Sunday, April 30, 2023

Her Name On Google

 I searched her name on Google.  It's been a few years since we lost her and many more years since we last spoke, but there was a time when I said I loved her, a time when I said I wanted to be with her forever.

I don't know what the policy for Facebook is for people who are no longer alive.  Her account is still there.  Eleven friends, nine are mutual.  That doesn't seem right.  I don't know anyone who didn't love her.  By the end, I had pretty good reasons not to love her, but I still did.  

It doesn't seem right.  A life, any life, should leave more of an impression on the world.  Her life, even just her smile, touched so many people, but when those of us who remembered it are gone, there will be nothing left.  

I don't know how to fix this.  When she was alive, I tried.  Sometimes I tried really, really hard, but whatever it was that tortured her just wouldn't move.  Most people never knew this about her.  Most people thought she was forever happy and forever carefree.  That wasn't the truth.  

I can't say something crazy like "She was the only one I ever loved" because that's just not true.  I loved as deeply as I could and as often as I could.  She wasn't the only one, but she was a very, very important one, but I was never able to make things better for her for more than just a few days.  I was pretty strong, but her demons were a lot stronger, and I'm honestly really bothered by that.  

My gift, it seems, isn't being strong or leading fearlessly.  My gift is muddling words together in a way that means something sometimes.  That's kind of an ironic joke because I was born with a disease that should have made words my enemy.  

Maybe one day, I can put words together that make a better monument to her life.  I want to do it in a way that I don't have to say her name because then people will say, "What happened to her?" and I don't want to get into that.  That's not the point.  What I want is something that makes people feel like they felt when she was around, when she was alive.  I'd like for that to be what the world remembers.

A lot of people carry really broken things inside of them.  Sometimes you can see it, and sometimes you can't.  It doesn't define them.  It doesn't sum up their existence in this world.  

Her smile was the most powerful thing I ever saw.  I would have done anything to see it.  I'd do anything to see it again.  Part of me can only say I'm sorry.  I'm sorry for not coming back for her.  I'm sorry for not being there in the end.  I'm sorry for not ever making it any better.  

One day, I'll write something, and even though I won't say her name, people will read it and say, "Wow, I really wish I had known her."  That's not enough, but I think that's something I can do.

Through The Desert

There's a lot of consternation about the changes you see in the United Methodist Church.  A lot of it, I understand.  If you look at my church as an example: this morning, we had a pretty small gathering.  After all the activities of Easter and Church on the Grounds, I expected that, plus there was a big concert in Oxford.  

In our pews were what you always saw, plus about twelve percent Black Methodists and twelve percent Hispanic Methodists.  Twenty-four percent is the beginning of a paradigm shift.  For people of a more progressive frame of mind, this is a wonderful thing.  For people of a more conservative frame of mind, this is a mild threat to their existence.  

Religion is one of the primary arteries that feed our culture.  In some ways, it is THE primary artery.  Education, literature, art, music, food, dance, film, theater, politics, and economics, these are also arteries feeding our culture, but Religion is bigger than those and often encompasses those, so any mild change in it has larger ripples throughout the culture.  Sometimes those ripples can be discomforting. 

If you add to this another twelve percent LBGTQ Methodist to the mix and the fact that a little over fifty percent of our pastoral staff is women, and this starts to look like a very different sort of church than what it was just thirty years ago.  Twenty-five years ago, I used to make church dates because I thought hearing Ross Olivier speak would impress the girls I liked.  We've changed a good bit even since then.  

People think of the church as a static thing.  As a fixed place.  That gives them comfort in a turbulent world.  It may not be the best way to understand what the church is, though.  To me, the church is like the entire body of Israel who left Egypt with Moses.  They had an idea where they were going, but none had been there.  It had been so long since anyone had seen the promised land that nobody knew the way.  Out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, to the foot of Saini, Moses led them.  The church is our Moses.  It leads us through time to a place we have heard about but have never seen.  We carry the bones of our dead with us so that they may see the promised land.  One day, my bones will rest in a niche in the walls of my church.  Wherever it is that we're going, I won't be alive when we get there, but, like Abraham, my bones will be.

The people who left Egypt were not the people who crossed the Jordan.  Some died along the way.  Some were born along the way.  The individuals changed, but the body of Israel remained the same.  This is true of our churches.  Some churches move out into other counties to be less changed, but it's a temporary fix.  Our neighbor, St Peters, has a one o'clock service in Spanish that's filled to capacity.  When was the last time you saw one of our downtown churches filled to capacity?  

Not everybody will be happy with all these changes.  Not everybody was happy with moving through the desert for forty years.  These things aren't up to us.  What we can do, is stick together and keep moving.  The faces will change, but wherever we're going, we'll get there.  This was promised to us.

Our Reputation

There's a culture war on.  Because of that, there have been a few times this week, including twice today, where people have made comments to me along the lines of: "Millsaps should work to appear more conservative because the other small private colleges we compete with are."

I'm most likely going to have an opinion on that.  First off, and the most obvious to me, is that this is a battle we can't possibly win.  Some of these other small, private colleges are so far out on a limb with regard to their cultural doctrine that we could never hope to survive out there with them.  I question not only their academic integrity on this but sometimes their sanity.  That's simply not a path Millsaps can travel down.  

Secondly, I don't think we should sell something we don't believe.  We're not a conservative Christian college.  We're just not.  What we can do is get better at telling the truth about ourselves, and that truth is that we work pretty hard to present a balanced view of things to our students and then make them work like hell to develop the critical thinking skills that enable them to make their own choices.  Producing students with the skills and the knowledge to make their own decisions is about the only thing I can think of that makes the effort and the money that go into a Millsaps education worthwhile.

We allow and encourage both our students and our faculty to go down whatever path they feel is the most truthful, and that sometimes means we have faculty and students who get involved in protests, and seeing Millsaps shirts at these protests means we're a bunch of communists to some, but to others, it signals that we're fighting for them, which sometimes makes a big difference.  For some people, one kid with blue hair and a picket sign makes all the kids with short hair and Bibles invisible.  Millsaps has always fought that perception.  We may enroll purple-haired lesbian communists sometimes, but there are not that many, and they don't describe us--but most importantly, we provide them with the academic freedom to pursue their own path, so long as they do the work, and there's a lot of work.  

