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Month: April 2016

I call it “spiritual dyslexia.”

When I was teaching myself to write, if an offering really, really did not appeal to me, I reluctantly signed up. That’s how I discovered literary journalism—literary journalism? I gasped when I read the syllabus Randall Kenan was teaching that year. It sounded terrible, but Randall was teaching it and I wanted to learn from him. Mostly, I knew my reaction meant I needed to take the course—an aversion to something was the exact indicator it was the right thing for me to do. So I signed up and, predictably, I fell in love with the concept, and I fell in love with Randall, and I wrote literary journalism essays for years.

Later, when I was teaching myself to follow the Holy Spirit, if I really, really didn’t want to do something, I trudged forward doing it. I had learned by then that my spiritual dyslexia was as unfailingly correct as my geographic dyslexia—when we’re traveling, if I say turn right, my husband turns left and we arrive swiftly at our destination. Recently, I’ve blogged a bit about doing what totally embarrasses me ’cause the dadgum Spirit tells me to, but for the most part, I’ve dropped this as an intentional practice.

Glennon Doyle Melton says I need to pick it back up.

Last night, my amazing godchild took me to an amazing talk. It was slap-your-neighbor funny and wait-a-minute-what-did-she say? profound, my two favorite things. Ms. Melton, a blogger and author and speaker, covered many topics, but one of them was following not your “happiness” (for her, eating sugar and watching Bravo), but your discomfort.

As she says in this blog post:

IF IT’S EASY AND SHINY- BEWARE. IF IT STINGS A LITTLE – SIT TIGHT, GET CURIOUS, AND THEN LEAN IN.

To be clear: I am NOT, NOT, NOT a fan of “God sends us troubles so we can learn.” I also am NOT a fan of “pain makes us stronger” or “suffering is the quickest route to God.” I am a fan of “This is your life—if you are lucky enough to find it, live it,” which is the central message of the quoted blog post.

I am also a fan of the brain and its ability to know. By “the brain,” I mean the part of the brain I think of as Central Command. This brain is mostly hidden from us. Maybe it’s the subconscious, but that’s not quite right, either. It’s the part of the brain that finds patterns, discerns meanings, makes connections when we are unaware it is doing so. (I tend to think of Central Command as the Leviathan vessel Moya in the Syfy TV show Farscape, but that’s just me.) Central Command is the part of your brain that has your absolutely best interest in mind (ha, ha-in mind, that’s a pun). Central Command is not swayed by our petty, surface, insecure, what-will-they-think? interest but pursues our deep-down, this-really-matters best interest.

Central Command is what tells me, hmmmmm—you’re having an adverse reaction because the thing will be hard or requires action that makes you uncomfortable or risks tarnishing the way you want to be viewed. It will involve your ego in a not very pleasant way. It will tell you to run away, hands in the air, screaming.

Do not listen to this reaction, Central Command instructs. Recognize it as the spinning weather vane that will send you in the flat wrong direction if you let it, or as Ms. Melton says, understand it is our forever grappling after that which we know for certain will not bring happiness.

When my spiritual dyslexia discerns an uncomfortableness, my Central Command tells me, in Ms. Melton words, “Sit tight, get curious, and then lean in.”

I’ll try to start paying better attention.

An Outside Plant

He had one plant, small.

I had three hanging baskets and two big ferns, fat.

He’d been there when I arrived, he and his wife wandering among the plants. It was mid-day Wednesday, no one else at the nursery. A young, spring day. The swarms of eager Memphians hadn’t yet descended on the unsuspecting begonias and geraniums. No one in sight. Except me. Him. His wife.

When I’d wrangled my ferns onto the cart, I pulled them behind me toward the checkout. The clerk was watering the hanging baskets. Earlier, I’d asked him where his ferns might be. He directed me to the back. He’d been nice, polite. Absolutely fine.

I pointed my cart toward the clerk’s row. In the meantime, the man had separated from his wife. He approached the clerk in front of me. He was older. I’m older, but he was older than me. Slight. African American.

