To Cherish What’s Old

I like old things. Sometimes I like to think maybe it’s because I inherited all my grandfather’s old war stuff, but the truth is, I’ve always loved what’s old: an antique store with everything under the sun in it or the smell of old paper bound to a book of poetry or walking around in a cavernous, quiet museum surrounded mostly by the sounds of footsteps and slow breathing that echo off the emptiness.

I’ve made an effort lately to frequent my grandfather’s farm and rekindle that love of what’s old. While I’m there, I like to think I take “Pop” on a little in the farmer’s stride I inherit when I saunter around his place in Chester County, Tennessee – one hundred fifty-seven acres of pristine field and forest sandwiching Turkey Creek. The farm is one of the most sacred places on earth to me. I write about it frequently. I even wrote a novel set there. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years, and no matter how many hours I walk around exploring, I almost always find something new in the midst of all the old. I think that’s what I love the most about “old things”: they give us a chance to confront our lives and recall that those who came before us once faced the struggles we do and overcame them despite the odds – golden years refined by the tests of flames.

There are three barns on the farm that used to house chickens and horses and tractors and old milk crates, and nowadays they’re mostly in ruin filled with remnants of the past – rusted metal thingamajigs and corn husks, really. Beside a logging trail that runs by the first and second barn is a ravine covered in leaves from winters past, and underneath the leaves is an old garbage dump where my grandfather regularly threw out the family trash. This week, I decided to rummage through the old garbage dump kicking around old leather shoes that took my grandfather, I imagine, many miles by foot, Coke cans from what had to be days when Coke had just started using aluminum, and an old glass ketchup bottle that was begging to be made into a candle holder. Digging through all the junk, now treasure, I had flashbacks to my time in Israel rummaging through some four thousand-year old “trash” on an archaeological excavation back in 2008. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my grandfather’s trash told some great story of American culture and history. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my own trash, my own junk, were I to toss it out, might one day do the same.

Ketchup Bottle

The people of our past have given us their trash and their treasure. We’ve been handed the very difficult task of distinguishing between what’s worth cataloging, worth cherishing, and what belongs back in the heap of nonsensical junk we may as well forget, forgive, or toss aside. When and if we honestly try to be people of faith or hold dear a sense of spiritual self, I think a lot of what we’re really doing is the hard work of excavating our pasts and determining what of that story must be told. In that journey, a lot of the trash that we often want to throw away is actually treasure we’ve got to learn how to carry proudly into the present. That’s no small task. It’s one that I suspect takes a lifetime to get right, and then – maybe – when we’re dead and gone, somebody else comes along, picks up our story and starts to ask the same questions of themselves we once faced.

Or, at least, that’s what I really like about old things – that they connect us to a thousand lives before and a thousand lives to come.

The Original Belle & Sebastian – the Moroccan and his dog: a Guest Blog by Driss Laayadi

One of the goals of this blog is to capture moments and memories. The older I get, the more I find myself easily lost in a kind of momentary daze – especially if I’m visiting a place like camp or my grandfather’s farm that was a big part of my early childhood or late teens. Sometimes, even out of nowhere, that nostalgia can jolt me as if I just go into a kind of numbed trance and disappear into what was, mostly, a happy past. Blogging about those moments has been a way for me to cultivate them, a way to claim them as mine, wholly mine, as well as a way to share them with others who understand what it is to be “captured” by a good (or bad) memory.

Recently, my old pal Driss, an English teacher and activist in Morocco, was kind enough to share with me one little moment from his past. His thoughts speak to the power of old photo albums and television shows, and his thoughts even conjured up for me one of my favorite old television shows growing up, as well as one of my favorite bands I discovered while living in Scotland. Even though there’s a little French-Moroccan nostalgia here, I love how someone else’s memories can make us reflect on our own – and I wonder what yours might be, too.

So, here’s a few thoughts from today’s (and my first ever) guest blogger, Driss Laayadi:

Sébastien Le Marocain

…while rummaging through some dusty boxes in the attic, I stumbled across an old, shabby photo album comprising a few worn-out pictures of me during both my primary and middle school years. Skimming through the album’s photos, there was a genuine delight which caused me to reminisce in bittersweet memories reviving mixed feelings of joy and disappointment over my teenage life. Some memories literally rekindled that fleeting spark of joy and pride in my heart like the day of my father’s return from Bosnia where he was deployed as a member of a UN peace-keeping mission. So, too, there were tragic recollections like my grandparents’ sudden passing, for instance, which unkindly rained on my parade and mercilessly ruined my short-lived joy.

