Tales From The Vault

My life changed forever in late 2003 when I set up an account on Blogger and decided to share my thoughts in public. Writing in the public sphere – literally thinking out loud in front of the entire world – changed how I think. It turned my private musings into a conversation with the world.

I’ve now been writing publicly for more than 20 years. It’s so strange when I come across people who knew me before those days, who only knew the Hugh that was informed by people he had met in real life and the one-sided conversations he had with people who wrote on paper. It’s like they knew a beta version of me.

I have written publicly in many places – Facebook, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter, and MySpace to name the main ones, as well as the sites I have owned, and the many sermons I have written that do not exist anywhere online, but that are still public conversations because I performed them live.

As I have closed sites and accounts, some of that stuff was orphaned. Whenever possible, I have archived it, so it still exists in a file on my hard drive, but not in public. It’s as if they are safe in a vault.

As I come across things I have written elsewhere, I’m going to open the vault and post them here – both to archive them publicly, but also to be able to enter into a conversation with them, to link to them in the future, and to be able to recognize the ways I have grown as a writer and a thinker.

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Dictating How People Show Up

I’m republishing things I have written elsewhere in the past to archive them here. I think of them as tales from the vault. This is one of them.

I recently observed something that suddenly made me understand something I have struggled to understand for years: That people who want more diversity to happen in their groups also want to dictate how the diverse people act, and would put limits on those people.

Who the hell do they think they are to do that? And then I realized that for older folks especially, that is how they have observed change, and then they assume all people in that group should act that way.

A thing I see *a lot* – especially in people and groups that have seen themselves as historically progressive, that fought early battles for inclusion of people previously excluded – is how they point to the non-combativeness of the first person from that group they included and then expect that will be the way all people from that group will behave.

Example: I have had a personal conversation with a famous minister who personally knew William Stringfellow. For you who do not know, Stringfellow was an Episcopal layman who was incredibly influential in the 1960’s, and was a major influence on Walter Wink. Stringfellow was also gay, and lived with his partner.

This famous minister held Stringfellow (who was not officially out, but it was known to his friends) as the model for how gay people should act. I.E. They should leave all of their sexual identity in the closet.

Because Stringfellow had to (and let’s be honest: chose to) act straight in order to get published and to have a lecture career, because he chose to diminish himself in order to overcome prejudice that would have otherwise silenced him, that is seen by people who knew him as the model for how Queer people should act.

Or the woman minister I know in my denomination, who was the first woman minister in her regional body, who is praised by her contemporaries as “knowing how to not be confrontational” and “knowing how to meet the group where they were”. They praise this as if it is the model for how a woman minister should be, rather than acknowledging that this woman had to diminish herself in order to be seen as non-threatening, OR recognizing that this particular woman had the choice, personality, and support structure that allowed her to do this.

Some people who are members of oppressed peoples have the desire, giftedness, support structure, and mental health to purposefully choose to diminish themselves in order to advance the group they represent. Bless those people. But that doesn’t mean it should be normative for us in the dominant culture to expect that, nor does it obligate them to perform in ways that do not threaten our dominance.

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Thank you for reading. This website is free and ad-free because of the support of my members. Or, if you want to say thanks for this post, you can just buy me a cup of coffee.

The comfort of books

There has never been a time when I did not love books.

Growing up in my small rural life, books were my window to the wider world. I explored the streets of Paris with Dupin, the alleys of Victorian England with Sherlock Holmes, swung from trees with Tarzan, and visited brave new worlds under the tutelage of Isaac Asimov.

The tiny library in the town 7 miles away from my parent’s house filled my childhood hours with adventure and excitement. It was there I was introduced to dinosaurs, knights, and Druids. The way it smelled, the lighting, the posters on the wall, the massive oak desk with Ms. Lee behind it, glasses on a chain around her neck. The whole gestalt of it all felt like magic.

No, it felt Holy.

Later, as an adult, I would go through a horrible divorce (is there truly any other kind?) and quit my good job and buy a paperback bookstore in Midtown Memphis. It was my act of rebellion, my following the admonition of Wendell Berry to “So, friends, every day do something / that won’t compute.”

