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.
My definition of the Holy Spirit at work is when you think you’re doing a very important x, but, unbeknownst to you, the true point of your activity is y. You trundle along, doing your x, and all the while, God is doing y. Suddenly, a beautiful thing blooms into being, something you had no idea was in the works, and all you can do is stand in awe, mesmerized by God’s hand in the world.
Bead by Beadis part of the Active Prayer series that contains my Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God (Paraclete Press, 2009) and written by my friend Suzanne Henley. It opens with the concrete—a history of beads and specific instructions on how to pray a set of beads—and moves to the metaphysical: praying “beads” even when we don’t have a string in our hand, and making our own lives into prayer beads. Suzanne has lived with beads for years, patiently creating her extraordinary creations, which are featured on the cover and throughout the book. I can’t help but think this immersion informs her ability to view the world as a luminous string of prayer.
In all ways, the book expands the concept of prayer beads beyond the traditional view of a rosary. The book contains a wide variety of prayers (or hymns or chants or whatever your little heart desires) to be used as we pray the beads. Those who love history and memoir and diamonds of insight will savor the book. Those who specifically appreciate the opportunity to combine physical activity with prayer will find a home in the book—Bead by Bead concludes with suggestions on how to draw and label our own beads. Along the way, there is no retreat from the messiness of prayer, or our lives, for that matter. Suzanne invites us into her experience of a “widow maker” heart attack, for example. The primary prayer beads are not called Cruciform beads for nothing.
Please, take the time to be with this book. Settle in. Absorb it as you slowly turn from page to page enjoying the beautiful photos of Suzanne’s prayer beads and the delightful phrases crafted by her pen (okay, probably her computer, but definitely her unique mind.) You are going to want to re-read sentences. You’ll pause and ponder the insights she is making. You’ll guffaw at her humor. You will never look at lemons in the grocery store the same way again. Instead, when you spy the lemons in the bin, you will stop and say a prayer. I can’t think of a more wonderful gift a book can give.
It takes a lot to break through my dedication to finishing an ongoing project and write a blog post these days, but the last 24 hours have succeeded. Or, as I like to think of it, The Latest Edition of Weird in My Life:
Today when reading the front page of the local newspaper, I learned how mules chew (sideways, if you feel I’m intentionally withholding information.) The mules had been abandoned in a cemetery. Their rescuers found them a new home, if you’re worried.
Tomorrow I go to the Wal-Mart to buy a metal detector so my husband and I can become old people who search for dimes on the beach (actually, this purchase is the result of arrows lost in the lot next door, an even weirder fact if you think about it.)
I had to ask the server at lunch today if the restaurant has a body buried in the front yard. She had no idea what I was asking. Here’s the photo. You decide. I halfway expected to see two abandoned mules wandering around.
Next week, I will go to a lecture on how to compost and another lecture on the history of the Hancock County Historical Society. At the latter, I intend to ask where the water was missing from when Hurricane Katrina pushed it over Waveland and inundated the county (water wasn’t created by the hurricane; it had to come from somewhere: were the beaches in Cuba or Cancun dry?) I’ll let you know if they consider this a proper historical question or tell me I’m full of compost. I might need to find the Hancock County Oceanographical Society.
I woke up at 5:30 this morning when the dog sat on my head. This is a meteorological event that might interest the Hancock County Oceanographical Society, should I find one: the dog is afraid of storms and considers my head a safe place.
I am reading children’s books. Middle grade, specifically Lemony Snicket. I’ve already read two. You can read them in one sitting. Or standing. The premise is that life is actually a series of unfortunate events, a philosophy I (and, I’m sure, the dog) can identify with.
I am now the proud owner of a live oak. If you don’t know what a live oak is, here’s a photo. This is NOT my tree. It’s the tree behind the “is it a grave or not?” headstone. My tree might become this beautiful with some TLC and time. My tree is situated on the lot next door with the missing arrows about to be located with a metal detector, which lot we just bought.
I may leave my brain to science. This thought occurred to me while in church this evening. I know you’re thinking, what damn church does she go to? I can’t remember the prompt, and thus can’t explain why this arose during the service. But I thought, if you like the brain so much, you ought to contribute to its understanding: leave your brain to science so that when you’re turning to compost, scientists will be learning from your brain. I haven’t talked to my husband about this idea. He might read about it in this blog post. My husband’s weird fact for the day: I read about my wife donating her brain to science in her blog post.
I bought two sailboats and a turquoise house and hung them on the window sill where they can hold my dreams.
