24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
I am working on a trilogy. The first novel is in the hands of my agent. He’s had it for two years. He hasn’t sold it . . . yet. This novel is THE BONE TRENCH. Here’s the “elevator sentence”: Mother Mary and Jesus are called back to Memphis by a devilish private prison project. THE BONE TRENCH is funny. And profane. And very, very serious. Along with MM and Jesus, it stars Little c, Mary’s acerbic guardian angel. And Cat Thomas, the son of a sharecropping rape victim on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. The theme is white folk’s continuing inability to love our Black neighbors as ourselves, which has manifested itself in slavery, convict leasing, sharecropping, and, now, mass incarceration.
That’s novel 1.
Novel 2 in the series is JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. The manuscript is with Beta readers. “Beta readers” are kind souls who agree to read your work when it’s still mostly crap, or at least quite rough. As these readers give you feedback, the manuscript becomes smoother, more polished. JAZZY AND THE PIRATE’s sentence is: Eleven-year-old Jazzy Chandler calls Jean Laffite the pirate king back to New Orleans to save the city from the floodwaters of Katrina . . . and discovers pirates aren’t what she thinks they are. It’s funny and irreverent—how dare anything about Hurricane Katrina be funny? In addition to Jazzy and Jean Laffite, it stars a house that morphs into a pirate ship. And Jean’s mealy-mouthed brother Pierre. And the swamp. The theme is white folks continuing willingness to economically exploit the world, which has manifested itself in slavery and pirating and, now, the near-destruction of New Orleans.
That’s novel 2.
I’m working on novel 3 in the series. The title is MOSES IN THE GULF. I’m not going to tell you much about it because my brilliant mentor Rebecca McClanahan always said, “Don’t talk about works in process or you’ll talk out the energy and won’t write it.” I can tell you that it has the same elements as the first two novels in the series: fantasy; historical figures called back to address a current day crisis; irreverent humor; alternating points of view along with a third, omniscient POV; the theme of economic exploitation.
Did I mention that I haven’t sold the first novel in the series? Yet.
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
“What are you giving up for Lent?” my tribe asks. I say “tribe” because my brilliant writing coach friend taught me to view those who share my questions in life as my tribe.
The question didn’t spring itself on me this morning. I knew Lent was coming since the day of Epiphany in early January. Mardi Gras (or carnival) inevitably rolls into Lent with its ever-present question—what during the church’s traditional season of asceticism and preparation for Easter am I giving up?
One thing: my husband is our cook so whatever food he gives up, for the most part, I give it up too. I don’t consider this my Lenten discipline; it’s his discipline that I piggyback on. It leaves me to answer for myself the basic question: how will I focus on God this season?
I try not to get angry at people when they disagree with me. It’s not because I’m a saintly woman. I’ve simply learned that when you get sanctimonious with someone, God will turn around and bite you in the butt.
As soon as I climb onto my soapbox and start chugging soap suds into the biosphere, I’m sure to be slapped in the face with the very activity I’m decrying. “Don’t judge!” I rant . . . only to immediately feel myself judging the next person who posts something ridiculous.
The alarm went off, and I drifted, reliving my dreams. Startling awake, I checked the time. I still had an hour to make it to church. Until I looked closely. The secondhand was stuck on the 4, click, click, clicking. After I hurriedly dressed, I ran downstairs where real clocks exist. I had 8 minutes to make it to St. Mary’s.
I was only a bit late, as were others. This service fills up as the liturgy unfolds. By the time Dean Andy asked me to come down front and assist with the chalice, the space was bursting with worshipers.
Like a water bug on a lake, he zipped past me, twirling around the display case, flailing his skinny arms, talking to himself, entertaining himself at the T-Mobile store. He was my favorite kind of child. A frenetic, voluble young boy of five or six, the type of child who might puzzle his classmates and drive his parents to distraction.
A child who, in fact, was driving his parents to distraction as they tried to talk to the clerk about business plans and Tax IDs. Every once in a while his mother—stepping around the baby sleeping in its carrier at her feet—would scoot away from the counter to tell the boy to quit, or stop, or sit. His dad divided his attention, too, between his business dealings and cutting his eyes to see what his older child was up to.
I failed at the conference for racial justice this weekend.
I gave racially tinged advice to a perfectly innocent question that had no race element to it.
I mistook one African-American woman with glasses and short hair for a different African-American woman with glasses and short hair, because all African-Americans look alike to us white folks.
Multiple times, I walked up to a conversation between two African-Americans and stood there like a white person, expecting to interrupt and be acknowledged.
When asked what next step I was going to take, out of all the things I’d written down, I chose a vague, politically correct answer because I wanted to show I was down with the program.
But worst of all, at a conference subtitled “Sacred Conversations on Race,” I argued with a man in my small group. Not once, but in some demented version of Groundhog’s Day, I argued with him twice. On the EXACT SAME SUBJECT. Sweet baby Jesus, that is failure.
They say that failure is an inevitable part of talking about race. That white folks fear this failure so much, we just don’t do it. We clam up rather than risk saying a racist thing, a hurtful thing. If we’re silent, at least we don’t risk stepping into a pile of mess (or, as the Conference called it Situations Happening In our Town-Memphis).
The way most conferences unfold doesn’t help. Invariably, after listening to a mind-bending talk or watching an eye-opening video, we’re directed to small groups where strangers circle up folding chairs and commence solving the world’s problems. One of us kicks it off, offering an opinion that hangs in the air. No one responds because back and forth slides too easily into argument, and the last thing anyone wants to be is the obnoxious group member who argues (again: I was that person, me with all my Parker Palmer active-listening training, not just arguing but interrupting—what the hell, Ellen?)
In contrast to my argumentative self, two members of our group made astonishing, transformational comments. Afterwards, when the conference was over and I’d been talking to my husband about the experience for, oh, 48 hours straight, I heard myself saying, “Those two women, they didn’t argue with someone else’s truth. They spoke their own truth.”
I paused, letting that sink into my brain.
The name of the Trinity Institute conference was “Listen for a Change: Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice.” Everyone at the conference who spoke to the title assumed it meant listen to SOMEONE ELSE. But I find listening to myself to be incredibly valuable. So I tried it, and what I heard was a white woman arguing with a white man about what really happens when African-Americans encounter the police.
After a bit, I told my husband, “I need to articulate my own truth so I can speak from that.”
What is my truth?
It’s a truth born in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s when racial injustice was the legal, embraced societal norm. It continued as an adult when I left my home state and devoured every book I could find on what was really happening when I was a kid. Over time, my reading spread out to include the South then the country, slavery then sharecropping, convict leasing then Jim Crow, poets and historians, memoirs and novels and 1970s sociological studies—all of it, or at least as much as I could get my hands on.
My truth switched from the page to people when I hooked up with the Memphis School of Servant Leadership where I was schooled by African-Americans willing to hang in there with white ignorance (I’m not beating myself up; “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge). My flat out baptism in truth happened when I and a handful of brave souls who were living on the street started the Door of Hope Writing Group. What had been “book learning” and protected conversations in safe spaces became extraordinarily personal.
