Reflecting on 30 Days of Gratitude

“Twenty Twenty One hasn’t been so bad,” she said. “It just feels like… Groundhog Day, maybe. Every day is the same. Lots of uncertainty. We are both home pretty much all the time. Going out feels unsafe, but you see lots of people acting like 10,000 Mississippians didn’t die in the 18 months.”

It was the end of October, and Renee and I were sitting at our kitchen table, having just eaten one of perhaps a dozen meals that we have in rotation right now – meals we can fix with little mess and fuss, that don’t require much creativity or fresh produce. We think of it almost as a pandemic playlist, but for meals.

And that is what so much of my life is like these days – hoping for a time beyond this current uncertainty, and yet realizing we are going to be here for a really long time. If I still drank, a drinking game where I take a shot every time someone says “the new normal” would wreck my liver in short order.

I just happened to be on Facebook on November the 1st when someone posted their first post of “30 days of Gratitude”, a popular Facebook meme where you post a thing each day for which you are thankful.

Honestly? These things suck me in. My ADHD brain loves structure – but my executive function is such that my brain can’t manufacture it. So, 30 days where I don’t have to think about what to write about is a gift. So I decided to use it as a prompt.

I made some rules.

Other than Renee, I couldn’t write about being thankful for a living person. That was mostly to avoid leaving people out.

I had to have an original picture I took or owned to illustrate or accompany the post. In other words, no stock photos. The only time I broke that was the Doctor Jabbour post.

I have a complicated relationship with my past – I know a lot of us feel that way. But I also have come to recognize that the things for which I am grateful have come out of my past – that I am really the product of my stories. So each post needs to have a story in it.

I had to write it every day. I broke that rule once, writing Thanksgiving’s the day before, but I was on the road 10 hours out of 36 during that time, so if I didn’t do it the day before, it wouldn’t have happened.

And it needed to be at least 500 words. To put that in perspective, this post you are reading now is at 450 words at the end of this sentence.

And after a year of writing about Dad, I decided that no single post would be about him.

There were days I had no idea what I was going to write about. Some days I wouldn’t know until I was halfway through the post. Some days I thought it was going to be about X, and it ended up being about Y. Sometimes I narrowed it down while writing: The post about Heather started as a blanket post about my LGBT friends, the same way I wrote about my atheist friends. The post about friends who disagree with me started about a particular person, but he was still alive, and the more I wrote I realized he was one of several in that position.

And I think that is the thing I liked most about it – in fact, it’s one of the things I like about writing: The discovery. That you learn something you did not know before as you write.

Having grown up evangelical, every time someone mentions the word accountability, I think it means somebody got caught with porn. But the accountability of knowing that people were expecting me to publish something each day mattered, even if nothing would happen if I had missed a day. The truth is, I am more afraid of letting you down than I am letting me down.

The last 20 months or so have been horrible. But this month I learned that I have much to be grateful for, that there are things in the midst of a pandemic for which to be grateful, and that the common thread that runs through all of the things for which I am grateful is the relationships that have, formed me, held me, and given my life shape and meaning.

I’m not sure what to do next. I don’t really want to break a now 31-day streak, but I don’t know what I can write about tomorrow. But hey, I’ve been there before.

Regardless, thank you for reading my stuff, for sharing it, for commenting and interacting with it. It’s good to be known.


On the 30th and last day, I’m grateful for you. Yes, you, who is reading this post.

A long time ago, I knew a poet. Like, a real poet. She is published these days, and went to school and got her MFA at a famous university and introduced me to Phillip Larkin and Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. But this was before all that.

We had similar, blue collar roots, but she had just a bit more direction and management than I did, and even though she was much younger than I was, and even though when I knew her she was living in genteel poverty and making minimum wage, I aspired to her life. We shared books, and stories, and walks along the Mississippi river on Saturday afternoons.

At this point in my life, I had written nothing in a decade, since a horrible encounter with an English professor that tried to squash my dreams. But I remembered the joy that came from sitting down and opening yourself up to the universe- the ancient magic that happens when you show up, ready to write, and the universe gives you the words.

One day, looking over the river, I asked her, “Why do you write?”

I have heard many people try to answer this question. Often they say something about how they can’t avoid writing, or they have to write, or something like that. But her answer stuck with me, and has rung true for me.

She turned her back to me and walked a few steps away, looking down at the ground, hands in her pockets. Then she turned around. “Why? Because I want to be understood. I’ve never made sense to any of the people who knew me – not even to the people who thought they loved me. I write because I want someone to read it and understand who I am. I write, Hugh, because I want to be known.”

