Have I told you about the time I was at a book launch for my beloved mentor Rebecca McClanahan where I found myself seated on a sofa and a woman with the most pronounced South Carolina low country drawl I’d ever heard leaned over and said, “My huzzzz-band wrote Riiiiising Tide,” and I realized the man seated next to me was John Barry, the author of the book that was at that moment my most favorite book ever? I was not cool. I erupted into a fit of hero-worship. John graciously offered to sign my book if I mailed it to him, which I did, and he did, and I have loved him even more ever since.
Now I’m the one who’s published a book that’s calling for me to sign it for all the lovely people who are buying it. I refuse to be daunted by the geographical distance that separates us. Blame it on my peripatetic life or relationships born on the Internet, but we’re miles apart. You couldn’t sling the book at me if you had the world’s strongest arm. And I WANT to sign it.
If you click here and send me your address using this website’s contact form, I’ll send you a bookplate, a little sticker you can put in the front of your book. I’ll sign it. With my name. And inscribe it to whomever you want (you or a person receiving the book as a gift.) It’s specially designed for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and features a shot of the book cover. I’ll send it to you FOR FREE (I mean, it’s an envelope and stamp 🙂 ). It’s cute as all get out.
To make this work, put Sign My Book! in the Subject box of the Contact form and in the Message box tell me:
* how many you need—I’ll send you one for each book you’ve bought
* who you want (each) inscribed to or if you simply want me to sign (them)
* the address where you want me to send it
Then hit Submit. In a few days, you’ll have a book signed by me, the author. It’ll be magic.
Lord, why do I want you to buy my book? What’s so important within the (amazingly awesome) covers that justifies your spending $13.99 for a printbook or $3.99 for an ebook? I mean, why does this book matter, other than the fact that it’s mine?
Top Ten Reasons to Buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE (From Worst to Best)
10. You feel sorry for me and want to make me feel better by liking my book
9.You need to money launder $13.99, and no one can trace your money to my book
8. You want to see if I can spell “sashayed”
7. You’d given up on my ever publishing a novel, and now you’re old as Methuselah, and you can’t afford to wait for the next novel to come out to see if you like it better
6. You are my mother, my husband, or my dog
5.I bought your book
4. You want to find out how an entire novel can be set on a train without being boring as dirt
3. You’re headed to the beach and need a really good escapism read
2. You want to read about sex in a treehouse
1. You love chickens and want to see them passionately defended in a novel
1 +You’ve heard my short stories and know my novel will be funny as hell with a good message
1 ++You think the cover is really funny and promises a good read
Final 1 (I promise) The jacket blurb caught your attention and wont’ let go:
Okay, there were 13 reasons. I tend to share Lucinda’s exuberance. And 13 is an unlucky number, so I had to lie.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—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 fried 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.
When I left Mississippi, I lost the Midnight Gardner.
In the middle of the night, he would arrive. The next morning, on my way to work, when I locked the door behind me, a small brown paper bag with a crumpled neck waited on the hood of my car. Inside the bag tumbled tomatoes. The tomatoes might be a little wormy or spotted with yellow patches, but they were homegrown. They were delicious. I would eat so many my tongue broke out in hives.
The Midnight Gardner did not confine himself to tomatoes. Sometimes a round cantaloupe would bulge the bag. The Midnight Gardener was known to prefer the Ambrosia Hybrid melon whose meat was so smooth it would melt under the knife, the knife slicing through the orange, the slice curving onto the plate.
I knew the bag was from the Midnight Gardener and not some bomb-wielding terrorist because the M.G. always used Ace Hardware bags. How he got such a large cache of these bags, I don’t know. Sometimes, when special instructions were needed, a typed note would be stapled to the bag and, in a spidery hand, would be the valediction: “Signed, the Midnight Gardener.” Standing in the morning air of my stoop, spying the bag’s brown striped visage, my mouth watered. Jumbled inside would be pods of homegrown okra aching for an iron skillet, calling for buttermilk and cornmeal, eager to be fried in hot oil.
Or—oh, my goodness—the figs. Purple skinned, shaped like the ball on a court jester’s hat, the figs would be stuffed into a plastic baggie. The baggie steamed from the breathing life of the figs. Rescue the caught figs quickly, or they liquefied. Don’t bother with peeling, wash them off, sink your teeth into their seeded insides. Gulp them down—plenty more where that came from.
