Tag Archives: home

Away from Home

Freshman Year (Sturgeon)

It has been a long time since I was a college freshman, which my present work constantly reminds me. I barely remember it now and often wonder if that is a gracious gift of aging.

Although I did very well in high school and should have considered many options, I never went on a college visit and simply remember struggling with one question—do I “go away to college” at Harding University, or do I “stay home” to play basketball at Crowley’s Ridge College? I don’t remember the details of why, but I chose the former and traveled the daunting one-hundred miles to study physical education in Searcy, Arkansas.

It was a good year overall. Harding reminded me of my high school in many ways, which was positive. I knew several students already there and roomed with Christopher, a friend from high school and a track star.

When I try to remember those long ago days, an odd collection of scenes comes to mind: An unsuccessful attempt to walk on the basketball team. The terror of speech class. Daily chapel. Pledging a social club. Navigating a laundry room. Unlimited food in the cafeteria. New friends.

Although it was a fine year, it was only a year, and I transferred to the University of Arkansas for the rest of my undergraduate education. At this point of life my solitary year in Searcy seems like a blip on the radar screen, almost causing me to question if it even happened.

Today, I am back in Searcy for the first time in close to thirty years for a student affairs conference, and I am reminded that it did. In fact, that year and that place represents an extremely formative moment in my life—my first experience in actually being “away from home.”

I have subsequently lived in multiple zip codes and discovered quite a bit about the world and about myself. That all began with a mysterious decision to go away to college. That decision is not for everyone, but all in all, it was right for me.

Country

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“The goal in sacred story is always to come back home, after getting the protagonist to leave home in the first place! A contradiction? A paradox? Yes, but now home has a whole new meaning, never imagined before.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (pp. 87-88)

Growing up I associated two things with Nashville: Churches of Christ and country music. The former was familiar, but even as a young person I was drawn toward things that were unfamiliar. And the latter was something my dad listened to in the car (other than a brief Randy Travis stage, I did not choose to listen to a lot of country music). So I never pictured myself in Nashville.

But when our potential move emerged, I was surprised how much I was drawn to the city itself. It felt like I would learn a lot about myself in Nashville, who I am, where I come from, and the meaning of the word “home.”

Still, it was surprising to think that country music had a role to play. Sure, moving to ground zero of Churches of Christ would involve introspection, but country music? Somehow I just knew that would prove important, too. Little did I know that famed filmmaker, Ken Burns, was putting the finishing touches on a new documentary miniseries to help me out.

If you have not been following Country Music on PBS, I suggest you find a way to catch up. Simply learning that the banjo came from African slaves and the fiddle came from European immigrants in Appalachia was worth tuning in. Country music is just that—an amalgam of this complicated country—and learning its history is helpful in understanding America if nothing else.

I had unfortunately never heard of DeFord Bailey, the first performer ever introduced on what became known as the Grand Ole Opry, and a grandson of slaves, and a harmonica genius. In fact, it was after Bailey’s brilliant rendition of a train on the show in 1927 (following a show that ended with the New York Symphony’s version) that announcer George Hay said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” Bailey was unceremoniously fired in 1941 and spent the rest of his life shining shoes to make a living.

And speaking of 1941, I learned that country music was the favorite choice of soldiers during World War II, which provided a stunning realization as to why my dad always tuned in on the radio when I was a child. Country music must have walked my dad and a lot of people through tough times—the Great Depression, and a world at war. I also learned that it was World War II that propelled the Grand Ole Opry past other radio “barn dances” to its worldwide prominence. According to Burns, Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific were heard saying, “To hell with Roosevelt; to hell with Babe Ruth, and to hell with Roy Acuff.”

I’m not sure what I am learning about myself just yet, so if you are expecting me to weave this together in a perfect harmony that just isn’t going to happen today. What I do know, however, is that the banjo and fiddle are apparently providing the music that is serenading me toward home.

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.

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.

Heading Home

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From our seat in Jackson Square

Somewhere in Texas on a flat and lonely stretch of interstate my wife broke the silence to share, “I started to say that we are a long way from home, but I’m not sure where home is right now.” This wasn’t a sad statement, just a true one.

#1: We are forever from Arkansas, and before our trip ended we spent quality time there. Family. Farmland. Razorback license plates. Home.

#2: But we lived a decade of our married life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a special place we also visited on our cross-country journey. Live oaks. Shrimp boats. Humidity. Also home.

#3: Our trip originated in California where we lived together the longest. Palm trees. Mountains. Crashing waves. Yet another home.

