A life-changing trip from a life-stealing catastrophe

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami 18 years ago this week led to one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean creating a tsunami that killed 227,898 people in 14 countries. The epicenter was just off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a remote area without much connection to the outside world. At the time, I worked as director of communications for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a faith-based non-profit headquartered in Atlanta with about 200 field personnel all over the world, working alongside the most neglected people groups in some of the most difficult and hard-to-reach locations.

Indonesia was among the countries in which CBF field personnel lived and served, and though there weren’t any in Banda Aceh, CBF was well positioned to respond on the island of Sumatra in a number of locations that were not in the news and not receiving help.

Mount Seulawah Agam looms in the background with a sunset overlooking a rice field with a person walking in the foreground.
Mount Seulawah Agam was the backdrop of my trip to Sumatra in 2005.

I had been on staff for a couple of years by that point but had not traveled outside North America for work. The Asia Team lobbied CBF leadership for me to come to their summer team meeting in Thailand and visit the relief work in Aceh. The idea was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. Carla and I were expecting our second child in late April, and I had never been to Asia. The language and cultural barriers intimidated me, and I thought the trip could be too difficult to attempt.

Anita and Jack Snell who were the associate coordinators for mission teams in Asia at the time, convinced me otherwise. They assured me the trip could be structured so that I would spend time with Asia Team members in Chiang Mai, Thailand, first. That would help me get acclimated before traveling to Sumatra and the tsunami-affected area. They promised I would have CBF field personnel with me at all times, helping me navigate the language barrier and travel logistics. I would only be unaccompanied on the flights from the U.S. and back. I accepted the challenge, and as I went through the regimen of inoculations and medications to visit a disaster area in the tropics, I began to gain confidence that I could do it.

Harris arrived a couple of days late, on May 2, the eve of our eighth wedding anniversary. We adjusted to having a second child in the house, and Carla’s parents were a big help during the transition, particularly with Barron, who was then 4. Carla was less than thrilled about me being overseas for 10 days, but she knew how important the trip was to me, to the field personnel who needed their story told and to CBF, which had received millions in relief donations and needed to show supporters how their funds were being spent. These were the days before ubiquitous cell phones and not everyone had an international calling plan. Contact would be infrequent. That would prove to be one of the most difficult challenges of the trip.

I took a small carry-on suitcase with three changes of clothes and a backpack for my camera and toiletries. I had to check a box of curriculum for a field personnel family’s homeschooling, but otherwise I traveled light. My itinerary was a little convoluted: I flew U.S. Airways from Atlanta to Chicago and Chicago to Tokyo and Tokyo to Bangkok where I arrived late the next night.

I was supposed to spend the night in the transiting hotel in the Bangkok airport, but I missed the posted signs, and, after going through customs with my checked box, I ended up exiting the airport at the international terminal. Rather than take a taxi to a local hotel for a few hours of sleep, I decided to trek over to the domestic terminal and tough it out before catching the Thai Air flight to Chiang Mai. I navigated a confusing labyrinth of sidewalks and hallways, following the signs to the domestic terminal. After about 15 minutes, I emerged into a plain, empty terminal with orange, molded, hard plastic seats bolted onto metal frames as the only places to sit. I found a payphone and used the calling card I had been issued to call Carla and assure I had arrived safely and was alright, though I was not convinced of the latter at that exact moment. I then picked a seat and tried my best to get a couple hours of sleep in an unforgiving chair.

The Thai Air ticket counter opened about 6 a.m. and I was first in line to change to the first flight of the day, scheduled for 7 a.m. I checked my box of books, and to my great surprise and relief, the agent looked me up and down and said I needed an emergency row seat. I didn’t have to ask nor was I charged an extra fee. The flight was only half full and lasted about an hour. The flight attendants barely had enough time to serve breakfast and reclaim the service items before we landed.

I took a cab out to the resort compound. The drive up the mountain from the airport to the resort was a mix of simple huts, beautiful, tree-covered mountains, clear skies, and incessant beeping by the driver to clear dogs out of the roadway. For the first time since I had left the U.S. 24 hours earlier, I felt like I was in another world.

When I arrived at the hotel, the Asia Team meeting was already underway, and I walked in a few minutes before my turn on the agenda. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I said something to the effect of “I’m from the main office, and I’m here to help.”

That was not a completely welcomed message. Field personnel were passionate about their work, but administrators from headquarters were not always helpful to them. Nestled into the forested hills of northeastern Thailand, the conference center was a beautiful setting with amazing flowers and decorative landscaping. The buildings were wood and had all the markings of Thai architecture with the unmistakably Asian curves and flourishes. Clearly a tourist destination, the facilities were equipped with western toilets. My experience with a much anticipated “squatty potty” would have to wait until I reached Indonesia.

On my second night, a group of CBF field personnel and their families were going to the night market in Chiang Mai and asked me to tag along. They showed me all the diverse finds at an Asian night market, including an array of fried insects to enjoy. I did not partake in the delicacies, but with their help I was able to negotiate prices and make a few purchases. I wasn’t accustomed to and didn’t like haggling.

It was late when we got back to the resort, and insect and frog song filled the night. Just a few feet from the door to my room, a large, dark brown, spotted rock caught my eye. It was about four inches long and appeared to be moving. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a horned beetle. It was beautiful and I’m sure harmless, but I admired it from a safe distance as it slowly crawled along the walkway.

The days in Chiang Mai passed quickly, and I acclimated to the time difference and the humidity, which reminded me of living in Florida. When the team meeting ended, a group of us traveled a couple hours’ drive from Chiang Mai to Fang where CBF field personnel Ellen and Rick Burnette operated the Upland Holistic Development Project. The UHDP helped people sustain themselves from agro-forestry, growing food on small garden plots, raising pigs and even farming catfish in water tanks. The area where the Palaung and Kachin people, hilltribes displaced from Myanmar, were given to settle by the government was mountainous and tree-covered, a difficult place to grow sustainable crops. I saw the impact of the Burnette’s work firsthand and met the local people who were training to run the facility and sharing their knowledge of crops and agricultural techniques that worked well in the region. I spent the night in the UHDP’s Resource Center visitor accommodations, which were spartan but clean and comfortable, only slightly disconcerted by the sounds of insects hitting the screen on my door. I had nightmares of the beetle from Chiang Mai attacking.

The next day I covered my neck, wrists and ankles with 100 percent DEET insect repellent, probably ensuring I will one day develop cancer, and went with the team to a Palaung village out in the jungle. I had tea in a gracious and welcoming family’s home as Rick translated how they had fled their native Myanmar and were now making do without legal status in Thailand. After a few hours in the village, we trekked back to Fang to pile back into the small van for the drive back to Chiang Mai. I suddenly became very aware of the time and worried that I would miss my flight to Bangkok.

A few hours later, we arrived at the hotel where the rest of our party was staying in the heart of Chiang Mai. With the help of the field personnel, I flagged down a motorcycle taxi called a tuk-tuk and sped off to the airport. No amusement park ride could compare to that adventure. I clung to the rail with one hand and my suitcase with the other. It was close, but I did make it to the airport in time to make the flight, though my boots were covered in jungle mud, and I reeked of jungle sweat and DEET.

After we touched down and I emerged from the familiar domestic terminal, I cabbed from the airport to the Bangkok Christian Guest House where I was to meet Anita Snell, my guide for the next leg of my journey. The Asian Baptist Graduate Seminary board was meeting, and after a quick shower, I had the opportunity to do interviews and take photos. Though I was exhausted and ready for sleep, several of the board members insisted we go to the night market, so I could see the real Bangkok.

My guide was Graham Walker, associate dean of Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, with whom I had worked before joining the staff at CBF. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he grew up in Asia as a missionary kid. He knew the area and could speak the language. At first, the night market seemed to be the same as in Chiang Mai. The area was more developed and modern, but the booths with fried grasshoppers and other insects was the same. We turned a corner and Graham pointed down the street. Through the dim lighting, I could make out young girls, no older than 14 or 15, all sitting on what looked like stoops outside of apartment buildings. We were approached by a man who tried to direct us to a particular building, but Graham, usually outgoing and friendly, became cold and direct. He informed the man we were not interested in what he was selling. I took me a minute to realize what was going on, but when the man said in English “Girl, boy or girl boy?” I felt sick as I began to understand what I was seeing. While I know human trafficking takes place in my home city of Atlanta, seeing it up close and out in the open gave me a new compassion for how miserable the lives of those poor children must be. Graham told me that many of them were from the rural parts of Asia, either sold or kidnapped into this life. We were only on the street a couple of minutes, but the experience was burned into my memory.