He asked the clerk a question. The clerk asked him to repeat his question. “Indoor or out?” he asked, holding his plant with both hands. “Outdoor,” the clerk answered, curt. He looked over the man’s head. At me. Behind the man. He asked, “Are you ready to check out?”

The man said yes.

The clerk said no, I meant her. He put down his hose and moved to the checkout. He bypassed the man standing there, holding his plant. A yellow flower. In a yellow pot. With delicate buds about to open. The clerk was white. I am white. I’ve already told you the man’s race. His wife, now waiting at the checkout, was African American.

The clerk positioned himself behind the counter. He waited for me to step forward.

I’ve been at such a moment before. Many times. Mostly when the white clerk looks into a sea of waiting customers and picks me, the white face, out of the crowd. That strikes me as colorblindness, by which I mean the inability to see the people of color waiting. Focusing instead on the “important” person in the group. The white person. When that happens and I step aside for those there first, the clerk seems genuinely surprised, as if she didn’t know others had been there before me.

This was different. It wasn’t an oversight. It was intentional. It was as if the clerk were angry at the man for something he had done to the clerk. Like showing up at the nursery wanting to buy his one small plant.

I said, “No.” I motioned to the couple. “They were here before me. Y’all go ahead.”

The man’s wife said, “Oh, no, that’s okay.” The man said, “We’re not in any hurry.” The clerk said nothing. The wife nodded at me to go ahead. 

I bought my expensive plants. The clerk yakked the whole time he rang me up. Nervous, it seemed to me, flustered maybe ’cause I refused his offer of priority. When he finished my order, he turned to the couple. “Let me get her packed in the car, and I’ll be right with you.” He said it to the man, but it was like he was saying it for me: See? You’re wrong—I didn’t mean a thing in the world by it. 

After the plants were securely in the car, I left. I did not see the clerk ring up the man’s flower. I hope the man went home and knelt in his yard and scooped up dirt and patted in his flower and now he’s sitting on his porch with his wife, waiting for it to grow. An outside plant. A tough plant. It’ll do fine in the Memphis sun, as long as the rest of us leave it alone.

Why do the grapes need protecting?

I’m talking about it on the website. Yes, I mean literally talking.

Go to the Home Page and listen to the front porch moment. Then listen to “Drunk at the Foodland Again” at STORIES.

You’ll learn the answer as told to you in my voice. My Very Southern Voice. ?

I went to junior high and high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte was the home I returned to in college and law school. When my daddy died, I sang over his grave: “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.”

The North Carolina legislature recently passed a new law authorizing LGBT discrimination. The law requires men and women to use the restroom of their birth gender. It also prohibits cities from passing ordinances that protect transgender or gay citizens. (It does much more, removing the right of North Carolina citizens to sue in the state courts for any type of discrimination, but that’s another issue.)

The impetus for the legislative action was the city of Charlotte’s passage in February of a pro-LGBT ordinance. The law expanded protection of sexual orientation and gender identity. As they say, the legislature couldn’t handle it, and they jumped up a special session to take away cities’ rights to make these decisions for themselves.

National companies have been acting in justifiable outrage. Paypal canceled plans to build a multi-million dollar operations center. Bruce Springsteen canceled an upcoming concert. Others have made similar calls for action—Charles Barkley wants the NBA to move its All-Star game.

The All-Star game is held in Charlotte. The Paypal center was to be built in Charlotte. The Boss’s concert was to be held in Greensboro.  So the progressive cities—those who were trying to protect LGBT rights—are paying the price for the state legislators’ bigotry. The NFL, making the distinction between Charlotte and its state legislature, has been noted as one of those who aren’t taking a “stronger stand.”

What is to be done? All across the South, a similar progressive/conservative breach exists between cities and rural areas. Urban areas, progressive. Rural areas, conservative. The divide is as wide as that which separates progressive states from conservative states. Southern cities float like islands in a hostile land. This is true in my state of Tennessee. It’s true in Louisiana where we live part-time in New Orleans. While I know many folks in small North Carolina towns who are actively fighting discrimination of all kinds, this general divide appears to be true in my daddy’s beloved North Carolina as well.

