I am turning forty this month and along with all the humorous trappings of reaching a milestone birthday, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about people in my life who give me incredible inspiration. How lucky am I to know so many amazing, wonderful folks! How lucky they put up with me!

This summer I started reading Sean Dietrich’s blog, “Sean of the South.” He’s a witty storyteller with a rich, southern voice. Sometimes he shares letters people write to him, and in one post, he shares a letter that began, “I sincerely love you.” And I thought, that’s something I ought to say more to people in my life.

So: I decided to start a list. Forty people (or groups of people) who mean the world to me. People I sincerely love. This list isn’t conclusive. Some are people I don’t know well. Some I’ve only recently met. Some I haven’t talked to in ages. For reasons that probably make sense, I specifically omitted family members near and distant.

Here we go.

  1. John Lauer is one of my closest grade-school friends. We can go months or years without catching up, but our friendship is always easy when we reconnect. True story: this week, my kids said something that suddenly made me remember John and I once started a band that played exactly zero shows and wrote exactly one song. The band was called Fish Cookies. I messaged John, and he still remembered how to play that one song.
  2. I cannot imagine a better literature teacher than Murphy Wellman, who not only loved us as students, but she sang to us as well. She was and is soul and fire. As a teacher of color, the long, painful path through American lit that we encountered became something different–something sacred–through her instruction. I grew up to teach American lit aspiring to the same commitment and love that she showed us.
  3. My first college roommate and great friend, Austin Greene, is one of the most talented musical minds I’ve ever met. He is also the reason that I enjoyed an invasive pat-down by Virginia State Troopers in a highway median outside Winchester. Austin’s incredible talent as a human means he can deliver honest and cutting criticism. But he’s also one of the best encouragers I’ve ever known, with a capacity to inspire others to do things they weren’t sure they could.
  4. Back when I was a young buck school teacher too big for my britches, Jane Tarman was a veteran librarian educator who took me seriously and gave me regular encouragement. She is a dear, sweet soul. Looking back, I see that perhaps the greatest gift she gave was entrusting me to teach her son English.
  5. I only have so many man-crushes, but my biggest man crush is for James Gracely, prince of the League of Extraordinarily Tall and Muscular Gentlemen and local Adonis. I am privileged to have this crush thanks to my friend (and James’s wife) Devin, who introduced me to the greatest 80s cover band in the world and who invited me to participate in hijinks too fun to describe in detail here.
  6. Greg Franklin taught me one of the most important aphorisms I’ve ever heard: sometimes in life there aren’t easy decisions to make, no clear right or wrong. Instead, you just have to make a decision and make it the right one. Greg is and will be a lifelong educator because of stuff like that. He also shunned me in a Subway one time, which later convinced me to rejoin the marching band senior year.
  7. For years now I’ve had the sincere privilege to worship with Father Brad Mullis. But for long stretches of the last year and a half, as we endured the pandemic, our church’s worship service was attended only by Father Brad, a reader, an acolyte, and me, working the livestream. You learn something when you carry out your faith this way. I am better because of him.
  8. On a similar note, Kaid Mitchell was often the acolyte at church. It isn’t nothing for a teenaged young man to be at church, regularly, at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday, but Kaid’s faith and his commitment to doing this important work inspired me.
  9. Gray Dyer is deserving of many superlatives, but his humility might lead them all. He’s given me wise counsel so many times in my life. I treasure how he listens deeply, offers an alternative take, and tells stories. On paper, Gray looks like the kind of guy who doesn’t take a lot of risks–but he’s certainly taken his share of leaps, and he’s helped me take deep breaths and leap myself. Gray gave me my first pony ride in a Tesla Model S before anyone had any clue that this whole electric vehicle thing was going to be sustainable.
  10. I met Carrie Hogan in the fifth grade, and she hated me because up until that point she’d been the only Hogan in the school. We weren’t related, but on a field trip to the Biltmore House we discovered everything we had in common and began referring to each another as “my evil twin.” We’ve been friends ever since. Her Christmas letters are gifts of their own.