The next morning, I left for Singapore, which stood in stark contrast to Thailand. Thoroughly modern and pristine, Singapore had patrols of armed soldiers in the airport. Mindful of the story from the 1990s of the American teenager who had committed some minor crime and had been beaten with a cane for his punishment, I was sure to be as respectful as possible, following all instructions as I passed through customs. That night, Anita took me to a very western-style shopping and restaurant area where we ate Mexican food, Singapore-style, and we went to visit a friend of hers in a nearby apartment building. Everywhere we went was clean and landscaped to perfection. With the exception of the ever-present military, it seemed like utopia.

The next day I connected with the Uzzles, a family who had been leading the relief effort in Aceh. Former field personnel who were living in Kentucky at the time of the tsunami, they were called back into service to help channel the emergency aid and help the people there get back on their feet. They were friendly and gracious, and even their children welcomed me into their family with open arms. They had all the qualities necessary to succeed in that environment: openness, kindness, the ability to speak the language, and patience to explain everything I didn’t understand. We flew from Singapore to Medan and changed planes in Medan before heading to Banda Aceh.

The airport in Banda had not received outside flights for years before the relief workers began pouring in after the tsunami. The area was embroiled in a simmering civil conflict with a group of armed rebels seeking to withdraw from the Indonesia government’s authority. There were armed guards at periodic checkpoints around Aceh, but otherwise, there were no signs of conflict. The military presence wasn’t nearly as noticeable as in Singapore.

We were greeted warmly at the airport by a local man who served as the team’s driver. The Uzzles had clearly developed a close relationship with him, and they laughed together as they embraced. Before heading out to the town of Sigli, about a two and a half hours east of Banda where CBF’s work in Aceh was based, they took me to the hardest hit areas of Banda, including a sprawling coastal area where all but a few buildings were flattened to the ground. It took my breath away just how awful the moment the wave hit must have been. They explained that most of the debris had been cleaned up, but the government had not yet allowed rebuilding to begin. The survivors were displaced, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives without loved ones, and in many cases, without the possibility of earning a living.

On the drive up and around Mount Seulawah Agam, we stopped to shoo monkeys off the road, the first time I was able to see monkeys up close during my trip. The winding road was often not much more than a path of crumbling asphalt, but our driver expertly navigated the twisting paths dodging ox carts, bicycles and wildlife.

The Uzzles were staying in a comfortable rented home in Sigli, and Scott spent the evening on the front porch catching up with the locals. They laughed, and he paused to translate the jokes for me. It was genuinely warm companionship in any language. As I settled in for the night, the call to prayer at one of the nearby mosques started up over a public address system. It was Friday, and because Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, there were mosques within walking distance of everyone in the town.

I learned to navigate the intricacies of Asian toilets, which was essentially a hole in the ground with a small platform built around it. You have to squat over the hole and then use water from a pot or small reservoir called a bak to clean yourself and flush away the waste. There’s definitely a trick to it, and Americans are notoriously bad at both aim and clean up. Not every home had running water to a bak. Many families in the area went to large baks at their mosque to draw water for daily use. When we began checking on the redevelopment projects that day, they took me to a mosque where the bak served a large number of families in the community. It was the first project they undertook in Sigli, and CBF personnel built trust and reliability in the community by completing it. I was impressed with how they worked with the locals, observed their customs, spoke their language and work alongside them, not for or instead of them.

We went to the CBF office in Sigli, and Scott showed me a large dry erase board with a chart listing active projects and completed projects. There were more than 13 significant projects that had been completed on CBF’s list.

For three days I met people who fought through tears and struggled through a translator to tell me their stories. Our driver lost his wife and children in the tsunami. For reasons he couldn’t explain or understand, he survived. Everyone in Sigli lost family, and most lost their homes.

They took me out to several small villages outside of town where pumps had been installed to provide clean water not contaminated by the tsunami. Small children came to me and touched my arms and looked at each other and laughed. Scott told me I was only the second white person they had ever seen.

“They want to know if the color comes off,” he said.

We went to one village that had recently been built. There were long row houses built on stilts, about five feet off the ground. Painted bright yellow, they were the Indonesian equivalent of the FEMA trailers given to hurricane victims in the U.S. This particular village was a leper colony that been relocated from the coastline about a mile into the interior. I talked with a man who missing most of his left arm and right foot. He smiled and told me, through Scott’s interpretation, to “Thank America for me, for sending food, water and supplies.”

I nearly broke down in that moment. Despite all he had been through in the tsunami and its aftermath and suffering from a debilitating illness, he expressed gratitude. It was a profound lesson that I try to remember when I face challenges in my relatively luxurious circumstances.

The island of Sumatra is beautiful, defying description. It is unlike any place I had ever been. Volcanic mountains jut up suddenly in the middle of palm tree-lined fields of rice, and golden sand beaches receive the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The people were kind and gracious, and the food was among my favorite from limited international travel. Their coffee was strong and sweet, and I brought some home to share with Carla and enhance the telling of the details of my trip. There were plenty of noodle and rice dishes, some on the spicy side. I had sugar cane juice, fresh squeezed from a roadside stand with a wooden foot-operated mashing device. I ate plenty, avoided non-bottled water, and managed to go the whole trip without getting a stomach ailment.

When it was time for me to return, the journey home was long, not broken up with days in between as it had been on the front end. It started with the 2-and-a-half-hour drive back to Banda where I caught a flight to Medan. At the airport in Medan a man helped me with my bag, before I could refuse, so I tipped him nearly all my remaining Indonesia currency, the equivalent of about a quarter, U.S. He was clearly disappointed. From Medan I went back to Singapore with only about an hour before my flight to Bangkok. This time, I overnighted in the transiting hotel I had missed on my entry to Thailand and boarded an early morning flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. From Tokyo I re-entered the U.S. in Chicago where I went through customs and faced a several-hours delay on my flight back to Atlanta. Having a lengthy delay on the last leg of two days of travel is tough. I just wanted to be home.

I finally made it back to Atlanta in the early evening, and Carla, Barron and baby Harris greeted me at the top of the escalators in the North Terminal. Harris had visibly grown during my 10-day excursion, and Barron seemed shy and a little afraid of me. Maybe it was the two-week beard I was sporting, or maybe he had just missed me and didn’t know how to express it. We hugged and cried a little, and I tried to hit the high points of what the trip had been like. It was impossible to sum up.

I’ve not made any other trips in my life like the one to Southeast Asia, and I doubt I ever will again. The 18 intervening years has softened some of the sharper edges of my experience. My memories may not include what were key details at the time. I do remember my impressions, though, and what real beauty, hospitality and recovery look like.

The Official Wallace Family Christmas Letter 2022

People have been sending Christmas cards at least since 1611 and the custom expanded to include family Christmas letters over the years since. The family Christmas letter has been much maligned because of its blatant glossing over negative events and exaggeration of family members’ accomplishments. Seeing as how I am in public relations, that describes my day job perfectly. So with that in mind, here’s the Wallaces’ 2022 in review:

Harris, Barron and Carlton Wallace stand arm-in-arm in front of a window with a candle on the sill and a Christmas wreath hanging above them.
The 2022 Wallace Family Christmas Card features our boys — Harris, 17; Barron, 21; and Carlton, 14. We rotate each year between a photo of the whole family and one of just the boys. We figured out a long time ago, people are most interested in how are boys are growing up and not at all in how Carla and Lance are growing old.

Dear Friends,

This has been another exciting year for the Wallaces. Carla and Lance celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and were even able to get away together for a few days in June for a trip to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. They continue to enjoy having her mother, Cynthia Barron, close by at the Sheridan at Eastside, a senior living community in Snellville. Lance’s parents are enjoying retirement in Lake Wales, Fla., but not enjoying the now regular visits from hurricanes and tropical storms. They weathered this year’s Hurricane Ian much better than the last storm’s eye to pass over their patch of Central Florida paradise. We hope to visit them and enjoy some warm winter weather the week following Christmas.

While Carla continues to manage the household, care for her mother and hold many leadership roles in our church, Lance shifted jobs this year, moving in September from associate vice chancellor for communications at the University System of Georgia to vice president of marketing and communications at Oglethorpe University, a private institution in nearby Brookhaven, Ga. He enjoys the work and especially likes the shortened commute. Oglethorpe is a fascinating institution with a unique look and feel and a compelling history.

Barron is in his fourth year of college, his third at the University of Georgia. He worked his second summer at PASSPORT youth camp, this year as a Bible study leader. He is playing trumpet for the Georgia Redcoat Marching Band and reveling in his opportunity to play at such high profile events as the national championship game last January in Indianapolis and the recent SEC Championship game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. He hopes to end 2022 with a New Year’s victory for the Dawgs over Ohio State and the chance to kickoff 2023 with a return to the national championship, this year in SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif.

Barron transferred into the three-year furnishings and interiors program at UGA in the spring semester of his second year. This will afford him one more fall in Athens. He’s currently working toward securing a design internship for the summer of 2023 and enjoying his coursework and design projects.

