I went to a fully integrated high school. 

In retrospect, we made the mistake many white people make when we confused racism with antipathy and believed our proximity and relationships absolved us of guilt. In reality, racism is not about feelings or relationships – it is about structure and power. But it would take a lifetime for me to learn that.

And what changed me was listening. Like I was listening at the kitchen table earlier this week. 

* * * 

We seem to have lost the capacity to listen. I’m not trying to sound nostalgic there as if I am mourning for an idealized past where everything was rainbows and kittens. Rather, it is harder to listen to other people now than it once was – largely because we have so many alternatives. Our hyper-connected world has made it easier and easier for us to find like-minded people, but also easier to shut out those who differ from us. 

And because we do not listen to each other, we don’t truly know each other, and thus it is easier than ever for people in power to divide us. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Bill Moyers wrote about when Lyndon Johnson explained the tactic to him in the 1960s: 

“We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. ‘I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,’ he said. ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’ ”

Years of listening have taught me one critical thing: We are not nearly as divided as we think we are. Or, more accurately, we are not as divided as those who profit from our separation want us to believe we are.

NB: I have talked about this work I do before, and I tend to get two reactions: 

The first is outrage because they believe I am discounting real injustices and injuries. I am not. There is a world of difference between saying that I agree with the ideology of a Klansman (which I don’t) and saying that a Klansman and I share some (but not all) of the same hopes and dreams and that if we made a list of our base motivations for how we move in the world, there would be an overwhelming amount of overlap. Rather than treating him like a strawman I can dehumanize, I am forcing myself to recognize he is a human with motivations, agency, and choice, who is also acted upon by outside forces, as am I. 

The second is something like, “Teach me how to do this!” There are good people out there doing this sort of work – I used to be one of them – and it’s not hard to find if you really want to learn, but I feel somewhat pulled to write a bit about this over the coming weeks. So, stay tuned.


The year was 2005. 

Johnny Carson and Pope John Paul died that year, as did 1,392 people along the Mississippi Gulf coast due to Hurricane Katrina. Microsoft released the XBox360. Prince Charles finally married Camilla Parker-Bowles. The words “glamping” and “sexting” entered the common lexicon. And I went to the dentist. 

I was recently divorced and living hand to mouth. I was living in a tiny attic apartment I was renting from a friend of a friend, and I owned a small bookstore I was trying to make work while also delivering pizza at night. Most days, I would stagger in late at night, eat some leftover pizza I had gotten at work, and then crash into bed. It was not the high point of my life. 

But on this particular night, I had a rare night off, and a book had come in at the store I had wanted to read. I came home, opened a bottle of red wine, made popcorn, and curled up on the couch with my book. 

That was when I heard the tooth crunch. I had bit down on an unpopped kernel and an old crown the Marines had paid for 13 years before finally decided it was time to go, taking part of my tooth with it. I felt parts of my brain, it hurt so bad. 

I did not sleep that night. 

The next day, I was telling a woman who worked at my store about it and how I didn’t know what to do because I was so broke. She told me I should go to her dentist. 

“He always lets me make payments. He’s great. I’ll call him and make an appointment for you.”

On the day I showed up at the dentist, the staff was delightful and welcoming. I signed in, and nobody mentioned money. I went back and sat in the dentist’s chair, and the hygienist looked at my teeth – nobody mentioned money. The dentist came in and looked at my teeth – and nobody mentioned money. 

I stopped him. I said that my friend had said he was her dentist, and that he always allowed her to make payments, and that money was tight for me, so I needed to know how much this was going to cost and that I would be allowed to make payments on it before he did any actual work. He waved it off.

“We’ll work it out,” he said. Reassured, I laid back down, and he went to work on my mouth. 

I no longer remember exactly what he did, but I do recall that when I went to the counter to check out, they told me I owed more than $600. I almost fainted. 

I explained that I understood I was going to make payments. They called in the office manager, who in a loud voice informed me they never took payments and that all money owed was due at the time of the service. To emphasize her point, she dramatically pointed at a front desk sign announcing this policy. 

All of this happened in full view of everyone in the waiting room, who were now staring at me. 