How did I know about the unlimited quantity of figs? Because the figs came from my family’s tree, the officially-certified State Champion Fig Tree of Mississippi. That means it’s the largest fig tree in the state. The gargantuan tree produced enough figs to make fig preserves, fig tarts, fig whatever. But because my family is a family of fig purists, mostly just plain, raw figs. Summer rolled around, the tree did its job, and the figs flowed.
Until I moved away, and it all stopped.
Not right away. For a while the Midnight Gardener took to the post. He couriered the produce between my old law firm in Jackson and my new law firm in Memphis.
But that didn’t last.
Law firms aren’t big on couriered produce.
Soon enough, I lost it all. Figs, Ambrosia melon. Silver Queen corn. Banana peppers. The food of the gods offered like manna in fistfuls, sufficient only for a couple of days. More than sustenance, it was essence. The essence of what it meant to live in the South in the summer. To be fed with the land’s bounty, not from a tilled field but from a plot of earth you could identify. Shared produce, gifted from a generosity of seeding and weeding and watering and hoeing and picking before the pods got too large, the worms too destructive, the birds too greedy. Then slipped into a crumpled brown bag by my Uncle Hebron who donned his magical cape and became, for the night, the Midnight Gardener.
Stepping into my drive, he settled his bounty on the hood of my car. He is still with us, my uncle, but not the produce he produced.
For all of you who’ve been following my tortuous path to publishing a novel, I am pleased to announce that TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE will be released this coming Tuesday, June 26. Full and exciting instructions on how to purchase it will be posted right here on this very blog on Monday. Love to you all, ellen
When Mississippi was dry, my mother drove across the bridge to buy liquor. The bridge was concrete, pockmarked and moss-covered. Below meandered the muddy Pearl, a brown sludge of a river that lazed along until the spring rains came and flooded its banks, a rising loaf of a river that spread through unprotected Jackson.
Jackson was the law-abiding capital of the state. Semi-law-abiding. Its citizens, like my mother, bought black market liquor. They didn’t buy it in law-abiding Jackson. Yes, they drank it in Hinds County, even at the Jackson Country Club, where in 1966 the raid by the Sheriff’s Department during the revelry of the Carnival Ball—the deputy sheriffs with raised axes surprising the tuxedoed men and perfumed women, ruining the biggest social event of the year—belatedly put an end to Mississippi’s Prohibition.
Yes, you read that correctly: Mississippi did not allow the legal sale of liquor until 1966. Before that, the good—but thirsty—citizens of Jackson drove across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and entered Rankin County’s Gold Coast to buy their liquor. The liquor was bootleg. Sort of. Mississippi might have been officially dry, but it also officially collected sales tax on the liquor. The black market tax was collected by the State Treasurer who would later become Governor of Mississippi. No one held the man’s black market tax collections against him. How could they? They were the ones paying the tax.
Only on special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, would Mother cross the bridge, and only once do I remember her including us, her children, in these trips. Deep into the curve of Jefferson Street, we turned left instead of taking a right to Battlefield Park where we usually played. The car bumped onto the bridge, the joints of the bridge clicking under our tires. Nose pressed to the window, I watched the overhanging vines squirm in the breeze, flicking their dragon tongues.
We crunch into the gravel parking lot. Mother disappears inside. I gaze at all the lawbreakers, men in cowboy boots, and wait for Mother to emerge with a brown bag. We drive away.Back across the bridge, back into the normal world where we played tennis and swam in swimming pools and didn’t undertake illegal activity unless it was to snake our arms inside the vending machine to snag a free Zero candy bar and, even then, sooner or later, we confessed.
Last week I learned the iron stool that stood in my grandmother’s kitchen throughout my childhood then moved to Mother’s kitchen after Mamo died; later, it would make its way to my sister’s kitchen—the stool was from the Gold Coast. It was confiscated in a raid by a deputy sheriff who donated the doubly illegal stool to his family friends.
Now a family heirloom.
Hard stool under my butt, foot propped, sipping a beer: I’m Gold Coast dreaming in Mother’s kitchen. Where, I want to know, does a Mississippi girl buy her illegal booze today?
The summer I went to camp, it rained every day for eight weeks. I was in the eighth grade. It was my first major camp experience. I’d been to church camp (Baptist and Episcopalian) and Girl Scout camp (in Brandon, Mississippi, where we chased a greased watermelon around the lake), but not to a camp where girls traveled from Puerto Rico to attend. We were in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, me and all the rich kids. And every day, it rained on our heads.
