One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” – Leonard Wolf, in Downhill All The Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939
That picture up there is from my backyard – iris reticulata – planted last fall under my dogwood trees while my nation was electing a madman.
I don’t know that you have to plant flowers in order to resist – but you ought to be planting something.
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.
Way back in 2004, I read a book that made a deep impression on me: Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See. In it, she says that the decision to live a literary life – a life as a Writer (capitalized intentionally), if you will – is a series of choices you make and actions you take. I read every book on writing that hits the mainstream, and by far it is my favorite.
I used to dream of being a writer, but these days, my vision is broader – I want to be creative. I want to build things, create things, share things. I want to work with amazing people to accomplish things that have never been, and then I want to drink wine with those friends and toast our success.
Some of those things I want to create are books, but I also want to make videos, and blog posts, and podcasts and newsletters and retreats and companies, maybe. If I spoke to the author of that book today, I think she would tell me that the decision to live a creative life is also about the choices you make and the actions you take.
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This was my first full week with my personal Facebook account closed. I don’t know what conclusions you can draw from this week’s creativity, other than I was busy. Which is ironic, because if you had asked me at any given time if I was accomplishing anything, I would have told you no.
In the last seven days*:
I created a new website for The Hughsletter (I’m right proud of that, thank you very much!) and have begun to import the back issues into the archives. That was the primary creative thing I did this week, and I feel pretty OK about that. I have intended to do this for almost a year.
I wrote this week’s issue of The Hughsletter and three blog posts (counting this one). Considering most weeks The Hughsletter is the only thing that gets done, I am not unhappy with those results.
I wrote 1150 words of original work outside of Social Media and blogs. (You can read that as work on the book project that hasn’t been touched since October 7th of last year. I expect that to ramp up, as I din’t even open the file until Thursday).
I wrote a thank-you message to the Sustaining Members of The Hughsletter (This isn’t huge, but it is entirely new, so I am counting it.)
I read two books.
I had one coffee date with a friend that served no purpose other than to figure out ways we can collaborate.
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Considering I am still trying to get my legs under me and figure out a new rhythm, I don’t feel bad about the results. I have a goal next week of doing 500 words a day (2500 total), which, if I keep it up over time, should give me one book-length manuscript a year, as well as lots of room for other projects.
OK, that’s enough. Back to work.
*None of this includes the stuff I do for my day job over at Love Wins Ministries, where I write sermons, blog post, newsletters and so on.
I have a side project I dearly love called The Hughsletter. It’s a weekly email newsletter where I share links to five things I thought to be beautiful, a link to a movie or book I really enjoyed, and sometimes, thoughts or reflections I am having then about how to take care of myself is a world filled with chaos.
Some people like it. I have sent out 81 issues, and have a little under a thousand subscribers. My friend Tara said it like this:
Sunday morning we were out in the truck before dawn, and my little guy said quietly from the back seat in an awe-filled voice, “It’s calming to look at the sky.” I looked up. He was right. That’s what The Hughsletter is for me. A calming break from the noise and chaos–a time to appreciate creation, all forms of it. It doesn’t get any better than that. There is hope in my inbox every Monday morning.
I believe that the world is filled with ugliness and chaos – that much is self-evident these days. But I also believe that the world is filled with beauty, but it’s far from being self-evident: It requires intentionality to search for it. And if you know that you will spend time surrounded by the ugliness, perhaps it makes sense to immerse yourself in beauty in order to have a well from which to draw.
About a year ago, I said that what I want more than anything else from my creative work is to create things for people who enjoy them, get pleasure from them and want to support them. I don’t want to create click-bait, I don’t want to be sensational for the sake of sensation, and I don’t want to build my creative life around pageviews, pop culture and deceptive headlines.
I had to leave Facebook to keep my sanity, and social media is a mess. The only way to build a following there is either to be outrageous, or to be outraged, and I don’t want to live like that. Instead, I want to create things that make people think, that help people see the beauty all around them, that fill them with hope, that give them strength to fight their battles.
And that is what The Hughsletter is all about.
It’s free, but some people pay for it.
I publish it for free, and it will always be free. But recently some people have opted to become sustaining members – paying around .92 an issue, or $48 a year – which pays the way for everyone else. Much like NPR, but without the annoying pledge drives.
Right now I am grossing about $7 an hour for every hour I put into The Hughsletter, and that does not count hosting expenses and other costs. But what it does do is tell me that people have invested in my work, and when I hit “send” on that email Monday morning, I know I wrote for people who paid money because they believe in what I had to say.
And that is something I never had on Facebook.
Ask your doctor if The Hughsletter is right for you
If you want to support me and my creative efforts, I encourage you to subscribe and then become a sustaining member of The Hughsletter. You get 5 beautiful things every Monday and no spam. My friend Kelly said this about it:
My inbox and social media feeds are flooded with information that raises my anxiety and stress levels. When The Hughsletter arrives, it opens a window and allows me to stick my head outside and take a deep breath.
He recently took over as Executive Director of a small nonprofit and was telling me about their struggles recently over representation. My friend was upset that more people of color were not on staff, or on the board, or even mentioned in resources the nonprofit published. Since taking over, he had made racial representation an issue he had fought for, and he had received a ton of push back from (typically white) supporters, donors and board members.
“But this is so hard, “he said. “Moving a 50 year old organization to be more progressive is exhausting. I wish it wasn’t so hard.”
I told him the truest thing I know: It’s supposed to be hard. Be glad it’s hard.
It’s hard because you are trying to change things. It’s hard because the universe desires the default, and the only way change happens is to go against the default.
The default position in any scenario is the path of least resistance. By definition, then, if you seek to do something other than the default, you will have more resistance. In other words, it’s going to be harder than doing nothing.
And if you are going to fight for change, you have to expect it will be hard.
In his book The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield talks about how the difficulty of a thing can be a barometer to tell you if a thing is worth doing. Since all change is predicated on NOT doing the default, then any change will be hard. And if your work isn’t changing things, and thus not changing the default, is it really worth doing?
Making the world better is hard. And it’s supposed to be.