I Live in a Post-Katrina World

When I was a child, one of my favorite places at my grandparent’s farm was the hill above the big lake. There, a square of concrete hid beneath the pasture grass. In the springtime, yellow and white daffodils pushed through the grass and bloomed in swaying clumps. Someone had planted the flowers; they spilled down the hill. We children played there, skipping across the broken concrete, pretending we were in the kitchen or bedroom or dining room of our very own house. Intrigued, I would squat in my shorts set and part the grass. Planting my palm on the pebbly concrete, I dreamed of what I never knew.

I remember this childhood delight as I walk the road of my beach house. You’ve seen photos of our lovely beach house. It is serene, calm. And located in Waveland, Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina roared in from the Gulf, pushing pounding waves onto land until all was water. Houses, trees, and lives were decimated.

Beach view

The view from our house to the beach. One newly-built house lies between us and Beach Boulevard.

 

When we told a man at our church about our new house, he said, “Oh, man. I grew up playing with kids all up and down Laffite Drive.”

 

View toward the railroad tracks

The view from our house back toward the raised railroad tracks where the Katrina surge halted.

 

When new neighbors clear their lots to begin construction, ornamental trees appear. Blooming azaleas. Palm trees. Someone loved this land. The road is dotted with the footprints of their homes and garages and tool sheds.

 

Kitchen tiles

A tiled floor from a former house on the street

 

Several lots have sold since we bought ours two years ago. A new house has been built on the slab of a former home. Another house is being renovated. At the end of the street near the railroad tracks, the gathering of homes almost forms a neighborhood.

The street is a constant reminder: we are but wayfarers on this road of life. Our time will come . . . and go. We must enjoy where we are while we are there. I look forward to having my new neighbors. In the meantime, I live peacefully with the frogs and rabbits and bobcats. All of us, perched on the lip of the Gulf.

Waveland Beach

Waveland beach where Katrina came ashore

Memories in My Yard

Since I quit practicing law, I’ve done two tasks first thing in the mornings: clean up the kitchen and check on my plants outside. The latter was on hiatus for several years. My hips went to crap, and I quit working in the yard. Since the hips have been recovered, I haven’t had a yard to work in. I do now.

My new yard has caladiums, because my grandmother Bigmama always had caladiums lining her brick patio.

White caladiums that catch the moonlight

It has gardenias, for my beloved Lucy Gardenia, and so we can sit under the house in the evenings and breathe in the luscious gardenia sweetness.

A gardenia for the littlest, bravest Yorkie that ever lived, Miss Lucy Gardenia “Dog” Prewitt

It has red geraniums, because I’ve always loved red geraniums.

Amazing red geraniums from Donna’s Produce on Highway 49

And mint, because my Uncle Hebron knew my love of mint was so great, he would send me starter kits of pots, soil, and mint plants to grow my own.

Mint that will hopefully make it through the winter to be always with us

And ferns I’ve babied in the guest bathtub through harsh winters for over 15 years.

My old fern friends that love their new home

Of course, we have the baby fig tree that hopes to grow into a Certified Mississippi Champion Fig Tree like its daddy.

The baby fig tree that dreams of being a champion . . . and wishes it would stop raining

The horsetails are all my own—I love an architectural plant.

Horsetail is invasive, but it’s happy in a pot

I’ve fallen in love with the lime tree. The fruit appeared in May, but November will come before it’s fit to eat. Even then, we all know how tart it will be. I think this is me: such a long process to ripen to an acceptable level, and even then I’m astringent. But essential to certain tastes.

My new soul mate plant: the slow-growing, acerbic lime tree

Finally, y’all know all about Bigmama’s rose bush. But the amazing thing is that the bush, which only blooms once a year, has bloomed three times since being transplanted. I think it’s as in love with my yard as I am.

Bigmama’s rose on its third blooming this season

Tearing Apart Your Manuscript

I know, I know—I’ve been missing as of late. For two months, I’ve been holed up inside my novel doing everything I can to meet a self-imposed deadline for revision. The first of March, I received a reader’s report from my paid editor on JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. As you, my readers, know, I’ve been working on this novel since God was a toddler. I had finally reached the point where I thought someone could read it. Ordinarily, I would ask several Beta readers to take a look at it before I sent it to the editor. But I was in a hurry. Like I said, I’ve been working on it a loooooong time.

The reader’s report was not good. By which I mean it was not particularly helpful and she was not enthusiastic about the work. She didn’t say, “This is so not working,” but that was the only conclusion I could draw from what she did say. So, with very little guidance, I had to fix it.

I set about changing the ending, which changed everything from the beginning. I changed the main character’s primary motivation, which created ripples throughout the work. I promoted a character, who now tells a story that was not in the first version. I added a third voice that explains a critical part of the story.

Those are the big revisions. I also deleted the first 30 pages; changed the main character from an “I” speaker to a “she” speaker; added a new secondary character; cut out huge chunks of it (at one point, my placeholder for these cuts had over 100 pages on it—most of them did not make it back in the manuscript); and re-wrote most of what remained.

Making this level of change scares the crap out of me. At one point, the manuscript is like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz: part of it was over here, and part of it was over there. I spent days in panic, wondering if I could put it back together. To get through, I kept telling myself that THE BONE TRENCH began life looking much different from where it ended up and experienced its own god-awful mess stage. Yet, it is with an agent.

For now, I have put the manuscript in the figurative drawer for about three weeks. I hope to come back to it with fresh eyes so I can better assess what I did. I’m sure some of my revisions that seemed brilliant at the time will stink like rotten fish. If I’m lucky, some of them will also feel like good, solid writing.

In any event, the whole process has consumed me. I feel as if I’ve done nothing but work on it solid for these two months. I finished about two hours ago and, of course, the first thing I did was to run straight over to tell y’all all about it. 🙂

I hope to be visiting you (and your blogs) more regularly.

 

The Bigmama Rose: An Easter Story

The rose is scraggly. Its head droops. The petals cannot hold their shape. It’s damn lucky to be here.

One Mother’s Day, a long time ago, my dad gave my grandmother a rosebush. The bush was planted beside the lattice gate.  The two-story, white-columned house has a grand front door, but everyone comes and goes through the back gate. The rosebush grew large and tangled and mighty. It threatened to grab everyone who entered (what were they thinking, planting it in such a well-traveled path?). In the spring it was covered with a blanket of pale pink, delicate roses. Soon, my dad died, quite young. Later, Bigmama died, quite old. Then the rosebush began to die, and now it’s dead.

