Magic

The 18th of October was the first night it got cold this year. Cold enough to frost. Cold enough to kill the remnants of the basil plants in the pot on my deck. I was at a community meeting around 7:30 at night when Renee sent me a text:

The heater won’t come on.

Crap.

HVAC problems worry me. They are expensive. They require tools I do not have, tools that are expensive and that I will rarely use otherwise. And it requires specialized knowledge I won’t use elsewhere. So I end up paying someone else to do it, and can’t know if they are doing it right or not, or ripping me off or not.

When I was growing up, Dad was an HVAC technician. He worked for a propane company that sold furnaces, and he spent most of his hours crawling under people’s houses if he was lucky or in their attics if he were not. He always wore a blue work shirt, with the shirt pockets bulging with papers, small screwdrivers, a dial thermometer, and a penlight. The tuft of chest hair poking over the top button, the trucker’s cap on his head. Small me would wrestle with him on the floor, and he would amuse me to no end by making his pupils dilate with his penlight.

Dad eventually went into management, and then in my late teens, left that field to go into Emergency Management professionally. But he kept his tools and his licenses, and so he was the person everyone called when there was a problem with their air or heat. This side hustle bought our Christmas presents most years, paid for trips otherwise out of reach, and I’m pretty sure made my getting my class ring possible my senior year.

Dad and I both could work on cars. We both knew how to build buildings and make furniture. But only Dad could do HVAC work. It was magic.

If your car’s AC was running hot, he would bring his gauges and his tank of coolant the next time he came over. On holidays, his opinion was sought on noises the furnace was making. The last time he was at my house, I sought his advice on moving the condensing unit so we could put add another deck. Once, he troubleshot and fixed my AC in North Carolina over the phone from North Mississippi.

Magic.

But Dad’s gone now, and so when the heater doesn’t work, you take your chances with somebody a friend recommends, and you hope they are honest and hope they are competent, and you realize, once again, how you are more alone in the world than you had expected to be at your age.

Today is the second anniversary of the last time I heard my daddy’s voice talking to me. The last time I heard him call me “Son.” It was the day he told me how tired he was, the day he told me he needed to hurry up and get better because the EMS folks needed him to do his job so that they could do theirs.

I told him I was worried I would call when he was sleeping.

“Son, these days, it feels like I am always sleeping. I’m tired of being tired.”

Dad died 48 hours later from COVID, contracted in the line of duty. Sometime around 1 PM, two years from the day after tomorrow.

Today, on the two-year anniversary of the last time I heard Dad’s voice, I had an HVAC repairman in my house. He is honest, forthright, and competent. He’s done minor things for me over the last two years and was originally recommended by a friend. I like that he is a one-man operation. I like that when I pay him, that exact money feeds his family and pays for his kid’s school, just like Dad’s customers paid for my high school trips. I like that he doesn’t sugarcoat things.

But the work, while competent, doesn’t seem like magic when he does it. And it’s just another reminder that I am more alone in the world than I thought I would be at this age.

Open

He’s 94, but his eyes are still clear, and he drives his car, albeit these days only to the store and church and, sometimes, to the doctor. His deft fingers that once repaired watches are still steady, and his eyes crinkle as he tells you a story, and the closer he gets to the punchline, the deeper the crinkles.

He’s been a preacher longer than I have been alive and still preaches in the small church in the town where he lives every Sunday. He comes from a long line of preachers. His ancestors were hard folks with a hard religion, preached without electricity from brush arbors in rural Arkansas and Mississippi and Tennessee in a time that needed hard folks. I’ve never heard him preach, but his people are Bible-beaters with clenched fists that punch the air to make a point.

He buried two wives and a daughter, and when he was a young man, his government put him in a green uniform and sent him from the hills where he grew up to a destroyed city in Japan, where he helped clean up the aftermath of the atomic bomb. After you see death on that scale, not much surprises you anymore.

And every Saturday, he fires up his ancient computer and makes a PowerPoint presentation with the Bible verses he will use in tomorrow’s sermon, along with the key points of his message. And at night, when he misses his wife and his daughter, and the house is a little too quiet, he will get out the old box of photos and scan them into his computer, and then share them on Facebook, tagging my wife to show her how pretty her mother was when she was a teenager.