When I was at Millsaps, there was a detente moment in the culture war, and the socialists broke bread with the Young Republicans fairly often.   I myself was pretty conservative until I figured out that Reagan wasn't going to keep his promises.   If you go to Millsaps today, you'll see that the Young Republicans are still active, and so are the Babes for Bernie Socialists.  They live together and take classes together because we allow them to and we encourage them to.  We don't make their decisions for them.  As much as people accuse us of indoctrinating students, the reality is just the opposite.  We provide them with a varied table of information and make them make their own choices.  We refuse to indoctrinate them.  We put a balanced diet on the table and force them to use critical thinking in what they choose to put on their plate.  

Over the years, I've come to realize that one of our biggest allies in this effort is Ole Miss.  Whatever they were in the sixties, they now work to present students with a balanced perspective.  You'd be surprised how many students go from Millsaps to do graduate work at Ole Miss.  It's a good fit.  Ole Miss doesn't have the same reputation for liberalism that we do, probably because they fought against segregation way back when and we avoided the fight by opening our roll books without being forced to.  Beyond that, we're very similar, and after college, we end up in the same law firms, the same medical offices, and the same banks as the kids who went to Ole Miss on day one, and it's a good fit.

We sometimes get the reputation for being a bunch of radical nutbags, and that isn't fair because it isn't true.  We have some people on one end of the socio-political spectrum, but we have people on all the other ends too.  Our best path forward might be to just get better at communicating the message that we're balanced, and we teach our students to seek their own path, and just how valuable that is compared to schools that make these choices for their students.

Weathering the Storm

 I find it interesting that some of the voices that were the loudest and most radical when it came to desegregating the Methodist Church are now the same ones advising caution and patience, and moderation with regard to the current conflict over sexuality. Some of these voices are pretty high up in the church. Some are very high up in the church.

A lot of this I attribute to the fact that our members fought to desegregate the church over sixty years ago. Time and experience have a way of tempering the raging passions of youth. Young pastors care little if their actions divide the congregation when they believe they are acting as Christ would. Older pastors are more anxious to wait and see.

These are not universal descriptions. I know some pastors in their thirties seeking caution and advising patience and some pastors in their nineties who are more than ready to storm the ramparts. Some are very concerned about showing that the rules of the church are important and will be followed, while others are adamant that the only rule that matters is the example of Christ.

What I know is this: there's no way out of this without some people getting hurt. There's no way out without some people having their faith in the church challenged. I think about this a lot, and I can't think of a path through this that doesn't alienate somebody, and alienating people from their faith is pretty serious business.

For me personally, me Boyd here at my computer: I'm always going to side with the weak. I'm always going to side with the smaller force. Some of the best Christians I know are gay. Some of the best Christian couples I know are gay. Some of the most devoted members of my church are gay. I come from a time when these people had to hide who they were to survive. Some of them still do. It's hard for me to imagine this is what Jesus would want.  It's hard for me to imagine Jesus wouldn't fight for their full inclusion in every aspect of the church.

That being said, I'm not in a position of any authority in the church. I can say my piece and decide where I stand, but that's about it. This will be decided by other people. I'm getting used to the idea that some people I know, some people I support, are going to get hurt--and I'm sorry for that, but I can't figure a way out of it.

I don't like being in the position of having to say, "The church doesn't support you, but I do." I don't know how to stop that, though. I think that's what Jesus would have me do.  I think there are times when that is what Jesus did.

Churches that follow rules give many people a great sense of comfort and security, and I appreciate that. When they lose faith that their church doesn't follow rules it causes them great discomfort and feelings of insecurity. I appreciate how important that is. I also appreciate the damage it causes when you tell people, "You're not good enough to go with us." which I believe the current conflict does.

There are people I knew who are no longer with us, who were members at Galloway for many years and had someone in their lives that they loved enough to marry at the church but were forbidden to. There are couples, young and old, now that I would love to say, "The church sanctions your love as much as I do," but I can't.

When I can put names to an issue, it's no longer political. When I can say: This is about Patricia, or Lawrence, or Elizabeth, or Timothy, then it becomes something more than doctrinal; when it becomes about people I know, then it's deeply moral and considerably more important.

I feel like our roots are deep enough for the tree to weather this storm. Hopefully, the trunk is flexible enough. Sometimes, I think love attracts lighting, that caring for others lays the seedbed for pain--mine and theirs.

For the people I know who will be hurt by all this--I can't make it stop. I just can't. My ego is big enough and warped enough where that alone causes me considerable pain and embarrassment, but I can't change it.

I'll sit with you through the storm, though. It doesn't matter how wet or cold we get; I won't budge. Sometimes, that's all anyone can do.  

Friday, April 28, 2023

Till Justice

People are upset that Carolyn Bryant Donham died without ever being prosecuted for her part in the death of Emmett Till.  They're hurt because the scales of justice were never balanced in his death.

They're missing the point.  Because the scales of justice were never balanced is what gave the Till story its power.  Because Emmett Till was denied, justice moved the country to begin taking action on civil rights in the South and racism throughout the whole country.  That may not have ever happened if Till's death was met with equal justice when it happened.  

Sometimes the entire point is that a thing was broken.  Consider the crack in the liberty bell or the leaning tower of Pisa.  Were these things whole, you would never have known about them.   Emmett Till never received justice.  That imbalance, that brokenness of purpose, moved the entire world.

Good Ole Boys

Big parts of Mississippi politics are pretty wholesome. We don't have much money, so everybody kind of goes along to get along. Some of it could easily be an episode of the Andy Griffith Show. We do pretty well on issues about gender. The most powerful mayor in Mississippi is a woman, and Evelyn Gandy was once the most powerful person in the state, even though she couldn't get elected governor.

