Imagine

In the 7th chapter of the New Testament book of Matthew, there is a story about prayer where Jesus tries to tell people how much God wants good things for them. So, he asks the crowd some rhetorical questions. 

“Imagine your kid asks for some bread. Would you give them a stone? If they asked for fish, would you hand them a snake?”

Then Jesus says that if even normal folks know how to give good things to their kids, then surely God is better than that. Surely, God wants to treat us better than we treat our kids.

Belief in a deity aside, I don’t think anyone of us would disagree that giving your hungry kid a rock instead of bread isn’t something you do for someone you love. 

We all know how to treat someone we love.  We strive for people we love. We make sacrifices for the people we love. We try hard to please the people we love and give them gifts we believe will excite them. We go to great lengths to show them how we feel, we try hard to show others how much we love the people we do. 

We know how to love people. And we know how to show people we love them.

Right? 

Now, imagine what would happen if you treated yourself the way you would treat someone you love. 

Writing for people

I have watched the conversations around AI and writing unfold over the last few weeks. The writing community seems to be freaking out.

Well, that’s not wholly true. Hacks are freaking out. People who phone it in are freaking out. People who don’t know, or care to learn, how to write in a way that connects with and centers people are freaking out. As they should be.

People who have staked their livelihoods and given their creative energies to writing listicles that exist only for the reason of generating page views, writing press releases for events and products that exist only to separate money from the gullible, and who write for search engines and other machines should not be surprised when a machine can replace them.

A bot can duplicate syntax and vocabulary, but it cannot think of a person they love and write with them in mind. A bot cannot write from its own experience of love and loss.  A bot cannot feel anger and want to share it; a bot cannot want anything, really.

It may be that an infinite number of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters, will eventually produce a text that is an exact copy of Hamlet. But none of those monkeys will understand revenge or love or betrayal. And critically, none of those monkeys will understand what they wrote, will be moved by the writing, or will look forward to sharing it with their reader.

Fewer, Better Things

I took a month off of writing. I don’t know that I’m really ready to start back, but taking time off always scares me somewhat – I am always afraid that if I don’t start back, the words will quit coming.

And that would be unbearable.

Which is why, on this muggy but clear January morning, I’m writing on my laptop, in a nice room in a nice hotel on St. Charles Street in New Orleans. I had to come down yesterday afternoon for a meeting, and later this morning I will go to another meeting before I drive the three hours home. And this morning, I walked along the Carnival route on St. Charles, read the old plaques, sipped my cafe au lait, and spent some time in my head.

A thing I’ve been thinking about while not writing has been, ironically, about my writing. Or, more properly, my Writing. That’s how I think of my public-facing words, the part of my brain I share publicly with you all – it’s Writing, as if making it a proper noun imbues it with importance and stature and makes them somehow more than the rantings of a 50-year-old man with an aching back and stiff joints.

So, the Writing. As I have alluded to elsewhere, I need to scale back. A persistent problem I have is that I get bored, so I start new projects. But new things require upkeep, and one day you wake up with a blog and two newsletters and a membership program and a birdcam and a full-time job and a part-time job, and all the while, you are trying to be a good citizen and a good spouse, and it all gets to be too much.

So, periodically, you have to clean up the mess you’ve made.

That’s what I’m in the midst of doing now – cleaning up the mess. And cleaning up messes take time. I didn’t make it all in one day, and it won’t get cleaned up in one day.

For now, it makes the most sense to restrict my public-facing writing to just two outlets – my newsletter and my blog. I have written the newsletter reliably and consistently for nearly eight years now -I’m not worried about my ability to keep that up. It will shift and change somewhat, as it has for the last eight years, but it will still come out Monday mornings and will still seek to point to the beauty that is always there, no matter how well hidden.

And I love having a blog, a corner of the internet that is just mine that isn’t subject to the whims of algorithms and corporate priorities. But the blog will change: It will become less formal, less complete, and more frequent. A lot of the current format – such as long posts with leading photos and well-defined categories, are the result of business decisions and not artistic decisions. The corporate owners of the various social media outlets have taught us – trained us, really – to write for machines and not people. They have shaped us to be content creators, not humans who dream, cry, hope, and fail.