Instantly, I knew the truth, and like the old story goes, the truth set me free.

I too write because I want to be known. Because I have never made much sense to the people who know me or love me, and I want them to understand. I write because I have stories that have shaped me and changed me, and I’m conceited enough to believe that if you knew them, they may change you, too.

There are people who write in a journal, with instructions that it be burned after their death. They are an audience of one, and they write as a way of understanding themselves. But it is not lost on me that it took the invention of blogging to get me over my self-imposed writing embargo. It wasn’t enough for me to have the means – I also required a reader.

Often when I write, I imagine a particular person reading it, and I write it as a personal communication to them. I have six ideal readers, all actual people, even though none of them know, and two of them are now dead. But when I write, I write it to one of them.

For more than 18 years now, I’ve been writing down my stories, my ideas, my discoveries, sharing them in various places. It’s like we’ve been on a journey together, you and me, and I’m sharing what I learned along the way. And sometimes you are going someplace I have been before, and I know where the pitfalls are, and might be able to save you some steps.

I’m constantly amazed that anyone cares at all about what I have to say. Every time something I write travels at all, it is a shock. People often will reach out and tell me how something I wrote a decade or more ago changed their life. That never ceases to move me, and to remind me of the importance of story.

At the end of the day, dear reader, I’m just a working class kid from rural Mississippi who realized one day that the things he felt and that seemed so huge were things we all feel, and we are all just searching for language for those things. The highest compliment someone can ever give me is when they read something I write, and they say, “This is how I feel too, but I didn’t know how to say it.”

Because in that moment, they know more about me, yes, but feel known, too. They know then that they the things in their head and hearts are not worthless or pointless or known only by them, but are human things, and they feel a little less alone, a little bit more understood, a little bit more emboldened to share their own stories, and a little less shame, perhaps, over the late night fears that greet them in dark places.

In other words, I write because I want to be read, and what’s more, I want to know you and be known by you. And for almost 20 years, you have kept showing up: Reading, sharing, interacting, telling me your stories in response. You are the most important part of this operation, and I couldn’t do any of it without you. You make my life more than I ever dreamt possible, and I’m grateful for you beyond words.

For slow mornings

On the 29th day, I’m grateful for quiet mornings.

The house I grew up in was 1050 square feet – three bedrooms and one bathroom. One tiny bathroom. Mom, Dad, and three sons – I am the oldest. And there was never a time, it seemed like, when someone wasn’t in the bathroom. In the evenings, we stacked up like cordwood, just waiting on the person in front of you to take a bath or shower, and while being the oldest meant I got to stay up the latest, it also meant there was no hot water to be found when I got in there.

So somewhere along the way, I decided to start waking up early and taking a shower then. It was lovely – take as long as you want, run the hot water tank dry if you want, because it’s an hour at least before anyone else will need the hot water. And the house was quiet and still, making the gentle sounds a house makes in the dark: The hum of the refrigerator, the rhythmic whir of the ceiling fans, the soft padding of the cat on the tile floor.

I came to look forward to that hour that was just mine, alone in the house before anyone else stirred. It was a sort of freedom.

In Boot Camp, your time was scheduled from the minute they woke you up until the moment you got in bed. We showered by the clock, peed by the clock, put on our socks to the sounds of Drill instructors counting down from 5. You were never, ever alone.

Every night, Marine regulations required there be two people on watch all night, from lights out to lights on the following morning. We took one hour shifts, and the watch roster was posted. By the end of the first week, I would look to see who had the watch the hour before lights on, and ask them to wake me up 45 minutes early. I would then take a long, slow, comfortable solo shower, shave my face with care and attention, and then slip back into bed 5 minutes before the lights came on, Drill Instructors screaming for us to get up.

Again, getting up early had saved my sanity.

Even when I lived alone, getting up early, before the world is moving, was always my happy place. I can write uninterrupted, nobody is going to call me, nobody expects anything from me.

But the favorite thing I love about mornings is what I think of as the reset button. My energy peaks about an hour after I wake up, and then it’s a slow downward taper the rest of the day. But that first hour is slow and gentle. It’s like someone reset the etch a sketch. It’s a blank slate, a clean sheet of paper. No mistakes made yet, nobody yet disappointed, no balls yet dropped. No matter how horrible the day before was, I wake up each morning excited because it’s a whole new chance to be my best self.

I will get up in my quiet house – houses make more noises now than they did when I was a child, what with air conditioners, computer fans and the gas hot water heater, but still – quiet house sounds. I pad into the kitchen, bleary eyed: These days it seems like it takes longer for my eyes to focus than they did when I was younger. I will turn on the electric kettle and lean against the counter, and perhaps check the headlines on my phone. I make a cup of coffee, and then pad into my office, where I will fire up MS Word and write.

