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Author: Ellen Morris Prewitt

Cast your mind back to 1982. The time is the NCAA Basketball Championship. The game pits the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by the brilliant John Thompson, against Dean Smith’s Carolina Tar Heels. The Hoyas’ star is the new phenom center Patrick Ewing.

As the game opens, Carolina puts up a shot. The seven-foot Ewing soars to the rim and knocks it down. “Goaltending!” the ref calls. Not once, not twice, but three more times, the same thing happens.

Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending.

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Small Things I Do FWIW

  • I shop at the Family Dollar or Dollar Tree or the downtown Walgreens rather than the ritzy Walgreens because one does not have to exercise class privilege just because one has it.
  • I choose to place myself in situations where I’m the only white person around—such as my Ob-gyn’s office—because I need to be constantly reminded of what it’s like for Black folks so much of their lives.
  • I always try to say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” to African-American clerks in a vain attempt to make up for the decades of Southern “etiquette” that prohibited such a thing.
  • I look at the world through racial lens because I know from whence I came and awareness is necessary.

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The Flexible Heretics

I shuffled clothes through the narrow hallway. Brick wall on one side, eclectic paintings on the other, I didn’t have much room to maneuver. I’d spent the week sorting my stuff (this pile goes with us, this pile to the Salvation Army) and two suitcases had come with me to our small apartment in New Orleans, not a particularly good solution. Earlier, on my 59th birthday, I had decided to physically get up and move every day until I turned 60—my decade birthdays always generate a year-long preparation. This year, I vowed to be in motion every day in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise done—mostly walking really fast down the sidewalk. As I shoved a bag aside with my foot, it dawned on me that I had inadvertently landed on a theme for the year.

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I’ve never been with a winner. Well, except that streak when the North Carolina Tar Heels won the NCAA Basketball tournament and the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series and Peyton Manning and the Colts won the Super Bowl.

That was an outlier.

The problem is, I don’t tend to pick my “teams” based on winner criteria. For example, at the onset of my legal career when I was choosing law firms, I didn’t make my decision based on where I could make the most money or whether the firm was considered “the best” in the state. I looked at a firm’s history: during Mississippi’s Civil Rights wars, which side was the firm on? As a result, the firm I joined was not the one at the top, the “winner” in the eyes of a state that really wanted to forget its Civil Rights history. It was simply the most principled law firm in town.

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My Patriotism, Who Knew?

For almost a week now, creeping unbidden into my brain is the image of me early voting. I keep seeing me walking across the voting precinct floor. I pause, touching the arm of the poll worker who is leading me to my machine. He is older, African American, and he pauses too.

“I feel like I did when I voted for President Obama,” I tell him, trying to explain my emotion.

“It’s important, voting is,” he says.

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My Choice, One Way or Another

For some of you
this might be too much
information,
but for too long we haven’t shared
then complained when others don’t understand.
So here goes:
During the abortion wars of my youth (and by “youth” I mean when I was in my 30s) when the airwaves were filled with demands to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest, I wrote a letter that, if I found myself pregnant with a rapist’s child, I could leave for my family explaining why I killed myself rather than allow someone to have that type of control over my body.

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Dressing Up My Vote

Usually, when I vote, I dress to scare the other voters standing in line. I want them to look at me and think, “Dear God—she’s got the right to vote?”

But this morning when I thought about casting my vote to elect our next president, I went back to 1982 when I arrived at Wise Carter law firm in Jackson, Mississippi as a new associate. I’d brought with me six pieces of clothing (three bottoms and three tops) that I intended to transform into my wardrobe by mixing and matching. My sister, who’d been living in Jackson while I’d been in North Carolina, wisely advised that Mississippi wasn’t yet ready for a female lawyer wearing pants.

My wardrobe thus cut by a third, I drove to New Orleans (because for 19 years I refused to admit Jackson had clothes worthy of my style), and I bought four new pieces. Two of these were an Armani blouse and an Ann Klein skirt. I did not buy any more clothes for a longggg time.

