Keys

When I was a boy, my dad worked for a local propane company, where he was the branch manager. And with the job came many keys – the keys to the building, the tool room, his office, the shed out back, the garage where they repaired the trucks… so many keys.

He had a giant keyring he carried on a clip on his belt that jangled when he walked and had another, larger keyring with more seldom used keys on a ring clipped to the emergency brake handle on his truck. One of the strongest sounds I associate with my dad was us in the truck and him pulling the brake handle to release it, and the keys jangling.

One day when I was maybe eight or nine, I asked Dad why he had so many keys. He told me that each key represented a responsibility he had.

That answer was almost throw away, but over the last five years as a homeowner, it came home to me. I had the keys to the front door, to the basement, to the tool shed, to the car, the office, the church, the chicken coop. With every new responsibility came another key., until my keyring was full.

Then we moved to another city. I turned over my house keys and my work keys until all I had on my keychain was the key to a 12-year-old, paid-for car and an apartment we rent, that someone else is responsible for. Two keys, virtually no responsibilities.

Sunday I got my set of work keys – four of them. I am up to six now, as responsibilities come creeping back.

 

Two weeks in Jackson

Today marks the 14th day I have been in Jackson, MS, and already, at 8:00 AM, the day is filled with promise.  It was in the low 70’s with low humidity as I went on my walk this morning, and despite my deliberately unplanned route, I did not need the GPS to get me home at the end.

It is easy to romanticize a new place, especially a place as storied as the Deep South, and so I will try to not do that, but there are many things about being here we have already fallen in love with, and most of them are part of the reason we moved here in the first place.

Life is slower here. When you ask Google to navigate you someplace, she replies with the time to get you there, and then often says, “Traffic is light, as usual”. It has become a running gag with Renee and me, but it’s true – traffic is seldom a problem here.

But it isn’t just slower in that sense. There is just a slower pace. Monday morning I turned on the local NPR affiliate while driving to my office, and the local show was interviewing a woman about her garden. During prime radio time, in the Capitol city, on the NPR affiliate. I loved that, actually.

The other day I went to open the new business account at the bank, and I was in the woman’s office for an hour and a half. The actual work of opening the account took perhaps 20 minutes, but there were long discussions about who has the good soul food, the revitalization of downtown, east coast vs gulf coast, and which coffee shops were bougie and which ones were for normal people like us. It was unhurried, filled with laughter and joy, and frankly, the best banking experience I have ever had.

Despite my knowing by sight less than 20 people in the whole city, everybody waves. The man who may or may not be experiencing homelessness holding the sign by the roadside, the blue-haired lady with the big purse walking downtown, the urban teenagers when we get lost in the rougher side of town, the person who passes me in their car in the parking lot. If you make eye contact here, you wave.

People here like to talk on the phone, and while they will use text, will more likely than not call you back when you send them a text message. I have spoken more on the phone here in two weeks than I did in six months in Raleigh.

Part of this is coming to work with a church, so you sort of inherit a community, but long slow dinners with lots of people at the table have been a thing here, as has random invites to things. It has really made us aware of how isolated we were feeling in Raleigh the last few years, a combination of lots of our friends moving away and my depression.

Our apartment is unpacked and we are just living now, trying to establish routines. We often go in the evenings to look at houses we found online, and discovering new restaurants is a joy for us.

The city has its issues. The southern half of town is devoid of large retail stores, and we drive a good 10 minutes to get to a grocery store. The infrastructure is struggling, with unexpected potholes you can lose your car in, and not all the traffic lights work. The humidity is more oppressive than the heat, but the air conditioning works and is everywhere you go. You learn to adapt to the rhythms of the day – exploring outdoors happens in the mornings and after supper, while indoor work hasppens in the middle of the day.

In short, we are doing well here, and are happy we made the move.

Don’t Be Afraid

Open Door Mennonite Church
July 1, 2018
Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing ?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

When I was a little boy, there was a swimming hole we all went to. It was just a small pond, really, but there was a big tree with a rope hanging from it, and when the weather was as hot as it is right now, we would take turns swinging from it and dropping into the pond.

Nothing ever felt as good as crashing into that cool water on a hot day like today.

