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Month: May 2016

Like a Hawk

You see, I’d just held a fundraiser for Outreach, Housing, and Community, the organization June Averyt founded to end homelessness. She also founded Door of Hope, which is where I met her when we started Door of Hope Writing Group. She died. I’ve told you about it here. Wanting to do something in her memory, I held my first popup to sell Thumb Prayers and donate the proceeds to OHC.

It was fun. I got to see a lot of folks I care deeply about. Friends came and we visited. We remembered June. Her impact on the community. The gaping hole left since she’s been gone. I sold Thumb Prayers. Tomorrow I will be able to take a check to OHC.

When it was all over, I untied the balloon I’d used to direct people to the sale location. Actually, I’d bought eight balloons. I put one inside and the other seven I tied onto the railing outside. When folks kept texting me about where the hell we were, I kept responding, “Look for the balloons.” Then I happened to glance outside. The balloons were gone. Whether the wind had wiggled them free or someone had stolen them, I can’t say. But they were gone. So I took the lone remaining balloon and retied it outside as the marker, and when it came tie to wrap things up, I untied the scraggly green balloon and stuffed it inside my car.

But before I could get the door closed, the wind reached inside and sucked the balloon from the car so quickly I didn’t have time to grab the string. In a split second, it was free, flying into the air. I craned my neck, watching the balloon sail past the trees then over the building and up, up, up into the sky.

Yes, it had helium. Yet it soared not like a balloon but like hawk catching the updraft. In less time than it took for me to get in my car, the balloon was sailing into the next quadrant of Memphis air space—I could tell you it was over the Target but unless you know Memphis, this means nothing to you.

It was so rivetingly quick, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It became less balloon and more soaring explorer. A brave soloist taking off on an adventure. Free. On its way.

I stayed in the parking lot until I couldn’t see the balloon any longer. Then I too left. It’s never a good idea to stay when the main act has left the stage.

The balloons before they flew away
The balloons before they flew away

Thank You for the Soul

When the dark night of the soul overtakes me and I can’t sleep for wondering how on earth I could’ve so terribly wasted this wonderful life I’ve been given, I sneak down the stairs, carefully feeling with my toe for the edge of each step so I don’t stumble.

Patting the door jamb, I close the door behind me and turn on the light of the book-lined room where I kneel on the scratchy rug.

The velvet-covered footstool creaks as I open it.

I paw through the mementos until I find the letter, slipping it from the envelope.

The handwriting on the notecard is extravagant, for the writer was extravagant. I flip to the back of the card where he says, “My belief in God and myself is stronger because of your belief in me.”

I run my fingertips across the words then return the card to the envelope and drop it into the footstool where it waits with the other words of thanks that stand ready to resurrect and do their duty when the next wave of incertitude hits me.soul

Trusting in Life

The retreat had not yet begun. I was walking beneath the live oaks, crossing from the dorm room I would share with my cousin and aunt to the building where we would practice restorative yoga for two days. The gulf breeze gently blew, and shadows danced on the St. Augustine lawn. I halted, gazing at the slip of blue sky peeking through the mossy branches. A conviction welled up in me, and for the next two days of the yoga retreat, the message of trusting in life I received on that lawn repeated and repeated and repeated.

*

I do not trust in religious explanations of life. We are told God is good, and God does wonderful things, and God has ordered the universe in an amazing way, and so on.

The problem is, life can really, really suck. Setting aside the question of viruses (really, I believe the existence of viruses might be the best evidence of life’s non-goodness), life can be horrible to people. And the horribleness has no rationality to it, it really doesn’t, no matter how many religious platitudes we throw at it. Life can be, without justifiability, terrible.

As a result of the above, I’ve given up on traditional religious views. For me, the only thing trustworthy is the presence of God inside the goodness in this moment on this earth right now. 

Until I stood below those oaks.

*

The light burns low, the yoga mats line up straight. Candles flicker, the Spirit hums through the room.

The prayer prays, “All will be well.”

The hymn sings, “All will be well.”

The workshop leader assures, “All will be well.”

We, the retreat participants, agree, “All will be well.”

And, due to my conviction beneath the oaks, I join in: “All will be well.”

*

Standing beneath the oaks, the breeze running along my arms, the sun warming my face, and the majesty of the live oaks spreading around me, a conviction welled up: what if when I am dying and the images of my life pass before my brain, I realize it has been okay? That, in fact, it was wonderful? Not because of some intricate, indiscernible plan God had in mind, but just because it was.