I absolutely hate feeling poor or stupid, and I now felt both of those things. Standing in that waiting room, belittled by the office manager, with a mouth packed full of gauze and a numb lower lip, and drool seeping from the corner of my mouth, I felt humiliated. People who did not know me were judging me, and while I had (barely) enough money in my account to pay the bill, it meant my rent would be late that month. 

I paid the bill. I lived on ramen for a week, and the following week, I moved up to generic mac and cheese, subbing water for milk and butter. It didn’t taste better than the ramen, but it was bulkier. My rent was late, which started a riff with the landlord, leading to my eventually moving to even shittier accommodations. 

And the dentist had told me at the time that whatever he did to my mouth was temporary, and on this, he told the gospel truth – within a year, parts of that tooth were crumbling when I ate tortilla chips. Luckily, this time, it did not hurt. I did not return to the dentist when this occurred.

In fact, despite the cracking and breaking of three more teeth, it would be 18 years before I would go back to the dentist. I hate everything about it. Although easily 90% of what a dentist does is confined to less than 15 standard procedures, there is no price list posted anywhere, and you have no idea how much it will cost before you show up. Will it be $65 or $6,000? Who knows? Not me, that’s who. 

And whenever I would think about going back to the dentist, I felt stupid and poor all over again. I flashed back to standing at that counter, being humiliated by an office manager with a power complex. I remembered being stared at by the people in the waiting room and the hush that fell over the room as she berated me. I imagined the scene replaying, magnified by my even poorer teeth and inflation.

So, I didn’t go back for 18 years. 

But these days, I’m trying to take better care of myself. It doesn’t hurt that I’m earning a living wage and have health insurance. So, a few weeks ago, I searched until I found a dentist in my town with a published price list. 

This is why I finally had two rotten, broken teeth removed last Thursday, 18 years after my last visit to the dentist. 

It only cost me $240. And 18 years. 


In the 7th chapter of the New Testament book of Matthew, there is a story about prayer where Jesus tries to tell people how much God wants good things for them. So, he asks the crowd some rhetorical questions. 

“Imagine your kid asks for some bread. Would you give them a stone? If they asked for fish, would you hand them a snake?”

Then Jesus says that if even normal folks know how to give good things to their kids, then surely God is better than that. Surely, God wants to treat us better than we treat our kids.

Belief in a deity aside, I don’t think anyone of us would disagree that giving your hungry kid a rock instead of bread isn’t something you do for someone you love. 

We all know how to treat someone we love.  We strive for people we love. We make sacrifices for the people we love. We try hard to please the people we love and give them gifts we believe will excite them. We go to great lengths to show them how we feel, we try hard to show others how much we love the people we do. 

We know how to love people. And we know how to show people we love them.


Now, imagine what would happen if you treated yourself the way you would treat someone you love. 

Writing for people

I have watched the conversations around AI and writing unfold over the last few weeks. The writing community seems to be freaking out.

Well, that’s not wholly true. Hacks are freaking out. People who phone it in are freaking out. People who don’t know, or care to learn, how to write in a way that connects with and centers people are freaking out. As they should be.

People who have staked their livelihoods and given their creative energies to writing listicles that exist only for the reason of generating page views, writing press releases for events and products that exist only to separate money from the gullible, and who write for search engines and other machines should not be surprised when a machine can replace them.

A bot can duplicate syntax and vocabulary, but it cannot think of a person they love and write with them in mind. A bot cannot write from its own experience of love and loss.  A bot cannot feel anger and want to share it; a bot cannot want anything, really.

It may be that an infinite number of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters, will eventually produce a text that is an exact copy of Hamlet. But none of those monkeys will understand revenge or love or betrayal. And critically, none of those monkeys will understand what they wrote, will be moved by the writing, or will look forward to sharing it with their reader.

Fewer, Better Things

I took a month off of writing. I don’t know that I’m really ready to start back, but taking time off always scares me somewhat – I am always afraid that if I don’t start back, the words will quit coming.

And that would be unbearable.

Which is why, on this muggy but clear January morning, I’m writing on my laptop, in a nice room in a nice hotel on St. Charles Street in New Orleans. I had to come down yesterday afternoon for a meeting, and later this morning I will go to another meeting before I drive the three hours home. And this morning, I walked along the Carnival route on St. Charles, read the old plaques, sipped my cafe au lait, and spent some time in my head.