Will the North Carolina legislature care if Charlotte suffers? I don’t know. In Tennessee, when the legislature passes laws that hurt Memphis or Nashville, the legislature doesn’t give two f***s. Because the state legislative leaders—and their constituents—are from the rural areas. Or sometimes they’re from suburbs that hate the cities that pump their life blood. Either way, the health of the cities is not their concern. North Carolina appears to have exceptions to this rule (what’s wrong with you, Raleigh?), but most of the leadership lives in places I’m having to look up on the map to find.

My solution? Those who want to protest discriminatory laws passed by Southern states should take action in the areas where the state legislative leaders live. The state leaders are passing laws to please their constituents. Thus, their constituents should pay the price for any backlash against those laws. Yes, this is a bit more difficult than a wholesale state boycott, requiring more precise decision-making. But I’m going to make it easier for you. Here are the counties the leaders of the North Carolina state legislature represent:

North Carolina House Leadership:
Speaker: Speaker Tim Moore: Cleveland
Speaker Pro Tempore: Representative Paul Stam: Wake
Majority Leader: Representative Mike Hager: Burke
Deputy Majority Leader: Representative Marilyn Avila: Wake
Majority Whip: Representative John R. Bell, IV: Craven, Greene, Lenoir, Wayne
Deputy Majority Whips: Representative Dean Arp: Union
Representative James L. Boles, Jr.: Moore

North Carolina Senate Leadership:
President: Lt. Governor Dan Forest: statewide
President Pro Tempore: Senator Phil Berger: Guilford, Rockingham
Deputy President Pro Tempore: Senator Louis Pate: Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne
Majority Leader: Senator Harry Brown: Jones, Onslow
Majority Whip: Senator Jerry W. Tillman: Moore, Randolph

What the hell is in Moore County, you might ask? Answer: Pinehurst Golf Course, which has hosted the US Open and plans on doing so again, as well as the US Amateur Championship. USGA, are you listening? Burke County touts its filmmaking credits, and part of The Hunger Games were filmed in Cleveland County. Filmmakers, are you listening?

Maybe none of this boycotting matters. Greensboro is in Guilford County, so you’d think Bruce’s cancellation would’ve gotten President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s attention. Instead, he issued a bizarre public statement full of convoluted logic. Still, (cynically) I trust the power of money over morals. Particularly grandstanding morals. In time, it adds up.

My point: if you’re going to boycott over LGBT discrimination, spread the love into the nooks and crannies where North Carolina legislators live. I’m sure they’ll thank you for (not) stopping by.

Trust the River

I arrived at a certain point in the writing of Jazzy and the Pirate that felt like a period. An ending about to soar to a new beginning. Exciting, but also a bit daunting. I needed a break. How does a writer take a break? Revise a different novel, of course.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning Jazzy. I’m simply letting my mind focus on something different for a couple of weeks. Going with the flow, trusting that my hidden brain will keep working on Jazzy while I consciously and intently work on another project.

I chose to revise a mystery novel set in Memphis, because I was physically in Memphis, and the novel kept calling to me. I wrote this novel last year in between hip surgeries. First time I thought that sentence, I wondered, can that really be true? It’s true. After the first surgery when I could do little else, I devoured mysteries. Then I wrote my own mystery before the second hip surgery. The working title of the mystery is Cracks in the River. My working “elevator sentence” is:

A homeless man gets caught in a deadly real estate scheme when he finds a car in the Wolf River Harbor, a missing developer barb-wired to the wheel.

Yes, the novel includes stuff I know about. Homelessness, from being in the Door of Hope Writing Group for almost nine years. The Wolf River Harbor, on which I live. And, as a former lawyer, the intricacies of real estate deals. I hope I’ve put it all together in an interesting, intriguing way. 