For a moment, a photo that captivated my undivided attention was one where I and my elder sister were squatting in the living room, wide-eyed and stuck right in front of the TV watching our favourite cartoon – “Belle and Sebastian.” Many of my fellow country-(wo)men over their twenties joyously recall the Japanese anime which recounts the adventures and good deeds of a six-year old boy (Sebastian) and his loyal companion, the big white dog (Belle), across small towns and villages bordering the French-Spanish frontier.

The initial impressions the Japanese cartoon might have left on any of its viewers as far as its content and overall production were ones of admiration at a time when good TV productions were quite scarce, so the show attracted a great number of appreciative viewers in Morocco. However, what many people didn’t realize was that the cartoon was merely an adapted version of a French TV series bearing the same name that was first broadcast in 1965.

The series was based on the French author Cécile Aubry’s novel, Belle et Sèbastien. The tenacious Cécile took the reign and set out on a journey of a sixteen-episode series and could not allow anyone but her fils-à-maman [“mommy’s boy”], Mehdi, to play the role of Sebastian. Mehdi El Mezouari Elglaoui is the son of Cécile and Mohammed Elglaoui and the grandson of Thami Elglaoui who served as the Pacha [an official title, like that of the governor or town mayor] of Marrakech during the French Protectorate over Morocco in 1912.

Mehdi/Sébastien, who was born in 1956, grew up only to follow in his mother’s footsteps and turned out to be a great comedian, a film producer, and a writer, though not as prolific as his mother. His latest 2013 book, La belle Histoire de Sébastien [“The Beautiful Story of Sebastian”], exposes the other tacit and covert side (the Moroccan side) of the French hero, as it traces back over the ten-year old’s lonely childhood along with his quest to seek out his mother’s love. On top of that, the French producer Nicolas Vanier recently produced “Belle et Sébastian” hence resurrecting the French odyssey and extending its lifespan once again:

The thrilling plot and actions of the movie take the viewers into a world of déjà vu, of childish innocence, and of a dogged loyalty… all of which, for me, started with a little rummaging through an old photo album in the attic and made me a kid again.

 

Reflections of a Lifelong Education

It was the spring of 2002, my senior year of high school, and I’d been invited to Wabash College for the Lilly Honor Scholarship weekend, along with thirty other guys, many of whom were a lot more accomplished than I. Imagine a room full of thirty Max Fischers fighting at a chance to go to Rushmore Academy, and that’ll give you a decent idea of the steep competition I was facing. Ten of us were going to win a full ride to the school, plus a stipend to travel abroad – valued at about $101,000. The other twenty would likely go home empty-handed.

To win the competition, there was no paper or computer exam. No essay. No tests. There was just an interview – a thirty minute interview with a few professors, alumni, members of the Board of Trustees, as well as the President and Dean of the college. The interview was the test – an opportunity to hear about us, but it wasn’t quite like a job interview or even a news interview. We were told that we’d be asked one serious question about a major current event but that the rest of the interview was to revolve around who we were, what we did and didn’t like, etc.

And of course, there was a lot of superstition around the interview. Rumors of rules we needed to follow if we wanted to win. “On the table, once you walk into the room,” an alumnus told me, “there will be a glass of water in a pitcher. Pour yourself a glass and drink the water. All of it.” Rumor was, historically, the winners of the scholarship were only those who finished the glass of water. I was instructed not to take any chances. Pour the water, drink it all just to be safe, or as my friend had put it, “Finish the damn glass.”

I remember when I walked into the room, I was a deer in headlights. There was a large, rectangular oak table. Around it sat men in business suits and bow ties, grey hair or balding. There was only one empty chair – at the head of the table – and it was mine. On a tray to the side was a pitcher of water and a pitcher of lemonade. My stomach churned: “Oh God, options.” I picked the water, poured it, and took a seat at the end of the table. I was nervous. I took some awkward sips. But I didn’t finish the water.

