Second-Hand Memories

Day Lillies


Her name was Dorothy, and she had two sisters, Louise and Wilma. I was born on her birthday, and she loved me without reservation. My father was her youngest son, a child she had late in life, the son she raised as a single mom when her husband died way too young.

She died when I was three, and I only have two memories of her.  I have a very clear picture of us, she and I, laying on her hospital bed in the living room of the house we lived in those days – a house my dad grew up in, a house she moved into when she married my Granddad. In my memory, the bed is in front of the window, and I was looking at a book (some things do not change) and she was beside me, looking at the book with me. I remember only feeling very loved and safe.

The other memory is less  emotional, but just as clear. The house was old, and drafty. It had propane space heaters for heat, and in this memory, it was very cold, and early in the morning. She was wearing her house coat, and was squatting flat-footed in front of the space heater in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette.

It was the cigarettes that killed her. Lung cancer took her away from us far too soon.

That is really all I remember on my own. I have lots of stories filed in my head about her, but they are second-hand memories – stories dad told me, or her sisters told me when I was older. Like I know her favorite flower was the daylilly, but that is only because every summer, Dad would tell me that when the orange ditchlilies would bloom.

And she loved the music of Roy Orbison – especially Pretty Woman. But again, I know this secondhand, from hearing that fact relayed to me my entire childhood whenever it would come on the radio.

Memory is a funny thing. A random comment by a family member on Facebook about daylilys triggered this wander down memory lane. One month from today, it will be our birthday – I will be 43, and she would have been 102.

Since we moved into this house, I have planted lots of flowers. Shasta Daisy, yarrow, Asiatic lily, columbine, flags (you know them as iris) and roses. And daylilys. Lots of daylilys. But no orange ones.  Until the other day, that is. The other day, I bought some orange ditchlilys to plant by the road.

I think I will do that on our birthday this year, and listen to Roy Orbison, and sit in front of my window, and read a book and try, once again, to feel safe and loved.

I think she would want that. Hell, I know that I do.


Sharing Beautiful Things

For the last eight years, I have been aggressively hunting out beautiful things. This was the result of a late-night conversation with a mentor shortly after I made the decision to spend my life working with and among the homeless population of Raleigh. He told me, “The world you are choosing to inhabit is an ugly place. It will be easy to lose yourself in it. You have to gorge yourself with beauty, so you have a reserve, just like if you knew you were going to be in a desert, you would gorge yourself with water before you went.”

So, for eight years, I have been hoarding beauty, and it has, for the most part, worked. Eight years in, and I don’t have a drinking problem, I haven’t been suicidal, I have healthy relationships with a wide circle of friends and I have a good marriage. If that sounds like a low bar, you don’t know many people in my line of work.

But I wondered if there was more to be mined from this search for beauty. I wondered what was missing. And then I realized that what was missing was other people.

Experiences become more real when they are shared. We are, after all, social animals. I wanted to share the beauty I was finding with other people.

So, I sent a simple email to about 30 people I knew. It had five links to things I had found online that I thought were beautiful and a book I had read that stirred me.

And the next week, I did it again. And again.

Ten weeks later, hundreds of people have signed up to get this email every Monday. But that isn’t the biggest thing. The big thing that has happened is I had not realized just how little beauty I was actually letting into my life. I was intentional about it before, but it was confined to big events – outings to the museum, a trip to the park or the beach, sitting down with a novel. But if I was going to share five things a week with people, and they were expecting it, I was going to have to get better at finding beautiful things.

In order to find five beautiful things a week, I have to look at dozens. I watch many more cute videos than I once did, I have read amazing articles I would have once only glanced at, I have seen countless pictures of sunsets and beaches and flowers – I am, for the first time, truly saturating myself with beauty.

Every time I see a picture, a painting, a poem, a bird, for crying out loud, I ask myself, “Is this beautiful? Is it really beautiful? Is it share-worthy?” I have had to apply a level of mindfulness and intentionality to how I view the world. In order to find beautiful things to share, I have to be looking for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I know the world is full of ugliness and pain. I know that all too well. I see it every day. But I also know the Powers of this world are vested in making you afraid, and in making you dissatisfied. They profit from your fear.

