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Month: February 2016

Building a Narrative

I’m building a house on narrative. No, seriously. We are building a beach house in Waveland, Mississippi, and when the time comes for a decision, I ask myself, what’s the story of these people who built this house?

It’s not my story. It’s the story of the people who lived in Mississippi in the 1940s and built a house for their family on the coast. They are practical people who have deep wells of affection for one another. The patriarch gifts them with the practicality, without which his wife would sail off into the clouds. He likes life plain and simple, but carries a soft spot in his heart for fine woods. The matriarch of the clan wearies easily and constantly searches for serenity, forever gravitating to less—bare floors, enamelware dishes, white sheers that flutter in the breeze and never need cleaning. But every once in a while, she can’t help but splurge on something her heart desires.

These people, and their children, take for granted black and white tile on the bathroom floors, crystal door knobs, white iron beds. They congregate on the deep porch and wake to morning coffee perked on the work table in the kitchen. They know the man who made the table and cherish his work. Sometimes, their unquestioned aesthetic casts towards a  drugstore vibe—something about the marble counters and goose neck faucet and medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink; was the patriarch’s father a druggist, perhaps? But then the father’s leather chairs kick in and the mother’s bamboo shades soften the stone and—oh, my goodness, a fireplace!

How often will they use the fireplace on the Mississippi coast? It doesn’t matter. This is their version of a home in the Caribbean. Or a house on Grand Isle. Or a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. Or wherever else human imagination creates a grace-filled lull. A pause, a moment in time that no matter how long they live, how far from this place they wander, this moment will forever stand still.

For our family in their house in Waveland, the moment plays out in Saturday mornings spent swinging in the hammock below the house, hearing the palms whisper. Upstairs the sheers flutter, bacon sizzles in the iron skillet. Later when the afternoon ripens, they will walk to the beach and dig their toes in the sand. Maybe ride bikes into Bay St. Louis, maybe paint a landscape of the spreading Bay. That’s what people did in the 1940s, right? They took up watercoloring.

So when I’m standing in the half-finished kitchen, struggling to tell the architect why I do NOT want the work table to match the cabinets and the island is NOT to look like an island, I cannot articulate my reasoning. It’s not “British Colonial” or “Caribbean” or “Tropical” or “Industrial” or “Rustic.” It’s this family, their dream. I’m just trying to get it right for them.

Rivergator Paddler's Guide to the Lower Mississippi River, found here, which will hang in our great room
Rivergator Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River, found here, which will hang in our great room

I hate the Holy Spirit. Okay, hate is a strong word. But I have issues with this Spirit that constantly tells me to do things that embarrass the hell out of me.

Take the recent prayer vigil I attended. A friend of mine was to be a featured speaker at the vigil. She is one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. She fought her way out of homelessness, only to run into the brick wall of filthy conditions at her federally-subsidized housing complex. In response, she co-founded the Warren Apartments Tenant Association, a group organized to address the needed repairs (and by repairs, I mean—for example—fixing the plumbing so sewage wouldn’t back up in the sink). Her work produced results. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) yanked its contract with the landlord, Global Ministries Foundation, for (repeated) failure to pass inspection. The prayer vigil was organized by Mid-South Peace and Justice, which has been assisting the tenants in their efforts, as an occasion to pray globally for housing justice.

I was giving my friend a ride, and as I walked out the door, I thought, take your thumb prayers with you.

Thumb prayers. Small round objects embedded with vintage buttons. Drop them in your pocket and rub them with your thumb when you need a reminder of the Spirit’s presence in the world. I use vintage buttons because they provide texture. And what the hell—I love buttons. Here’s a pic:

A batch of Thumb Prayers
A batch of Thumb Prayers

As I’ve blogged about here, I began making Thumb Prayers in connection with the Wednesday morning service my St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral offers for those living on the streets. In searching around for my “next thing” project, I had been doing a VERY informal art program at the church service and wanted to create something to give to the congregants. I wondered, what could I make that a person experiencing homelessness could keep on their body?

I landed on these little portable prayer prompts. Often, I need a physical reminder to pray for someone who I’ve said I’d pray for. Or in the middle of a busy day I need a reminder that God is still around. So, with some trial and error, I made a batch and gave them away at the service. They were mostly well-received, and I made more, always giving them away in the context of homelessness. Folks seemed to share my need for a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.