We get along pretty well on most things until it comes to issues of race, and then it gets murderous. I'd say improving the lot of Mississippi's black citizens was our third rail, but hardly anyone in Mississippi has ever ridden a subway, so they don't get the metaphor.

Why can't we have hospitals in the Delta? Black people live there. Why can't we have money for Jackson? Black people live there. Why did a football star, a professional wrestler, and a governor think it was ok to steal money for the poor? Black people are poor.

What ends up happening is in these districts that are mostly black, nobody wants to work with them, so they elect people nobody wants to work with, so these districts like the Delta and Jackson that need cooperation from the state don't get it. They end up electing candidates who are really good at civil rights rhetoric instead of economics and industry, and civic administration, which is what they really need. Jackson is the best example of this.

My uncle Boyd and my Dad were acolytes of Ivan Allen. Allen was the mayor of Atlanta, and he believed that there were too many black people who lived in Atlanta for the city to ever prosper if he, as mayor, continued with such brutal oppression as they experienced in the past. By today's standards, Allen didn't do much for the poor blacks of Atlanta, but what he did do was give Martin Luther King Jr. and his church enough room to breathe so that they had room to grow and whatever happened in Selma or Jackson or Memphis, they had a safe place to grow in Atlant, and that changed everything.

Mississippi has got to realize that the only way we're ever going to lift ourselves off the bottom of everything is if we enable our large black subculture. It's not going to be easy to incorporate a subculture that's been oppressed for hundreds of years with the culture that did the oppressing, but that's out only viable path forward.

What I'm writing sounds like it could have been said in 1960, and it was in several of my Uncle Boyd's speeches, then again in some of my dad's testimony on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce in the seventies. It's been sixty years, and the message isn't getting through.

It doesn't do any good for me to call for a Mayor for Jackson that's better at facilities management, economic development, or real estate because so many people in Jackson are more concerned about having their basic civil rights protected, and they have reason to. They're less interested in developing an effective police force because they're more concerned about what the police do to their people. I would be too.

I don't have any answers. That's gonna have to come from somebody wiser than I. What Ivan Allen said is true, though. We're never gonna rise unless we take everybody with us. Without that, we're gonna stay on the bottom.

When We Remembered Zion

 I had lunch on Zoom today with a friend who's thirty-two and lives in Seattle. She's Ashkenazi, a descendant of grandparents who immigrated from Russia in the twenties. She made a joke about how a Jew like her must seem very alien to people in Mississippi.

So, I told her Jews aren't aliens here at all. They came in fairly large numbers during the cotton boom and settled all over the South. I told her about Beth Israel Cemetary, where we told ghost stories when I was in college and how it was the most immaculately manicured cemetery in Mississippi.

Then I told her about what happened to Rabbi Nussbaum when I was a little boy. How the klan had bombed the Beth Israel Temple and Rabbi Nussbaum's home, and she had a look of confused pain on her face.

Then I showed her a clip of Driving Miss Daisy, which she'd never seen and didn't know was about a Jewish woman. I showed her the scene where Houke tries to drive Miss Daisy to temple, but the police turn him back because someone had bombed the temple, and he tells Daisy a story about a man who was lynched.

I explained that the scene in the play was inspired more by a similar bombing in Atlanta in the fifties, but the impact was the same as the one in Jackson. To preserve their closed culture, men in the South would destroy places of worship.

A tear rolled down her cheek. In her young life, where she lived, the persecution of her people never really seemed that real. Somehow, me telling her the story made it feel real, and she wept.

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion.

Men will do terrible things if you make them believe their culture is in danger, and there's great political power in making people believe that danger is real, even when it isn't.

I wish bigotry and hatred of the other were only limited to race and religion, but it goes so much deeper than that. There's always somebody willing to say, "They are dangerous because THEY are different," and someone will do something terrible because they believe it.

When I was a child, about the same time as the Beth Israel Bombings, even my church split apart over race and culture; now it's happening again over sexuality. Nobody's set off any bombs yet, but it's not a far journey.

You don't have to be "woke" to be afraid of what bigotry does to your community. You just have to be good at history.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Sleeping with Feist-Dog

Sleep has always been optional for me. Part of ADHD is living, knowing that the slightest sound or change in light or temperature can keep you awake for hours.

Your mind starts pulling at the loose threads of the world, and once it starts to unravel, it's very difficult to stop. I would have made a great hermit monk with no possessions but a bowl for kind people to put rice in while I ponder the eye of God.

I'm certainly not qualified to make this assessment, but I often wonder if ADHD isn't aligned with, or perhaps an entry into, Autism Spectrum Disorder. My frontal lobes work; if anything, they sometimes overwork, but it's actually impossible for me to experience life the way you do.

I used to share a bed with a woman who would ask: "why do you hold your arm up in the air?" and I would say, "I do that when I'm thinking." and she would say, "What does your arm have to do with your thinking and why aren't you sleeping?" and I would say, "I don't know."

Fortunately, a woman can still love you when you're completely fucking weird, and I've experienced that. Loving someone with a complicated and conflicted mind can't be easy, though. So far, they've all found a way to say, "I can't do this anymore." and I don't blame them. My mind tortures me, but it's ok because it's my mind. It's not fair to let it torture somebody else.

I have feist-dog. I've had him since I was a little boy. I stole him from a man on the radio. Like our governor, Feist-dog has an uncomplicated mind. I can read my strange sentences to him, and if he turns his head to the left, I know I'm onto something. If he lays his head down and closes his eyes, I know I'm not.

Jim Neal sounded like a country fella on the radio, but he was pretty learned. He served in the legislature and made literate references all the time. I'm pretty sure he stole Feist-Dog from William Faulkner. Although he changes the spelling several times, Faulkner puts a feist-dog in several of his books, but none more famously than in Go Down Moses, which includes the story of The Bear Hunt, which includes two famous feist-dogs.

The first dog he gives no name. It's a smaller dog who has no sense of fear and manages to track Old Ben, the legendary massive bear, but can't corner him. Sam Fathers finds a new dog, a muscular feist-dog with some airedale mixed in him they call "Lion." Lion is savage and dangerous, so Sam starves him until he can be pet, then shares a bed with him until Lion imprints on Sam, and they go after Old Ben, together.