Then, there were a series of questions, and I had an answer for all of them. “Do you think Sept. 11 changed the world?” or “Why did you choose Wabash?” and “What do you think you want to study here?” At the time, I had my mind set to study biology, actually, or maybe art. I don’t quite remember which. But I remember a religion professor – the renowned Dr. David Blix – a short, stout man sitting next to me as he leaned back into his chair and dryly asked, “Tell us, Philip, what kind of music do you like?”

It seemed like a joke of a question. And it probably was. When I answered that I loved the Beatles, he followed it up by asking me what my favorite Beatles song was. And I went blank. And not like I took a few seconds to think on it and then found an answer, no. I mean Brick Tamland-level blank. I stumbled over words, laughed awkwardly, named like five or six great Beatles songs before finally settling on one. “Love” by John Lennon, I told them. Yeah – it’s not even a Beatles song. I walked out of the interview kicking myself. I immediately started listening to Beatles songs straight through – every single one of them. I was going to pick a favorite Beatles song, and for the rest of my life that was going to be my answer. I settled on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and even bought a sitar. I should probably sell my sitar.

When I’ve told this story to friends in the past, I liked to say that my inability to answer that one simple question was why I didn’t win the scholarship. In truth, it probably had something to do with me telling the committee that I didn’t think September 11 changed the world. I didn’t actually believe that. Of course I thought September 11 changed the world. But I was so convinced that would be everybody’s answer that I decided I was going to try my hand at being different. Probably a bad decision in hindsight, though I think I did a half-decent job making the argument at the time. I told them that Americans had changed momentarily. September 11 had brought us together as a nation. Suddenly, everyone was a patriot with an American flag on his or her car, and we’d become all rallied up. Disaster, after all, unites people. But I told them that change was not to be long-lasting. I told them that those flags on the cars would fad with the sun, that people’s sense of unity would eventually corrode. I told them that it was an important, huge event that had altered us briefly, but people always get back to the ugly business being people in the end. Yeah: I was a cynical kid. And though I wasn’t entirely wrong, I didn’t quite have the foresight to quite understand what it means to change the world. And at this point, Iraq was still not on the table.

I guess there were two lessons I learned that spring of 2002. The first was, “always have an answer ready,” and the second was, “don’t assume being different makes you better.” As I’ve gotten older, the first lesson seems immature to me. A better answer to the Beatles song question would have been a simple: “I don’t know; they wrote so many great songs, the one I value today isn’t always the one I’m going to love tomorrow. We change with our music, and it also changes us.” There’s wisdom not only in not knowing but also in accepting how little you know and being a-okay with that.

The second lesson is one I still struggle with. I’ve always been someone, maybe partially because of having been adopted, who felt different and even wanted to be different. If I were in a room full of conservatives, I needed to be a liberal voice, and if I were in a room full of liberals, I needed temper that with a more conservative yearning. I loved being a devil’s advocate, because I felt I always learned more by being skeptical, but there was a cost. In a world with considerable deconstruction of every idea and ideology, I often found myself desperately looking for a way to build things back up again, to fix the world I’d deconstructed or helped deconstruct, only to discover I couldn’t do so without sitting around in a cesspool of contradictions I’d uncovered leaving me totally, existentially isolated from everything and everyone I once valued. I think these days, I’m busy doing the work of finally deciding what’s right for me and not just being, well, contrarian.

In the end, I did win a scholarship, though not the Lilly. I won the college’s Fine Arts Fellowship covering half tuition, actually. And even when I changed my mind about majoring in art history and pursued the religion route, the college let me keep the money. But in a way, that one interview four months before I started Wabash was my first real class at the college, and I haven’t forgotten that weekend at Wabash, the Lilly weekend, where a few first challenging questions that probably shouldn’t have been so difficult have given me a deep pause to reflect on what it means to be educated and keep educating myself and others.

Poindexter, Dave Matthews, and following your heart

When I started Wabash, I remember the day my parents moved me into the Kappa Sigma house was a really hot August morning, and when we walked into the fraternity house, I remember being greeted by “Bill” who was huge and shirtless and immediately intimidated the hell out of me. I was a gangling munchkin by comparison, and something about fraternity life still scared me. When Bill walked across the green carpet floors of the living room, the whole place creaked, but it turned out Bill was a huge teddy bear, probably one of the nicest guys in the house, if not too nice. He asked me who I was, knew exactly where I should go, and offered to carry some of my things. Books and covers and not judging or something along those lines, right? 