In an act of great foresight, my uncle several years ago undertook to make cuttings for us girls from the rosebush. My sister’s “offspring” formed a massive arch large enough for her daughter to stand beneath. My bush undulated down the side of my yard, attached to the house, and every spring bloomed with a ferocity belied by its delicate blossom.

Then we decided to to sell our house. To move. To leave my yard behind.

I couldn’t leave the rosebush.

My caring gardener hacked the rosebush down to size (I should say “trimmed,” but you can’t trim a monster.) He shoveled up the root ball and wrapped it in a green tarp. We then drove 400 miles with the thorny bush (and the dog) in the back seat of the car (with one overnight stop), drenching it with water along the way. We arrived on Saturday night and could not be put it in the ground until Monday afternoon. I packed compost into the tarp and left the water hose trickling on it day and night.

It was too late in the season to move the bush, but that’s where circumstances landed us. It was outrageous to cut our trip in two and spend the night with the rosebush on my cousin’s driveway, but that’s what our schedule called for. And why did we arrive on the weekend, requiring another delay in getting it in the ground?

We had asked too much.

And four days later, this bloom appears.

I had wanted the bush to focus its energy on getting re-established. But it’s blooming, and tender red stems of new growth are appearing. It might not make it, I don’t know. Or it might be as indomitable as the grandmother to whom it was given—Bigmama lived to be 102. Whatever happens, it decided that life was too short not to bloom while it could.

The Bigmama Rose

No One Was Asking for It

One winter day, I was walking through the parking lot at Laurelwood Shopping Center. Laurelwood is a safe, comfortable place. I was in my late 40s. A woman stopped me. She was gray-headed, probably mid-60s. She grasped my arm and, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, fixed me with her gaze and said, “Young men are going to jump out of the bushes and rape you young women, the way you dress.”

My dress was a black turtleneck sweater dress. I had on black opaque hose. The sweater dress had long sleeves. I wore suede pumps. The pumps were complemented by a suede pocketbook. I probably had on dark sunglasses, but maybe not.

I laughed at her. I thought she was joking. Not only because of the “young women” part of her speech, but also because not one inch of skin was showing on my body.

She was not kidding. “I’m serious,” she said. Her voice was urgent—she had to warn me. Also in her tone was exasperation: if women wouldn’t dress like this, we wouldn’t have all these problems—you’ve got to stop. I’m sure I simply looked at her in befuddlement and walked off.

As I recovered from the incident, I became deeply offended. For one thing, she had just insulted my outfit. I can only surmise she did not like the tightness of the sweater dress, which showed off my curves (such as they are). Or maybe she objected to the drama of the tall thin line of blackness. The heels on my pumps were modest, particularly by today’s standards. But, somehow, she put all of this together and concluded that, if someone attacked me, it was because “I was asking for it.” Can I reiterate that not one inch of skin was showing on my body?

I thought about this experience as I drove home to Memphis today. I had been in Jackson, Mississippi where are my talented sister of Elli Morris Stills in Motion had been shooting the cover for my new novel Tracking Happiness. The protagonist in the novel is a 25-year-old woman from a small Mississippi town. She rides the train cross-country to exonerate her dad in a drug scandal. Along the way, she gets into all types of shenanigans. It must be pointed out, her idea of sophisticated dress is a tad off.

When I stopped at a gas station outside Jackson—still in full costume from the photo shoot—I wondered what the patrons thought of me. Did they conclude that my black fishnet stockings and white lace dress were so provocative as to justify rape? Did these thoughts infect even the women in the store? Where they, too, perpetuating the lie that rape is the result of physical attraction, not violent hatred?

Sliding in behind the wheel, I couldn’t help but wonder: if something happened to me on the way home, would people offer their condolences to my grieving husband, all the while thinking to themselves, “But why was she dressed like that? Didn’t she know she was asking for it?”

The Voice of God in my Body

“What are you giving up for Lent?” my tribe asks. I say “tribe” because my brilliant writing coach friend taught me to view those who share my questions in life as my tribe.

The question didn’t spring itself on me this morning. I knew Lent was coming since the day of Epiphany in early January. Mardi Gras (or carnival) inevitably rolls into Lent with its ever-present question—what during the church’s traditional season of asceticism and preparation for Easter am I giving up?

One thing: my husband is our cook so whatever food he gives up, for the most part, I give it up too. I don’t consider this my Lenten discipline; it’s his discipline that I piggyback on. It leaves me to answer for myself the basic question: how will I focus on God this season?

Here’s what happened this morning. Tom announced he was going to fast until we went to Ash Wednesday services later this evening. I am terrible at fasting. It leads to drops in blood pressure, which aren’t good for me. So I went to the cafe while he drove off to run errands. As I was considering what to order, I thought, you need some food.

This happens sometimes. I go through spells where I’m not thinking about food or I’m eating a lot of rich food, which I can’t eat much of. All of a sudden, the thought will flood through me: girl, you need to eat something.

When the thought arose this morning, I knew I had my Lenten discipline. Listen to your body. Trust God to talk to you through your body. Hear God in what your body needs.

Jesus’s talking and teaching is grounded in physical life. Parable after parable; lesson after lesson. If you are inclined toward the concept of Jesus’s bodily incarnation, you could argue that his joy at being physically present in God’s physical creation was so exhilarating, he couldn’t stop talking about it. When we honor the wisdom of our bodies, we are honoring one of God’s wisdom paths.

This is NOT the same as giving in to bodily instincts. One time I heard the author and theologian Phyllis Tickle talk about the difference between humankind’s ever increasing telepathic abilities and the voice of God. The former, she said, should not be confused with the later. I agree with her. I’ve heard the voice of God. I’ve also seen ghosts. Lots of ghosts, the spirits of people who once lived on this earth. The ghosts don’t necessarily have anything to do with God. Some do. Some don’t. It’s up to me to discern the difference.

Is this Lenten “discipline” just an excuse to eat a brownie during Lent? Maybe. No question it’s the exact opposite of a traditional Lenten practice. I will not be reading to learn more about God or studying Scripture to discover more wisdom of God or talking in a small group about our joint journey with God. All of these are good things. They are also head things. I’ll be doing body things, which is much more difficult for me.

