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Category: General

Running for Dear Life

The summer I went to camp, it rained every day for eight weeks. I was in the eighth grade. It was my first major camp experience. I’d been to church camp (Baptist and Episcopalian) and Girl Scout camp (in Brandon, Mississippi, where we chased a greased watermelon around the lake), but not to a camp where girls traveled from Puerto Rico to attend. We were in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, me and all the rich kids. And every day, it rained on our heads.

I was at the camp on sort of a scholarship. My grandfather had left me and my two sisters trust fund money. Yeah, you might think that made me one of the rich kids, but it didn’t. Our trust fund money was largely unavailable, to the extent I told one of my friends that I had money in the bank, I just could never get to it. My parents couldn’t have afforded to send three girls into the mountains at hundreds of dollars a week for no reason other than to have a good time. “The trust includes education funds,” Mother said. I guess learning to live in the pouring rain was an education.

At the last minute, Mother had gone to Sears and bought ponchos for us to take with us, because ponchos were on the list of required clothing (any hints there?). The other girls’ ponchos were daisy-flowered in soft baby blues and spring greens. The Morris sisters’ ponchos were fluorescent orange like highway workers wear. Every day, head down and trudging to lunch, I could pick us out of the sea of ponchos: me; my one-year older sister; and baby Bettie, bright orange flames in the wavering line of little girl ponchos.

The spots of orange were about it for my interaction with my siblings. Summer camp is segmented: first by age group and then by cabin and finally by bunk bed. I had a great cabin, I remember that. But at the foot of my bunk bed, in the locker we’d bought for the camp experience, my clothes grew moldy from all the rain.

It did not rain the entire day, only every day. Spurts of sunshine appeared, but even then, when your horse passed beneath a low branch, droplets showered you. The tennis courts carried puddles. When you held the bow taut on the archery range, wetness tickled your ankles. We wrote home: “It’s raining.” Back in Charlotte, Mother moaned: “All that money!”

But in the snatched sunshine, on the steeply sloped hills, along the dirt paths, I learned to run. Up and down, swerving to miss grabbing roots, feet pounding—I ran. Looking back, my body may have been overwrought with the need for physical activity. In summers past, I’d spent my time on the tennis courts, every day, all day, smacking the tennis ball. The inactivity of rainy camp chaffed, and my need burst through. 

So I ran. This was long before “jogging” was an activity. And I wasn’t jogging. I was full-tilt running, pausing only when I had to choose a fork in the path. If you say to me today, “Camp Ton-A-Wandah,” this is the memory that rises to the surface: me on the paths, running. At the time, it was the purest form of physical activity I’d ever experienced. Later, I would recognize that physical immersion in sex, but that was a long, long way off.

No, the summer of the eighth grade, my camp nickname was “Stick.” I had yet to get my period. I can’t remember if I even wore a bra. Stuck in a place between childhood and teenage-dom, I was loath to take the next step. I rightly surmised it meant swapping the joy in my body for angst. Too soon, freckles would become blemishes, the smooth front of my soft tennis shirt a defect. Teenage girls, in those days, frequently did not appreciate the way we were built. 

But that summer, on the pine straw paths of the North Carolina mountains, before I began worrying about whether my hair looked stupid or my poncho was something a construction worker would wear, I waited for a break in the rain and, when the sun appeared, I ran for dear life.

A photo from a recent trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains where it didn’t rain every day

The Chick in the Eye Patch

On the flight to Jerusalem,  I watched my Israeli seat mate, a seasoned traveler, do a nifty trick with her contacts, using no water. I followed suit, and two days later I couldn’t see out of my right eye. Of all things, one of the priests on our trip had been an ophthalmologist before taking his orders. “The human eye,” he said, “is the fastest healing organ in the body. But it needs to be covered up.”

Again, in a tumble of coincidence, one of the other priests in our group was blind, the result of a high school accident that severed his optic nerve. He produced a black eye patch. I put it on. Moshe Dyan was reborn.

Of all the sights in Jerusalem—a city filled with extreme costumers—apparently nothing was as odd as a white woman wearing an eye patch. Crowds parted at my approach. Staring abounded, as did laughter. At age forty-eight, I learned what it felt like to be made fun of for a physical difference. A schoolboy spied me in the window of the tour bus and pointed, doubling over with laughter. Then he poked his friends so they, too, could howl. “You look like a model,” one of the women in my group said, because I had cut my hair so very short for the trip. Not to the little boys, I didn’t.

