A daughter orphaned from her dad at age three, I wrapped myself in all things Daddy Joe. Because he moved to the Rockies, I loved the snow, demanded a Frosty the Snowman cake every December birthday, cherished my red sled—in Mississippi, where it snowed once every seven years. I folded and unfolded the postcard he sent me of a Palomino until it disintegrated, but not before I’d lied, telling some of my friends my Daddy Joe gave me that beautiful horse. I was even more proud of the postcard he sent me featuring two deer killed in battle, their horns locked in death. His message? “This is what will happen if you don’t stop fighting with your sister.” At one point, I harbored dreams of moving to Colorado and living on the land he’d left us, so ignorant I didn’t know the “land” was mineral rights. No one can live on a mineral right. I thought I could. I was an ornery pip.
I wish I could say this Kafkaesque search ended with maturity. It didn’t.
In my first marriage, I recreated Daddy Joe’s marriage to my mother, holding the reception in the white-columned house where he grew up, marrying a man who made the wedding guests gasp, he looked so much like Daddy Joe. When my grandmother died, I insisted the family give me Daddy Joe’s memorabilia from the hallway secretary. His Ole Miss megaphone and University of Denver beer mug and his diplomas and U.S.Navy documents. And his scrapbook of his motorcycle trip out west. I took as much as my scared self could harvest and went to a professional photographer and made copies of the sepia photographs and the black and white photographs and gave them to my sisters. I don’t think they much cared about it one way or the other. I did. I kept caring.
Until last night.
As I lay in bed contemplating how to revise an old novel, wondering what it was that motivated the child protagonist, I understood her goal was to set things up so that when she returned to her house in New Orleans, her dead dad would walk back through the door.
She’s eleven. This is a totally unrealistic goal for an 11-year-old protagonist. It’s equally unrealistic for a twenty-five year old. Or thirty-eight year old. Or fifty-seven year old.
Here’s the kicker: I made a terrible mistake. Everything I aligned myself with, Daddy Joe had run away from. The white-columned house he abandoned for a free-wheeling life out west. The memorabilia he left behind. The past, all of it past but clinging like ivy clamping onto bricks. None of it was for him.
This revelation made me almost laugh out loud. I felt closer to Daddy Joe than I had in years.
I will revise this novel. I will set the child to rights. She will work through her issues, and the story will make you weep. Not with sorrow. With laughter. I promise, you’ll be laughing and wiping away the tears.
The small weight of sorrow in my life, ragged as a sinker on a fishing line, will always be with me. It’ll keep bobbing up and down like the red and white cork on the end of the line. That’s life. In the end, though, I’ll know who I am.
When you’re waiting at the gate and it swings open and you rush forward, your sneakers squinching on the spilled strawberry shakes, and, frantic, you skim through your choices—this car, no this car—only to be forced by the crowd into a red-cushioned car where the attendant slams the bar in place and you test it as well—never trust anybody, not even your mama—before catching your breath and counting: one, two, three—and you’re off!
Here’s what you need to remember: you paid to ride the roller coaster. You love the roller coaster. You plan your trip to the park around the damn roller coaster. This is your choice. And it’s a good choice.
Two days ago, I began sending out query letters on The Bone Trench. I wrote about my editor’s reaction to the manuscript here. Gush, gush, gush—that’s the summary. She liked it; she recommended a few touch-ups; I performed the revisions; she reviewed my query letter, and we were off!
This morning, I got a request for a full manuscript from one of the queries I sent out yesterday. Yep. Less than twenty-four hours. Given this, you might expect to see me dancing a little jig in the living room, naked even. Except I’ve been on this roller coaster before with other manuscripts. Agents send enthusiastic emails requesting fulls . . . then never respond to my tentative “Hellloooooo?” that echoes into a deep, dark well.
I could be jaded. I could be blasé. But I choose to remember the thrill of the car climbing, the track clacking, the ascent cresting and hiding whatever lies beyond as my stomach clenches—wait, wait, wait for it: the ride’s about to begin.
I’m carrying my Ryan Prewitt pocketbook today.
Several years ago, I made the tote for Ryan and Cammie’s wedding brunch. Of all things, I noticed my wedding day pocketbook was made by a designer whose first name was Inge. That’s Cammie’s dad’s name. When I mentioned this to Cammie, she said yes, and not only that, a Cammie Hill also designs pocketbooks. I bought one of her creations for the rehearsal dinner. That left Ryan and the brunch.