In fact, this may be the hardest Lenten practice I’ve ever undertaken. As a result, I expect to emerge on Easter morning a different person. But that’s what I ask of Lent: make me a person who better understands God’s presence in the world.

Amen.

“From bones we came and to bones we shall return”

When God Bites You In the Butt

I try not to get angry at people when they disagree with me. It’s not because I’m a saintly woman. I’ve simply learned that when you get sanctimonious with someone, God will turn around and bite you in the butt.

As soon as I climb onto my soapbox and start chugging soap suds into the biosphere, I’m sure to be slapped in the face with the very activity I’m decrying. “Don’t judge!” I rant . . . only to immediately feel myself judging the next person who posts something ridiculous.

Jesus summed up this phenomenon with his “plank in your own eye” lesson, as well as his “the measure by which you shall be judged” warning. I think too often we take Jesus’s sayings as scoldings rather than simple truths: this is the way the world works. Listen and learn. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s the other, more important thing that I’ve experienced over and over again. A friend or acquaintance or family member expresses something with which I deeply disagree. I get all worked up and label the person “that imbecile who doesn’t understand police violence.” Only to immediately learn he or she supports a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body, or something else with which I agree.

Oh.

We don’t agree on this, but we agree on that? So is she stupid? Or wise beyond her years?  Or have I generalized my belief about her based on what I was interested in at the time, judged her, and self-righteously written her off? How unproductive is that?

If I wrote you off—maybe even told you off—I’ve lost the opportunity to work together on the issues on which we agree. You are a potential ally on an issue important to me, but I’ve ruined it. That’s the practical, everyday loss when you get on your high horse.

The other is the simple embarrassment when you realize, once again, God has bitten you in the butt.

A cross from my Making Crosses days (burlap, found string, found rubber, nail, grapevine wreath)

 

 

It’s Not Anyone’s Fault Our Jails are Racist

The exploitation of Black Americans in my lifetime shows itself as mass incarceration. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling those working in the judicial system racist.

I don’t blame the white woman who confused my Black friend for a purse snatcher months after the actual mugging took place. I don’t blame the police officer who arrested my friend with no evidence other than the woman’s shaky testimony. I don’t blame the judge who let every person in the courtroom leave except me and the white social worker before he asked if the witness could identify the one Black man left in the room as the perpetrator. I don’t blame the underpaid Public Defender who never bothered to read my friend’s file. I don’t blame him for looking at my very distinctive friend and saying, “They have an eyewitness. Look at him—who’s going to mistake him for someone else?”

I don’t blame the judge who removed my friend from his home and confined him to a mental institute to determine if he was fit to stand trial. I don’t blame the bail system that left my friend sitting in jail for months before it released him with an ankle bracelet. I don’t blame the state’s investigator who ignored my repeated calls wherein I explained my friend was with me the afternoon of the purse snatching. I don’t blame the mental health advocate who told me the system had to work itself out.

I don’t blame the court docket that took over a year to set my friend’s case for trial. I don’t blame the legislature who classified the purse snatching as a felony when less than five dollars was taken. I don’t blame the new public defender who only noticed the week before trial that the eyewitness’s original physical description didn’t fit my friend, at all. I don’t blame the DA who waited until one day before trial to dismiss the case against my sweet, gentle friend. I don’t blame any of them or call them racist. Hell, several of them were Black. But the system was racist. It always has been, and it still is.

Other truths would be easier, lots easier for me to adopt as my own than this one. After all, who am I to take up this cause, a wealthy white woman who’s never been in jail except to visit friends? Yet, it is so firmly my truth I wrote a novel about Mother Mary and Jesus being called back to Memphis by a devilish private prison project. THE BONE TRENCH is the humorous, profane, deadly serious novel my agent is currently pitching. The novel uses—literarily—my family history managing a state prison. Also my family history outlawing convict leasing in the state of Mississippi. I guess I have a reason to take up this cause after all.

THE BONE TRENCH is premised on white America’s continuing, uninterrupted intention to exploit our Black brothers and sisters. Or to state it more pointedly, white America’s failure to love our Black neighbors as ourselves. I’m not the only one who thinks this. Here’s a TED Talk about jails as economic engines of exploitation: How Jails Extort the Poor

Around the World in Love

What do London and San Francisco have in common?
They are the top two cities downloading my short stores.

Where in Canada—the third highest download site—are listeners downloading the stories?
Everywhere but Nova Scotia—Nova Scotia don’t like Cain’t Do Nothing with Love.

After France, what’s the next most popular country downloading the stories?
Iran

Where do Moscow and St. Petersburg fit in?
Right after Queensland and Victoria in Australia.

Who’s next?
Beijing and Frankfurt.

In all these cities, people are downloading and listening to this writer—moi—read her very Southern short stories. Only 22% of my downloads are state-side (that’s how us globe-trotters say ‘within the United States’). The highest cities, other than San Fran, are Memphis (no surprise there), DC (my niece Taylor must be singing my praises), New Orleans (another home city), Seattle and LA.

How much does all this multi-country downloading activity add up to?
51,000 downloads.
51,000.
When I began this experiment, never would I have imagined so many people around the world would be listening to my words.
It warms the cockles of my heart. A sentence that makes me want to Google ‘cockles’ to see what it means.

If you haven’t listened to the stories, you can do so here.

The London-San Francisco-Moscow crowd says you’ll be glad you did. 🙂

Cain’t Do Nothing with Love

 

Don’t Fall for the Ewing Effect

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

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

Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending.

The first four shots by Carolina were blocked by Ewing. Not legally blocked, mind you. But Ewing’s point wasn’t to block the shot and keep the Tar Heels from scoring. After all, goaltending awards points to the other side. Ewing was scoring FOR Carolina. The center was following a bigger agenda set by Coach Thompson: to intimidate. Fluster the Tar Heels. Throw them off their game. Rattle them. Leave them worrying whether any of the rules of the game applied any more.

It was a sight to behold, one I’ve never forgotten—I was graduating from UNC law school at the time, and I was glued to the TV, yelling for Carolina. Yet, even I was impressed by Ewing.

Of course, Georgetown didn’t win. Nope. Carolina did. Led by a freshman shooting guard named Michael Jordan. Jordan threw up the game winning shot, he made it, and Ewing lost.