If I don’t take the opportunity now to trust in that delightful outcome, the deep sense of joy and affirmation that washes through me when I do the Spirit’s biding and, Holy Mother of God!, there was such a good reason for doing it—the feeling won’t come. I will have missed the opportunity at the moment when it matters most.

You will understand how much this experience of God’s grace means to me when I tell you the realization was enough to cause me to say, out loud: “This life, for me, is a wild experiment in trusting.” To trust that I will get to the end and look back and say in unison with all the saints in heaven, “All is well.” And it will be true.

Trusting shadows on the lawn
Trusting shadows on the lawn

I have a lousy sense of direction.

No, that’s not it.

I have difficulty translating directional information into an understanding in my head. This failure is pervasive in my life. Driving—hell, walking. I am totally missing a directional chip in my head.

Yet, here I am, writing a novel that demands I understand the incursion of water into New Orleans as a result of the surge from Hurricane Katrina into Lake Borgne and up Mr. Go. into the Intracoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward.

All the waterways look alike to me. They crisscross the edges of New Orleans like veins and arteries. Multitudinous. Pervasive unto the point of swiss cheese. Rendering the land into a lacy valentine. But not as benign.

The waterways are impossible to understand at ground level. Difficult to translate from bird’s-eye view into the drawn lines of maps. All of it, hard to interpret when I don’t know east from west, lakeside from riverside, up river from down river.

We went on an excursion today, and I learned much. About the damming of Mr. Go and the erecting of the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, both post-Katrina actions taken to, in the future, protect New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish from the surge into the funnel that assaulted the city when Hurricane Katrina dealt its death-filled blow against New Orleans.

I brought that learning home and researched. I will take the research and go out again, replacing web images with live images. Sooner or later, I will understand it enough to include it in the plot of my novel.

No one ever said writing was easy. Or that pursuing this profession would spare us from tasks that do not come easily.

So I will ask my brain to move in directions that cause it to creak. I will keep at it until it penetrates my genetic blockage and spreads, taking hold in maybe a Gestalt way. And I get it.

Really get it.

Until then, I will research on.

Fort Macomb
Fort Macomb

Today, I finished polishing the first ⅔ of Jazzy and the Pirate.

That means I have ⅓ to go.

I’m not giving away too much to tell you the rag-tag group of characters has arrived in New Orleans, ready to save the city from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.

Many questions have been answered. About the Pirate’s agenda. About Jazzy’s plan to save the city. About the origin of the curse that enchants them. And its cure.

And tougher questions have been raised. About her dad’s death. About the stability of the house-ship on which they sail. About her family’s future. The city’s fate. Her own fate.

I have an outline of the remaining portion of the book. But even in what I just called the “polishing,” I revised plot lines. So then I had to make a new document entitled “Plot Lines.” And re-plot the lines. The Plot Lines document is very helpful, for it easily identifies what the heroine wants, who/what stands in her way. How each obstacle grows more dire as the story unfolds.

I am telling you all this because it has been a long, slow slog. And it’s easier to keep at a long, slow slog when you know someone else is with you. 🙂

Reading the Count of Monte Cristo has helped too. It’s a long book. I’m sure it was a long, slow slog to write. But, boy, was it worth it.

I hope mine is too.

The Count of Monte Cristo, which I just finished
The Count of Monte Cristo, which I just finished

 

 

Spiritual Bottleneck

Early Wednesday morning, the man who’d spent the night on the streets walked the hallway at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He stopped at my table, lingering. He did not look happy.

I think of this church hallway as the “neck” between Sister’s Chapel, where we hold the church service attended mostly by those living on the streets, and Martyrs Hall, where breakfast is served. Those who’ve attended church line up for breakfast and pass through the hall—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For several years I stood in a niche in the hallway at a folding table, encouraging passers-by to engage in small art projects. This morning, for the first time, I was offering the congregants “church to go,” pocket reminders of the Spirit.

The man was in earshot when I cast my net of explanation over the line of waiting folks. He drew nearer as I explained, “Thumb Prayers, I call them. Just small things for you to take with you to remind you of church this morning.”

“Say again?” he asked.

So I did, adding to it. “You can run your thumb across them to remind you of God’s presence in the world.”

“That’s not God,” he said, pointing.