I was at the camp on sort of a scholarship. My grandfather had left me and my two sisters trust fund money. Yeah, you might think that made me one of the rich kids, but it didn’t. Our trust fund money was largely unavailable, to the extent I told one of my friends that I had money in the bank, I just could never get to it. My parents couldn’t have afforded to send three girls into the mountains at hundreds of dollars a week for no reason other than to have a good time. “The trust includes education funds,” Mother said. I guess learning to live in the pouring rain was an education.
At the last minute, Mother had gone to Sears and bought ponchos for us to take with us, because ponchos were on the list of required clothing (any hints there?). The other girls’ ponchos were daisy-flowered in soft baby blues and spring greens. The Morris sisters’ ponchos were fluorescent orange like highway workers wear. Every day, head down and trudging to lunch, I could pick us out of the sea of ponchos: me; my one-year older sister; and baby Bettie, bright orange flames in the wavering line of little girl ponchos.
The spots of orange were about it for my interaction with my siblings. Summer camp is segmented: first by age group and then by cabin and finally by bunk bed. I had a great cabin, I remember that. But at the foot of my bunk bed, in the locker we’d bought for the camp experience, my clothes grew moldy from all the rain.
It did not rain the entire day, only every day. Spurts of sunshine appeared, but even then, when your horse passed beneath a low branch, droplets showered you. The tennis courts carried puddles. When you held the bow taut on the archery range, wetness tickled your ankles. We wrote home: “It’s raining.” Back in Charlotte, Mother moaned: “All that money!”
But in the snatched sunshine, on the steeply sloped hills, along the dirt paths, I learned to run. Up and down, swerving to miss grabbing roots, feet pounding—I ran. Looking back, my body may have been overwrought with the need for physical activity. In summers past, I’d spent my time on the tennis courts, every day, all day, smacking the tennis ball. The inactivity of rainy camp chaffed, and my need burst through.
So I ran. This was long before “jogging” was an activity. And I wasn’t jogging. I was full-tilt running, pausing only when I had to choose a fork in the path. If you say to me today, “Camp Ton-A-Wandah,” this is the memory that rises to the surface: me on the paths, running. At the time, it was the purest form of physical activity I’d ever experienced. Later, I would recognize that physical immersion in sex, but that was a long, long way off.
No, the summer of the eighth grade, my camp nickname was “Stick.” I had yet to get my period. I can’t remember if I even wore a bra. Stuck in a place between childhood and teenage-dom, I was loath to take the next step. I rightly surmised it meant swapping the joy in my body for angst. Too soon, freckles would become blemishes, the smooth front of my soft tennis shirt a defect. Teenage girls, in those days, frequently did not appreciate the way we were built.
But that summer, on the pine straw paths of the North Carolina mountains, before I began worrying about whether my hair looked stupid or my poncho was something a construction worker would wear, I waited for a break in the rain and, when the sun appeared, I ran for dear life.
On the flight to Jerusalem, I watched my Israeli seat mate, a seasoned traveler, do a nifty trick with her contacts, using no water. I followed suit, and two days later I couldn’t see out of my right eye. Of all things, one of the priests on our trip had been an ophthalmologist before taking his orders. “The human eye,” he said, “is the fastest healing organ in the body. But it needs to be covered up.”
Again, in a tumble of coincidence, one of the other priests in our group was blind, the result of a high school accident that severed his optic nerve. He produced a black eye patch. I put it on. Moshe Dyan was reborn.
Of all the sights in Jerusalem—a city filled with extreme costumers—apparently nothing was as odd as a white woman wearing an eye patch. Crowds parted at my approach. Staring abounded, as did laughter. At age forty-eight, I learned what it felt like to be made fun of for a physical difference. A schoolboy spied me in the window of the tour bus and pointed, doubling over with laughter. Then he poked his friends so they, too, could howl. “You look like a model,” one of the women in my group said, because I had cut my hair so very short for the trip. Not to the little boys, I didn’t.
Most surprising, though, was the effect the patch produced on the notorious groupings that make up Jerusalem’s Old City. The city is visually divided into tribes. You can tell who belongs to which tribe immediately based on their clothing. The Palestinian women wore monochromatic pantsuits. Orthodox Jewish men were draped in black with their distinctive beards. Armenians tended toward traditional dress that complemented their blue eyes. We Americans were well-recognizable in our typical tourist attire. My black eye patch acted as a talisman of acceptance, or at least tolerance.