When I read a book to my grandsons, I read from the beginning. Specifically, we pause and read the page containing the author’s name and illustrator’s name (I’m sure there’s a fancy word for this page, but I don’t know what it is.) I start here because I want the boys to understand that who wrote the book is important and who illustrated it is important. Without these two folks, the boys would not have the joy of the book.
Even so, I have never approached a book from the slant of the illustrator. I did so for THE POPE’S CAT, Illustrated by my friend Roy DeLeon (and written by my former editor at Paraclete Press, Jon M. Sweeney.) Roy is an Oblate of St. Benedict, spiritual director, author of Praying with the Body (an offering in Paraclete’s Active Prayer Series that includes my Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God), an engaging professional visual artist, and a man as delightful as his illustrations.
In this chapter book recommended for ages six and up, (though I intend to read it to my 4 and 6-year-old grandsons), we are introduced to a stray cat via a charming glimpse of her crouching outside an Italian gelato stand in Rome. Next, we are given what has to be the most endearing image of the Pope that’s ever been. He’s waving at us. When this delightful Pope strolls past the cat’s gelato stand, the magic begins.
The next time we see the cat, she’s tucked into the cassock of the Pope as he walks into the Vatican apartments, then licking her lips over a plate of sugar cookies—her life is definitely on the uptick. The cat acquires a name (“Margaret”) and, as cats are want to do, goes exploring—the image of her with the Swiss Guard is adorable. We are also given the iconic image of the papal view from the balcony looking out over the crowd in the plaza below . . . except it’s Margaret the cat sitting at a window facing the crowd. I won’t give away plot complications. Suffice it to say it involves a sneeze. The image of a satisfied Margaret giving a broad wink is worth the price of the book.
As you read, be sure to note the whole of the illustrations, not just the foreground but what Roy has chosen for the backgrounds as well. I expect you are going to wind up with a well-thumbed and beloved book.
THE POPE’S CAT (Paraclete Press, 2018, paperback) will release March 13, 2018 and is now available for preorder on Amazon.
It isn’t what you’ve seen on YouTube. It’s not drunkenness and lifting tops. It’s exuberance and cleverness and so much work spent on costumes simply because being alive is an amazing wild ride.
I wore a diorama of myself. That’s my book, THE BONE TRENCH, in the diorama. It may never get sold, so I made one myself. 🙂
Mardi Gras is families and kids and kids and families.
Mardi Gras is everyone in a city dressing up to strut down the street and hoot at the costumes and applaud each other in their creativity and, oh, you should have seen strangers accepting wishes from the shooting stars—they LOVED it.
My spirit animal for 2018 is the hedgehog. This is not new. I own the cutest collection of hedgehogs ever, which isn’t hard because hedgehogs are fundamentally cute. My focus on hedgehogs is, let’s say, resurrected. And this love will be incorporated into my Mardi Gras costume.
Thus, in preparation and general betterment of the world, I offer you Hedgehog Facts.
Hedgehogs have changed little in the last 15 million years. They are a distant relative of the shrew. They shed their spines when under extreme stress.
Hedgehogs are not rodents. The species native to the Americas is extinct. They sleep during the day and wake at night to waddle around. A group of hedgehogs is called a prickle. Ferrets eat them. They can hibernate if their tummies are full enough. If they do hibernate, their body temperature drops to 36 degrees. They get cold as hell. They grunt like a pig.
Hedgehogs talk a lot. Like honey badgers, they are immune from snake bites. They eat frogs and watermelon and other things. They live long because they control their diet. They give humans ringworm. People ate hedgehogs in the Medieval ages, the barbarians.
Hedgehogs sleep rolled up in a ball.
Their ears are huge.
They like to live alone.
Their babies are called hoglets.
Hoglets whistle to find their moms.
Adult hedgehogs squeal when excited.
Hedgehogs are shy, hidden creatures. You will have to look closely to see my “Homage to Hedgehog” on my Mardi Gras outfit, but now you know what to look for.
Can y’all hardly wait to see my Mardi Gras Day costume?
Mardi Gras DAY because it’s already Mardi Gras season, and I’ve been in costume for a while.
For Tuesday, I’m making a tableaux.
And I’m wearing it.
You’re gonna LOVE it, I just know.
For the tableaux, I’m using one of the throws I got last night at the Muses Parade, readapted. Technically, my oldest grandson got the throw, but he didn’t want it, and I swapped him a blinking rubber ducky for it. He doesn’t know I’m using it in my Mardi Gras Day costume. He’s gonna LOVE it, I just know.