Both in metaphor and in reality, dogs are our companion animals. They become eyes for the blind and comfort for the shell-shocked. An infection made my Uncle Robert's leg grow shorter than the other one. When he was very young and his bad leg very weak, my Great Grandfather, Old Cap, trained a dog to pull a cart to take Robert to school. Old Cap had only one arm, and I don't know where the dog came from, but this was a famous story in the farmlands outside of Kosciusko, Mississippi, in the twenties. The pictures I've seen show what looks like a golden labrador mix, but I'm pretty sure he's part Feist-Dog.  That dog carried Robert long enough for him to give his life trying to save soldiers in France in World War I.  Sometimes dogs are your companions, but the journey isn't very long.

When I was little, my dad's best salesman was a man by the name of Doby Bartling. Doby had a fine springer spaniel who carried a belly full of pups.  Daddy had a baby girl in diapers, and our previous dog got run over, so Doby figured to give Daddy one of these prize pups along with the papers to file with the American Kennel Club.

What Doby didn't know was that his prize Spaniel bitch had been carrying on with somebody other than the Spaniel stud he intended for her, and by the time these pup's hair started to grow out, it was obvious that their daddy was a feist-dog and not a Springer Spaniel. Since their daddy wasn't who he was supposed to be, those AKC papers would have to wait for another litter.

We named him "Mugsy" because my grandfather thought it sounded funny, but called him "Puppy" because that's all the baby girl in diapers could say. Puppy was a feist-dog, and he was my companion from short pants until college. One day he hid under a chair in the living room, and Puppy was no more. Houses had living rooms back then, a variation on the Southern Parlor, where parents drank with their friends and children had to wait for an invitation to enter.

You'd be surprised how many of my friends are anthropologists. Is that weird? Anthropologists will tell you that sometime in the dim past, a wolf began to share a camp with men, and that's where dogs came from. I have no idea if that's true. It sounds true, but you never know. What I do know is that God sent feist-dogs to men because men need a companion with an uncomplicated mind to help them navigate the world.

At the party celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Saint Andrews School, a friend cornered me while I sought refuge from the noise in the parking lot. "Is Feist-dog real?" They asked. That's a tricky question. Everything I write is real, and everything I write isn't real, and a lot of it used to be real but isn't anymore--some of it might yet become real someday. Farmer Jim Neal was real. Puppy was real. Doby Bartling was real. Go Down Moses was real and available on Amazon if you're looking for a book that offers you an entry into the difficult world of William Faulkner.

I can't limit my writing to what's corporeal at the moment. That's not how my mind works. Feist-dog is, was, and always will be "real." Can you see him? No. I'll try to let you get to know him, though. He's a part of nearly everything I've ever written. He's been my companion since the first day I tried to say a word but came out with only stammers. He's been my advisor since the first day I tried to read but couldn't. When the teacher yelled at me because I couldn't sit still, feist-dog sat silently beside me. Nothing can hurt me because I have my dog. I'll always have my dog.  

Monday, April 24, 2023

Dinner On The Grounds

 I can't sleep.

Actually, I can sleep. Feist-dog can't sleep, and he keeps kicking me.

There's a lot going on in life right now.  In American. In Mississippi. In my life. In Jackson. Boy, there really has been a lot going on in Jackson.

A lot of it is very good. Arts and education, and development in Jackson are all very strong. Government in Jackson is an actual quagmire right now. I look to the left and to the right and up and down, and I don't see a clear way out of this. That doesn't mean I'm gonna give up, but it might mean I'm just gonna pick a direction and start digging there in hopes of seeing open sky sooner or later.

We have some brilliant folks on the council and in the House and Senate, but they find themselves butting heads against roadblocks in several directions. I may not have that much faith in the Mayor or the Governor, but I do have faith in the Jackson delegation, so there is hope.

We had dinner on the grounds at Galloway today. "On the grounds" at Galloway means the lawn of the State Capitol, our neighbor. They're gracious in allowing us to do it, and it's incredibly convenient for us. Bathroom facilities and a full kitchen are just a few yards away, across the street.

Music for the dinner on the grounds was provided by the Galloway Bluegrass string group, which is really very good. Their first number was performed without any amplification but still sounded great.

At any event that happens at Galloway, I always count heads of the second and third generation. Young couples and children are the future of our church, and our church is tightly woven into not only the past of Jackson but the future, so I like to keep tabs on them. I'm happy to report that there was a pretty good crop of little ones in attendance today. There were at least three different cultures represented among them as well, which is important because the face of Mississippi is changing, and it's important that Galloway be a part of that.

While Galloway has a healthy and growing Hispanic contingent, I learned today that St Peters has a one o'clock Spanish mass that was really very well attended. Historically, Hispanic immigrants were a transient population in Mississippi, moving across America with the harvests, but now they seem to be taking up residence, and I think that's very good for us.

For our lunch, Brad Chism brought a pretty great smoker/cooker made out of an old propane tank. While he was just cooking burgers and chicken breasts, that's a great setup for a pig roast.  Aficionados of cooking outdoors would recognize this offset cooker as a real work-horse.

Whatever happened in the past, Galloway, in this generation, has taken to the principle that we don't turn any people away. Being a downtown church, that means citizens of the street are regular parts of our congregation, and today, they were a part of our meal.

If you delve into the Jesus story, that's very much something he would do, and like in his day, after the meal, there were several baskets of loaves and fishes left over. Nothing goes to waste, though. We have an active ministry to the homeless, and that food will be distributed there.

From today's service, you couldn't tell there was turmoil in the United Methodist Church. Part of that is because, among us, there is so much love for each other, for our homes, and for our church. We may worry about this turmoil, but I don't worry that it will hurt us. I do worry that it might hurt others, though. I worry about that quite a lot.

