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Month: February 2012

Things that broke my heart today:

* The writer who accepted her payment from The Advocate and, crumpling the bills in her palm, whispered, “Praise Jesus”

* Strains of “Day Dream Believer” returning me to a time when the whole future opened up like a long golden tunnel

* The woman staring out the window, tears wet on her cheeks, as another writer — she who can be tough as nails — read a poem spontaneously dedicated to her

* My friend, seated apart from the group, the light dim in his eyes as he said, “I’m okay.”

* The writer’s waiting face, until I had to tell him he wasn’t in this month’s Advocate. Graciously, he carried the heavy box of folders to my car.

* Walking through the Booksellers at Laurelwood and catching a glimpse of the days when I carried a light-hearted belief that soon my novel would be published

* The yellow sky

Things that made me smile today:

* Tom Prewitt, Jr.

* The group trying to kill a horsefly

* The hard-boiled comment – “and to get rid of rat turds” – following a beautiful metaphor about why we clean unseen corners of our lives

* The Rhodes College student who mysteriously found us and, quiet as always, wrote

* My Lenten reading where Luke writes, “And this is your sign: you’ll find the baby wrapped up and lying in a grain-crib” – yeah, that says “Savior of the World” to me

Here’s to creative synthesis . . .

STAX via Motown

The introductory film at STAX is brilliant. Before they take you to STAX music, they play some Motown. A little Temptations, some other choreographed groups. You’re sitting there thinking, this is fun, bopping along to the tunes. If you’re uninitiated, you may even be thinking, okay, Black groups—I get that. Then Rufus Thomas says, “But once you crossed the Mason and Dixon line . . .”

What comes next has as much relation to Motown as tee-ball does to the Bigs. Tough, textured, all out full throttle Soulsville. The music has what Leroy Scott kept saying about the white folks who played at STAX: “They were real.” The STAX music is something else . . . not to mention the Door of Hope guests dancing at the Soul Train exhibit. The Soul Train line got nothing on them.

Here’s to Creative Synthesis . . .

God, the Devil, and Popcorn

I put myself to sleep last night thinking about the worst pain I’ve ever felt.

This cogitation was triggered by popcorn. Saturday, I was making a batch, fully aware that water droplets were in the pan. You know that bit about oil and water—so true. When I threw in the popcorn, grease shot up like a hellcat coming out of a burlap sack. I jerked back my arm. This is the arm I’ve been in physical therapy with for six weeks, trying to rehab whatever I did to my shoulder. When I yanked my arm out of the way of the spitting grease, it felt like someone had stabbed me in the shoulder with an ice pick.

Then I was rolling on the kitchen floor, interspersing curses with shouts to Tom that I was okay. The last he’d seen of me, I’d been at the hot stove. Now he couldn’t see me because of the kitchen counter. So I’m rolling on the floor, yelling for God and the Devil at the same time and hollering, “I’m okay! I didn’t burn myself!”

The thing was: I had no idea how to make the pain stop. It wasn’t even ebbing, just holding steady and true and hurting like a son-of-a-bitch. Eventually, I thought of the icepack in the freezer. With cold, then hot, application, the pain subsided. The rest of the day I walked around wearing one of Tom’s great big, black, unwieldy gloves, to remind myself not to use that arm. Today, the shoulder retains a penumbra of pain, but it’s pretty much back to what has become normal.

So last night, in the course of wondering what was the worst physical pain I’ve ever experienced, I realized that my worst “pains” have been so because they were mixed with other emotions. Fear (the appendicitis-not-appendicitis episode when I was reliving childhood stories of, “when that fever breaks, she’s gonna leave this world with it”). Or terror (when, in the grip of a night terror, I did a runner off the end of the bed and, like a cartoon character, hit the ground three feet below with no cushioning at all and awoke to an inexplicable situation of pain). Or shame (the pain of the faux kidney stones quickly replaced by the shame of four hours of vomiting in various public places, thanks to the Dilaudid.) Or intrigue (when I tore my eyeball and had to wear a black eyepatch as we toured Jerusalem: Moshe Dayan reincarnate.) My undiluted episodes of pain—my broken hand and foot, a few mishaps with knives—honestly didn’t hurt that bad and haven’t been that memorable.

