The Conversation

They were the loud table in the restaurant.

It was Friday night, and Renee and I were out on a date at a little Tex-Mex restaurant not far from our apartment. We generally go to this one not because it’s awesome, but because it is seldom crowded and the food is dependable and there aren’t as many TV’s as there are some places. (Side note: What in the hell is it with Tex-Mex restaurants putting TVs all over the place?)

Having ADHD, I often overhear other people’s conversation. Under the best of circumstances, I can’t avoid it, but these folks didn’t care who heard it. It was two women, obviously friends who hadn’t seen each other for a while. The huge margaritas on the table indicated they were here to have a good time, and it was obvious they were not on their first margarita, either.

The conversation went like this.

Woman #1: You dating anybody?

Woman #2: Oh yeah. There is this one guy sniffing around. He alright, but he is pushing too hard.

#1: Oh? What he doing?

#2: He just wants to be with me all the time. He wanted to come on this trip with me, but I told him I was going to Florida for work.

#1: He thinks you in Florida?

#2: Oh yeah. And that’s a mess too.

#1: What you mean?

#2: I was in my hotel room here in Jackson and he texted me, asking how the trip was going. I told him fine, but I wished I was at the beach instead of the class I was in. Then he said he had seen the news and was worried about me in the hurricane.

Well, I didn’t know nothing about no hurricane, so I didn’t say nothing, but went and checked the news. Turns out where I told him I was going was all up in the storm. So I waited, and then told him I was being evacuated.

#1: What?

#2: Yeah. In fact, I told him this morning I was staying at a shelter and couldn’t come home yet. He told me he wanted t come down and get me, but I told him not too, ‘cause the roads are too bad.

#1: He wanted to come get you?

#2: Yeah. See what I mean? He is just all up in my business.

Friends Show Up

Denise is one of my oldest friends.

Her great-aunt was my next door neighbor. Some of my earliest memories of playing with other kids involve her. We would play in her aunt’s yard, making mud pies where the tractor had wallowed out a hole.

In the fifth grade, I would change schools from the small Christian academy I had attended to the public school in the next county. She and I were now in the same grade, and we would be schoolmates until high school graduation when she chose a college and I chose the Marines.

Her mother was a constant presence in my life. First, it was when she would come to visit her aunt, and she and her aunt would chat while Denise and I would play in the yard. When I went to Junior High, she was the manager of the school cafeteria, and I would see her every day at lunch. More than once I would forget my lunch money and she would slip me in.

Denise and her mother are two of the few people in my life who still call me by my first and middle name together. Basically, the only people who do that are people who knew me before the age of 10 or so.

A few months ago, Denise’s mom took a turn for the worse, and this past Friday night she passed away, surrounded by her family.

So tomorrow I will get in the car and drive the three hours to go home, to walk into a funeral home I have been in dozens of times because that is where my people go, and see my old friend and say goodbye to her mother.

And this is why I moved back to Mississippi. Because I suck at being a friend, but even I know that friends show up. And it is much easier to show up when you live three hours away than when you live 12.

I spent most of my life running away – from my childhood, my upbringing, my class, my people, and from Mississippi itself. I always thought of all of that as a weakness I had to compensate for. It has only been in recent years that I realized that all of that was actually not only a strength but a superpower.

It’s good for people to forget who you are.

I once heard Rob Bell say that between book projects, he always has this fear that people will forget about him. That he will disappear from the memory of folks, and so no one will buy his next book, or come to his next event. He told this to his therapist, and his therapist basically told him to get over himself. Besides, his therapist said, “It’s probably good for them to forget you for a while.”

The last few months for me have been… interesting. After 11 years of focused ministry in one place, where I had come to know many ministers, lawyers, judges, members of the media, and politicians, I practically feel invisible here. I don’t know who to call if I need something, or to effect change for someone else. I don’t know what agency does what yet, and who to refer someone to.

People don’t take my calls here sometimes, because they have no idea who I am. I am often stuck in waiting rooms that I would not have been stuck in back in Raleigh. I get the cold shoulder from people I want appointments with. I don’t have any positional power here. I don’t run a well-known org here, I don’t appear on the media on the regular, I don’t speak in their churches. Here, I am a nobody.

I spent most of the last 18 months either getting ready to move here, moving here, or unpacking after moving here, so vocationally I am having some recognition issues as well. I used to preach every week – but here I have only done that about once a month.  I used to generate tons of written content for our website, but the last few months most of my creative work has been planning and cerebral.