Because Wabash at the time  was nearly 75% Greek, fraternity houses were used as dormitories until the end of pledge week. I moved in that morning and I never moved out. I don’t think I even looked at a single other fraternity. As Bill helped me schlep my belongings upstairs to “Upper North,” I was immediately introduced to a senior named Glenn E. “Hambone” Smith IV – or his pledge name, Poindexter. Yes, the Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds. And there was a striking resemblance.

P.dex, as he was called, turned out to be a psychology major who could play any musical instrument he picked up. Guitar, bass, drums – he was really good at drums – and some part of me wants to say he could play the saxophone, as well, but it may just be that every time you walked into his room, either Charlie Parker or Stan Getz was blaring from the speakers. I’m pretty sure there was also a long phase in which P.dex listened heavily to Bossa nova among other random Brazilian jazz.

Midway through the first semester, there was almost a routine in place. As we sat in P.dex’s hunter green room, we chatted usually about music or God or studied quietly. P.dex was a member of Campus Crusade and never missed a Sunday morning of church – probably one of the only guys in the house who attended any church, certainly the only who attended regularly. He seemed together to me, though there was the air that life hadn’t always been that simple, and that by his senior year, he’d really figured a lot out. We were paired pretty early on with what down south everyone calls “bigs” or “big brothers” in the Greek system, though at Wabash we called them “pledge fathers.” It came as no surprise that my pledge father was P.dex, given our shared interest in religion and music and the fact we were already roommates.

One of the more poignant moments of my freshman year came in the library. I was working on a religion assignment, and P.dex sat across from me doodling on a sheet of paper. He scribbled down the words, “Where are you going?” It was the second semester of his senior year. For P.dex, it was something of a literal question. What’s after Wabash? For me, with three more years ahead, I wasn’t ready to think about what was next. I’d only just declared myself a religion major. But the question still burrowed its way in and became something existential. At the time, I might have just as easily worded it, “What are you about?”

Back in the hunter green jazz room, Glenn broke out his guitar and started strumming and singing Dave Matthew’s song, the same words he’d doodled out in the library. A song that was so obviously a conversation between a guy and a girl was, to P.dex, a conversation between himself and his understanding of the sacred, of Something Greater, of God. Dave sings, “I know one thing, that’s where you are is where I belong; I do know where you go is where I want to be.”

Lately, that mantra has sort of settled over me, and I feel some of P.dex’s old dilemma. My sense of God today is not the same as it was when I was that gangling freshman in college, and it never quite matched what P.dex’s believed. Still, I’ve always felt pulled, moved, directed by something bigger than me. This morning, one of my old TA’s posted an article he wrote for Huffington Post, and in the article he confesses: “Maybe God is imaginary. Maybe love is too. So what? The imagination matters. It shapes civilizations and the saints (and even the tyrants) they produce.” These days, I feel a little like I’m learning what it means to sit with my imagination, though it’s beyond what happens in my head. I wish there were a word in English for the kind of “imagining” the heart can do. There are days where I am haunted by the fact that I don’t have a clear answer to the question, “Where are you going?” But there is a phrase that is settling on me as a kind of constant reminder to listen to myself. It’s simple, straight-forward, and it’s not the answer I wish I had, but for now is good enough: Follow your heart.

So tell me, heart, where are you going?

 

More than Just a Song, Part Two

This should be obvious, and it’s been pointed out recently, but a little over a hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear music, you went to the symphony. You might have heard one great piece once and then never heard it again. Contrast that with today. We carry our own personalized symphony in our pockets. A song that could be heard only once in 1880 can now go with us no matter where we go. Technology has enabled us to make music an everyday part of the human experience. More than that, music is something that connects us. How many times as a teenager did you seek out someone with “similar music preferences” as a friend or romantic companion? Did you ever dance with someone to “our song”? Did you ever have a song that got you through a breakup?

The emotional drama of music pulls something out of us that we may not be able to speak or word. But we’re able to hear it in the sounds shared by others. We can play it so many times through our headphones that we bore ourselves with it, tire ourselves of it. That’s pretty fascinating, you know, that we can essentially carve a song into our lives.