A thing I’ve been thinking about while not writing has been, ironically, about my writing. Or, more properly, my Writing. That’s how I think of my public-facing words, the part of my brain I share publicly with you all – it’s Writing, as if making it a proper noun imbues it with importance and stature and makes them somehow more than the rantings of a 50-year-old man with an aching back and stiff joints.

So, the Writing. As I have alluded to elsewhere, I need to scale back. A persistent problem I have is that I get bored, so I start new projects. But new things require upkeep, and one day you wake up with a blog and two newsletters and a membership program and a birdcam and a full-time job and a part-time job, and all the while, you are trying to be a good citizen and a good spouse, and it all gets to be too much.

So, periodically, you have to clean up the mess you’ve made.

That’s what I’m in the midst of doing now – cleaning up the mess. And cleaning up messes take time. I didn’t make it all in one day, and it won’t get cleaned up in one day.

For now, it makes the most sense to restrict my public-facing writing to just two outlets – my newsletter and my blog. I have written the newsletter reliably and consistently for nearly eight years now -I’m not worried about my ability to keep that up. It will shift and change somewhat, as it has for the last eight years, but it will still come out Monday mornings and will still seek to point to the beauty that is always there, no matter how well hidden.

And I love having a blog, a corner of the internet that is just mine that isn’t subject to the whims of algorithms and corporate priorities. But the blog will change: It will become less formal, less complete, and more frequent. A lot of the current format – such as long posts with leading photos and well-defined categories, are the result of business decisions and not artistic decisions. The corporate owners of the various social media outlets have taught us – trained us, really – to write for machines and not people. They have shaped us to be content creators, not humans who dream, cry, hope, and fail.

I do not like that at all.

So now I will blog for people. Expect more frequent but shorter posts. Expect some syndication changes as well – the amount of work it takes to do it the way I currently do is unsustainable.

Sustainability has become more important to me these days. It turns out I want to neither burn out nor fade away – I want to keep going, keep writing, keep sharing, keep growing, and keep learning. But I no longer want to be a product, a “content creator”, a machine writing for machines. I want to do fewer things better.

I Don’t Know How To Rest

When I was a little kid, my parents had these friends they hung out with. We would go to their house, and the adults would sit around the fire and play guitars and drink beer, and we kids would play in the yard, and there were sing-alongs and sometimes marshmallows. It was such fun for 6-year-old me. But then Dad quit drinking, and the people with the guitars did not, and we did not go to the singalongs anymore.

As I sit here, searching my memories, those singalongs are the closest I can come to remembering an example of what I would now call relaxation in my childhood. We were poor – things like off-time were not for leisure but for fixing broken things, making extra money, or collapsing from sheer exhaustion. We did not have hobbies – we had responsibilities.

We did not watch sports. Dad built things, but things we could use. Mom cooked, but not for fun, but because we needed calories. A weekend did not go by that we were not working on one of our cars, but that was not a love of mechanics but a desire to have a working vehicle.

The end result of this sort of rearing is that while I know how to survive, I do not know how to rest.

* * *

A lot of my life right now is one on one meetings. The other day, I was trying to set up a meeting with someone, and we were comparing calendars.

“What about Tuesday,” I asked.

“No, I can’t do Tuesday. It’s my birthday.”

“Oh, Happy Birthday. Are you going on a trip somewhere?”

“Oh no,” she said. “I just don’t work on my birthday.”

I had never heard of such a thing. Not that I’m against it, per se. It was just a new concept for me.

I’ve never been one to take off work. In fact, I have a hard time sometimes not working.

The last time I was in Asheville, NC, I went with some friends to an improv show. The cast was pretty good, and I enjoyed it a lot. One of my friends said they thought I would enjoy taking improv lessons. My gut reaction was no, but I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Because I probably would be good at it, and I probably would enjoy it.

Eventually, I came to terms with that in the end, the issue is that I can’t justify it – the time or the expense. I have a problem doing things that are not useful.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with improv. It’s me. There’s something wrong with me.

In the lovely book Gilead, the Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old preacher in 1956 Kansas, leaves his 7-year-old son a diary as his inheritance. And on its final pages, he tells his son:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning. Nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

That’s all I ever wanted, really. To be brave and to be useful. I don’t really know who I am if I’m not doing something.

“But Hugh! You have hobbies! I have seen the gardens! And the wildflowers! And the woodworking!”