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The alarm went off, and I drifted, reliving my dreams. Startling awake, I checked the time. I still had an hour to make it to church. Until I looked closely. The secondhand was stuck on the 4, click, click, clicking. After I hurriedly dressed, I ran downstairs where real clocks exist. I had 8 minutes to make it to St. Mary’s.
I was only a bit late, as were others. This service fills up as the liturgy unfolds. By the time Dean Andy asked me to come down front and assist with the chalice, the space was bursting with worshipers.

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Put Him Back in His Place

Why am I so mad about the presidential race? Because I’ve lived through this shit. I’ve been stalked while riding my bike, cutting and swerving through the neighborhood, trying to get away from the pickup truck, pedaling as fast as I could, realizing I couldn’t outrun him, couldn’t keep up my flight much longer. I’ve had a man press his hard penis against me in a crowd, leering at me in glee when I whipped around to find out what the hell was going on. I’ve been violently grabbed by my supervisor and forcibly kissed when I thought I was building a professional relationship.

That’s not why I’m mad.

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The Morris Girls

Her face is alive with joy. And beauty, such beauty. In her fitted navy dress that hugs every curve, with Bigmama’s diamond bar pin sparkling in the vee of her neckline, she walks down the aisle with perfect poise. And confidence. She has such confidence. My heart swells with love for, and pride in, my sister. My big sister. The mother of the bride. She is gorgeous.

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We Can Fix Police Shootings

Those cities in the US experiencing dramatic declines in police shootings, how did they do it? Did they round up the citizenry and instruct them on the proper way to react during a police encounter (“Nope, nope, nope—hands on the wheel”)? Or did they go into African-American neighborhoods and distribute fliers (“When stopped by the police, make no sudden movements”)? Maybe they aired PSAs during the nightly news (“Even when surrounded by five officers pointing guns at you, remain calm”)?

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Sic ‘Em, Brain

The young woman squirmed in her seat, responding to the hypnotist’s questions. She and I were students at North Carolina’s Governor’s School in the 1970s. In the lecture halls of Governor’s School, I first learned of quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity. I also first experienced hypnotism.

Put under, the student was regaling us with her memories of being a sailor on an 18th century French ship. The hypnotist told us if he touched her arm with a piece of chalk, telling her it was a lit cigarette, a blister would form. But he didn’t do that with minors. So, instead, she spoke of sailing terms which she, when conscious, knew nothing about.

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Yikes!

What was I thinking? Sending out such a request? Yes, my agent is shopping my novel to big name publishing houses. Yes, editors at those houses—complete strangers—are judging my work. Plus, I’ve been in writing groups for years where judging nascent work is the name of the game. But this is different.

I put out a request on Facebook for Beta readers on my Memphis mystery, Harboring Evil. The story is set in Memphis and features a formerly homeless man who gets involved in a murder (the technical genre is “amateur sleuth mystery”). Here is its “elevator” sentence:

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1: You don’t get Fitbit steps by wearing walking shoes.

2: The heat index is real.

3: Toilet paper doesn’t buy itself.

4: The dog likes me best when I’m giving her a treat.

5: When I say “I don’t want to do anything today,” I mean, “I only want to do what I want to do today.”

6: I spend most days not doing what I want.

7: Doing what I want is really hard.

8: Some days it is simply too hot to be outside (see #2 above).

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The Unvarnished Truth

I was in the eighth grade. We had recently moved to North Carolina where we met our new Van Hecke family. One branch of the family lived in Charlotte, the same city we did. That was Daddy’s younger brother Merwin, his wife Faye, and the kids, Kelley, Michael, and Charlie. My sister and I had played in their yard; they’d visited our duplex. Yet, we didn’t know each other that well. Until the day Aunt Faye took me to school.

Faye was a high school English teacher. I wasn’t in high school. I was an extremely shy junior high student who thought she was naturally smarter than most everybody else. (I’ve always thought more of myself than I should.) Faye wasn’t an ordinary teacher. She was an intellectual free-thinker. Thus did she bring me up short the day I began talking about the war we were studying in geography class.