I learned about the weekly Powerpoint ritual a few years back at Thanksgiving. He had driven in from two counties over, where he was living at the time, to eat with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I said how impressive it was that he was proficient with a scanner and Facebook. One of his granddaughters mentioned the weekly PowerPoint presentations.

I told him that I had never quite gotten the hang of PowerPoint. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “It’s not hard. I could teach you if you want me to.”

The thing I fear most as I grow older is not the inevitable decline in physical ability, or even the loss of my mental faculties, although that is a concern. No, the thing I fear most is that bit by bit, I become less open, less accepting, and more fearful of that which is different or novel to me. More than anything, I fear stagnation.

I know many people who were at the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement or who fought literal fights to get women ordained in their churches who then quit progressing. I was in a meeting once with a revered, legendary civil rights activist whose story has filled many a book, and watched him poke fun at people for announcing their pronouns and heard him call the term Latinx “silly.” It was sad, really. One day, he decided he had gone far enough, and the world passed him by.

Progress is a moving target, of course. What was seen as progressive in 1964 is basic human decency today. Yesterday’s radical is today’s Rotary Club member. Just like Great White Sharks, who must be in constant movement lest they suffocate, we must ever be moving forward, ever open, and not content to rest on what we did once, long ago.

What I’m Not Gonna Do

“It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.” – Marcus Aurelius

In 2003, I started a blog.

At the time, I owned a small bookshop in a historic part of Memphis, TN, and I thought it would be an excellent way to market the shop. Blogging was a small world in those days, and we had meetups where Memphis bloggers would meet up in real life.

It was a different time. But the key takeaway is that I got used to talking about my work in public.

Here’s a neat thing we are selling. Here is a picture of this new author that popped by. Here is what I think of Peter Taylor’s books (Spoiler alert: swoon!).

Here is something I noticed and wanted to share with you.

I learned to watch out for things that were worth sharing. And by sharing them, we attracted people who were the same sort of weird we were. I loved that shop.

(It is also worth saying that I was detoxing from a decade of working in one toxic environment after another and was just learning how to be weird. I feel like I owe a constant apology to everyone who knew me in those days. It was season one, and we were underfunded and were not yet sure who the characters were.)

When I transitioned to nonprofit work a few years later, I learned to write newsletters as both a way to share my work (here is this cool thing that happened and what I learned) and also as a way to raise money. And the more I shared my work, the more money I could raise.

I learned two things doing that, neither of them good.

The first was that my being angry in public made us money. I remember a fellow nonprofit ED telling me she didn’t have enough money for payroll that month, and she wasn’t sure what she should do. I told her that when that happened, I would find something on social media that pissed me off and write about it.

I was only sorta kidding.

Somewhat related to that was the second thing I learned: The danger of having your public identity tied to your vocation. I was a subject matter expert on homelessness. For perhaps 5 years there, I was in the air most months going to speak somewhere on a stage in front of people. I lectured at seminaries and colleges and spoke at festivals. I was published in national papers and all over the Christian press and was interviewed on NPR, Fox, and Al Jazeera. Going viral happened pretty regularly in those days – which was good, as my internet presence was the small nonprofit I ran’s primary fundraising mechanism.

Their survival depended on my being angry and inciting anger in others.

How messed up is that?

Then I was exhausted and burned to a crisp and decided I couldn’t do that work anymore, so I spent a year wrapping it up, and I moved. Somewhere between North Carolina and Mississippi on I-20 I lost all desire to talk about my vocational work on social media. I didn’t want to be the angry guy anymore. I didn’t want to anger other people to raise money for good work. And most importantly, I did not want to tie my public identity to the work I’m doing in the world.

I just want to have an ordinary life. Write my stories. Send my newsletters. Go for my walks. Make people feel known, loved, and heard. Especially people for whom that has not been historically true.

That’s not all I’m doing. It’s just all I really want to share on social media these days. I don’t want to tell voyeuristic stories about vulnerable people to raise money. I don’t want to “build my brand.” I don’t want you to be impressed by my good works and treat me like some poor man’s Mother Theresa because I had a conversation with a man who lives in a tent. I definitely don’t want to write angry memes so you can share them so I can build a “following.”

A following of people who like to share angry memes is probably one of the surest definitions of hell I know.

I don’t have a brand. I have a life.