I couldn’t find a Ryan Prewitt pocketbook anywhere—imagine that. Undaunted, I made one.
I outlined Ryan’s hand prints on canvas. I sewed the hands onto an aqua tote. I designated a “Before” and “After” side.
The Before side is whimsical with one naked ring finger. Wild colors and other pretty things for Ryan’s love, Cammie.
The “After” side has wedding bands on the ring fingers. Also a man’s vest from my childhood Ken doll. A woman’s leather skirt from Ken’s love, Barbie.
Beads for Mardi Gras in what would be their new home of New Orleans.
And one hopeful chick.
When I was finished, Ryan signed the extravaganza for me, because Ryan is and always has been a good sport.
My “Ryan Prewitt” pocketbook. Which today I’m carrying with my mother’s gorgeous vintage jacket.
And wearing with my torn-up jeans.
Because every day in every way, you need to create the person you might be.
I’d ducked inside the Support Center to make sure he hadn’t already arrived, and I exited as he walked up the drive, waving. “I’m late!” he called, though it was still a few minutes until 7:30. He told me he saw me drive by. I didn’t see him. I was concentrating on hoping he showed up—when you make plans a week ahead of time and there is no cell phone contact and the other party is walking or riding the bus to the meeting, the gathering is almost a matter of faith. “She’s ready for us,” he said as we buckled in. So we would be three, me and my friend and my other friend who announced—out of the clear blue—that she wanted to go to church Wednesday morning at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He helped her get her oxygen tank in the backseat. She’s always been no bigger than a minute. This morning she looked strong. Pretty with her hair up. Her friend was wearing a jacket. I’d dressed same as the others who would be at the church service: jeans and t-shirt. I’d forgotten about getting dressed up for church. I hoped my friends didn’t think my clothes meant I didn’t care about going to church. Or them.
As we arrived and settled on the pew, I worried my friends had gotten so past being homeless that this service for those living on the street would insult them. Maybe my friend didn’t know the makeup of the service when she’d asked to go. I leaned and tapped them both on the shoulder. “Y’all doing okay?” They both nodded. The guy seated next to me talked absolute gibberish, mostly about the Black president and Michael Jackson. Then he followed along on the bulletin as we read the Psalm.
The priest asked for someone to serve the wine for communion, and my friend stepped up. She left her oxygen tank beside her chair. The priest offered her communion before the rest of us. I realized she would be serving me communion. I turned my face to the side as I recalled the number of months before she would sit with us in writing group, how the Executive Director said one word when I wondered aloud what had changed such that she was willing to join us: “Trust. She trusts you.” Now we were at church together, and she was about to offer me the communion cup. Afterwards, she said it was a bit tricky. Not letting people get too big a gulp. I would never tell her that seeing her holding the cup made me cry.
When I gave the Thumb Prayers away, folks bent and peered and scooped them up as I offered my spiel: “They’re to put in your pocket and rub with your thumb when you need a reminder that God is always with us.” Some said no, then kept looking and said, “I’ve changed my mind. “Can I have one?” One guy kept asking, “How did you know how to make these? Did you read about it? Did someone tell you how to do it?” I told him I made them up from scratch. I’m not sure he ever believed me. When I had been leaving home that morning, I second-guessed myself and wondered if anyone would want them. I gathered 100 little thumb Prayers and brought them with me to church. I went home with five.
My friends both got glasses from the eyeglasses give-away. They enjoyed breakfast. She said she liked the Episcopal service. Twice, they asked if the woman conducting the service was a priest (she was.) When I dropped them back off at the house, he said they’d be spending the day together watching old movies. We talked about Perry Mason because he got me into Perry Mason. She said, “Do you remember me calling you and wishing you a Merry Christmas? I was sitting there thinking to myself, who can I call and wish Merry Christmas? I thought, I’ll call Ellen.” I wrapped my arms around her in a long hug goodbye, pressing my palms against her backbone. We promised to get together when I return in August. I hope we do.
The incense hangs in the chapel air. We’re all squeezed in where we can fit, no concern for “our pew.” We listen to Gospel readings using The Message translation, so the words makes everyday sense. There is—or isn’t—an unpredictable response to the music.The blessing of the wine and bread is abbreviated. That’s okay. I know all that stuff anyway.