“No, it’s just a reminder,” I repeated, my cache of words depleted by his unhappiness.

“That’s of the devil,” he insisted. “Fetishes.”

“Well, it may not be for you,” I said, and he willingly moved along.

It’s really hard to do anything involving religion that doesn’t offend someone. One time, I had a man tell me our church being named St. Mary’s was a blasphemy because the only focus should be on Jesus. Another time I had a man object to the crosses we were making from chip bags collected from the neighborhood. I don’t think the problem was our using trash to make a cross, the most sacred symbol of Christianity—the colors were all wrong.

I’m okay with this. My view is none of us knows the truth (a view I realize many also find blasphemous—we do know the truth; it’s what my church teaches) so who’s to argue?

For me, much of the difficulty lies in trying to explain the unexplainable, to translate the non-analytic with analysis. Trying, maybe, to traverse the neck between heart and head, body and soul, knowing and unknowing, without getting clogged up in the process.

In the end, I can only do the best I can do and hope that, as I once told a friend when she asked about cremation destroying the body that was supposed to rise again, God won’t let us make an irreversible mistake.

Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. All proceeds will go to Outreach, Housing, and Community, a Memphis organization working to end homelessness. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.

 

Transparent Thumb Prayers
Transparent Thumb Prayers
Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God (Paraclete Press, 2009). By Ellen Morris Prewitt. Available on amazon.com andbarnesandnoble.com

A while back, I conducted a workshop where I took my writing mentor Rebecca McClanahan‘s book Write Your Heart Out and translated the types of nonfiction writing into types of prayer. I don’t remember all the parallels (writing from joy, for example, became adoration or praise prayer.) I’ve been thinking about this as I make Thumb Prayers, the little pocket prayer prompts I’ll be selling for Housing Justice. I’ve wondered who this woman was who so believed in defined types of prayer. Specifically, I’ve been thinking how much my view of the word “prayer” has changed, not to mention to whom I am “praying.”

The traditional Christian views of prayer conceive of it as a conversation. Talking to or with God in defined, analytical ways. “I need this.” “She needs that.” “Thank you so much for this thing.” “You are wonderful in this way.” This has come to feel to me like yakking.

(I emphasize: feels like yakking to me. It’s very hard to talk about one’s own religious life without folks feeling as if you are criticizing their religious life. I hope it’s clear my description of my path is simply a description of what I’ve experienced, period.)

This shift in my approach to prayer has been a long time underway. Perhaps it started with my making crosses from broken and found objects, where I became drawn to action-based prayer. But if you read the book I wrote about this prayer practice—“Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God”—you see I very much still viewed cross-making as a foundation for conversation with God.

So, was it my practicing meditative periods free from thought? Or was it the Lent I focused on spying God in the world? When did it change? It’s probably like water colors bleeding into art paper—a process where, eventually, a new image takes shape.

The prayer I’m striving for these days some wouldn’t even call prayer. It’s not word-based. It’s not “upward” directed toward a God in Heaven. It’s not a set-aside time, unless it’s the time I’m waiting for Walgreens to fill my prescription. It’s not between defined entities—me, Ellen, and you, God.

It’s a stilling, a directing my awareness into the world immediately around me. A living in the present. An intent to diffuse my spirit into the God in the world. A Gestalt moment. A being in the world. 

The Thumb Prayers fit perfectly with this place of prayer where I now find myself.

  • They are physical, small dollops of buttons and paper clay.
  • The idea behind them is active: run your thumb across the top, feel the texture.
  • They are diffused—not a particular prayer but a reminder of whatever God or Spirit or love or goodness you believe suffuses the world.
  • And, thankfully, they’re available all day long, when we so easily get caught up in trying to make it through the day and any idea of God actually being in this world of chaos and traffic and splattered eggs and crying babies and the damn internet being out again—touch, remind yourself, re-ground your spirit in the Spirit.

 

Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page. 

A collection of Thumb Prayers
A collection of Thumb Prayers

 

He calls me over. Wants to know if I work out. “‘Cause you sure got a nice shape.”

The breakfast St. Mary’s offers for those currently homeless is almost finished. He’s mopping up his grits. His friend on the other side of the table is interested in my answer to his question. The friend cranes his neck, surveying my shape to form his own opinion.

“I have metal hips,” I tell the questioner.

That sets him back.

“Uh hunh,” I say, doubling down. “Two metal hips.”

“Well, you sure don’t look like it,” he concedes and returns to his grits.