I probably swam in that pond 50 times, at least. Everybody I knew did. It was a thing you did if you grew up where I did, when I did.

One day when I wasn’t there, a boy whose family was known to us went swimming, and this time when he let go of the rope and went crashing in the water, he landed in a nest of water moccasins. He got bit more than a dozen times, and he died before anybody could get him help.

Nobody went to the swimming hole after that.

It was still pretty to look at. The water was still cool to your skin, and the weather was still just as hot as it ever was. But the problem was, you couldn’t see what was under the surface. You didn’t know if the water was safe and refreshing, or full of water moccasins. It no longer felt safe, and you couldn’t tell if it was safe.

The safest thing was to just stay out of the water. To this day, I won’t swim in a pond of any sort.

We always have fears about the things we can’t see, and people in the ancient world were no different. The sea, the water, was a wild, unpredictable place, where sailors went off in boats and never came back. It was a place inhabited by strange creatures that lived hidden under the surface and would suddenly grab you and pull you under. The sea was calm and beautiful, but a storm could suddenly come up that would destroy your village, or crash your boat, or take your family from you.

The sea was a wild and dangerous place in the ancient world, and it was often used by ancient authors to represent chaos.

In the book of Genesis, when the author is trying to explain the chaos that existed before God created the world, they used the image of the sea:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

It was so chaotic before God put order to it, the author tells us, it was all water. All sea. All unpredictable. All scary. All unknown.

In the story today, Jesus and the disciples head out to cross the sea, and sure enough, a storm came up out of nowhere. It was a fierce storm, full of fury, and it threatened to sink the boat.

One of the things about this story that stands out to me isn’t that there is a storm – storms happened on the water. It’s that the disciples are so scared. I mean, these guys were fishermen, who made their living on the water. They had seen storms, had survived many storms. And this storm scared them. It must have been a serious storm to have scared such men as that.

Back in the late 90’s, I had a chance to go deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida with some people I knew. It was a beautiful day, and I had never been deep sea fishing before. But we hadn’t been out there but a few hours before the wind picked up and the waves started. First they were little waves, but they kept getting bigger and bigger until they were six feet tall or more, and the little boat was rocking hard, and we had to head back to the port.

But we were several hours out when the storm hit, and so it was a rough trip getting back. At first I was scared, seeing as I know nothing about boats, but the crew seemed calm, and that had a calming effect on me. After all, these were guys who did this sort of work every day, and they were not scared.

No, I wasn’t scared at all until the moment I saw the first mate throw down his pole, shout out a curse word and run to grab a hold of the mast to keep from being swept over the side. If he was scared, this must be serious!

But in the storm in the story, Jesus is calm – so calm, in fact, that he falls asleep. And when in desperation the disciples cry out to him, he rebukes the storm, and it stops.

How is it, they wonder, that this man can calm the storms with his commands?

Today in 2018, the world seems like a pretty chaotic place. Like the sea in the ancient world, dangers are everywhere. Young black men get killed at alarming rates by police officers. The opioid epidemic is, well, an epidemic.  Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you can’t say it is all calm there, either.

If you turn on the news, or talk to your friends, or even just open up Facebook, it seems like everything is going bad all at once.

It seems like chaos rules the day.

And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by the chaos, when the storms are raging all around us and it seems like we just are not capable of surviving this one, it can sometimes feel like Jesus is asleep and we are left to handle this all by ourselves. Sometimes, it feels like he is not even there at all.

You know, when you read the story of Jesus and the storm, it seems like the important thing is that Jesus can stop the storm and save you from it. But to me, that is not the most remarkable thing. To me, the thing that stands out is this: In the midst of the storm, Jesus is right there beside you, enduring the storm with you. And what’s more, he has been there the whole time. Even when you were losing it. Even when you were terrified. Even when you didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. In the midst of all of that, Jesus was there, right beside you.

Don’t be afraid, dear ones. Don’t be afraid. The storms are bad – bad enough to scare seasoned fishermen who have survived many storms. But don’t be afraid. God has not forsaken us, and even in the midst of the storm, we are not forgotten nor are we alone.

And we never were.