Clarification: I don’t always feel this way about God’s presence. In fact, when the Spirit arrives unbidden, I sometimes wish She would go away. But there she is, jumping up and down, waving her metaphorical arms, hollering and telling me what a great idea she has. Never are these ideas rational, sedate, or respectable. Nope. She always wants me to do something the very idea of which makes me cringe.

Such as taking my bag of Thumb Prayers to the prayer vigil. The vigil wasn’t about me or my prayer tokens. I didn’t want to insert myself into the goings-on. I only wanted to go and lend my support. But I’ve been at this thing called Life long enough to know to take the damn bag. Besides, I might not actually have to DO anything with them . . .

When we arrived at the vigil, my friend gave an excellent talk to the group. She was factual and passionate, a rare combination. Another activist spoke about her particular concerns, and the leader talked to us about the work needing to be done after we left the vigil. When all had finished talking, the leader asked if anyone else wanted to offer a prayer into the group space or maybe relate an experience as a tenant.

I did not want to offer a prayer. So I kept my mouth shut, and another tenant chose to speak to us about her personal experience. This, I thought, is as it should be. Those affected by the terrible conditions should be the ones who teach and inform the rest of us. Also, her answering the call meant I didn’t have to do anything with the durn Thumb Prayers.

When she finished, we clapped, and then the leader did it again. “Before we disperse, does anyone else want to offer a prayer into the group?”

Before I knew what was happening, I heard my voice saying, “I make Thumb Prayers. Just little things to put in your pocket and rub when you want to remember the presence of God. If anyone wants to take a Thumb Prayer with them, to remind us that work still needs to be done after we leave here, they can have one. For free.”

I added the last bit because the leader’s face told me he thought I might be ACTUALLY USING THE PRAYER VIGIL TO SELL SOMETHING!!!

I’m telling you, this is why I really don’t like the Holy Spirit.

My mortification was mollified when the preacher who had led us in prayer immediately raised his hand indicating he wanted a Thumb Prayer. After that, people swooped over to get their prayers. So I walked around our small but committed group, offering each person a Thumb Prayer. Several said, “Whaaaat?” And took one after I explained.

So, all ends well, right? Except it hadn’t ended. It came to me that I needed to make more Thumb Prayers, sell them, and donate the proceeds to housing justice.

You see what the Spirit did there? She took a question I’ve been asking myself: what is my next project? She connected it to one of my passions: homelessness. And she led me to the next step: quality housing for those who have moved one step beyond homelessness.

Truly, She is divine. I don’t deserve such a wonderful friend.

Thumb Prayers made with donated vintage buttons
Thumb Prayers made with donated vintage buttons—soon to be for sale!!

Living with the Iffing

For one reason then another, I’ve been off the blog for a while, not adding posts, not reading posts from my fellow and sister bloggers. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed reading your thoughts. I hope as the year unfolds, I will do better. I have, however, been writing, and I share with you this wisdom the Universe sent to me at the beginning of the new year.

Living with the Iffing

He’s seated in the chair next to me at the bank—at this New Orleans bank, they’ve done away with teller windows. The tellers hold court behind a long desk, customers sit in chairs on the other side. The man and I sit side by side. He’s in the midst of a complicated financial transaction. While the teller works, he talks.

“All that fighting going on in my neighborhood.”
“You peeking from behind the curtains?” the teller asks.
“I was sitting on the porch with a baseball bat.”
The teller comments that maybe this isn’t so smart. “Bullets don’t carry a name.”
He agrees, but remains undeterred.
“That family. You know, you lose somebody, you bring in chicken. You bring in food. That family, they buy liquor.”
The teller lends one ear to his story as she steadily works. I get the feeling they know each other pretty well.
“They buy liquor then they start to fighting. I look out there, the boyfriend has a board. The girlfriend, she’s got a stick.”
He demonstrates the stance of the two neighbors, weapons raised above their shoulders.
“He’s holding the board, and she’s got the stick. I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’”
“You what?” The teller begins paying attention.
“I can’t stand that iffing—are they gonna hit someone or not? I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’ I can’t take that iffing.”

The old year rolls out. The New Year rolls in. We are asked, as always, to live with the iffing.

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