#4: But we eventually arrived in Nashville, Tennessee. Music. Rolling hills. Hot chicken. Our new home.

So where should we say is home? It is a question far deeper than our uniquely mixed-up situation. “Home” may generate thoughts of a specific residential structure or a group of people or a city/region/state/country, but I think home is more of a sensation. It is a place of belonging. From personal experience it seems to me that there can be more than one, and today, as I start my new job, we are excited to add a new one to our list.

But then again I’m not certain we human beings ever really locate home on this life journey. Our talk of “something more” than this life leads me to wonder if we are all simply on an epic odyssey to find home.  As Sojourner Truth once declared, “I am not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.” Maybe we are all headed home?

We took a break in the middle of our cross-country move to enjoy New Orleans, one of our very favorite places. We were sitting in the warm sunshine in Jackson Square, soaking in the day, when my wife raised the question again, “If someone asks us where we are from, what do we say?” I admit that I was stumped. But later, upon reflection, I think I just might say, “’We’re from everywhere, but ultimately we are headed toward home.”

The Fan

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THE FAN (a free verse poem by Al Sturgeon)

The memory arrived unprompted as a tender gift.

I had been sunburned yet again.

It was night as I lay in bed, miserable,

motionless, and cursing myself

for an apparent inability to learn a lesson.

 

I was a teenager, alone in that tiny bedroom,

alone with my restless imagination, naked

as a modest kid in a modest family could get

to ease the pain, limbs sprayed like a

hopeless summer attempt at a snow angel.

 

My mother had tried her best to provide

some lotion as a remedy but to no avail.

I would simply be miserable until I wasn’t;

there was nothing more to do but listen to

the silent sound of time passing.

 

But squeezed into the corner was an oscillating fan.

It stood watch through the night, keeping me company,

marking time with its fluttering whir, rhythmically sending

a breeze both soothing and not across my blistered skin—

a welcomed sensation in solitary confinement.

 

The rhythm led to a mindless world of nothingness.

No thought of the terrible fate of dressing in the morning.

No self-loathing. Just staring into dark eyelids with

my sweet parents next door; at peace, listening, awaiting

the consistent and predictable relief from the oscillating fan.

 

The memory arrived out of nowhere.

For a brief moment I was a kid again

with a mom and a dad who would answer

if I simply called their names. It was so real

that I could hear the whirring fan and feel the gentle breeze.

 

 

 

Home Run

25010686_659397667781726_6878480645274730496_nWe crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Memphis in the rental car, ironically a Malibu, and remembered what the Arkansas Delta looks like in early winter. Many of the trees had long ago shed their leaves leaving cold bare branches that reach toward the sky, and those still holding leaves that had only recently been brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges had faded to the color of rust and stood clustered together for warmth next to the brown dirt of the silent farmland. The winter sun was setting, and it looked as if someone had plastic-wrapped the entire pastel sky. It isn’t your typical picture of natural beauty, but I now find it strangely wonderful.

It was good to spend time in my hometown. Seeing family and old friends was special as expected, but there was something special about just being there, too. I don’t miss temperatures in the upper twenties even a little bit, but it was even refreshing to remember what home felt like on my skin once upon a time. I went for a seven-mile run one morning that gave me a good long time to remember.

My wife and I went for a drive one afternoon to remember more. We drove by her first workplace and the places we lived together and even Joel and Alicia’s apartment where we spent many an evening in the early days of our relationship sitting on the couch and talking and falling in love.

And then we drove to the grave sites of my sweet parents. I used to make a point to do this alone on each visit home to talk to them; first, my dad, who died so long ago, and then more recently to both of them, sort of like I would go to their bedroom seeking comfort following a childhood nightmare in the middle of the night—comforting even when I couldn’t see their faces. But this time I went with my beautiful wife. We walked across the crunchy leaves under a cold sun and stood there as a couple — as my parents were a couple once upon a memory. There was nothing really to do other than stare at the flowers and the name plates and silently wonder where the years go and what to think about it. It was good to stand there together, like my parents who also made the choice in life to stand together. And who now Rest In Peace together.

I developed a strong sense that someone has pressed pretty hard on life’s accelerator and that the years are really starting to fly by now. It may sound a little spooky to say such a thing, but strangely enough I find it to be a most peaceful feeling. Life is quite the ride, and fear now seems like such a waste of precious time.

I think my parents are telling me this as I still stand by their bedside in the darkness.

Homecoming

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“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.”   – Maya Angelou

At week’s end I intend to be two thousand miles away from home to attend the homecoming basketball game of my high school alma mater. Pretty weird, huh, to leave home to come home? My life has turned out like that.