I began attending the Wednesday morning church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to help with the art ministry. Most congregants at the service stay at the Union Mission down the street or are otherwise homeless. The amazing Canon Laura Foster Gettys wanted to add an art component to the morning and asked me to be involved. She knew I facilitate a weekly writing group of those who’ve experienced homelessness and that I’d written a book about making crosses from found objects. She combined the two and asked me to come make art at this service for those on the streets. In my opinion, this is what priests should do: identify a ministry that might gladden a church member’s heart and ASK the member to do it. I’m glad she asked me, glad I said yes.
* I weave through folks, passing the peace. He sits on the last row of chairs, his back to me. Seasoned by the rigors of living on the street, he feels my approach and glances out of the corner of his eye. I smile. He realizes I am going to talk to him. His face softens. His eyes smile. We shake hands and pass the peace.
* I’ve been showing up at the service—when I’m in town—for over a year. This stint in Memphis, I’ve not been doing art work. The—again—amazing students from Rhodes College have been offering art projects over the last several months. So I am now simply a congregant. *
The guitar player says, “Y’all sing along with this one. You know it.” She strums into Amazing Grace. I walk back from communion and sit on the piano bench. My voice wobbles. I keep at it until I hit the same note she’s hitting. When she finishes, we all clap.
Why do I go to this church service? What about it makes me want to come back?
Not everyone does the same thing–some go to communion, some don’t. Some stand when prompted, some don’t. Announcements describe services for those listening (blood pressure checks, computer classes), not committee work of the church. The group murmurs when the priest touches a soft spot. Sometimes the murmurings are in disagreement. An impromptu ending “off bulletin” sends us into the next phase of the morning: raucous rock-and-roll music during breakfast where, occasionally, folks dance.
The church service I keep coming to is the exact opposite of what most folks want out of church: shared beliefs, planned movement, familiar readings, behavior understood as appropriate, known faces, church music, beautiful language, written ritual you can follow along, predictability. Others at the service around me may keep coming for the chance to sit down. For the opportunity to serve at the altar. For the amazing breakfast afterwards. To wipe trays. Who knows. Who cares.
After the service, I speak to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich-makers. Those waiting in line for breakfast trail past me. I find I like it, standing there, saying hi to everyone on their way to get food. “I’m just standing here,” I explain. “I’ve been out of town for several months, and I’ve missed seeing y’all.”
“We’ve missed seeing you too,” one guy says.
I have no idea if he knows who I am. Maybe he’s just being kind. That’s sort of the point. Those at this service let me be happy without judging my happiness, which makes me happy.
We all come to church for our own reasons, and mine aren’t any better than anyone else’s. This service isn’t any better than any other church service. It only better suits me. Which, I think, is the purpose of this thing we call church.
Anyway, I’ve finished reading The Bone Trench out loud. That took nine days. This weekend, I reworked a query letter and wrote a new synopsis, one page. These two documents have now been sent to my paid editor Gretchen so she can work her magic.
I don’t want to burden you with the entire documents. But here’s the opening to the synopsis:
It’s been said the role of the modern book is to start a conversation. In America, a major conversation is coalescing around mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. The Bone Trench asks—with scandalous irreverence—what would Jesus say in such a conversation?
This is from the query letter:
The Bone Trench features Jesus but is hardly religious. Mother Mary is a fantastical Mother of God, but her desire to be a better mother is universal. The historical truths at the heart of the novel are all too real—my desire to explore America’s repeated willingness to use prisoners for profit was triggered by my own family’s checkered history with prison management and convict leasing.
My experience has been that Gretchen can take a query letter up a notch or two, so I’m excited to see what she does with what I’ve sent her. Until then, I could be researching appropriate agents, but one of the main questions I’ve asked Gretchen is, what genre book is this?
I’m open to suggestions, and to help you along, here’s the opening:
The trench in Union Avenue wept.
At the bottom of the dirt trench, hemmed in by its steep, slick walls, Cat Thomas dug a path for a new distribution line, finishing what the backhoe had started. Cat’s nose twitched with the smell of Mississippi River muck. Sweat stung his eyes, and a blister between his thumb and forefinger tugged and burned. The Memphis Power Company worker hated this part of his job: the damp trench, the earthen walls clawed by the teeth of the backhoe, the wiggling earthworms sliced in two. Ignoring the traffic noises drifting from above, Cat slowly found the rhythm of his shovel and worked in the June heat the way he’d always worked, with muscled shoulders and a head full of replacement thoughts: his wife’s wobbly smile when she announced the coming of a child, the cold one waiting for him in the refrigerator at home, whether the grit-and-grind Grizzlies would ever win it all. Caught up in his own world, Cat rent the ground. Until his shovel scraped a human skull.