Harris has completed the first semester of his senior year at Parkview High School and is immersed in the challenge of picking a college. His fall semester included serving as band captain and playing trombone for the Parkview Marching Panther Band, which was able to accompany the football team to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs this year. He will also travel with the band to perform in the prestigious Music For All National Festival in Indianapolis this spring. He puts his leadership skills to work in many extra-curricular activities including the Gwinnett Student Leadership Team, Parkview Student Leadership Team, Tri-M music honor society, and his favorite activity of all, the Mock Trial Team. He has been named lead defense attorney for this year’s team, and he looks forward to competing in early 2023.

Harris will graduate in May 2023 and is currently applying to colleges. He applied during the early action period to the University of Georgia and was accepted. Harris recently attended the President’s Scholarship Competition at Georgia College and State University and was awarded the Trustee’s Scholarship, the highest financial award offered at Georgia’s public liberal arts college. Harris has been granted admission and invited to scholarship weekend events at Mercer University and Oglethorpe University in the new year. He is also awaiting an admission decision in the spring from Emory University where he hopes to attend their Oxford, Ga., campus for his first two years of matriculation before completing his undergraduate studies at the main campus in Atlanta. It goes without saying that his long-term plan currently includes a law school, and do not be surprised to see his name on the ballot for governor of Georgia in 2038.

Carlton is in the eighth grade at Smoke Rise Prep School and working on his audition for the theatre conservatory at the Gwinnett School of the Arts housed at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville. He hopes to attend high school there and is working to be one of the 25 rising freshmen selected countywide. His vocal performance and dramatic monologue audition will be the first week of January, and he should learn of his acceptance by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, he is continuing to participate in music, dance and drama through the Smoke Rise Academy of Arts where last year he performed the roles of Mr. McAfee in the summer intensive “Bye Bye, Birdie,” Genie in the middle grades production of “Aladdin Jr.,” Mr. Bumble in the high school production of “Oliver,” and was a member of the ensemble in Smoke Rise’s Junior Theatre Festival competition show, “Beauty & the Beast Jr.,” which won its group allowing them to perform on the festival’s main stage before a crowd of nearly 8,000. He is currently working on two productions for the upcoming Junior Theater Festival in January 2023, and has also auditioned for roles in the high school group’s production of “The Sound of Music” in the spring of 2023.

A close up of the Wallace's white miniature poodle, Winston, wears a red Santa hat and red Santa coat.
Oh, and Winston wants everyone to know he’s doing great, too, and wishes you a “Merry Christmas!”

As you can tell from our letter, we are exceedingly proud of our three boys and grateful to be surrounded by good friends and neighbors in the Lilburn community and at Parkway Baptist Church. This has been a wonderful year for our family which included trips to visit Lance’s parents and Universal Studios Orlando at spring break, Santa Rosa Beach for the July Fourth week and a recent Christmas trip to New York City that included Broadway shows “Beetlejuice” and “Phantom of the Opera” as well as the Rockettes’ “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall.

We appreciate all of you and are particularly excited to receive your Christmas cards each year and learn how your families are growing and experiencing life. We hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. Keep in touch and stay safe and healthy.

With love,

The Wallaces

Simple pleasures

For me the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of life’s big questions. One of my discoveries is how the simple pleasures contribute to my quality of life. Here are the little things that have come to mean a lot to me:

The Wallace family play a card game sitting around a wooden table in their kitchen.
Laughter around the table is a simple pleasure that happens frequently when we play a family game.

Cup of coffee. I drink coffee twice a day. I have a cup when I first get up in the morning, and I have another cup around 3 in the afternoon. I drink coffee black with the rare exception of adding a flavored creamer to a cup of decaf on winter nights. I joke that I drink coffee for its medicinal effects rather than the taste, but the fact is, I have come to appreciate strong, smooth coffee. I like it hot, not warm and never iced. The experience is best when it’s quiet, and my brain sparks to life as the warmth of each sip washes over me.

Hot shower. I confess: I take long showers. When the weather is cold, I take even longer showers. Even if my skin is pruning, and I risk being late for work, it’s harder to get out when the temperature differential is greater than 10 degrees. Our house has a tankless hot water heater, and for the first time in my life, I can take a 20-minute shower without running out of hot water. It is a luxury I enjoy. When I have to cut my shower short, it’s an inconvenience that influences my mood negatively, as much as I hate to admit it. Relaxation and deep thoughts make the hot shower a daily ritual that contributes to my well-being.

A nap. I function best on eight hours of sleep. I rarely get seven. My best compensation is a 15- to 20-minute power nap, which I typically only get on weekends. If office culture every changed to embrace a post-lunch quick snooze, I’d be great. Instead, I rely on that afternoon cup of coffee to get me through the workday. It’s a great feeling to wake up refreshed after just a few minutes of sleep, and I am never tempted to stretch a nap. Those longer naps interfere with my night’s sleep and disrupt my circadian rhythm. I nap best reclining rather than prone, and I enjoy being able to nap warmed by the sun.

Going for a run/walk. In my heyday, I ran 6 miles five days a week with a long run one day a week. I was out the door by 5:30, and taking the 45-50 minutes before my day started felt essential rather than extravagant. Over time, injuries and aging forced me to alter my routine. I ran every other day and mixed in cross training and strength training. Various injuries since turning 40 like plantar fasciitis and hip flexor pain prompted prolonged layoffs, but I was eventually able to resume running. Two years ago, though, was the permanent end to my running for fitness. Knee pain from March to July sent me to the orthopedist, and an October diagnosis of a meniscus tear was finally cured with arthroscopic surgery in November. When I fully recovered, I wasn’t able to hit the roads with the same speed and endurance. I eased back into walking, which includes a two-mile walk on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and a five-mile walk on Saturdays. I it less exertion but it still helps me clear my head. The slower pace has the added benefit of helping me notice more about my surroundings and conditions. I see and appreciate the sunrise, feel the breeze and smell the honeysuckle. I have learned not to take pain-free movement for granted, and the mental and emotional aspects outweigh the cardiovascular benefits now that I’m over 50.

Conversation with Carla. Having an uninterrupted conversation with my wife was one of the most elusive activities during the lock-down phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We spent more time at home and around each other than ever before, but so did everyone else in our house. This deprivation illuminated just how much I value and enjoy our talks, no matter the topic. Whether it’s planning the next household project, dreaming of the next vacation, working through our worries for our boys or planning for our future, these dialogues fuel our relationship in a way that draws us closer and connects us. They tend to happen when we’re on a date at a restaurant or on the balcony of the beach condo on vacation. Getting away was difficult under quarantine, but it showed me the acuteness of my need for it. I am my best self when I’m grounded in my relationship with Carla.

Laughter around my table. The best antidote to the pressures of life is the tension release brought on by laughter. When bickering is replaced by heartfelt laughter, all is right with my world. No matter who induces it, laughter injects my spirit with a hopeful enthusiasm. It gives me perspective. It helps me see the blessings rather than the challenges. It washes the negativity out of my system and clears the air in the relationships in our household. I find that humor gets harder with age. I’ve heard it all at this point, and I’m harder to impress. Refining the comical helps me appreciate the deep, authentic laugh more and makes its effect on my mood more dramatic. Laughter is truly the best medicine for keeping my family positive and supportive of each other.

There are many other moments that bring me joy, but these are the simple pleasures I find most meaningful at this stage. If I have these in my life, I am truly blessed.

Things I can’t live without

Survival depends on very little – food, water, shelter, clothing. Fulfillment requires healthy relationships, meaningful work and serving others. Convenience is more complicated.

Reflecting on what I cannot live without is an examination of convenience. Everything on this list contributes to my comfort, productivity, or entertainment, but it isn’t necessary for survival. That said, this list says a lot about me.

Lance wearing a blue vest and red checked shirt clutches a white mug of coffee
My drug of choice requires a machine that I cannot live without.

Coffeemaker. I had my first cup of coffee as a sophomore in college in 1989 at the appropriately named Coffee Kettle restaurant in Troy, Ala. I drank coffee then as now – for its medicinal benefits. Then, I relied on the caffeine boost to power through all-night study or paper writing sessions. Now, it helps me wake up in the morning and it fuels me past my afternoon lull. When I first started the habit, I was like a lot of newcomers to the beverage. I added copious amounts of sugar and cream or creamer to my coffee. That changed in the fall of 1991 during my journalism internship at Knight-Ridder Newspapers’ Washington Bureau. On a crisp fall morning I was at the office coffee station filling my cup with sugar and creamer when the bureau’s office manager came in to get her morning coffee. A refined and attractive middle-aged British woman, she always struck me dumb when she spoke to me. She looked at my coffee accessories and declared “That will kill you.” Internalizing her disapproval of my doctoring, I ceased at the moment to add anything to my coffee and learned to drink it black. When I set up housekeeping for the first time in the summer of 1992 at an apartment in Macon, Georgia, I purchased my first coffeemaker. It wasn’t top of the line, but it got the job done. Even when I go on camping trips, I make sure to bring along a kettle and the easy “boil in a bag” coffee. It’s a dependency and a creature comfort not required for life, but it’s an addiction I choose not to forsake at this stage of my life.