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Entertaining Angels Unawares

Like a water bug on a lake, he zipped past me, twirling around the display case, flailing his skinny arms, talking to himself, entertaining himself at the T-Mobile store. He was my favorite kind of child. A frenetic, voluble young boy of five or six, the type of child who might puzzle his classmates and drive his parents to distraction.

A child who, in fact, was driving his parents to distraction as they tried to talk to the clerk about business plans and Tax IDs. Every once in a while his mother—stepping around the baby sleeping in its carrier at her feet—would scoot away from the counter to tell the boy to quit, or stop, or sit. His dad divided his attention, too, between his business dealings and cutting his eyes to see what his older child was up to.

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What the Hell, Dentists?

For all of my adult life, I’ve been flossing. Okay, okay. Not when I was in college–who needs to floss when the only thing going in your mouth is cold beer? And not when I was a young lawyer. Man, I was too busy trying to make partner to floss. And not when I was newly divorced—I gave up all reputable pursuits during that period of my life and flossing is the very definition of reputable, so there was that.

But, now, I’m saying. When I’ve begun to see the specter of the yawning grave and care about how long I’m gonna be on this mortal coil. A person in that position pays attention when the authorities say something adds years to your life. Flossing was one of those things. As a result, I’ve been flossing for YEARS. And you’re saying flossing has no demonstrable benefits?

For the last forty years, the dental profession has put flossing next to Godliness. I mean, right smack up against it. I didn’t just take up flossing for my health. I flossed because it was the RIGHT thing to do. I was a better person for flossing. Flossing gave me MORAL points. I’d look in the mirror at this stupid activity and think, yeah, this stupid piece of string keeps breaking in your stupid fingers because if God had meant you to put something between your teeth, she wouldn’t have made them SO DAMN CLOSE TOGETHER. But, that’s okay. You will go to heaven. With clean teeth.

Flossing was my get-out-of-your-slovenly-habits-free card. I might go to bed with my mascara on. I might rack my brain to remember the last time I took a vitamin. I might forget to wear deodorant in July in Memphis, Tennessee and only remember when I begin to sweat like a pig. But, by God, I flossed.

Now I read where, after some diligent research, the AP can find no actual, reliable studies showing flossing is beneficial. We’re not saying the studies disagree. Or the results are debatable. Or tough to discern. NO RELIABLE STUDIES HAVE EVER BEEN DONE! One study lasted for the astounding period of . . . two weeks. One focused on a single instance of flossing.

It’s like I’ve been eating spinach because Popeye told me to.

This is not a no-harm, no-foul situation. I have heart issues that mean flossing isn’t just flossing. It’s brushing, followed by mouthwash, followed by flossing. Flossing entails risks. Every time I release groady bacteria into my mouth, I have to make sure the buggers are zapped before they travel to my heart and infect it. Or as the article says, “Though frequency is unclear, floss can dislodge bad bacteria that invade the bloodstream and cause dangerous infections, especially in people with weak immunity, according to the medical literature.” I am not weak. I am BRAVE every time I floss. As it now appears, for no reason.

So, okay, the dentists still say brushing is good. But nothing shows adding flossing to the mix is worth anything. That’s a fifty-fifty record in the dental advice department, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s like me, the writer, advising dentists to always put a period at the end of a sentence and to end a question, draw a duck.

The failure of the one outshines the success of the other, doesn’t it?

If four out of five dentists recommended I wake up tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t do it.

You dentists just keep on flossing. And when you do, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Who’s the fool now, you with the string dangling from your teeth?

I failed at the conference for racial justice this weekend.

I gave racially tinged advice to a perfectly innocent question that had no race element to it.

I mistook one African-American woman with glasses and short hair for a different African-American woman with glasses and short hair, because all African-Americans look alike to us white folks.

Multiple times, I walked up to a conversation between two African-Americans and stood there like a white person, expecting to interrupt and be acknowledged.

When asked what next step I was going to take, out of all the things I’d written down, I chose a vague, politically correct answer because I wanted to show I was down with the program.