This morning, we went to his school’s Mardi Gras parade. Yep, after doing Muses last night, we were up at 8:00 this morning to be the grandparents at the kindergarten parade, which was the cutest thing you have ever seen, all pre-K and K students. Aubrey was the banner-carrier, head of the parade. He was so pleased. When he finished, all he wanted to know from his dad was, “Did you get any beads?”
I’ll post photos of the costume. In the meantime, here’s a random photo of New Orleans.
I have just completed another rewrite of Jazzy and the Pirate. I created a document to hold the cuts I made, in case I wanted to add them back in.
The document is 31,252 words.
That’s 124 pages.
The finished version of this draft is 48 pages shorter than my last draft. (I read once that you don’t have a first draft until someone reads it; I had a paid editor (first draft) then a Beta reader (2nd draft), then another handful of Beta readers, so although I’ve been working on this since God was a toddler, this is my third draft). If you do the math, I wrote 76 new pages and cut 124 pages for a tighter manuscript that’s 50 pages shorter than the most recent draft. I also cut five family members, changed the names of most of the remaining members, demoted a pirate to non-named status, eradicated two plots, and eliminated three entire pages as I slogged through the most tedious chore known to womankind: cutting overused words (“like,” appeared over 240 times, y’all—240 times; I got it down to 58).
That’s why I call it a rewrite: it’s too massive to call a revision.
(It’s also why I go incommunicado for long periods of time—sorry about that.)
Those are mechanical measures. The question is, do I like the new draft better? Of course I do—I wrote it. I’m being facetious. More often than not, I have to delete chunks of new scenes because they make my skin crawl. This is the strangest process. I write and write, working on a scene to make it perfect, then when I see it in my mind, it makes my skin crawl, and out it goes. Sometimes I can condense what I’ve written into summary, and I’m okay with it. Other times, I highlight the whole thing and zap! I cut it. Same thing with narrative: I write an “amazing” piece of narrative then have to slash it by two-thirds or delete it altogether. In a concession to a slash-happy knife, I do rake through the 124 pages of cuts and reinsert bits and pieces that shine.
In other words, I overwrite my later drafts (whereas I underwrite my first drafts—readers always want more). Then I must sift through the crap to find the diamonds, the same way my mother had to sift through our dog’s crap when he licked her earlobe and swallowed her diamond earring. I also tend to “tell” too much in the rewrites—as in, dammit, you whiney readers don’t get this point, then let me hit you over the head with it. “Chiseling” might be a good word for my later drafts, where I lump on stony sections then have to carve away to leave only elegant lines.
It’s a very herky-jerky, forward and backward, inefficient way of proceeding.
Happy New Year to those with stars in their eyes on how grand life has become. And to those struggling with the dismay of dreams lost. And to those standing in the middle, unable to discern whether they feel happy or sad with the way life is going. Our lives are our stories, writ large. May each of us have the best tomorrow we can. And the day after, and the day after . . . .
My husband is “watching football” on the couch. He’s snoring. The dog is curled up in the nest made by the crook of his bent knees. I’ve just hung up Facetiming with my family in North Carolina after 3 days of celebrating with my family in New Orleans. The grandsons are 6 and 4. They will grow up and will remember as if a dream their daddy’s hands patting out the sugar cookie dough, and the stage with lights where they played their new guitar under the disco ball, and the thick limbs of the magnolia tree where they climbed so high on Christmas Day. All of it will seem magical, as in, could anything so perfect have really existed?
I know this because it is how I remember the unknown Santa standing on the stoop with a gift for my widowed mama, and diving into the gigantic coloring book with the best pictures ever, and strutting into my grandmother’s house in my cap guns with snap shirt and cowboy boots so proud of how awesome I was, and how wonder-filled it felt. Not because I’d gotten “things,” but because the world cracked open and spilled unearned joy into my life.
This is Christmas Day, when God came into the world to bring us tidings of great joy: unto us a child is born and his name shall be called wonderful!
So I was in a hurry today and I needed to get my life insurance premium paid and I ran into the Farm Bureau office and I flashed a smile at the clerk behind the desk and shoved the check into her hands and whirled to the door, and she said to me, “It’s nice to see you again,” at which point I was already halfway through the parking lot.
So I did my errands, and I went back.
I hate doing this. It makes me feel like a fool. But the clerk had been extraordinarily nice to me and, besides, the reason I was so harried was because I was trying to get things done for the damn Christmas season!
Can you tell that returning to the scene of my error irritates the fire out of me?
I learned to endure this embarrassing humility during the eight years I facilitated the Door of Hope Writing Group. I knew so little about what I was doing, and I so often messed up, only to realize my mistake when I was in the parking lot, my hand on the car door handle. It was very important to me to get it right, and so I tucked my tail between my legs and went back inside to do it over again, or apologize, or set it straight.
