Born Again

With some frequency, I have mentioned that I once returned to college many years after leaving it. I never deliberately dropped out: eventually, after more than four years of hard study there, I was excreted.

The first time I left, though, I was propelled from college. Something was happening to me which I did not understand. Friendships were dissolving, personalities were shape-shifting, my body was bloating, the world was gnawing. And it was spring. But more significantly, I had hit a wall. I enrolled in a course on Renaissance Europe at Memphis State University. I had taken four very good required survey history courses prior to this particular course but had mainly taken courses in business and psychology. More inclined toward the latter – and seeing the former, based in no small part on the other people pursuing it, as a misfit for my temperament, principles, and evolving interests – I sought out new study paths late in my junior year.

The readings for the Renaissance course were complex and overwhelming on many levels. Though my professor was a spellbinding storyteller, I felt lost in material that I could neither digest nor piece together. I was captivated by images and tales of men and women who made my own life seem under-lived and completely uninteresting; I encountered ideas that made those surrounding me and my time appear clearly insufficient. Yet, I felt the time speak to me – call to me. Having read and attended with all my ability, I went to my professor and told him of my decision to withdraw from school. I told him that I would risk all, even risk being drafted for duty in Vietnam, to see the world and find my place in it. This man, who seemed to hold the world in his large hands, his imposing stature, and his deep, authoritative voice – a true believer in the power and fundamental necessity of education – did not attempt to dissuade me. He was genuinely supportive of the reasoning upon which I based my move outward.

I will be honest. I left school in pursuit of craft. The very word loomed noble and superior to bland consumption. Emphatically, I did not leave for humanism. I never would have dreamed that humanism could, through the twisted witchcraft of modern-day religion, be cast in popular American culture as the most wicked scourge ever to plague mankind. I was humanism through and through. I did not need to pursue it. And there was nothing that could drive it from me. It was the grand gift that had seeped into my pores from the moment that I was born. It was the alpha and omega of my education. It was the beginning and sustenance of my values. And nothing solidified humanism’s hold on me like the benevolent Protestant upbringing in my household that surrounded me since birth. To me, Jesus was humanism writ large. He would not stand so pervasively and personally approachable without the ideals, contributions, and sacrifices of humanism, and humanism would not thrive without the model and teachings of Jesus.

Consistent with my practice of posting manuscripts related to the Middle Ages, I have attached essays pertaining to my exploration of the Renaissance.

The mighty figures and events of the Renaissance would mock our petty conceits. And we justly deride many of theirs. But we easily see ourselves among them. We find their assumptions familiar. Their excesses are recognizably human in our eyes.

The Renaissance in History
Lawyers and Statecraft
Michelangelo
Letter About Machiavelli’s The Prince
Review of Renaissance Letters

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post on dooms to view these learning journals. Read them or ignore them at will.)

When Letters Could Talk

Click here to read this story.

I treasure letters. I save most personal correspondence I receive. And I try to save drafts of some letters that I send. Fragments of letters encapsulate evidence of the fullness of living. It pains me to imagine chunks of history daily cast away. Still more, it awes me to consider the trillions of stories that were never part of our shared record.

Digital messaging is something we think we cannot live without. I greatly appreciate its speed and convenience. I am grateful that I continue to receive emails – occasionally even containing multiple paragraphs – that approach the detail, color, feeling, and depth of handwritten letters. But they are fewer and fewer. Though I have tried to keep personal email exchanges over for the past twenty years, emails have become more akin to business telegrams than letters. Blogs are really not like letters either, but they can be richer than emails – though less personal. When I write something for what others insist on calling my “blog,” I generally write portions as if they were letters to individuals with whom I am very familiar. Often the messages I send to them in this indirect way are urgent though quiet. Even though I have substantial experience using digital technology for communication, the first time I got a response to a “blog” story from someone I didn’t know, it creeped me out; I felt as if my personal space had been violated in some way. Maybe I am over that to some extent, but in a significant way I am not. I write to people I know. [1]

Despite having little to say most of the time, I endeavor to be both informative and entertaining in my letters. Whether I succeed in achieving either is an open question. I am not a very inventive letter writer in terms of fiction and fantasy, but I am a passable exaggerator.

Recently I found a bundle of letters written in late 1982 and early 1983. They are particularly interesting to me because they illustrate how my wife and I lived before the advent of our son. These paragraphs that you are reading are a sidewinding preface to selected parts of three of those letters.

There is an incident – not mentioned in the letters – that links the first two recipients. It happened as a close friend, my wife, and I leisurely drove back to Nashville from Boston. My wife and I were returning home after travel north to briefly visit our friend. His girlfriend’s parents lived near the water’s edge of eastern Long Island. We had only just met her days before in Boston, and she had returned to her parent’s comfortable house for an extended summer stay. She and her parents put the three of us up for a night to help relieve our drive south.

