Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.

I feel like writing is magic. It’s the old magic, the original sorcery. Because I can not know what I think, sit down and hit the keys, and suddenly, ideas come up.

Like today, I was unsure what to write about, and all I had was a line that kept turning over in my head. So I sat down to write, stream of consciousness. What follows is what I came up with.

Normally, I wouldn’t stop there, but I wanted to illustrate my point about magic. This is what I think of as a pre-draft. It seems like this idea wants to be several things – maybe a launching point about generosity vs. capitalism. Or about the generosity of the creative act. Or a lament for the early days of the internet. Or a bitch session about my own dissatisfaction with my schedule and routine.

Or maybe it wants to be all of those in a long, wandering essay that I tie up in the last paragraph. But in any event, I got nearly a thousand words of starting points off an 8-word sentence.

See? Magic.

# # #

“Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.”

That line played itself over and over in my head while I was on my walk today. Was it from a poem I read once? From a song buried deep in the lizard part of my brain? Or was it just a truth I felt deep in my bones that I knew in the way one knows one is tired, the way you know that you have missed a turn, the way one knows they have, indeed, lost their way?

It’s like that sometimes. Sometimes I have an idea, a theme if you will, and I want to explore that, and so I work out a narrative around it because I don’t understand things I can’t tell stories about.

Other times I have a story I want to tell, and it works the other way – I tell a story, and a theme presents itself. Sometimes I can tell the same story twice in a row, and a different theme shows up each time. It’s as if I’m not in control at all.

And then other times, it’s like today – I just get a line, and I have to figure out what to do with it.

“Where does this fit?” I ask myself.

What do I do with it? Is it the opening line in a novel? A short story? The apologia by a character for missing their son’s school play? Or is it just a thing I notice about the world around me?

Because it does seem as if, somewhere along the line, we have lost our way. I think Merlin Mann was onto the same sort of thing when he said that it seems like we have lost the recipe for America. But it isn’t just politically – it is pervasive. We all seem to be lost, wandering in the wilderness. A bit dazed, a little confused, somewhat weary, but cautiously hopeful that, around the bend, just over the hill, it will all be back to right again.

At least, that’s how it’s been for me. I was talking to an elementary school principal the other day, and she told me that the last “normal” school year was the one that started in the fall of 2018. Of course, I knew that, but hearing it in that context was staggering.

But I think we lost our way a long time before that.

I was thinking about Instagram this morning. It was once a cool way to show your friends a picture you had taken.

“Here, look at this cat I saw lying in the sunlight. Here is a cool sign I saw in a shop window. Check out the way the light refracts in this pool of water in the parking lot.”

It was generosity. Sharing. It was hopeful.

“Here is a thing I made. It’s for you.”

That was before it was bought by Facebook. Before the rise of the influencers, and back before Facebook sought to extract every possible click and pageview, sought to own every second of your attention. And way before Stories and Reels and who knows what all.

Back then, it was just generosity.

But we seem to have lost our way.

It shouldn’t surprise me. The same thing happened to us bloggers.

Around the turn of the century, blogging took effort. You had to find a host. And you needed a CMS, or you had to know how to write HTML, or you needed an HTML publisher. There was friction.

So those of us who did it did it because we had things we wanted to share.

Here are my thoughts about this thing I’m excited about. Here is a cool thing I found. Check out this article – I think the author is a moron.

There was no real way to monetize in those days. Some people were trying banner ads but losing their asses at it. The blogs were acts of love.

But in 2003, Google developed Adsense, where anyone with a website could put a bit of code on their site and get paid when people clicked their ads. Now, the goalpost changed. It wasn’t about love anymore – it was now about getting clicks. Attention. Views.

It was a short jump from there to corporations developing walled gardens where we still wrote for love, but they made money from the advertisers. I’m looking at you, Social Media.

It seems we have lost our way.

Or maybe it was my anger at how the comments on a cooking forum I belong to have suddenly turned political, with commentators managing to find grist for political jabs in posts about fruitcakes and cranberries. I sometimes think that even Gandhi would despair for humanity if he had spent time in the comment section of Facebook.

It’s also probably that I personally feel adrift as well. I have not had a full weekend at home since August sometime. My life feels chaotic, adrift, and unmoored. This time last year, I was writing an 800-word post every day on my blog. These days I count it a success if I get a post a week up, all the while recognizing it would be easier to not. Since starting the new job, my schedule has been off, and my routine has not yet settled. This frustrates me.

I don’t know what the line means, in other words. I just know that I know it, deep down, in my bones.

“Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.”

Chicken and Dressing – Free Download

Considering the holidays, and some folks, due to no fault of their own, not knowing how to make cornbread dressing properly – I saw where one lady said she was gonna use Jiffy Cornbread Mix in hers! – my members are making a draft chapter of my narrative cookbook, Food Is Love, available for free download.

It gives you the story behind my memories of Chicken and Dressing and includes recipes for Southern AF cornbread, as well as Chicken and Dressing (and a variation if you want to use pork sausage, like my momma does, instead).