*

“You look younger today,” she says. She’s been talking the entire Door of Hope Writing Group session, this woman who heretofore I’ve only heard say five words in a row. Now she’s turned her streaming attention on me.

“I don’t know you that well, but I’ve seen you. And you look younger. You look younger today. It’s your jeans,” she adds, indicating the tattered jeans I’m so proud of having boro patched with my own two hands.

“Well, I thank you for that,” I say as her friend chimes in.

“My aunt does that,” he says. “She’s in her fifties and wears urban clothes. They look good on her. Better than on some people our age.”

I decide to wear these jeans forever.

*

Sometimes I see him at Wednesday morning church service. Sometimes at Caritas Village. Sometimes on Sundays at the main 11:00 church service. We see each other often enough, I know his name. He knows mine.

Today I see him at a funeral when I’m dressed in my best black suit. I wave. Call him by name. Finally, his face lights up.

“Hey, Ellen.” He gives me a hug, smiling big. “I didn’t recognize you. I’ve never seen you looking so good before.”

I take this as a compliment.

*

She’s studying my hair, a young girl at the shelter. I can’t remember if I washed it today. Maybe I did, but let it dry naturally? As I recall, the last time I looked in the mirror, I noted it might need some attention. A wayward tendril creeps into my eye.

“Your hair looks . . .”

I wait.

“Like you belong at the beach,” she finishes, her face beaming.

*

“You remind me of the girl on that show.”

We talk for a bit about what girl on what show that might be.

“She’s a redhead too,” he says.

Hmmmm. We soon exhaust my list of redheaded actresses.

“She’s a cartoon,” he corrects me. A girl cartoon. With red hair. And a dragon.

A week or so later, he returns with the answer: Jane and the Dragon. I look up the cartoon show. She’s 12 years old. She found her life as a lady-in-waiting boring and, after a series of adventures, was allowed to train to be a knight instead. She’s funny. The dragon is her best friend. She’s known for her spunk. Did I mention she’s 12 years old?

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and offers to loan me his taped collection of the show.

“You’d like her,” he says. “She’s cool too. Like you.”

*

It’s funny when people gush over my “working with the homeless.” Selfless, they say. Or such a good person. Or something else totally wrong.

I might’ve begun volunteering with those who live on the street because the durn Spirit told me to. Fair enough. But I keep at it not because I’m obedient or nice or selfless or a do-gooder or even because I feel this is what Jesus spent his life telling us to do. I volunteer for a very, very selfish reason.

I work with the homeless because those who are going through a period which for most of them is the most difficult time of their lives still find a way to cheer me up.

Think of that the next time you’re knee-deep in seventh-rung-of-hell cocktail party chatter. Go home. Look up your local homeless shelter. Go volunteer. Bet you’ll keep at it too.

Allison Furr-Lawyer illustration from Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness
Allison Furr Lawyer illustration from Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness

 

I live in Memphis on an island with wild edges and a dog who loves them as much as I do.

I have a wood-burning fireplace in my house.

I go to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral where the Dean stands up in the pulpit and preaches the most unsettling, Holy truths, in a caring, loving way.

I can walk to the grocery store. I can walk to the coffee shop. I can walk to the cleaners, but I don’t because if I’m going to the cleaners, I’m toting clothes.

I have a weekly writing group where we can talk about anything and, while you might get hooted for your comments, you know you’re loved.

I have a monthly writing group that is made up of some of the finest writers I know.

I have wind chimes outside my bedroom window and a dove of peace that coos.

I have good friends who invite me to meet them for coffee where we exchange wisdom and laugh.

I can hang out at Caritas Village whenever I want.

I can drink the world’s best water straight from the tap.

I know how to work the burners on the stove.

I walk past flowers blooming in my yard whenever I leave through the front door.

I can see the Mississippi River—sometimes sparkling or flat or muddy or laced with the deepest sheen of blue—every single day.

I know my way ’round Memphis town. I know which direction is east, west, north and south. I don’t get lost.

I have a bathtub.

I have a printer.

I have a guest bedroom where people can come and stay and fill the house with love.

I can go for walks in the Old Forest in one of the country’s most famous parks where the boughs lean over us like a hushed sanctuary.

I know where to buy petit fours.

I share this life with my husband, whom I love dearly and who is with me most anywhere I go, but life in Memphis would be bereft of fun without him.