But worst of all, at a conference subtitled “Sacred Conversations on Race,” I argued with a man in my small group. Not once, but in some demented version of Groundhog’s Day, I argued with him twice. On the EXACT SAME SUBJECT. Sweet baby Jesus, that is failure.

They say that failure is an inevitable part of talking about race. That white folks fear this failure so much, we just don’t do it. We clam up rather than risk saying a racist thing, a hurtful thing. If we’re silent, at least we don’t risk stepping into a pile of mess (or, as the Conference called it Situations Happening In our Town-Memphis).

The way most conferences unfold doesn’t help. Invariably, after listening to a mind-bending talk or watching an eye-opening video, we’re directed to small groups where strangers circle up folding chairs and commence solving the world’s problems. One of us kicks it off, offering an opinion that hangs in the air. No one responds because back and forth slides too easily into argument, and the last thing anyone wants to be is the obnoxious group member who argues (again: I was that person, me with all my Parker Palmer active-listening training, not just arguing but interrupting—what the hell, Ellen?)

In contrast to my argumentative self, two members of our group made astonishing, transformational comments. Afterwards, when the conference was over and I’d been talking to my husband about the experience for, oh, 48 hours straight, I heard myself saying, “Those two women, they didn’t argue with someone else’s truth. They spoke their own truth.”

I paused, letting that sink into my brain.

The name of the Trinity Institute conference was “Listen for a Change: Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice.” Everyone at the conference who spoke to the title assumed it meant listen to SOMEONE ELSE. But I find listening to myself to be incredibly valuable. So I tried it, and what I heard was a white woman arguing with a white man about what really happens when African-Americans encounter the police.

After a bit, I told my husband, “I need to articulate my own truth so I can speak from that.”

What is my truth?

It’s a truth born in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s when racial injustice was the legal, embraced societal norm. It continued as an adult when I left my home state and devoured every book I could find on what was really happening when I was a kid. Over time, my reading spread out to include the South then the country, slavery then sharecropping, convict leasing then Jim Crow, poets and historians, memoirs and novels and 1970s sociological studies—all of it, or at least as much as I could get my hands on.

My truth switched from the page to people when I hooked up with the Memphis School of Servant Leadership where I was schooled by African-Americans willing to hang in there with white ignorance (I’m not beating myself up; “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge). My flat out baptism in truth happened when I and a handful of brave souls who were living on the street started the Door of Hope Writing Group. What had been “book learning” and protected conversations in safe spaces became extraordinarily personal.

Every week for eight years, the members of writing group gathered around a table and wrote our truth. Gradually, we branched out, and over time we went to doctor’s appointments and museums. To mental health facilities and awards ceremonies. To the bank and the blood bank. To court and to church. To galas and grant interviews and Graceland. To restaurants and retreats and jail (and jail and jail and jail). To the hospital and into neighborhoods where I was told, “Lock your door and don’t stop on the way outta here.” To the library and to shelters. To funerals. To public readings and the park and wherever we needed to go. And what I learned from our time together was that white America has no idea what Black America experiences.

Yeah, I’d seen some, but only enough to know that when Black folk tell me what’s happening to them, I need to listen. Their description may be totally foreign to my experience of the world, and that is irrelevant. We whites see the world through our glass darkly, and we need help to see the light.

So if an African-American tells me the police stopped her because she was Black or arrested her because she was Black, or shot her friend because he was Black, I’m going to believe her unless and until I see evidence that, in that particular instance, it isn’t true. And still I will weep, because it could’ve been true.

So next time I’m in a small group and another white person begins analyzing the truth of police encounters with African-Americans, I won’t argue with him so he can see more clearly. No, I will ask, “What do the African-Americans viewing the tape say happened?”

So, yes, keep showing up and struggling to talk about race. To do otherwise is to really and truly fail. But, as you show up, make sure you listen for a change.

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Two years ago, my husband and I went to Central Europe and heard the stories of those once neighbors—laughing together, eating supper, playing cards—who fell to pieces over “Serb” and “Croat” and “Muslim,” and began killing one another.