Me and Feist-dog, we were born in Jackson. We live in Jackson. We love Jackson. We've seen a lot, a lot that's gone, a lot that's new, and a lot that's eternal. This is not always an easy place to rest. My entire life, and before, there has been inner turmoil of a very great temperature, and that continues. You could say it's more in the open now than it's ever been.

Culturally and physically, we've built our home on top of a volcano. Its peak is just under the city Colosseum, at least the physical volcano. Our challenge now is to find ways to work around the cultural volcano and do it somehow without oppressing anybody as we did in the past.

The church, not just my church but all the churches, might be the key to doing this. When I was little, the churches of Jackson saw that nobody was tending to our citizens of the street. They saw that they were suffering and hungry, and the churches banded together to do something about it.

Acquiring a gas station across the street from Central Presbyterian Church, they called this fledgling effort "Stew Pot," and my mother applied for the job as the first manager there. Mother applying for that job meant that my brothers and sister and I (and even including fiest-dog) were automatically enlisted to convert this gas station that was abandoned decades before into a place clean enough to serve food from.

It wasn't an easy job. There were decades of layers of engine grease on that floor and decades of layers of pigeon poop on top of that, and we had to dig down through it all to find the concrete floor beneath it and then seal that so we could safely serve food there.

What I learned from that was not physical labor for your mom. That I'd learned turning our two-acre wooded lot into a garden club home. What I learned was there was a whole different world outside of the northeast Jackson conclave of doctors and lawyers, and stock brokers I grew up in. I learned that while mental illness had struck my family, there was a whole other layer to it for people who had no family to soften the effect. I learned that there was a whole other face to addiction than David Hicks sending rich kids off to Atlanta for rehab. I learned what Jesus meant about feeding the hungry and tending his sheep.

I'm really proud of what Stewpot has become. They don't use that gas station for much anymore. It's decorated with Murals, and it is mostly locked up, but it still stands across from the church that bore it. Inside are floors that I used kerosene and heavy scrapers with a hammer to clean so hungry people could eat. Not "hungry" as in "I skipped breakfast," but hungry as in "I haven't eaten since Thursday, and I believe the government wants to take my brain, and I slept under a railroad culvert where some bastard stole my shoes, hungry."

As a child, dinner on the grounds meant fried chicken we picked up from KFC on our way from Jackson and served on an ancient picnic table at the Bethel Independant Methodist Church in Hesterville, Mississippi.   A church where my grandfather was baptized and my great-grandfather built.   A church that separated itself from the United Methodist Church so they could remain segregated as long as it was legal, a decision much against the wishes of every Boyd and every Campbell I knew, but none of us lived in Hesterville anymore, so none of our votes counted.   Dinner on the grounds also meant macaroni salad at the Presbyterian church in Learned, where the Brady side of my family is buried, although all the Bradys and Harrises I knew were buried in Greenwood cemetery, not far from my beloved Jackson Zoo.  You can see my grandmother's grave from the top corner of the rainforest exhibit if the grass is cut.

Dinner on the grounds means we'll band together and feed whoever is here.  It doesn't matter if it's in hesterville or the Stewpot or on the keenly manicured lawn of the Mississippi State Capitol; we have food for the hungry.  We will tend our lord's sheep in the most basic and most important way possible, with loaves and fishes, well, hamburgers actually, but you get my meaning.  This isn't just a party.  It's a deeply symbolic act that expresses what we were taught.  "Are you hungry, my friend?  We have food.  Come and eat with us."

Leave me alone, feist-dog.  I wrote what you wanted.  Now, I want to rest.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

I Lied

 I lied.  Of course, I lied.  I said it didn't matter.  I said I didn't mind.  I said I knew it was coming, that wasn't a lie, but I said I was prepared, and that was.  I said I recovered quickly.  That was a lie.  I said I was strong enough to take it.  

I never mentioned the nights when the emptiness swept over me.  I never mentioned all the baked things I ate because feeling more than full meant I felt something.  I never mentioned the doubt, the regret, or the loss.

I took a chance because something about her reached inside me.  I took a chance because her needs were greater than my own.  I took a chance because other lives depended on her, and it wasn't her fault.

I lied because I'm supposed to be stronger.  I lied because I'm supposed to leave a positive impact.  I lied because I always had everything handed to me, and if I showed any regret at this loss, then it might mean that I didn't appreciate the things I had when so much of the world didn't have even that.  

I lied because telling the truth wouldn't make any difference.  Telling the truth wouldn't make it hurt any less.  Telling the truth wouldn't fill my arms again.  Telling the truth might make her feel guilty, but it wouldn't make me feel better, and this whole thing was painful enough already.

I'll cut the rope and set you adrift, and where you go from there is under your power, not mine, and if you look back, I'm just a shadow on the water, and your path lies ahead.  I lied because sometimes a gentleman shouldn't tell the truth.

The Stone Moved

It's Easter morning, Feist-dog.  Of course, I can't sleep.  I'm listening for sounds of rain that might slow down my going to everything at church.  It's quiet so far.  

Two thousand years ago, before the sun came up, the followers of this man Jesus rolled away the stone and stole the body of their rabbi so they could tell people he was Immanuel, the Messiah, the Son of God, a lie, a scam, a fraud that lived down through the centuries--or something amazing happened.  

I can't tell you which is true.  No one can.  I can tell you what I believe, but I'm just a man, and you're just a dog.  What I can tell you is this idea, this promise that death cannot hold us, that new life from the ashes of the old is possible, even inevitable, became the foundation of our culture and has inspired millions of hopeless people around the world for two thousand years.

My people had gods of the trees and gods of stone, and gods of the sea, but the Romans came and gave us one God of the sky.  It wasn't even their God.  They had even more gods than my people did, but the idea, the seed planted by a people they conquered, a people they defeated so completely that they burned their city of Jerusalem and destroyed their palatial temple to the point where no stone lay atop another, they dispersed those people to the wind, they killed their practitioners and anyone who spoke the name of this Christ could die on a cross like his--that idea, that seed of an idea, that tiny bit of faith grew and grew and converted the entire empire that tried to destroy it, and that empire converted the world, and now, people on every continent, call this man Jesus, Adonai, Lord, and Master.