Will the internet remember who I am? Will my future work be recognized and respected by people who have followed my work so far? I already see my numbers of “friends” drop on Facebook because I no longer talk as much about issues like homelessness as I once did.

Nobody here knows who I am, and I am OK with that for now. It is too easy to coast on the work you once did, on the laurels you once won, on the story of who you once were. Soon you become Al Bundy, forever regaling folks with reenactments of your winning touchdown in the big high school game.

Exile vs Immigrant

A few days ago, Renee and I were talking about how different moving to Jackson was compared to moving to Raleigh in 2007.

There are lots of ways in which it is different, but the biggest one for me is that we intentionally moved here to start a new life, whereas Raleigh felt like a place to live for a while.

Put another way, in Raleigh I was in exile, whereas in Jackson, I feel like an immigrant.

If you are in exile, you leave one place for another, but there is always the hope you will be able to return. Immigrants, however, plan on building a life in, and living in, the new place.

It’s like the difference between renting a home and owning one. The owned home will always be cared for more by its occupant because they have committed to it for the long haul. They are not just sleeping in a home but investing in it, caring for it with the hope that it will take care of them, too. The renter does the minimum because it does not make sense to invest in a place you will not be staying.

So we are immigrants here, and planning on being here for the long term. Here we will build new routines, be hospitable, and build unlikely friendships. We will work to take care of our new city, with the hope that it will take care of us, too.

Act like you have been there before

When I was a younger man, I was often starstruck.

I had the good fortune early in my career to meet people who, in their circle, were famous or at least respected. And because I was insecure as hell, I would try to show them how much I knew and that I wasn’t just a punk kid who had bluffed his way into the room. (Despite my being a punk kid who had often bluffed himself into the room.)

Maybe you have seen people like that – eager to show their worth, eager to show they belong, and so they hog the space and generally look desperate.

That was before I learned that relationships are more important than fame and that relationships take time to develop and nurture. I would try to tell the person everything I knew, and I would end up verbally vomiting on them.

One day somebody took me aside and told me what I was doing. Then they gave me a powerful piece of advice.

“If there is someone you know well, you don’t worry about telling them everything you ever want to tell them, because you will see them again. Your problem is that you are afraid you will never see this famous person again, so you have to tell them everything, and instead of looking wise, you just look desperate. So don’t tell them everything the first time you meet them. Act like you have been there before, and like you assume you will be coming back. This increases the odds that you actually will be.”

Eat the meat, spit out the bones

Since I have been in Jackson, I have been trying to intentionally place myself in situations and circles I would not normally be in. I am seeking out unlikely friendships and attempting to avoid homogeneity in my relationships.

Which is why at 5:30 on a Tuesday morning I am in a living room in a part of town I don’t live in, surrounded by people who are much more conservative than me in any way you can think of – theologically, politically, socially – and we are there to study the sacred text we are all committed to, although we often derive different precepts from it.

It’s hard for me.

There, I said it. It’s hard to wake up at 4:30 AM to go sit with people who think very differently than you do about issues that matter to you a great deal. But what I have consistently found is that no one person (or even ideology) has a corner on all the wisdom there is in the world, and so I find myself taking notes and jotting down ideas that I hear in that room that I would never have considered otherwise.

I had a mentor once who told me that you could learn anywhere and from anyone.

“Take what is useful, and ignore what is not. Eat the meat, and spit out the bones,” he said.

An old school way to circumvent Facebook’s algorithm

Having just moved to a new city, I am meeting lots of new people, and some of them I add as friends on Facebook. But since I have never interacted with them before, I seldom see them in my news feed. Thanks, Facebook (not).

In addition, I have some relatives who seldom post anything to Facebook, and since the algorithm is focused on engagement, I never see their posts either.

Neither of these scenarios makes me happy. So I developed an old-school workaround.

Here is how I do it.

Basically, I just pull up the page for anyone I want to stay on top of, and then bookmark it to a folder in my bookmark bar that I creatively called “Facebook.” Then, whenever I want to check on folks (I do this once a week or so) I right click on the folder and then click “Open all”, which then opens all of those pages in new tabs. I look at each page briefly to see what, if anything, has been updated. I also make it a point to click “like” or comment on their recent posts, which will, theoretically, over time teach Facebook that I want to see their stuff.

You could also use this to keep track of family, or old high school friends whose updates you never see, etc.