It was, I would later say, a great way to go broke slowly.

I watched my income drop by $80,000 year over year and went from living in a large apartment overlooking the Parkway to a tiny attic room over a friend’s office. I delivered pizzas at night to support the bookshop and me. I entered into all sorts of ill-advised romantic relationships with art college students who loved the romance of a bookshop. Later I would learn that addicts often slept with their dealers. I leaned into the Bohemian existance of a man in his early thirties who drank wine from boxes, listened to jazz piano, walked to work, and read. God, did he read.

Books saved me during this time. Every moment I was at home, in my tiny attic room, I had a book open. I read poetry. Complicated fiction. Magical Realism. Sci-fi. Biographies of all the major Beat writers. I read that Truman Capote said that Kerouac wasn’t writing – he was typing. I loved that, so I read all of Capote.

It was an intense year.

I opened the shop at 10 Tuesday through Saturday. But I’ve always been an early riser, so I would find myself at the store around 7:30 many mornings, drinking coffee and sitting on the couch in the middle of the store, surrounded by books.

The shop had large windows that faced North, giving good, soft light throughout the day. In the early mornings, the edge of the sun would peak through, casting light across the shelves. Motes of dust would drift lazily through the sunbeams, and Monk would play on the 80’s era jam box I hid behind the counter.

During these times, when the stack of bills on the counter went unopened – when I could briefly not think about the many people I had let down, the rural life I had walked away from, the marriage I had walked away from, the careers I had walked away from. When I could just stop walking away and just be, on that couch, surrounded by thousands of books. It was then that I felt the way I always assumed a better person than I would feel in church.

Meta Data – Weeknotes 4/7/2023

It’s always a balance – I make a portion of my income from my writing, including the weekly newsletter and this blog, and so I try to treat them like a business.

Confession: I suck at treating things like a business. I’m just not very motivated by money, as much as I recognize the need for it in the world we currently have in place.

So, it’s always a balance between nerding out and spending hours trying to figure something out, and doing the “least viable” thing, so that I can get back to actually writing. That was this week in a nutshell.

As someone with ADHD, I hate having to assign a category to a blog post, so, I generally don’t. But the theme I use (and most themes by default) will display one anyway in the metadata (the place on the post page where it shows things like the date, often under the title of the post – see picture above). So, I spent about an hour this week trying to figure out how to remove the “category” link in this theme’s meta block.

I’ve been using WordPress from almost the beginning, and it used to be fast and elegant – so elegant and clean that it was easy to tinker with. None of that is true anymore – it’s bulky and bloated and every “improvement” they make to make it more “user-friendly” just makes it more and more complex and harder to make it your own. It’s far more powerful than I need at this point, and I wish I had the time to learn something flat and simpler like Jekyl.

I spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out how to remove the categories link on the wordpress theme I use – TwentySixteen. In 2008, this would have been ridiculously simple to do. It is no longer simple. In the old days, you would just comment out (or delete) the PHP that creates the link. Now, you generally have to make it invisible with CSS, which means you have to find the CSS that displays it, which will vary from theme to theme.

Because of “improvements”, it’s recommended you make a child theme to make changes like this to your blog, so I followed instructions on how to make a child theme – this killed most of another hour.

One reason I use the Twentysixteen theme (other than it’s damn hard to find a traditional blog theme, with a main column and one sidebar anymore) is it has a ton of documentation online. Eventually, Google led me to the instructions on how to make the “Category” link disappear. At this point, we are 2.5 hours in. And what’s perhaps most frustrating is that nothing I learned today is really transferable, other than very generally. Every theme handles these things a different way. #sigh

This week I also made the beginnings of a colophon page (the link is in the footer), where I will link to the tools I use to make this blog.

It’s not ready to share yet, but I’m laying out the basics for a NOW page, like all the other cool kids.

And because I was super-swamped at work the first half of this week, my Monday newsletter went out on Wednesday. Normally if I can’t publish, I just don’t (this happens 3-4 times a year) but I always hate that, so I’m figuring late is better than nothing. I also don’t publish when Monday is a holiday, and Monday the 10th is a holiday (Easter) here in the US, so that would mean two weeks without publishing had I skipped it.