We all know the stories of Germany where those who were once the piano teacher, the gardner, the old lady in the flat below became “the Jews,” and were sent to the ovens to die.

We read with dismay how those in the Middle East—Sunnis and Shias, Coptic Christians and Muslim Egyptians—work together, play together, marry one another—do everything but worship together—then begin slaughtering one another.

We say it can’t happen here, but it already has. With Native Americans—even those who had become Christians, living next door to the whites, knocking on their doors to borrow sugar. Our neighbors, until the sparkle of gold or the greedy cotton seed forced them off the land and onto the Trail of Tears, a trail that swallowed one-fifth of the Cherokee nation in death. And that’s only part of it.

I pray it won’t happen here again, but I read how Facebook “friends” talk to one another, and I hear it in the name-calling, labeling, cursing. The objectification of the “liberal” or “conservative” (and folks aren’t using those words, but I’m not gonna repeat ugliness). The coarse appellations tagged on the other side’s candidate, then repeated with glee. The discourse is as unattractive when someone’s attacking an “opponent” as when those in a like-minded thread are echoing their beliefs. It’s terrible, really. The way neighbor is speaking to neighbor. Friend to friend. Former neighbor, former friend.

I type these words from the great room of the house we recently finished building. During those many months, we dealt with electricians and assemblers, landscapers and garbagemen, utility workers and architects, designers and cabinetmakers, curtain hangers and sofa salesmen. I don’t know the political persuasion of a one of them. Some, I’m certain, are “conservatives” who hold wildly different ideas than my “liberal” self.

But that’s not the way I see them.

I see the Direct TV guy who sweated on my porch for an hour in 100 degree heat to get our TV working. And the mover who lifted an entire set of bunk bed iron onto his shoulder and hauled it up two flights of stairs. And the cabinetmaker who patiently met until we came up with not cabinets at all but a work table. And the sofa salesman who called two days after his surgery to make sure the sofa delivery had gone well. And the garbagemen who made a second, special trip to pick up our trash because they didn’t know we’d moved in and needed garbage pick-up. And the architect who specified down to the detail of frigging lightbulbs, because he wanted us happy.

These men and women built us a sanctuary and became our neighbors. Yet, I am supposed to redefine them based on whether they are “liberal” or “conservative”? I won’t do that, anymore than I will give into the incessant, seductive political drumbeat and redefine friends who have shown me their caring, support, and even love, simply because we have differing political thoughts.

They say the election is “divisive.” But it can only be divisive if we agree to be divided based on thoughts we’ve conjured up in our heads. I don’t agree to let that happen.

No, you are not my conservative friend. You are my friend.

 

 

 

Our New Surroundings

We’ve finished the beach house. I told y’all about the narrative I’d created to guide the process along. I’m only gonna share one photo, or else I’ll go crazy showing you my whole house. This is a guest bedroom, which actually gives you a good idea about what the house looks like:

The Memphis bedroom
The Memphis bedroom

I need to pick up a round table from our house in Memphis to use beside the right of the bed, but otherwise this room is finished. The maps over the bed, a gift from our daughter-in-law, show the meanderings of the Mississippi River from the 1820s to the 1940s. I love them. We wanted a peaceful, “non-beachy” beach house. Or, as my husband says, “a 1940s Caribbean beach house.” I’m pleased with how it turned out.

So. Having gotten the house in manageable order, I’ve returned to revising JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. Here’s the foot on the new table I’m using on the beach house porch as my writing desk:

The Claw table
The Claw table

I figure if that doesn’t inspire pirate writing, I don’t know what will!

Oh—and stay tuned: a new Thumb Prayer page for this website is in the works!!!

Onward and upward!