  11. Jean Land’s company makes beautiful rocking chairs, but I swear she embodies everything that a rocking chair conveys to anyone in the south: patience, comfort, grace, joy, hospitality, and help. I only met Jean a few years ago, but she is one of my favorite people in Statesville.
  12. When I was in college, Barbara Hardie took a gamble and hired me on as a tutor in the University Writing Center and soon became an invaluable mentor to me. She taught me another lifelong maxim I’ve held onto: Real life–good life–is messy. Her husband, Michael, was a big part of my journey back to the Episcopal Church. These days, they spend retirement hiking the deep woods of western North Carolina, joyfully documenting flora and fauna as they slalom through the trees.
  13. Bill Day, or Little Toe of the now-defunct Little Toe and Frankie Show, will often surprise you. Highway engineer by trade, owner of a Chevy S-10-pickup-with-flames-airbrushed-on-the-side, talented smoker of meats, original Fajita Night dinner party attendee, drinker of refined ales. Bill is a man’s man and a man’s good friend.
  14. When I interviewed at Mitchell, I was supposed to have lunch with Porter Brannon, but something came up. When I asked if I could bring her something back from the restaurant, she said, I’ll have whatever you’re having. Fortunately she liked cranberry chicken salad, I got the job, and we became fast co-conspirators before she fled to be a college president.
  15. Kara Osborne radiates light and positivity and energy and excitement. It pours out of her deep, abiding faith in God, and she shares it abundantly, generously, without reservation. One day, I hope to grow up to be as good and faithful as Kara. There are a lot of folks who don’t think women can preach. Kara has a pulpit, and she sure as heck can.
  16. Somewhere along the way, public education was consumed by the political firestorm we live in. But there are good people fighting hard for school kids, and I am privileged to ride with them from time to time. Beth Packman, Lisa Gill, Tanae McLean, Diane Hamby, Beth Kendall, Jennifer Christian, and Michael Haire: Iredell County couldn’t ask for a better crew of public ed champions. For every pint of sweat we’ve all put in, we’ve gotten a hundred laughs out of it.
  17. Jim Rhyne is a gentleman farmer and retired doctor. Jim and I have spent plenty of time in church together–and in the church that is Davidson’s basketball arena, where he has season tickets. He and his wife, Anne, have hosted our church family at their farm in Cool Spring, and in the last few years, he’s brought Thomas out to help in his rather large garden. Thomas loves it, and Jim loves it, and I’m reminded how wonderful it is to see other people work with your kids like this.
  18. One of my fellow Davidson ex-pat friends, Kristin Blinson, probably qualifies for sainthood. One day, Kiki told me she was taking her girls on a summer mission trip to Bolivia. One summer turned into another, and before I knew it, Kristin was recommitting her life’s work to serving the homeless in Charlotte. She’s raised tons of money to help them, and now she’s CEO of Hope Haven.
  19. Brittany Harrison is probably the most talented writer I’ve ever known well. She’s also endured plenty of difficulty. In a different world, everyone reading this would know her name and own a shelf full of her books, and she would remember me as a harmless idiot she knew in college. Her lens, but more importantly her friendship, has changed my perspective on many, many issues. Once, she started writing a young adult novel, and she let me write orchestral music inspired by it, and she didn’t think I was nuts or weird. I still think about her characters when I sit down to play one of those pieces.
  20. My first “real job” was teaching English, and Teri Hutchens was my principal. She is, hands down, the best administrator I’ve ever worked for. She trusted me, she gave me more than enough rope, and she had my back. She has an unshakeable sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and she suffers no fools. If God told me that I had to go back to teaching, I would say sure, but only if I could work for Teri.
  21. I haven’t seen Jerri Shephard in a long time, but if you live in Charlotte, you’ve more than likely seen one of the designs that the 704 Shop puts onto any number of apparel items. Jerri and his college roommates have made an incredible go of it, and it is thrilling to think of a high school marching band mate hustling behind the scenes of this well-known brand. Steve Smith repping 704? Sure. Official partnerships with Charlotte FC? Of course.