Friction | Weeknotes – 3/31/2023

(This is a weeknote: a weekly update of the behind-the-scenes work and thinking that goes into being an independent web publisher. You can read past weeknotes here)

In Consistency is Easier Than You Think, CJ Chilvers writes about how consistency wins, more often than not. What I love, and what I have been wrestling with on my own work, is his thinking about the things that get in the way of his publishing on his blog consistently. He makes a list of things that get in the way of a regular publishing schedule that is pretty much the same list I have in my head.

Strip everything away that poses a threat to consistency.

  • Photography decisions
  • Design decisions
  • Aggregation decisions
  • Over-editing
  • Content length
  • SEO considerations
  • Email deliverability optimizations
  • Social integrations
  • What’s personal vs. what the audience wants

The last two weeks in particular and this year in general have been about paring down my online work.

It’s worth noting that virtually none of these were problems in 2005. Back then, we just posted things on our blog. Maybe 3 sentences. Maybe a picture. People read via RSS, or they just periodically checked in, as we do with social media now.

Social Media is a hellscape that has a lot to answer for, but one thing they have done remarkably well is reduce the amount of friction in sharing the things you make.

I moved my blog earlier this month from Humidity and Hope to the oldest URL I own – hughlh.com. I got a Twitter account sixteen years ago this month, back when it was easy to get the username you wanted. I got hughlh, which has been my preferred username ever since. I bought that domain name shortly after.

I shut down the site Humidity and Hope because it was limiting – I want to write about more than how to live a good life in the Deep South, which had led to my creating other sites and platforms, but each of those demanded maintenance, so they became chores and added friction to the process, which meant I didn’t write…

So, right now, my online platform looks like my personal website, this blog, and a weekly newsletter. Blog posts are crossposted to a variety of platforms (see the list in the sidebar –>). Right now, some posts will be published in full on my personal Facebook page, but you can’t count on that. If Facebook is your primary platform, you should “like” my professional page over there, where each post is autoposted.

I have had things hosted at Name.com for years, but over the last few years their customer service has gone way down. They hid the phone numbers, email tickets take days to get a response – not ideal when you have an outage – and God help you if you try to use their chat with an agent feature. When they screwed up something as simple as a URL redirect, I had had enough.

I moved my blog’s hosting over to Namecheap, which has 24-hour chat and their WordPress hosting packages still give you FTP access, which name.com didn’t do.

There is a lot of information out there in the world about hosting options if you want to spend real money, but we small-timers don’t need much beyond a shared hosting account. Namecheap should do me fine until the New York Times links to me and I go viral and my whole website crashes from the struggle. I dream of problems like that.

Weeknotes

In my day job as a community organizer, we have a practice of writing a reflection each week to our supervisor. In it, we are encouraged to reflect on the week we had, and our plans for the upcoming week. To talk about what we are working on, what we are learning, and how we are thinking about our work.

It sounds sorta hokey, and I initially resisted it, but it works, in that it forces me to reflect and think strategically about what I’m doing. It moves me from inside the work to some point outside, to where I’m an observer of the ‘me’ that is doing the work.

My writing is a part-time job, funded by my Members who want me to put my work out in the world, and want it to be done so free of charge to everyone. That’s why there are no ads on my newsletter or on this website, no paywalls, nothing like that. Just me, writing, and anyone in the world with an internet connection or email can read it.

And so, as I was writing my morning pages this morning, I found myself wondering: If I think of my writing as a part-time job, what would it be like to write reflections on it? And would anyone find that interesting?

This made me remember that about this time last year, I said that I wanted to start showing my work – I wanted to do more of this work in public, so people could have a model for how to start their own blog, how to write their own newsletter, how to make their own cool thing.

So I’m going to start writing weekly notes every Friday. Some weeks will be more involved that others. Some weeks may be a little nerdy, as I explain the hours I spent looking for the right plug-in for a website, and other weeks may be introspective as I talk about the philosophy behind what I’m trying to do. And some weeks I may be so busy you just get bullet points. And because I try to be kind to myself, I don’t commit to doing this every week, but most weeks – just like I walk most days.