I do not like that at all.

So now I will blog for people. Expect more frequent but shorter posts. Expect some syndication changes as well – the amount of work it takes to do it the way I currently do is unsustainable.

Sustainability has become more important to me these days. It turns out I want to neither burn out nor fade away – I want to keep going, keep writing, keep sharing, keep growing, and keep learning. But I no longer want to be a product, a “content creator”, a machine writing for machines. I want to do fewer things better.

I Don’t Know How To Rest

When I was a little kid, my parents had these friends they hung out with. We would go to their house, and the adults would sit around the fire and play guitars and drink beer, and we kids would play in the yard, and there were sing-alongs and sometimes marshmallows. It was such fun for 6-year-old me. But then Dad quit drinking, and the people with the guitars did not, and we did not go to the singalongs anymore.

As I sit here, searching my memories, those singalongs are the closest I can come to remembering an example of what I would now call relaxation in my childhood. We were poor – things like off-time were not for leisure but for fixing broken things, making extra money, or collapsing from sheer exhaustion. We did not have hobbies – we had responsibilities.

We did not watch sports. Dad built things, but things we could use. Mom cooked, but not for fun, but because we needed calories. A weekend did not go by that we were not working on one of our cars, but that was not a love of mechanics but a desire to have a working vehicle.

The end result of this sort of rearing is that while I know how to survive, I do not know how to rest.

* * *

A lot of my life right now is one on one meetings. The other day, I was trying to set up a meeting with someone, and we were comparing calendars.

“What about Tuesday,” I asked.

“No, I can’t do Tuesday. It’s my birthday.”

“Oh, Happy Birthday. Are you going on a trip somewhere?”

“Oh no,” she said. “I just don’t work on my birthday.”

I had never heard of such a thing. Not that I’m against it, per se. It was just a new concept for me.

I’ve never been one to take off work. In fact, I have a hard time sometimes not working.

The last time I was in Asheville, NC, I went with some friends to an improv show. The cast was pretty good, and I enjoyed it a lot. One of my friends said they thought I would enjoy taking improv lessons. My gut reaction was no, but I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Because I probably would be good at it, and I probably would enjoy it.

Eventually, I came to terms with that in the end, the issue is that I can’t justify it – the time or the expense. I have a problem doing things that are not useful.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with improv. It’s me. There’s something wrong with me.

In the lovely book Gilead, the Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old preacher in 1956 Kansas, leaves his 7-year-old son a diary as his inheritance. And on its final pages, he tells his son:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning. Nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

That’s all I ever wanted, really. To be brave and to be useful. I don’t really know who I am if I’m not doing something.

“But Hugh! You have hobbies! I have seen the gardens! And the wildflowers! And the woodworking!”

Yes, I manage to do useful things in my nonworking time, because I can then convince myself I am not being lazy, playing with my flowers, but rather am building a wildlife habitat, or creating a pollinator garden for endangered insects, or growing food we can eat, or furniture we can sit on.

That thing where you do a thing for sheer joy that will never be productive or remunerative or useful to anyone? Stamp collecting? Role-playing games? A friend told me he spent the whole weekend playing video games. I cannot imagine such a thing.

And if I have a surplus of spare time, I catch myself adding projects until I feel busy again. Some days I sit at my desk the whole day, from 6 AM until I go to bed at ten that night, baring meals, because I’m working on my blog or my newsletters or my regular job or planning a new flower bed or sketching out the garage project.

In my defense, I happen to like the useful things I do in my unpaid time. They are not chores. But neither are they relaxing.

At this stage of my life, I’m trying to fix that. I’m trying to learn how to relax more. To build walls between work and not-work. To create a structure that encourages relaxation and rest. I’ll probably be talking about this a lot over the next few months as I try to develop patterns and routines that take this desire into account.

I don’t know that this means we will have a singalong in my backyard one day soon. But I’m not ruling it out.

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.