What Goes Around…

blog picIn December of 1993, over a quarter century ago now, I was a young high school basketball coach in Arkansas trying to come to terms with what it meant to truly follow Jesus. My struggle pointed toward the margins of society and the conclusion that I should go love people in places that others might not. Specifically, I decided to move to a major city and teach in an inner-city school, and although I had never been further west than Dallas, I chose Los Angeles.

I then went to tell my mother. That was no fun. I told her that I planned to drive (yes, drive) to L.A. on spring break to look for an apartment and return to finish out the school year before moving that summer to begin a new life. She was heartbroken. I, as you can tell, was clueless.

This was pre-Internet, at least for me, so I had no idea how to pull this off. On New Year’s Eve, I mailed a typewritten cover letter and resume to the Los Angeles Unified School District in an envelope with no street address and a zip code I must have found in the reference section of the public library. I somehow expected it would get there—by divine courier if nothing else.

I never made the trip. Instead, while at a high school basketball tournament on New Year’s Day—the same day I had dated the cover letter—a beautiful young woman introduced herself and changed my life forever. That spring break, instead of driving to L.A., I proposed marriage. That summer, instead of moving away, we married.

At some point, my letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District was returned to sender—by divine courier, I suspect, but via the local postal carrier. It remains to this day one of my prized possessions.

Fast forward to last week, and our oldest daughter accepted a job teaching deaf and hard of hearing children at an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Same day, our youngest daughter—around the age I was when I sent that letter—began her post-college life using her bilingual skills at a middle school in the San Antonio Independent School District.

I don’t know what to make of any of this. Still, after so many years, I remain clueless.

Clueless, yes, but also amused at the irony of life. And proud of those two young women that I have had the privilege to teach and to love.

Here. We. Go.

IMG_0802In a sense, it all begins today. Clown cars with sentimental parents, excited new students, and implausible piles of possessions arrive on campus in parade this morning for “move-in” day, unleashing a week-long whirlwind of orientation activities that includes ten speaking opportunities for yours truly. There is no option but to jump in and hang on.

It dawned on me recently that although we moved to Nashville five months ago, everything that has occurred to this point—and there has been a lot—won’t register in retrospect since we in higher education count in academic year. Years from now, I will look back on my time at Lipscomb University and recall it beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.

In a sense, as I said, it all begins today.

My wife and I are settled in a new home, a new neighborhood, and a new church. Our daughters are settling into their new lives in California and Texas, respectively. I am in a new office and the entire office suite received a much-needed facelift this summer, and there are many new faces on a new team in a new organizational structure. Not everything is as settled as I prefer, but it is remarkable how many things have the new car smell in a matter of months.

Today, we truly begin.

Last week I attended a “send-off party” in Murfreesboro, a sweet event that gathered incoming Lipscomb students from Rutherford County along with parents, friends, alumni, and staff to “send off” these young people on their college journey. At the end, we gathered around them and prayed for what is to come, and if they are anything like me, they do not have a clue.

But I hope they sensed the excitement of something unknown but good that is about to begin. That is what I sense today.

The University of… “The South”

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Sewanee, Tennessee (and it was not easy to get that butterfly to hold its pose!)

The University of the South is an actual place in Tennessee, although its oft-noted resemblance to Hogwarts might make one wonder. It is officially Sewanee: The University of the South, and the combination of its mountaintop location and Gothic architecture is crazy cool, but that’s not what I am referring to today.

Instead, I am thinking about my education in “The South.” I was born and raised in, shaped and influenced by, and commissioned to leave from and welcomed to return to The South. It is once again both my heritage and mailing address.

I do not have a romanticized vision of The South, though tempting at times, but neither do I focus only on its shameful parts. I attempt instead to see it as it is, warts and all (which is surprisingly not an original Southern phrase!).

None of this is specific to The South. Every place can be both resplendent and repulsive if you look from just the right angle. What makes The South special to me is that it is mine.

If put to an answer for my favorite novelist, I would go with Jesmyn Ward, who has been compared to William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I am a white man, and Ward is a black woman, so although we grew up in the same region, we grew up in different worlds. Ward matriculated to Stanford University and later the University of Michigan and went on to wild success as a novelist. She could live and work anywhere in the world, but with mixed feelings she chose to return home to The South. Last summer she answered the question why in an essay for TIME magazine. She described her dilemma and then, in her own beautiful way, shared that she, too, has a dream:

I like to imagine that one day, I will build a home of cement, a home built to weather the elements, in a clearing in a piney Southern wood, riven with oak and dogwood. I’d like a small garden where I could grow yellow squash and bell peppers in the summer, collards and carrots in the winter, and perhaps keep a few chickens. I wish for one or two kind neighbors who will return my headstrong bulldog if she wanders off, neighbors who I can gift a gallon of water in the aftermath of a hurricane. I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee. I hope that at least one of them will want to remain here in this place that I love more than I loathe, and I hope the work that I have done to make Mississippi a place worth living is enough. I hope they feel more themselves in this place than any other in the world, and that if they do leave, they dream of that house, that clearing, those woods, when they sleep.