By searching for the beauty that surrounds us, I fight the dominant narrative. I claim space that says, “The ugliness of the world is not the only way to see the world. Because while the world is full of pain, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

And by sharing the beauty I find with others, I am, in essence, evangelizing that point of view. There are beautiful things all around us – you don’t have to swim in the ugliness. You don’t have to despair. You don’t have to be afraid.

So, look for beautiful things. Actively seek them out. And share them with each other. Say to them, “This is beautiful, and I wanted you to see it too.” Do it as if your life depends on it. Because, I am more and more convinced, it actually does.

NB: You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter by going here

I Don’t Have a Plan

desk update
It was the summertime, and I was moving to Raleigh, leaving Memphis forever. I had coffee with some friends my last few weeks there, to say goodbye. One meeting was with a woman I had dated for a long time, that I once thought I might marry.

“So, you’re moving to Raleigh. What’s your plan?” she asked.

“I will find a job, I guess, and do freelance and get a roommate. It’ll be fine,” I said.

“Oh yes. Now I remember why we broke up.” She liked plans.

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The other day, someone asked me what I was planning to do with my weekly newsletter. I told them I don’t know – I haven’t thought about it, really. I just know it’s fun to do, and it resonates with people and some people think it makes their week better.

Is it fair to ask something to do more than that?

My buddy Brian asked me what I was going to do next.  He knows I get bored easy, and I have done pretty much nothing but run Love Wins for the last eight years or so. And while I won’t stop running Love Wins anytime soon, the reality of my life is this:

My wife is probably going to have a heart transplant in the next two years or so. This will cost a ton of money. Not just in medical costs, much of which will be covered by insurance (Thanks, Obama!) but I will pretty much be living in Durham for at least a few months around the transplant. There will be daily commutes, countless meals in restaurants, transplant proofing our home – countless costs that will add up.

Put that on top of the fact that after more than eight years of doing this work, I earn less than a teacher’s starting pay in their first gig and I am the sole breadwinner for our family (heart transplant, remember? ) and there is no reasonable hope of a raise from Love Wins anytime soon (the funds just are not there) and you come up with one incontrovertible fact: I need to make more money.

Not rock-star money. Not even plumber money. But good, solid middle class money.

I have to admit – it isn’t easy for me to say that. I spent most of my twenties chasing money. I liked chasing it. I caught some of it. It made me miserable. It has felt good the last decade or so to not chase it at all. In fact, I have pretty much ignored it. (You can read that backstory here.)

But I have a family now, and I have responsibilities, and I can’t afford to do that any more. But I am never far from that guy in a three piece suit, swilling vodka from a flask in my car, working up my courage to go back in that office building and “dial for dollars!” and not punch my boss in the face. I hate that guy in the suit, but he is never very far away from me.

So maybe there is a third way. A way to make money by making folks happy, to do well by doing good. I hope so. Because if I have to put a suit on again to take care of my family, no one is going to like that at all. Hell, I am uncertain if I can survive it, let alone like it.

I do have a few options, it seems.

I like doing the newsletter, so I am going to keep doing it. I am not sure how it is going to make me any money, but there are people who do make money doing such things. For now, I will keep it. If nothing else, it is stress relief.

I speak to groups about how to understand homelessness, and how to engage folk experiencing homelessness. When I get to do it, it is fairly financially rewarding. But to make a significant jump in my income, I will need a couple of gigs a month, and I am unsure that many people want to know anything I have to say.

A few times, I have been asked to do consulting work with new faith communities, helping them figure out who they were. I also mentor a few college-age-ish folks, helping them figure out who they are. I love this sort of work, but figure if I start calling myself a mentor or a consultant, I am gonna end up back in that suit.

I have had several people express interest in my writing a book, but when it comes time for money to be discussed, those offers get more vague. But I am going to have to do it, which means I have to chase down someone willing to give me a contract to do it, which means I have to come up with a proposal. Suddenly, this is a lot of work.

So, all of this is to say, I don’t know how I am going to bridge the gap between what I am making and what I need to be making. But I know I am going to have to do it.

This is as close as I have to a plan right now:

I am going to create beautiful things (on the web, on stage, one on one, on paper) and show it to lots of people. Some of those people will give me money for it, and if I show it to enough people, I should be OK*.

I know that isn’t much of a plan. But right now, it is all I have.