Evangeline loves Memphis
Evangeline loves Memphis
Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

Many years ago, when I was letting the Spirit lead me around by the nose, I went to Door of Hope and asked if I could start a writing group for men and women living on the street. Dr. June Mann Averyt, the founder and then Executive Director of Door of Hope, watched me toddle through the door in my high heels and said, “What the hell—go for it.”

Well, not exactly. But kind of exactly. Because June is not a sentimental person.

For years, every Wednesday, unless I was out of town or something else created an actual physical impossibility, I was at Door of Hope facilitating writing group. Every time I slunk into June’s office with another bright idea—why don’t we have a public reading? why don’t we make notecards? why not ask for a grant so we can hold Community Writers Retreats where the housed and unhoused write together? can we do an e-zine?—she said, “What the hell—go for it.”

Maybe not in so many words. But in that tone. Because June is not a sentimental person.

None of these endeavors was easy. They required hours at her dining room table wrestling with grant applications. Or appearing before grant boards. Or all of us—me, June, a VISTA volunteer—learning what it really meant to put out an e-zine. June never complained about this side activity—writing? for the homeless? are you sure? the grant board asked—when her basic mission already required so much of her. She supported me in what my mother would call a flat-mouth way. Direct. Unvarnished. June’s way.

When life changed for June, she left Door of Hope and started Outreach, Housing and Community, where she continued her work to help people get and stay housed. She never gave up on Writing Group—her program offerings at OHC were not scheduled at 1:00 on Wednesdays because she wouldn’t interfere with writing group time—and when Writing Our Way Home came out, her name was all the way through it. In tributes, in stories, in thanks, in dedications. She even added a Special Note for us to include in the book. A simple, to-the-point note because June is not a sentimental person.

When life changed for me, I began co-facilitating writing group, sharing duties with the amazing Germantown United Methodist Church, and, when the wheel turned again, I continued as simply a member of writing group, where now every Wednesday when I’m in town, I go to Door of Hope and do writing group.

That’s a total of nine years.

Then, last spring, I was playing with paper clay and something told me to roll it out, make it thin, almost like porcelain. As I was gently rolling, it came to me: you are making a gift for June. I thought, well that makes sense. I had never fully thanked June for saying yes to writing group, thereby setting my life on a certain trajectory. June wouldn’t mind if my desire exceeded my talents. She would accept my gift as offered.

So I fashioned a house from the rolled paper clay. Using found objects, I created a door. Above the house I positioned an angel. I mounted the house and angel on paper I’d made by whirling scraps in a blender. I took the creation to a framer, and we picked out a really nice frame, me hoping the frame would turn my work into something more than my abilities could create.

While I was waiting on the framer to finish my surprise gift, I got word: June had been diagnosed with cancer. An aggressive lung cancer. Of course, I heard the news from one of the folks June had helped get off the streets. She said the diagnosis was serious.

I called June. I said, “I have something for you. It has nothing to do with your diagnosis,” I hastened to add. Because June is not a sentimental person.

I left the gift on her front porch.

She called. She said she’d hung the piece in her bedroom. She’d positioned it next to a painting by an actual Memphis artist. That painting had an angel too. June said she saw the angels every day. Each time we spoke, she reminded me of her angels watching over her.

When I created the gift, in my mind, June was the angel. She was the one who watched over those on the street and helped them into houses. Of course, June would never think of herself as an angel. Because June is not a sentimental person.

But in the short time it took to get from the conception of the gift to its receipt, life had changed. June became the one who needed the watching care of an angel.

I have a peculiar definition of grace. It is when God gives you the chance to do what is right before you know you have a dog in the fight. Before you know you have a personal connection to whatever it is that you are being called to do. Before your motives can become potentially muddled.

So, for example, I was given the opportunity to chair the annual fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation . . . years before I gave up both my God-given hips to arthritis.

In the same way, the Spirit whispered in my ear to make a gift for a friend in thanksgiving for the impact she’d on my life . . . before I knew she was dying of cancer.

That was a gift to me, the Spirit nudging me to make that gift. It was also a gift to June.

You see, she wouldn’t have liked it if I’d given her something in reaction to her dying.

Because June was not a sentimental person.

June requested that donations in her honor be made to Outreach, Housing and Community, 135 N Cleveland St, Memphis, TN 38104. To read more about June’s life and the impact she had on the city of Memphis, click here

 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

 

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