After an hour of writing and coffee I will rustle up some breakfast, and maybe I shower then if I didn’t the night before and my day begins like everyone else’s. But that first hour, alone in a quiet house, is always the best part of my day.

For second acts.

On the 28th day, I’m grateful for second acts.

I’ve debated which story to tell to illustrate this concept, but here is one example:

I have friends who were pressured as kids to be certain things – their future already set out for them, as clear as a road map. They were not children, but future accountants, future farmers, future lawyers, future truck drivers. I knew lots of people with that story – but it was never my story.

My parents never pressured me at all.

I went through a phase when I was about 9 years old where I decided I was going to be a superhero when I grew up. And because I am me, I had elaborate plans – I mean, actual plans – I drew blueprints to my Fortress of Solitude, which would be hidden behind some trees on the back of our property by the hay field, because that was where I went when I felt overwhelmed.

I went through phases – I was going to be Thor at first, and went around telling my family I was a Norse God and was now immortal. Then Dad had me look up the definition of “Norse” and “Immortal”, and I decided to be Cat Man instead.

It was all consuming. I built grappling hooks and climbed trees with them and once fell off the roof of the shed when nobody was looking while “training”. I must have been exhausting. They would patiently sit and listen to my latest schemes, Dad would answer my questions about what type of rope had the most strength for the least amount of weight, and how to make grappling hooks and I got Mom to commit to helping me sew my costume, even though I never saw my mother sew anything more complicated than a hem on my church pants.

They never told me it was impossible. They never told me to be realistic. They never ridiculed me, and if they told their friends, it was never in my presence. I felt 100 percent affirmed, loved, and believed. And that was pretty much the story of my whole childhood.

Lord (and the therapists) knows my parents got some things wrong, and I have no idea how some first time parents in their twenties in the early years of the Reagan administration in Byhalia, Mississippi had the emotional intelligence to know that their quirky, introverted, nerdy bookworm kid needed them to embrace his weirdness, but they did.

But what I also needed, and they didn’t have the tools to give me, was management.

There is this lovely scene in the original Rocky movie, where the boxing veteran Mickey is trying to explain to Rocky why Rocky needs to hire Mickey as his manager. Mickey tells of how he never got the good shots because nobody explained the facts to him, nobody watched out for him, and so he took the easy money instead of planning for his future.

“I had no management, kid!” he tells Rocky.

Well, the downside of being raised the way I was is that I had no management. Nobody explained to me that I really should have taken algebra in 9th grade, instead of the general math class I was allowed to take. Nobody in my world explained that I really would want to go to college. Nobody in my world sat me down and explained the long game to me, explained how college aid worked, that I didn’t have to risk being sent to a war zone in order to get college paid for.

I’m not blaming my parents – it was the whole system. We had a guidance counselor at school – she basically pushed poor kids into the service and richer kids to college. I didn’t understand how financial aid worked. I scored in the 98% percentile in Mississippi on the ACT – not only did nobody really explain that I could have went to any state college for free, there was nobody recommending that I go to college in the first place.

It was as foreign a concept to me as if you recommended I consider going to the moon. I accept that some people have done that, but I have no idea how to go about getting there, or how to pay for it, or what the process is.

So instead I went in the Marines. And there I learned that college was probably a good idea, but I was years behind by the time I got out. And because I didn’t take college prep courses in high school, the first year was virtually all remedial, non-credit classes. And I had to work while going to school, so it was a lot of night classes and summer seminars. I never lived in a dorm, never pledged any Greek organization, never met with any industry recruiters, never went to a college sports game, never went on study abroad trips. Every single thing you liked about college, I didn’t do there. The totality of my college experience was to write them checks and take tests and fight traffic leaving the parking lot before going home to collapse in bed, exhausted.

I would flounder for more than a decade. Before I was 35, I would quit three different jobs that dumber people than me have made good, lifelong careers doing. I made good money at times. I got married for bad reasons, took jobs for bad reasons, quit them for bad reasons, got divorced for questionable reasons, got into relationships that dead people would have known were doomed for failure, and generally drifted. I first read Kerouac because a woman I dated said I reminded her of him. It took some time before I realized she was not complimenting my writing style but instead meant I was drifting and goalless.

When I was 35, things both fell apart and came together. I moved to a new town, took up a new course of study, met new people, and reached out to people who were successful at what I wanted to be, and I learned from them. I had direction, goals, and mentors. It’s like a whole different world.