And so, as we live those lives, our musical tastes and preferences change with us. What we listened to in high school is something that can hear to conjure up nostalgia – throw us back to a specific place or a specific time. I can’t listen to REM’s “Night Swimming” and not think about working as a camp director where I would lifeguard at night always playing that song for my camp. I can’t hear “Christmas in the Room” and not think about the year I fell in love with Christmas spending a cold, snowy few days in the heart of America with the first girl I really loved. That’s what music is about to me. It does more than just provide background noise to our lives; it tells our history. I could catalog my life in song.  And in a way that’s what these last two blogs have been about.

And yet, I couldn’t even really begin to do that. In Part One of this post, I set out to highlight some of the really meaningful songs of my life, but as I started to do it, I realized that list was too long. There’s just too much music that has spoken to and moved me to the core of who I am.

But I figured to close this blog out, Id pick three songs that have deeply affected me in the last few years – a song that had a hand in propelling me to Morocco, a song that, in so many ways defined my experience in Morocco, and a song for where I am now. The first is a song I obsessed over in the wake of my grandfather’s death. The second is a song that defined life living in a desert. And the final documents what the last few months of the job search have been to me. Of course, if you’d like to hear all the music from both blogs, here is a link to that, too.

So, here ya go. I hope some of this music will touch you as much as it has me:

 

More than Just a Song, Part One

Here is a full playlist of all the songs mentioned in this blog. Or, if you’d prefer, you can pick your own to listen to as they’ve been individually linked, as well. For some time now, I’ve wanted to jot out a kind of musically history of sorts – the bands I loved, why I came to love them, and the songs that stuck.

It was December in my senior year of high school. And it was in the Hardees parking lot in the south of town where I refused to go inside with my parents. I just waited in the car while they ate. I don’t remember now what I was upset about. I just remember feeling very incredibly alone.

Growing up, the car was somehow always tuned to the same radio station, 103.1 FM, which always hearkened back to the days of the Wonder Years, and images of Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper walking down a dark street at night pushing their bicycles slowly could have easily been my Mom and Dad. By high school, my sister had taken to listening to Green Day’s “Dookie” album or Smashing Pumpkins or a series of women singers who, at the time, I thought all wanted to kill themselves. I’d never taken to Beth’s style of music. I saw it as rebellious like her, but I had to be the “good” kid, which meant I was stuck with the Mamas and the Papas, or worse, the Carpenters.

But here I was sitting in the car by myself, upset for God-only-knows what reasons, still tuned to “Kool 103,” and for once, instead of playing something from 1955, “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel came on instead. I soaked in the lyrics: “I have no need for friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” That made me smile. Someone else out there understood exactly how I felt.

I guess that was the first time that I realized music was more than just something to sing along to for fun, the first time I saw it as art or realized it could touch the inner psyche and move us to the core of ourselves.

Strangely enough, I never bought a Simon and Garfunkel album. For my birthday, instead, someone bought me John Lennon’s “Greatest Hits,” which I put on repeat, and over the course of the next few years, I rebelled from 50s music by obsessing with music from the 60s instead. Some rebel, huh?

I started buying every Beatles album I could get my hands on until I had it all, and the only other music I was willing to listen to was anything that John Williams had performed. I made it my mission to own every soundtrack he’d ever composed from Jaws to E.T. to Jurassic Park to Star Wars to Born on the Fourth of July to, well, you name it, and I probably own it.

One summer morning sleeping in, I remember waking up and shoving Revolver into my CD player and blasting as loud as I could “I’m Only Sleeping.” It was summer, and no one could tell me what to do. I could sleep forever. Lay in bed all day. But then, my Mom walked in crying, I turned the music down, and she told me that my grandmother had unexpectedly died during the night. Sometimes, there are songs that carve their way into us because of the words they say or they way they move us and speak to us within. Sometimes, a song sticks with us just because it’s what we were listening to when something significant happened. Granny was sleeping now. And that’s all that song would ever mean to me.

I hated high school, and going off to college became an escape to a level of freedom and independence I had yearned for. By the time I started packing, I wasn’t listening to Beatles anymore. I’d stolen old CDs from my sister – particularly one of the Smashing Pumpkins albums, and as I packed, I listened constantly to their “Greatest Hits,” especially Drown. Somewhere in there, that became my official “pack-and-go” music, and to this day, if I’m getting ready to leave to go somewhere, you’ll hear me listening to the Pumpkins.