I’m working on a book full of meals and stories like these, and if you want to know how to support that work, get early draft copies of chapters like this in your inbox, and more, you should become a member – you can learn more about that here. If you just want to thank me, you can buy me a cup of coffee or share this post with a friend.

You can download the free PDF file here – no tricks, no spam, and no need to surrender your email address. It’s a pure gift.

I hope your holidays are marvelous, and that you get to celebrate them with the people you love.

Hold On

Hey Hugh,

Can we talk? I know this is weird, but this is Hugh. Like, I’m you, but in 2022. I’m from the future. Or rather, this note is from the future. I just came across this picture, and thought I would write.

It must be… 1987 there? I remember that sweater. Your mom – I mean, our mom, uhhm, Mom got it from the rummage sale. Those acid-washed jeans came from Walmart, and you bought them with your own money. And just out of the frame are some generic high-top basketball shoes because we couldn’t afford Jordans. And you were proud of that watch you had gotten for Christmas that year.

But I also know what doesn’t show in that picture. I know how ugly you felt, how uncool you felt, how that tiny high school in the middle of a dairy farm in rural Mississippi seemed like your whole world, how alone you were, and how you never belonged.

I know how tired you are. I know how you sweat alone at night in your tiny bedroom, lifting heavy weights so you can not be puny, so people will not push you around and bully you. I know how useless you feel, compared to everyone. It’s hard being Hugh Hollowell’s boy. When you have a father that everyone loves and who can do anything, it can be overwhelming if you are awkward and nerdy. I know that dark feeling you sometimes get, where you just sit on the bed and weep and rock.

This summer, it will come over you like a wave, and you will put a gun in your mouth when no one is home, but you won’t pull the trigger. It’s 35 years later, and I can still taste the gun oil on my tongue. I don’t know why, but you will decide to keep trying. I’m really glad you did.

Because you won’t believe how it all turns out.

You will go in the Marines, and you will like it there. You will have six-pack abs, and long ropey muscles, and women will want you. I know that seems impossible right now, but it’s coming. A war is coming too, and it will have repercussions for decades, but you personally will be OK. Lots of folks won’t, though.

You are gonna flop around a lot in your twenties as you search for meaning. You will simultaneously run away from Mississippi and crave it. You will marry for all the wrong reasons and regret it. A lot of people will get hurt along the way.

But in your mid-thirties you will hit your stride, finding both purpose and a life partner. Eventually, you will be published in national publications and books, be quoted in Time magazine and elsewhere, be interviewed on TV, and speak to huge crowds who will give you standing ovations when you are done… it will be a wild ride.

Along the way, you will build incredible relationships with all sorts of people, you will swim in both oceans, travel to other countries, see mountains and deserts, eat foods you can’t dream of right now, and lose people you love.

But eventually, you will come back home to MS. And when you do, one day when you are 50, you will be driving through the Delta one fine, sunny November day, and you will think about how unlikely your entire life has been, and how while it isn’t what you planned you are so damned grateful for the chance to have been present for it. And you will think about how far you have come and how far you still want to go, and you will think back to that summer day in 1987 and the taste of gun oil on your tongue, and you will be really, really glad you didn’t pull that trigger.

So hold on, my dude. Hold on. Because while it is trite (and not always true) to say that it gets better, it will for you. Your life will be magical.

So hold on.

The Uniform

When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a superhero. I wouldn’t shut up about it. I drew plans for my Fortress of Solitude, which was going to be located on the back of our property, behind the pine trees. I sketched what my costume would look like. I wrote out various permutations of my superhero name – CatMan, Cat man, Cat Man – like a lovesick teenager writing her potential married name over and over in the back of her notebook. I spent time at the library figuring out from what material I would make the claws my costume required.

At 12, I had put away such childish things and now wanted to be a ninja. My friends and I would practice moves we read about in Black Belt magazine, read books by Stephen K. Hayes we bought from the big bookstore in Memphis and tossed throwing stars we bought by mail order from the back of magazines against the side of the barn. Sometimes, they even stuck in the wood siding, but not often. We would debate what sort of ninja suit we would eventually have and the merits of polyester (cheaper, lighter) vs. natural fibers (breathable, not shiny).

By age 18, I had joined the US Marines. I had been heavily recruited by the Navy, but in the end, chose the Marines. The Marine recruiter had me pegged.

“You can be a sailor,” he said, “and have a good career and then move on. Or you can be a Marine and know for the rest of your life that you were once among the best in the world at something.”

My people were not the best in the world at anything. The day I turned 18, I signed the papers. At Camp Lejune, after boot camp, I spent most of my paycheck on a KaBar combat knife, which rode upside down on my left ALICE strap for the rest of my time in the Marines, and which is currently in the drawer of my desk, 32 years later as I write these words. I wore jungle boots instead of the Hershey bar colored speed-lace boots we were issued in those days, and we haunted the army-navy stores for heavy, woodland camouflage utilities rather than the modern, lightweight utilities the noobs wore.