  22. Speaking of roomies, Jason Whaley was one of my suite-mates at Western and holds the record as the smartest football player I’ve ever gotten to be friends with. As a marching band geek, I was astonished to have a jock for a friend, even though Jason really wasn’t a jock. These days he’s bumming around as a software engineer for Twitter and raising a family in the mountains.
  23. Tim Brower gives me hope for evangelical Christianity. I soured long ago on church that was driven by a political agenda more than God’s love, but Tim has pitched a tent on the side of love. I’m not sure if this southern, homeschooling minister has the capacity to be judgmental, but if he does, it fades in the bright joy that Tim finds in serving others.
  24. There is so much to say about the age of social media. We so often misuse its better purposes. But Kristen Wright, Joye Mullis, Lauren Johnson, Angela Ramsey, Michael Henderson, and Nation Hahn have used it to openly grieve and suffer through harrowing illness and tragic loss. (These are only a handful of friends, mostly those I think would be okay with being named here.) They have openly, honestly, and courageously shared terrifying journeys. They have prayed and asked for prayer. They have celebrated. They have screamed and shook. They have ached. So often we labor to curate perfection on our Facebook pages. These people instead portrayed their humanity with compelling, tender gravity.
  25. When I came to work at Mitchell, I was invited to join the board of directors at our local Boys & Girls Club, which Clarissa Young serves as executive director. In the four and a half years I’ve been a part of the club, I’ve watched Clarissa manage disruption, pandemic, and tragedy. She is devoted to a group of children in our community that can easily be ignored. She is always trying and doing for them.
  26. On that same note, I have to give praise to Will Fanjoy and Julia Wilson and Jim Johnston. Will and Julia were founding board members for the Boys & Girls Club, and they gave blood, sweat, tears, and lots of money to ensure it would be successful. Jim handed the board chair baton to me and then spent a lot of time in my first term of service coaching me along. They are all three lions of our community, but you will rarely find any of them in the spotlight. I am humbled by their friendship and mentorship.
  27. Way back in 2014 when we were working on a school bond referendum, I met Melissa Neader. She was brimming with energy and confidence, and she helped us get a lot of folks on board our “vote yes” train. Now, she’s a county commissioner. Whenever we catch up, we burn through two hours’ of conversation in half an hour’s time. She is a successful business owner, but she is often happiest on her riding lawn mower. Me too, Melissa. Me too.
  28. Brittany Klimstra is a badass. A formally trained food chemist and nationally-traveling sales rep, she comes home to the North Carolina mountain farm that she and her husband have been cultivating with their kiddos. They grow beautiful apples and raise tasty hogs. Many of us seem to be consumed by life; Brittany consumes life itself.
  29. It took some time before I realized the poet Catherine Carter and medievalist Brian Gastle were brand-new professors when I studied with them in college. (It was years after I graduated that I put it all together.) They’ve remained friends ever since, and on more than one occasion they’ve put me up during a trip to the mountains and shared good food and strong drinks. The first time I ever had mead was a hilarious experience, and it happened in Brian and Catherine’s dining room.
  30. It might turn out that some of my best years were spent working at Davidson. I am deeply indebted to so many friends I made there: Maria Aldrich, who gave me the job to begin with and believed in me, and who has an uncanny ability to will things like annual fund participation rates into reality; Jeff Prince, who led our motley crew with sweetness and encouragement; Susan Cooke, who helped me discover the beauty of a well-written obituary and whose book recommendations have never let me down; Eleanor Young, maybe the most well-known person I know, who went with me to see the Liberty Bell and who got stranded with me and Kelly in Myrtle Beach on the way back from Seattle; Annie Porges, whose own enthusiasm and confidence not only filled up my cup but assured me that naming our youngest daughter Annie was an investment in a life full of zeal; Dan Drayer, jazz man, pastry man, NPR man, just my type in so many ways; Chris Alexander, whose sage spirit I often want to emulate in my own life and my only friend that I can point to and say, “there’s one of the world’s authorities on Tunisia”; Sarah Phillips helped me figure out how to stay on the right side of the law; Maddie Stough and Natalie Akin, who had the joy of seeing David Ortiz earn a base hit in a minor league stadium in Portland, Maine with me and whose work ethic and dedication informed my own; Kim Horton, who (with my college classmate Sarah Demarest) let me hang out with the VIPs at the radio station, and knowingly enabled my love of poetry competitions; and Louise, sweet Louise, who outdrank me when I was still in my 20s and made going to work fun. This isn’t the end of the Davidson list–so, so many more–but I’ll pick it up from here next time.