The one who can command the storms and have them obey him is in the boat with us, and we will ride through the storm, together, to the other side.

Two Kinds of People

There is an old joke that says there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who do not.

I didn’t say it was a funny joke, just an old one.

Recently I explained to a person I am mentoring that a key to leading people is to understand how they view the world and that generally speaking, there are two kinds of people – those who move toward pleasure, and those who move away from pain. Neither is wrong, per se, as much as it is just different ways of gaining motivation.

One woman will work crazy hours because she grew up poor and never wants to be poor again (moving away from pain) and another will work crazy hours because she dreams of a magnificent retirement in the future, and needs the funds to do that (moving toward pleasure).

I am a move toward sort of person. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because my work in this world is to help create a world that does not exist yet, so I have to be able to imagine it, to see it already, and to move towards it bit by bit.

But it can be a curse if I do not have a clear short-term goal, without something to move towards.

One consequence of this is that I do not rest well. I have a really hard time taking time off. Not because I am a workaholic, as much as I need to have something to move toward, something to structure my life around.

I basically took the month of June off to get ready for the move. It wasn’t a complete vacation as I had several meetings scheduled and some paperwork I needed to get done, but I only had maybe twenty hours of work to do in a four-week period, so it was as close to vacation time as I have had in years.

And I have been pretty miserable. My only real goal has been to get the house packed up, and that is happening, but it doesn’t take four weeks, and it doesn’t have to happen on a given day at a given time.

So my sleep cycle is off without a clear time I need to do something.  I forget to take my meds for depression, which makes my life more stressful. I don’t know what day it is, and sometimes wake up at 3 AM, wide awake and other times end up sleeping until 9 and wake up confused and lost.

All that is to say, I hate the time off and am actually looking forward to going back to work. Not because I need to work, but because I need a schedule.

Notes from the dead

I didn’t know him.

Not really, anyway. We were Facebook friends, but only in the technical sense of the word. He would occasionally comment on a post I had written or shared. He did it often enough that I knew his name, but I doubt I ever reciprocated. I certainly don’t remember doing it.

So when the Facebook message came through, it took me by surprise.

“Dear Pastor Hugh, I have followed you for some time and benefit from your blogs and comments and thoughts and photos. I am 76 YO who is winding down on the cancer clock, currently in [the hospital]. In the next couple of weeks or so I will be going home under hospice care until the end comes at home.

I am Jewish with a broad spectrum of ecumenical interests – to me, good loving hearted people are what they are not by organized religion but because our G-d intended it to be so. Once I am home… I would like you to drop by for a chat and a coffee if you can work it into your schedule.”

I replied almost immediately, and told him that I was leaving town soon, but that I would love to come to visit him, and to please let me know when he gets home.

I never heard from him.

Yesterday his daughter posted on his profile that he passed away, at home, surrounded by his family. The last thing he posted on Facebook was a YouTube video of the song Hallelujah, covered by Pentatonix.

I have been thinking about this a lot over the last 24 hours. I don’t know what would make an observant Jew who had friends and family who obviously cared for him reach out to me, a street-scarred Mennonite minister who is often the pastor of last resort for folks who can’t do religion anymore, but whatever it was, I hope he found it before he transitioned over.

And whatever it was that I did that signaled to him I was safe to reach out to?

I hope I do more of that.

Names

Names are funny things.

I am named for my father, who was named for his great-uncle, who was named for a distant family member none of us remember.

But for as long as we can track it, there has been a Hollowell named Hugh.

This caused some confusion growing up.

Dad was Hugh, and while my legal name is Hugh Lawson Hollowell Jr., I was called by my first and middle name – Hugh Lawson. That was simple enough, except for the people who solved the confusion problem on their own, meaning I got called Junior some, and I got called little Hugh a whole lot. This became funnier after puberty hit, because my dad is 5 foot 7 inches tall, and I am 5 foot 11. So Little Hugh was bigger than Big Hugh. I only heard that about a billion times.

One of the first things I did after gaining any degree of agency was quit using my middle name. It was “weird”, and the whole double name thing seemed too… Southern, at a time in my life when I wanted to blend in more.