The Marines were a nice place to visit, but I didn’t want to live there, so when I was recruited to be in financial sales, I leaped at the chance. At night I read arcane books on tax law and selling techniques, and during the day, I would have lunch meetings and call on prospects and wore nice ties and watches. I learned which outlet stores had the good clothes at high discounts, and paid attention to the mannequins in the shop windows to learn what outfits worked. I had a Brooks Brothers suit I still miss 20 years later.

Doing street-level homeless work meant dressing down – way down. I famously had a blue blazer and one shirt and tie for when I had to go to court or to wear if I got invited to speak to Episcopalians – but nearly every day of my life was spent in blue jeans and a solid, no-logo t-shirt. That was strategic – in that logos brought attention, and my main job in doing that work was to take the focus off of me. And it’s mostly what the folks I worked and ministered among wore, and they were cheap, and soon, I became the man in gray.

But when I began to do the work I do now – broadly speaking, political work among faith communities – the grey t-shirts and baggy jeans no longer worked. What had been the simple clothes designed to put a day laborer at ease did not have that effect on Bishops and City Council members. So I now wear blazers and khaki pants day to day, and have the charcoal suit to break out for special occasions. The red and blue club tie is for when I need to blend in at the courthouse, and the solid red tie is for when I need to stand out.

The other day I told someone I don’t care about clothes at all, but the more I think about it, the more it’s obvious that isn’t quite true. And I still want to be a superhero. It’s just that these days, the uniform is a little different.

Go Pantsers.

It was a muggy afternoon in Midtown Memphis almost 17 years ago, and I had agreed to meet my ex-girlfriend in the Starbucks on Union Avenue. The ghost of Elvis was nowhere in sight. If he had any sense, he was hiding somewhere there was air conditioning.

We had been broken up at that point for many months, but we were still friendly. But tomorrow, I was leaving to move to Raleigh, NC, and when I told her, it made sense to see each other one last time to say goodbye. I was pretty sure I wasn’t coming back.

We sat at a table by the door.

“So, what is your plan for when you get there?” she asked.

“I found a room in a rooming house on Craigslist and sent them the money for the first month to hold it. I’ll find a make-do job, and then work on my freelance writing to make a living.”

She stared at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just remembering why we broke up. You do realize that isn’t a plan, right?”

She was right. It wasn’t a plan. But then again, she was a planner. I am a pantser.

There is an old joke to the effect that there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. I’m one of the ones who do. And I think most people are either planners or pantsers.

We took her kids to Dollywood once.

She had prepared a three-ring binder. With tabs, one for each day we were to be there. Each day had a written agenda. There was a map of the park she had downloaded from the web, with the optimal route highlighted. There was a daily anticipated budget.

My plan had been, “Show up at Dollywood.” But then again, I’m a pantser.

I like the term pantser, and am actively lobbying for its inclusion in the broader cultural lexicon. It’s someone who does not plan but prefers instead to fly by the seat of their pants (pants. Pantser. Get it?).

I first heard it when taking a course on writing fiction, and the teacher contrasted the two styles of plot development. Some actively plan, usually with detailed outlines and charts, the direction of their story. Joyce Carol Oats advocates this view by saying, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”

Others (like me) try to write one true sentence and then another, and the current sentence tells you what the next one should say. All I know for sure is the sentence I’m writing right now. “Outlines,” says Stephen King, “are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

Ouch. But yeah. #TeamPantser

This past Monday, my wife and I celebrated 13 years of marriage. And like the pantsers we are, we did it by taking a whirlwind weekend trip to New Orleans – some three hours down the road. We had a few solid blocks in place before we got there. The purpose of the trip was to see the Van Gogh Interactive Exhibit before it left town. Beyond that, our goals consisted of things like “Eat good food” and “Have a good time.”

The night before we left to go down, I went on Priceline and got us a decent hotel room. When we got to the hotel and checked in, I went on Yelp, searched by “distance” for restaurants that were $$$ and under, and we sat in the hotel and discussed the merits of our options. We ended up eating amazing tacos from a local taqueria. The next morning we grabbed hotel breakfast, then the Van Gogh Exhibit, and then we went on Yelp again, looking for a nearby restaurant for lunch.

The highly praised gumbo restaurant around the corner was a pandemic victim and sat empty and silent. The burger joint with patio dining was a cramped convenience store with a broken picnic table under a tree. Then we tried finding a place that promised “New Orleans Soul Food,” and we never did find it after driving slowly up and down the street three times. Finally, in frustration, we stopped at a barbecue joint just because it looked open. After an hour of driving around looking for food, anything would have tasted good.

But it was delightful. The food was good, if not amazing. The atmosphere of the place was legit, and the people were fun. We talked about the exhibit and marveled at what we had seen, and talked about the 13 years we had spent getting there. It was, in every way, a good meal.

Would the meal have been better if I had made reservations at a fancy place in the Quarter two weeks before? Were we missing out by not having planned the weekend? Had we built an agenda and scheduled more “fun” into the 24 hours we were in the city, would it have been a better trip?

Maybe, but I doubt it. But then again, I’m a pantser.