Hot water heater. I have taken cold showers in my life, and with the exception of the time I was in Lake Wales, Florida, helping my parents clean up from the damage of hurricane Charley, I did not welcome the experience. Even during the summer, I like to take long, hot showers. I think deep thoughts. I have good ideas. It’s relaxing. But the temperature really matters. One of the best amenities our current house possessed when we bought it in 2013 was a tankless water heater. Only when the power is out do I have to forego hot water, and in those rare instances, I have chosen to postpone showering until the water is hot enough to turn my skin pink.

Air conditioner/heater. My father-in-law, Lanny Barron, believed the most significant culture-changing invention to impact life in the South was the invention of air conditioning. It’s hard to argue. Air conditioning has turned us into indoor people, lowering our tolerance to temperatures that in the past would have been ideal for outdoor play. Lately, my preferred indoor temperature is a higher than it used to be. I can live with 75 or 76. When the AC goes out completely, it quickly feels unbearable when temperatures reach 82 or 83. A couple of years ago we replaced the main AC unit in our house. Supposedly more energy efficient, the new system controls the humidity indoors as well. That’s a welcomed innovation that adds to our summertime comfort. Of course, these days the air conditioner is dual purpose and has a heat pump as well. As I age, I find that I am more susceptible to cold and probably need the use of the heater as much or more than the air conditioning. The lower range of comfortable temperatures for me these days is 71 or 72, and I confess to having to wear a fleece pullover and sit under a blanket while watching TV at night from fall to early spring.

Refrigerator. Whenever thunderstorms render us powerless, we must contemplate the question of whether the food in our freezer will thaw or the contents of our refrigerator will spoil. In those cases, my under-appreciated fridge takes on greater importance. We have leftovers after nearly every nightly meal. I rely on the bounty of the Tupperware-enclosed morsels tucked away in the refrigerator for my lunches. Our refrigerators allows me to get the most mileage out of our meals and feel thrifty in the process. I have a simple standard for selecting my lunch menu: the food in the fridge that is oldest and will spoil first. I eat that, racing the clock (or calendar) to consume the substances quickly deteriorating, When going to the office, I carry a large lunch bag with the plastic ice blocks to keep my plate of leftovers safely chilled before warming them in the microwave. 

Microwave. Speaking of microwaves, it goes hand-in-glove with the fridge. The bounty of leftovers cannot be properly enjoyed without a microwave. I still remember the late 1970s when microwaves started appearing in people’s kitchens. It was an unfathomable innovation that reduced meal preparation times to minutes. There are a still some dishes better heated up in the oven, but if I’m honest, I will often sacrifice quality for timeliness. There are a few foods that are improved by a few seconds in the microwave. At my age, I try to limit my carbs, but occasionally, a pastry or doughnut warmed for 10 seconds or so in the microwave really hits the spot.

Smartphone. As much as I hate to admit this, I am dependent on my smartphone. Not only do I make use of myriad apps for daily conveniences, if I have a moment of unstructured time, I look at it for no good reason. On the plus side, it serves as my alarm clock, and the time function comes in handy with my workout routines. Speaking of working out, the Run Keeper app and an app from the physical therapist helps me track my fitness and rehab from recent knee surgery. The calorie counting app has helped me maintain a healthy weight for more than two years, and the weather app is the first one I open each day. I use my notes app for keeping up with my “to-do” list, movies to watch on family movie night, TV shows to enjoy with Carla, and other essential data I need to keep at my fingertips for odd moments, like my license plate number. The texting function keeps me connected with family and friends, especially during the isolation of the pandemic, and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) app means I never have to wonder where I’ve seen that actor before or if this movie will have inappropriate content for my children. I can “doomscroll” through the news and fake news, wasting time, or, on occasion, see what my friends and family are up to. The ESPN app lets me see the scoreboard of whatever sport is in season, and my podcasts are never far away, giving me hours of good content to absorb. On the downside, my phone also has my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Reddit accounts just a click away. I recently deleted all of the time-wasting games, and I really have tried to cut back on the amount of time I stare at my phone. I am glad that I now only have to carry one smartphone having ditched a separate work phone. I can’t live without my smartphone, but there are many days I fantasize about trying.

Toothbrush. Last but certainly not least is a device so simple and basic, I take it for granted most days. Good dental hygiene has been instilled in me since childhood, and with the combination of my mother’s good dental genes and my dad’s insistence on brushing and flossing, I’ve managed to live 50 years on this planet without a cavity. On those rare times I’ve been without a toothbrush, I’ve resorted to using my finger, but nothing beats the plain ol’ toothbrush at keeping your teeth clean and healthy and your breath fresh.

There are a lot of climate control, food storage and preparation, and hygiene-related items on this list. I’m sure there’s more I could include, but for now, let’s leave it at that.

Christmas traditions

We have to be careful when we plan something special for our family because if we do it once, the boys will insist on making it a tradition. This is especially true of Christmas.

We begin the season by decorating our home the weekend after Thanksgiving, often getting a jump by hauling the bins of decorations from the basement on Friday. On Saturday, we go out for a big breakfast at IHOP and head to Lowe’s for a tree. Since our oldest son, Barron, joined the University of Georgia’s Redcoat Marching Band and has to play at the annual Georgia-Georgia Tech game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we’ve had to move up the timetable on this tradition to Black Friday, but that hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm.

There was one year, though, when the boys’ enthusiasm was greatly dampened. I didn’t realize how important the ingrained tradition was until the boys threatened to boycott Christmas altogether when we went to Home Depot for our tree because it was closer to IHOP than Lowe’s. When we pulled into Home Depot, the boys were aghast and refused to get out of the car.

“You are ruining Christmas!” they protested.

The Wallace family crams into a booth at the International House of Pancakes.
IHOP after Thanksgiving to commence a day of decorating is our traditional breakfast of champions!

We had no choice but to load up and drive down Highway 78 the two or three miles to Lowe’s. We have been able to get the boys to expand their idea of the tradition in recent years because the quality of the Lowe’s trees diminished so greatly. In 2019 and 2020 we bought our tree at Randy’s Water Gardens in Lawrenceville, which they tolerated only because we also went to Lowe’s to buy replacement light strings, spotlight bulbs or other items that enhance our home’s holiday visual presentation. It is worth noting we have been back at Lowe’s the past two years.

While decorating the house, rather than the strains of Christmas music, we typically have college football on. Because our decorating falls on Rivalry Weekend, we have our pick of intra-state match-ups to serve as our background noise. Our preferred games are Georgia-Georgia Tech and Auburn-Alabama, but others fill in so that there’s not a gap from noon to midnight.

Barron, Harris and Carlton Wallace hang ornaments on a lit frasier fir Christmas tree as their little white miniature poodle looks on.
The boys strategically place their special ornaments competing for most the eye-catching placements.

The decorating is not complete until the boys’ Christmas ornament for the year has been revealed. Carla began the tradition when Barron was little, and we thoroughly enjoy picking the ornament based on something significant from their lives that year. The plan is for each of our children to get 21 ornaments as keepsakes when they leave home. It brings us so much joy to decorate with these glass ornaments and listen to the boys reminisce about each one.

Our Christmas season has some traditions driven by the boys’ involvement in band. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections at the Christmas concert each year, including Barron’s turn to take the baton and conduct the Parkview band in “Sleigh Ride” during his senior year as drum major.

We’ve also enjoyed the annual Lilburn Christmas Parade. We started participating with the Cub Scouts, but the Parkview Marching Band has been our reason to attend in recent years. Bundling up and finding a good spot helps us enjoy this community event and appreciate the quality of life we enjoy in Lilburn.

As Christmas approaches, we pick a night to go out to dinner and drive around looking at Christmas lights. We used to listen to our favorite Christmas CDs, like Harry Connick Jr.’s “Harry for the Holidays,” but thanks to Spotify, we now have a playlist that includes all of our favorites, including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Merry Christmas from the Family,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The restaurant changes each year, but the laughter and imitating Nanny’s pet phrase “Look over yonder!” are always a treasured feature of the evening.

Our Christmas Eve traditions include church, eating soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and watching “A Christmas Story.” One year the power went out in our neighborhood, and we went to La Sabrosita, a nearby Mexican restaurant that has since closed. We learned that disruptions to traditions can make the event more memorable. By the time we got home, power was restored, and Santa managed to find our house as usual.

Bedtime on Christmas Eve has been pushed back as the boys age. They no longer rush to bed so Santa can come. Christmas morning, though, still comes early as they cannot contain their excitement for exchanging gifts. Harris, in particular, has the most enthusiasm, stemming from his love of Lego. He knows that in order to complete the sets he gets for Christmas, he’ll need to start early.