Every week for eight years, the members of writing group gathered around a table and wrote our truth. Gradually, we branched out, and over time we went to doctor’s appointments and museums. To mental health facilities and awards ceremonies. To the bank and the blood bank. To court and to church. To galas and grant interviews and Graceland. To restaurants and retreats and jail (and jail and jail and jail). To the hospital and into neighborhoods where I was told, “Lock your door and don’t stop on the way outta here.” To the library and to shelters. To funerals. To public readings and the park and wherever we needed to go. And what I learned from our time together was that white America has no idea what Black America experiences.
Yeah, I’d seen some, but only enough to know that when Black folk tell me what’s happening to them, I need to listen. Their description may be totally foreign to my experience of the world, and that is irrelevant. We whites see the world through our glass darkly, and we need help to see the light.
So if an African-American tells me the police stopped her because she was Black or arrested her because she was Black, or shot her friend because he was Black, I’m going to believe her unless and until I see evidence that, in that particular instance, it isn’t true. And still I will weep, because it could’ve been true.
So next time I’m in a small group and another white person begins analyzing the truth of police encounters with African-Americans, I won’t argue with him so he can see more clearly. No, I will ask, “What do the African-Americans viewing the tape say happened?”
So, yes, keep showing up and struggling to talk about race. To do otherwise is to really and truly fail. But, as you show up, make sure you listen for a change.
In the assemble hall at Power Elementary School once a week we’d gather for sing-alongs. Our wooden chairs had squeaky black-hinged seats that flipped up when not in use. Sit too far back and, if you were a skinny, skinny child like me, the seats flipped up when in use as well. In this cavernous space with its regimented rows, I’d belt out while singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” the line “land where my father died,” because my father had died, and I thought the song belonged to me. Here during our group moments, we skipped singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic—”Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”—because this song had been the North’s battle song during the Civil War. And we were in Jackson, Mississippi. And it was the 1960s when that history still very much mattered.
Today, in 2016, I returned to church for the first time in many years as a Mississippi property owner. Up until then, I’d been thinking of our new house on the Gulf Coast as 45 minutes from New Orleans. An extension of our lives in the Big Easy, where history is more defined by Jazz and pirates, French and Spanish architecture, and Creole cooking than the typical concerns of “Southern” history. Or I’d been focusing on the “ALL are welcome here” signs I’d seen in almost every Bay St. Louis store window, an explicit rejection of the anti-gay hate bills the Mississippi legislature recently passed. But we are back in Mississippi, no doubt about it—yesterday at the local 4th of July celebration I heard nothing but country music blasting from pickup trucks.
Inside the sanctuary of the tiny Episcopal church, the windows opened to the gulf, sunlight sparkling off the rippling bay. From another window, you gazed at an angel carved from the remnants of a Hurricane Katrina oak. The hurricane obliterated the church, along with so much of the coast. The church rebuilt, and the angel now stands witness on its grounds.
As we slowly proceeded through the Episcopal liturgy, I couldn’t take my eyes from the windows. What matters the complicated theology we have worked out in our heads when the sunlight glances like diamonds off the tiny waves? How important is the exclusivity of “the only son of God” proclamation when the blue of ocean spreads freely into the azure sky? It was a perfect combination for me. A God-filled sanctuary—a backdrop, a foundation—from whence I could experience God in creation.
Then the choir began to sing the Offertory anthem, that being the song the choir performs while the church is collecting donations. The choir was small, wobbly. Maybe eight people. But brave-hearted. On this Sunday of the 4th of July in Bay St.Louis, Mississippi the church sang as its anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
I have no idea if they did it on purpose. I don’t know if people even think anymore about the overlays once imposed on the song. But, for me, with my history, it was a moment.
A church in Mississippi was singing as its offering on July 4th Sunday the former battle song of the North. When the aging, white-people choir sang about the coming of the Lord, I heard the Lord’s arrival in them choosing this song. I heard reconciliation. Repudiation of division and a choosing of America. The United States of America.
Change comes with a slow creakiness and then it is upon us. It is our place to recognize it when it arrives.
When the dark night of the soul overtakes me and I can’t sleep for wondering how on earth I could’ve so terribly wasted this wonderful life I’ve been given, I sneak down the stairs, carefully feeling with my toe for the edge of each step so I don’t stumble.
Patting the door jamb, I close the door behind me and turn on the light of the book-lined room where I kneel on the scratchy rug.
The velvet-covered footstool creaks as I open it.
I paw through the mementos until I find the letter, slipping it from the envelope.
The handwriting on the notecard is extravagant, for the writer was extravagant. I flip to the back of the card where he says, “My belief in God and myself is stronger because of your belief in me.”
I run my fingertips across the words then return the card to the envelope and drop it into the footstool where it waits with the other words of thanks that stand ready to resurrect and do their duty when the next wave of incertitude hits me.
The retreat had not yet begun. I was walking beneath the live oaks, crossing from the dorm room I would share with my cousin and aunt to the building where we would practice restorative yoga for two days. The gulf breeze gently blew, and shadows danced on the St. Augustine lawn. I halted, gazing at the slip of blue sky peeking through the mossy branches. A conviction welled up in me, and for the next two days of the yoga retreat, the message of trusting in life I received on that lawn repeated and repeated and repeated.
I do not trust in religious explanations of life. We are told God is good, and God does wonderful things, and God has ordered the universe in an amazing way, and so on.
The problem is, life can really, really suck. Setting aside the question of viruses (really, I believe the existence of viruses might be the best evidence of life’s non-goodness), life can be horrible to people. And the horribleness has no rationality to it, it really doesn’t, no matter how many religious platitudes we throw at it. Life can be, without justifiability, terrible.
As a result of the above, I’ve given up on traditional religious views. For me, the only thing trustworthy is the presence of God inside the goodness in this moment on this earth right now.
Until I stood below those oaks.
The light burns low, the yoga mats line up straight. Candles flicker, the Spirit hums through the room.
The prayer prays, “All will be well.”
The hymn sings, “All will be well.”
The workshop leader assures, “All will be well.”
We, the retreat participants, agree, “All will be well.”
And, due to my conviction beneath the oaks, I join in: “All will be well.”
Standing beneath the oaks, the breeze running along my arms, the sun warming my face, and the majesty of the live oaks spreading around me, a conviction welled up: what if when I am dying and the images of my life pass before my brain, I realize it has been okay? That, in fact, it was wonderful? Not because of some intricate, indiscernible plan God had in mind, but just because it was.
If I don’t take the opportunity now to trust in that delightful outcome, the deep sense of joy and affirmation that washes through me when I do the Spirit’s biding and, Holy Mother of God!, there was such a good reason for doing it—the feeling won’t come. I will have missed the opportunity at the moment when it matters most.
You will understand how much this experience of God’s grace means to me when I tell you the realization was enough to cause me to say, out loud: “This life, for me, is a wild experiment in trusting.” To trust that I will get to the end and look back and say in unison with all the saints in heaven, “All is well.” And it will be true.