When I misstepped (literally) and bumped into someone, the automatic gesture of annoyance interrupted itself mid-expression and became a hand blessing. Jew, Muslim, Armenian concentrated to figure me out. Who was I? Why was I wearing a patch? I was no longer a Christian, American, Westerner. I was a chick in an eye patch. I will not forget the bright eyes of the Muslim boy who wanted to sit beside me on the stone steps to find out who I was, discover what this new and strange thing might be.
Within my own group, I shunned the obligatory souvenir photographs. Why did I want a reminder of this? But my friends clamored, “We need you in the picture!” and I relented. Now I have a photo of myself in a limestone café at the top of a hill in the Old City. A pensive look bathes my face, as if I were listening to the far-off call of the city. In the background, the Dome of the Rock gleams in the sun. It is, for me, the image of Jerusalem: a place where God was rendered human.
Last week, I drove through my old Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, taking photos of the houses I’ve lived in. I spent two periods of my life in the neighborhood: from age 3 years to 12; and again through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s.
My life in Belhaven began in a duplex my mother rented when we moved back from Denver, Colorado, after Daddy Joe died. On this street, we ran behind the fog machine that sprayed for mosquitos and lived to tell the tale. (The house doesn’t tilt; that’s me tilting the phone as I took a photo through the car window.)
When I was in the 5th grade, Mother bought a house (!—a single mom with 3 little girls: the older I get, the more I’m impressed with that feat). We adored the Arlington Street house. It had 7 levels (if you counted landings) and 2 balconies. As you can tell, the balcony over the front porch where we used to sleep under the stars has been removed. Who knows if they still use those French doors to go out on what is now basically a roof. The house is also painted blue where it was white then. And you can’t see the little house in the back which, though it was a real house, we used as a playhouse and where Cheep-Cheep the duck lived for a while.
We left this house when Mother married, and we moved to North Carolina. I moved back to Jackson in 1982 to practice law and returned to my old neighborhood, kicking it off with another duplex. My unit was the downstairs screen door on the left of this yellow house.
I didn’t last long here before I moved to the Arcadia. I loved this four-plex (that’s my unit with the upstairs porch on the right), but I left it when I married. Doing my drive-by, I noticed it still has window units.
We (actually me, though I was married) bought this wonderful little house that we extensively renovated. It’s on Pinehurst Street, right down from Eudora Welty’s house. Miss Welty is a famous short story writer. You can hardly see the house up the hill. The sign indicates it’s for sale again.
For a brief period, I lived in exile from Belhaven. When I got divorced, I returned to the neighborhood and bought my very own house which I loved dearly. The trees around it have gotten so overgrown it, too, is almost hidden. It had a magnolia, fig, redbud, and an oak. When I married again, I commuted a while between Jackson and Memphis. I sold my house (marriage was not good for my house tenures) and rented the Love Shack behind this pink house in Belhaven. That’s an orange trailer of some sort in the driveway. You can’t see the Love Shack, but I didn’t want to leave it out of the chronology. It was tiny. It had 3 patio areas. The heating was terrible in the winter. I adored it.
When I look at these collection of houses, I see how similar they are. My taste did not change much. As you can tell, the Belhaven neighborhood is lodged in my heart. It formed me. It might be why I’m a writer. I dream of it at night. It’s now a historic district.
Oh, and just for fun, here’s the ditch area where we kids told each other a crazy horse with red eyes reared and stamped in the darkness. We never saw the horse.
At the foot of the Mud Island bridge runs a trolley. The trolley is painted a happy yellow and green. It toots across the street like a toy. But every day, when the trolley is approaching and the caution arm descending, people veer around the arm and scoot cross the track. This is the level of our collective sophistication: trying to “beat the trolley.”
In 1960, on a cold December night in Colorado Springs, my father was killed trying to beat the train. He was in a hurry, he had places to go. Only a short time before, the Western Slope of Colorado had been working alive with the uranium boom. That time had passed, but my dad still pursued uranium business on the Slope, still worked uranium leases. So when the red lights flashed, telling him to wait, he sped up instead.
Three years old at the time, crazy about my Daddy Joe, I was traumatized by his death. The experts actually call it “traumatic bereavement.” When death is sudden and violent, the horror of it all trumps the grief. The little girl is afraid to think about her Daddy Joe – hit by a train! – just as sure as she’s drawn to the lonesome whistle whine.