This idea, this Easter, this power of rebirth lives in me, Feist-dog.  I went into a cave and waited for death.  I stayed there for many years, but this man from Galilee, this humble rabbi who spoke a muddled form of Aramaic and barely knew a few words of Greek, wasn't done with me.  I was reborn.  I was as dead as a man can be while his heart still beats, but today I return to the bosom of my church to celebrate Easter.  

I can tell you everything that was said of this man Jesus.  I can tell you everything he said.  I can talk to you for days about the generations upon generations of men, wiser than me, who discussed him.  I can tell you how I feel, Feist-dog, but I cannot tell you what is true.  That's something you have to work out for yourself.  

I'm a terrible proselytizer.  I speak with no authority, no drama, and no force.  I mumble out stories and theories and books I read and men I knew, but I won't grasp you by the hand and look you in the ey and say, "This is the truth!" because I don't know the truth; I only know what I feel.  I cannot make this journey for you.  I'll go with you if you want me, but I cannot carry you.  I can't even clear the way before you.  I'm sorry, Feist-dog; I would do these things for you because I love you, but they're not within my grasp.  They are, however, within yours.  

It was forbidden to do this work on the Sabbath, so the women went to the tomb with oil and herbs to dress the body of the rabbi the next day, but when they got there, the stone was rolled away, and a man greeted them who said: "why do you seek the living among the dead?"

The historian Josephus said the testimony of the women was insufficient because women tend toward hysteria.  I can imagine how that sat with his wife.  The women went to attend the body of Jesus because the men who followed him were in hiding, fearing the same sort of prosecution Jesus suffered.  As he predicted, they denied him.  One betrayed him.  Only the women, Mary, his mother, and Mary, his companion, were left to attend his body with four other women who were followers and the mother of followers.  

The sun's coming up Feist-dog.  Someone rolled away the stone.  I can't tell you who.  I can't tell you what became of the body.  That's a walk you'll have to make, but I can tell you, do not seek the living among the dead.  Do not seek rebirth unless you believe it's possible.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Away from the Party

I snuck away from the party.  I mostly always sneak away from the party.  We've snuck away from some of the best parties in Mississippi's history together.  She showed me pictures of her first grandchild on her phone; she was tiny and pink and beautiful and had her turned-up mouth but twinkling brown eyes like a doe.

Do you remember that time when you called me from your prom to bring you a cigarette, and we smoked it in the parking lot and never went back in?  I always thought your date would be mad at me for stealing you away that night, but then he married that guy from New York, and I figured it was ok.  

You went away for college, but you came home for the summers.  Do you remember that night we got a belly full of good whiskey and climbed to the top of Sullivan Harrell and did unspeakable things in the moonlight?  I drove to Oxford to hold you when that boy cheated on you, then again when she dumped him, and we laughed. 

When my father died, you called, and we talked all night.  When I got divorced, you called, but I didn't answer.  I sent flowers when your child was born, and now that child has a child.

The moonlight reflects the silver in your hair.  You're as beautiful now as you were at sixteen.  We always hid from the spotlight together, but between us, a great garden of life grew and grew.  I've held you. I've loved you.  I've kissed you.  I held your hair when you drank too much.  I wiped away your tears, and you made it ok for me to shed my own.  You found a boy you liked and asked me if you should go away with him, and now you have a grandchild.  

May her heart be as full as yours.  May adventures blaze through her lifetime like a comet.  May she find a friend to sneak away from parties with.  May she continue the garden her grandmother and I planted.

Washing The Feet

 As a child, I saw the pope washing the feet of people lined up in the Vatican. It was such a strange thing to do.

In the middle east, feet held a special meaning. There were no cars or trains. No carriages and very few horses. Chariots were a weapon of war, not a means of transportation. If people moved, they did it with their feet, so having their feet touch the soil of the earth had significant meaning, and as a practical matter, their feet got very dirty.

At the last Passover seder before his death, Jesus took a towel and began washing the feet of his disciples. Peter, his second disciple, refused, saying he should wash the master's feet.

Jesus said, "You don't understand this now, but you will. If I do not wash your feet, you can have no part of me." To which Peter said, "Wash not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well." and Jesus said, "If you are clean, then your feet are enough. But, not every one of you is clean." He said this because he knew one would betray him.

According to the law, sacrifice absolves you of sin. If you sin, then you can offer a lamb or a dove on the altar, and its blood absolves you of your sin. It's an ancient ritual. Far more ancient than Jerusalem or Rome, or even Egypt.

Before Passover, thousands of Jews come to Jerusalem to offer a lamb or a dove for sacrifice so they may be cleansed. Rivers of blood flow in rilles cut into the stone surrounding the altar in Herod's temple. Some of it is gathered to put above the door during Passover to signify the covenant between the Jews and their God.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples so they may be clean of sin, but they had yet to offer a sacrifice. When they went to the temple, their master overturned the money changer's tables and challenged the priests. They didn't know it, but he would be the sacrifice. His blood would run from the table, and at supper, they would drink of his blood so that the blood of the lamb is inside them, not painted over their door.

Washing the feet is an odd ritual, but it portends the crux of why Jesus came to earth. Your sins are washed away. His blood absolves you. His blood in you signifies the new covenant.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Donkey Died

Along with music, food, art, and dance, we use religion to transmit the memes that create the culture that binds us and defines us.  Dawkins, who created the term, defines memes as the fractious anatomical parts of ideas, communication, and representation--the occupation of our higher mind.  It is part of how our genes seek to replicate themselves.  I've tried a thousand times to prove him wrong and always failed.

We provide our children with religious stories to arm them and populate them with the memes we use to bind them into our society and our families.  Despite being downtown and ancient and moderate and all the things to suggest that Galloway wouldn't have much of a youth program, Galloway is busting out with babies, toddlers, and young couples.  A welcome sign of continued growth.  That some of these tiny creatures in pastel color cotton easter dresses are third and fourth-generation Jacksonians with eyes that I recognize as the color and shape of their great-grandmother gives me considerable hope for the future and the survival of my own cultural memes.   