Early Wednesday morning, the man who’d spent the night on the streets walked the hallway at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He stopped at my table, lingering. He did not look happy.
I think of this church hallway as the “neck” between Sister’s Chapel, where we hold the church service attended mostly by those living on the streets, and Martyrs Hall, where breakfast is served. Those who’ve attended church line up for breakfast and pass through the hall—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For several years I stood in a niche in the hallway at a folding table, encouraging passers-by to engage in small art projects. This morning, for the first time, I was offering the congregants “church to go,” pocket reminders of the Spirit.
The man was in earshot when I cast my net of explanation over the line of waiting folks. He drew nearer as I explained, “Thumb Prayers, I call them. Just small things for you to take with you to remind you of church this morning.”
“Say again?” he asked.
So I did, adding to it. “You can run your thumb across them to remind you of God’s presence in the world.”
“That’s not God,” he said, pointing.
“No, it’s just a reminder,” I repeated, my cache of words depleted by his unhappiness.
“That’s of the devil,” he insisted. “Fetishes.”
“Well, it may not be for you,” I said, and he willingly moved along.
It’s really hard to do anything involving religion that doesn’t offend someone. One time, I had a man tell me our church being named St. Mary’s was a blasphemy because the only focus should be on Jesus. Another time I had a man object to the crosses we were making from chip bags collected from the neighborhood. I don’t think the problem was our using trash to make a cross, the most sacred symbol of Christianity—the colors were all wrong.
I’m okay with this. My view is none of us knows the truth (a view I realize many also find blasphemous—we do know the truth; it’s what my church teaches) so who’s to argue?
For me, much of the difficulty lies in trying to explain the unexplainable, to translate the non-analytic with analysis. Trying, maybe, to traverse the neck between heart and head, body and soul, knowing and unknowing, without getting clogged up in the process.
In the end, I can only do the best I can do and hope that, as I once told a friend when she asked about cremation destroying the body that was supposed to rise again, God won’t let us make an irreversible mistake.
Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. All proceeds will go to Outreach, Housing, and Community, a Memphis organization working to end homelessness. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.
A while back, I conducted a workshop where I took my writing mentor Rebecca McClanahan‘s book Write Your Heart Out and translated the types of nonfiction writing into types of prayer. I don’t remember all the parallels (writing from joy, for example, became adoration or praise prayer.) I’ve been thinking about this as I make Thumb Prayers, the little pocket prayer prompts I’ll be selling for Housing Justice. I’ve wondered who this woman was who so believed in defined types of prayer. Specifically, I’ve been thinking how much my view of the word “prayer” has changed, not to mention to whom I am “praying.”
The traditional Christian views of prayer conceive of it as a conversation. Talking to or with God in defined, analytical ways. “I need this.” “She needs that.” “Thank you so much for this thing.” “You are wonderful in this way.” This has come to feel to me like yakking.
(I emphasize: feels like yakking to me. It’s very hard to talk about one’s own religious life without folks feeling as if you are criticizing their religious life. I hope it’s clear my description of my path is simply a description of what I’ve experienced, period.)
This shift in my approach to prayer has been a long time underway. Perhaps it started with my making crosses from broken and found objects, where I became drawn to action-based prayer. But if you read the book I wrote about this prayer practice—“Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God”—you see I very much still viewed cross-making as a foundation for conversation with God.
So, was it my practicing meditative periods free from thought? Or was it the Lent I focused on spying God in the world? When did it change? It’s probably like water colors bleeding into art paper—a process where, eventually, a new image takes shape.
The prayer I’m striving for these days some wouldn’t even call prayer. It’s not word-based. It’s not “upward” directed toward a God in Heaven. It’s not a set-aside time, unless it’s the time I’m waiting for Walgreens to fill my prescription. It’s not between defined entities—me, Ellen, and you, God.
It’s a stilling, a directing my awareness into the world immediately around me. A living in the present. An intent to diffuse my spirit into the God in the world. A Gestalt moment. A being in the world.
The Thumb Prayers fit perfectly with this place of prayer where I now find myself.
They are physical, small dollops of buttons and paper clay.
The idea behind them is active: run your thumb across the top, feel the texture.
They are diffused—not a particular prayer but a reminder of whatever God or Spirit or love or goodness you believe suffuses the world.
And, thankfully, they’re available all day long, when we so easily get caught up in trying to make it through the day and any idea of God actually being in this world of chaos and traffic and splattered eggs and crying babies and the damn internet being out again—touch, remind yourself, re-ground your spirit in the Spirit.
Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.
Many years ago, when I was letting the Spirit lead me around by the nose, I went to Door of Hope and asked if I could start a writing group for men and women living on the street. Dr. June Mann Averyt, the founder and then Executive Director of Door of Hope, watched me toddle through the door in my high heels and said, “What the hell—go for it.”
Well, not exactly. But kind of exactly. Because June is not a sentimental person.
For years, every Wednesday, unless I was out of town or something else created an actual physical impossibility, I was at Door of Hope facilitating writing group. Every time I slunk into June’s office with another bright idea—why don’t we have a public reading? why don’t we make notecards? why not ask for a grant so we can hold Community Writers Retreats where the housed and unhoused write together? can we do an e-zine?—she said, “What the hell—go for it.”
Maybe not in so many words. But in that tone. Because June is not a sentimental person.
None of these endeavors was easy. They required hours at her dining room table wrestling with grant applications. Or appearing before grant boards. Or all of us—me, June, a VISTA volunteer—learning what it really meant to put out an e-zine. June never complained about this side activity—writing? for the homeless? are you sure? the grant board asked—when her basic mission already required so much of her. She supported me in what my mother would call a flat-mouth way. Direct. Unvarnished. June’s way.
When life changed for June, she left Door of Hope and started Outreach, Housing and Community, where she continued her work to help people get and stay housed. She never gave up on Writing Group—her program offerings at OHC were not scheduled at 1:00 on Wednesdays because she wouldn’t interfere with writing group time—and when Writing Our Way Home came out, her name was all the way through it. In tributes, in stories, in thanks, in dedications. She even added a Special Note for us to include in the book. A simple, to-the-point note because June is not a sentimental person.
When life changed for me, I began co-facilitating writing group, sharing duties with the amazing Germantown United Methodist Church, and, when the wheel turned again, I continued as simply a member of writing group, where now every Wednesday when I’m in town, I go to Door of Hope and do writing group.
That’s a total of nine years.
Then, last spring, I was playing with paper clay and something told me to roll it out, make it thin, almost like porcelain. As I was gently rolling, it came to me: you are making a gift for June. I thought, well that makes sense. I had never fully thanked June for saying yes to writing group, thereby setting my life on a certain trajectory. June wouldn’t mind if my desire exceeded my talents. She would accept my gift as offered.
So I fashioned a house from the rolled paper clay. Using found objects, I created a door. Above the house I positioned an angel. I mounted the house and angel on paper I’d made by whirling scraps in a blender. I took the creation to a framer, and we picked out a really nice frame, me hoping the frame would turn my work into something more than my abilities could create.