I have read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in one of his essays, he said that he used to believe there were no second acts in American lives. I did too. But I had one, all the same.

I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had been more directed as a kid. If I had had people in my life that valued formal education. If that guidance counselor had done her job. If my 98th percentile ACT score had attracted the same sort of attention from college recruiters that my 99th percentile ASVAB score did from military recruiters. If I had gone to Ole Miss right out of high school? Majored in English and learned to write when Willie Morris was still there? How would it all have come out? If I had gotten not only a degree at college, but a network and a fraternity and mentors as well?

I will never know. That wasn’t how the first act played out. But I’m really grateful for the second one.


On the 27th day, I’m grateful for Heather, and the things she taught me.

A long time ago, I was a 19-year-old Marine, and I was in love with a fellow Marine named Heather. We were an unlikely pair. She was a liberal Catholic from Montana. I was a conservative Methodist from Mississippi.

We were inseparable. One weekend I brought her to Byhalia, to see where I grew up. We then went to Oxford, where The University of Mississippi is, and talked about how cool it would be to live there when we got out of the Marines. For 28 years now, I can’t go to Oxford without thinking about walking across the grounds of William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak with her that crisp fall day. She was filled with derision at the monument to the Confederate dead that was on the town square, on the lawn of the courthouse. As an aside, that monument finally came down last year.

We talked a lot about children, and figured between my round head and her dimples, we would make some pretty babies. We talked about marriage, and she told me about the examples of strong women she had in her life, and that I shouldn’t expect her to be June Cleaver sitting at home making dinner.

When we were dating, Heather drank. A lot. And the closer we got, the more she drank. It was a huge problem in our relationship. Drinking has never been really important to me, and drunk people annoy me in the way they can only annoy sober people. Her birthday was coming up, and I had planned a great day for us to spend together. We would go to the art museum, then a picnic afterwards.

She didn’t show up. She had gone out with her friends the night before to celebrate and gotten incredibly drunk, and then overslept. Actually, that isn’t quite true – she just didn’t remember that we were doing anything. I was, in a word, forgotten.

It’s hard to remember what life was like in those days before cell phones. Her roommate told me what happened and that Heather was passed out in their barracks room, and that she would tell Heather I had called when she woke up. I sat in the lobby of the barracks, waiting for her to show up. Just after lunch, she showed up, looking like hell.

She apologized profusely. I was royally pissed. But I could never be mad at her for long. We went for a long walk, and then I took her back to the barracks and we agreed I would take her to the art museum tomorrow instead.

And we did. It was a lovely fall day. We walked through the museum grounds, hand in hand. I saw my first Warhol that day. And when we were in the parking lot, she told me she had something she wanted to talk to me about. We went to a diner she liked and that we ate at a lot, and then she took my hand and told me she wasn’t going to be able to marry me, because she was a lesbian. She had seen how much she had hurt me the day before, and knew that if she didn’t tell me now, it would only hurt me more later. I had been her last shot at trying to be straight, she said, and apparently, wanting to be straight wasn’t enough.

I wish I could say how accepting I was. I wish I could say I saw her coming out to me as the gift that it was, that I recognized she was putting her safety and her career in the Marines in my hands, that she loved me enough to tell me the truth about who she was.

But I didn’t handle it well. I mean, I am Southern enough I wasn’t rude, but I was hurt and confused by it all. It wasn’t just breaking up with someone. Instead, it felt like they were gone forever.

When we got back to the barracks, I went for a long walk to process. Everything I knew, everything I had been taught about sexuality told me that being gay was a sin. Everything I knew about Heather told me she was one of the kindest, best people I knew. It was my first real ethical crisis – do I stay true to the religion I grew up in, or do I stay true to the person I knew and (still) loved?

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a point where Jim, the escaped slave, is captured, and Huck is faced with a choice: He can break the law and go against the everything he had been taught about religion, morality, and racial norms and try to rescue Jim. Or he can be safe, and follow the things he had been taught, and let them take Jim.

He knew what he had been taught. He knew what the preacher and the Sunday School teacher would have told him the right thing to do was. But he also knew he loved Jim, and that Jim loved him. And he believed that to throw in with Jim would damn him to hell forever – it would be the point of no return.

He came to a conclusion: “Alright then. I’ll go to hell!” And he helped Jim escape.

I decided that I was throwing in with Heather. I knew her, had loved her, and would support her, even if I would not be able to be her partner or her lover. And if it meant betraying the religion I grew up with, then so be it. If I was going to Hell, it was going to be while loving Heather.

I went back to the barracks and told her I loved her, that I would always love her, even if it meant we couldn’t be together, and that I would always be on her side.