To allow Carla some time to enjoy the day and not spend all Christmas in the kitchen, our tradition is to have brunch. She’ll make a breakfast casserole the day before and throw it in the oven before the presents are unwrapped. We always have pastries with it and often a tray of oven-cooked, brown sugar bacon. We spend the day in our pajamas and enjoy Christmas music all day long.

After Christmas we go to Florida to see my parents and about every other year some combination of aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s the one time of year they get to experience Lake Wales, Florida, where I last lived at home, and, frankly, it’s the best time of year to visit. The humidity is low and the temperatures are typically in the 70s. Granny and Paw Paw have lots of outdoor fun in their yard, including a tree swing, fire pit, and outdoor games like croquet and carpet ball.

Carla and I got engaged on New Year’s Eve, but we don’t have any traditions for ringing in the new year. Many years, we’ve been in bed asleep by the time the calendar flips over to the next year, but we have tried to attend parties with friends on occasion. The last time we tried to host, our children were young, and all our friends, who also had small kids, left by 9 p.m., exhausted from wrangling their offspring, who were getting cranky from staying up past their bedtime. We decided a long time ago that ringing in the new year is overrated.

Our holiday traditions are important to our family, and I can’t wait to see what traditions our boys create with their families one day.

Thankful for great memories

Memories are fleeting. They come and go on their own timetable. I treasure my children and different memories of them flash into mind at seemingly random moments. Here are memories I cherish and hope revisit me often as the boys grow into adulthood:


Parents know the least with their firstborn, and we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We had to pull over during our drive home from the hospital because our newborn was crying in his car seat. We weren’t out of the parking lot five minutes before our circumstances outstripped our knowledge. We were pretty clueless.

Carla Wallace gives infant Barron Wallace a bath in a plastic baby tub on the kitchen counter.
Amazingly, Barron didn’t like bathing on the kitchen counter in the middle of February.

Barron was born in early February. He spent a lot of time in his footed pajamas and snuggly blankets as we conscientiously tried to keep him warm. For some reason, though, we never seemed to care how his body temperature dropped during bath time.

“He must really hate baths,” we thought. “He shakes and cries a lot.”

While we had fun playing with our newborn in the baby tub on the counter top in the kitchen in the middle of winter, we had the benefit of wearing clothes and having adult layers of built-in insulation. He was 10 pounds and completely exposed to the elements. Even with warm water and a strategically placed wash cloth, he shivered every time.

It was only in hindsight that we realized he was probably just cold. First born babies have a lot of teaching to do, and Barron’s brothers benefited from that and other lessons he taught us.

But he was cute, flailing his little arms and legs and splaying his fingers and toes, splashing us.


Our family has made many lasting memories at Santa Rosa Beach. One of my favorites is the summer I spent intentional time teaching Harris to ride a bike without training wheels.

The school year had proven too busy between Harris’s studies and my work schedule to make much progress on teaching him to ride his bike. Barron tried teaching him, too, using the methods his friend, Tyler Bennett, had used in helping him get the hang of it. It mostly consisted of Barron riding his bike down the hill in the grass in our backyard, giving him a soft place to crash and enough of a slope to help him build forward momentum.

Harris Wallace wearing an orange t-shirt, khaki shorts and a blue and orange bicycle helmet stands with his red bicycle among palm trees and palmetto bushes in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
Harris learned from his big brother that crashing on grass is a lot better than crashing on concrete.

Crashing was Harris’s biggest fear, so the grassy location was key. That year we stayed at a beach house in Old Florida Village, a community of vacation rentals with streets ideal for kids to bicycle. But the pavement was intimidating to Harris, and there were occasional speed bumps that had to be negotiated in the street. There were two grassy lots used for overflow parking, and Harris felt safer trying out his wobbly skills in those softer areas. Of course, the pedaling was more difficult, but when he fell over, all he got was dirty and not skinned up.

The missing ingredient was a slope. Florida is notoriously flat, and it was hard for Harris to gather much speed to learn how to keep his bike moving forward through the grass. We decided to load his bike in the back of the van and drive down 30A a mile or so to Gulf Place, a mixed use development with shops, cafes, condos and a large, grass amphitheater for concerts and shows. We began our 30A vacations staying at Gulf Place, and we always visited the artists’ booths, ice cream shop and the pizza place whether we stayed there or not. And when our vacations coincided with concerts, we took our beach chairs and towels and listened to live music on the lawn.

The lawn was the perfect place for Harris to complete his training and forever throw off the shackles of his training wheels. Mostly flat, the lawn sloped very subtly to a drain in the center. If you started in the corners of the field, you could get a good head of steam to go down through the middle to the opposite corner. The low-cut, bent grass helped Harris feel good about falling over, if it occurred, and I ran along behind him, my hand on the back of his seat to steady him.

Always hot at the beach, I worked up a sweat running after Harris as he made repeated trips from corner to corner of the lawn. After a half hour or so, Harris was making the trip himself, grinning from ear to ear. Before that vacation ended, he was cycling around the perimeter of the lawn on the sidewalk, and navigating the streets of Old Florida Village with a new found confidence and sense of freedom.


As the youngest, Carlton has both benefited and suffered from being treated like the baby. He was cuddled and kissed long after he needed it or wanted it. My fondest memory with Carlton was the day I had the opportunity to drop him off and pick him up from the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods and witnessed him as a fully capable human being with talents and tastes all his own.

By this point in his culinary education, Carlton had already taken six or seven of the half-day cooking classes for kids at Salud, and he was on a first name basis with Chef Scott. We were among the first to arrive, and though no other kids were there yet, Carlton insisted I could go ahead and leave. He found the aprons and helped Chef Scott lay out the utensils as I lingered by the door. It made me happy to see him in his element, comfortable in his surroundings and feeling confident with his abilities.

Carlton Wallace in a blue T-shirt holds a fork of french toast ready to eat it with wooden tables and chairs in the background at the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods in John's Creek, Georgia.
The best part of the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods was the tasting!

I went across the street to Panera and had a leisurely breakfast, working on a writing project on my laptop. Leaving myself a little more than an hour, I headed back down State Bridge Road to Kroger where I completed the family’s weekly grocery shopping. I arrived back at Whole Foods in time to see them finishing up with the “Special Weekend Menu” breakfast and prepared to serve us.

Carlton attentively showed me to the buffet where he and I fixed our plates. He breathlessly gave me the rundown on each item and the special tricks they had employed to make them just so. There were blueberry pancakes with buttermilk syrup; baked eggs with sausage, spinach and cheese; easy breakfast potatoes; candied bacon (Carlton’s favorite) and homemade buttermilk biscuits (my favorite.)

It smelled and tasted delicious, and I savored each bite as Carlton and I enjoyed the food and each other’s company. I knew Carla would be jealous, so we scraped together some leftovers to bring to her.

As much as I enjoyed the food, I relished the time with Carlton even more. I was on his turf in a place unfamiliar to me but very familiar to him. He knew some of the other kids in the class and felt at home with Chef Scott and the other adult volunteers. He beamed with pride at having created such satisfying food.

I will never forget the feeling of deep joy of experiencing him doing what he loved and sharing it with me.

These are three memories I should reflect on more often when circumstances seem dire. They will sustain me, lift my spirits and help me reconnect with my boys. Memories such as these have cemented our bonds to withstand the inevitable trials that will strain them.

Origins of a passion for writing

I have been drawn to writing as a creative activity since childhood.

It started by inventing stories in my head. It grew into imitation when in the 7th grade I read William Faulkner’s 1942 short story “The Bear,” and I wrote my own story of a bear hunt gone awry. In the 8th grade, my classmates and I started a school newspaper to satisfy my itch to try journalism and to make a little money for a class field trip to St. Augustine.

By the time I reached high school, I was involved in a writing circle with friends. We called it “The Story War.” We took turns writing stories about a common set of characters whose adventures intersected and intertwined in ways that tested our creativity and problem solving. Each of us had a main character, and in the pre-internet days, we circulated our stories to each other by reproducing them on dot matrix printers and sending them through the U.S. mail. There were four of us in the group — two in Florida, Dwayne and me, and two in Texas, Fred and Cliff. It occupied hours of my imaginings and fed my love of storytelling and creative expression.

A blue, three-ring binder with dot matrix printed pages is overlaid by a hand-drawn map in pencil, a stack of story pages and a table of contents.
Can’t you hear the crackling spew of ink from a dot matrix printer while the rotating wheels pulled the continuous form paper through? The seriousness of the genre is also clearly communicated by the choice of font.

In high school, I gravitated toward newspaper journalism as a way to earn a living as a writer. In the unsophisticated way a teenager thinks about careers, I knew I loved to write but thought writing books could be an undependable source of income. According to my logic, writing for newspapers would be a steady gig, and I could write books on the side.