I keep thinking about the intimidation game each time Trump signs a clearly unconstitutional, or merely outrageous, Executive Order. Trump’s end game is not to successfully pass a legal order. It is to intimidate. Throw off the opposition. Leave the other side sputtering at the audacity of it all—do the rules mean nothing to you?

Trump’s opposition whoever they might be—Democrats or a new coalition—can’t play this game. They can’t sit around with their mouths hanging open, staring at the juggernaut soaring through the air to swat down the liberties they hold dear. They can’t sputter about freedom of speech and church and state and the free press. Nor can Trump’s Republican “allies” whine about how this simply isn’t the way things are done.

The opposition has to hold to its game. They have to keep playing ball. In this arena, that means grinding through normal politics to elect people who will defeat Trump.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign proved that Trump can’t be beaten by pointing out how terrible he is—every Clinton ad was premised on showing what a total lout Trump was. The ads succeeded—Trump is a lout. And he’s President. Now he’s governing the same way he campaigned, a scorch-the-earth approach that relies on flustering his competition by saying asshole things, lying, constantly pushing the envelope. If everyone stays focused the temerity of it—marching and protesting or simply howling when Kellyanne Conway offers up another whopper (or worse, assuming she’s a bimbo who doesn’t know any better)—we are playing his game, and we will lose.

Time for all of us to make like MJ and play the game best as we know how.*

We gotta get our game face on

*I have no idea who Michael Jordan or Patrick Ewing voted for as President of the United States; this is an analogy 🙂

Small Things I Do FWIW

  • I shop at the Family Dollar or Dollar Tree or the downtown Walgreens rather than the ritzy Walgreens because one does not have to exercise class privilege just because one has it.
  • I choose to place myself in situations where I’m the only white person around—such as my Ob-gyn’s office—because I need to be constantly reminded of what it’s like for Black folks so much of their lives.
  • I always try to say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” to African-American clerks in a vain attempt to make up for the decades of Southern “etiquette” that prohibited such a thing.
  • I look at the world through racial lens because I know from whence I came and awareness is necessary.
  • I try to recognize the dominant narrative—e.g., beneficiaries of charitable organizations must “voluntarily” bear grateful witness to the organizations helping them—and not get sucked into the emotion of it.
  • If I have an option, I do business with businesses I know are owned by African-Americans because so many white people don’t.
  • I fight back against the attempt to place me in the role of “white savior”—one time, I told a reporter three different times, no, you can’t interview me; if you want to know about the Door of Hope Writing Group, you need to interview a member of the Door of Hope Writing Group. Finally, she did.
  • I don’t tend to share these things because to do so gives into my white need to be liked and viewed as a “liberal” supporter of racial equality and credited for my honesty.
  • I also choose to do these things because they can be undertaken without conflict, so they’re easier for me.
  • It’s a mighty small list.

The Flexible Heretics

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

Y’all know I love my house. It’s situated on an island in the Mississippi River. The story is,  the island is a sandbar that formed around a sunken barge. The sunken barge part isn’t true, but it could be. The mythical setting matches the beauty of the partly-urban/partly-natural neighborhood: look one way, you see the city’s iconic pyramid; the other reveals massive cottonwood trees that populated the forming sandbar. But the time has come for a change, and we are leaving.

I’ve known this truth intellectually for a while, and I’ve grieved it. We live in the house part-time. We need to let someone else love it full-time. But my trees!

Seeking a new place, we tromped around downtown Memphis, peering into other people’s closets, analyzing space as we navigated rabbit-warren hallways to get to the condos. It didn’t feel right, not the approach, not the creepy parking garages, none of it. Until we stepped onto the former loading dock of the train station. Nine units with drive-up parking. Steel beams and original sconce from the loading dock days. Exposed brick walls, and a big-ass double patio. We fell in love immediately.

We are not downsizing. Downsizing is picking up your life and continuing it in a different, slightly smaller setting. It’s sinking your money into a showcase condo with a breath-taking view of the Mississippi River. We are moving to the arts district of Memphis to live in an apartment under the train tracks that my husband affectionately calls “the Hobbit Hole.”

In the process, we are shedding what one isn’t supposed to shed. Family furniture. Sentimental pictures of the lives we’ve lived so far. Mementoes that remind us of who we have been. Heretical to throw away this stuff. Yet, it’s all being tossed so we can be free to do what we want to do. Mid-week, I watched pictures flutter into the trashcan and told Tom, “We’re becoming flexible heretics.”

I have an entire room of things going to the Salvation Army, which has already picked up furniture. We took two car-loads of stuff to a Really Really Free Market. One way or another, we will get to the point where we can fit into this new apartment. We will be leaner, more nimble. We will shake off the tyranny of things. To do so, I must march straight into the heart of darkness: moving and sorting. But I will emerge on the other side where we will button our coats and head out to the rock-a-billy festival or a latest restaurant. We will live in a 100-year old loading dock where the train glides into the city of Memphis, home of the blues and birthplace of rock-and-roll, cradle of creativity and repository of dreams.

That is the move I want to make.

Our new Hobbit Hole

 

How to be a Winner in the New Normal

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

That was an outlier.

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

I was mulling this over on Election Night in America, 2016, as I lay in bed with the covers over my head. I thought, Hillary Clinton’s not gonna win because you never win. Then I thought to myself, there’s a reason you never win. You don’t try to win. You lay your money on those whose values you admire, rather than those who are a sure bet to win the world’s favor. You’re doing this “winner” thing all wrong, girl.

Then I woke up the next morning and saw the statistics on those who had voted for Trump. I discovered that the only sane people in America are African-American women, who voted for Trump at 4%. As compared, for example, to white women who broke for Trump at 52%.

My immediate reaction was, I’m never voting for another politician who’s not a Black woman.

Then I thought more deeply about the election, reflecting on my role in the loss. For the first 19 years of my professional life, I’d focused on women’s issues. But I’d dropped that, and the last 15 years, I’d focused on racism. I hadn’t kept up the good fight, and Clinton lost. Then I remembered the voting statistics on Black women, and I wondered if maybe the time had come to blend the two. Feminism and anti-racism, supporting Black women at the polls.