Over the next six months or so, she introduced me to her friends – other Marines who were also lesbians, people I had known but who were not out. This was the first circle of LGBT folks I had ever been invited into. They were so accepting of me, answered so many of my questions – even the ones that were unintentionally rude – so loving toward me. I think I freaked some of them out, but they knew I was important to Heather, so I was accepted.

Our marriage plans ended the day she admitted to both me and herself that she was a lesbian, but our friendship stayed intact. She and I were the same age, and we watched each other celebrate milestones – she had first a partner, then a wife and then children and grandchildren.

She continued to struggle with alcohol the whole time she was in the Marines, back in those days when being Queer and in the Marines put you in danger of being arrested, but after she got out, she eventually got sober and became an EMS worker, then went back to school and got her RN and eventually fulfilled her dream of becoming a trauma flight nurse on the air ambulance.

The last time we saw each other face to face was in the early 2000’s, but we stayed in touch – first by email and then Facebook. When I was in NC, she supported my work there as a monthly donor – one of the first, actually.

About 5 years ago, she ended up with breast cancer. They did all the right things and the normal treatments and it went into remission – and while she was in remission her granddaughter was born.

But it came back. She died in December of 2018.

Heather was my first of so many things: My first liberal friend. My first feminist friend. My first Catholic friend. My first Queer friend. And the beginning of the end of the religious certainty of my youth.

For friends from other cultures

On the 26th day, I’m grateful for other cultures, and how they have influenced and shaped me.

In the 1830’s, Jonathan Hollowell and his wife Clara and their children Edwin and Calvin moved to Marshall County, Mississippi from around Goldsboro, North Carolina. They were one of many families that moved here after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, which removed the Choctaw and other tribes from the State and across the Mississippi River to western territories.

In other words, I am a Mississippian directly because my ancestors profited from the coerced removal of a culture and a people.

I grew up in Byhalia, MS. I had friends who lived in Pontotoc, MS. Went to Senatobia, MS all the time. They are all Chickasaw names. I never learned anything about the Chickasaw people in school. Never knew a Chickasaw person.

The main street of my home town was actually part of the road that was the Trail of Tears. I learned about the Trail of Tears in school. I did not learn it happened less than 500 yards from where I sat.

I learned I was not guilty. I did not yet know that I was, however, responsible.

Growing up, my world was very Black and White. Literally. I knew a (very) few Latinos, and no Asians. We went to Memphis occasionally, and there was a Chinese restaurant Dad liked up there, and he would eat with chopsticks like he learned how to do when he was overseas in the Air Force.

We ate Mexican food, but really, it was the Old El Paso taco kit with ground beef and refried beans from a can. That and bean burritos from Taco Bell was the limits of our ethnic food.

Of course, that wasn’t true. We ate copious amounts of sweet potatoes, summer peas, and greens, all cooked in ways passed on to White people like me from enslaved Africans generations ago. Likewise, the chitterlings and fatback and blackstrap molasses were all foods enslaved people ate because the wealthy landowners didn’t want it. The turnips we prized were originally food for pigs, but enslaved folks learned to make them taste great, and they taught the rest of us.

We didn’t count any of that. It was our food now.

I was sixteen and in Tulsa Oklahoma on a school trip before I would ever have a real conversation with someone who was not Black or White.  She was Chinese, and was there from another school up East.

Mark Twain said something to the effect that travel was fatal to prejudice, and while I want to argue with him, it certainly helped me. As I traveled and met and worked with Mexican and Guatemalans and Brazilians and Serbs and Croats and Indians and Chinese and Koreans, I learned we are far more alike than different, and that at the end of the day, we want the same things: To be safe, to take care of our families, to have hope tomorrow will be better than today, to leave a legacy in the hearts of our loved ones.

My curiosity has served me well, and my desire to hear their stories. To learn about their lives, to eat their foods, to share mine with them. This requires a level of intentionality: I have a relation who lived with her husband for 2 years in Germany while he was in the service, but she learned zero German, only shopped and ate American food on base, and used every chance to tell the rest of us about how much she hated Germany.

I don’t ever want to be like that.

A few years back, I spent a week in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I would love to go back and explore more, but one thing that struck me was how they actually had an indigenous culture there – White culture was not the default. The beauty, diversity, and richness that came about as a result of that was striking.

I have come to believe that all of us are smarter than any of us, and to be grateful for all my friends from cultures different than mine, who took me in, who fed me, who loved me when I made that hard, and who have enriched my life in innumerable ways.

Thank you.

For chosen family

On the 25th day, I am grateful for chosen family.