Most surprising, though, was the effect the patch produced on the notorious groupings that make up Jerusalem’s Old City. The city is visually divided into tribes. You can tell who belongs to which tribe immediately based on their clothing. The Palestinian women wore monochromatic pantsuits. Orthodox Jewish men were draped in black with their distinctive beards. Armenians tended toward traditional dress that complemented their blue eyes. We Americans were well-recognizable in our typical tourist attire. My black eye patch acted as a talisman of acceptance, or at least tolerance.

When I misstepped (literally) and bumped into someone, the automatic gesture of annoyance interrupted itself mid-expression and became a hand blessing. Jew, Muslim, Armenian concentrated to figure me out. Who was I? Why was I wearing a patch? I was no longer a Christian, American, Westerner. I was a chick in an eye patch. I will not forget the bright eyes of the Muslim boy who wanted to sit beside me on the stone steps to find out who I was, discover what this new and strange thing might be. 

Within my own group, I shunned the obligatory souvenir photographs. Why did I want a reminder of this? But my friends clamored, “We need you in the picture!” and I relented. Now I have a photo of myself in a limestone café at the top of a hill in the Old City. A pensive look bathes my face, as if I were listening to the far-off call of the city. In the background, the Dome of the Rock gleams in the sun. It is, for me, the image of Jerusalem: a place where God was rendered human.

 

 

 

 

A Life of Belhaven Houses

Last week, I drove through my old Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, taking photos of the houses I’ve lived in. I spent two periods of my life in the neighborhood: from age 3 years to 12; and again through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s.

My life in Belhaven began in a duplex my mother rented when we moved back from Denver, Colorado, after Daddy Joe died. On this street, we ran behind the fog machine that sprayed  for mosquitos and lived to tell the tale. (The house doesn’t tilt; that’s me tilting the phone as I took a photo through the car window.)

When I was in the 5th grade, Mother bought a house (!—a single mom with 3 little girls: the older I get, the more I’m impressed with that feat). We adored the Arlington Street house. It had 7 levels (if you counted landings) and 2 balconies. As you can tell, the balcony over the front porch where we used to sleep under the stars has been removed. Who knows if they still use those French doors to go out on what is now basically a roof. The house is also painted blue where it was white then. And you can’t see the little house in the back which, though it was a real house, we used as a playhouse and where Cheep-Cheep the duck lived for a while. 

We left this house when Mother married, and we moved to North Carolina. I moved back to Jackson in 1982 to practice law and returned to my old neighborhood, kicking it off with another duplex. My unit was the downstairs screen door on the left of this yellow house.

I didn’t last long here before I moved to the Arcadia. I loved this four-plex (that’s my unit with the upstairs porch on the right), but I left it when I married. Doing my drive-by, I noticed it still has window units. 

We (actually me, though I was married) bought this wonderful little house that we extensively renovated. It’s on Pinehurst Street, right down from Eudora Welty’s house. Miss Welty is a famous short story writer. You can hardly see the house up the hill. The sign indicates it’s for sale again. 

For a brief period, I lived in exile from Belhaven. When I got divorced, I returned to the neighborhood and bought my very own house which I loved dearly. The trees around it have gotten so overgrown it, too, is almost hidden. It had a magnolia, fig, redbud, and an oak. When I married again, I commuted a while between Jackson and Memphis. I sold my house (marriage was not good for my house tenures) and rented the Love Shack behind this pink house in Belhaven. That’s an orange trailer of some sort in the driveway. You can’t see the Love Shack, but I didn’t want to leave it out of the chronology. It was tiny. It had 3 patio areas. The heating was terrible in the winter. I adored it. 

When I look at these collection of houses, I see how similar they are. My taste did not change much. As you can tell, the Belhaven neighborhood is lodged in my heart. It formed me. It might be why I’m a writer. I dream of it at night. It’s now a historic district.

Oh, and just for fun, here’s the ditch area where we kids told each other a crazy horse with red eyes reared and stamped in the darkness. We never saw the horse.

The Tooting Trolley

At the foot of the Mud Island bridge runs a trolley. The trolley is painted a happy yellow and green. It toots across the street like a toy. But every day, when the trolley is approaching and the caution arm descending, people veer around the arm and scoot cross the track. This is the level of our collective sophistication: trying to “beat the trolley.”