After my introduction to journalism in 8th grade, I joined the high school yearbook staff in 10th grade and took journalism as an independent study in the 11th. The summer after my junior year, I applied and was selected for an internship at our local newspaper, the now defunct Lake Wales Daily Highlander. Each year The Highlander hired a rising senior to write a weekly column and help out around the newsroom as the intern’s schedule and skill allowed.

I loved writing the column and took it very seriously. I loved trying out the SAT words I was learning. Some of my early columns required readers to have a dictionary at their elbow in order to make sense of what I was trying to say. The high school administration was also not particularly fond of my more aggressive attempts at satire.

I was called to meet with the principal after one column in which I deployed hyperbole to describe the construction projects going on in the buildings during the school day. I posited that projects of such scale would cause much less disruption during the summer. When I sat down across from Mr. Windham, the principal, I saw my column on the desk in front of him, marked up in red. He took me through each of my factual errors. I don’t remember printing a retraction, but I do remember learning that a weekly column came with power and responsibility.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at The Highlander full time. I mostly did clerical writing such as obituaries, but when the news reporters were on vacation, I covered the police beat, county court and city budget hearings. Because I enjoyed sports, I latched onto opportunities in that genre, covering Lake Wales Little League as closely as if it were Major League Baseball, and endured the editing supervision of sports editor Bob Perkins. He once told me while editing a particularly egregious story in which I erroneously substituted “aloud” for “allowed” throughout to describe how many runs a pitcher “allowed,” that “This isn’t writing, it’s typing!”

My time at The Highlander gave me an unmatched experience for someone my age, and by the time I arrived at college to officially earn a degree in journalism, I had already tackled a number of challenges many of my peers wouldn’t experience until their senior internship or even after they started their careers. I began writing for the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, immediately, and found myself in a Reporting 1 class my freshman year.

In addition to the writing I did for The Trop, as it was affectionately known, I also served as a peer tutor at the university’s Writing Center. All students who tested into the remedial English classes were required to attend a writing lab one hour a week at the Writing Center, and the tutors led the labs. It was more than a little awkward when I, as an 18-year-old freshman, handed out and graded assignments from 21-year-old upperclassmen. Working at the Writing Center solidified my knowledge of the rules of grammar and gave me an even stronger foundation for writing clean copy and editing others’ work.

During my time at Troy I also developed the habit of journaling. I incorporated it as a part of my daily Bible reading and prayer time. I have never gone back to read those early attempts to process my understanding of scripture or work through crises of faith, but the practice is still part of my daily routine to this day.

My journalism career progressed from The Daily Highlander and Tropolitan to The Destin Log and The Macon Telegraph before I moved into higher education and nonprofit communications. During those years, I had largely abandoned the dream of creative writing, but in the summer of 2004 after completing an MBA, I felt the creative itch return.

I had been ignoring the whole reason I had chosen newspapers and communications as a career in the first place. So during our vacation that summer at Santa Rosa Beach, I spent an hour or so each day working on a novel. I wrote the first five chapters of my work, tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and reconnected with my love of writing.

I finished the first draft in 2009, and at more than 140,000 words was too intimidated to do the work necessary to edit it down to the more appropriate 100,000 words or less most first-time authors get when they publish. I was also reading about the publishing industry trying to implement the advice of launching my own platform. The conventional wisdom of the publishing industry was that you would be more desirable to agents and publishers if you had a built-in following who would buy your books.

So in March of 2011 I launched this web log, or blog as it is more commonly known. I called it “New South Essays” and tried to brand myself as a commentator on life in the modern South. Because I felt that my novel was a work of contemporary Southern fiction, I thought this would give me access to the readers who might be susceptible to buying my book when the time came.

For three years I published a New South Essay each week. In August 2012 when I went to work for Georgia Tech, learning to communicate in a technical field and managing a large staff sapped all of my energy for writing. Plus, the demands of a growing family caused me to lose touch with my zeal for expression again. I put the blog on hiatus in the fall of 2014, and once again strayed from my love of writing.

During my time at Georgia Tech I satisfied my itch to write by taking on freelance writing assignments for Baptist publisher, Smyth & Helwys. I wrote several units of Sunday School lessons for its Formations line, devotions for its annual Reflections guide and started a blog called “A View from the Pew” which provided a lay person’s perspective on church life. With such a demanding day job, my writing dwindled to once a month, and my creativity shriveled.

I finally figured out my pattern in the spring of 2020 when the outbreak of COVID-19 rearranged our lives. No longer commuting two hours a day to downtown and back for my job with the University System of Georgia, I found I had more time in the mornings to write again. I was inspired to re-launch New South Essays on a monthly schedule, alternating writing weeks among A View from the Pew, New South Essays and the re-write on my novel. And when Carla gave me the unique anniversary gift in May of weekly memoir prompt Storyworth, I found myself once filled with excitement and energy for the written word.

What started as a spark of creativity has grown into quite a collection: two blogs, hundreds of newspaper articles, thousands of news releases and promotional pieces, speeches, media statements and an unpublished novel. Writing is a passion that draws me back whenever I wander away from it.

Here’s hoping I don’t lose sight of that truth again.

So glad she was born

(In honor of Carla’s birthday on Nov. 13, here’s a reflection on our introduction and courtship.)

My deepest and most profound season of happiness came in January of 1996.

One Sunday night after church, I was introduced to a young woman who worked with the children in the nursery. The Sunday night crowd was always small, and after worship I emerged from the chapel to be greeted by a crescent of friends that included the pastor’s wife, the children’s minister and the director of preschool ministries.

At the end of this semi-circle was a woman I didn’t recognize. I suspected it was a set up immediately. They introduced the young woman as Carla Barron, a Mercer student who worked downstairs in the nursery. She seemed nice and was attractive, but I put the encounter out of my mind almost immediately.

Either out of stubbornness or fear, I didn’t feel I was ready to date at that point, having just emerged from a relationship and trying to recalibrate my identity as an individual.

Lance Wallace and Carla Barron stand in a kitchen with an array of cut fruit, crackers, dips and a dozen yellow roses in a vase.
The glow of young love on full display. Can’t hide that much happiness.

I was consumed with work and planning the Southeast regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists. Scheduled for April in Macon that year, I had meetings after work most days as the planning committee lined up speakers and nailed down details such as the location for the opening night reception and the conference hotel. I took my volunteer responsibilities as the regional director seriously, and I used the extra work as an excuse not to think about dating and especially not the intriguing young woman at church.

My church friends were persistent. Every time I saw them, they found a way to bring up Carla. It wasn’t long before they suggested we all go to Cracker Barrel after church on a Sunday night. That’s how I found myself across the table from her with all of our church friends doing their best to get us together.

In the course of the conversation, we landed on the subject of books and what everyone was reading. I made disparaging remarks about Danielle Steele, even though I had never read anything she had written, and Carla offered that she liked Danielle Steele and had read many of her books. It wasn’t the last time I would put my foot in my mouth with Carla or that Carla would speak her mind forthrightly.

The next Wednesday night after prayer meeting, I felt drawn downstairs to the nursery, though I had no business being there. I found Carla watching the children out on the playground, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. She didn’t seem to hold my disdain for Danielle Steele against me. The conversation was pleasant and easy, and I told her I would call her sometime. This went on for several months before I finally came to my senses.

The journalism conference went off without a hitch in late April, and I could no longer hide behind planning the conference as an excuse. That’s when Carla’s honesty got my attention. The next Wednesday during my weekly visit with her on the playground, I apologized for not calling. She responded with the expected and typical “It’s OK,” but then she paused and surprised me.

“No, it’s not OK,” she said, without a hint of anger. “If you want to call me, call me. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just quit saying you’re going to call me if you’re not.”

That’s when it hit me how selfish and inconsiderate I had been. I realized I had been jerking her around for months. She was interested in me, and I was creating expectations of getting together and not following through. By that point, I knew she was nice and intelligent, and as our pastor’s wife described her to me on multiple occasions, “quality.” Carla didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

So the next day I called her and asked her to dinner the next Friday night. She agreed, thankfully not returning my bad behavior by playing hard to get.

I picked her up after her shift at Interior Bargains. We went to J.L.’s barbecue restaurant, which I purposefully chose because it wasn’t fancy or extravagant. I didn’t want our surroundings to get in the way of getting to know each other, and I was still tentative about re-entering the dating scene. I felt I could be more honest and more myself if we were having a plate of pulled pork barbecue and slaw rather than filet mignon and arugula salad.

It worked like truth serum. The conversation flowed naturally and honestly all through dinner. Not wanting to end our conversation but careful not to send the wrong message, I invited her back to my apartment to sit on the screened-in porch and continue our conversation. We sat in the porch swing and talked through the night, confessing our personality disorders, character flaws and past relationship missteps. We shared our stories and bonded. Our connection was strong, our feelings were real, and our future together became concrete. I was convinced she was the one I wanted to see more often and get to know better.