Until the popcorn. I think I’ll remember the popcorn. But who knows—maybe pain is only remembered as excruciating when, like oil and water, it is mixed with another emotion.

Here’s to creative synthesis . . .

I’ve written a book with no redeeming social value whatsoever except for one: it’s funny.

I think of Trouble at Big Daddy’s Chicken Palace Emporium and Museum as my Bruce Springsteen novel. You see, I have this image of Bruce arriving at the Pearly Gates. Jesus is standing there, talking to him. Do you think Jesus is saying, “So, Bruce, what’d you do for the least of these? Did you feed them, clothe them, visit them in jail?”

Not me.

I think Jesus is asking The Boss, “Man, can I get a rift of ‘Thunder Road?’” (Of course, this conversation is purely theoretical. The actual conversation already occurred when the Big Man arrived and played sax for, well . . . the Big Man.)

The Little Drummer Boy as Rock-n-roll guitarist or Pure As Heaven saxophonist. My gift, your gift, his gift, her gift. The delight of God—to sing, to laugh, to tell puns. Even, God forbid, to write chicken novels.

Trouble at Big Daddy’s Chicken Palace Emporium and Museum:
You’re standing on the platform, your toes not a foot from the steel tracks, when you sense it—a pounding, powerful thing, heavy and on its way. Your heart is thumping against your chest, then all of a sudden the whistle lets loose and a hollow sound escapes like a dog baying at the moon, that long hollering where the dog’s head is thrown back and his cheeks are warbling, his head turning from side to side, because there’s no other way to express what he feels. A rocking starts underfoot, and everyone on the platform glances at one another, smiling, nervous. If it’s night, the double headlights dig a trench in the tracks. If it’s day, the sun shatters a halo around the bullet nose of the train. Either way, you’re blinded by two distinct ribbons of light, this unknown thing acting as if it’s giving you a choice in the way you want to leave this world: you can take the high road, little lady, or the low.
Then it’s upon you, blocking out everything but itself, its body, its bulk, its everlasting steel metal oneness. Until—suddenly—quiet as a baby—no screeching, no chugging, no slamming on brakes—it glides to a stop at your feet.
And offers you a ride.
How can a girl refuse?

Here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Why every time I hear them say “birth control” do I erupt like a geyser?

Because.

For decades of my life the given was that strangers could control my sexuality. Legislators. Doctors. Health insurance companies. Employers.

To be specific: male legislators—there were no females legislators back then. Male OB-Gyns, too, who would ask whether you were married before writing (or maybe not writing) a prescription for contraceptives. Health insurers that covered vasectomies but not birth control. Male employers who covered their wives’ pregnancies (man, do you know how expensive it is to have a baby?) but not your birth control pills.

Still, you ask, why does it make you so angry, today?

Because they aren’t talking about birth control. Not then, not now. They are talking about me. My choices. Underlying their decisions—all these strangers who had the right to say yes or no—was the judgment that I shouldn’t be in the workplace, anyway. They did not cover/prescribe/allow/insure birth control because I didn’t fit into the norm that they wanted to encourage. If I chose to step outside that norm by pursing a career, I was on my own. They didn’t have to help me do that, and, honestly, most of them didn’t want to.

So when Rick Santorum waxes eloquent about God’s ideal plan (read that: him working and her at home with seven children), I take it personally. When he says birth control interferes with that plan, I know what he’s talking about. Not some theoretical idea about when life begins. He’s talking about me. He’s sharing his view of the role of women in society. A role that doesn’t include me, a lawyer for 19 years who never had children.

If you think it makes this better to cloak it in religious freedom, then all you’re doing is raising the specter of my church that once told me I wasn’t good enough to be ordained, not smart enough to serve on the vestry, not important enough to have a Girl Scout Troop to match the Boy Scouts. No, you can’t carry the cross down the aisle, you can’t even carry the damn flag.

I do not want to return to that world view. I do not want that photo of an all-male House committee deciding women’s issues. I don’t want to give up my female representative, female Ob-Gyn, female priest, female news anchor—if you don’t see the connection, you’re not getting the picture. I’ve been in that place, and I cannot tell you how mad it makes me for you to even talk about going back.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Did They Say Birth Control?