Renee and I have some friends in Raleigh named Karen and Toney who are retired jewelers, and they have had a life full of adventures. As a result, they have a wide range of friends from all over the world. And when we lived in their city, so far from our own families, they sort of adopted us. A mutual friend said once that Karen and Toney collect people. And we were part of their collection.

They lived in a large old house, filled with knick-knacks from their travels – there is the Persian rug brought back from Iran, over there the Buddha from India, the animal skin from the Southwest, the antique couch from Goodwill. It was an eclectic house, but in a good way.

And when we lived there, we went to their house for Thanksgiving. Everyone brought something, and just as their friends were eclectic, so was the meal – there was American style turkey and dressing, for sure, but there was also babaganoush, and eggrolls, and empanadas, and baklava. They would put out the invitation – if you don’t have a place to eat Thursday, well, now you do. Come as you are and bring what you can.

When you got there, the table was already full, but Karen would always say, ‘Don’t worry – we will make room”, and another chair magically appeared and people would scooch their chairs and now there was room for one more person at this most unlikely of feasts. By the end of the day there would be several tables added to the end of the dining room table that now extended into the living room.

And I am here to tell you, that would be the best meal you had all year, and the most diverse. The last year we were there we ate with, among others, an undocumented house painter, a professional dulcimer player, a nurse who worked on death row, a Syrian mathematician, a folk singer, and the woman who had worked the front desk at a nearby retirement community.

It was crowded, and there was lots of shuffling and “pardon me” and “let me scooch by”. There were kids playing and new people arriving and hugs and introductions and passing the potatoes and the deserts – my God, the desserts.

And after the meal the musical instruments would come out, and impromptu jam sessions would happen and people who had other obligations would come by to visit. Their daughter’s ex-husband was a vegetarian, and since he often had to work on Thanksgiving he would come by during this point, and Karen had always made sure there was food he could eat, and a plate would be made and his children would surround him as he ate, and tell him of their adventures that day.

And it would last until late in the evening, with people snacking the rest of the day, and guitar picking in the living room and camera flashes and…

It was always a very good day.

But we also got invited to birthday parties. Dance recitals. Block parties. Christmas. Easter. It was lovely – we were part of their family. You instantly had plans for every holiday, you had people who loved you, you had people who would miss you when you moved away. And people you miss since having moved away.

It seems to me that there are two types of family: those you are born to, and those you choose. And while the former is a biological fact, the second is a decision. On this thanksgiving day, I’m grateful for our friends who decided we are part of their family, and who have modeled for us, again and again over the years, the sort of lives we want to have.

For childhood memories of Thanksgiving

On the 24th day, I’m grateful for childhood memories of Thanksgiving.

Until the age of 12 or so, we spent every Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house in Memphis.

He was my Dad’s half-brother, from my grandmother’s first marriage, and he was 23 years older than older than Dad. After her first husband’s death, she had refused to remarry until her son was out of the house, as she thought it would be unfair to him, and from concerns that any new father would treat his step-son differently from his natural children. She had had a wicked step-mother herself, and knew the risks.

My uncle was a good man, tall and handsome, with shocking red hair and long deft fingers. He was a butcher, and had worked as a union meat cutter until he opened a barbeque restaurant, and was solidly middle-class. His wife was a short woman with a lot of improbable blonde hair that was always tortured into shape and held against its will by a generous application of some sort of shellac. Their grown daughter had married a musician, and while they all said the word “musician”, you got the sense from the way it was said they really meant to say degenerate.

Their house was a large brick colonial on a cul-de-sac, with a yard meant for looking at and not playing in. There was a room designated as the parlor, which children were not allowed to be in, and in which it seemed no one ever laughed. My aunt was a woman to whom propriety mattered, and who firmly believed children should be seen and not heard. Appearances were important to her.

I can only imagine how we wrecked her world when the folks from the country showed up, with their loud children and the huge station wagon, loaded down with the family from Mississippi. Every time I see the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when the family arrives, I imagine it must have been a lot like that at my uncle’s house on Thanksgiving.

They had a dining room that one got the sense that nobody ate at the rest of the year, and it had a huge table, with place settings and food set out in bowls and trays, served family style. People who hadn’t prayed out loud in 364 days pronounced a blessing over the food, and we ate food that had attachments and memories: Aunt Louise’s cranberry sauce, Mom’s fudge pies, Jamie’s turkey.

After the meal, my uncle and the musician would watch football and Dad would sit in there with them, but he had no interest in the game. I would play with the other children that were there, upstairs, out of the way, while the women all talked in the kitchen and tried to put order to things, before we would all pack up and head back to the country, to our small rectangular home on 33 acres, where the plates did not match and we had no rooms one did not use and that had whole fields where one could run and romp.