While I was waiting on the framer to finish my surprise gift, I got word: June had been diagnosed with cancer. An aggressive lung cancer. Of course, I heard the news from one of the folks June had helped get off the streets. She said the diagnosis was serious.
I called June. I said, “I have something for you. It has nothing to do with your diagnosis,” I hastened to add. Because June is not a sentimental person.
I left the gift on her front porch.
She called. She said she’d hung the piece in her bedroom. She’d positioned it next to a painting by an actual Memphis artist. That painting had an angel too. June said she saw the angels every day. Each time we spoke, she reminded me of her angels watching over her.
When I created the gift, in my mind, June was the angel. She was the one who watched over those on the street and helped them into houses. Of course, June would never think of herself as an angel. Because June is not a sentimental person.
But in the short time it took to get from the conception of the gift to its receipt, life had changed. June became the one who needed the watching care of an angel.
I have a peculiar definition of grace. It is when God gives you the chance to do what is right before you know you have a dog in the fight. Before you know you have a personal connection to whatever it is that you are being called to do. Before your motives can become potentially muddled.
So, for example, I was given the opportunity to chair the annual fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation . . . years before I gave up both my God-given hips to arthritis.
In the same way, the Spirit whispered in my ear to make a gift for a friend in thanksgiving for the impact she’d on my life . . . before I knew she was dying of cancer.
That was a gift to me, the Spirit nudging me to make that gift. It was also a gift to June.
You see, she wouldn’t have liked it if I’d given her something in reaction to her dying.
Because June was not a sentimental person.
June requested that donations in her honor be made to Outreach, Housing and Community, 135 N Cleveland St, Memphis, TN 38104. To read more about June’s life and the impact she had on the city of Memphis, click here.
When I was teaching myself to write, if an offering really, really did not appeal to me, I reluctantly signed up. That’s how I discovered literary journalism—literary journalism? I gasped when I read the syllabus Randall Kenan was teaching that year. It sounded terrible, but Randall was teaching it and I wanted to learn from him. Mostly, I knew my reaction meant I needed to take the course—an aversion to something was the exact indicator it was the right thing for me to do. So I signed up and, predictably, I fell in love with the concept, and I fell in love with Randall, and I wrote literary journalism essays for years.
Later, when I was teaching myself to follow the Holy Spirit, if I really, really didn’t want to do something, I trudged forward doing it. I had learned by then that my spiritual dyslexia was as unfailingly correct as my geographic dyslexia—when we’re traveling, if I say turn right, my husband turns left and we arrive swiftly at our destination. Recently, I’ve blogged a bit about doing what totally embarrasses me ’cause the dadgum Spirit tells me to, but for the most part, I’ve dropped this as an intentional practice.
Last night, my amazing godchild took me to an amazing talk. It was slap-your-neighbor funny and wait-a-minute-what-did-she say? profound, my two favorite things. Ms. Melton, a blogger and author and speaker, covered many topics, but one of them was following not your “happiness” (for her, eating sugar and watching Bravo), but your discomfort.
IF IT’S EASY AND SHINY- BEWARE. IF IT STINGS A LITTLE – SIT TIGHT, GET CURIOUS, AND THEN LEAN IN.
To be clear: I am NOT, NOT, NOT a fan of “God sends us troubles so we can learn.” I also am NOT a fan of “pain makes us stronger” or “suffering is the quickest route to God.” I am a fan of “This is your life—if you are lucky enough to find it, live it,” which is the central message of the quoted blog post.
I am also a fan of the brain and its ability to know. By “the brain,” I mean the part of the brain I think of as Central Command. This brain is mostly hidden from us. Maybe it’s the subconscious, but that’s not quite right, either. It’s the part of the brain that finds patterns, discerns meanings, makes connections when we are unaware it is doing so. (I tend to think of Central Command as the Leviathan vessel Moya in the Syfy TV show Farscape, but that’s just me.) Central Command is the part of your brain that has your absolutely best interest in mind (ha, ha-in mind, that’s a pun). Central Command is not swayed by our petty, surface, insecure, what-will-they-think? interest but pursues our deep-down, this-really-matters best interest.
Central Command is what tells me, hmmmmm—you’re having an adverse reaction because the thing will be hard or requires action that makes you uncomfortable or risks tarnishing the way you want to be viewed. It will involve your ego in a not very pleasant way. It will tell you to run away, hands in the air, screaming.
Do not listen to this reaction, Central Command instructs. Recognize it as the spinning weather vane that will send you in the flat wrong direction if you let it, or as Ms. Melton says, understand it is our forever grappling after that which we know for certain will not bring happiness.
When my spiritual dyslexia discerns an uncomfortableness, my Central Command tells me, in Ms. Melton words, “Sit tight, get curious, and then lean in.”
Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ, and in American Christianity today we debate whether women should be allowed to be in the forefront of the church.
Mary the Mother of God took the radical, courageous step of agreeing to birth the Messiah, and the most dominant adjective used by the Christian church today to describe her is “humble.”
The longest conversation Jesus has in the Bible is with the woman at the well, and many Christian churches seriously claim women shouldn’t speak in church.
The only disciples that could stand in the agony of the cross with Jesus—Peter denied him, all the men fled—were women, but many Christian churches tell women they are fit only for teaching Sunday school and singing in the choir.
The financial supporters of Jesus were women, but even Christian churches that “allow” female priests pay them discriminatory less money.
When Jesus was presented with a choice between valuing women’s cultural role as domestics or their role as disciples (the Martha and Mary story), he chose their role as disciples, but many Christian churches continue to view women as mere supporters of men’s work.
When Jesus’s supporters tried to depict his mother as “the womb that gave you birth and breasts that suckled you,” he corrected them, praising Mary for being a follower of God, yet the only day most Christian churches ask women to stand up and be recognized is Mother’s Day.
Jesus’s most powerful encounters of inclusivity involved women—touching the bleeding woman, for example—but most Christian churches erect a brick wall excluding women from ordination, leadership, and recognition.
Jesus was a radical supporter of women. The church is not. For years this failure wasn’t a problem, as no cultures came close to Jesus’s position. But as the valuing of women culturally has grown, the church’s overwhelming failure to follow Jesus—yes, there are exceptions, but most churches twist themselves in knots to escape Jesus’s lessons—becomes starkly unacceptable. If the Christian church cannot return to Jesus’s views, it will not survive in a more just world.
We have a new baby on the website. You can read it here. The story is from The Bone Trench, the novel my agent with the Virginia Kidd Agency is currently presenting to publishing houses. The excerpt appeared in EAP:The Magazine, the full name of which is Exterminating Angel Press (isn’t that fabulous?).
Here’s a story: conditions are so bad at an apartment complex in Jacksonville, Florida, it brings a council member’s assistant to tears. A tour of the complex affects the mayor to such an extent he’s activated to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure “all residents of subsidized multi-family housing in Duval County receive the benefit of safe, clean and healthy living conditions.” The mayor announces he wants the owner, who has 61 housing complexes in 8 states, transitioned out of owning the housing complex.
Who is the Christian in this scenario?