For the next eight months we went out nearly every week. I would pick her up at her apartment on Mercer’s campus, which felt weird. I had been out of college for four years at that point, and dating a college girl seemed to be robbing the cradle. I convinced myself it was OK because Carla had finished her classes in December but was still living in an on-campus apartment until graduation in May.

I met her parents and went to her graduation where NBC Today Show anchor Katie Couric spoke. Carla attended the singles Sunday School class I taught at church, and we started attending group outings as a couple. The group spent a day on Lake Sinclair skiing and riding a tube. I had to leave early to take a friend from college to dinner for her birthday. It was awkward, but I had committed to the evening before Carla and I started dating. While I enjoyed seeing my friend and wanted to show here a nice time for her birthday, I spent the entire evening thinking about Carla, worried that she would think I was two-timing her.

Over time it became clear she was the one I was interested in, and when I spent three weeks in a hotel by the Atlanta airport while covering the 1996 Summer Olympics, she wrote me nearly every day. We exchanged letters like I was off at war. Absence, although only 90 miles, definitely made my heart grow fonder for Carla.

Later that summer I took her to Lake Wales to meet my parents, and we spent a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My brothers warmed to her, and my parents liked her immediately. The affirmations of our relationship kept adding up, and it didn’t take long before I realized I could marry her… I should marry her.

She made me genuinely happy in a deep and profound way I had never experienced in previous relationships. My fear of marrying the wrong person felt silly and misplaced. She had all the traits I was looking for, and I knew I could commit to a lifetime with her.

I’ve written in great detail about our engagement a few months back. The four months of planning our wedding were stressful, but we were both in a stage of life that made delaying seem foolish. We married on May 3, one week shy of the one-year anniversary of our first date.

Those 358 days were the happiest of my life.

Who inspires me

I am blessed by a number of people in my life who inspire me.

Jesus inspires me to love. I start each day before everyone rises to spend time alone in prayer and with the scriptures. The words and example of Jesus comfort and challenge me. Jesus not only commanded me to love God and love my neighbor, he showed me how. When I read his story and pay close attention, I am inspired to love unconditionally and without expectation.

Lance and Carla hug in front of a sand dune at Grayton Beach under a blue sky with white, fluffy clouds.
See? Don’t I look inspired?

Carla inspires me to be my best. Feeling needed and appreciated is a feedback loop that has created a never-ending cycle in our marriage of wanting and trying to do better. She gives me honest feedback and helps me prioritize what is truly important. She helps me focus on elements of life beyond myself, helping me avoid a shallow and self-absorbed existence. Left to my own devices, I could become too insular and selfish. She engages me directly and pulls me out of my self-protecting habits to share my feelings, good and bad, and put effort into the best areas of my life.

Barron Wallace in his red University of Georgia polo shirt waves at the camera in the middle of the Redcoat band in the stands at Sanford Stadium in Athens during the spring game in April 2022.
Barron has loved Redcoats, and thoroughly enjoyed his opportunity to conduct the band in the stands last April as part of his audition for drum major. He was one of eight finalists, but he didn’t make the final cut. More persistence!

Barron inspires me to persist. As the oldest, Barron has had to endure a lot of parenting missteps. He has developed a thick skin and a tolerance for hard work that continues to pay dividends. When he didn’t get any leadership roles in marching band at the end of his freshman year, he didn’t complain, and he asked us not to go to the band directors and complain on his behalf. Instead, he put his head down, went to work and spent his sophomore year leading by example, without a title. His work ethic and positive attitude combined with his mastery of conducting set up him up to serve as a drum major for his junior and senior year of high school. After attending drum major camp at the University of Georgia for two years, his heart was set on attending the state’s flagship institution and march in and eventually conduct their renown Redcoat Marching Band. Despite repeated attempts to get his SAT score up in the mid-range for UGA admissions standards, the best he could muster was to get wait-listed. When he was ultimately denied admission for fall semester 2019, he gratefully accepted his place at Kennesaw State University, auditioned and played trumpet in the Marching Owls. He auditioned for drum major as a freshman after learning how to handle a mace and master the high-step stadium entrance required of the Owls’ drum major, and he won the position. He maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average through his first year, and within days of reporting to band camp for his second year at KSU, he received notification that he had been admitted to UGA for spring semester 2021. He is more than half way through his second season as a Redcoat trumpet player and was eyewitness to the national championship, had an opportunity to audition for drum major and is a rank leader in the trumpet section this year while the Dawgs pursue a repeat. That is persistence, and when I see how much effort Barron puts into reaching for his goals, I am inspired to do the same.

Harris Wallace holds his Gwinnett Student Leadership Team certificate in front of a screen with a project image that says "Thank you for attending the 2022 GSLT Graduation" at the Gwinnett County Board of Education offices.
This fella is going places, and he loves learning.

Harris inspires me to learn. As the middle son, Harris has carved his own niche, distinguishing himself from his older brother. He has his own personality, but he is continuing many of the positive habits of hard work and goal setting. Harris has an insatiable thirst for knowledge about history, public policy, leadership, government and the interplay among them. His ability to recall names, dates and events serves him well when making arguments, either in mock trial or negotiating an after-dinner trip to Bruster’s for ice cream. Even with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and his isolation in the basement for hours a day of online learning, Harris routinely put in five or six additional hours of study to complete assignments or go down rabbit holes to learn more about topics he wants to understand better. Whether it’s LEGO, Lord of the Rings, World War II or governors of Georgia, Harris’s obsessions are fed by an unquenchable desire to know things and understand how they work. Just half-way through his high school career, Harris has yet to make a “B” in a subject, and I have no doubt he will achieve his academic and professional goals, which are lofty. He has served as a band captain for three years for the Parkview Marching Band and led the Parkview Mock Trial team to the regional finals last year, the farthest the team had ever progressed. When I spend time with Harris and really listen to his verbal exploration of ideas, I am inspired to use my time and energy to be a life-long learner.

Carlton Wallace dressed in a purple and blue with a blue painted face portrays the genie in a scene with Aladdin on stage in front of a black curtain in a production of the musical Aladdin Jr. this fall.
I ain’t never had a son like Carlton, who sings “Ain’t never had a friend like me” from Aladdin with gusto during this fall’s performance at Smoke Rise Academy of Arts.

Carlton inspires me to create. As the youngest, he faces the greatest potential for becoming overwhelmed by his older brothers’ interests, achievements and pursuits, but his strong will and matching personality cause him to make his own way. When the omnipresent screens in his life are made to go dark, his mind reacts like flame to oxygen. His artistic instincts have found expression in drawing and painting, writing and storytelling, theater and the dramatic arts, singing, playing piano, and even baking and cooking dishes that please both his sweet tooth and his taste for the savory. He possesses a quick wit that can serve as his muse. When he exercises his creativity muscle, he becomes self-actualized in a profound way that he doesn’t fully understand or appreciate yet. When I have moments of clarity in my time with him, I am amazed at how his mind works and processes life around him. When I see him on stage belting out a ballad or pulling big laughs from the audience, I am inspired to make time for creative pursuits and recognize how much that contributes to my quality of life and feeds my need for creative expression.

Sharon and Larry Wallace stand with Barron Wallace, dressed in his blue high school graduation regalia, in the middle.
We haven’t been able to spend much time together physically in recent years, but my weekly phone conversations help me stay connected with Mom and Dad.

My parents inspire me to display integrity. I believe character is taught more than inherited, and I have been blessed to have been raised by parents who placed high value on honesty, fairness, hard work and trustworthiness. Throughout my youth while I was under their roof, these principles were reinforced. Now that I am a parent and our interactions are largely reduced to one or two visits a year and weekly phone calls, I hear in their conversations a desire not only for my happiness and for the fulfillment of my family but a hope that I am contributing and making a difference in the world by being a person of character. They have often said that my title and level in the organizational hierarchy doesn’t matter to them nearly as much as that I am honest and work hard. They inspire me to do things the right way.

Cynthia Barron wearing a white top and green sweater sits with her daughter, Carla Wallace in a blue dress and white cardigan, at a restaurant for Mother's Day lunch.
We love having Mama close by and are the beneficiaries of her kindness and her life lessons.

My mother-in-law inspires me to be kind. I’ve never heard her say anything bad about anyone, and whether she liked that person or not, she treats everyone she has dealings with kindly. I’m sure she has her moments, but she keeps them well hidden. I’m sure I have gotten on her nerves, too, but all I have ever received from her is generosity, affection, love and support. When I am in her presence, I am reminded that kindness is in short supply in this world and experiencing it from someone is a great gift. Cynthia inspires me to give people the benefit of the doubt and express genuine kindness rather than frustration or anger.

Bob Perkins and Lance Wallace make silly grins for a "selfie" in a waiting area at the Atlanta Airport.
If this isn’t the look of inspiration, I don’t know what it is.