College was for me what I think it is for everyone – a time of musical exploration and sharing. My first year of college, I stumbled onto John Mayer (who I stopped listening to after my then-girlfriend confessed she asked him to sign her breasts at his concert) and Emitt Rhodes and Jack Johnson. At other times, movies or even commercials became a way to familiarize myself with new music. There was an old Volkswagen Cabrio commercial where a group of people were driving to a party, but then when they arrived at the party, they decided they just wanted to keep driving instead. Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” was the backdrop to that. After watching the Royal Tenenbaums that year with one of my fraternity brothers, I stumbled onto another sad little man named Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter who was heavy metal unplugged.

I remember one of my fraternity brothers walking into my room one night while I was studying and listening to Elliott, and he exclaimed, “Bolton! [my name in college] Why do you always listen to such sad music? I get depressed whenever I walk in here. It’s God-awful.” That made me smile. By my sophomore year, Elliott had stabbed himself in his heart – twice (pulling out and going back in) – lending some credence to my fraternity brother’s concerns.

There were happier songs, too. I found Ben Harper at camp in conversation with my friend Zach and used a lot of his music in worship as a camp director there. There were other songs that I played whenever I thought of a certain girl or two. And breakup songs in their wake.

But all of that was background noise to my life. The lyrics were a kind of commentary to what was happening. Rarely did the song itself poke at me.

But then, the Beatles made a comeback when I traveled abroad with a friend to Scotland, and on our way up, we stayed a night in Liverpool. I took a long walk looking for the famous Strawberry Field, and when I got there, I discovered that the song was actually named for an orphanage where John Lennon played when he was a kid. Those words “no one I think is in my tree” were words about family that I could deeply connect with as someone who had been adopted. I felt a kindred spirit with Lennon – whether I should have or not. Other songs of his, like “Yer Blues,” where he sings, “My mother was of the sky, my father was of the earth, but I am of the universe, and you know what it’s worth,” became a mantra of sorts for me. And that semester abroad became an exploration of music, home, and family – and what all that meant. I turned those two songs over in my head for a long time.

And then I graduated college from the Athens of Indiana and moved to Nashville, music city and the Athens of the South. I’d been born in Nashville and fell in love with it with its one tower too tall, its Bat poet on cable, and the Americana music that you could find any night somewhere in the city.

More to come in part two.

 

What’s in a Name?

Abner Doubleday, my six year-old puggle, is a pup of many names. Around the time I got him, in 2007, I named him “Abner” because I was on a big baseball kick. I’d recently watched Ken Burns‘ baseball documentary, and I was fascinated by the story of General Doubleday who, as legend has it, founded baseball as we know it today. In truth, he probably had little to do with baseball’s beginnings, and historians see the story as a complete myth. I liked that. I liked that the myth made a better story than the truth. In time, the myth had sort of formed into a better truth than the facts, and those are my favorite kinds of stories. So, “Abner” became my puggle.

Over the years, different friends and family have attached their own nicknames to Abner. My mother calls him anything from “Mr. Persnickety” to the “Regal Beagle.” Dad sticks with something far more fatherly – “Buddy” or “Short Round” or “Sir.” My sister referred to him as “Abner Snabner” or “Abs.”

My own names for Abner have varied over the years. In deference to a good dog at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house named Gilligan, I sometimes refer to Abner as “Señor Floppy Ears,” which was Gilligan’s nickname. Sometimes, I’ll keep it more simple with “Puppy Dawg,” or say something like, “No puppies allowed!” And right after I got back from Morocco, I was insistent on teaching Abner some Arabic, referring to him as “Muchkil,” or “Problem.” He didn’t learn.

I can’t help but wonder whether Abner has lived in to his names. I mean, if I had named him “Spot,” I guess he would still be the same dog, or would he? Would I have treated him differently because of the expectations I might carry out for a dog named “Spot”? And would that have influenced the dog he was to become?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of a name. I remember in graduate school, a New Testament professor pointing out that Jesus always makes a point to call people by name (or even change their name, which is even more authoritative on some level). When you know someone’s name, she pointed out, you have authority over them. If I call out in the street to someone, “Hey you! Hey, guy!” no one will willingly respond. Imagine being yelled at that way and how you might react. But if I call out your name, I’ve now asserted a kind of ownership. You have to respond. I’ve claimed you. In the crowd of people, I’m pointing you out by name, calling you forth – not just anybody.