I don’t want fighting to be my default

From 2009 until 2018, I did a lot of work in what can best be described as the “Progressive Christian Influencer” arena. I wrote extensively, publishing articles in national publications and having chapters and essays published in books. I traveled a lot, speaking to audiences as small as seminary classrooms and as large as music festivals and youth conferences. It all seems surreal.

There is no such thing, really, as a “speaking circuit”. But, there is a small group of people who generally make a large portion of their living – directly or indirectly – from public speaking. They generally work in niches – like I was in the progressive Christian niche. And since there is a finite number of speaking opportunities in any given year, and since most events have multiple speakers, many of the folks who speak in a given niche know each other, if for no other reason than we share stages and events.

As I said, I pretty much quit that life in 2018. It wasn’t good for me – I actually think it isn’t good for anyone – and the healthiest thing for me to do was to walk away. But I still have a lot of friends I met on those stages. After all, when you are on the road, staying in a beige chain motel in a suburb of Toledo Ohio, having long conversations in the hotel bar (or, more likely, the motel doesn’t have a bar, so you end up in the Applebees in the parking lot) with other people who understand your life leads to lasting intimacies. Or, at least, it can.

So, a few weeks ago, someone I know well from that time was passing through Jackson. He lives on the other side of the country, and while we have stayed in touch, it had been years since we spent time together. So, we had lunch.

It was nice, catching up. Hearing the stories of his children, beyond what I had gleaned from Instagram. The work he is up to now, the new project he has started. His current interests and hobbies. Eventually, the conversation stalled a bit, and he looked at me. Like, really looked at me. Like he was actually seeing me, or rather, seeing inside me.

“Man, you’ve changed.”

“Oh? I have? How?”

“You’re… calmer? Less angry? Less intense? Something like that. That’s not quite it, but it’s close.”

I knew what he meant. I’ve felt it too. You can most tell it in my writing, I think. It’s not that I don’t have opinions – I assuredly do. And it’s not that I’m not passionate about the things that matter to me – I assuredly am. To be socially conscious and to live in a place like Mississippi is to be enraged nearly all the time.

But I’ve lost all stomach for fighting for the sake of fighting. And over the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of self-work.

A thing I find helpful when examining a belief I hold is to ask myself what the world would be like if everyone held that belief.

If the answer is that things would be worse than they are now, I work to change that belief, because it doesn’t move me closer to the world I want to live in.

(This does require that you be willing to examine your beliefs in the first place.)

And I don’t want to live in a world where the default response to things that are wrong is that we fight.

An Inconvenient Truth

I want to tell you a secret. Or maybe “secret” isn’t the right word since it’s pretty evident when you think about it. Either way, virtually nobody wants to talk about it.

And what’s worse, they plan movements and actions as if this secret doesn’t exist.

Are you ready? Here goes:

If we are going to win, we have to convert people to our side who currently disagree with us.

We want to think this is not true. We want to believe that because of social media, the strength of our ideas, and the rightness of our cause that we can find what Richard Nixon called “The Silent Majority” that agrees with us but just is not being talked about or listened to.

But the truth is, that silent majority doesn’t exist. Because we have had the internet widely available to the public for more than 2 decades now, and they haven’t shown up yet. Just because you can find someone who already agrees with you in Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t mean you have anything like critical mass to change the outcome of an election.

No, changing the world will require the cooperation of those who currently disagree with you.

Let’s do an exercise. In your mind, imagine the last time you went to a crowded place – an airport, a bus station, Walmart, wherever. If it helps, and you are in a place where it’s safe to do so, close your eyes.

There are people everywhere. All kinds of people – some fat and some thin, some white and some people of color. Some gay, some straight. Some men, some women, some are older and others are kids. Republicans, Democrats, Independents. All kinds of people.

Got it?

OK.