Before I understood the effects of traumatic grief, I would feel guilty when I reacted in kinship with the passing train. How could I love this roaring monster that killed my dad? Now I know: we love that which is left for us to love. So I wrote a novel, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE, where the protagonist is a young women on a cross-country train trip coming to terms with the grief of losing her dad. It’s funny, this novel. But most things serious are.
So when folks look left and right, then scoot around the trolley arm, I wonder: what would your family think if you didn’t make it across? What if their grief was symbolized by a yellow and green toy trolley?Hit by the trolley!You can’t get much sillier than that.
Slow down. Wait. Lose your impatience. Don’t let death laugh at your passing.
I have been grappling with—what the hell, that makes it sound so sophisticated; I’ve been moping around the house wondering—the “Why?” question. Actually, it’s a “What?” question. What am I doing with my life right now that matters?
When I was facilitating the Door of HopeWriting Group, the answer to this question was easy: I’m bringing to a group of folks who might not otherwise have it a tool to understand and speak their truth into the world.
Even earlier, when Paraclete Press published Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, and I conducted ALL THOSE WORKSHOPS, I could tangibly see what I was doing: giving a tool to folks for them to better understand their relationship with God.
So, okay—maybe the problem is my history of “purpose” sets the bar kind of high.
Be that as it may, even when I was recording my short story collection, I knew exactly why I was doing it: to transition from everyone knowing me as “the cross lady” to seeing me as a fiction writer. And I paired the stories with charitable contributions, so all was good.
And—here’s the important part—that venture was laying the foundation for Something Big. For my novel. Which would be Full of Importance. Even if the Importance was wrapped in words and plot that were funny as hell. It would Matter.
But as my telescope narrows to focus on my own writing career, I’m getting lost. Yeah, TRACKING HAPPINESS has as a major theme being nice to chickens. Raise them humanely. Treat them like living animals sharing the planet with us. But still. It’s mostly funny. And fun. It’s not earth-shattering. Where is the “What?” of it?
Then I read this article entitled Teaching and Purpose by Jon Chopan on the Glimmertrain website sent to me by the Jane Friedman emails (total aside: her emails are great; if you’re a writer and don’t already get them, you should sign up.) Mr. Chopan said a lot of things (though the essay is mercifully short), but he quotes Tim Seibles as saying, “I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”
I read this and thought, ahhh, that’s it: my purpose is to not be in cahoots with the nightmare. And it’s enough. (Are poets the smartest ones among us?) I can go with that. To gently ask us to be kind to chickens. To explicate grief rather than shoving it aside. To offer folks an escape, if just for a moment, from the grind of our lives. This I can do. Thank you, Jon Chopan and Tim Seibles. Thank you.
The smell of a Mississippi summer is a dirt and weed smell, hot and bitter and full of insect noises and blaring sunlight and popping grass seeds that scent the air black and loamy so that your mind wanders to your toes and the dirt below and the small things that crawl inside the cool dark earth. But, in a flash, the blazing sun will bring you back to your world, the human world above, where the heat churns the growing smell, packing it into layers that fill the spaces between the draping honeysuckle and the broad-leafed hydrangea, the needly pines and the big-headed poison oak. Acrid, stringent, porous—the smell comforts like a green stem broken, weeping into my fingers.
Rain won’t make the smell bow out. Heavy clouds only re-form the scent into an uplifted storm, flooded grass waving in clear water, backyard mounds of rain-slicked clay.
Or steam rising from baked concrete.
Or magnolia blossoms ringing through the newly-drenched night.
A smell that dense, you’d think it could never be lost, but you’d be wrong. Its stamp is easily washed away by years of moderate lands, civilized places, articulated loves. And even if it lingers and is remembered, too often the mind will interrupt, the curtain of smell will part, the knowledge of the Mississippi past will invade and the sweet, dirty perfume of my home state will evaporate into righteousness, severity and decay.
If I’m blessed by its return, it arrives, patient but thickening, to round and throb the air until it hovers like a Genie just outside my stretching fist, grasped and released, grasped and released. And when it is finally grasped, I’m called back again, into the pine trees of Sunday afternoon, thick old pines whose branches begin at scrambling height and whose trunks are scarred with rutted sap—hardened, milky, streaked with reality.