*If about now, you are thinking, “I see why that woman he dated for a long time broke up with him”, you would not be wrong.


The State of the Newsletter

In my life, I had seen many ugly things, and it was getting to me. I had found myself getting cynical, and thought that if I intentionally looked for the beautiful things, it would help inoculate me against the ugly.

But I also knew I am horrible at keeping commitments to myself. So, my plan was to send a weekly newsletter to a few friends each week, with some beautiful things in it. But I am also easily bored, so I only committed to do it through Lent.

However, something strange happened – I ended up enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun doing something online since I began blogging back in 2004 or so. So I am going to keep doing it.

Because it was frivolous, I didn’t bother naming it. I just called it my Newsletter Situation. But if it is going to stick around, it should probably have a name. I posted a poll in the weekly mailing and overwhelmingly, people chose The Hughsletter. A strong second choice was The Pursuit of Beauty, which I really like, but is a bit long winded for an email subject line. If a book comes out of this project, however, that would make a great title.

So, my newsletter situation is going to stick around, for now, anyway, and is being rebranded as The Hughsletter. (You can click that link to sign up).

In addition, I am playing with a Facebook page, where I will post links that perhaps didn’t make the cut, or things (like individual pictures) that don’t work as well in an email format. It would mean a lot to me if you would a) ‘like’ the page and b) share the things I post over there.


Why I Stay in the South

Orange Avenue, Floral City, Florida
I live in the Southland. I love it here. I was raised in the south – in fact, further south than I live now, in a childhood filled with honeysuckle, sweet tea, fishing, lightning bugs and church potlucks.

The earliest memories I have involve table fellowship with other folks, of lessons drummed into my head about hospitality and being told to “remember who I was”. I have vivid memories of elderly, blue haired ladies telling me they knew my grandma (who died when I was very young) and my daddy and that they knew I had been “raised right”.

In the South I grew up in, I was taught we had to take care of each other, because none of us had much. So Daddy (I am 42, and still call him that) would miss supper sometimes, because he had worked more than 10 hours that day, crawling under houses in a shirt with his name on it for barely over minimum wage and he went straight to the volunteer fire department to get trained on some new piece of firefighting equipment. Because we had a responsibility to watch out for each other.

I learned that the things that make for a good life involve other people – the people who bring you a casserole when you are sick, the rounds you make at Christmas, taking tins of divinity fudge to old ladies who would wipe the snuff off their mouth and say with amazement, ‘I’ll swan…” as they bit into the creamy goodness of that confection. The neighbor who knows your daddy is sick, and comes down and cuts the grass and stacks the firewood.

My grandmother’s sister – my great-aunt — was a fierce lady. Born in 1907, she had been divorced in the 1930’s, when that was rare. She told me her first husband was a drunk, and “damned if I was gonna do all the work and watch him drink”. She told me that she might go to hell for it, but she had been in hell for the years she had been married to him, so she knew how to live there. She refused to take the Lord’s Supper at church, because “I am lots of things, Hugh Lawson (that’s what they call me back home), but none of them are a hypocrite.” I learned to not be a hypocrite.

In that church, I learned about Jesus, who told us to love each other, and who had long hair, but that was OK, because he was God and, most important, he didn’t live in my daddy’s house. But more than learning about Jesus, I learned about church – about community, about people who would cut the articles about you out of the local paper when you won the spelling bee and put them on their refrigerator and pray for you every night.

God was the Father, and demanded obedience – which made sense to me, as my own father demanded obedience. I figured Jesus had been told, ‘Because I said so!” any number of times as a kid.

I learned other, more complicated things, too. I learned that we were “poor, but proud”, and that we were not afraid to work. But I also learned that some people would look at your black friend’s hard work and tell you he was “a credit to his race”. And that would confuse you, but not as much as trying to understand why he wasn’t allowed to spend the night at your house, or eat supper at your table.

As I grew older, I learned that complicated lesson that the very people who taught me to love can be, themselves, unloving. That the people who taught me to be hospitable can themselves be inhospitable. It means learning early on that the people who loved me into being are flawed, and fall short often of the ideals they gave me.

Being a child of the Southland means feeling things fiercely, and so I learned that you stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, and I learned that I had “responsibilities” to my community. That I learned to draw the circle of community larger than my people did is not my fault – I was taught that “red and yellow, black and white – they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” They taught me that, and I believed them.