And I can tell you from my hard-earned experience that when that stops – when you quit writing the voyeuristic stories, quit the angry blog posts, stop the divisive memes – it’s easy to forget who you are. It’s easy to forget that you are not the avatar that your “following” has crafted from the curated view of your life. It’s easy to then spiral into a deep depression and want to disappear forever.

Ok, maybe that last part was just me. But maybe not.

And yet.

I still have the urge to talk about my work. To “show” my work, so to speak. To tell you about the good stuff I’m involved in. The people I meet who change my life forever. The actions I’m a part of, the policies I’ve helped change, the work I do in my small way to make the world as it is into the world as it could be. Or, at least my corner of it.

But I won’t be doing that on social media. Never again. I don’t think I could survive it if I did that again.

So, I’m starting a minimally viable email list about the justice-centered, faith-based work I do here in Mississippi. I’ll send something out about once a month. I might do it less than that if there is nothing to report. I might ask you to help me do something by donating to something. I might tell you about other people you should be donating to instead. I’ll probably share stories because that is what I do. And when we know better stories, we can imagine a different reality than the one we are stuck in now.

And maybe along the way, we can find folks who are the same sort of weird we are.

You can, if you are interested, sign up here.

The P Word

They had just opened the four-lane divided highway between my hometown and the county seat, some 15 miles away. They had been working on it all my life, and now it was wide open, and I had just gotten my driver’s license.

In those days, I drove a 1972 Ford Torino with a 302 V8, a 4-barrel carburetor, and a speedometer that went to 120, even if that was largely aspirational. The wide, straight lanes were irresistible to me and others, and it quickly became the place where races happened. Which is how it came to be that I was doing 85 miles an hour when the blue lights showed in my rearview mirror, and my heart was now in my throat as the Highway patrolman was walking toward my car.

He looked at my license and then looked at me.

“Are you Hugh Hollowell’s boy?”

This is one of the downfalls of having a dad who everyone knew.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I should give you a ticket. But at the speed you were going, it would be expensive. I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. But I am going to call your Daddy and tell him about this.”

I gulped.

“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I would just as soon have the ticket, and Daddy not know anything about this.”

He howled, he laughed so hard.

“I bet you would. OK, consider this a warning. It’s lucky for you I know your daddy. Get out of here, but for crying out loud, son, slow down.”

With both hands on the steering wheel, I drove home at 45 miles an hour, aggressively using my turn signal.

* * *

Because of all the struggles around the water system here and the utter unpredictability of when they will get it straightened out, I bit the bullet and bought an under-sink reverse osmosis water filtration system.

It cost around $200, all told, and it took a rather lazy 2 hours to install. I needed a drill, a ¼-inch drill bit, a Crescent wrench, a pair of Channel Lock pliers, and a Phillips-head screwdriver, all of which I already had. I’m pretty sure a plumber would have charged around $300 to put it in, plus parts, and if you had bought it from a door-to-door sales company, it would have probably been around $1800.

I was telling someone about it and my decision to do it, and they said, “You’re lucky you know how to do that.” Well, in the first place – I didn’t. I mean, I had never installed a reverse osmosis machine before. But the instructions were understandable, and I took my time and worked through them.

But It wasn’t that I was lucky – it’s that I was privileged.

Privilege is a polarizing word these days. But it needn’t be. It just means you have access to something someone else doesn’t have.

Like, with the water filter. It was simple for me to install and I could afford to do it and had the time to do it. None of those things are guaranteed to be true for someone else. If I worked at Dollar Tree, I probably wouldn’t have a spare $200 lying around. I used simple tools, but if I had to buy them for this task, it would have added substantially to the cost. I had the 2 hours to spend doing it. I had a father who taught me to be confident with tools and handwork.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m a homeowner, so I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to install the water filter. I know how to read and have good reading comprehension skills. I have internet access and a credit card. I have no physical impairments that would prevent my doing it.

And every one of those things is a point of privilege. I carry many other points of privilege as well. For example, I’m a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-read, Christian male born in the United States of America. In the world I live in, every single one of those points gives me access to things other people don’t have. And I didn’t ask for any of them.