My friend had a mischievous streak and was a studied deceiver. He delighted in the discomfort of others, especially familiars. As we were driving across Long Island, he casually mentioned, as if it were a slip of his tongue, that his girlfriend’s brother had deep-rooted psychological problems and had recently been found wandering, if not stalking, the beach holding an ax. When we arrived, we met her friendly family, and while we were on the beach, we ran across her younger brother. He did indeed act peculiarly. After dinner and a beach walk, my wife and I returned to our guest accommodations in the basement of the house. The brother’s bedroom was a small side room off of the main basement room, separated only by a flimsy, hollow-core interior door. From the stairwell he had to walk across the room about ten feet from the foot of our double bed to get to his room. That night, after we got in bed, turned out the lights, and began to nod off, he returned home and walked a little too noisily to his room and shut the door. The light remained on for the entire night, and there was occasional shuffling in the room, accented by periodic human utterances. My eyes and ears were alert all that night. I had one of the most fitful sleeps ever, continually glancing at that door with the light seeping from the inch-wide crack at the bottom, listening for signs of imminent attack. We had been warned by our friend not to mention the brother’s condition; so as thoroughly polite and grateful guests, we issued not a hint, before or after our evening, about our planted suspicions, though craving all the while confirmation or denial of our friend’s darkly sketched story. The next day, our friend reluctantly and “innocently” confessed his tale, after hearing of my restless sleep and seeing my haggard eyes. His girlfriend was not amused by his trick or our long-suffering discomfort.

Letter writing and friendship are similar to that story. It’s difficult to sort what is fact from embellishment. Often we don’t really want to know the absolute truth because it would ruin the experience. If we demand only truth and facts, there might be no story – nor life – to speak of.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Since its inception, TennesseeSoul Mate has not been open to external search engines. That polite curtain of modesty is a cellophane barrier I have been unwilling to lift. Thus, though it is open to whoever stumbles upon it, the TennesseeSoul Mate portion of the TennesseeSoul network possesses an imaginary privacy. Otherwise, TennesseeSoul overall is strongly shielded by obscurity, general lack of interest, and too much other stuff to do.

Click here to read this story.

Happy Birthday, TennesseeSoul!

Four years ago this week I officially launched TennesseeSoul. I started building the website a year or so earlier, but the national election in 2008 and an abrupt economic stumble prompted me to take a leap forward.

It has been a wonderful walk for me. To the disappointment of some, I have no intention of quitting.

I don’t mean to be rude, but if only one or two close friends and family members read each of my stories, that is satisfaction enough. I certainly remember and know more than I did four years ago because of this venture. There is every reason to suspect that a few readers each month have come to the same conclusion.

Despite my best efforts to convince some friends with superior writing skills to contribute an essay, remembrance, or story, its been mostly me and some of my closest and most inspirational family members who have stepped up to play along. Hooray for the octogenarians! Without their courage and experience, we would have been denied first-hand accounts of World War II in the Pacific, Memphis life in the 1940s, Tennessee state politics in the 1950s, and hurricane Katrina.

When we get older, we are ready to start talking in ways that we have not talked before. We want our descendants to know what we are as a community — what we learned.

I think at four years old, TennesseeSoul has done that: it has given a multilayer, detailed glimpse of a community. I don’t have an ounce of shame or regret about a single subject, word, or sentiment.

Because TennesseeSoul lives, I live. It is a place of calm and reflection for me. Just an average of forty, dedicated minutes a day – along with a solid public education, a sufficient library, the liberty to ponder, and a rough journal of explorations long past – has given me this. For most average folks, fortunes are not made in giant strides but in the tiniest of disciplined steps. For you youngsters who doubt your hidden powers, this is the most important secret that I can share: it is the determined, consistent, worthy small efforts that can yield the purest rewards. Constant enjoyment is but the icing on the cake that keeps the soul salivating. Happy birthday to playing the wild with restraint absent paralyzing fear.

PINCH

Nine and a half inches by twelve and a half inches folded in half. Audacious, outrageous, delusional – and completely satisfying. “Silly,” as one hybrid hippie-schoolmarm-type behind a bookstore counter said of its most raucous serial.

I had seen nothing like it in American, except perhaps for the works of the enterprising Mr. Franklin, and have seen nothing like it since – in print. The idea came to me as part of my imaginings about a more perfect world. It came to me after visiting England in 1972. Three models, Punch, Swift, and the Fabian Society pamphlets, were influences of this self-published attempt at full-bore social humor and criticism.

Nothing in my background, except Center City, would seem to have pointed in this direction. But then, maybe everything did. I had come to view the world as if I were Gulliver on his travels. I marveled at the same time that I was appalled – all the while rolling with laughter inside. It was a far cry from my grandfather’s religious tracts forecasting imminent doom and eternal hellfire. Through the remainder of my life, even with more heavy responsibilities, I have not left that mindset and fascination: a newborn in a madhouse.

Read it here.

Bloopers & Other Less Harmless Mistakes

All Mistakes (Except a Few [Million])

Over-eager to drop this baby, I could not resist the temptation to publish it today [April 1]. Foolery comes in all shapes and sizes. Life is all mistakes, all the time: some call it evolution, some call it luck, some call it character, and some call it grace. From one fool to a world of them: laugh it off – or sweat it out.

Read it here.

Put Up or Shut Up!

Notorious Letters

While not the be all and end all, writing and art are important to the mature individuals I have known for many years. Though these two aspects of life do not seem to be pressing topics of debate in economic and social hard times, they are of interest for some and for good reason: there is a link between the standards of a time in all things and the bigger struggles of an era. Central factors in these struggles are the creative energy and direction of a people: can they be harnessed and if they can, should they be and how?

“Notorious Letters” does not refer to a juicy touch of scandal (I would be much better off if it did), but the discussion in this totally cut-loose essay does touch on legitimate questions involving creativity, how we learn, and the wholeness of human kind in our little part of the cosmos. (If that lead hasn’t killed the buzz, I don’t know what can.)

Suffice it to say, that as usual in this type of explosion, nuggets can be found – if you are willing to dig for them – and allow a few to fall randomly on your head. (Any resemblance of characteristics referred to in this piece to actual people is purely luck.)

Read it here.