  31. Mike Fuhrman is reinventing local journalism in Statesville, where he publishes the Iredell Free News and keeps a watchful eye on all that’s happening around this place and fills the vacuum left by the collapse of our town’s daily paper. His wife, Amy, pivoted from a teaching job into a fundraising job. Having known a little bit about how that can go, it was only appropriate to become good friends with Amy. We go to lunch and I learn from her.
  32. Back in college, Carol Burton took me and a group of Teaching Fellows under her wing and made sure we would all be alright. She led us around Europe, fed us shepherd’s pie, and kept us grounded. More importantly, she kept us accountable–no small feat. She has the most wonderful accent, a combination of her Jamaican birth and British education, and it was always a joy to hear her tell me what I ought to go and do.
  33. Jeanie Moore is a retired community college administrator who came back to work with us at Mitchell in an interim role. Though we were only briefly colleagues, I learned volumes from her. Jeanie was the force that drove Rowan-Cabarrus’s response to Pillowtex’s collapse and the unprecedented workforce disruption that followed. She is a legend, and I am better at my job because of her.
  34. The day we moved into our house, we met more people in our new neighborhood than we’d ever known in nine years of living in our last neighborhood. Our “circle P” is full of friends now: John and Deb, who quietly take care of so many things; Mark and Ena, regularly walking the beat; Kris, whose kiddos are our kiddos’ best friends; Ashley and Randall, ditto; Cherry, who kept our neighborhood Halloween block party going; David and Katelyn, who share a fence with us and whose darling Shelby is a joy to behold.
  35. Steve Stobbe not only inspired me to be an English teacher, he singularly endowed within me the two-word modus operandi that drove me throughout my short career: Teach Kids. I could write a whole post on what Mr. Stobbe did for me, but mostly he was one of the cherished folks who never laughed at my naïveté or ignorance but instead led me forward.
  36. Tyler Lawing and I started a club in college that has a name that cannot be reproduced here. We had a secret handshake and a motto and fierce debates about Quality (with Austin and Greg and others). I don’t get to see Tyler very much, even though he and his husband live just down the road in Mooresville. One day, when they make the movie about us, John Cusack will play Tyler.
  37. Of all things that are dear to me, the love and care for children are among the most important. And I am so privileged to know people like Bryan and Andrea Sherrill, and Michael Edde, and Isaac Myers, and Hannah Alsobrook, who have made the beautiful decision to adopt children into their families and love them and nurture them and celebrate them. Kids need (and don’t need) lots of things, but they can’t go without love. These parents inspire me so very often through the size of their hearts.
  38. Bud and Lori Martin are wonderful musicians who have for years brought the most earnest bluegrass performances into our church. You might not think Episcopalians know much about bluegrass, but their voices and instruments fill our nave with wisdom and warmth. And I am deeply indebted to them for being a part of my stepmother’s funeral and helping us grieve with the comfort of soulful songs.
  39. I was not much of a musician in college, but Bob Buckner and Matt Henley gave me the opportunity to be a part of their band–and in doing so, allowed me the chance to feel like a rock star. Every fall I think about the hours and hours of hard work we put into marching band, but among the sweetest memories are the times we’d end practice and hundreds of us would pack together into a group and throw our arms around each other and sing the Alma Mater together. We were a family, and we still are.
  40. You. If you’re reading this, I assure you–promise–that you are dear to me. This is just a list of names that came to me one day when I had this idea–a fast and furious accounting of friends in no particular order. You are probably grateful that I didn’t recall the story we share that you’d like to move on from and not have to relive through my cheesy retelling. What an enormous gift to have lived long enough and well enough to have you in my life. Thank you for putting up with me. I sincerely love you.