In 1960, on a cold December night in Colorado Springs, my father was killed trying to beat the train. He was in a hurry, he had places to go. Only a short time before, the Western Slope of Colorado had been working alive with the uranium boom. That time had passed, but my dad still pursued uranium business on the Slope, still worked uranium leases. So when the red lights flashed, telling him to wait, he sped up instead. 

Three years old at the time, crazy about my Daddy Joe, I was traumatized by his death. The experts actually call it “traumatic bereavement.” When death is sudden and violent, the horror of it all trumps the grief. The little girl is afraid to think about her Daddy Joe – hit by a train! – just as sure as she’s drawn to the lonesome whistle whine. 

Before I understood the effects of traumatic grief, I would feel guilty when I reacted in kinship with the passing train. How could I love this roaring monster that killed my dad? Now I know: we love that which is left for us to love. So I wrote a novel, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE, where the protagonist is a young women on a cross-country train trip coming to terms with the grief of losing her dad. It’s funny, this novel.  But most things serious are. 

So when folks look left and right, then scoot around the trolley arm, I wonder: what would your family think if you didn’t make it across? What if their grief was symbolized by a yellow and green toy trolley? Hit by the trolley! You can’t get much sillier than that. 

Slow down. Wait. Lose your impatience. Don’t let death laugh at your passing. 

The smell of a Mississippi summer is a dirt and weed smell, hot and bitter and full of insect noises and blaring sunlight and popping grass seeds that scent the air black and loamy so that your mind wanders to your toes and the dirt below and the small things that crawl inside the cool dark earth. But, in a flash, the blazing sun will bring you back to your world, the human world above, where the heat churns the growing smell, packing it into layers that fill the spaces between the draping honeysuckle and the broad-leafed hydrangea, the needly pines and the big-headed poison oak. Acrid, stringent, porous—the smell comforts like a green stem broken, weeping into my fingers.

Rain won’t make the smell bow out. Heavy clouds only re-form the scent into an uplifted storm, flooded grass waving in clear water, backyard mounds of rain-slicked clay.  

Or steam rising from baked concrete.  

Or magnolia blossoms ringing through the newly-drenched night.

A smell that dense, you’d think it could never be lost, but you’d be wrong. Its stamp is easily washed away by years of moderate lands, civilized places, articulated loves. And even if it lingers and is remembered, too often the mind will interrupt, the curtain of smell will part, the knowledge of the Mississippi past will invade and the sweet, dirty perfume of my home state will evaporate into righteousness, severity and decay.

If I’m blessed by its return, it arrives, patient but thickening, to round and throb the air until it hovers like a Genie just outside my stretching fist, grasped and released, grasped and released. And when it is finally grasped, I’m called back again, into the pine trees of Sunday afternoon, thick old pines whose branches begin at scrambling height and whose trunks are scarred with rutted sap—hardened, milky, streaked with reality. 

Up in the covering scent of the tree, I bend the rubbery branches until I can peer inside the green cones flowering with yellow pollen, then sit back into the vee and pick the layers of bark—crumpled and pleated on top, smooth as gray slate beneath—and drop them through the branches to the lacerated ground below.

Hot pine straw. Heated brambles. Lightly fluttering mimosa gowns.  

Mississippi, come back to me, quickly, this summer.

(I’m gonna credit WKNO-Memphis for first airing this essay, though for the life of me I can’t remember if they did or not. Happy Summer!)

This is Why I Write

So, I’m working on an essay about my escaping to the family farm in response to Mississippi’s racial mores that constricted behavior in the 1960s, and I’m using a bull (yep) as the central metaphor, and I’m afraid folks might not get it because the bull is incredibly destructive and he’s the POSITIVE metaphor, so I’m adding a summary sentence, and I’m looking for a word that means someone who refuses to submit to forcible attempts to control behavior, and I’m thinking iconoclast, but that’s too close to idol (which I’ve already used) and it’s not quite right anyway, so I go to the thesaurus (I’m not ashamed to admit it: I use the thesaurus) and I’m scrolling when I land on a word that I don’t know, and I look it up (in the online dictionary) and it is PERFECT: recusant: “one who refuses to accept or obey established authority.”