So, anyone I have ever introduced myself too only knows me as Hugh. This has not been problematic for me at all.

But since I share my name with my father, and since he is a state employee in the state of Mississippi, and since we both tend to end up on the news a fair amount, and since I am moving back to Mississippi in a few weeks, I see the potential for confusion.

So, I am henceforth going to begin to use my suffix on all documents, including on social media – Hugh Hollowell Jr.

Saying goodbye to Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach

When we got married, we had no money. We spent a total of $300 on the wedding and reception, combined, and even that was incredibly stressful. Her ring came from a pawn shop. I didn’t have a ring for the first year we were married – we couldn’t afford it. A friend bought Renee’s dress, and another friend gave us their house for the reception.

It was really, really, tight.

So when a friend gave us the use of their condo in Carolina Beach for a week so we could have a honeymoon, it was a dream come true. At the wedding we had been given nearly a thousand dollars in cash from guests who would come up and slip folded bills in our hands, so we had the money to enjoy ourselves that week.

That was the week we fell in love with Carolina Beach.

It is a small beach town, with cheesy bright colored buildings, seasonal shops, restaurants of variable quality, and a pretty nice boardwalk along the dunes. That week we found new restaurants we liked, we walked along the beach for hours, went to the nearby aquarium, rode the ferry, and slept with the sliding glass door open so we could fall asleep to the crashing of the waves.

The Deck House is a restaurant in a converted church just off the main drag, and we ate there the first night we were in town at a friend’s recommendation. It felt decadent to eat there, and we instantly fell in love with it. I don’t think we have spent the night in Carolina Beach since without eating there at least once.

Next door is Kure Beach with a massive wooden dock that juts out into the ocean, where old men fish and the seagulls wait patiently for bait droppings and fish cleanings. We learned that if you bought popcorn in the bait shop, the seagulls would flock to you like you were St. Francis and that it would delight any small children who happened to be nearby.

There is a small island bookshop that sold overpriced used books and a few new books, but we believe in supporting what we want more of, so we always would spend an hour or so in that shop, and always buy a book or four. It is next door to the fifties themed diner, and just down the street from the coffee shop.

Up the road a few miles is the dock where I scattered a friend’s ashes, and down the road is the causeway where I love to sit on the rocks and watch the ferry go by while the waves lap at my feet.

We have been there probably 30 times over the last nine years. We have watched businesses change hands and improve, or fail. We have been there in every possible season, every possible weather. We learned that the week before Memorial Day is the best combination of affordability and seasonal shops being open, developed favorite restaurants and must do’s anytime we are there. We have even talked of moving there.

And now we are moving 12 hours away.

In some ways, moving away from there is harder than moving away from Raleigh. Carolina Beach was where we went to get away. It is where we went to relax, and where we began to be a family. We dreamed there, and we dreamed of there.

So last Thursday, we went one last time to say goodbye.

We ate at a restaurant we liked. We walked the boardwalk. We swung on the swings and talked about the future and reminisced about the past. We walked out on the pier and watched the waves and the seagulls. We bought a couple of used books. We got sunburned, ate donuts, watched the birds dart into the receding waves in search of food. Along the way, I wept some. Several times, in fact.

And then we drove the two hours home.

Old White Men

I feel like I have always been old. A woman broke up with me because she said she had no desire to date a man in his 70’s (I was about 25 at the time.)

Growing up, we didn’t have much money. All of my grandparents had either died or moved far away, but I had many surrogate grandparents. The community we lived in had lots of retired farmers, and they raised me, for all intents and purposes.

I would stay with them during the day in the summer, and after school during the school year. I would sit in the kitchen with the wives, who made homemade biscuits with religious devotion, and the best gravy on earth. (I no longer eat wheat much, but I can still make a hell of a gravy). I would ride the tractors with the men, and we would mend fences or sit in the shade in the heat of the day.

Often there were no other children around, so I learned to entertain myself. I would read, or go for long walks, or sit in the shade and chat with men who had retired from their labors. I learned the art of conversation and how to receive company. (To this day, if you come in my house, you are going to get offered something to drink, I don’t care who you are.)