Of course, the feelings of the Farm Bureau clerk didn’t matter that much, right?
I don’t give a rat’s ass whether she thought it was important or not. (See? Irritated.) It was important to me.
Plus, I figured if I didn’t go back and say something to her then I would be at the intersection of Poplar and Walnut Grove at the very time a car came barreling through the red light, and it would flatten me, all because I had acted like an asshole.
When I stood in front of her again and apologized for my earlier rudeness, she said, “No worries.”
I have lived in shock for a year. I could not believe that a man who put himself at the center of the universe and tore down everyone around him in the ugliest manner possible had been elevated to the presidency. The vote of my fellow and sister Americans sanctioning his behavior felt like gaslighting, an attempt to convince me that all I saw in him was not so. I have spent the last twelve months searching for, and latching on to, evidence that I was not, in fact, deluded but was right about him, which evidence has poured forth like the proverbial floodwaters.
I’m done with that. I was right. And I’m moving on.
I have my own little red God wagon to take care of. By which I mean, my most important duty is to try to discern the actions God wants me to take, and take them. Every second I spend confirming and reconfirming and confirming yet again that the president is a bigoted bully is time spent away from my work.
The year wasn’t wasted. It’s made me struggle with my own reactions. To parse my very personal anger at a man I don’t even know. To understand how hate-filled public policy gets adopted. To identify exactly who I want to support in the political process. To put the onus back where it belongs: on me.
And what is the next step for me? I have a voice, and I intend to use it in the way I have been given. I will publish work about grief and homelessness and racism and God’s love for the world, the categories I use on this blog to describe who I am. I guarantee you, not a one of them will align with the president’s beliefs. That won’t matter. What’s important is that they will align with mine.
At one point in my life when I was struggling with betrayal, I went to my Episcopal priest for advice. He suggested that during this difficult time, I might find it easier to pray to Mother Mary. I followed his suggestion, and thus began a lifelong relationship with the mother of God. CHERRY BOMB takes this concept and expands it to a near-magical degree. Rather than Mother Mary, in CHERRY BOMB, it is St. Mary of Egypt who offers redemption. How satisfying it was to read Susan Cushman’s new novel that advocates for redemption and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
This literary novel (Dogwood Press, 2017) traces the life of a young woman in Macon, Georgia who uses graffiti to process the hurt that life has brought her. (I’m pretty much illiterate about graffiti, but the apartment where I live in New Orleans has as its patron saint Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I was pleased to see his name mentioned in the novel’s early pages.) The story follows homeless young Mare as she meets famous artist Elaine de Kooning.
Elaine de Kooning, of course, is a historical figure, whose life Cushman has fictionalized, while using many facts from her life. De Kooning recognizes Mare’s talent and mentors Mare as an artist. Mare and Elaine came to art by very different paths—one through MTV videos, the other via the Museum of Modern Art. Their interaction leads Mare to enter the more traditional word of art via art school, and to question what she really wants from her art and life. CHERRY BOMB follows the stories of these two women in alternating viewpoints, which enables us to watch as their life histories gradually intersect. It’s wonderful to watch the author weave them together.
I am not going to give away plot points, but I was fascinated with how Cushman brought together the world of graffiti and the world of icons. Icons are a deeply historical form of worship, which Cushman has worked in herself (she created the icon on the back cover of CHERRY BOMB). I didn’t know both graffiti and iconography use the language of “writing” and “stories,” rather than drawing and pictures.
Of course, I’m also drawn to Mare because of her homelessness during much of the story. Her living on the street is well-told, as is the way she copes in that life. Both Mare and Elaine struggle with deeply difficult backgrounds of sexual abuse and abandonment. Working their way to forgiveness of those who have hurt them is hard. St. Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of the author, figures prominently in this process. To include forgiveness of themselves in that journey is remarkable.
DON’T MISS SUSAN’S BOOK SIGNING THURSDAY DECEMBER 14 AT 6:00 pm AT NOVEL. BOOKSTORE, LAURELWOOD SHOPPING CENTER, 387 PERKINS, RD EXTD, MEMPHIS, TN
This is not a major post. It’s a minor post. Due to website upgrades, my spam protection disappeared. Naked, I was inundated with sleazy messages about limp penises, opioid-crisis-level drugs, and loose women. I realize now that this has kept me off the blog, as if creeping near exposed me to cooties.
I’m glad to report protections have been put back in place and spam has dried up. Like a slithering, prehistoric, slimy creature that cannot live without swamp water, it gasps its last breath. I promise to be more loquacious.