So, our names are important and they go beyond conveying who we think we are and can even be a key to pinning us down, claiming authority over us.

Like Abner, I’ve had a lot of nicknames, I suppose.

In high school, I was Pip to all my friends, a shortening of Philip Pirrip of Great Expectations. My friend Zandrea gave me that name, and the TV show South Park solidified it with a character named Pip who was timid and nervous.

In the Boy Scouts, I had several nicknames as well. One year at camp, I was stung by a hornet and had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. The next morning at reveille, there were two scouts on either side of me holding me up for the salute to the flag, because I was so out of it on painkillers. The Scoutmaster named me the “Green Hornet,” in reference to the old show. Not long after that, I created a comic with a main character named Swirley Scout. I took on that name, occasionally, too. Then, in a side organization of the Boy Scouts, a secret fraternity within known as the Order of the Arrow, I earned the Vigil Honor and was given a name of the Delaware Indian tribe – Hattelu Lenapeuhoxen, or “He Who Wears Sandals.” Those were different days.

In college, I only had one name. It was a name I carried all four years. It was a name so deeply embedded into my identity – the only name people called me – that some people didn’t know me as Philip, and I even accidentally used it to sign an email to a professor one time. The name? Bolton. Which I, for a reason I don’t quite understand, chose to spell “B0lton” with a zero. The name was my pledge name, bestowed by my Kappa Sigma brethren while I was still a young pledge. It was a reference to a character in the movie Office Space – to this scene, actually. Supposedly, one day, I was cleaning the hall as one of my “pledge jobs,” and I was singing rap music under my breath when a brother walked by and I suddenly got quiet. They claimed I shared mannerisms with the character, Bolton, in the movie, which was fitting because my Sophomore year, my brother Chester and I reenacted this scene, destroying several desks, old computer monitors, and even an old printer in the fraternity parking lot. I loved the name and wore it proudly, along with my pledge brothers NAFTA, LuPe, Keebler, Diva, Chester, etc.

At Lakeshore, Troy called me Phil, and I began to notice that “Phil” was an endearing way of saying Philip. It was common for people up north to shorten my name like that, but when it happened down south, it was something people did with an endearing tone. I always introduced myself as Philip, but I definitely loved being called Phil.

Then, of course, there was Fouad in Morocco, named by my friend Driss. It means heart in classical Arabic. It’s definitely a name I miss.

There are other names. Some that stuck, some I wish hadn’t. A birth name, a pen name, the names of the characters in my stories, all my names.

I think I’ve lived into all of them and some of the expectations behind what those names meant to people. I’ve been the quiet and timid Pip. I’ve been the sandal-wearing scout, always prepared, except when I wasn’t. I’ve been Bolton, easily angered and socially awkward. I’ve been Fouad, all heart and little more.

Now, I think, I’m returning to ‘Philip’ and trying to get a handle on that name again.

My parents named me after the disciple. Once, my senior year of high school, I preached before the congregation at Lambuth Memorial. I used the scripture where Philip is with Jesus in John 14, and Jesus says something like, “Philip, have I been with you all this time, and you still don’t know who I am?” Philip: who spends so much time trying to figure out who he is and what he believes, and even when it’s all staring him right in the face, he still can’t quite put a finger on it. He makes a good companion to Doubting Thomas, the other character in this story. Of course, there’s some other interesting stories about Philip, too, like the Acts of Philip. Or in the Nag Hammadi texts. He seems to be a character who leaves the Apostles behind to go off on a mission all his own, though history has conflated him with a different Philip.

That’s probably all a lot of overly analytic hogwash. I mean, does everyone named “John” live into some expectation of what people think the name “John” means? Are all Sarah’s the same? Of course not. And yet, to say that society or culture or whatever doesn’t have some small say in our names, in how we use them, what we think they mean, and how we live them out, seems equally unfair. So, I can’t help but wonder how that name has shaped or continues to shape me. Just ask Puggle McPuggleson, King of the Couch, sitting at my feet, whether or not he’s lived into his many names, and he’ll probably wake up, stare at you momentarily with one eye open and then roll over exposing his belly and begin to snore.