There are things I know...too many things...things I wish I didn't know. I know what it is like to be bullied, assaulted, symbolically emasculated. But I also know what it is like to hunt, to stalk, to kill. I know what it is to gut and skin stuff, to scale and filet stuff, and, in the case of the myriad catfish I have encountered, to do some combination of all of the above. I grew up the son of a hunter and fisherman, a raiser of hounds, and the best way to communicate with him and my brother was to learn their ways. I learned them as best I could.
Manhood was defined in very specific ways in their world...I tried to walk that path, with uneven success. My body
has never quite been up to what my mind and their culture demanded of it, which explains
why I chose not to serve in the military, and why I am less proficient
at hunting, fishing, canoeing, etc., than some of you. I accept that. It is my
genetic heritage, coupled with many injuries to shoulders and ankles and back, but it makes me no less a man. I eventually learned that.
What I've also had, all along, is an
enormous intellect, a creative mind, filled with poetry and philosophy
and art and music...a mind driven by intellectual curiosity...a mind at
odds with the culture in which I was raised. I can and have planted and
cultivated and grown and harvested my own crops. I've cleaned more than
my share of fish. I've helped kill, skin, clean, and prep various critters, ranging
from a gray squirrel to an Angus bull. And I write poetry, and my head is a juke box on continuous play, with everything from Vince Gill to Vivaldi randomly erupting.
Why do I
say these things, tell this story? Because I grow weary of the "dividing lines" in America. I grow
tired of the labeling and divisiveness. I grew up in a cold, drafty mill house on
the cotton mill hill where my grandfather worked nearly his entire life. I lived in that world, though by freak opportunity my father, who
didn't even graduate high school, was apart from it. We were lucky...his
personality and skill landed him a job outside the mill hill world. But
I also paid a price for that.
Ever had an older, stronger,
meaner person steal your freaking Chuck Taylors out of your locker and
wear them, just to taunt you? I have. Ever been mocked incessantly for
using "big words?" I have, and much, much worse. It gets into your head...you think that you are forever doomed to be exploited, and so too often you play to the lowest common denominator rather than strive for personal excellence. But even when you do strive, when you think you've done everything the right way and well, sometimes you still lose. Ever lost a job to an inferior candidate
because said candidate's father wanted said child to follow in his
footsteps, regardless of qualifications? I have, and it gets into your head, as does getting "downsized" at a point in your career when you are finally beginning to think about the possibility that in 10-12 years, maybe you can think about retirement.
I've been asked to accept, bear, and/or do
almost unspeakable things as part of generational or intellectual or
psychological or academic hazing, and I have done so, including doing a few things of which I am ashamed. I have also seen death, up close and personal, though I'm sort of like Jack Sparrow when it comes to that subject. I've retrieved a
still-born baby from the morgue, though my supervisors didn't bother to
tell me the process, and delivered that "package," in a warm blanket the nurses provided, to the parents so
they could say goodbye. And I've sat by the bedside of a dying patient,
abiding with the family until, finally, that last, slow breath was drawn. I've
sat up many a night with my own brother, fighting to stay awake so that
I could be there if he woke up panicked. I've listened too many hours
to his breathing, counting the time until he would wake and I could get
some sleep, knowing we had made it through another night together, alive. I've stood by my
fair share of graves, too. I continue to celebrate those who
live on, as well as revere the departed.
I tell these stories because I have survived it all and worse, as many of you here know. I write because deep down, I know something you perhaps don't, and I want to share it with you. I know that I am worth the effort to stay alive. Took me a long time to get here, but I know this, and it is my anchor in the worst of storms. Want to swap stories? I'm here for you, anytime. Need to vent? I'm here. Seek me out. YOU are worth the effort to stay alive, too!
I find myself at yet
another turning point in a life filled with them. Do I continue to play high school sports in spite of what happened to me as a sophomore, or do I disappear into the circle of nerds who are my closest friends? Do I drop out of Wake
Forest in disgrace, or do I find a way to finish what my parents so want
me to finish? Do I quit my job, or keep at it, even though one error in judgment
almost cost the life of my best friend? Do I somehow find a way both to
do my duty as a church deacon and to care for my badly wounded, flawed self? Do I
drop out of seminary and go home because I know that church ministry is not my
likely future, or do I finish what I started because the future is
unclear? What on Earth do I do now that I know I am not meant to be a hospital chaplain?
The list goes on: Do I follow my passion for history into grad school, or do I try to find
some "fit" where I can help support our personal economy? Do I carry on
even when I lose one job to an arrogant search committee (AFTER I had
defended my diss, they somehow refused to believe I was set to graduate, just
because of a clerical delay in updating my transcript...yes, that
happened, along with the apparent fact that I didn't bend over backward far
enough to satisfy their egos...really? Yes. It happened.). And do I keep searching when another job, one for which I had been groomed for several years, is lost to overt nepotism? Do I
carry on even when my seven years of devotion and service above and
beyond the call go unrewarded and I am unceremoniously cut loose in the name of "strategic reorganization"?
The answer is yes. I have seen, felt,
touched, tasted evil. This is not it. I may have been the victim of
capitalism's impact on higher ed, the victim of short-sightedness, whatever...I'll leave that to others'
judgments, but yes, victim I have been. Still, I know evil, have faced
it down and made it back up before my fury. Whatever this is, it is not
that. I will prevail...but I concede that mine is not the easy path.
Thank you all so much for being here. For whatever reason or purpose,
this is my path, and I walk it...it beats the alternative, every single day.
Some things fall in my lap, to be sure, but then others are taken away. It weighs on a person. One comes to fear good news or happy times, as the news or the times seem ever followed by bad and sorrowful. So it has been for The Bug and me since my triumphant awards tour in November and our wonderful anniversary cruise in December. Though many of you may not understand half of this, a few of you will
understand all of it. I am here...I am alive...and I am strong, but I have the smell of smoke in my nose and the taste of ashes in my mouth. Forgive
my anger...it is righteous, though too often misdirected. Forgive my instability...I am working on it. Accept my love
and care....you have a formidable friend. But
sometimes I just have to light a pire to what has been lost and, yes, howl at the moon.