Is it the owner, whose website interview by a local radio station tells you he has traveled the globe spreading the Gospel and is transforming “these communities” by bringing them the word of Christ? (NB: no mention of black mold here)
Or is the Christian the mayor, who has seen something terrible wrong in God’s world and was convicted to change it?
Do we care?
I don’t. In fact, I have no clue about the mayor’s religious affiliation, if any. In a long arc of change, I have come to not give two f*s about someone’s beliefs. All I care about is how you act in the world.
So. If you do bad things in the name of your God, I’m not taking into account at all your religious motivation. The only thing that matters is the bad things you are doing.
If you do good things, and you give not two whits about God, more power to you.
Does this mean God doesn’t matter to me? Hell, no. The only reason I care if people in Jacksonville, Florida are living in substandard conditions while we pay the owner millions of dollars in federal funds is because of the movement of the Spirit. I love God. What I’m saying is I’m not forming an opinion about your impact in this world based on whether or not you love God.
It’s not that I’ve thought pejoratively of you if you are of another religion or an atheist or agnostic or never even thought about God. But I have tended to take into account in my internal assessing of your actions your Christian beliefs. No more. So don’t count on your love of God to influence how I feel about what you’re doing (again, NB: I’m not saying “professed” or “so-called” or any other adjective because I’m not questioning whether you’re actually a Christian; I’m saying I don’t care one way or the other what your beliefs are.)
One of the Gospels—James, maybe?—says something about knowing Christians by their fruits. I’m saying this whole appellation of Christian or not (ahem, Donald Trump) is a waste of time.
Maybe at some point I’ll finally get past judging people and their actions altogether. Until then, all that matters to me is whether you are kind, acting to make the world a better place, sip tea while the sun sets, tussle on the rug with your dog, laugh at someone’s awful joke, raise chickens, give a tetanus shot with expert skill, struggle to make the numbers add up at the end of the banking day, battle the dang Christmas lights because your kids love them, sing in the shower, write supportive comments on newspaper articles, remember birthdays, attend funerals, always say “You’re welcome,” stand up to bullies, say hello to everyone who walks in the door, feed the poor, listen to the troubles of your clients without laughing, fix breakfast every day, paint murals, indulge in your love of Dr. Who, serve turkey at Thanksgiving, post your gratitude thoughts so that everyone who reads them wants to be more like you, lean in and pay attention when your friend speaks, love the children who tumble through your classroom door, ride the river, light up when you hear your loved one’s voice, carry the cross with dignity through the sanctuary, let your hair grow long and gray, host the holiday meal even when you’re dog tired of doing it, offer quiet advice, offer goodbye kisses, march in parades, swim against the tide, share your troubles and await the inrushing of well wishes, buy the damn groceries again, burst into laughter that makes the room stare, write the words that make us weep, wear the funny hat because you’ve always worn the funny hat and everyone will be disappointed if you don’t, say “I love you,” and all the other many, many, many things you do that light up the world.
I hate the Holy Spirit. Okay, hate is a strong word. But I have issues with this Spirit that constantly tells me to do things that embarrass the hell out of me.
Take the recent prayer vigil I attended. A friend of mine was to be a featured speaker at the vigil. She is one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. She fought her way out of homelessness, only to run into the brick wall of filthy conditions at her federally-subsidized housing complex. In response, she co-founded the Warren Apartments Tenant Association, a group organized to address the needed repairs (and by repairs, I mean—for example—fixing the plumbing so sewage wouldn’t back up in the sink). Her work produced results. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) yanked its contract with the landlord, Global Ministries Foundation, for (repeated) failure to pass inspection. The prayer vigil was organized by Mid-South Peace and Justice, which has been assisting the tenants in their efforts, as an occasion to pray globally for housing justice.
I was giving my friend a ride, and as I walked out the door, I thought, take your thumb prayers with you.
Thumb prayers. Small round objects embedded with vintage buttons. Drop them in your pocket and rub them with your thumb when you need a reminder of the Spirit’s presence in the world. I use vintage buttons because they provide texture. And what the hell—I love buttons. Here’s a pic:
As I’ve blogged about here, I began making Thumb Prayers in connection with the Wednesday morning service my St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral offers for those living on the streets. In searching around for my “next thing” project, I had been doing a VERY informal art program at the church service and wanted to create something to give to the congregants. I wondered, what could I make that a person experiencing homelessness could keep on their body?
I landed on these little portable prayer prompts. Often, I need a physical reminder to pray for someone who I’ve said I’d pray for. Or in the middle of a busy day I need a reminder that God is still around. So, with some trial and error, I made a batch and gave them away at the service. They were mostly well-received, and I made more, always giving them away in the context of homelessness. Folks seemed to share my need for a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.
Clarification: I don’t always feel this way about God’s presence. In fact, when the Spirit arrives unbidden, I sometimes wish She would go away. But there she is, jumping up and down, waving her metaphorical arms, hollering and telling me what a great idea she has. Never are these ideas rational, sedate, or respectable. Nope. She always wants me to do something the very idea of which makes me cringe.
Such as taking my bag of Thumb Prayers to the prayer vigil. The vigil wasn’t about me or my prayer tokens. I didn’t want to insert myself into the goings-on. I only wanted to go and lend my support. But I’ve been at this thing called Life long enough to know to take the damn bag. Besides, I might not actually have to DO anything with them . . .
When we arrived at the vigil, my friend gave an excellent talk to the group. She was factual and passionate, a rare combination. Another activist spoke about her particular concerns, and the leader talked to us about the work needing to be done after we left the vigil. When all had finished talking, the leader asked if anyone else wanted to offer a prayer into the group space or maybe relate an experience as a tenant.
I did not want to offer a prayer. So I kept my mouth shut, and another tenant chose to speak to us about her personal experience. This, I thought, is as it should be. Those affected by the terrible conditions should be the ones who teach and inform the rest of us. Also, her answering the call meant I didn’t have to do anything with the durn Thumb Prayers.
When she finished, we clapped, and then the leader did it again. “Before we disperse, does anyone else want to offer a prayer into the group?”
Before I knew what was happening, I heard my voice saying, “I make Thumb Prayers. Just little things to put in your pocket and rub when you want to remember the presence of God. If anyone wants to take a Thumb Prayer with them, to remind us that work still needs to be done after we leave here, they can have one. For free.”
I added the last bit because the leader’s face told me he thought I might be ACTUALLY USING THE PRAYER VIGIL TO SELL SOMETHING!!!
I’m telling you, this is why I really don’t like the Holy Spirit.
My mortification was mollified when the preacher who had led us in prayer immediately raised his hand indicating he wanted a Thumb Prayer. After that, people swooped over to get their prayers. So I walked around our small but committed group, offering each person a Thumb Prayer. Several said, “Whaaaat?” And took one after I explained.
So, all ends well, right? Except it hadn’t ended. It came to me that I needed to make more Thumb Prayers, sell them, and donate the proceeds to housing justice.
You see what the Spirit did there? She took a question I’ve been asking myself: what is my next project? She connected it to one of my passions: homelessness. And she led me to the next step: quality housing for those who have moved one step beyond homelessness.