The most Mississippi story ever

On the night of June 11, 1963, Dr. James Hardy performed the first successful lung transplant from one human to another. That happened at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in Jackson, MS. Because of that doctor’s work, and that surgery, and his transplantation of a chimpanzee heart to a human (also at the University Medical Center, in Jackson MS) the following year, there are many, many thousands of people – including my wife – who are alive today who otherwise would have died.

About twenty-four hours later, on a quiet street in Jackson MS, a civil rights worker named Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist. He was taken by ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which according to some reports, initially would not admit him to the emergency room because of his race until it was explained who he was. He died of his injuries. His murderer would be free for more than 30 years before being convicted.

And that 24 hours is the most goddamned emblematic story of Mississippi I know. Horror and hope, death and resurrection, terror and triumph – all in the same 24 hours, in the same city, at the same damned hospital, even. Mississippi is the best place I know. And the worst place I know. It will suck you in with its charms. And it will break your heart.

The comma

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day, he rose again from the dead…

Those words are found in The Apostle’s Creed, an early statement of belief from the Christian tradition. In some circles, agreement with it is regarded as the minimum test for orthodoxy.

And that’s OK, I guess, if you are into that sort of thing.

But where I find life and want to invest my energy isn’t in long flowery statements based on Greek philosophy, but rather in a comma.

Stay with me here. Look back at the statement above. See where it says, “…born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”? Two phrases, separated by a comma, and by more than 30 years in time.

Between being born and being judged by Pilate, Jesus of Nazareth lived some 30 odd years. The story goes that during that time, he fed hungry folks. He healed sick folks. He gave dignity back to people. He loved those no one loved. He lifted up those who had been trodden down. He affirmed women, he flouted oppressive religious laws, he confronted the Powers That Be and made a mockery of them. And less than 12 hours before he would be judged by Pilate, he ate dinner with his betrayer and gave him a second chance to do the right thing.

All of that and more is behind that comma.

The creeds relegate the life of Jesus to a mere comma as if it did not matter that he ate, drank, sweated, loved, belched, cried, pooped, lamented, ate with his friends, loved his mother and knew what it meant to be betrayed by people he loved.

And to be honest? All of that is far more interesting to me than whatever is alleged to have happened on the third day after they killed him. The life that was rejected by the creeds and replaced by a comma is, to me, worth imitating, worth learning from, worth aspiring to, and worth following.

I get asked sometimes why I stay in the Jesus tradition. It’s simple, really. It’s because I am fascinated with life that got replaced with a comma.

When your routine is off.

I am a creature of routine. This shocks people, but it’s true.
I wear the same four shirts over and over. I have two pairs of pants I wear almost every day, unless I wear shorts that day, when I will wear one of two pairs, or if I have to dress up, in which case I wear that nicer pair of pants I own. I alternate between two pairs of shoes, no matter the clothes I have on.
I drink my coffee from the same mug nearly every morning, wake up at the same time nearly every morning, eat one of three things for breakfast, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to quote the king.
Flaubert said to “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I like that a lot.
But sometimes things throw the routine off. Like right now, Renee is out of town to visit her family, so three cats and I are living the bachelor life here in this tiny apartment.
Which is fine – I lived by myself for a long time before I got married, and I do all the cooking anyway, and while I struggled a bit with wondering what sort of cat food we buy for the cats and where we keep the trash bags, I am doing fine.
Except that the routine is off, and things fall through the cracks, all of which makes me feel mega uncomfortable, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes.
So this morning when I woke up feeling off, I just put it down to the routine and the changes and got up to make my coffee the same way I do every morning. And in making the coffee I moved something on the counter and saw my pillbox – the one with the daily little boxes for each day of the week that I use to track the medication that keeps my depression at bay – and that it was amazingly full.
It seems I had not taken a single pill since Monday morning. In other words, I missed three doses. No wonder I am off.
Before you ask – I’m fine, and in a good place and not really depressed, just off – again, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes. But it does feel a bit disorienting. It’s the most doses I have missed in a year.
But one side effect of all of the mess that is my head – the ADHD, the chronic depression, the learning disabilities I have and all of that – is that you tend to blame yourself when things like this happen. Instead of thinking, “Of course you are disoriented – your life is a bit chaotic right now”, which is what my counsel would be to anyone else in this situation, you tend to see it as a personal failing. Like you don’t want to be healthy enough, or you are not trying hard enough, or maybe you just are not enough.
All of that to say, I cannot wait for my wife to return. I cannot wait to move into our permanent home, and I cannot wait to have a regular routine again. For me, it really is a matter of life or death.