Category Archives: Original Essays

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.

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!