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.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

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Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

I remember a scene in the movie, Glory, when the brave soldiers of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry are sailing down a lazy river into the South. One says, “Welcome home, boys,” and another replies, “I forgot how hot it is down here.”

Given our recent move and our present heat wave, let’s just say that I have been remembering that line on a daily basis.

So far, I have surprisingly enjoyed the heat. I often say that I prefer hot to cold, but I have secretly wondered if that would prove true once removed from idyllic Malibu weather and back in the land of summertime heat and humidity. Well, so far, so good.

I am so white that at times I’m invisible and have already had two skin cancers carved out of neck, so it is a bad idea for me to spend much time in the actual sunshine. But I have noticed in my walks to and from and around campus the fantastic feeling of sunshine on skin.

Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of America’s first modern black poets, and he described the summer heat in almost sensual terms in his beautiful poem, A Summer’s Night.

The night is dewy as a maiden’s mouth, 
The skies are bright as are a maiden’s eyes,
Soft as a maiden’s breath, the wind that flies
Up from the perfumed bosom of the South.

Like sentinels, the pines stand in the park;
And hither hastening like rakes that roam,
With lamps to light their wayward footsteps home,
The fire-flies come stagg’ring down the dark.

I realize that summer has not officially arrived, but that doesn’t stop me from being there in my mind as I delightfully stagger home among the fireflies.

Our Purple Anniversary

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Inside Paisley Park with Prince’s Guitar & Piano in the Background

Today marks our silver wedding anniversary, but never known for following conventions we opted instead for purple.

For the big 2-5 we considered some remarkable international locations. We thought about Rome. Then it was Bali. Then Tahiti. Later the Kenyan coast. But when our Nashville move materialized we thought that might be plenty of travel and abandoned planning the massive vacation. But then I had an idea.

Minnesota.

I know. I am a romantic at heart.

To say my wife is a Prince fan is like saying Tiger Woods plays some golf. Jody puts the fan in fanatic. Much earlier in our marriage we were in Minneapolis on business and Jody mentioned that Paisley Park, Prince’s home and studio, was open for tours. I was too stupid to catch the hint, so we didn’t go. Jody has pointed out multiple times since that fateful trip that we did happen to go to a Twins baseball game, which I was interested in. How has she put up with me for twenty-five years?

Well, last weekend and long overdue, we did the Ultimate Paisley Park Experience.

Although only a Prince fan via secondhand smoke, I thought it was incredible. We spent time in his multiple recording studios and his intimate video editing room. We saw his dove cage and his motorcycle from Purple Rain. We sat on his couch and played ping pong on his table. We held his tangerine Cloud guitar and even ate a lunch from his kitchen featuring some of his favorite foods (including grilled cheese sandwiches and cowgirl cookies). All and more to a constant musical soundtrack. Very cool for me and mind-blowing for Jody.

Probably my favorite moment occurred at the beginning of the three-hour tour. Our tour guide showed us a nondescript guitar that was one of Prince’s favorites. It was the first guitar he used during his legendary Super Bowl halftime performance, but among his spectacular collection, this one seemed so plain. Well, we learned that he bought it for thirty bucks off a guy at a roadside gas station one day, and our guide said, “It just goes to show that it is more about the person than the gear.”

The past twenty-five years of my life have been the best and include many amazing moments sprinkled among the normal routines of a life together. But when I pause and look back, instead of the value of any individual moment, it is clear that it really is all about the incredible person I have the privilege of walking alongside every single day.

Happy Anniversary, Jody!

The Teacher

IMG_0452“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation.  And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.” – Reverend James M. Lawson

It took me nine days to read a 700+ page book from cover to cover. The bulk of that was made possible by a cross-country flight that included an unexpected six-hour layover, but it was the captivating story and skilled story-teller that really did the trick. I would steal a few pages when I awakened each day, and at bedtime, and any time possible in between.

When we accepted the opportunity to move to Nashville, I stumbled across The Children and purchased it immediately. I am fascinated/humbled by the civil rights movement and wanted to know the history of my new community, of course, but more than that, Halberstam wrote one of my all-time favorite books (October 1964), and I could not believe that he was a young reporter for The Tennessean assigned to cover this story when it happened.

The book cover states, “On the first day of the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement—and America—entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history.”

Our move has been hectic but good, and I had been simply intimidated to open the cover and start on such a hefty book. But wow, all it took was reading the first page. I was immediately embarrassed not to know the significance of what occurred in Nashville. I knew of the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, and the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, among other famous events, but I was stunned to discover that what took place here in Nashville was at the heart of it all—because “the children” (aka college students)—were the heart of it all.