Most of those people don’t want the better world you are offering. They don’t share your dream. Because they have a lot of things going on in their lives, and their own self-interests, and so your dreams are not their highest priority. Most of them, even if they like your ideas, will just find it easier to go along with the Powers That Be, content to live their life on default.

If your stated goal is resistance, then almost by definition, the majority of the world disagrees with your goal. Because if they agreed with you, then you wouldn’t need to resist.

Back to our imagination: you are surrounded, in a large public place, with people who, by and large, disagree with you. So my question is this: Let’s say you win. You get the better world you are wanting. What do you do then with the people who disagree with you in the better world you are dreaming of?

What do we do with them in this new world we are building? Because if we succeed in building this better world – and I’m planning on it – then we either have to learn how to convert them to our side, or… I dunno – lock them in a cage? I mean, seriously, what will their place be in this new world you dream of?

More than a decade and a half of building intentional cross-class and cross-racial relationships has taught me that people only change if they have reasons to change.

It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are – we learn from others.

And if we are to have any influence in changing the minds of others, we have to learn what they want and find ways to show them how our goals align with their self-interest. Because people, by and large, are motivated by their own self-interest.

The world would be a much more fun place if we could just show up at marches and denounce the oppressor class and buy fair trade coffee and talk smack about corporate interests, but the reality is, to build this better world, we have to find a way to get others to buy into it. Because the better world we all dream is possible is only possible if we can all achieve liberation.

I’m writing.

I’m writing.

At least, I think I am. I’ve applied my ass to the chair, I’m hitting the keys.

Yep. I’m writing. It’s been a while, and I was uncertain of the symptoms.

I’ve been sick – really sick and then low-grade sick – since Valentine’s Day. After two years and 11 months of dodging it, COVID caught up with our household. Fortunately, we both had relatively mild cases by COVID standards.

But sickness never comes at a convenient time, and so I was in the midst of moving my desk from the front room, where I posted up “temporarily” during the 20200 lockdowns, to a dedicated office I built for myself in a former storeroom in our carport. Right now I am functionally in both places, and thriving in neither. But yesterday I drew a line in the sand and said that today was the day I sat down in the chaos and started writing again.

And here it is, 6:30 AM, and I’m sitting at my desk, surrounded by various bits of debris, discarded cardboard boxes, and office implements that I am unsure where they will belong. I have soft, classical music playing on the small cheap stereo I rescued from the thrift store, and the window is open, and I hear the birds waking up outside. My chickens are playing in their coop, not 20 feet away, and they are fussing at each other as the sun comes up.

And I’m writing.

I have a timer on my desk, just under the monitor of my computer, that shows how much longer I have left to go on this session – right now it’s 24 minutes, the remaining time in red, and as I type the red diminishes with the passage of time. This is sort of an ADHD hack, a way of making something that is invisible to my brain, like time, visible, and thus real.

These are the sort of things I need to do if I’m going to be writing.

The office isn’t complete yet. It’s a narrow room, a former storeroom at the back of our carport that I began turning into dedicated office space over the winter. It’s a bit under six feet wide and 17 feet long, with six feet of the eastern wall devoted to windows that look over our back yard. It’s honestly one of the better views in our house, yet another sign that when this house was built it was built from a plan in a catalog and was divorced from the actual site. There is much I love about this house, but it’s lack of views and vistas is not one of them.

It is not a house built for writing.

As I said, it’s a narrow room, this new office of mine, and it has 10 foot tall ceilings, which emphasizes the narrowness all the more. A friend last night said it looked like a shipping container. The door to the room is in the middle of the long wall without windows, and my desk is to the right as you walk in the door. Immediately in front of you is a waist-high counter with cabinets underneath, where I have hidden my printer on a pullout shelf.

If you turn left as you enter, you face a blank wall and a space 5 and a half feet wide by 5 feet deep, which will eventually hold a bookcase along one wall and a chair for reading, because reading is an essential thing if you intend to be writing.

And I’m writing. In the debris, in an unfinished room, amidst the chaos, but I’m writing.

Listening

Earlier this week, I was sitting at a kitchen table in the North Mississippi Hill Country, sipping coffee and talking to someone who, on the one hand, was much like me: He was white, of my generation, married, had gone to the same sort of schools I had, and was baptized in the same sort of church I had been. 