Up in the covering scent of the tree, I bend the rubbery branches until I can peer inside the green cones flowering with yellow pollen, then sit back into the vee and pick the layers of bark—crumpled and pleated on top, smooth as gray slate beneath—and drop them through the branches to the lacerated ground below.
Hot pine straw. Heated brambles. Lightly fluttering mimosa gowns.
Mississippi, come back to me, quickly, this summer.
(I’m gonna credit WKNO-Memphis for first airing this essay, though for the life of me I can’t remember if they did or not. Happy Summer!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I spent yesterday at two different events. One was a service at Calvary Episcopal Church to dedicate a new marker on the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave market. The old marker referred to Forrest’s time in Memphis where his “business enterprises made him wealthy.” The old marker did not identify Forrest’s business as human trafficking—selling men, women, children, and babies.
The old marker went up one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine. The old marker was proud of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s time in Memphis, how wealthy the city had made him. The marker commemorated a fine, upstanding, honored Memphian . . . who specialized in selling slaves smuggled into this country illegally. So in a way, the marker did tell the truth: 100 years after all moral people had repudiated slavery, white Memphis wanted to honor a man who sold Black folk.
The service and unveiling of the new marker was extremely emotional. The emotion became palpable, causing all in the sanctuary to rise, when the names of many people sold at the site were read aloud. Calvary is a predominately white church. Both Black and white Memphians attended the service. The primary impact—in my opinion—was white people acknowledging denied truths, and Black people hearing them do it.
The afternoon I spent at the National Civil Rights Museum. When I walked into the courtyard, I expected to see a racially mixed crowd like the one I’d just left at the church. The NCRM crowd was almost all Black. I was shocked. Ignorant as always, it simply hadn’t dawned on me that white faces would be missing from those gathered at the NCRM. After all, I had set our travel schedule around being in Memphis on the anniversary. I couldn’t imagine not being at the NCRM on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.
I believe later in the day—when the Reverend Al Green performed, for example—the crowds were more mixed; I assume the same for the ticketed events with speakers and panels. But that afternoon, Black families had taken off work to be at the Museum. Parents and kids were sitting on bleachers and curbs and makeshift perches simply to be there. The feel of the gathering was one of sacred presence. Witnessing. Being with others to remember together.
When I saw the solemn gathering, I felt a wash of shame, knocked down a notch or two for my attitude—I’m going to the MLK50 celebration! Yesterday, I posted a quote from Dr. King’s last book my MLK50 posts have been based on, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The quote said white folks will never understand what it means to be Black in America. The quiet being-present of the Black families at the NCRM brought this home to me.
No matter how much I admire Dr. King, it’s different for me, and it always will be. For those gathered, this isn’t a “cause.” It is life.
“It is impossible for white Americans to grasp the depths and dimensions of the Negro’s dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America. Of course it is not easy to perform this act of empathy. Putting oneself in another person’s place is always fraught with difficulties. Over and over again it is said in the black ghettos of America that ‘no white person can ever understand what it means to be a Negro.’ There is good reason for this assumption, for there is very little in the life and experience of white America that can compare to the curse this society has put on color. And yet, if the present chasm of hostility, fear and distrust is to be bridged, the white man must begin to walk in the pathways of his black brothers and feel some of the pain and hurt that throb without letup in their daily lives.”
In reading Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, I was struck by Dr. King’s repeated point that, following the Civil War, the country released the formerly enslaved into the land of their oppressors. These men and women found themselves in the “territory of their enemies.” In their new life, they were financially dependent on those who had enslaved them. Jobs and work and the ability to earn a living were completely controlled by those who seethed with hatred that they no longer could claim ownership of the ones now freed.
I took a moment and let this sink in. “Enemy territory.” No place to turn for work other than the one who had claimed ownership over you. How could this strike anyone as fair?
We haven’t gotten the story of race in America right yet. It’s as if the wound of race scabs over with time, but the scab is only the latest version of events palatable to white America. Perhaps we inch closer to the truth with each iteration, but we aren’t at the truth, and we must—once again—rip off the scab and try again. Why go through this agony? Because if we accept the bowdlerized version of history, we deny the injustices of the past and experience no motivation to fix them.
Here in Memphis, we are about to roll from Holy Week and Easter Sunday into the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination.