When my Dad’s aunt died when I was 12, we quit going to my uncle’s for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure why, other than she was the one who sort of held the family together, and the bridge between the very urbane middle-class life my dad’s half-brother had, and the hand to mouth existence we had in rural Mississippi. My uncle died in 1993, 11 years or so after the last of those meals, and I haven’t seen any of his family since the funeral. I don’t know how any of them are doing, how they made out, anything.

Despite my having had at least 37 Thanksgivings since the last time I was at their house for Thanksgiving, those meals still represent the Platonic ideal of Thanksgiving for me, and what I picture in my head when I hear that you are having Thanksgiving at your house. They also sum up for me the best part of this holiday, whatever its trash colonial origins: Unlikely, complicated people coming together to celebrate each other and our common memories, all the while building better ones.

I hope you have a good time tomorrow, however and with whomever you are celebrating. And if you are the one hosting, go easy on yourself. Something will go wrong. And in 10 years, nobody will care at all, and all they will remember is that on that day, they were loved.

Our yard

On the 23rd day, I’m grateful for our yard.

By the time I was born, we still had 33 acres of land from the original 120, the difference having been sold off in crisis sized increments over the decades before I was born. But we didn’t have a yard – not really. We had the part of the land we cut with a lawnmower and the part we cut with the bush-hog and the part that had cows or was the garden. But we didn’t have a “yard”.

My great-aunt had a proper yard – with a fence around it and foundation plantings and all of that. So did the people who owned the grocery store my grandmother had worked at. I remember they had rose bushes in the corner of a giant zoysia lawn, with concrete stepping stones crossing it, going from the driveway to their front door. I had never seen stepping stones before then, and of course every time we went over I would pretend the grass was burning hot lava and I would hop from stone to stone, unscathed.

They also had a huge covered front porch, with a swing on one end, and I dreamed of one day being rich enough to have my own porch swing.

From 1990 until 2013, I lived in places (like apartments) that didn’t have yards, or places where I didn’t have control of the yard (like duplexes). But in 2013, we bought a house. With a yard.

It was just under a 5th of an acre – 50 feet by 150 or so. The front yard was 50×25. I didn’t care – Over the five years we lived there, I turned it into a riotous cottage garden, packed with raspberries, blueberries, peaches, plums, roses, crabapples, black-eyed Susan’s, chickens, irises, and more. And there were concrete stepping stones across the tiny strip of lawn that led from the driveway to our front door.

Sadly, it was really my yard, not ours. Try as she might, Renee never really felt safe in that yard, alone. So while she appreciated it, there was no real sense she enjoyed being in it. She wouldn’t sit on the porch and hang out, for example.

Well, partly it was that she didn’t feel safe – but also we had a neighbor across the street who had poor boundaries. I lived across from him for two years, and never knew his name – he told us to call him “Moose”, and he had the habit of appending the word “Baby” to my name and calling Renee “darlin”.

“Hey, Hugh Baby!” he would shout across the street when I would walk out on the porch to check the mail. He did not have air conditioning, so he would sit on his porch shirtless and in boxer shorts most of the summer, shouting at people driving by and talking to people on his speaker phone. It added that special something to the experience. He would shout across the street – a distance of maybe 75 feet, porch to porch, rather than come over to talk.

One day I was doing something in my yard, and the roses were all abloom and it was just a carnival of color. This must have impressed Moose, because he walked out of his house, saw me, and yelled, “Hugh Baby, you are one green thumb motherfucker!”

Part of mine and Renee’s agreement moving here was that if we were going to disrupt our lives and move literally halfway across the continent, she got to pick the house. When we moved here, the housing cost differential was such that we could afford and bought a much more suburban-sized ranch house, with a large half acre yard on a quiet street, a street where people park in driveways and not on the curb, a street where people walk their dogs and will stop and chat with you as they go by. And most importantly, it’s a yard she feels safe spending time in.

Cottage garden is still my preferred aesthetic, but it takes longer in such a large yard. But it’s coming – there are rose bushes and bottle trees and vine covered arbors and metal folk art in the front yard, including a three-foot-tall metal chicken, and in the spring, daffodils and paper whites and in summer, tons of cosmos and zinnias.

Our fenced in backyard is in process, with a large potager garden going in this winter, and my workshop and the chicken coop and fire pit, and a wildlife border surrounding the whole thing.