I noticed seasons, learned the names of the trees and the birds and what sounds they make and I developed a strict attention to the weather report.

My musical tastes are catholic, but if I have to pick a favorite, it would be country music from the 60’s and 70’s – the music I grew up hearing in the car and on the kitchen radios of those farmhouses.

So it sort of makes sense I am old. I was taught to be by old white men.

I don’t mind it. I am content with my own company, I have an appreciation for the news and the wider world and yet am content to operate locally, because all change begins locally. I learned to really listen to people, and when in doubt, to default to listen to people older than I am.

I don’t fear becoming older. I feel like I have been there forever. What I do fear, however, is no longer being contemporary. No longer keeping up. No longer learning new technology, no longer being current. Being bogged down in what I am so sure of that I no longer am open to new ideas. Of being afraid of new things, new ideas and new people.

My dad one time told teenage me that it wasn’t his job to be my friend – it was his job to teach me how to be an adult, and to move in the world without his help. It was my work to learn how to do it. I think about that all the time.

Likewise, I think my work now, in my mid-forties, is to learn how to be older than I am now. Because I will, if all goes right, be older than I am now for much longer than I will be the age I am now.

So I try to learn something new all the time. I try to put myself in new positions, to be exposed to new ideas. I try to read authors I have never read before and read lots of tech websites to stay current on the latest thing, even if I have no desire to own it. I have developed a wide circle of friends who are from different cultures, races and ethnicities than mine.

And I also love Murder She Wrote reruns. Because I am, inside, old.

 

Being a regular

There is a coffee shop near my office that I go to most days. Actually, more than that – it is part of my routine.

I always go there on my way to the office. It is on the way, and it is part of how I tell my brain that it is time to shift to work mode. Most mornings, I show up there about 8:50 AM.

Because I am a regular there, several neat things happen. For example, I get to know the staff, and they get to know me. We aren’t going to each other’s house for dinner or anything, but they know the coffee I like and how I like it. It is generally the same crew working, so I know their names and we laugh at common jokes and doesn’t that make the world a little better?

Other people on the same schedule as I am are also there every morning at 8:50 AM. The college professor from the college around the corner. The slightly smarmy businessman standing in front of the building waiting on his 9:00 AM meeting to show up. The soccer mom in a minivan who shows up with her 3-year-old, and every morning they have long, endearing, discussions in line about what he is going to order when it is their turn.

I try hard to be a regular at places. I am all for exploring, but there is something to be said for being a regular part of someone’s day, and they are a regular part of yours.

When I first arrived in Raleigh, I was looking for a third place to hang out and write. The third day I was here, I wandered into Morning Times, and the barista asked me my name. The next day when I came back, she used my name in greeting me, and I am now a regular there, too. I have, conservatively, spent $3,000 there over the last 11 years.

One of the things I am most dreading about my upcoming move is losing all of my regular spots. The corner table in the library. The bookstore I like to browse when my head is full. The table at Morning Times where I like to write and, when not writing, gazing at the street traffic going by. The bench in the park where I people watch. The banter with Hannah the barista in the mornings.

But one of the things I am most excited about is looking for those places in my new home in Jackson, too.

 

My ax is dull

My grandfather, my Papaw, was a gruff man. He was kind to me, but he did not suffer fools lightly, and he did not do things he did not want to do.

He was a Navy UDT frogman in WWII (the precursors to the Navy Seals), then transferred to the Navy Aircrew in the Korean war, where he was shot down over enemy lines and lived off the land for more than a week before being rescued.

He gave zero thought about what you thought about him.

I loved him so much and wanted to just be in his presence.

One day we were sitting on his back porch. I was maybe 12. My grandmother came out and said that a neighbor had just called and wanted to borrow a hundred dollars. She had told the neighbor probably, but she would talk to Papaw and get back to him.

“Nope. We aren’t doing it.”, he said.

“Why not?”

“Tell him my ax is dull,” he said.

“OK,” she said and went back to the house to call the neighbor.

I had to ask.

“Papaw, what does your ax being dull have to do with you not lending him money?”

Papaw smiled. “Nothing, Hugh Lawson. But if I don’t want to do it, one excuse is as good as another.”