And I thought about how my only true (non-literary) hero is Ida B. Wells who refused to concede the stage to the men when fighting for racial justice and refused to retreat to the back of the white marches when fighting for women’s rights. Doing both, refusing to give up on either.

And I thought, you know, sometimes your first knee-jerk reaction is right.

Every Democrat or Independent or Green Party or Democratic Socialist in America is trying to decide how to move forward from this election. Some are focusing on listening to the Trump voters in order to understand the why of it. I don’t have to understand the why of it. All I have to do is figure out my next step, and what I know is that Black women voted for Trump at 4%. If Black women are in charge, we will never again elect a Donald Trump.

So, I’m doubling down, y’all. I’m supporting women of color running for office. Plus, I’ll work to support any Black women considering a run for office so I’ll have that choice more often when I vote. I am not asking Black women to save the country, far from it; they’ve had enough of that put on them already. What I’m saying is, if you want to hold office, I’m here to support you.

I may never win another election. But that’s okay. At least I’m supporting the sane folks, which is a win for me.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

My Patriotism, Who Knew?

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

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

“It’s important, voting is,” he says.

I wipe my cheeks, and we proceed across the floor.

In my mind’s eye, as we walk, I am almost blind with tears. He is leading me with the touch of my fingertips on his arm. When we arrive at the booth, I fumble, confused about what to do next—after all, I’ve only voted for forty years—and he points to where I should insert my voting card. I laugh at how rattled I am, but, together, we get it done.

“You’re good to go,” he says and steps away, almost like an usher escorting one down the church aisle. Making sure I slide into my seat. Then retreating, his job complete.

It’s hard to ignore, this succession of our first Black president with possibly our first woman president. As I told the poll worker, I did tear up when voting for Obama, I was so joyful.

But I didn’t blind myself with tears. I didn’t fumble on how to work the voting machine. I didn’t dress up in my lawyer clothes from 1982, and I didn’t pause before pressing “CAST VOTE,” wanting to make sure this was really, really real.

Nor, when I voted for Obama, did I insist on stopping outside the polling place so I could take a photo.

When I’d planned my early voting experience—another thing I didn’t do when voting for Obama—I’d envisioned a voting site swamped with campaign workers waving signs on the sidewalks. I anticipated finding a Clinton worker and asking if I could pose with her sign while I took a picture. I’d forgotten we were early voting, and campaign workers wouldn’t be present.

So when we got outside, I scanned for a place to take a photo. And my gaze landed on the flag. The good ol’ Stars and Stripes. The “I’m not really a fan of flag-waving, rah-rah, American patriotism” flag.

I wanted to take my photo with that flag.

I stationed myself beside the flag, and my husband waited until those crossing in front of us departed. As I posed, I felt myself lifting my chin. I wanted to say, “THIS is America. Me, voting for our first female president.”

Then I knew. There’s nothing wrong with my patriotism. The problem is, my love of America has been tainted by the gap between what we claim for ourselves and who we really are. I’d never thought that before. I’d thought my values were different—I don’t like violence, and everyone waves the flag so militaristically. I didn’t realize my ambivalence about my country was because, over and over and over again, it had personally failed to show me it considered me equal to a man. 

She might lose, I don’t know. But the political system gave me an opportunity to vote for her. So I thank you, America and Hillary Rodham Clinton, for giving me a moment of unadulterated patriotism.

Me and the Flag

Me and the Flag—reusing this picture because I didn’t tell y’all how odd it was for me to snuggle up to the flag

My Choice, One Way or Another

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

I remember the yellow legal paper I wrote the letter on. I remember the black ink on the yellow page. I remember writing and crossing out and rewriting, because there were no easy-to-edit computers back then. I remember the smallness of my lettering.

“Women’s issues” mean different things to different people. For me, for a long, long time, they were not theoretical, and, in the place where I found my life, this was my reaction, which I will not now judge.

Would I have actually made that choice? Or was the letter a dramatic way to deal with the suffocating thought of someone being able to make that decision for me? I don’t know. The point is, I could not emotionally tolerate the prospect of losing the right to say what happened to my most intimate, prized possession: my body.

So when Hillary Clinton stood on stage and dramatically, passionately, authentically and FIRMLY defended a woman’s right to choose, I stilled. Then I clapped wildly. I did not clap when Trump stated women “violating” abortion restrictions should be subject to criminal punishment.

I did not write that letter decades ago because, during those years, if I had become pregnant, I would’ve had an abortion. Far from it. I composed that letter because it should always be my right to choose. And, ultimately, one way or another, I intended to make it so.

My body. My choice. I choose Hillary.

Dressing Up My Vote

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

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

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

The blouse remains my go-to top when I want something elegant. The skirt has had the zipper repaired, and if you could see the back, you might notice the hook above the zipper is shot. But it embodies the young female associate who arrived back South naive and determined, unaware of how hard it would be to practice law at that time, ignorant of how much I’d need to ignore or laugh off or argue about or actually act to change. How I would be drawn to help start the Women’s Political Network and spend my free time doing the best I could to give women behind me a leg up. I didn’t know how consistently I would be fighting to prove that whatever you said women couldn’t do—be in private practice, have a full-time practice, make partner, attract clients, be a rainmaker, be a good boss—I’d show you it could be done.

Yeah, I’m so tough. But I cried as the poll worker walked me to the voting booth. When he asked if I was okay, I told him it was the same way I’d felt when I got to vote for President Obama—voting for a woman for president meant so much to me.

In the booth I double-checked everything I did, nervous that somehow I would mess this up.

Then I paused.

I stared in the mirror that reflected the voting room where everyone else was doing democracy too. White folks and Black folk and old people on walkers getting their ass out to vote. Some voting in step with my beliefs. Others voting for the exact opposite reason. America at its best.

Glancing down, I found the “Cast Ballot” button and, thirty-four years after I began this journey, I cast my vote for a young lawyer from Arkansas who rose to the United State Senate and Secretary of State and now stood for the office of President of the United States.

Let freedom ring.