Truly, She is divine. I don’t deserve such a wonderful friend.
For one reason then another, I’ve been off the blog for a while, not adding posts, not reading posts from my fellow and sister bloggers. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed reading your thoughts. I hope as the year unfolds, I will do better. I have, however, been writing, and I share with you this wisdom the Universe sent to me at the beginning of the new year.
Living with the Iffing
He’s seated in the chair next to me at the bank—at this New Orleans bank, they’ve done away with teller windows. The tellers hold court behind a long desk, customers sit in chairs on the other side. The man and I sit side by side. He’s in the midst of a complicated financial transaction. While the teller works, he talks.
“All that fighting going on in my neighborhood.”
“You peeking from behind the curtains?” the teller asks.
“I was sitting on the porch with a baseball bat.”
The teller comments that maybe this isn’t so smart. “Bullets don’t carry a name.”
He agrees, but remains undeterred. “That family. You know, you lose somebody, you bring in chicken. You bring in food. That family, they buy liquor.”
The teller lends one ear to his story as she steadily works. I get the feeling they know each other pretty well.
“They buy liquor then they start to fighting. I look out there, the boyfriend has a board. The girlfriend, she’s got a stick.”
He demonstrates the stance of the two neighbors, weapons raised above their shoulders.
“He’s holding the board, and she’s got the stick. I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’”
“You what?” The teller begins paying attention.
“I can’t stand that iffing—are they gonna hit someone or not? I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’ I can’t take that iffing.”
The old year rolls out. The New Year rolls in. We are asked, as always, to live with the iffing.
Feel free to mosey on over to the page and enjoy the posts.
Here’s a free sample. Well, they’re all free. 🙂
MY ADVENT PRACTICE
This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began.
I’ll start with water.
I’m thinking rain water and Memphis’s aquifer water but mainly the water of tears.
This afternoon, each time we told our friend in the nursing home how much he was loved and how many people were asking about him and how concerned everyone was about him, tears welled in his eyes. The trach kept him from speaking, but his connection with us was in his tears. We might be from dust and to dust we might return but in the interim we have water.
This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began. I’ll continue today with laughter.
sauce of the universe.
don’t leave home without it.
This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began. I’ll continue today with cold.
You can be cold in the winter
or cold when you stay in the swimming pool too long.
You toes can be cold when you stamp the ground.
Your hand can be cold when getting ice cream from the fridge.
Cold ices the nostrils, burns the lungs, and
exhilarates a body that’s had too much close warm air.
The way winter’s
supposed to be.
This will be my Advent practice: naming that which has been in the world since time began.
I’ll continue today with illusion.
We believe in what we cannot see–
the wind, love, the Internet–
because we see its effect.
Perhaps these invisibles are illusions
and the only thing that matters
are the effects.
updated an essay that won a contest but was never published
snapped a few pictures
How about you? How much of your daily life actually involves creativity? No, I didn’t create a musical or theatrical masterpiece. I do my work in clothes, the blank page, home and yard, detritus as art material. The commonness of the medium does not make it any less creative.
Where does your creativity spill out? Do you give yourself credit for the impulse? For the talent? Do you see the love in doing what you do?
I come to Deborah Koehn Loyd’s Your Vocational Credo: Practical Steps to Discover Your Unique Purpose (IVP Books, 2015) as a Southern female raised in the 1960s and 70s. The adjectives this statement evokes for me are “stricture,” “judgement,” “demanding.” Peering down the tunnel of time, I see a long line of women staring back at me, frowning. Love wasn’t missing, not by a long shot, but it was filtered through expectations. My mother didn’t participate in this cadre of women dedicated to molding young girls into proper female roles. But grandmothers, aunts, friends’ moms, Sunday school teachers, total strangers—they all did.
As a youngster, my first outlet of rebellion against my native culture was clothes. Mother, bless her soul, let me dress myself from a young age. Free to choose my own way, I turned my toddler underwear backwards so I could see the ruffles. I fell in love with my blue plaid jumper with the oversized wooden buttons and wore it three days running. You can imagine, then, that Dr. Loyd captured my heart with her declaration, “I consider dressing myself an art form.” (Vocational Credo, p. 103).
The goal of Dr. Loyd’s book, as the title suggests, is to help the reader discover a creed that defines his or her vocational credo. “Vocation” she defines as “speaking or living forth the truest form of self.” (Vocational Credo, p. 19). A vocational credo is “a description of a personal passion directed toward a course of action that occurs for the sake of a specific outcome, that of doing good to and for others.” (Vocational Credo, p. 96). I came across the book because she quotes me in it. 🙂
The “Investigating Ellen” work I’ve done over the years in the Memphis School of Servant Leadership, Enneagram workshops, Myers-Briggs, weekend retreats, and elsewhere has taught me some of the concepts Dr. Loyd advocates for discovering your vocational credo, such as leading with your gifts: when choosing your path, act out of what you really, really want to do. She names as one of the “myths of vocation” the belief that doing the right thing/following God is a sacrifice, and you prove your spirituality by doing what your really, really don’t want to do. (Dr. Loyd is a spiritual person so God is present in her language; if it helps, replace God with the Universe, which can clear out the more troubling images/characteristics of what so many call God). I need to be constantly reminded of this truth, as one of my deeply held beliefs—a common one, if we’re honest—is that I’m not inherently likable, so I have to show how very other-oriented I am to make people like me.
Also, similar to Henry Nouwen, Dr. Loyd advocates as the first step in discovering your credo examining your places of brokenness and using them as sources of strength. Even so, her suggestion to physically draw an image of your life then add your earliest hurt was, literally, enlightening. I drew a sun, and added a black spot to represent the death of my dad in a train wreck when I was three years old. Studying the picture, one can see either a sun with rays of pain shooting from its black spot or a sun with a solar flare of expanding energy radiating outward. The choice is mine to make.
What is the strength I gained from that hurt? Daddy Joe’s death made me feel a loss of belonging, even a feeling of being cast out. My sense of existing outside the box is not irrational; less than 1% of the population shares my INFJ Myers-Briggs personality. The difficulty comes from interpreting “outside the box” as “outside the fold,” which is likely to occur when you are different and your culture values conformity (see “I was a Southern Female Child” above). As a result, I’ve been left with a lifelong search for belonging and community—I famously wanted to buy a Saturn just to be invited to the picnic. As Dr. Loyd puts it, Daddy Joe’s death cast a negative prophecy over my life. (Vocational Credo, p. 79).
What I saw in reading this wonderful little book, however, was that the “out” of “outcast” is a place of power. When you’re “out,” you’re no longer restricted by the rules/judgement/dislike/disapproval/superiority/hierarchy of the “in” places. Even better, my experience of the last few years has taught me God is more easily accessed in the out places. My healthiest response isn’t to lick my wounds of rejection, but to find community in the out places.
