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.

 

Friends Show Up

Denise is one of my oldest friends.

Her great-aunt was my next door neighbor. Some of my earliest memories of playing with other kids involve her. We would play in her aunt’s yard, making mud pies where the tractor had wallowed out a hole.

In the fifth grade, I would change schools from the small Christian academy I had attended to the public school in the next county. She and I were now in the same grade, and we would be schoolmates until high school graduation when she chose a college and I chose the Marines.

Her mother was a constant presence in my life. First, it was when she would come to visit her aunt, and she and her aunt would chat while Denise and I would play in the yard. When I went to Junior High, she was the manager of the school cafeteria, and I would see her every day at lunch. More than once I would forget my lunch money and she would slip me in.

Denise and her mother are two of the few people in my life who still call me by my first and middle name together. Basically, the only people who do that are people who knew me before the age of 10 or so.

A few months ago, Denise’s mom took a turn for the worse, and this past Friday night she passed away, surrounded by her family.

So tomorrow I will get in the car and drive the three hours to go home, to walk into a funeral home I have been in dozens of times because that is where my people go, and see my old friend and say goodbye to her mother.

And this is why I moved back to Mississippi. Because I suck at being a friend, but even I know that friends show up. And it is much easier to show up when you live three hours away than when you live 12.

I spent most of my life running away – from my childhood, my upbringing, my class, my people, and from Mississippi itself. I always thought of all of that as a weakness I had to compensate for. It has only been in recent years that I realized that all of that was actually not only a strength but a superpower.

It’s good for people to forget who you are.

I once heard Rob Bell say that between book projects, he always has this fear that people will forget about him. That he will disappear from the memory of folks, and so no one will buy his next book, or come to his next event. He told this to his therapist, and his therapist basically told him to get over himself. Besides, his therapist said, “It’s probably good for them to forget you for a while.”

The last few months for me have been… interesting. After 11 years of focused ministry in one place, where I had come to know many ministers, lawyers, judges, members of the media, and politicians, I practically feel invisible here. I don’t know who to call if I need something, or to effect change for someone else. I don’t know what agency does what yet, and who to refer someone to.

People don’t take my calls here sometimes, because they have no idea who I am. I am often stuck in waiting rooms that I would not have been stuck in back in Raleigh. I get the cold shoulder from people I want appointments with. I don’t have any positional power here. I don’t run a well-known org here, I don’t appear on the media on the regular, I don’t speak in their churches. Here, I am a nobody.

I spent most of the last 18 months either getting ready to move here, moving here, or unpacking after moving here, so vocationally I am having some recognition issues as well. I used to preach every week – but here I have only done that about once a month.  I used to generate tons of written content for our website, but the last few months most of my creative work has been planning and cerebral.

Will the internet remember who I am? Will my future work be recognized and respected by people who have followed my work so far? I already see my numbers of “friends” drop on Facebook because I no longer talk as much about issues like homelessness as I once did.

Nobody here knows who I am, and I am OK with that for now. It is too easy to coast on the work you once did, on the laurels you once won, on the story of who you once were. Soon you become Al Bundy, forever regaling folks with reenactments of your winning touchdown in the big high school game.

Exile vs Immigrant

A few days ago, Renee and I were talking about how different moving to Jackson was compared to moving to Raleigh in 2007.

There are lots of ways in which it is different, but the biggest one for me is that we intentionally moved here to start a new life, whereas Raleigh felt like a place to live for a while.

Put another way, in Raleigh I was in exile, whereas in Jackson, I feel like an immigrant.

If you are in exile, you leave one place for another, but there is always the hope you will be able to return. Immigrants, however, plan on building a life in, and living in, the new place.

It’s like the difference between renting a home and owning one. The owned home will always be cared for more by its occupant because they have committed to it for the long haul. They are not just sleeping in a home but investing in it, caring for it with the hope that it will take care of them, too. The renter does the minimum because it does not make sense to invest in a place you will not be staying.

So we are immigrants here, and planning on being here for the long term. Here we will build new routines, be hospitable, and build unlikely friendships. We will work to take care of our new city, with the hope that it will take care of us, too.

Act like you have been there before

When I was a younger man, I was often starstruck.

I had the good fortune early in my career to meet people who, in their circle, were famous or at least respected. And because I was insecure as hell, I would try to show them how much I knew and that I wasn’t just a punk kid who had bluffed his way into the room. (Despite my being a punk kid who had often bluffed himself into the room.)

Maybe you have seen people like that – eager to show their worth, eager to show they belong, and so they hog the space and generally look desperate.

That was before I learned that relationships are more important than fame and that relationships take time to develop and nurture. I would try to tell the person everything I knew, and I would end up verbally vomiting on them.

One day somebody took me aside and told me what I was doing. Then they gave me a powerful piece of advice.

“If there is someone you know well, you don’t worry about telling them everything you ever want to tell them, because you will see them again. Your problem is that you are afraid you will never see this famous person again, so you have to tell them everything, and instead of looking wise, you just look desperate. So don’t tell them everything the first time you meet them. Act like you have been there before, and like you assume you will be coming back. This increases the odds that you actually will be.”

Eat the meat, spit out the bones

Since I have been in Jackson, I have been trying to intentionally place myself in situations and circles I would not normally be in. I am seeking out unlikely friendships and attempting to avoid homogeneity in my relationships.

Which is why at 5:30 on a Tuesday morning I am in a living room in a part of town I don’t live in, surrounded by people who are much more conservative than me in any way you can think of – theologically, politically, socially – and we are there to study the sacred text we are all committed to, although we often derive different precepts from it.

It’s hard for me.

There, I said it. It’s hard to wake up at 4:30 AM to go sit with people who think very differently than you do about issues that matter to you a great deal. But what I have consistently found is that no one person (or even ideology) has a corner on all the wisdom there is in the world, and so I find myself taking notes and jotting down ideas that I hear in that room that I would never have considered otherwise.

I had a mentor once who told me that you could learn anywhere and from anyone.

“Take what is useful, and ignore what is not. Eat the meat, and spit out the bones,” he said.