My 1982 lawyer blouse and skirt

My 1982 lawyer blouse and skirt

Toppled from My High Perch of Holiness

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.
I hadn’t worked the chalice since I married Tom over 17 years ago. At that ceremony, we offered the communion wine to our wedding guests. This service, I offered the cup to a mix of those living in houses and those living on the street.
Each tip of the cup was different, each person served a new individual who might take the cup in assistance, might stretch their neck in passive need, might gulp or sip or glance up, saying, “I didn’t get any.” What was a congregation becomes relationship, both of us doing the best we can to reach God.
The next impact came courtesy of mammon, that which I wish all could quietly see, which is the passing of the plate. Men and women who have spent the night at the mission dribble their change into the offering. A modern day, weekly reliving of the story of the widow’s mite, every Wednesday at St. Mary’s. It is impossible to witness and not feel convicted of hubris.
But it’s more than that. It’s not just that my charity suffers in comparison to those who dig into their pockets and place crumpled bills into the plate. It’s a reminder of a truth this service taught me long ago: the real living is taking place in a sphere I only intermittently visit. This isn’t a romanticized, rose-colored view of the poor. It’s a Jesus view of the world, where the deepest charity is practiced by those whom we in our blindness judge for taking charity.
After the service, I helped the sandwich-makers make their sandwiches. I learned that a member of the church who came to us through the Wednesday morning service grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, just like me. He lived in Barclay Downs neighborhood, just like me. His brother graduated Myers Park High School, just like me.
I’d considered myself kind for developing a friendship with this man. Giving myself credit, a checkmark in my box, congratulations for doing God’s work, when we were almost the exact same, him and me. He who always remembers my name.
Equal, equal, equal. The service drums God’s truth into my head until I cry “Uncle!” and slink away from my high perch of holiness. Some services teach by preaching. This service offers an opportunity to experience the word of God. For that, I thank the lord and St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.grapes

(This post was republished from a Facebook note, as the Facebook page and the blog have different audiences. If you want to get FB notes directly, feel free to join me at Ellen Morris Prewitt: My Very Southern Voice.)

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.

I didn’t “report” these things because who knew there was a “thing” to report? Who knew pressing up against an unsuspecting woman was something men did to get their jollies? Who knew to call the police when I was stalked, fearing for my life, but steeped enough in the culture to know they’d ask, “But did anything happen?” Who knew I’d experienced  what would later be called “sexual harassment” for “unwanted advances” in the workplace? Who knew that almost every woman in the world has endured this type of behavior in her everyday, day-to-day, day-after-every-damn-day, life? (If you can stomach it, read this Twitter feed on first assaults, but be prepared—it paints an awful picture of the world we live in.)

That’s not why I’m mad.

Okay, that’s a little of why I’m mad.

But the boiling anger comes because I thought we were past that shit. I thought the time when this type of behavior was shrugged off was over, kaput, done with. I thought we as a culture no longer responded to sexual assault by waving it off. Dismissing it. Calling it “locker room banter.” Gone were the days, I thought, when we accepted violating women’s bodies as normal male behavior because—shrug—”boys will be boys.” Yet, here we are in a national presidential election debating whether bragging about grabbing a woman by her most private part is a big deal. Listen to Trump’s supporters, trying to minimize it by calling it “potty mouth.” That’s a term you use for four-year-olds talking about doo-doo, not a grown man bragging about sexually assaulting women.

PSA break for a grammar lesson: “Grab” is a verb. A verb is used to indicate action. That is not talk, not words. It’s action.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. Grab them by the p**sy.”

“I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it…. ‘Is everyone OK?’ You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”

Just like the faceless man in the pickup truck who stalked a vulnerable rider on a bike: he did it because he could get away with it. And the leering man in the crowd who thought it was the funniest thing to assault me with his penis: he did it because he could get away with it. Oh, and I forgot the time the ex-governor of Mississippi catcalled me as I walked to court, just trying to do my job, carrying a damn briefcase. Or even the consultant who walked around my desk into my personal space and plopped into my desk chair, spreading his legs wide.

So forgive me if I identify with Hillary, standing on the stage, trying to carry on a professional debate. Only to be confronted with a man who loomed over her, invaded her space, blocked her path to the audience, stalked her across the stage, and glared down at her with rage as he threatened to put her in jail. That’s a man using his body to assert his dominance over a woman, a man who needs to be told to get back in his space.

Which is to say, thank God for the women who are standing up in droves and saying, “This happened to me.” And the men saying, “I don’t act like that.” Thank God for Anderson Cooper asking, “You have bragged that you sexually assaulted women—do you understand that?” Thank God for the pro athletes saying, “Not in my locker room, we don’t talk like that.” And thank you, Jesus, for all the women saying, “We know you, Donald Trump, and we’re putting you back in your place on November 8.” 

Won’t you please do it, too? On election day, won’t you tell Trump to back off? With your vote, tell him he’s not gonna get away with it, not this time. Vote to put him back in his place.

 

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.

*

Her hair is her crowning glory, but she’s got a lot to crown. Her navy dress gives no quarter, and she doesn’t need it to. She bikes and runs and standup paddle boards. She is in shape. She moves with grace, a perfect long s in motion. Then there is her mass of red hair, a work of flaming exuberance. My little sister. The aunt of the bride. She is gorgeous.

*

I wanted to see my niece marry. My godchild, whom I had met mere days after her birth. How could I miss her wedding? I had to see her in her dress, see her with her groom, be there as she said her vows. It was a unmissable moment in her life. But I didn’t expect this special time with my sisters.
The three of us, together.
Me and Elli, there for Marcee as her oldest daughter married.
Me and Marcee, dancing with Elli at the reception.
Marcee emerging from the hotel in her kick-ass tights and boots. Elli emerging in her kick-ass boots and dress.
These fierce, independent women. I was unendingly proud to be one of them.

*

You see, inside that city where we had never before been together, we were once again who we had been: the Morris girls. Back when we lived in Jackson, Mississippi with our mother before Daddy came into our lives, when we’d been little girls growing up, always known as “the Morris girls.” In those days, when there were only three of us children, before we gained another sister and, amazingly, a brother, we lived life in our own way. Scattered, unstructured, not easily predicted. Free.
So many years later, when Daddy died, that night in my bed as a gaping hole formed in my life, I wondered if without Daddy, we would revert to who we had been. What would that look like? Without the core that had held us in place, got us to church on time, kept us running smoothly—would we dissolve into chaos?
But here we were, dancing.
That’s nothing but the lagniappe of wedding magic. Unexpected moments of happiness, for which life becomes worthwhile.
Love you both.

Marcee and Elli, my sisters

Marcee and Elli

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”)?

