Some Advice on Starting Over

I was going through some old stuff I had written, and found this thing I had written a week after the event described, but never published. I lightly edited it and present it here, for the first time.  – HH 

Two years ago last week, I was in New York City on business. While I was there, I went with friends to a live presentation of The Moth, a storyslam of sorts. (If you ever get a chance to go, I highly recommend it.) It was awesome just being there, and, and to make it better, Ophira Eisenberg was the MC for the night. It was just a great night.

The theme for the night was “Blame”, and one of the people in my crowd, who I did not know, had just been left by her husband for another woman. Let’s call her Beth. Oh, and today was her birthday. So, Beth went to hear other stories of blame, maybe as a way to let herself off the hook.

After the event, we were all standing around, debating whether to adjourn to another place (I had to get up early, so I demurred). And then one of my friends asked Beth how it was going.

“It’s really hard. I don’t like this at all.”

I told her it gets better. She didn’t believe me. I told her that while no one gets married planning on getting a divorce, lots of people get them, and so she now has an experience in common with lots of people, and most of them (the vast majority, in fact) survived the experience and went on to have normal lives. I know this both anecdotally and as one who has survived a divorce myself.

I then shared with her my idea about fresh starts. I said something like this:

Here is the thing about starting over – you get to be who you want to be.

Living with someone, being in relationship with someone, means giving up little bits of who you are. You can’t be the person who sleeps in on Sunday, because he wants to go get lattes. Or you had a rough day at the office, and just want to eat cereal and stream Call The Midwife, but instead you have to go home and fix a real meal.

Maybe you like Jazz, and he doesn’t, and you feel guilty playing it on the speakers when he is home. You sleep best by yourself, and haven’t had a good night’s sleep since he moved in. Whatever – being in relationship means giving up part of who you are.

Most of the time, that’s OK, especially if you navigate that together. But you have been married for three years to someone who isn’t in your life anymore, and now you have all of this empty space, sitting around at night, and you don’t know what to do with yourself.

My advice? Create the you that you wish you were. Act like you are an author, and you are making a character who looks like you. So what is this character called Beth like?

She likes Jazz? She eats cereal for supper? She sleeps alone, and wears yoga pants around the house? She sleeps in on Sundays and spends Saturdays in the park and volunteers at the animal shelter? If you were creating a character that was the Beth you wish you were, what would she do? How would she act? Where would she work, and why? What sort of person would she partner with? Would she wear that outfit?

And after you sit down and create this person on paper, realize that there is not a thing anymore keeping you from actually being that person. You can be that person, and the new people you meet will never know the difference. They won’t know that you once didn’t listen to the music you liked, or that you one time gave up your dream of writing a novel or that you didn’t always wear a purple beret.

Being alone again means getting to be the person you wish you were. You get to write a whole new story, and you are the star. You are making a new story anyway – why not make it a good one?

The Day I Did Not Die

Content warning: Descriptive narrative of a suicide attempt. Please take care of yourself.

Chris Cornell is dead. They are reporting he killed himself.

I have a confession: I am not sure I know his music, or his band, or anything about him. I am pretty sure I never heard his name before today.

And none of that matters. Because it is being reported that he hung himself, and according to my Facebook feed, most of my friends were his fans, and so that news is everywhere. And every time a high-profile suicide happens, all the old fears come back, even if only to remind myself that they are never far away.

It is a common story, and I am not claiming to be special. I was a smarter than average kid who looked differently than his classmates – I was scrawny, pimply, socially awkward and most of all, afraid. I was always afraid. These days you would say I was bullied. In those days, I would have said I was in hell.

I was 16 years old, and my parents were not home. I don’t know how to describe it – it was just a wave that came over me, and when it did, I was ready.

I had read countless accounts of suicide – no mean feat in that pre-internet age. I had read all the dictionary entries, all the encyclopedia accounts. Then I researched famous suicides – Socrates, Hemingway, anyone at all who had made their way into the Britannica. I had a morbid fascination with death, and with suicide.

So when the dark wave came, I was ready.

I had received a shotgun for Christmas when I was 14. There were strict rules around its use, but it was unlocked. I sat on my bed and loaded it with buckshot. I took off my shoes, because I had figured out I could pull the trigger with my toe – a “trick” I had learned in a book I read about famous deaths. I put the barrel in my mouth – right now I can taste the bitter, acrid taste of the oil and the metal on my tongue – and placed my toe on the trigger.

And then I took the barrel out of my mouth, unloaded the gun and put it away. I don’t know why. The darkness receded, just like it came. I was horrified to find myself there. And it would be more than 10 years before I would tell anyone that it had happened.

It wasn’t the last time I thought about self-harm, however. Maybe three times since then, I have been in that same vicinity. The darkness just comes on sometimes, and it seems an incredibly rational solution to end the pain. It is always late at night (more accurately early morning). I hate waking up at 3 or 4am – not because I am afraid I won’t go back to sleep, but because I am afraid of where my brain will take me if I stay awake.