In preparation for this, I’ve been reading Where Do We Go from Here, Dr. King’s last book published in 1968. This phrase—Where Do We Go from Here?—is the tag used by MLK50 for its year-long remembrance. Not until I bought the book did I realize the slogan was the title of a book Dr. King wrote. The full title is Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Dr. King is explaining the arc of the civil rights movement in a way I’ve never heard before. Basically, good white people couldn’t stand to see the terror and violence in the South—the fire hoses and dogs and killings—and they insisted it stop. The country enacted laws to remedy wrongs. But when the crisis passed, so did the emotional involvement. The laws lay unenforced and, when time came for the next step—away from “brutality and unregenerate evil” and towards “brotherhood”—forward motion stalled.
Why? That would cost money.
“There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites.” But equality? “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect … They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low-paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor.”
Dr. King saw the civil rights movement, up to that point, as establishing a foundation for change. Not the end, the beginning. “From issues of personal dignity they are now advancing to programs that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control.” (emphasis mine). “At this level Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists.”
I sold Dr. King short. As much as I’ve read over the years about the civil rights movement, I saw it as a battle in a point in time to end segregation. I knew Dr. King was “shifting his focus” to economic ills when he died, but that’s a mischaracterization. The remedying of economic ills was part of the civil rights movement’s long, complex plan for bringing about equality. Attacking Southern racism at its roots was what I’ll call Phase 1. Phase 2 was to change the system.
These days, it seems we are in a thicket of re-fighting Phase 1. As Dr. King said, white opposition “remained a formidable force capable of hardening its resistance when the cost of change was increased.” Waves of backlash constantly appear in this country, forcing us to play Whack-a-Mole with those assaulting the personal dignity of African-Americans. But while we are so occupied, what becomes of systemic reform? The question remains: Where Do We Go from Here?
I knelt at the altar rail. Recently out of the hospital, I was frail. I stood 5’5″ and weighed 92 pounds. I was 26 years old. The other supplicants—ordinary men and women who had taken their lunch break to attend St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral’s noontime healing service—gathered around me. They laid hands on me. The priest, a middle-aged white man, asked me for my request. I told him I needed to be healed.
I was raised Episcopalian, but you know how we Episcopalians are—vague on details. I didn’t know we had a healing service as one of our seven sacraments. I knew communion, I knew baptism. I knew these were foundational acts of my faith. When I learned of the healing service, I assumed it was the same. I assumed it was intended to heal. And by heal, I mean cure. Actual physical healing.
When the priest finished his whispered prayer, he dipped his thumb in oil and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. I’ve since learned the “healing” of this service is interpreted as a spiritual healing—you know, to give you a better attitude about whatever crap is in your life. I also came to realize this particular priest could lay his hands on your head, press down, and pray for what your heart needed. He had the gift of healing.
When his thumb completed the sign of the cross, I fell out. Slowly, as if pushed over by a feather, I toppled from my needle-pointed perch as easily as if I’d been in a sawdust-floored tent with sweaty Holy Rollers clapping and swaying while chickens pecked for bugs in the aisles.
Apologies were made on my behalf (“She’s recently out of the hospital.” “She’s vey weak.” “She needs air.”). But I knew I’d been healed. And I had. My affliction was removed and—while it should have returned on a regular basis every few months—it has not done so in 34 years. I always attributed the healing to my ignorance: I believed I would be healed. Plus, I was in the hands of a healer for a priest.
Why am I telling you this? Despite how important this experience was in my life, I consider the healing offered by FORGIVENESS REIKI to be more important. This practice can heal not only the body, but also the mind, heart, and soul, which is sorely needed these days.
Forgiveness Reiki: Hands-On Healing, Distance Healing, and Prayer with both Reiki and the Holy Spirit (Michael S. Van Hecke, 2017) was written by my cousin. He lost his sixteen-year-old-son to a traumatic event then stood up in front of the funeral congregation and led them in a prayer of forgiveness. Several days later he posted a long Jesus Healing System Prayer asking, among other things: “I ask and pray for assistance in transforming our grief and sense of loss into love…”; and “I ask and pray that any fear-based prayers regarding Maurice or us be transformed …”; and “I ask and pray for assistance in forgiving those who might have prevented his death but did not.” (page 64)
Lots of folks know prayer. Some know Reiki hands-on-healing. This practice combines the two. The essence of the practice is forgiveness. The practice can be used as hands-on-healing modality; a forgiveness program; or, a process starting with forgiveness and moving into hands-on-healing: “After exploring forgiveness, participants are given new tools to love their neighbor, particularly as a healer.” (page 26).