Yes, I manage to do useful things in my nonworking time, because I can then convince myself I am not being lazy, playing with my flowers, but rather am building a wildlife habitat, or creating a pollinator garden for endangered insects, or growing food we can eat, or furniture we can sit on.

That thing where you do a thing for sheer joy that will never be productive or remunerative or useful to anyone? Stamp collecting? Role-playing games? A friend told me he spent the whole weekend playing video games. I cannot imagine such a thing.

And if I have a surplus of spare time, I catch myself adding projects until I feel busy again. Some days I sit at my desk the whole day, from 6 AM until I go to bed at ten that night, baring meals, because I’m working on my blog or my newsletters or my regular job or planning a new flower bed or sketching out the garage project.

In my defense, I happen to like the useful things I do in my unpaid time. They are not chores. But neither are they relaxing.

At this stage of my life, I’m trying to fix that. I’m trying to learn how to relax more. To build walls between work and not-work. To create a structure that encourages relaxation and rest. I’ll probably be talking about this a lot over the next few months as I try to develop patterns and routines that take this desire into account.

I don’t know that this means we will have a singalong in my backyard one day soon. But I’m not ruling it out.

The Uniform

When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a superhero. I wouldn’t shut up about it. I drew plans for my Fortress of Solitude, which was going to be located on the back of our property, behind the pine trees. I sketched what my costume would look like. I wrote out various permutations of my superhero name – CatMan, Cat man, Cat Man – like a lovesick teenager writing her potential married name over and over in the back of her notebook. I spent time at the library figuring out from what material I would make the claws my costume required.

At 12, I had put away such childish things and now wanted to be a ninja. My friends and I would practice moves we read about in Black Belt magazine, read books by Stephen K. Hayes we bought from the big bookstore in Memphis and tossed throwing stars we bought by mail order from the back of magazines against the side of the barn. Sometimes, they even stuck in the wood siding, but not often. We would debate what sort of ninja suit we would eventually have and the merits of polyester (cheaper, lighter) vs. natural fibers (breathable, not shiny).

By age 18, I had joined the US Marines. I had been heavily recruited by the Navy, but in the end, chose the Marines. The Marine recruiter had me pegged.

“You can be a sailor,” he said, “and have a good career and then move on. Or you can be a Marine and know for the rest of your life that you were once among the best in the world at something.”

My people were not the best in the world at anything. The day I turned 18, I signed the papers. At Camp Lejune, after boot camp, I spent most of my paycheck on a KaBar combat knife, which rode upside down on my left ALICE strap for the rest of my time in the Marines, and which is currently in the drawer of my desk, 32 years later as I write these words. I wore jungle boots instead of the Hershey bar colored speed-lace boots we were issued in those days, and we haunted the army-navy stores for heavy, woodland camouflage utilities rather than the modern, lightweight utilities the noobs wore.

The Marines were a nice place to visit, but I didn’t want to live there, so when I was recruited to be in financial sales, I leaped at the chance. At night I read arcane books on tax law and selling techniques, and during the day, I would have lunch meetings and call on prospects and wore nice ties and watches. I learned which outlet stores had the good clothes at high discounts, and paid attention to the mannequins in the shop windows to learn what outfits worked. I had a Brooks Brothers suit I still miss 20 years later.

Doing street-level homeless work meant dressing down – way down. I famously had a blue blazer and one shirt and tie for when I had to go to court or to wear if I got invited to speak to Episcopalians – but nearly every day of my life was spent in blue jeans and a solid, no-logo t-shirt. That was strategic – in that logos brought attention, and my main job in doing that work was to take the focus off of me. And it’s mostly what the folks I worked and ministered among wore, and they were cheap, and soon, I became the man in gray.

But when I began to do the work I do now – broadly speaking, political work among faith communities – the grey t-shirts and baggy jeans no longer worked. What had been the simple clothes designed to put a day laborer at ease did not have that effect on Bishops and City Council members. So I now wear blazers and khaki pants day to day, and have the charcoal suit to break out for special occasions. The red and blue club tie is for when I need to blend in at the courthouse, and the solid red tie is for when I need to stand out.

The other day I told someone I don’t care about clothes at all, but the more I think about it, the more it’s obvious that isn’t quite true. And I still want to be a superhero. It’s just that these days, the uniform is a little different.

