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Author: Ellen Morris Prewitt

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

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

 

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