Life Between the Hedges

IMG_0931“No wise man ever wished to be younger.” – Jonathan Swift

Monday birthdays seem more appropriate at my age, but in an attempt to beat the system Jody and I took a weekend trip to Georgia and claimed it was birthday-related. It was actually a chance to accept a kind invitation from a friend to do something every sports fan should do—watch a game “between the hedges” at iconic Sanford Stadium. It just so happened that the mighty Georgia Bulldogs were playing the Red Wolves from Arkansas State University, my wife’s alma mater, so it was a cool deal all around.

Did I mention that our gracious hosts once were the President and First Lady of the University of Georgia? It was an honor to stay at their home and sit in their air-conditioned stadium box, and from the sometimes-you-get-more-than-you-ever-dreamed files, we even got to meet Uga—once named the best mascot in the nation—who was hanging out in his SUV in the bowels of the stadium before greeting his adoring fans!

And just after meeting the star of the show, we were allowed on the field during pregame warmups where we were privileged to see those iconic hedges. The hedges were originally planted in 1929 – inspired by rose hedges in Pasadena – and other than a controversial removal/replant surrounding the 1996 Olympics, football games have been held between their carefully-manicured boundaries ever since.

And then the game was terrible. Arkansas State, although a quality football program, was completely outmatched against the #3 team in the nation and lost 55-0.

But there was something very special about this particular blowout. Georgia fans don their red with great pride, but in the approach to this game they were invited to wear pink in honor of Arkansas State’s head coach who recently lost his wife to breast cancer shortly after her 49th birthday. And did they ever. The stadium was filled with pink in what Coach Anderson emotionally described as “one of the classiest moves he has ever seen,” and it was breathtaking.

Today, as I celebrate my own 49th birthday, I am reminded that life is both fleeting and unpredictable. Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, although the Southern take might be a football field, and that we humans are “merely players” on it. As we play our parts “between the hedges”—win, lose, or draw—it is nice to imagine a scene where even the opposition recognizes that something greater than our differences binds us together as one.

That is what I thought about on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in Georgia.

Beneath the Surface

IMG_0902Mammoth Cave is, well, big. One might say mammoth. It is, in fact, the longest cave system in the entire world—412 miles of underground fun—but the name emerged from the enormous rooms and passageways found within. It is also in central Kentucky and just ninety miles from Nashville, so Jody and I did a little day trip on Saturday to check it out.

We chose the Historic Tour, a two-mile, two-hour journey that included in the price of admission a 300-foot descent, temperatures in the fifties, and hundreds of murky stairs. And in addition to the expansive rooms and passageways, we also discovered “Fat Man’s Misery”—a horribly-named section of the tour that required lathering oneself in butter to squeeze through—and “Tall Man’s Agony”—a personally-intimidating and backbreaking section apparently designed for contortionists. It was all very cool, both literally and metaphorically.

Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941, but we were surprised to learn that guided tours began over 200 years ago in 1816! It is mind-boggling to imagine the courage it took to explore that massive underground system so long ago by torch or by lantern.

But what challenges the imagination even more is that this underground world exists in the first place. Houses, farms, highways, schools, baseball games, and all manners of life happen day after day on the surface above this complex and invisible universe. I find that fascinating—living unaware of the fascinating world that lies silently beneath the surface.

The natural world is enchanting, but my entire adult work life has taken place in a social environment instead. Time and again I have found the subterranean world there to be equally as fascinating.

Love & Baseball

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“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.” – Yogi Berra

I caught some of the Little League World Series on ESPN a couple of weeks back and smiled to see eleven-year-olds treated like major leaguers. One little dude came up to bat, and I saw on the screen:

Age: 11
Height: 5’1”
Weight: 97 lbs
Favorite band: AC/DC

Disturbing, sure, but also hilarious.

While football season kicks off, baseball is sprinting toward home at full speed. Baseball is a remarkable sport and has become as much of Labor Day as charcoal grills, furniture sales, and packing up your white clothing—and baseball is something my wife and I enjoy together.

We are told that opposites attract, and Jody and I are living proof. We are similarly independent, which makes the differences even more pronounced. Jody likes listening to music, and I like a quiet place to read. Jody is flexible, and I need structure. Jody enjoys soaking up the sun, and I burn like a piece of toast. Jody prefers an indoor cycling class, and I prefer a long run. Jody is beautiful, talented, and popular, and I prefer a long run.

We have tried over the years to find things we enjoy doing together, and while our love for each other has continued to grow stronger, our attempts at shared interests have remained a challenge.

Enter baseball.

We have both enjoyed baseball over the years, but it has not been something we enjoyed together. Until now, that is. Recently, we have been following our favorite MLB team together and keeping the television on MLB Network most of the time. Last weekend, we went to First Tennessee Park for some top-notch minor league action to watch the Nashville Sounds battle the San Antonio Missions. Jody tracked down a scorecard, and we took turns every half inning attempting to remember how to keep score. We are suddenly crazy for baseball!

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure if it will last, but like a fun baseball rally, what I do know is that we are both seeing the curveballs of life pretty well right now and making good contact. So I’d say it’s a hit, and if you are keeping score at home, you can score one for the home team.

Mind & Body

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In mid-May, I injured my back. While stretching before a morning run I felt some pain and questioned whether running was a good idea, but I decided to give it a try and stop if the pain persisted. It turned out to be a great run with no pain at all, but as the day went on the pain returned and intensified. I have now struggled with back pain for over three months and have endured a frustrating cycle of feeling better, running again, feeling worse again, feeling better again, and so on.

Establishing a relationship with a new doctor in Nashville has not been easy, but I recently made it in to a fantastic physician who ordered x-rays on my back that confirmed that there is no acute injury. He then referred me to a spine center to determine the next steps, so help is finally on the way.

I would love it if that was the only challenge but aging doesn’t seem to mind multitasking.

I have had stomach issues for most of my adult life, but they came to a head (um, wrong metaphor) over a decade ago that led to a change in diet, exercise, and lifestyle that was life-changing in a good way. But there have been some ups and downs in the last few years, particularly in my willpower when it comes to diet, and about a month ago I may or may not have had a stomach virus—all I know is that it wasn’t pretty–and something clicked in my brain that reminded me that Southern comfort food is not very comfortable for me.

So the new doctor suggested I add a low-FODMAP diet to my GERD diet, which basically means that I can only eat cardboard as long as it is baked and without any extra flavoring. I am suddenly gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, and all other kinds of free that ironically aren’t anywhere near free at the grocery store. All of this is a pain in the neck, but I am astounded that I am fully locked in mentally to this new way of life. And as long as it is a pain in the neck and not the stomach or back, I’ll take the trade.

As I walked to the office last Friday I met possibly the happiest human on the planet who proceeded to tell me about his happiness—and how happiness leads toward good health, too. He reminded me that we all get to choose our attitude and then said something profound that I intend to hold on to for the road ahead. He said that sunrises and sunsets are totally different but equally beautiful.

Here’s to looking for beauty regardless of, well, anything.

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.