Believe it or not, they didn’t. They retrained the police.

In Las Vegas, the city went from one of the deadliest police forces in the country to a model for reform. They focused on “fair and impartial policing” to counter the inherent bias we all have—the vast majority of Las Vegas’s questionable killings had been of unarmed Black men. They now do reality-based training geared toward de-escalation. And they revamped the review board to counter a prior 97% validation of deadly force incidents. In 2014, the city had zero deadly force incidents.

Philadelphia saw an 80% drop in police-involved killings after the department implemented DOJ recommendations. They, too, went to field training where officers role-play realistic situations. Previously, Philadelphia officers had mistakenly perceived Blacks as threats at twice the rate of whites. They also changed the review process for shootings that do happen. Reforms aren’t complete, but as the police chief said, “You can’t fix something until you recognize and acknowledge it exists.” 

In Dallas, focusing on de-escalation (for example, don’t shout but communicate) and community policing not only decreased shootings, it was accompanied by a decrease in the city’s murder rate, the lowest in 80 years. If a police shooting does happen, the department decreases the number of officers in the neighborhood around the shooting scene. A spokesman for the department said, “The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all.”

Salt Lake City is changing, too. “Not least among the new strategies is training in bias. Officers should recognize that people of different cultures and races may react differently to police presence.” Terrible exceptions to the new training are still happening, with deadly consequences, because training takes time, which is why we all need to start now.

Gathering at national conferences, chiefs of police around the country are examining policing. Guess what they’re focusing on? de-escalation tactics. “I’m totally in agreement that police don’t know how to retreat in the United States and that we kill too many people,” said the former Boston commissioner. They, too, focused on how departments react to shootings that do happen, with the need to quickly release information about the incidents. 

Death at the hands of police is NOT a hopeless, unsolvable mess where we argue sides and nothing can be fixed. It can be fixed. We know this. Police departments around the country are working hard to fix it. All we have to do is ask our hometowns: what are you doing?

Have you, my hometown, acknowledged that police training needs to change? Are you implementing the changes that have been proven to work in other cities? (Las Vegas is awaiting your call :)). Are you training in de-escalation, engaging in fair and impartial policing, using transparent and community-oriented review process? If not, do you realize you are falling behind? Do you understand you are no longer engaging in best practices?

I urge you to write your mayor and ask these questions. We must work to prevent the next American citizen from being killed by the police. We must prevent yet another police officer from being swept into a mind-bending controversy when she thought she was doing her job. We know how to fix the system. We need to get busy doing it.

Is your city examining its policing practices?

Is your city examining its policing practices?

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.

Aside from these semi-stage performance situations, hypnotism is medically accepted these days. When it is used for healing purposes, it is sometimes used in conjunction with the term “placebo.” For most medical doctors, placebo has long been a derogatory term. A pesky problem, really, interfering with what they were trying to accomplish—cures through drugs. Thankfully, this is no longer the (sole) view. Rather, the placebo is a window into how we work.

*

Once upon a time, we thought placebos were a function of fooling yourself into thinking you were getting real medicine. Turns out, placebos work even when you know you’re taking a placebo. Nor is it “all in your mind”—placebos actually cause the body to go through the physical reactions that cause healing.  Even more interesting, after you’re been given a “real” medicine for a while, you can replace it with a placebo and your body will take up the slack, producing the healing results. This happens even if you know you’re replacing the medicine with a placebo. More good news: the placebo doesn’t produce the bad side effects associated with the “real” drug.

I’ve not read the explanation for this—most of my learning on the subject came from Jo Marchant’s book “Cure”—but it seems to me your body has been taught by the medicine how to fix the problem. Now it can do it on its own, thank you very much. Makes me wonder if placebo-takers in drug trials would be even more efficient if we told them how the real medicine works.

To take it one step further. Brain scans show mirror neurons in our brains light up whether we experience something or we watch someone else experience it. Empathy, to oversimplify. Combine this with the fact we use groups to establish the effects of medicines; one group gets real medicine, one placebo. We do this for scientific double-blind reasons. But what if empathy unlimited by physical proximity is at play? What if, in group trials, the placebo group is learning how to use the placebo via the group taking the real medicine?

*

Here’s another thing we know: when I want to use my iPhone, I do not, in fact, formulate the thought to reach for the phone then instruct my muscles to perform it. It’s the exact opposite. I reach, then formulate the thought. Science says consciousness of the fact I’m going to reach arrives later in the equation. The mind/body has already begun the operation by the time consciousness catches up. This leads me to conclude thoughts are not the dominate brain function we’ve long believed them to be (see Descartes: I think, therefore I am). Instead, thoughts are simply one of the functions of the brain. We formulate the thought “reach for the phone” not because it’s needed to reach for the phone but because constructing thought is what that part of the brain does.

Maybe it’s like the old movie joke where one character on board the spaceship repeats whatever the computer says. Our brain thoughts are just translating what is happening in the brain into the language that part of the brain understands, i.e. thought.

In any event, the hierarchy we’ve formulated about the brain with functions stacked in a pyramid of importance—thought at the top—appears to be wrong. Rather than a hierarchy, the brain’s functions might be exactly like its shape: a rounded, interplaying whole. And much of what really, really matters in our brains has nothing to do with that part of our brain that believes itself in charge.

*

One more thing: we may be wrong about there being a reality out there that we take in through our senses and interpret with our brains. Our reality is probably much more a function of our predictive brain (you’ve heard me talk about this before). As the brain sorts information, it establishes “givens” that are constantly reinforced by selecting only new sensory info that confirms that reality. My reality is not yours. Hence, our problem with eyewitness testimony; we literally see different things.

On the other hand, consciousness studies show we do share, with variations, certain limitations in our ability to see the external world. Spying quick changes, for example, is so difficult we literally do not see them (no telling what is going on in the outside world.) We, individually and as a species, are brain blind.

Who knows—maybe the brain is aware of its shortcomings and thus moves to fill in the blanks, constructing what is happening to the best of its ability. In any event, paradoxically, we are much more dependent on our brains than we formerly believed. It’s just not our thought brain.

*

Why the hell am I writing so much about the brain when this is not, to state the obvious, my area of expertise? I want to cure my poison ivy. For the first time in years, it’s crawling all over my arms. Apparently, skin diseases are very susceptible to hypnotism. Or placebos. Or brain learning. Whatever, I’m waiting for the capabilities of my brain to stop this itching. If only I knew what they were.