Being in and of the South while being a progressive white straight male means your liberal educated friends from North of here will watch how your state votes and will call your friends back home “inbred” and ‘hillbillies” and “white trash” and ask you how you stay there.

And sometimes you tell them those people are some of the kindest, best people you know, but folks in power have made them afraid in order to maintain power. That your people have been played and told that their diminishing paychecks and their insecurity and their inability to keep the land their granddaddy farmed and got 49 harvests from – that all of that is the fault not of the people who are in power, but of people who have brown skin and less power than even they do. And your people believe it, because scared people will believe anything that will make them less scared.

And sometimes you tell them that you stay because you love it here, and that this is your place, and your roots run deep here, and one day you will be buried here amongst your ancestors. And that to ask why you don’t leave means that you are supposed to believe that there is a separation from the values you learned as a child and the values you believe now, when the reality is, the person you are now is just the person you were taught to be then, only writ larger.

And for them to suggest you leave is to suggest that you cannot be the person who longs for table fellowship and church meetings and cape jasmine and sweet tea and cornbread and also be the person who fights for justice for your community and who yearns for the day we can all sit at the same table and eat cornbread and sweet tea together. And that is not true.

I can be all of who I am, and also be southern. In fact, I am all of who I am because I am southern. And to suggest I move is to suggest I deny all of that. And that I cannot do.

Because those people taught me to be lots of things – but none of those things was a hypocrite.

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I’m Still Here

Last Sunday morning, I didn’t feel good.

I didn’t know it yet, but I was sick with the flu, and before the day was out, I would be running a fever of 102. I was laid out flat the rest of the day Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday. I came in to the office for a few unavoidable meetings over the next few days, but was pretty much out of service until Wednesday afternoon.

I had a meeting Wednesday night, which was hard to stay awake for, honestly. I got home around 9, and of course, my wife was already running a fever. Around 11 that night, her heart went nuts, and we ended up taking her to the emergency room. Before the night was out, we would be admitted to Intensive Care, where we would stay until Saturday afternoon, when we would come home, exhausted.

It was a hell of a week, to tell you the truth.

And I am still not 100%. But I am here, ya know?

I rarely get sick, other than the obligatory cold every year. I am not good at being sick, either. It doesn’t fit into my plan.

But there are things in this world you cannot control, and for those things, you have to focus on the only thing you can control – how you respond to them.

So, all of that is to say, I am moving slow, and it will probably be a few more days before my blogging stride returns.

Facebook Killed My Blog. This is What I’m Doing About It.


In the  summer of 2007, I joined Facebook. However, I didn’t really hit my stride with it until late 2008. and my use of it shot up dramatically in late 2010. Now, it’s my most-engaged social network. Not the one I like the most – that would be twitter - but the one I do the most things on.

Over the last nearly eight years, I have posted lots of snippets of my life on there – restaurants I have eaten at, quotes I liked, moments of snark, rants, thankfulness. And it feels so ephemeral. A week later, it ‘s gone, disappeared forever into the timeline of history.

It’s no coincidence that the frequency of my blogging is inverse to my Facebook usage. From a frequency perspective, I was never more active as a blogger than in 2007 and 2008. And as my Facebook usage increased, my blogging decreased. A big part of that is because rather than sit down and write a well developed and organized piece – something that takes me at least 45 minutes or an hour, I can post the root of the thought on Facebook, get immediate comments and validation, and move on.

The end result, however, is more noise, less signal.

Maybe I’m wrong on this, but I’m pretty sure none of us are going to be remembered for the body of work we created on Facebook. For those of us who seek to collide with the status quo, the key is a permanent, interactive repository of our content. And you won’t get that on Facebook. In fact, Facebook works against that very thing.

What also worries me is that once I post something on Facebook, I don’t think about it anymore. It’s out of my head. Which means that I no longer have to engage it. So I don’t, and any opportunity for using my thoughts, my experience, my stories to effect change are gone as soon as it gets pushed down the timeline by the “Which Power Ranger Are You‘ quiz (I’m the Red Ranger, by the way. #duh!).

Over the last eight years, countless times I have written something on Facebook and thought, “I need to flesh that out later” – but I didn’t. It was gone, forgotten.

