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.

Thanks!

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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If you liked this post, you might like my weekly newsletter about the relentless pursuit of beauty.

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.

facebook

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.

Hugh’s Newsletter Situation

all the news

 

Here is the deal: I am going to send an email every Monday. It will consist of:

  • Five beautiful things I liked that week
  • A recommendation of a book I liked, and that I hope you will, too.  
  • If it is a week when something is happening I think people should know about, I will tell you about that, too.

And that’s it. No lengthy prose, no huge commitments. Just five things that struck me as beautiful, a book I read that was wonderful and things I think you should know.

If this works then I might keep it up – or I might not. I get bored easy.

You can go sign up here.

Naming the Poor.

Praying for alms.
On Sundays, Love Wins Ministries has a small chapel service for our community. It looks like any other low-church Protestant worship service, albeit one with worse singers and shorter attention spans than most. The one thing that makes it really different, however, is that It’s attended by both our volunteers and our friends who live outside, which sometimes makes it… interesting.

Like a lot of churches, we have a time in the service for prayers of the people – where we name our “hopes and dreams, our fears and our prayers before God and our community.” And like lots of churches, the list of things we pray for runs a pretty regular list.

People who are seeking jobs.

People’s health.

Peace in the world.

Victims of crime.

For those who are homeless, especially in bad weather.

See? Just like in your church. In fact, this world I live and work in seems so normal to me that sometimes I forget how we are different.

Yesterday, during our prayer time, we named people who were sick, and asked for prayer. We named people who had new jobs, and celebrated. We named people we knew would be sleeping outside in the upcoming single digit nights, and asked for their protection.

As I was standing at the front of the room, leading the prayer time, listening to the names being called out, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a volunteer last winter. She had just came to her first chapel service, and wanted to process it with me. Something had rocked her during the service, and she wanted to name it.

“All my life, I’ve prayed for those who were homeless. You named people who were homeless. All my life, I have prayed for people who needed jobs. You named people who needed jobs. I’ve always prayed for people to be safe in the cold weather. You named people who sleep outside in the cold weather. It was the first time I have ever prayed for people who are poor by name.”

Father Gustavo Gutierrez in Brazil famously said, “So you say you love the poor? Name them.”

It is one thing to know that people are sleeping in the cold. it is a very different thing to know that David and Maria and Shelia and Timmy and Quincy and Grady are sleeping in the cold tonight. It is one thing to pray for people that don’t have enough food. It is another to pray for Maria, who cannot afford formula for her infant.

Do we really love the poor? Not if we don’t know their names.

The Adventures of Peanut and the Chicken Man

The crocus and sedum are struggling to come through the mulch on Valentines Day.

The crocus and sedum are struggling to come through the mulch on Valentines Day.

I was in my front yard this morning, looking for signs of life in my nearly dormant flower beds. And despite the freezing nights we are having these days, it was there!

I saw crocus (they are late, but this being their first year, I am willing to give them a pass). I am on my hands and knees, brushing the mulch off the sedum that is emerging.

“Hey Chicken Man!”

It was my friend and neighbor, Peanut. He is six years old, and he assures me that is his real name. I once asked him how he knows it’s his name, and he looked at me like I was an idiot.

“Well, ’cause my momma calls me Peanut.”

Welp.  In any event, Peanut had caught me in the front yard, and wanted to know if I would take him to my backyard to see the chickens. I have a standing deal with the neighborhood kids – they can see my chickens anytime, but they have to ask, and they can’t go in the backyard without me. And if the chickens have any eggs, I will give them some to take home.

After checking with his mom (who really does call him Peanut), we went to the backyard, stopping along the way to check on the crocus, the Iris that are coming through the mulch and to see if the impending Camilla blooms had made any progress. (They hadn’t.)

Peanut kept wanting to pick all the flowers, while also wanting to stand on the flower beds. Peanut’s horticultural sensibilities still need some work.

We walk up to the chicken run, and Peanut shouts to the hens, ‘Hey chickens! It’s me, Peanut!”, as if he believes they have been wondering where the noisy kid that loves to throw scratch for them to eat has been.

His two sisters, both under 12, showed up about then, yelling from the side yard to ask if they can come back and see the chickens, too.

Every time Peanut would want my attention, he would address me as Chicken Man. I would remind him my name is Hugh, and he would repeat it back to me. Then three minutes would pass, and he would call me Chicken Man again. Apparently, memory isn’t his strong suite, either.

The girls and Peanut always have lots of questions – most of which have to do with the sex lives of chickens.  Here is a sampling of today’s, with my answers in parentheses.

  • Why don’t the eggs hatch? (We don’t have any roosters)
  • What are roosters? (Boy chickens)
  • Where do chicken eggs come from? (From momma chickens)
  • Why was there chicken poop on some of the eggs? (Chickens are messy, and the eggs and the poop come out of the body at the same place.)
  • Can I see where the eggs come out? (No)
  • Why do you need boy chickens to get baby chickens? (That is just the way it works.)
  • Why aren’t these eggs white, like real eggs? (Eggs come in all colors, just like people do. The three kids are all different shades of brown, and so we use this as an example. They got it, I think.)
  • Can they have some eggs? (Yes)

They have to go now, and they ask if they can come back another day and check on the chickens. I tell them yes, as long as they ask me first. Peanut is beside me as we walk toward the house, when he turns and runs back.

“Bye chickens! I will be back soon!”

Then he runs back to where I am waiting, with his small brown hands full of eggs, and we walk to the front yard together.

I don’t know if this matters at all in the scheme of things. i don’t know if Peanut’s life will be different because he knows about the sex lives of chickens, or if he will even remember our trips to see them. He lives in a rental house in a neighborhood that is constantly changing. He has probably lived in five houses in his young life. The odds are really strong he won’t be my neighbor by the end of this year.

So why bother? Why take the time? Why let him feed the chickens? Why answer the endless questions?

I really don’t have a good answer for that, other than to say that while I am uncertain if it changes him, it surely changes me. And while I am pretty sure my sharing chicken time with Peanut won’t save the world, it will assuredly (as my friend David Lamotte likes to remind me) change it, and sometimes, that is enough. In fact, sometimes, that is all there is.