Here’s the opening paragraph of Cracks in the River, a Coot Long Mystery:

CHAPTER 1

“Don’t you ever stick so much as a big toe in that swirling river,” Mother would say whenever we drove the old bridge to Memphis, leaving the Arkansas cotton fields behind for the wet cobblestones and low rumbling barges of the Mississippi River. I was not a compliant boy. Or maybe Mother had made the river too tempting. Whichever, I gave in at age six and dashed into the water. I probably would’ve ridden the current to New Orleans if Father hadn’t spied me tumbling head-over-heels fifteen feet south of where I’d gone in. He waded out, snatched me up by my belt, and all was fine. But I’m convinced that ten years later when I was newly sixteen and my mind broke in two, half of it went searching for that river, the golden flow of silt and light rounding into a bubble of sheer terror. Whether the river remembered me or not, it’s hard to say. But that’s one explanation for why, after so many fruitless years of searching for my baby sister’s killer, the river opened its mouth and spit a murdered man at my feet. At the time I thought to myself, isn’t that just like the river, keeping its trap shut all those years then handing me the body of a man I had no quarrel with? Should’ve trusted the river.

Constructing Life

The boss man wasn’t there today. That’s what the worker told me, standing in the great room of our half-finished house. He was sanding. I was inspecting. He thought the homeowners might want to talk to the boss. I wanted to talk to him, the man guiding the sanding machine, the one who would rub the stain on the floor. The man who knew what he was doing.

Later, after our business conversation ended, he called me aside. “You want to see a pretty floor?” he asked, thumbing his phone. A photo of a herringbone floor segued into view. A lovely, complicated floor. “That’s a 5000 square foot job,” he said, swiping to the next photo. “That’s a beautiful floor,” I told him, proud that he wanted to show me the floor. That he understood I loved the work he was doing on my floor. Before I left, he  showed me a photo of the boss man, kneeling on the herringbone floor. The two men were friends, it seemed. This is the way it is when you work with local businesses. People. Craftsmen. You work with life.

*

One of our errands took us to another supplier. The supplier and I had been corresponding on email: me changing my mind and him being patient. I stood at the counter and placed my ordered. But before he took my credit card and charged me, he said, “I need to have a conversation with you.”

He told me about a bad PSA count, a biopsy, a doctor’s hints at cancer. He expected a bad report, and, if he was right, he and his wife would have to close the store. He wanted me to know the warranty would be good, but he might not be there for followup. “Before you paid me,” he said. “I wanted you to have that choice.”

I’m not revealing any details on the supplier because he had told no one of his health issues but his wife and now me. That’s what happens when you work with local businesses. You come to care for them. As people. Kind people. Then life interferes.

*

When we arrived home, a text burbled onto my phone. The metal table legs the woodworker had ordered from his friend had arrived. Were the legs at his shop? Yes, and he would be there a bit longer if we wanted to see them.

We walked over—down three blocks, over two. The dog was ecstatic to be outside. We arrived to meet the woodworker’s dog. The woodworker cranked open the backend of his truck cab, slid out the legs. Good looking legs. He was happy, pleased with what he’d found. I was happy. He and I admired the legs, a cigarette dangling from his lips. We said our goodbyes and walked back home, the dog happy.

This is what happens when you work with artisans. You walk to the neighborhood shop. You meet the dog. A bubble machine floats bubbles onto the sidewalk. The train whistles. Life.

*

When it all comes together and I’m sleeping on my bed, I’ll dream. The dreams will expand, contract. In the moment between the focus, I will see the artisans who have put together my shelter. The mustached tiler kneeling on the bathroom floor, carefully trimming the tile to fit the space. The electrician, catching my eye as we discussed whether a sconce was necessary beside the fireplace. The sander smiling at the photo of his boss, the store owner solemnly fulfilling his ethical standards, the woodworker tapping his cigarette onto the sidewalk. To each I am grateful. For his contribution. His  talent. The excuse of a house that led their lives to intersect with mine.

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

I very much appreciate EAP:The Magazine publishing my essay “Grief: What’s the Best I Can Do?”

I really like this magazine. Full of good writers, talking about interesting, important stuff. Mosey around and peruse some of the content when you click through to read my essay. 🙂

Grief: What’s the Best I Can Do?

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