Today was Palm Sunday.  The day Christians celebrate Jesus entering Jerusalem during Passover. Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah, the seed of David, would arrive on the back of a colt moke so when Jesus arrived at the gates of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the people spread palm fronds before him and covered the rough road with their cloaks singing "Hosanna!" Their lord has arrived to deliver them from all the false kings of the world and establish the Kingdom of God.  That's a lot of pressure.

When I was a child at Galloway, there were different versions of a procession with palm fronds through the sanctuary to celebrate Palm Sunday.  I rarely participated in these because, for twenty years, we celebrated our cultural Messiah in the choir loft of the chapel at eight-thirty in the morning, where nobody but Clay Lee and God knew the Campbells attended church at all.  

In time, this procession evolved to a small army of children with palm fronds following a live donkey in a parade around the church, now an entire city block, from the great steps before our columned Greek edifice, down Yazoo street, across West street, up Mississippi street, then back down Congress street to the courtyard between the sanctuary and the chapel.  Since today was Jack's last day in Jackson until Christmas, I invited him to join the parade today with me since I missed most of his days in church when he was a child.  

The plan was to make some sort of reference to his father sharing some connection with the actual live donkey leading us, but when I got to church this morning, I found out that the celebrated equidae who led Galloway children on Palm Sunday for so many so years had expired and was now an ex-jackass.  I felt the sting of promising an entertainment to the fourth generation and not coming through.  We had a painted cut-out of a donkey, though, and with all our ministers, we joined a parade of a dozen young families and their pastel-colored progeny waving palm fronds in the downtown breezes.  Nobody sang Hosanna, but several commented on the prospect of rain.  I was the donkey.

Back in the sanctuary, Meg Hanes delivered the children's church part of the celebration.  Meg has a challenging job.  She's to infest our children with the stories that provide them with the memes that bind them into our culture.  This is huge; she's a gateway guardian into our society.  There are two primary schools of thought on this.  You can Disneyfy the entire concept so that children see our religious narrative as soft and inviting, like a toy or a cartoon, or you can make the entire process terrifying so that they are afraid to step beyond the boundaries of the stories.  Meg takes a less common third route.  She tries to relate the stories in terms of things already in the children's lives.  She makes the bible understandable in their own terms, making every effort to create something called a "thinking Christian," which some people say doesn't exist, but Galloway has been producing since before the Civil War. 

Meg's challenge on Palm Sunday is particularly complex.  It starts with the colorful pageant of palm fronds and singing and donkeys and little baby Jesus, now a triumphant man, but moves at a frightening pace where, the next Friday, the same people singing Hosanna shout, "CRUSIFY HIM!" Meg doesn't pull any punches, but she delivers the message at a sturdy, steady pace.  People are complicated.  Four-year-old eyes ponder the idea for a moment, then begin searching for Momma's face in the crowd again.  The meme is registered in their memory banks, but it's too soon to fully contemplate what all this means.  Maybe when they're twenty.

So many people I talk to immediately write off Galloway and Millsaps and Downtown and United Methodism and anything in the borders of Jackson and nearly everything in the borders of Mississippi as dead or dying or not worth it anyway, but at Galloway, there are green shoots pushing through the ancient scales on the streets of Jackson.  We are making new Christians out of ancient stock, and they are amazing.  

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Mrs. Maisel In Smith Park

 In season four of the Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Midge decides that since she's never seen Susie mention a man in her life or a man that she likes, then she must be a lesbian, so she makes a trip to a park on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village where she asks every man she sees wearing a carnation in his lapel if he knows of an establishment where a lady might meet another lady.

This episode touches on so much that's a genuine part of American history in the sixties, even here in Mississippi.  In 1969, six years ahead in the show's storyline, homosexuals in New York rioted to protest police raids on the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, a known homosexual gathering place.  They rioted because, in 1969, police could arrest men for soliciting sex from other men, even if it wasn't prostitution.  They could be arrested for being gay.  

Midge is rebuffed by every gentleman she meets because they all think she's trying to entrap them and might be a cop until she meets an elegant, silver-haired creature with a pencil-thin mustache named Lazarus with a yellow carnation in the lapel of his tan linen suit.  Lazarus is played by seventy-four-year-old director John Waters.  If you're aware of Waters' body of work, this is a remarkably understated role for him, as he gently provides Midge with the location of lesbian bars in the area.

In 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, it was also illegal for men to solicit sex from other men.  There was an incident at the old City Auditorium, where Capitol Towers is now,  where a sting operation was set up to catch the men who had taken up meeting in the lower level men's washroom.  Several businessmen, church leaders, teachers at Central High School, and Professors at Millsaps and other institutions were arrested.  Their arrests appeared in the paper but were buried in the back because one of the men arrested worked for the paper.  

After the raid, men stopped using the Auditorium as a meeting place, and the city managers made sure the lavatories were locked up when there wasn't a performance.  In a few years, they would begin construction on the new city auditorium, which we now call Thalia Mara Hall.  Before openly gay bars began appearing in the 1980s, a new location where gentlemen could meet other gentlemen opened up, and they began using Smith Park at night.   After the Stonewall riots in New York, the new Jackson Police chief sent out unofficial word that unless these men were openly soliciting for prostitution or having sex in public places, his officers had to leave them alone.  An uncomfortable state of stale detente existed between the police and the gay community, and they were allowed to exist in this lovely small park between the Governor's Mansion and Galloway United Methodist Church.

That's where I come in.  I was a member of Galloway United Methodist Church in the seventies.  Although I was not very active in the Galloway Youth Ministry, my sister was, and as there were three years when I could drive, but she could not, I was often tasked with picking her up after youth activities or rehearsals in the Galloway Drama Ministry, which meant parking beside the church, across from Smith Park at night while gentlemen glid back and forth in the shadows of the parks ancient live oaks, discussing each other.  Smith Park was also where I would meet a gentleman who worked for the Hinds County Sheriff's Department and sold me anabolic steroids.  Sports drugs weren't considered a very serious crime at the time.  It might not have even been a crime when we began, but it was always shady and always a bad idea.  As a teenager, I specialized in bad ideas.