I knew some of Diane Nash’s heroism but had no idea that John Lewis started his amazing journey in Nashville, and I was especially shocked to know that the infamous Marion Barry was a part of that early group. I somehow knew nothing of Jim Bevel or Bernard Lafayette, Rodney Powell or Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy or Hank Thomas. But I will never forget them now.

However, what may have had the greatest impact on me was not one of the children—but their teacher, Jim Lawson. Lawson is now ninety years old and lives here in Nashville. Some of my new friends have met him, and though I am envious of that honor, it is almost too much to imagine.

Lawson grew up and attended college in Ohio as a young man with deep faith and convictions. Lawson was fascinated by Gandhi and conscientiously objected to serving in the military, which for his time in history, sent him to prison for two years. Afterward he was a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Gandhi more deeply and then returned to pursue graduate work in religion at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin in 1957 that Lawson met a like-minded (and aged) visiting speaker in Martin Luther King, Jr. He told Dr. King of his plan to pursue graduate degrees and then come to The South to work for reconciliation, but Dr. King told him that he was needed now and not to wait.

So Jim Lawson moved to Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence training workshops to a small and eclectic group of college students—who changed the world.

There are a thousand things to note about Jim Lawson’s life, not the least of which being that he was the Memphis pastor that hosted Dr. King’s fateful trip, and I am sure that many have wildly different opinions about the stances he has taken along the way. But what I will never get out of my mind is Lawson teaching that group of young college students there in Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville. He absolutely knew the dangerous road these “children” were embarking on—and did not hide it from them. How did it feel to know that? But it was the road to a better way, so he taught them anyway.

I live in a different Nashville today because of Jim Lawson’s courageous teaching. But Nashville, as with any other city, is nowhere near what Lawson described as the “beloved community” that inspired his teaching. With his example forever imprinted on my mind, I hope in some small way to teach courageously, too.

Hand in Hand

Mother's Day

My wife has long claimed that she lacked the natural maternal instinct other girls seemed to have as she was growing up in Arkansas. I am in no position to question her inner feelings, but I sure can note the irony. Through her incredible life as a mother, I met a phenomenal little girl who changed my life forever. And just over a year after our marriage, Jody accepted the challenge to stand in the place of mother for many teenagers with unfair early challenges in life and spent the next three years (and beyond) loving those sweet people with ferocity and grace. While there she gave birth to our youngest daughter and glided through her days seemingly able to mother the whole world.

Truth be told, she confessed one afternoon that she really couldn’t mother the whole world, which launched our life together on a trajectory where instead of mothering the whole world, I have had a courtside seat to watch her love lucky kids all over the world. I watched her teach and love on children in Mississippi. I watched her informally adopt children in California and teach them how to bake cookies and homemade biscuits and the yummiest communion bread. She is sneaky with her gift-giving talent, but I have caught her enough to know that she regularly gives thoughtful and secret gifts so that children know that they are special and that she loves them. I have watched her become Mama Jody to children in Kenya and am especially moved when she gravitates to the young girls there who are also young mothers. And for someone who lacks that maternal instinct, you don’t want to get between her and a brand new baby to hold.

And the relationship she has now with our adult daughters? Wow. It is a thing of beauty.

I am fully aware that mothering is more than biology, so maybe instinct is not that important after all. Maybe motherhood is more of a posture one adopts.

Some know that Jody and I met on New Year’s Day and married that Memorial Day weekend, and those who don’t know the story might guess that our meeting was instant love. However, many don’t know about our second meeting. I tracked down Jody’s phone number but was afraid to call and actually prayed to God as I went to sleep one night that I would bump into her the next morning when I arrived at work and she dropped Erica off at school. Well, my prayer seemed a bit suspect the next morning when I slept through my alarm and made it to work just as the school bell was ringing. Later that morning, however, I turned to walk down the main hall and was stunned to see a beautiful picture at the far end—Jody and Erica walking hand in hand my direction. We stopped and talked and arranged our first real date, and we are still dating twenty-five years later.

But on Mother’s Day this year I am reminded of that early scene down that long hallway. Of Jody walking alongside her sweet girl hand in hand. The motherly posture. Today that hand-in-hand might happen across the miles via text message or phone call, but she continues to walk by our daughters (and others) day after day after day. What an honor it is simply to watch.