Other people that Highway Patrolman pulled over that day did not have access to having a father that worked in EMS. I wasn’t smarter than those people, more affluent than those people, or have an easier life than those people. I just had access to an advantage they did not. And because of that, I did not suffer a penalty they would have. Or, put another way, my relationships gave me privileges (like freedom from the consequence of my actions) they did not have.

In the same way, my privilege buys me freedom from uncertainty around the quality of my water that some of my neighbors do not have. It doesn’t mean anything except that I have access to things they do not, through no fault of my own or theirs.

Since most privileges we have were not asked for, I see nothing to be ashamed of for having them. I’m not ashamed I’m white, not ashamed I grew up with a father who taught me to use tools, not ashamed I’m male. It was not my doing that I should have any of these advantages, yet I have them all the same. It is much like having won the lottery without having bought a ticket.

But if you are fortunate enough to have more than others – more food, more advantages, more skill – it’s incumbent on you to use that for the benefit of those who don’t.

So I am not ashamed I am priviliged. I’m just ashamed of all the times I didn’t use those privileges to benefit folks who don’t have them.

The Third Row

Monday morning at 7 AM I was heading north on Interstate 55, heading toward my hometown. A woman I knew had died. She and her husband lived down the road from Mom on a few acres we had sold before I was born, and she and Mom were close.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of going to their house. The adults would play Yahtzee, and I would play in the living room, on the improbably white carpet. He was a few years older than Dad, and they had grown up together and had similar interests. They were very much a part of my life growing up.

Our lives revolved around the church down the road. It was a small brick building in those days before they added the fellowship hall and the new sanctuary. My granddaddy’s name was on the cornerstone, and my uncle had run the electrical for it when it was built. And generations of my people are buried across the street, in the cemetery there, including Dad.

They don’t really use the old sanctuary much anymore. It’s still there, though, and when I had finished eating my spaghetti Monday in the fellowship hall after the service, I crept over to the old building to look around.

It still looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except it doesn’t, mostly because I’m no longer the same. The first thing that grabs me is how small it was, just six rows or so of pews, and none of them really long. No wonder it always seemed packed in my memories.

The hardwood floors are still there, blessedly uncovered by carpet, as is the fate in many churches that tire of the upkeep required for hardwoods. The area behind the altar rail is carpeted now as it was then, although, in my memory, the carpet was maroon instead of the blue it is now. It is, of course, entirely possible they changed the carpet in the last 40 years, but it is far more likely that my memory is playing tricks on me.

The pulpit is now in the new sanctuary next door, with a piano in its place, which in my childhood was in the alcove to the right of the door. There was no sound system in those days, either, forcing Brother Leon to use his preacher’s voice.

The Heinrich Hoffman print of Jesus praying in the garden the night he was arrested is still there, in the same spot it was every Sunday of my youth. Just out of the frame of this shot, there were additional pictures of Jesus on each side wall, one a headshot and the other an improbably young Jesus, also prints from Hoffman. The headshot is still there, but the picture of adolescent Jesus is gone, a nail still sticking from the wall being all that proves I was not making it up.

Adolescent Jesus captured my attention to no end as a child. I would stare at him on the wall, beardless and with unruly hair, and wonder if he knew what he was in for, if he got in trouble a lot, and why his dad didn’t make him cut his hair.

The hymn board is still there, too. It always had the list of the hymns we would sing today, along with how much money folks had put in the offering the week before. I liked that the hymns were enlisted, as I would go through the hymnal and find the songs ahead of time and slip pieces of paper in to mark them so that I could find them later instead of being flustered and pressured when they were announced. Even then, I was searching for coping mechanisms.

In my memories, as a family, we always sat in the third row in this photo, on either side, but always toward the aisle if we could. I have lots of memories here. Mr. Hays interrupting the preacher, mid-sermon, that he had preached too long and it was time for lunch. Billy, who was what my people called slow and would now be considered special needs, always sang off-key but made up for it with volume and exuberance.

And I remember my daddy’s hands, curiously enough. In this memory, we are on the right-hand side of this picture, on our customary third row. He was wearing his one suit, dark blue, with a white shirt and red striped tie. I am to his left, and the preacher is praying. Daddy’s elbows are on his knees, his scarred fingers interlaced, forehead resting on his clasped, callused hands. His eyes were scrunched closed tightly as if, by sheer concentration, his petitions would go to the head of God’s line.

You could not have convinced me then that they did not.