But we absolutely voted for different people in the last Presidential election and have very different views on most social issues. If they saw the bumper stickers on his Ford Super Duty truck, some people would consider me a traitor to them by even talking with him. 

While we sat there, drinking good coffee and eating mediocre grocery store cookies, we talked of many things: People we had known who were now gone, lessons we learned from our ancestors, how the children in our lives were growing, and how proud we were of them. We also talked about politics, race, economics, and religion. Neither of us hid who we were, and neither of us got angry. When I had to leave to go to my next meeting, we both commented on how much we had enjoyed the conversation, and I have a standing invitation to come back and drink more coffee the next time I’m in town. 

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How do people change? How do bad ideas die, and good ideas grow in their place?

In 2018, after nearly 30 years away, I returned home to Mississippi, the land of my childhood, of my father, and of his father before him. We lived with my grandmother before her death, and 5-year-old me ate breakfast in the kitchen my grandfather had built. I climbed in the same trees my ancestors had played in, and like them, I was raised in the same culture of white supremacy. 

The little country church in which I was baptized as a child, where we sang that Jesus loved all the children regardless of the color of their skin, where I learned about the love of God and the healing power of a potluck meal, had, two years before my birth, decided to leave its denomination rather than admit People of Color to membership. Or heck, for that matter, allow them to attend. 

In the late 1980s, my high school had separate yet equal prom kings and queens and homecoming courts, and we students voted on which Black person and which white person was most likely to succeed or that we thought most beautiful. 

A white farmer I knew had sent his daughter to Ole Miss, and she came home from school with a Black boyfriend. She was ten years older than me, and I remember that we were all excited she was coming home, and then we all hushed it up when the farmer disowned her, and she moved away. I never saw her again until after her father died decades later. 

So white supremacy is not some novel idea I am learning about after my book club read Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was “borned to it,” as Huck Finn liked to say about his sinful nature. It was the water in which I was raised and, to all appearances, the natural order of things. 

We did not think of ourselves as white supremacists. No, by all accounts, we believed we were good white people. We were not permitted to say the N-word. We had Black friends and co-workers. I went to a fully integrated high school. 

In retrospect, we made the mistake many white people make when we confused racism with antipathy and believed our proximity and relationships absolved us of guilt. In reality, racism is not about feelings or relationships – it is about structure and power. But it would take a lifetime for me to learn that.

And what changed me was listening. Like I was listening at the kitchen table earlier this week. 

* * * 

We seem to have lost the capacity to listen. I’m not trying to sound nostalgic there as if I am mourning for an idealized past where everything was rainbows and kittens. Rather, it is harder to listen to other people now than it once was – largely because we have so many alternatives. Our hyper-connected world has made it easier and easier for us to find like-minded people, but also easier to shut out those who differ from us. 

And because we do not listen to each other, we don’t truly know each other, and thus it is easier than ever for people in power to divide us. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Bill Moyers wrote about when Lyndon Johnson explained the tactic to him in the 1960s: 

“We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. ‘I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,’ he said. ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’ ”

Years of listening have taught me one critical thing: We are not nearly as divided as we think we are. Or, more accurately, we are not as divided as those who profit from our separation want us to believe we are.

NB: I have talked about this work I do before, and I tend to get two reactions: 

The first is outrage because they believe I am discounting real injustices and injuries. I am not. There is a world of difference between saying that I agree with the ideology of a Klansman (which I don’t) and saying that a Klansman and I share some (but not all) of the same hopes and dreams and that if we made a list of our base motivations for how we move in the world, there would be an overwhelming amount of overlap. Rather than treating him like a strawman I can dehumanize, I am forcing myself to recognize he is a human with motivations, agency, and choice, who is also acted upon by outside forces, as am I. 

The second is something like, “Teach me how to do this!” There are good people out there doing this sort of work – I used to be one of them – and it’s not hard to find if you really want to learn, but I feel somewhat pulled to write a bit about this over the coming weeks. So, stay tuned.