I am at home in California, and I have a driver’s license and mailing address and license plates to prove it. California is where everything I own in this world is located. It is where I live and work and go to sleep at night. California is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my hand and love it here. Home is where you hang your hat, and my hat hangs in California.

But Arkansas has always been my home. It is the land of my birth. Born, and raised. Arkansas is where I fell in love and became both a husband and a father, and it is where both of my sweet parents were laid to rest. Arkansas is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my other hand, and I love it there. You can never really leave home, so I never really left Arkansas.

Arkansas and California could not be more different if they tried. And I’m pretty sure that they do. But they are both dear to me.

It promises to be a strange week. I haven’t lived in Arkansas in twenty years and only visit on rare occasions, and I could not tell you the last time I watched the Falcons play a homecoming basketball game despite having participated in so many of them in years that are now long gone. But I will feel at home there, because that is where I will be. Home.

Pliny the Elder famously said that home is where the heart is. Well, my heart has two homes.

I will leave my love for Mississippi for another day.

A Passing Truck

17933944_1332678760146276_5840434144147931136_n(1)It was just a truck.

I was pumping gas at the Shell station next to the lively Pacific Coast Highway last Friday when I just happened to see a white pickup truck pass by sporting a black bed cover. It was nothing special, but it produced a memory from over a quarter century ago.

At the time I was in college a good five-hour drive away from home, and my meager possessions did not all fit in a regular truck cabin. A bed cover just made sense given the space challenge and the unpredictable Arkansas weather. We couldn’t afford anything fancy, so my dad bought some wood and some black, weather-resistant astroturf, made careful measurements and some posts to fit the corners, and before long my truck bed was in the dry.

It was just a passing truck, but it reminded me.

I loved that old truck: A maroon, stepside, 1989 GMC Sierra 1500 with a short wheelbase and a big ol’ 350 engine that made it fun to pass cars and tractors and chicken-hauling trailers on those long drives across the Arkansas hills. It wasn’t my first vehicle, but it was the first one that I was proud to call my own, and although it was out of my family’s price range, I’m pretty sure my dad wanted me to have it. He sacrificed a lot for me.

I know it was just a truck, but it was where I first kissed Jody and later (but not much) where I asked her to marry me. When we decided to buy our first house, we sold that truck to afford the down payment, not long before that sweet dad of mine died.

It was just a passing truck, I guess, but it caused me to remember another truck that represents home and the love that shapes your life, so it made me smile.

Special Memories

familyMy parents’ birthdays are two days apart in early December.  Well, technically, sixteen years and two days apart.  My dad turned down an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in the late 1930s but enlisted alongside thousands of other Americans when Pearl Harbor was attacked the day after his twenty-first birthday.  Meanwhile, my mom celebrated her fifth birthday in the Arkansas hills the day after the attack.  While my dad headed off to the Pacific Theater to defend America’s freedom, my mom was a little girl having her freedom defended.

This week, were they both living, my dad would celebrate his ninety-sixth birthday and my mom would celebrate her eightieth.  Ninety-six and eighty are just numbers, but they are hard-to-believe numbers.  Where does the time go?

The last time I saw my dad alive he was in a hospital bed facing a wall in the fetal position and fighting the pain.  The last time I saw my mom alive she was weak and yellow and exhausted sitting in a lift chair in my sister’s living room.  When you go to check out of this life, the checkout counter is just awful.

But that’s not what I remember on special days like birthdays.  What comes to mind are happy and healthy times—and smiles.  Like the only time I remember being angry at my dad when he couldn’t suppress laughter after a bird pooped on my head.  Or my mom’s beaming face when she had the opportunities to spend time with my sweet daughters.  That’s what I will remember this week.  The smiling people who gave me an enjoyable life.

These milestone days come and go, which must explain the shocking numbers.  My sisters and I will text each other in sacred commemoration on December 6 and December 8.  I may or may not mention either day out loud to my wife or others.  But I always notice, and always remember, and never know exactly what else to do.

I do have an idea this year.  This year, I think I’ll plug in the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas CD that I kept from my mother’s things and close my eyes and be transported to another world.  I’ll picture being a kid again in that tiny house on West Mueller Street.  Mom and Dad are both there in the living room with me.  The stove is glowing orange because it is cold and snowing outside.  I can see it out the picture window when I squeeze around the Christmas tree.

I’m going to listen to that Bing Crosby sing about Christmas and travel away to that special world of memories.  And in particular I will smile when his distinctive baritone voice delivers the signature lines from that old World War Two classic, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”