Please don’t mishear me – I have a good support structure in place. I have people who know my history, who love me, who I feel safe calling should I need them. There is a list of people Renee knows to call if I scare her with my moods. Mentally, I am in pretty good shape these days.

And I figure, from everything I read, that Chris Cornell had it pretty good, too. It is obvious he was talented. He had a family that loved him, he had kids. He had extremely devoted fans. He had a lot going for him. I bet that brother had health insurance.

And that is why, when I read of the high-profile suicides, it scares me a little bit. Because it reminds me that the wave is never really gone, even if it has been quiet for a really, really long time.

If you feel like hurting yourself, please don’t. The National Suicide Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And if you don’t want to call them, please call someone. 


Jesus is Dead – a reflection on Holy Saturday

“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of Darkness.” – Theresa of Calcutta

For the disciples, Friday had to have been a long night. The second long night in a row.

Night before last, after Jesus and the disciples had celebrated together, the Romans had come and arrested Jesus. Judas had turned him in, and some of the rest of them were convinced that they too were wanted men.

They had spent several years with Jesus. Some of them had abandoned careers, others had walked away for the family business. They risked ritual impurity, public censure and ridicule as they followed this itinerant Rabbi who claimed to have knowledge of God, who claimed that God desired it be on earth as it was in heaven, who claimed that this God was made most visible in the bodies of the hungry, the poor, and the disposed.

They had seen amazing things. The blind could see, the lame could walk, the dead could rise again and those who were estranged could be reconciled. They had seen demons flee at the sound of Jesus’ voice, they had seen the religious leaders give Jesus grudging respect and earlier that week had followed the donkey into Jerusalem when Jesus mocked Rome and the crowd shouted “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”.  Later that week they had been part of the direct action in the temple, when Jesus was flipping tables and driving out those who would exploit peoples spirituality for money.

They had seen amazing things over the last few years.

They had to have known it was risky – they were constantly courting treason and Rome did not take such things lightly. Just ask the residents of Sephoris, who some 30 years earlier had dared to confront Rome and as a result, 30,000 people were killed or sold into slavery, and 2000 men were taken to Jerusalem and crucified in a single day. No, Rome did not play.

So the night before last night, the horrible happened – Rome finally arrested Jesus.  Judas sold him out – Judas, one of their own. Judas, who had been sitting at the table last night. Judas, who Jesus, with sadness in his eyes, handed a piece of bread.

And then they watched him die. They watched him, beaten and bloody, drag his cross up the road. They saw, from the safety of the crowd, the guards spit on him, they saw him fall three times under the weight, they saw a stranger help him – something none of them felt safe enough to do.

And then they watched him bleed out after the guards stuck him with a spear while he could barely breath, nailed and lashed to that cross.

Jesus was dead. It was over. It turns out, Rome won and love had lost. Power and might had the final say, and for all his talk of loving one another and seeing God in each other, at the end of the day Jesus had just been another guy with lofty ideas that threatened the power structure, so the power structure fought back, and won. They always won.

Last night was so long. The disciples had to wonder, “Are we in danger? Are they coming after us, too? What should we do? How are we going to live?”

But worse than that, it means all of their hopes for the new world that Jesus had spoken of – The Kingdom of God, he called it – were gone, too. Jesus had boldly confronted Rome and here they were cowed in their rooms, alone, scattered and afraid. Uncertain about the future. Scared for their safety and that of their families.

They had seen love confront power, and seen power do its worst. They had seen Jesus refuse to bow to the oppressors, and watched the oppressors kill him for it. They had heard Jesus dream of a just world, watched him preach it and demonstrate it for years, and then watched all hope of it be placed in a tomb late on Friday.

Jesus is dead, y’all. The Jesus movement is dead. All hope for it to be better is dead, all hope that love will win is dead. The future looks bleak.

It is Saturday after Jesus died, and all they have is each other, the memories of what Jesus taught them, the knowledge of what they saw, and whatever hope they can muster as a result of those three things.

That is why Holy Saturday is my favorite day on the Christian calendar. Because it shows us that doubt, fear, paranoia, uncertainty, pain, disappointment and hopelessness can also be part of the experience of Jesus people. That it isn’t always about celebrating resurrection, but sometimes about wondering if resurrection is even real. It’s a reminder that the Jesus story isn’t just a story about overcoming the Powers, but also a story about despair at the hands of the Powers and trying to figure out how to survive it.

And when that happens, what we have left to hold us through is just each other, what we have been taught, what we have seen, and whatever hope we can muster as a result.

Resist By Planting Flowers

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.

Why I Stay in the South

Jekyll Island, GA in September 2016

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.