A 4th Moment in Mississippi

In the assemble hall at Power Elementary School once a week we’d gather for sing-alongs. Our wooden chairs had squeaky black-hinged seats that flipped up when not in use. Sit too far back and, if you were a skinny, skinny child like me, the seats flipped up when in use as well. In this cavernous space with its regimented rows, I’d belt out while singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” the line “land where my father died,” because my father had died, and I thought the song belonged to me. Here during our group moments, we skipped singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic—”Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”—because this song had been the North’s battle song during the Civil War. And we were in Jackson, Mississippi. And it was the 1960s when that history still very much mattered.

Today, in 2016, I returned to church for the first time in many years as a Mississippi property owner. Up until then, I’d been thinking of our new house on the Gulf Coast as 45 minutes from New Orleans. An extension of our lives in the Big Easy, where history is more defined by Jazz and pirates, French and Spanish architecture, and Creole cooking than the typical concerns of “Southern” history. Or I’d been focusing on the “ALL are welcome here” signs I’d seen in almost every Bay St. Louis store window, an explicit rejection of the anti-gay hate bills the Mississippi legislature recently passed. But we are back in Mississippi, no doubt about it—yesterday at the local 4th of July celebration I heard nothing but country music blasting from pickup trucks.

Inside the sanctuary of the tiny Episcopal church, the windows opened to the gulf, sunlight sparkling off the rippling bay. From another window, you gazed at an angel carved from the remnants of a Hurricane Katrina oak. The hurricane obliterated the church, along with so much of the coast. The church rebuilt, and the angel now stands witness on its grounds.

As we slowly proceeded through the Episcopal liturgy, I couldn’t take my eyes from the windows. What matters the complicated theology we have worked out in our heads when the sunlight glances like diamonds off the tiny waves? How important is the exclusivity of “the only son of God” proclamation when the blue of ocean spreads freely into the azure sky? It was a perfect combination for me. A God-filled sanctuary—a backdrop, a foundation—from whence I could experience God in creation.

Then the choir began to sing the Offertory anthem, that being the song the choir performs while the church is collecting donations. The choir was small, wobbly. Maybe eight people. But brave-hearted. On this Sunday of the 4th of July in Bay St.Louis, Mississippi the church sang as its anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

I have no idea if they did it on purpose. I don’t know if people even think anymore about the overlays once imposed on the song. But, for me, with my history, it was a moment.

A church in Mississippi was singing as its offering on July 4th Sunday the former battle song of the North. When the aging, white-people choir sang about the coming of the Lord, I heard the Lord’s arrival in them choosing this song. I heard reconciliation. Repudiation of division and a choosing of America. The United States of America.

Change comes with a slow creakiness and then it is upon us. It is our place to recognize it when it arrives.

I no more want to know you like assault weapons than I want to know what kinky things you do with a porn magazine in your hand. You see, if you’ve moved past guns for self-protection into defending your right to own war weaponry, that’s a fetish. And—I’m not trying to be rude—I simply don’t need to know that about you.

Yes, I understand that 1st Amendment rights limit how much I can say about your flipping that magazine page, doing whatever turns you on. You might argue 2nd Amendment rights also prevent me from asking you to please remove your trigger finger from your assault rifle.

The problem is, whether or not assault weapons are constitutional and what I think about someone are two different things. You might be someone I care about. Or respect. Or even just know in passing. And if you tell me you love your assault rifle, I’m going to look at you sideways. Hell, I might give you the side eye if you just say you like assault rifles. Or that you believe others should be able to own assault rifles. My view of you will change. And not in a good way.

In order to prevent that from happening, everyone, please rely on your absolute right to keep fetishized behavior private unto yourself. Seriously, don’t tell me. I’m not making some sort of fancy argument here—I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

Yeah, yeah. We’re supposed to respect divergent opinions. How can we “engage in dialogue” if I turn my head? And, man, am I being judgy or what? Telling folks their macho military gun is a fetish?

But I have to say something. Because it’s gotten to the point people think an assault rifle is a normal thing, perfectly okay to talk about in public (we can thank the NRA for selling us that bill of goods.). If I don’t issue a warning, you might launch into a defense of your private behavior, not realizing what you’re revealing. In the end, I’ve only got your best interest in mind.