I thought I could write about this, but I can’t. I thought I could turn my anger into humor, make some jokes about the contraceptive choices of those men on the Oversight Committee. I thought I could ask some interesting questions.
But every time I get near this subject, it’s like barbed wire. My voice rises. I start sprinkling my sentences with curse words. I get sarcastic and vitriolic. I write and talk in absolutes.
This (I can’t even write what “this” is without pounding the keys) is important to me, but it’s not a subject I can converse on without getting angry, and I hate being angry.
This will have to suffice: I’ve been here. I’ve done this debate on birth control. I never thought I’d have to do it again.

I’ve just picked up the handouts for tomorrow’s Door of Hope writers retreat. Neatly typed up, professionally copied, they look inevitable. They aren’t.
So much could have happened to prevent the creation of these handouts. The writers might never have arrived at the point where they could sit down and write. Even when they did, they could’ve chosen not to re-live the moments of their lives, or written about them, or shared what they’d written. For all of that to translate into a handout, the writers had to agree to lead a workshop, jointly select a theme with their co-leaders, find work that fit the theme, prepare their presentation.
It all looks so inevitable, but it’s not.
For once all these decisions were made, Life had to cooperate. Life didn’t let Michael Rawlings return to lead another workshop this year. Not his decision to get stabbed to death in the street, but he doesn’t have a handout this year.
Life didn’t let Robb Pate, one of our very first workshop leaders, return to sing for us, “Lights of Home.” Not his decision to die in the heat wave two summers ago, but he has no handout this year.
When we gather tomorrow, I will look around the room – leaders, participants, staff – and there will be so many faces I miss.
Can we take a moment and give thanks for the handouts?

Things you need to know about me:
* I still have my Christmas lights up, indoors
* I am currently in love with Pogo Possum and the tads
* One of my novels features a Mother Mary visitation, an infestation of Demonittes, and Jesus panhandling on the Union exit off Danny Thomas. Another features chickens.
* I facilitate a weekly writing group of men and women who have a personal knowledge of homelessness
* I once appeared in public dressed as a giant carrot
* I’ve danced on stage with Rufus Thomas, Archie Bell and the Drells, Doug Clark and the Hotnuts. I wasn’t dancing when I was on stage with Johnny Cash
* I see ghosts
* A short story of mine received a Special Mention in Pushcart – the closest I’ve come to national fame
* I showed clothes for 6 years. I practiced law for 19 years.
* I can’t spell, I can’t find my way out of a paperbag, I can no longer dance in high heels
* My metaphors are so good Sue Silverman included one of my essays as an example of metaphor in her how-to book on writing memoir
* I once saw a snake eating a frog

I could go on and on, but I won’t.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Writing Theory into Reality

Finally, I wrote an ending to my novel that makes me cry. Most of the rest of the novel makes me laugh – a phenomenon I think is so strange, that something I wrote – I know the joke, right? – can make me laugh.

But when it comes to resolution, I want to feel it reverberating in my heart, welling up in my tears, spilling over in my trembling smile of satisfaction.

To accomplish that, I had to finally get to the relationship between the individual, real-life people in the book. Not the Celestials. Not theology. Certainly not politics.

This is the theme of the book: we can only solve our problems when we are in relationship with one another. Funny it took me so long to realize the truth of it.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Door of Hope Writing Group was founded by men and women experiencing homelessness. The Retreat began when one of the group said, “Man, this is some amazing stuff going on here. Others need to know about this.”

We named the retreat the Community Retreat because we were inviting others to come write in community with us, which is what we were already doing. When members of the group had been writing for years, it seemed they should help co-lead the workshops, so we added that. One of our writers, it was the first time she’d ever spoken in public. Another, it led to him singing a solo in church – an established singer, but the first time in church. One of our leaders this year came to her first retreat to hand out snacks, just because she wanted to be part of writing group.

If you are in Memphis and you’d like to join us, we want to have you with us.

here’s to creative synthesis, ellen

“If”?

I watch a woman use the bike lane on North Parkway to tug a grocery cart down the street. Then I read Mitt Romney saying he isn’t concerned about the very poor because we have safety nets in place to protect them – if there are holes in it, he will repair them.
The media will focus on the “I’m not concerned” sound bite. I will focus on the “if.” “If there are holes in the safety net.”
The woman steadily guides her grocery cart down the bike lane, making do with what she can.
“If”?

here’s to creative synthesis

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