The forgiveness practice is not easy. For me, the first hardest step is wanting to forgive. For example, despite my having experienced healing in a church, I’d much rather hold on to my grudge against the church of my childhood for not allowing girls to carry the cross down the aisle or act as altar boys, for only sponsoring a Boy Scout troop and not a Girl Scout troop. I mean, I’ve spent years figuring out and cataloging ALL THE WAYS the church let me down as a child—you want me to let that go?
Yep. I have a feeling I will be practicing the forgiveness aspect for a while.
The book contains prayers to use as you practice. It has a step-by-step description of how to conduct a Jesus Healing System session. It is also full of wisdom. I can’t quote the whole book, but here are some good ones:
“But for now, let’s make a huge shift and chose to interpret everything that happens as an act of love.” (p. 10)
“It’s about not being ruled by our judgments so we can show up spiritually regardless of what’s going on.” (p. 10)
“Only God knows the truth about divinity, heaven and hell, the Gospel the virgin birth, Buddha Krishna, Allah, and everything else. So why in our arrogance do we have to pretend that we know the answers then use our ignorance to pick sides and tell others that they are wrong?” (p. 14)
“Perhaps our greatest teachers are those who help us learn what we’d prefer to avoid. God wants what’s best for us and will provide both teachers and lessons to help us learn. How we perceive them is up to us. Christians and healers of all faiths must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is being revealed to us.” (p. 56)
And here is my very favorite:
“At night, I’d shut my eyes and see ‘shooting stars’ going across my eyelids. A hypnotist friend suggested ‘reaching up and pulling one down’ with my energetic hand. I did so, and upon examination, found that each was a note, or sorts. One said ‘Thinking of you.’ Another said ‘We are with you, you are not alone,’ and many others said ‘We love you.’ These shooting stars were prayers. The next time a crisis occurs, please remember this story and pray repeatedly for all those involved. Prayer matters.” (p. 65)
FORGIVENESS REIKI is available on Amazon. I haven’t done it justice. Buy one for yourself and see. Thank you, Michael, for writing it.
They are elderly and beloved. They drove from Jackson to the coast, as we once did when I was a child. When they arrived, we piled into the car and toured, the way folks once piled into automobiles and went motoring when that was considered the thing to do. We laughed and remembered days that stretched back to when they were children. Some of the memories were vague, lost in time, some bright as diamonds.
After they left, my husband and I went downtown by ourselves. We were stopped by the train. The fast-moving train crossed from land to water, riding the trestle. The train was long, long enough for me to escape from the car and move closer until I could capture the image of the train disappearing into the fog.
My daddy—who was killed by a train—was the brother of these two beloveds. He is gone. Their memories tie me to him and them to me and me to the long line stretching behind me.
Jogging, I made it back to the car before traffic beeped at us to get going. Turning, I saw: the train was gone. Nothing but fog. I know my husband wondered why, when I settled into my seat, I was crying.
I wasn’t asking for much. I only needed to pee. But the toilet had a mind of its own. It kept flushing. An automatic flusher. Annoying, show-offy, overachieving toilet. Making that whooshing noise then shooting water into the bowl like a Yellowstone geyser on steroids.
I jumped up. If you think I’m gonna sit there and let a mad toilet spray dirty toilet water into my private places, you’ve got another thing coming.
It quieted. I sat back down . . . in an incorrect, insulting manner apparently because the toilet got angry again. Really flipped its lid. Whoosh! It attacked.
This time when I rose, I twisted to check out the gizmos. Toilets shouldn’t have gizmos. They should have a handle and a tank with a porcelain top that you raise only when you’re certain it’s about to overflow and you need to lift the rubber ball and hold it out of the water or jiggle the chain. Or something.
The gizmos looked okay. Just a black button the size of a pea with a sign that read: “Press to flush.” I wasn’t pressing. It was flushing anyway.
Feeling like a gullible fool, I gingerly sat down again. And finished. And stood up. It didn’t flush.
Stupid-ass defective toilet.
When I exited the stall and washed my hands, a woman wandered into the washroom (have I mentioned I was at a Mississippi “The Hospitality State” rest area?) The woman looked lost. I thought to warn her about the aggressive toilet, but she instinctively chose the handicapped stall. She didn’t need my help. If I could remember exactly which rest stop I was at, I’d tell you. Someone needs to do something with that toilet.