The Brain

The Brain

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:

A homeless man discovers a body submerged in the Wolf River Harbor, plunging him into the midst of a deadly real estate scheme.

The manuscript has been through a professional editor and two Beta readers. But I needed more feedback. So I asked: anyone wanna be a Beta reader for a mystery?

Lo and behold, folks took me up on it! (Note: be careful what you ask for and all that). The manuscript is now with 8 new readers. Yep, eight. Two of them I’ve swapped work with in the past, so we’re good. The rest, well, let’s just say it scares me to death.

Thing is, these are regular folks. People accustomed to reading final, polished, published work. Now I’ve given them my WIP (work in process), with a warning, no less.

Lots of what I write is light and funny. This is not. I told them to expect tough subjects, which I do understand most books about murder involve. 🙂 But I could’ve written a cozy mystery set in a charming Southern town where a little old lady discovers who poisoned the local flower shop owner with insecticide—I didn’t. One Beta reader has already called it “gritty.” That’s a good thing, since it takes place in Memphis, where we embrace the “Grit and Grind” tag of our NBA Grizzlies team. Of course, you really, really want to do tough subjects well. 

As usual, when I encounter a new difficult experience, I try to discern what I’m learning. About myself, about the world, about other people. Often, I look for how the experience has made me more empathetic. This one, it’s swelled my already great admiration for self-published authors.

You see, if your book gets published by a publishing house and someone doesn’t like it, you can say, bleh, I don’t care—my publisher liked it. But if it’s just you? What if there’s no one standing between your work and the general public? No one saying, in effect, we’ve read this and decided it has value? Where is your cushion, your buffer? You don’t have one. Yet, you put it out there anyway. That’s pretty brave, if you ask me.

So, we’ll see what folks have to say. But one thing I know for sure: the novel will be better for it. And that’s exactly the point.

Wolf River Harbor, setting of the Harboring Evil mystery

Wolf River Harbor, setting of my Harboring Evil mystery

Hard Truths I’ve (Recently) Learned

  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).
  9. If you talk about race, folks won’t like you as much.
  10. Your brain isn’t always your friend.
  11. I can get addicted to Mountain Dew in a New York minute.
  12. I am not as smart as I think I am.
  13. Many, many things are more important to folks than their love for you.
  14. I wig out easily.
  15. As a former lawyer, I will never serve on a jury.
  16. I want to get all the difficult things taken care of so I can enjoy my life, but it’s like what my Daddy said about his colleagues who railed against the time they wasted putting out fires when they needed to get back to their real work, not realizing putting out fires WAS their real work—this is life, admit it and get on with it.

    St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral channeling James Brown

    St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral channeling James Brown

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.

The 1967 Six Day War was only a handful of years old, it being 1972. The war featured Israel on one side with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria on the other. The Israeli victory over much greater forces was considered a miracle of almost Biblical proportions. Israel, our friend, had defended itself against the mighty Goliath. At least, that was the way I’d learned it that day in school.

But Faye asked me, what did I think of the war? Was Israel in the right when it made a preemptive strike? Didn’t Israel, in fact, start the war?

I was flummoxed. I’d repeated what my teachers taught me—how could I not be right? That’s what school was for, wasn’t it? To learn what you were being taught.

But Faye said you had to think for yourself. See what made sense to you. Examine it, turn it around in your hands, sort it through. Even more deeply, Aunt Faye taught me that facts can arrive with an almost unrecognizable slant. Everything is shaped and formed and told the way folks want it to be told. Doesn’t mean Israel was right. Doesn’t mean Israel was wrong. It meant I had to decide for myself. To this day, I don’t have a clue what Faye thought about the war. She was asking me to think about the war.

Faye died this week. Her funeral is tomorrow. I can’t make the trip to North Carolina to be with the family because my husband is recovering from surgery. So here I sit, wondering what I can do to let her family know how very much I loved her. And I thought, Ellen, you can do the only thing you can do. Write about her. Because it was her lesson that day when I sat with my mouth gaping open that set me on the path to look for the unvarnished truth. Not the convenient truth. Not the truth that all those around you believed—man, I’m telling you, to even question Israel’s actions in 1972 was unheard of.

The quest is for the truth as we can best parse it out. Failure doesn’t lie in giving a right or wrong answer. It lies in not thinking for yourself.

Love you, Faye.

My aunt Faye Van Hecke

My aunt Faye Van Hecke

The soul of our beloved Faye Massengill Van Hecke, 87, has taken flight on August 16, 2016.

Faye, daughter of Nathan and Gladys Adams Massengill, grew up in Kinston, NC. At UNC Chapel Hill, she wrote for The Daily Tarheel, was a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority and Order of the Valkyries. She met M.S. Van Hecke (“Van”) working at The Kinston Free Press. They married (for 64 years) and moved to Charlotte NC and raised three children: Kelley Shaw, Michael Van Hecke and Charlie Van Hecke. In the 1970’s, Faye earned a Master’s Degree in Education and a teacher’s certificate (ASU/UNCC) then taught reading and journalism at Olympic HS for 20+ years, earning Teacher of the Year honors multiple times. She loved to play tennis especially at their Beech Mountain summer home and at Ocean Isle Beach with Bayard and Virginia Van Hecke. She and Van retired from Charlotte to Waxhaw.

Faye’s passion for education was only surpassed by her love of her family. She cherished her grandchildren Kelley, Eric, Sarah, Kinney, Faye and Maurice and had recently met great granddaughter Nora. She considered her nephew Gary Massengill and niece Charleah Day to be her children too, as well as her childrens’ spouses, David Shaw, Evelyn Kinney Van Hecke and Lisa Champ Van Hecke. She was looking forward to attending the 44th Annual Van Hecke Beach Reunion in September.

Faye was well known for her kindness, humor – and spunk. While overcoming a broken hip last year, she told her healthcare team to keep a positive attitude. She looked people in the eye and believed the eyes to be the windows of the soul. One Waxhaw United Methodist Church choir member commented that it was an inspiration to see Faye recently singing and clapping with such spirit. Faye, nicknamed the minister of unconditional love, will be missed by her family, church and former students but she will live on in our hearts, reunited in heaven with those she loved that have passed before her.