It’s not that I’m a word freak, not exactly. It’s that discovering the precise word I need to describe a phenomenon makes me sigh, ahhhhh. What I’m struggling to express is real. Someone else experienced it. They came up with a word for it. I have tapped into a vein of the shared human condition that is Life and, through that, I connect with the Communion of Saints (read that: humans) who have gone before me and will come after me, and we are all brothers and sisters, and that miracle happens thanks to a bull. And a word. My new favorite word: recusant.

 

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.

Ellen’s Very Southern Voice business card

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.

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

 

 

#MLK50: A Hostile Land

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’ll write more as the week goes on.

 

We are Risen

On Easter morning, we sing a song of “He is Risen,” and thus miss the point.

We are risen, a Resurrected people.

This Easter season (yep, there’s an Easter season—50 days of it)

I will walk eyes-open every day

for images of Resurrection.

The season is one of joy.

Y’all know me—the images will be my own.

Happy Easter, you rabbits.

We are Risen, indeed

 

 

 

Forgiveness Reiki

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.

Forgiveness Reiki by Michael S. Van Hecke

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.

Forgiveness Reiki by Michael S. Van Hecke

When I wear my Black Lives Matter t-shirt, I’m self-conscious

at first

then I forget about it

until

a middle-aged white man keeps staring

or

a woman my age stares and looks away and stares back to make sure she’s seen what she thinks she’s seen.

And then I feel a bottomless well of pride for the activists who speak up and walk up and take the microphone and shout up.

I am uneasy simply wearing a shirt.

It’s so easy to say, “They’re activists,” and forget they weren’t always

so brave.

Black folk don’t give the shirt a second thought.

Wearing my BLM t-shirt at March for Our Lives because it isn’t “either/or,” none of it is

 

Beware the Crazy Toilet

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.

I’m not gonna post a photo of a toilet. Here’s a much cuter photo of Evangeline in a Saint’s hat

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.

This is the way I feel reading Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018). The book is about the history, use, and joy of praying with (and without) beads, but what’s really happening in the book is an encounter with a life lived hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit.

Bead by Bead is 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.

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley

Latest Edition of Weird

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.

    Is it a grave or not, and if so, why is it at a restaurant?
  • 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.

    An example of a live oak with a lot of epiphytes in Hancock County, Mississippi 
  • 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.
    The receptacles of our dreams

    Life is only as weird as you can make it.

The Pope’s Cat

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.

The Pope’s Cat

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

 

THE POPE’S CAT (Paraclete Press, 2018, paperback) will release March 13, 2018 and is now available for preorder on Amazon.

Mardi Gras Day

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. 🙂

My diorama with the Barbie from the Muses parade and a copy of The Bone Trench

Mardi Gras is families and kids and kids and families.

The family that Mardi Gras together stays together: Things You Wish On: the Lincoln penny, a shooting star, and a dandelion. Plus me and Tom. (youngest grandson not pictured because he didn’t want to have his picture taken, but he was a shooting star too)

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.

I love Mardi Gras. This was a good one.

Hedgehog, Spirit Animal

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.

My hedgehog nailbrush and dental floss dispenser

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.
They bite.
Their babies are called hoglets.
Hoglets whistle to find their moms.
Adult hedgehogs squeal when excited.

Hedgehogs hiding in plain sight in my home altar

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.

 

“Mahdi Graw”

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.

Right down the street from us in NOLA at Dr. Bob’s

 

New Year’s Eve Wishes

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 . . . .

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.”

She said, “It’s really good to see you again.”

The clerk at the desk beside her laughed.

She said, “Merry Christmas.”

It’s all good.

I hate nutcrackers

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.

Cherry Bomb by Susan Cushman

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.

Basquiat’s portrait in the lobby of Rice Mill Lofts

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

Die, Spam

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.

peace in creativity, Ellen

I Bet You do it Too

The first Community Writers Retreat I put together for Door of Hope Writing Group, the panel of facilitators was white. Every writer I’d identified to come and teach us about writing in an all-day conference was Caucasian. I wasn’t being racist. I was asking for favors: will you come—unpaid—to the Retreat and teach a workshop on writing? Of course I had hit up my writer friends, people I knew best. And the people I knew best were white.

When I had the lineup completed, I looked at the folks I’d selected and thought, wait a minute. So many of our audience weren’t gonna  be white. They would be African American. How could I offer them an all-white panel?

This, as they say, would not do.

So what did I do?