My favorite new concept goes to the heart of Dr. Loyd’s book. In her definition, credo isn’t the “how” of what you are doing (making crosses, teaching writing group); it’s the larger why of it. “A well-developed vocational credo can be exercised almost anywhere at any time.” (Vocational Credo, p.40) Dr. Loyd guides the reader through a concrete set of exercises (I love exercises, don’t you?) to get to your credo. In addition to your first wound, her pyramid is built on your favorite quote, your favorite childhood book (The Tall Book of Make-Believe), and the value you learned from the book (the absurd is often the only proper response to life).
Following Dr. Loyd’s guidance, the credo I arrived at for myself is:
GOD PUT ME ON EARTH TO create trusting spaces where people in community can experience the delight of themselves and others SO THAT we experience God. (Yes, the queen of puns subconsciously wove a pun—drawing a sun, seeing de light. Go ahead, groan).
This focus on delight is new for me, not something I attribute to my sometimes melancholy self. But Dr. Loyd points out we often give to others from our own meager share.
Because Dr. Loyd’s view of vocational credo tracks the Frederick Buechner view that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” she also asks the seeker to define those she wants to help. For me, that’s anyone who has been told he or she can’t do or can’t be—see how all this is fitting together? Dr. Loyd provides a survey for finding the “how” of implementation, discovering the motivators that allow you to act in the way most natural to you. My motivators—Caregiver, Creator, Activist—sound very familiar.
All of this leads to a vocational credo easy for me to see at work in my two huge undertakings of the past decade, making crosses from broken and found objects (Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God) and facilitating writing group (Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness). These are perfect fits: pursuing individual creativity in a group setting with those who have been denied their right to “be.” The real question is, how does this credo fit with the novel my agent is currently shopping to publishing houses? What can any novel do to create space to experience God?
Well, The Bone Trench could be viewed as an anthem to slip-sliding to the margins where truth and God lie. A rollicking, rambunctious, outrageous—some have said blasphemous—anthem, but, hey, is there a more fun way to get to God? The Bone Trench places first our connection with each other, and lets the rest of it be threshed away. In my fondest dream the novel would be discussed—no, debated—in small groups . . . spaces where readers can discover the delight of themselves and God. Would the church host such a conversation, a body whose focus on rules, judgment, expectations, values, exclusion, and titles often specializes in smothering the discovery of the delight? I don’t know, but maybe if we could make caring about one another our priority, we would trip into what Dr. Loyd characterizes as Joseph Campbell’s appreciation of “the human need to experience a transcendent aspect of being alive.” (Vocational Credo, p. 170).
Oh, and where am I quoted? On page 123 in the chapter Pursuing Change and Chaos. How apt is that? Here’s the quote.:
As we embark on a new creative venture, it helps to remember that we are working with a God who loves us more than anything in the world. (Making Crosses: a Creative Connection to God, Paraclete Press, 2009).
Deborah Koehn Loyd (DMin, Bakke Graduate University) is a professor, conference speaker, writer/blogger and pastor. She is the Scholar Practitioner of Vocation and Formation at Warner Pacific College and an adjunct professor at George Fox Seminary. Her organization, Finding Forward, expresses her passion to empower people to find their voices and vocations. She is also co-creator of Women’s Convergence, Women’s Theology Hub and The Bridge Church. Deborah holds an MA in exegetical theology and a DMin in transformational leadership. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Ken and they have three grown children and two beautiful granddaughters.
Dr. Loyd was kind enough to send me a copy of the book. It arrived in the mail last week. I can’t wait to read it, maybe find out more about my vocational credo (it’s never too late, right?). The back jacket promises insight on:
* the true meaning of vocation
* how to redeem past pains in your life
* your personal vocational preferences
* a unique plan for your life’s work
You can read more about Dr. Loyd here. You can purchase the book at Amazon here.
Stay tuned: I’ll be offering a review as soon as I find out what it has to say.
I thought I’d be shot. Dean Andy Andrews announced that, following the Wednesday morning service, he would be walking the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He invited us to join him. I attended the Wednesday service, but I believed if I walked in the neighborhood I’d be shot.
You need to know: Alabama Avenue, which runs directly behind the cathedral, was at one point called out as one of the most dangerous streets in the city. Cathedral staff regularly heard the pop! of gunfire. The Cathedral was predominantly white; the neighborhood predominantly black. But Andy was determined to get to know our neighbors, hence the walking-and-praying plan.
I prayed about whether to make the walk. At the end of the praying, I was no less convinced I’d be shot. But I figured we all had to die sometime, and I’d feel worse if Andy went by himself and got shot than I would if I went and got shot. So I showed up in the parking lot with the gaggle of white folks who agreed to walk. After a prayer, our ragtag group set out. We were led—thank you, Jesus—by an African-American congregant who was a local activist and schooled us on how not to rile up our more dangerous neighbors. “Pick up trash” she said. “That way they won’t be worried about what you’re up to, coming into their neighborhood.”
I didn’t get shot. No one got shot. No one even got accosted or yelled at. We got some hard stares until we became a fixture on Wednesday mornings. I kept it up until my hips gave out and I had to quit. Over the course of those walks the neighborhood morphed from something I drove quickly through to houses I recognized, store owners I’d bought chips from, a discovered tucked-away park.
Saturday morning, I was thinking about this episode of fear as I listened to the Very Reverend Mike Kinman from Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis speak. I was attending a St. Mary’s workshop with a really long title but, essentially, it concerned race, white privilege, and Ferguson.
I’ve been so several of these types of workshops, and sometimes they fall flat. This one didn’t. I wondered why. Maybe because the day began with love. The group was directed to remember love. To discuss with others at the table a specific instance of when you felt loved. Often, such workshops begin with a video or images designed to reveal white privilege. I find these exercises interesting, but even so they can come across with a kind of “gotcha” feel. Love is reassuring.
Significantly, we were also asked to share a time when we didn’t feel loved. It’s hard to be standoffish with another human being after you’ve revealed such a thing. Most interesting, the responses at my table—both loved and unloved—often went to community. Feeling loved: teams, classrooms, writing groups ( 🙂 ). Feeling unloved: school classes, work situations. We are a relationship species, and a workshop designed to build relationship had to be on the right track.
The day ended with relationship, too. The Dean asked us to covenant with one other person in the room to continue the conversation. The woman sitting next to me, a stranger, and I covenanted to get together. She’d responded when I blurted out that Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and I was weepy about everything, so be prepared. This random confession—one I didn’t want to make—may have been the thing she most connected with.
So, anyway. I’ll add “Attend a workshop” to the list of things I’ve shared that you can do if your desire to address racism has been piqued by recent events. I’ll also pass along two websites the Dean recommended. Campaign Zero which breaks down problems and provides policy solutions for which you can volunteer. I haven’t studied it, but it looks good.
The other site he recommended was the fairly famous Harvard test for implicit racial bias, entitled (surprise, surprise) implicit.harvard.edu I took this online test 5 or more years ago and scored somewhat high on bias for European Americans, which, sadly, both whites and blacks frequently do.