Bob inspires me to laugh. Bob Perkins and I have been friends since 1987 when he showed up as the fresh-out-of-Baylor University sports editor of The Lake Wales Daily Highlander. His rambunctious energy and sometimes over-the-top sense of humor pulled me out of my shell and helped me embrace the absurd in some of life’s most difficult situations. Over the years we have maintained a friendship through sharing brief conversations and enjoying periods when we lived near enough to each other that visits and lunches and ballgames were treasured times of distraction and amusement. Bob knows me well, and he reminds me to laugh when circumstances can feel overwhelming.

Brian Greer and Lance Wallace stand in Lance's office at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wearing tacky Christmas sweaters.
Great holiday fashion choices are just another of the wellness outcomes from Brian’s inspiration.

Brian inspires me to be healthy. It’s not just that Brian Greer is 15 years my junior and has not yet had to have any surgeries or prolonged layoffs from exercise because of injury. I respect his discipline in not eating a French fry in more than 20 years. He’s careful about what he puts in his body and how he takes care of himself. With a wife and four children, he understands that there are habits he can embrace now that will allow him to enjoy life longer as he ages. He also has wisdom beyond his years about the need for balance. He inspires me to embrace well-being in all the facets of life: spiritual, physical, mental and emotional.

Clyde Edgerton, wearing glasses and a dark sweater, sits on a porch with trees in the background.
If you’re not familiar with his work, do yourself a favor and go order “Walking Across Egypt” as soon as you finish reading this post.

Clyde Edgerton inspires me to write. There are many writers whose work I admire, but the author I consistently enjoy and relate to and derive inspiration from is North Carolina-born Clyde Edgerton. He so deftly weaves stories of family, faith, tradition, race, class, humor, and Southern identity, I marvel at his books and wish to find my own voice to reach others in a similar way. The opportunity I had back in 2011 to hear him speak at the Decatur Book Festival was a treat, and I reflect on it often when I’m stuck in the middle of the re-write of my book. I can’t imagine ever being mentioned in the same breath as Clyde Edgerton, but for now, it’s inspiring enough to know what I’m aiming for looks like.

Inspiration comes in many forms, and for me, these people all provide me with the fuel I need to make life fulfilling.

Funniest family members

Humor sustains us in difficult times, and I have become profoundly appreciative when my family makes me laugh.

Upon reflection, I find my dad, father-in-law and middle brother, Lee, the funniest in my family, each in their own way. Dad has a penchant for remembering and telling stories and jokes. Lanny was a quipster who loved to poke holes in pretense. Lee has a deadpan sarcasm that catches me off guard.

Dad’s story and joke telling emerged from years of practice. Whether it was an illustration for a sermon or an icebreaker for a senior adult lunch program, Dad has developed a comic timing that makes his stories attention-grabbing and relatable.

Dad excels at the set up. I’ve been had so many times by stories that ended up being jokes that I’ve grown suspicious every time he starts his wind up. Even if I’m not fooled, I’m hooked, listening for the tell-tale signs that what I’m hearing is fiction.

“Hey, did you hear we had a sinkhole off Highway 27 this week?”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah, the police are looking into it.”

Larry Wallace in a red shirt with nautical scenes and a camo visor with built in gray and white hair standing up all over.
Dad sported this “poor man’s toupee” for comedic affect many times around friends and family, especially the grandkids.

It’s the plausibility that piques my interest. I think I’m hearing legitimate news that’s both interesting and potentially impactful to my parents and their neighbors. I’m all in until the punch line washes over me, and I realize he got me again.

He did this to my brothers and me when we were growing up so many times I’m convinced he spent each night before bed plotting how he could “pull our leg,” as my Granny described it. It took me many years to figure out that Reader’s Digest was one of his sources. We had a subscription most of the time I was at home, and he learned how to make those stories his own by changing one or two key details to fit our setting.

Even when his stories were real, they had a humor that tickled our funny bone. Whether it was his exploits in school, tricks he played on his brother, pranks from his days in the Air Force or just odd incidents during his tenure at American Airlines as a mechanic, we enjoyed his humorous stories when he got on a roll.

One of the most memorable and significant to the circumstances of my parents getting together was how my Mom broke things off with him while he was stationed in Guam with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. They had met but weren’t necessarily exclusive before he shipped out. My mom learned that he had gone out with someone else and decided to send him a not-so-subtle message to express her feelings about the development.

As Dad tells it, one day he received a package in the mail marked “Cookies.” Excited to receive some comfort food from home, he ripped into it only to discover a voodoo doll stuck full of pins. When he got home, they got together, and the rest is history. His punchline?

“Beware of care packages labeled ‘Cookies’!”

Lanny Barron passed away in 2013, but during the 16 years I knew him, he gave me plenty of opportunity to enjoy his brand of humor. By the time I met him, his hearing wasn’t good, so his participation in group conversations could be limited. But one-on-one, he could carry on a conversation easily. He loved weaving in stories and jokes, always with a wink and a smile for punctuation.

His quips were my favorite. They were always so on-the-nose that I couldn’t help but doubt they were original to him. For example, his description of his sister-in-law, who always kept up with and often contributed to the town’s informal news network: “She may not get it right, but she gets it first.”

Or, when he got to hold his grandsons for the first time, he said of all three: “He’s a handsome young man, just like his granddaddy.”

When they got older, he concluded his visits with our boys by giving them a $20 bill and the instruction to “Tell your mama and daddy to buy you some ice cream.”

Seen here holding baby Carlton in 2008, with a smile of grandfatherly pride, Lanny almost always wore a mischievous grin.

I never will forget the time he recounted to me all of the mishaps he had with his pickup trucks. We were driving out to the farm one Saturday afternoon, and in the span of 12 or 13 miles he covered the untimely demise of five or six different trucks, including one that rolled into a pond in an abandoned kaolin mine. In each story he laughed and concluded his series of tales with “I used to do some crazy things.” Lanny was never afraid to make himself the butt of his own joke.

His exploits and sense of humor was well known at the chalk plant, and he was often called by the nickname “Jelly Roll.” Our friend, Devita, grew up hearing her dad tell hilarious stories involving Jelly Roll, and she was amazed the night she learned the famous — or infamous — Jelly Roll was none other than Carla’s daddy.

My brother Lee came along three years and seven months after me, and for another six years and nine months, it was just the two of us. We fought, sure, but we were also close because of the vast amount of time we spent together playing whiffle ball and football in the front yard; basketball in the driveway or church gym; and board, video and computer games in the bedroom we shared.

It took me a long time to appreciate or even understand Lee’s sense of humor, but I distinctly remember the night I recognized it.

It was June 2001. I was working for Mercer University at the time and had to stay overnight at a hotel on Peachtree Street across from the Fox Theater. And, no, it was not the Georgian Terrace. It was the less fancy one next door. I believe it was a Days Inn at the time. I had worked an event in the Fox’s Egyptian Ballroom honoring Judge William Augustus Bootle, a Mercer graduate and judge whose ruling led to the integration of Georgia schools. 

That night Lee just so happened to be coming through town, and so he crashed in my hotel room. We caught up on each other’s lives and families before somehow shifting to reminiscence about our time at Troy University.

Lee came to Troy in January of 1993 after spending a semester at Pensacola Christian College, and I had graduated from Troy in June of 1992. We did not overlap, but there were still plenty of people on campus who knew me, including my friend, Jim Quinn, who became Lee’s friend and guide. Lee referred to him as “Super Jim,” and I had no idea about their friendship or Lee’s exploits and misadventures at Troy.

We stayed up all night as he told one story after another of how he made the adjustment from a strict, Christian college to a largely free and unencumbered state school experience. He described his first roommate, with whom he had little in common, and how the guy could not understand Lee’s constant concern about “inspections,” “lights out,” and “demerits.”

I have never laughed harder than I did that night. Hearing about his encounters with the characters I knew from my years at Troy, his exploits in the marching band, the odd occurrences on the night shift at Subway – it was all perfect fodder for good stories. It was early in the morning before we both drifted off to sleep. If laughter is the best medicine, I overdosed that night. Lee’s storytelling and matter of fact, self-deprecating humor hit me in wave after wave with each new anecdote.

Lee Wallace wears a tan blazer over a green leprechaun t-shirt holding a microphone in his right hand and a raffle ticket stub in his left as a woman in a blue top and gray hair looks on.
Almost as funny as his deadpan humor is his crowd work at church events. He’s especially good with the… em… “Keenagers.”

Even now, I have to listen close when we talk to discern his sarcasm. I get out of practice, losing my ear for it when we go too long between conversations. But no matter how long it’s been, he never fails to make me laugh at some point.

Humor is subjective, and all of the members of my family — particularly my children — have given me plenty to laugh at and about in my life. I am grateful for all of it, particularly Dad, Lanny and Lee for sharing the gift of laughter.