That year, and in all the years that followed, I went WAY outside my comfort zone to make sure our lineup of facilitators was predominantly Black.

I asked a mutual friend to please introduce me to a glorious African American writer who I’d heard reading her work. I met with her. I asked if she would be a facilitator for us.

I researched Memphis African American writers. I cold-called a published novelist. I asked if he would please come teach a workshop for us.

I contacted a famous local African American journalist and asked her if she would, perhaps, consider coming to speak to us about writing.

I went to Maggie’s Pharm and asked Valerie June—who had not yet blown up the roots music world and clerked at the store—if she would talk about songwriting to our group.

I called a well-known orator and politely asked if he would perform for us during lunch.

I reached back in time and asked a writer from an old writing group to please come educate us about getting published.

I emailed a preacher who I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat and asked him to come talk about spiritual writing.

I asked a young spoken word artist to entertain us during our lunch break.

I kept at my talented writer friend who did not believe herself ready yet to, please, come enlighten us.

In each and every instant, those I asked said yes. Immediately, graciously, enthusiastically. Several became friends. One we believed for a while to be related to my husband, but that’s whole ‘nother story. All were full of information the participants lapped up. I continue to be incredibly proud to know each one of the facilitators.

The point?

It’s not weak to admit your natural approach is to favor your friends. Those who are like you. People you know and are comfortable with. It is, however, wrong to not analytically examine the results for evidence of implicit bias. To ask yourself, is this skewed? Can I benefit from widening the lens? Am I, in fact, abusing my position of power to exclude those who should be included?

That was one of the many, many lessons the Door of Hope Writing Group taught me over the years.

Recording Under a Train

Recording this TRACKING HAPPINESS novel is about to do me in.

The final take is almost in the can (is that an appropriate phrase for a recorded novel?) I’m laying in bed, worn out. I’ve recorded the durn thing three times. On the first take, the quality sucked. I hadn’t yet found the Amazing Black Box that Eats Ambient Noise (photo here.) After I invested approximately $50 in the Amazing Box, I recorded the entire novel a second time (that’s 26 chapters, 304 pages.)

On the second recording, the voices sucked.

See, if you’ve got lots of characters—as novels tend to do—the listener has to be able to aurally distinguish them. One character can’t start yakking, and the listener think, who the hell is talking? It’s up to me, the narrator, to distinguish the voices. Then—this is the real rub—you have to continue to use the right voice for each character EVERY DAMN TIME SHE OR HE SHOWS UP. That means re-listening to already recorded material to re-familiarize yourself with the character’s voice before you jump back in.

On the second recording, I used one voice for a character that caused the most inexplicable, unpleasant mouth noises. A main character who appeared throughout the novel. Because I’d done the second take in a marathon 3 day session, I didn’t know how truly disgusting the noise was until my sound guy sent me the compressed file. It was terrible.

On to round three.

This time—the third time—I gave myself three weeks to do the recordings. A nice easy pace of 2-3 chapters per weekday. I missed a couple of days and had to trot some to catch up. Each recording session takes much longer than you’d think. Recording—for me— requires a lot of stops. For example, even after recording this sucker three times, in the oral reading, I sometimes make corrections to the written word that are actually improvements. So I have to stop and make a notation to keep my sound guy from thinking it’s an error he needs to correct.

I also stop when I say the wrong word. I stop when I use the wrong inflection. Plus, there’s the dog collar jangles, stomach gurgles, text message dings, water running through the pipes, and the train (yep, I’m recording in Memphis in the apartment that is UNDER THE TRAIN TRACKS—even the Amazing Black Box can’t muffle a train).

It is exhausting.

I blithely undertook recording a novel because, hey, I’d successfully recorded a short story collection. The two works had about the same number of pages. And I’d won a 1st Place Award for Audio Books in the CIPA-EVVY national contest. I could tackle a novel, no problem.

Foolish woman.

All I can hope is that it is worth it. That the frequent stops means errors were caught and erased. That my diligence about voices means listeners hear the characters with no interruption in the pleasure of the narrative. That I can soon declare this over and never, ever again have to lean into a handheld microphone.

At least not until I record A MODEL FOR DECEPTION, the fashion model detective novel. Yeah, I think that’s next on the agenda. After all, once you actually acquire a skill, you need to make the most of it.

Evangeline, wondering when all this recording will be over

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