Before 2004, this public disclosure of private facts wasn’t a problem. Congress banned the sale of these weapons. But the NRA went on a campaign to rebrand weapons of war as “sporting rifles.” And, voila—a fetish slunk from the back pages of gun magazines into the glaring light of day.

Do I want to repeal the 2nd Amendment? I certainly do not. Do I want commonsense regulation of gun ownership? I do. I’m not even asking for radical regulation, such as we impose on abortion rights. Or unnecessary restrictions, such as what we’ve done with voting rights.

I’m asking that we declare limits, the same way we do for 1st Amendment rights. Pornography, protected; obscenity, not protected. What I’m saying is, by community standards, your assault weapon designed to kill fifty of our fellow and sister human beings in a matter of minutes, is obscene. I mean, for heaven’s sake, even Walmart won’t sell these things.

But I have strayed from my main point, which is: please don’t tell me if you support allowing military-style assault weapons in the hands of private citizens—yeah, baby!!! I don’t want to know that type of information about you.

I thank you for your cooperation.

In the pouring rain, across a highway divider in an unknown town, I sit at a red light, listening to the rain thump the car. Gone are the jokes about the cheap hotel room that cut the tension while we toured the tiny downtown where trees squared the block and the rotunda stood tall. I fell in love with the sidewalks so straight, but then we left the white concrete and landed on the streaming highway with the rain sloshing the four corners of our truncated world.

Something rustles inside my husband’s head and, turning toward me he suggests we eat at the 5/4 Steakhouse across the median. A big red sign flashes in the standing water: “Welcome to the Quarter.”

Once upon a time when we traveled for fun, we’d ride to the real French Quarter in New Orleans where we ventured into the coolness of the antique stores and wandered until the wooden floors gave way to dirt three rooms back. One such trip, I bought the Jesus icon with the silver cover that slipped on and off. I carried it under my arm, out of the overpowering smell of the merchandise rotting on the shelves and across the parking lot to gaze at the boats docked on the river, so mechanical, black and greasy and full of metal. Churning and smoking and heaving through the water. Then we drove home, and I hung Jesus on the bathroom wall.

We exit the car, struggling through the rain, and land dripping in the entranceway. A stop clock graces the maitre d’s table with a sign below it: “Served in a Quarter of an hour or your meal free!” The place is big on signs.

We order steak and potatoes, and while we wait for the arrival of the food, Paul throws his hands in the air. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you. I have to tell you this.”

It’s a long story about two drunken women at a roulette table in Vegas, a mother and daughter, I think. Paul travels to Vegas on business. He’s in the entertainment business. He says he needs to travel on the weekends, that’s when business is done. Today is Thursday and only Alabama, so he’s brought me with him.

I read the little stick that came protruding from my potato. “I’ve been rubbed and scrubbed and you can eat my skin.” Shaped like a small smiling spud, the potato stick winks at me. I slip it in my pocket.

“I told him to hell with that.” Paul is cutting into a steak so rare it could get up and walk away from the table. “‘My damn plane is leaving,’ I said, and I hung up on the son of a bitch.”

Somewhere I think the story has changed, like channels surfed in the night when you’re not paying good enough attention. The waiter comes up for more service, but Paul waves him away, dismissive the way he is.

“Well?”

He’s talking to me.

“Well, what?”

“Well, what do you think?”

I finger my plastic potato prize. “Sorry. I kind of lost the plot.”

“That’s not very nice.” He wags his head, jaw to the side. “I tell you what, I bring you on a trip and a spool of barbed wire, and I’m fixed.”

No, I tell you what. When I get home, I’m going to take the Jesus with its silver cover from the wall and I’m gonna take the gold-embroidered bath towels and the silver candlesticks from the dining room table and the writing paper from inside the writing desk—and maybe the writing desk, too—and I’m going to stuff it in a suitcase with my new potato prize and then when it’s time to go, I’ll be ready.

And you can take that truth and hang it on the wall.

(an old short story I came across when cleaning out papers; as it was thoroughly written, I thought I’d share)

 

 

 

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

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