Twelve Years of Unapologetically Eclectic Pack Mule-ing
It’s hard to believe that it has been twelve years since I put up that first post. I had just finished a Surdna Foundation Arts Teacher Fellowship, which I used for the Patchwork project, and had been blogging that year about modern life in Alabama. So, with a phrase from I made up in the mid-2000s – “cultural worker” – I started my own blog. This picture was taken in May 2010, a few weeks after that first post, when I had just gotten back from my last research trip for Patchwork.
The previous year, 2009, had seen three of my books published, as well as a state teacher of the year award and a grant-funded student publication, so a website/blog seemed like a good idea. People might want to know more about me and what I do, I thought. But it didn’t make much sense to just blabber about “Look at me! Look at me!” so I started thinking about what else I could post. By that time, ten years into a career, I had lost patience with submitting unsolicited articles, essays, and poems to magazines, lit mags, and the like, since editors often neglect those works. I had also been trying to establish myself as a writer during the period when newspapers and magazines were declining, so all un-agented independents like me had more competition for fewer opportunities. (The Recession in 2009, ’10, and ’11 didn’t help that situation any.) However, on the hopeful side, the internet had opened up new options for writers. Adding up the facts, it made more sense for me to write what I wanted to write and put it out there myself.
One other thing that urged me in this direction was what I’ve learned from studying and writing about the South: it can be an exclusive game, where parties protect their investments. For most of fifty years, lots and lots of entrepreneurial types have built on either the post-Civil Rights or Sunbelt/Southern Living model: Look at this user-friendly version of the South we’ve packaged for you! Those institutions, publications, TV shows, university programs, chambers of commerce, and marketing schemes are steadily entrenching their own narratives about the South, ones that can drive subscriptions, syndication, fundraising, gift shops, and tourism. And while those entities usually showcase diversity and inclusion, and while they’ll let anybody send money or sit in the audience, they don’t let just anybody onto the dais. In more recent years, I’ve accepted that, to these folks, I’m apparently not one of the cool kids.
But choosing such an autonomous route hasn’t gone badly at all. In addition to putting up more than a thousand posts, Children of the Changing South was published in 2011, followed by Closed Ranks in 2018. I also joined the board of the Fitzgerald Museum in 2018 and revamped their Literary Contest, which just finished its fourth year. At school, the oral history project that became Sketches of Newtown began in 2019 and culminated in 2021. And in 2020, I created both level:deepsouth and Nobody’s Home. Those projects and the historical book about Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School keep me busy these days, not to mention that I’m about to complete my nineteenth year in the classroom.
While some things about me have changed over the last dozen years, what I’m interested in remains constant: neglected and untold aspects of Southern culture, education, school gardens, sustainability, poetry, and Generation X. I still enjoy craft beers and good food, I regularly jot down the haiku and other poems that pop into my head, and I will always make time for music and movies. And since people seem to like them, I plan to keep up the now-nine-year tradition of writing the Southern Movies posts. (Among the forthcoming posts will be one in August to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Deliverance.)
What also hasn’t changed is my belief that grassroots effort can make a difference. Experience tells me that the “leaders” don’t have the answers to today’s problems – lots of folks talk unity, but no one seems able to achieve it – so we’ve got to decide to do better for ourselves by taking action. Here, I’m talking about teachers, principals, custodians, lunchroom workers, students, and parents making each school the cleanest, safest, and most hospitable it can be. I’m talking about patronizing small businesses, eating local and seasonal food, and learning our local and state histories. I’m talking about composting, recycling, grasscycling, and refusing to use chemical fertilizers or herbicides. I’m talking about putting down our phones, getting off social media, and knowing our neighbors. I’m talking about parents locking up guns where troubled kids can’t get to them, and friends talking friends out of shooting somebody over petty mess. I’m talking about less narcissistic self-improvement and more getting involved in the work of community improvement.
If somebody were to ask me at this late date, why should I read your blog? For an independent perspective. I’m a liberally conservative moderate and a Southern Christian who isn’t Protestant. I am also among a distinct minority of Southerners with a graduate-level education. All in all, I’m a whole lot more likely write things you haven’t read everywhere else. That may not be the thing for folks who like simplified platforms and agendas that rely on heuristics and stereotypes, but it’s the only way that works for me.
I’ve appreciated everyone who has stopped by to read what’s here. I’ve tried to have something worthwhile to say, and I’ll continue to try in the days, months, and years to come. And since I did a “before” picture up top, here’s one of me now. Lots of changes, man . . . lots of changes.