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Month: May 2018

This is Why I Write

So, I’m working on an essay about my escaping to the family farm in response to Mississippi’s racial mores that constricted behavior in the 1960s, and I’m using a bull (yep) as the central metaphor, and I’m afraid folks might not get it because the bull is incredibly destructive and he’s the POSITIVE metaphor, so I’m adding a summary sentence, and I’m looking for a word that means someone who refuses to submit to forcible attempts to control behavior, and I’m thinking iconoclast, but that’s too close to idol (which I’ve already used) and it’s not quite right anyway, so I go to the thesaurus (I’m not ashamed to admit it: I use the thesaurus) and I’m scrolling when I land on a word that I don’t know, and I look it up (in the online dictionary) and it is PERFECT: recusant: “one who refuses to accept or obey established authority.”

It’s not that I’m a word freak, not exactly. It’s that discovering the precise word I need to describe a phenomenon makes me sigh, ahhhhh. What I’m struggling to express is real. Someone else experienced it. They came up with a word for it. I have tapped into a vein of the shared human condition that is Life and, through that, I connect with the Communion of Saints (read that: humans) who have gone before me and will come after me, and we are all brothers and sisters, and that miracle happens thanks to a bull. And a word. My new favorite word: recusant.

 

Odd but God

Can I talk about God for a minute? I mean the God that presents when we step out in vulnerability, trusting that the Spirit guided our first faltering step and will be there if we succeed or fail. Lord, these steps are hard. Not because they involve a dramatic climb to the mountaintop where we’ll change the world. Rather, they mock us with how very simple—and frightening—they are.

Say you’re the Dean of a big ass traditional Episcopal cathedral, and you want to open the service with a call for the congregation to take a deep breath together as we center ourselves in the Spirit—well, that’s just not done.

Or you’re African-American in a mostly white church and unfamiliar with a liturgy that confuses even cradle Episcopalians (and then you pick up the 8:00 bulletin at the 11:00 service) but you’re in the pew, determined—well, how uncomfortable is that?

Or you’re a mama with a fussy—no, screaming—baby that drowns out the guest preacher and makes all heads in the pews swivel your way—well, mortification is a real thing.

Or maybe you’re saying goodbye to a beloved staff member, and you choose to call the congregation down front so they can lay hands on her in blessing—well, only the Episcopalians in the group understand how truly odd that is.

They’re simple and easy, these steps—bringing your baby to church, worshiping in a new way, granting blessing, breathing— but those taking them make themselves vulnerable. They risk failure, ridicule, embarrassment, shame, rejection. Oh don’t exaggerate, you’re thinking, but that’s because you’re not the one taking the step. Imagine that each person is doing the one thing they wish they would never have to do—be the object of staring eyes, feel out-of-place, appear foolish, risk no one joining in. That is hard.

Becoming “that mama with the screaming baby,” showing yourself as an outsider, leading the congregation down an unfamiliar path. Each of these tiny steps in vulnerability manifests God. A spark is lit. If more than one of us is being brave and lighting sparks at the same time, the result is extraordinary. The congregation breathes deeply, calling forth the Spirit. Those in the pew who arrived as strangers leave as new friends. A baby—when he’s not screaming—bestows joy all around him. And blessing hands laid on shoulders create a bond of God.

Maybe, if we’re sure of ourselves, God struggles to be present because our focus on ourselves leaves so little room. (Don’t confuse passion with certainty—a heart fluttering like a frightened wren can beat beneath a wash of passion.) And I know—God is there, always, always there.

But God sometimes goes from unseen to seen. When we risk being real with each other, we see God’s presence in each other, in our interaction with each other, and finally in the collective infused experience that is the sum of all of our strivings to do what seems odd but is God.

I did it. I recorded the podcast that will accompany the release of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. The podcast, which I’ve named ELLEN’S VERY SOUTHERN VOICE: NOVELS TOLD WRITE, offers an extended version of the novel. Each of the 26 chapters has accompanying commentary with Helpful Train Hints and Fun Chicken Facts. The whole thing is, as they say, “in the can.” Soon, you’ll be able to tune in and hear my fabulous fiction in my very own voice. And it scares me to death.