It doesn’t have a huge front porch, but last year, I built an arbor and a swing in the shade of our huge magnolia tree. Most afternoons, Renee will sit in the swing and listen to music on her headphones and just enjoy the space. I will often take a break around then, and go out and sit with her, and we will watch the hummingbirds and the butterflies and chat with the people who walk by.

And our neighbors across the street here still yell at me when they see me, but they are six and three and they shout and dance and wave until you notice them and wave back, and how could anyone ever be upset at that?

For my friends who are atheists.

On the 22nd day, I’m grateful for my friends who are atheists.

Growing up, I never knew any atheists.  Literally everyone in my world was a low-church protestant. Well, the rich people we knew went to the Episcopalian church 10 miles away in the county seat, but the rest of us were Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian. Actually, most of us were Baptist or Methodist – the Presbyterian church in my hometown has had like 20 members as long as I can remember.

For none of us to actually know any atheists, we sure talked about them a lot. I went to a private, “Christian” school until the end of fourth grade. We were told that the kids who went to the public schools had parents who were probably atheists, and we prayed for them all because they weren’t allowed to pray in school. Also, the teachers were all probably atheists too because otherwise, they would teach at a Christian school.

In fact, in the 5th grade at my new, public school, I had spelling class after recess. My first day of class, I was put on the front row, up by the teacher, who had a Bible on her desk (which I later learned she liked to read during recess). I remember being afraid for her that she might get fired if the Principal learned she was a Christian. (As ridiculous as that was, I am, however, inordinately proud that 10-year-old me was worried for her, and took sides instinctively with the person I saw as being the victim in the scenario).

In Boot Camp, we were allowed to have 2 hours on Sunday morning for religious observation, and they split us into Catholic, Protestant, and Other. The Catholic and Protestant folks got to go to their respective chapel services, away from the Drill Instructors. Others were allowed to stay in the barracks (where the Drill Instructors also were). By the third week, everyone was either Catholic or Protestant.

I had, of course, read books about atheists, but that’s still very different than knowing one. Even as I came to know people in other faith traditions, belief in a higher power was still assumed.

I really don’t remember my first atheist friend. I do know that by the early 2000’s when I was living in Midtown Memphis, I knew lots of them. I had fallen into an arty crowd, and so I knew poets who felt what I felt in churches in the pages of a notebook, hikers who saw transcendence in nature, and scientists who saw it all as somewhat mechanistic. Instead of being a Christian surrounded by other Christians, I became a lot of people’s “Christian Friend”.

But when I began to do “ministry” work in North Carolina was when I really began to be influenced and shaped by them. Part of this was I had slipped away from the evangelicalism of my youth and embraced a far more universalistic idea of God, and if I no longer believed God would damn them to Hell, then there was no need to try to convince them I was right and they were wrong.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to have an honest relationship with people when you are not trying to get them to believe something they find impossible to believe.

I had many humanists and atheists volunteer with us over the years I did homelessness work. Because we refused to allow folks to preach to the people we shared food with, they fit right in. We didn’t want to convert anyone, and neither did they.

In fact, we came to look forward to working with atheist and humanist groups rather than Christian ones. Because they were there primarily out of altruism rather than their desire to convert folks, it made them much easier to deal with, and they instinctively got our desire to focus on promoting dignity and worth.

There was once an article about us in the paper, and the reporter, a Jewish woman, made a lot out of how we did not proselytize, nor allow our volunteers to do so, and that we had atheist volunteers. I got a couple of concerned emails from self-professed Christians that had never shown up to volunteer with us, not had they ever donated any money to the ministry I ran, yet it bothered them that atheists were “getting credit” for doing “God’s work”.

I wrote back and told them God would use whoever showed up to accomplish God’s plan of feeding hungry folks, and if the Christians stayed home, I’m sure God could use the atheists. I never got a reply to any of those emails.

The biggest thing I learned from my atheists and humanist friends, though, was responsibility. What if you couldn’t count on God to save you? What if there was no belief that God would fix this broken world in the next one? What if this was the only shot you got to relieve suffering, if the only way the hungry would be fed is if you did it, if the only way injustice was fixed was if you worked for it? What if the only chance at immortality you had was the way your memory lives on in the hearts of those you leave behind, if all the afterlife you could be assured of was the way they told your story after you were gone?

If all that was true, then it would matter how you live now. You are responsible. Your faith lies not in some “pie in the sky, it will be better when I die” future, but in your ability to work for change now, your ability to build community now, your ability to look reality dead in the face and keep going now, despite how hard it is, and knowing that any comfort you find will be in the community that surrounds you, your family that loves you, and whatever change your life and example bring about.

I pray that I may one day be strong enough to have the sort of faith that my atheist friends have.