I have received many lessons in the university of “The South” and have apparently returned to continue my education.

All Roads

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“Truth be told, all roads lead to Nashville.” – Tony Lucca, from his song, “Nashville”

Well, if the truth actually be told, the saying is “all roads lead to Rome”—at least for the past thousand years give or take a few decades. But “all roads” also apparently lead to a winning marketing slogan that a Google image search shows has been used to sell just about everything: colleges and conferences, restaurants and vacation spots. I even saw one that said all roads lead to a jail in Santa Ana, which seems unfortunate on many levels.

But the Nashville version isn’t that far-fetched given my experience so far.

This is our fourth state of residence, and our Nashville experience has been wonderfully confusing since friends from Arkansas live here now, as do friends from Mississippi, as do friends from California, too. We have loved catching up with so many wonderful people, but it has quite literally produced significant disorientation, a sort of memory and relationship whiplash. It feels less like catching up and more like spinning around in circles and then struggling to walk a straight line. Where am I now? And why are people from all phases of my random life all living here, too?

I anticipated moments of self-discovery in this move. We moved 500 miles away in 1999 and then 2,000 miles away in 2008—surely a move back to within 250 miles of where we started would create some significant introspection. I believe it has, and will, but I expected the self-discovery to occur in the occasional nostalgic epiphany, not through a fog of discombobulation.

I don’t really know where all roads lead, but mine has led here, and so far it has been both perplexing and good.

Settling In

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The last four months flitted away like a Tennessee dragonfly and left us a little dizzy, but we are finally beginning to settle in.

Our move happened quickly, and we knew on arrival in March that our landing place was only temporary as we searched for a permanent home in a bustling Nashville housing market. Meanwhile, my entire office suite underwent a much-needed facelift that left us working out of boxes, too. The smell of cardboard, the sight of clutter, and the sound of packing tape have been part and parcel to life this summer—not my very first choices for sensory experiences.

But we moved back into our freshly carpeted, lighted, and painted office space recently. And then thanks to Jody and a fantastic realtor, we found the perfect place for us and just last week moved into a condo in Green Hills.

Priceless. Metaphorically speaking (unfortunately).

My wife would say that I prefer my world to be neatly ordered. Well, specifically, she would say—and I may paraphrase a little—that I am the type of nutjob who has to unpack immediately after a trip regardless of the time of night because no one can sleep if my stuff isn’t all in its OCD-inspired place.

So I may have been a bit difficult to live with for the last few months.

But now we are in. Homeowners again. Settled.

The word “settle” is apparently one of the more versatile words in the English language. One might settle a stomach or a lawsuit, one’s affairs or an account. People might settle their differences or a distant colony or on a new plan. A cold might even settle in one’s chest. I know that my current settling is that of finding a location to stay, but today I prefer the intransitive verb version: “to come to rest.”

After an unsettled summer, I like the sound of that very much.

Evening Sky in Summer

IMG_0751I sat in the rocking chair on our front porch to finish Joyce’s Dubliners and propped a foot up on the post, a picture of serenity on a late and sticky Tennessee summer evening. But I confess that the picture was deceiving.

I love to work, which has been a good thing lately because there has been a lot of it. There is the normal (abnormal) load associated with my role on campus, and then there is the typical added challenge when moving to an entirely new environment. But add to that the departmental reorganization that we are walking out and then the fact that my wife has been gone for the past couple of weeks moving our youngest daughter across the country so that nothing has prevented my working around the clock—the result is a level of intensity that is abnormal even for me.

It is obvious that this pace is unsustainable and even unhealthy. One of my role models in the profession recently shared an Instagram meme that said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Even you.”

Thanks, Connie. I will get there soon.

But on that evening, sitting in that rocking chair after another exhausting day, I tried to slow my mind and escape to a Christmas soirée in Dublin over a hundred years ago. And once there I looked up and noticed the loveliest evening sky. And smiled.

Dark Clouds & Rays of Sunlight

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“Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.” – Henry David Thoreau

Rays of sunlight burst through the Friday evening clouds like glittering eyelashes as my car raced down the lonely highway approaching the Mississippi River Bridge and the Tennessee-Missouri border. The sun was setting, which struck me as profound given the family weekend itinerary. I would visit two uncles on Saturday, Jody’s in the morning and mine in the evening, both deeply loved, and both facing their own mortality. In between my sisters and I would host many of our cousins, all of us having now lost our parents. It promised to be a day filled with thoughts of setting suns.

It turned out to be both a light and heavy day filled with deep laughter and quiet thoughts, sweet memories and sad realities, thoughts of life and thoughts of death—of rays of light and dark clouds.

This is where I insert something profound—should such a thing ever occur to me. The weekend remains too fresh and raw and just about too much to process.