A few weeks ago, I vaguely remembered something I had once written on Facebook, and tried scrolling back through my history. They make that very hard to do. Then I got obsessive, and learned you can download a copy of everything you have ever posted to Facebook. It isn’t a hack or a trick – it is a feature – albeit one they don’t advertise.

Here, from the Facebook help desk, is how you do it.

  • Click at the top right of any Facebook page and select Settings
  • Click Download a copy of your Facebook data below your General Account Settings
  • Click Start My Archive

It’s as easy as that. You get a download of every picture, every status, every message – the whole shebang.

I have found it interesting to go through my timeline, which presents itself in reverse date order. I spent the other night, looking through my past entries. Yes, it was nostalgia inducing, but most important, I cut and pasted posts that I think should be fleshed out into full-on blog posts. I now have more than 10 pages of those, and I am not done yet. I have at least 50 potential blog posts there, not counting spin-offs or ideas that percolate up while writing those posts.

I will still use Facebook – but more as a means of amplifying my ideas, not as a repository for them.

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How about you? Did Facebook kill your blogging? Are you OK with that?

You Get to Decide if They Own You

Fishpool gold coins
I love this story about Diogenes, the philosopher.

One day, Diogenes was eating bread and lentils, when he was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who made a very good living by flattering the king.

Aristippus sneered at the humble meal and told Diogenes, “If you would only learn to be subservient to the king like I have, you would not have to eat lentils.”

Diogenes replied. “If you would only learn to like lentils like I have, you would never have to be subservient to the king.”

When I get emails from people who want to know how to start an independent ministry or start a business or who tell me about how frustrated they are with the powers that be and their control over their lives, the first question I ask is:

“Do you like lentils?”

Because the only power anyone has over you is the power you give them. And if you take their money, they think they own you, and it doesn’t matter how much you want to pretend they don’t. And if you need their money – really need it – then they do.

The only solution I have found is to not need their money in the first place. Which means it is good to like lentils.

Knowing When to Sing

Baby Bird

My favorite story my Dad ever told me:

Once upon a time there was a baby bird, sitting in the nest. And like most baby birds, he wanted to fly. His mom had left him alone in the nest while she went for worms, and he ventured out, to try to fly on his own.

He leapt off the edge of his nest, but plummeted down to the ground, where he was knocked unconscious. To make matters worse, it was very cold, and he was on the edge of death from exposure.

Along came a cow, who crapped on the baby bird. The heat of the cow crap enveloped the baby bird, and warmed him. Revived, the baby bird began to sing.

A cat was walking by, and heard the baby bird’s singing. The cat grabbed the baby bird out of the cow poop and promptly ate him.

There are three morals to this story.

  1. Everyone who shits on you is not necessarily your enemy.
  2. Everyone who gets you out of shit is not necessarily your friend.
  3. If you are warm and happy in a pile of shit, keep your mouth shut.

The Relentless Pursuit of Beauty

Beautiful Autumn
I spend my days with people who live in homelessness. And people who do sex work. And people who are mentally ill. And people who are suicidal. I am not complaining, mind you – just telling the truth. That is what my life looks like.

And my off time is spent reading poetry. And watching films from the 40’s. And planting crocus in my flower bed. And browsing used bookstores. And listening to, depending on the day, Bach or B.B. King or Miles Davis. Some people call this self-care. I call it pursuing beauty.

I have mentioned before that Bart Campolo was a huge influence on how I minister. The most important thing he taught me, by far, was to pursue beauty.

He told me that if I knew I was going to walk across the desert tomorrow, I should be gorging myself with water tonight. Likewise, he said, if I know that tomorrow I will be surrounded by ugliness, I should strive to gorge myself with beauty to prepare for it. My days are pretty ugly at times. So he insisted I hang at museums, read good books, watch good films, read poetry and play in my garden. All in the relentless pursuit of beauty as a prophylactic against the ugliness I will encounter.

The reality, I have come to learn in the years since, is that your ability to survive in the face of unspeakable ugliness is inversely related to the amount of beauty you allow in your life. And while doing this work has placed me in contact with all the ugliness you can stand, the beauty you have to look for yourself. In fact, the beauty often has to be hunted for, and even planned.

So, I am always seeking beauty as if my life depends on it – because it does.