I knew what was going on in the park.  I know what these men were and what they were doing but it never filled me with shock and revulsion like it did a lot of people.  My main interests as a teenager were weight-lifting, performing arts, (especially special makeup and special effects), graphic arts, and dimensional arts; I was comfortable with homosexuals because they abounded in the fields I was interested in.  Having met them, I new they were no threat to me.  

Even before I could drive, I was starting to have my parents drop me off at the Downtown YMCA, where I could spend the entire day lifting weights, getting steam, and swimming.  At my mother's insistence, my father sat me down for a talk about the men who also spent the entire day at the YMCA.  I assured him that I already understood this and I was aware of them, and so far, none had approached me, which they hadn't.  I don't know if it's because I was underage or if maybe I just wasn't very attractive, but I was never approached by another man in all my years in the gym.  They existed, and I existed.  Sometimes we were friends, and sometimes they ignored me.  It simply wasn't an issue or a consideration.  

At Galloway, I would sit in my Ford LTD in the dark with a sketchbook or a novel, waiting for my sister to finish her practice in the Mikado or Carnival while gentlemen took a chance on romance in the dark across the street.  Every so often, somebody would say "hey" in the dark, and I would wave back at their shadow without really halting my reading or drawing.  They never approached.  

Almost never approached.

"Hey, I'm Ryan."

Ryan was remarkably small.  Neatly dressed in polished shoes.  If he was older than me, it wasn't by much.  I wore old jeans, a ripped sweatshirt, and leather gloves with the fingers cut off so I didn't get callouses gripping dumbells.  I thought they looked cool in Rocky, and they became my trademark for a while.  

"You like to draw."  He said.  "Can I see?"

I showed him the sketches in my book.  Mostly figure studies, some taken from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, others taken from Muscle and Fitness magazine, and some skeletons from a book in the library.  There weren't actual figure study classes for sixteen-year-olds in Jackson at the time.  There weren't really drawing classes at all.  I had to teach myself.  My brother was teaching me for a while, but he lost his way, and I was on my own.  I never quite forgave him for abandoning me while he was alive.  

It never occurred to me to say, "I'm straight, fuck off." or do anything rude to Ryan.  He was being bold, but he was also pretty scared.  I could be a cop.  I could also be a guy who picks up young gay guys and then takes them somewhere for my friends to beat the crap out of them or even kill them.  These things happened, and he was risking them by talking to a stranger in a car that looked exactly like a cop car but without the decals or the lights.  

To me, he seemed a gentle frightened creature, almost like a fawn stepping out of the woods to see my sketchbook and sniff my hand.   I was aware that he wanted something from me that I couldn't provide, but I was also aware that I could ruin his night and make him feel really bad about himself with a word.  I had friends, peers...acquaintances, I guess, who excelled at destroying people's sense of self with their words.   I'd already exhibited an ability to do the same.  I could move four times Ryan's weight in iron plates, but my real weapon was the words that came out of my mouth, but I withheld them. 

"Do you come here much?"  Ryan asked.

"I come here a lot.  I go to church here."  I said, motioning to Galloway's massive edifice with my thumb.   "I have a girlfriend.  Her name is Monica."  That was actually true.  I had an official girlfriend, who was a source of many and unexpected adventures.  She also provided me with a way to say to this skittish creature who was ready to disappear into the night like a frightened bird at the first sign of violence that I wasn't gay, even though I appeared friendly.  

Ryan smiled.  "I'm gonna go talk to my friends.  Thanks for showing me your drawings." And he slowly drifted back into the dark among the ancient trees and the ancient buildings, not fleeing danger like he could have, but returning to the world he knew, not as interested in the world I knew as he thought he might be.  

By the time I got to college, there were established gay bars in Jackson.  The most popular, just a block or two from Smith Park, and meeting in the park became more of an event for the city's growing homeless population than the city's gay population.  

I knew men who had their lives ruined by the raid on the City auditorium.  I'm not going to write about them like some people, but I knew them.  I knew Millsaps professors who had their livelihoods threatened by the event, but neither my father nor Dr. Finger, nor Dr. Graves had any desire to press the issue with anyone with tenure or on the tenure track, although there were professors at other institutions who did lose their job over it.   I was born into an era where it was very illegal to be gay and matured into an era where going to Jack and Jill's was the hip thing to do at Millsaps.  You'd be surprised how many eligible young women required a gentleman like myself to escort them there, partly to prove a willingness to bend to their will but also because it was the best place to dance, and they didn't want to wander around downtown at night without an escort.  

I never saw Ryan again.   I thought about him sometimes.  To be small and shy and gay in Mississippi in the eighties wasn't an impossible task but not an easy one either.  I imagined him to be a sort of Dill Harris from To Kill A Mockingbird but in color.  Would he grow up to be the Trueman Capote I saw on television?  I'll never know.  

There are people who wish nothing more than for homosexuals to return to the hidden world they used to inhabit.  They could survive there.  They did before.  It would make me sad, though.  Finding a companion can be a remarkably difficult thing under the best of circumstances.  Forcing men to do it in the dark, under the threat of losing their job or getting beaten to death, is cruel.  I don't want to live in a society where we have to be cruel to cover up a vulnerability I'm not even sure exists in the first place.

In a way, the gentlemen on Christopher Street in 1963 had an advantage over me.  All they had to do to find someone who was lonely and looking for a companion was go to the park and look for someone with a carnation in his lapel.  I suppose that's what Tinder is for, but meeting people in the park is ever so much more gentile than smudging filtered photos right or left with my pudgy thumb on my phone.  At least in the park, I'd have to smile and nod and acknowledge their existence before I swiped them out of my universe.   I'd rather live in a universe where people can meet and congregate civilly without fear of death or suffering.  They don't want anything different from what I want.  They just want it in a different way.

Official Ted Lasso