Ellen’s Very Southern Voice business card

I considered this fear as I drove to The OAM Network studio in Crosstown Concourse to record. Something about my fear was familiar, this feeling that I was hacking a path though the jungle with a machete.  Podcasts are a thing; everyone listens to podcasts; podcasts are not unusual. But I know no one personally who has created a podcast to support her novel. So, for me, this was new ground. And I realized that this is the way it’s always been. This is the way I do things.

When I was practicing law in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s, male lawyers didn’t often make room for women to succeed along traditional paths. So I made my own way—I succeed by hunting for voids. The State Bar Association didn’t have a Health Law Section, so I created one and became its first Chair. The primary health law publication was dominated by a male lawyer, so I pitched a column to a different paper, and they launched a column with me as the contributor. When I hit a ceiling with my law firm—a firm I had dearly loved—I joined a new firm and established its Jackson office with me as the Managing Partner.

These memories helped me, really. To see a bigger picture and remind myself this is nothing new. I have been here before, and by “here” I mean that point when you’re in the middle of doing something you basically made up in your head and you look up and wonder, what the hell do you think you’re doing?

Entering voids, forging new paths, going your own way. Brave sounding, but also a bit like floating in the darkness of outer space tethered to the mothership by the slimmest of cords. Wish me luck on my re-entry.

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

 

 

Here it is. The cover for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. I love this cover. My sister Elli shot the photo—yep, she’s a professional photographer. That’s Goldie the Chicken as the chicken cover model. For the record, I am walking down abandoned railroad tracks. I wasn’t going to get hit by an oncoming train. The tracks run outside the Morris Ice Company in Jackson, Mississippi. As in Ellen MORRIS Prewitt. Anyway, here’s the back cover blurb. Look for a June release date.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

If Fannie Flagg and Jack Kerouac had a daughter, her name would be Lucinda Mae Watkins. Single-again Lucinda—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace friend chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.

My Uncle Merwin

Without him, I might have never liked eggs. That seems like such a small accomplishment, frivolous even. But I’d been forced to eat eggs almost every morning of my life. I hated eggs.  My loathing of eggs exceeded the bounds of good manners—as a child, I hid my eggs wherever I could find a secretive spot: under my plate, tucked against the clapper of the dinner bell. Later, my older sister would wake in the mornings to fix our breakfast before school, but I was a kid without an ounce of gratitude. I ranted and raved against her eggs. I was incorrigible. The only way I could tolerate an egg was hardboiled with a sliver of butter on it. Even then, I wouldn’t eat the white. I especially hated scrambled eggs.

Then my new uncle came over to our duplex on Colony Road. I was in the seventh grade, and my mother had recently married “Mr. Van Hecke.” All of my dad’s extended family came to a huge gathering at our Charlotte house for brunch. My new Uncle Merwin not only cooked; he put cheese in the scrambled eggs. Miraculously, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the hated eggs tasted good.

My Uncle Merwin was a journalist and a scholar. He is in the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. He chronicled the rise of Charlotte, NC, from an awkward pro-wrestling town to a proud Southern city. He was the last living brother of the four Van Hecke boys who grew up in Chapel Hill where their dad was the Dean of the Law School and their mom a saint. He learned and taught and shared all he knew. But, for me, his impact was deep and personal in ways most people wouldn’t even credit.

At family gatherings, at some point, I would find myself seated on the sofa next to Merwin. I was not unique to this. Most family members gravitated to his side for a spell. There, he would explain to me the intricacies of North Carolina’s participation in the Revolutionary War. Or the true story behind a power play to take over the Charlotte airport. He was a man of broad knowledge.

When I was forced to have my hips replaced at a far-too-young age, Merwin took me aside and told me not to listen to negative things people might say. He had also faced hip replacement in his 50s, and he said those bad things wouldn’t happen. When deep panic set in the night before the first surgery—I was willingly allowing someone to cut me open and insert something artificial into my body—I held on to his reassurance. I told myself, Merwin did this. I can too.

I don’t know if we ever understand the impact we have on others. If we take time to think about it, surely we place odds that our mark will be left by the “big things” we’ve managed to do. If my experience is any measure, we’re probably wrong.

Please enjoy the article about Merwin honoring him in his Charlotte Observer and the story of his life written by his son Michael.

M.S. Van Hecke

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