What sticks out now is sitting with Jody’s beloved Uncle Roger in his shop with the garage door open, staring out at the morning fields, watching as friends dropped by in their massive pickup trucks to share their love. One dropped by in his cowboy hat and boots and stayed for awhile, and I listened quietly as those two strong men swapped horse stories and of times when they had to put horses down. They shared how they had done such things a hundred times, but when it came to the horses they loved the most, they just couldn’t stand to do it themselves. It was just too much.

Yes, that is what sticks out to me right now about this weekend.

Yes, I’m Still Running

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I wonder if I am losing the capacity for wonder? I know, the question appears to answer itself.

Life often presents as one massive scavenger hunt for achievements, experiences, knowledge, possessions, and relationships, but I am pretty sure that’s a fool’s game that pays out in colorful erasers at a Chuck E. Cheese. Even if there is a grand prize for the most tickets, I get the impression that when all is said and done those cashing in aren’t that interested.

The problem is that the Life Acquisition Train disembarks in a lonely neighborhood without many obvious options for alternative travel. But at least wandering the streets provides some quality time to think.

My latest thought is that childhood is for dreaming and adulthood is for chasing, but there just may be a mysterious third act of life for something else. I’m not there just yet, but chasing grows less and less interesting all the time. And I hear the third act calling.

Maybe the third act is meant to point back to the first and recover that childlike imagination but with a new perspective? Maybe. So far I just can’t be sure. But I know that I want to find it.

I sometimes worry that I am losing my capacity for wonder, but on good days I consider that maybe I am just finally shedding the first kind.

Yet I don’t want to give up on the one without locating the other, so I keep walking the nameless streets with Bono in my head because there remains an elusive something to look for.

All Good Things

As I rise each morning and retire at night, an unread book sits peacefully on the nightstand, white letters on a bright blue screaming its title in all caps: NECESSARY ENDINGS. My new friend Matt shared it with me, and I only have a general idea of what it has to teach me, but it sure seems appropriate.

This has been quite a year for the ol’ family. Our cross-country move required saying goodbye to a special time in our lives. And then a few weeks ago our oldest daughter received her hard-earned credential to launch a new career teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children—and that required saying goodbye to a community that loved and supported her, too. And a few days from now, our youngest daughter will hit the road toward San Antonio for a new adventure following her recent graduation from an incredible college experience in Seattle. In reverse chronological order, from oldest to youngest, each of our transitions necessarily involved an ending.

My wife and I smoothly shifted gears into Empty Nest four years ago, but I’m not sure what you call this new place where our children are full-fledged adults, out of college, not really children anymore. It struck me sitting among the masses at the Washington State Convention Center this past weekend that although these two remarkable young women we have tried so hard not to screw up still need us in certain ways, in certain other and very important ways, they do not. They are good, strong, capable human beings. In one specific way—raising self-sufficient humans—our work has ended, and necessarily so.

I confess a twinge of sadness as I sat there in that cavernous convention center and thought of such things, but there were other emotions in this mixed-up heart of mine. There was happiness. Relief. And pride. Oh yes, pride. A deep, full, exploding pride for those two amazing people—our sweet Erica and Hillary.

I hear that all good things must come to an end. It turns out that I’m okay with that after all. It is like that satisfying last page of a long, delicious novel, followed by slowly closing the book and sitting there in that pleasant pause full of reflection and relief—before the anticipation of what comes next.

An IDEAL Evening

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The IDEAL Chef Winning Team Celebrates on Stage!

The IDEAL program is easily one of the most delightful discoveries we have made in our brief time at Lipscomb University. IDEAL stands for Igniting the Dream of Education and Access at Lipscomb, which as the website describes, is a program “uniquely designed for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities” who want to receive the full college experience—classes, cafeteria, residence halls, events—alongside traditional students. We noticed this right away when we arrived on campus, and it was love at first sight.

I recently met with Misty and Andrea who lead the charge and, having been properly smitten with their good work, made it clear that I wanted to be invited to anything going on. You don’t have to ask them twice, so last Friday evening my wife and I happily attended the IDEAL Summer Academy Showcase and Dinner. The Summer Academy is a week-long residential summer camp experience for prospective IDEAL students, and the Friday night event was a dinner competition (prepared by the campers) and a show (prepared and performed by the campers). My goodness, it was awesome.

When we left, we both noticed that we had headaches from smiling so much. True story. It was an evening of indescribable joy.

Stanley Hauerwas is a provocative theologian who has written on a wide range of topics, including medical ethics, and I remember his essay on suffering in which he turned a spotlight on those with developmental disabilities and argued that such people threaten the rest of us “because they expose our own fear of weakness and dependence on others.”  He wrote, “[T]hey do not try to hide their needs. They are not self-sufficient, they are not self-possessed, they are in need. Even more, they do not evidence the proper shame for being so. They simply assume that they are what they are and they need to provide no justification for being such. It is almost as if they have been given a natural grace to be free from the regret most of us feel for our neediness.”

Perhaps that glimpse of liberation is why we smiled so much that it hurt last Friday evening. It appears to be an IDEAL way to live.