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.

What I’m Not Gonna Do

“It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.” – Marcus Aurelius

In 2003, I started a blog.

At the time, I owned a small bookshop in a historic part of Memphis, TN, and I thought it would be an excellent way to market the shop. Blogging was a small world in those days, and we had meetups where Memphis bloggers would meet up in real life.

It was a different time. But the key takeaway is that I got used to talking about my work in public.

Here’s a neat thing we are selling. Here is a picture of this new author that popped by. Here is what I think of Peter Taylor’s books (Spoiler alert: swoon!).

Here is something I noticed and wanted to share with you.

I learned to watch out for things that were worth sharing. And by sharing them, we attracted people who were the same sort of weird we were. I loved that shop.

(It is also worth saying that I was detoxing from a decade of working in one toxic environment after another and was just learning how to be weird. I feel like I owe a constant apology to everyone who knew me in those days. It was season one, and we were underfunded and were not yet sure who the characters were.)

When I transitioned to nonprofit work a few years later, I learned to write newsletters as both a way to share my work (here is this cool thing that happened and what I learned) and also as a way to raise money. And the more I shared my work, the more money I could raise.

I learned two things doing that, neither of them good.

The first was that my being angry in public made us money. I remember a fellow nonprofit ED telling me she didn’t have enough money for payroll that month, and she wasn’t sure what she should do. I told her that when that happened, I would find something on social media that pissed me off and write about it.

I was only sorta kidding.

Somewhat related to that was the second thing I learned: The danger of having your public identity tied to your vocation. I was a subject matter expert on homelessness. For perhaps 5 years there, I was in the air most months going to speak somewhere on a stage in front of people. I lectured at seminaries and colleges and spoke at festivals. I was published in national papers and all over the Christian press and was interviewed on NPR, Fox, and Al Jazeera. Going viral happened pretty regularly in those days – which was good, as my internet presence was the small nonprofit I ran’s primary fundraising mechanism.

Their survival depended on my being angry and inciting anger in others.

How messed up is that?

Then I was exhausted and burned to a crisp and decided I couldn’t do that work anymore, so I spent a year wrapping it up, and I moved. Somewhere between North Carolina and Mississippi on I-20 I lost all desire to talk about my vocational work on social media. I didn’t want to be the angry guy anymore. I didn’t want to anger other people to raise money for good work. And most importantly, I did not want to tie my public identity to the work I’m doing in the world.

I just want to have an ordinary life. Write my stories. Send my newsletters. Go for my walks. Make people feel known, loved, and heard. Especially people for whom that has not been historically true.

That’s not all I’m doing. It’s just all I really want to share on social media these days. I don’t want to tell voyeuristic stories about vulnerable people to raise money. I don’t want to “build my brand.” I don’t want you to be impressed by my good works and treat me like some poor man’s Mother Theresa because I had a conversation with a man who lives in a tent. I definitely don’t want to write angry memes so you can share them so I can build a “following.”

A following of people who like to share angry memes is probably one of the surest definitions of hell I know.

I don’t have a brand. I have a life.

And I can tell you from my hard-earned experience that when that stops – when you quit writing the voyeuristic stories, quit the angry blog posts, stop the divisive memes – it’s easy to forget who you are. It’s easy to forget that you are not the avatar that your “following” has crafted from the curated view of your life. It’s easy to then spiral into a deep depression and want to disappear forever.

Ok, maybe that last part was just me. But maybe not.

And yet.

I still have the urge to talk about my work. To “show” my work, so to speak. To tell you about the good stuff I’m involved in. The people I meet who change my life forever. The actions I’m a part of, the policies I’ve helped change, the work I do in my small way to make the world as it is into the world as it could be. Or, at least my corner of it.

But I won’t be doing that on social media. Never again. I don’t think I could survive it if I did that again.

So, I’m starting a minimally viable email list about the justice-centered, faith-based work I do here in Mississippi. I’ll send something out about once a month. I might do it less than that if there is nothing to report. I might ask you to help me do something by donating to something. I might tell you about other people you should be donating to instead. I’ll probably share stories because that is what I do. And when we know better stories, we can imagine a different reality than the one we are stuck in now.

And maybe along the way, we can find folks who are the same sort of weird we are.

You can, if you are interested, sign up here.