This time I showed a moderate bias for African-Americans, which I found curious. The test is facial-recognition based, and perhaps I’ve spent more time in the company of African-American faces the last 5 years? I don’t know, but, honestly, it doesn’t much matter. I resolved many years ago to admit I have racial prejudice and to never forget it, or else my many years in a racist society (I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s when racism was the law) would default me to a racist reaction more often than not.
Before I sign off, an even simpler thing you can do is create a #BlackLivesMatter list on Twitter. It’s an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in the movement, and if you’re like me, you’ll learn immeasurably from it. If you want a harder schooling, tweet something in support of the movement, using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Then wait for the deluge of racists who troll this conversation to flood forth, calling you and the #BlackLIvesMatter supporters every ugly name in the book. Never again will you believe we live in a post-racial America. You’ll also develop immense respect for those who are courageous enough to do this work.
It began on the veranda of the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida, the town locals call Apalach, where oysters once reigned and the river whispers of pirate ships disappearing in the streaky dawn.
In the waning heat of a summer afternoon in 2008, I joined my husband on the second floor porch of the hotel whose bar would make Hemingway weep and there, beneath the widow’s walk and cupola, I read aloud.
For two weeks, we lolled in this charming town, rooting out the public library, taking lazy trips to St. George Island. Riding bikes past shop windows where sponges and scuba suits reminded us of an era when diving beneath the waves required great courage.
When the heat built up to boiling, Tom returned to his Adirondack on the veranda with a book. I wrote. And when I’d rolled down for the day, I scooted my own Adirondack close and read what I’d written that day on a new work I called the Mother Mary novel.
That was 2008.
Over the intervening years, we returned to Apalachicola many times, introducing the kids to the Gibson Inn
and the streaky dawn
but the work on the Mother Mary novel transferred to Memphis, where the novel is set. There inside my treehouse home
I wrote through the blizzard of 2010
and the flood of 2011
and, after we took an apartment in New Orleans, the Zombie apocalypse.
I wrote as I welcomed a new dog to the family
and two other new members of the family
and lost my dad
Finally, in the spring of this my seventh year of work, I finished the novel, read it out loud, and sent it to an editor so I could begin querying agents: will you represent me, I asked, and try to sell my book for me? The opening sentence of the query letter acknowledged the oddness of the book: THE BONE TRENCH is a literary fantasy of 103,000 words that uses religion and humor to explore mass incarceration and the private prison industry—I know, religion, humor and prisons; you’re either going to love this or hate it.
Guess what? An agent loved it! He literally said, “I love it,” and offered me representation. William Reeve of the Virginia Kidd Agency. The agency is the grandmother of all Science Fiction/Fantasy agencies and, because Mother Mary and Jesus aren’t real people (not to mention the Demonittes), The Bone Trench is Fantasy. I’m joining a stellar list of “repped by” authors. And—extra good news here—he required no extensive revisions, so maybe all that writing was worthwhile. 🙂
Many of y’all have been with me on this journey. Acting as Beta readers, offering feedback. Kind enough not to ask, whatever happened to that novel you were working on? Others have followed at least snatches of this journey. So I wanted to share my happiness with y’all. (I sound so calm, don’t I? I’m not.)
Just to be clear: I’ll let you know what comes next.
She had a crisis of faith. But so much went before that. Her work, her reading, her awareness. Her travel, her commitment, her participation. Her use of her talent. Her love of God. In her statement following her direct nonviolent action of removing the Confederate flag from where it flew on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, Ms. Brittany “Bree” Newsome gives us an outline of what we can do.
In her statement, Ms. Newsome, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, pegs the start of her activism two years ago with Moral Mondays, the movement led by Rev. William Barber in Raleigh, NC. The Moral Mondays movement was birthed after the North Carolina legislature moved to cut early voting, end same-day voter registration, and require ID at the polls. The movement has spread to other Southern states, maybe one you live in.
As the killing of Trayvon Martin and the tear-gassing in Ferguson and the police lockdown in West Baltimore unfolded, Ms. Newsome linked these incidents with Emmett Till, Klan activity witnessed by her grandmother, and freedom papers required by slave-catchers. She put the events in historical context, using both personal family history and national history. Histories she knew well enough to provide needed context. Maybe you, too, know such a personal and national history.
Ms. Newsome is a community organizer—”I organize alongside other community members striving to create greater self-sufficiency and political empowerment in low-income neighborhoods”—whose background is in the arts. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she’s done incredible work in film and music, won prestigious awards and recognition, sent amazing creativity into the world. You, too, might have an artistic expression that motivates you to engage with your part of the world.
The night of the Charleston Massacre, Ms. Newsome suffered “a crisis of faith.” She saw the members of Emmanuel AME Church doing simply what Christians are supposed to do: invite others to join their Bible Study. For that, they were murdered. Yet, Ms. Newsome refused to be ruled by fear. “How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?” You, too, might have experienced a spiritual crisis, followed by a resolve that even surprises you.
Her reaction was to meet with her community. She had in place a small group of concerned citizens, both black and white, who represented various walks of life, spiritual beliefs, gender identities and sexual orientations” to whom she could turn to discuss and discern the next step. As you, too, perhaps have such a diverse, thoughtful, supportive community.
Together, this group charted a course of action. The action would require people to take different roles. One—a black woman—to scale the pole at the South Carolina capitol. One—a white man—to stand in solidarity with her (and actively help her over the fence). Other roles, too. Including roles that you might find fit your comfort level.
While part of a group discernment, Ms. Newsome knew why she, personally, was taking action. Her reasons were not simple or limited. Her concerns might not have been shared by everyone in her community. But they were hers, and she knew them as clearly as the sun shining in the blue sky. Same way you might have concerns that motivate your life.
As Ms. Newsome climbed the pole, James Tyson helped her across the fence then stood guard as she climbed. He accepted the flag when she brought it down. This was entirely thought out. As Mr. Tyson has said, because white supremacy was created by white people, white people must step up and take a role in dismantling it. Ms. Newsome credited Mr. Tyson with “moral courage” as a white ally. Never, she said, should this be viewed as being about one woman. Maybe you also lean on and expect the support of others when you act.
At the bedrock of Ms. Newsome’s actions was her Christian faith. As she acted, she recited from the Bible. She recognizes not everyone comes at this fight from a faith perspective, but she does “100%.” Just as you might find that your concern, courage, and caring originates with your faith.
Lastly, Ms. Newsome explicitly encourages others. “I encourage everyone to understand the history, recognize the problems of the present and take action to show the world that the status quo is not acceptable.” National issue or local issue, she wants us to do what we know is right. She wants us to be “one of many.” To participate in this “multi-leader movement.” Same as the national or local issue you feel compelled to act on.
Did I say lastly? No. Lastly, she holds true to herself. “All honor and praise to God.” When I think of the symmetry of this—a white man murders nine African-Americans in church and an African-American woman takes down his symbol of hatred as she recites Psalm 27 (“‘The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?'”), I want to weep. She exhibited what the Huffington Post called “staggering faith.” Can you imagine how exposed she felt high on that pole? And yet she climbed.
As Denise Oliver Velez at Daily Kos says, “Activism is a process. We need to learn from those people who make a decision to fight for change and justice and follow their examples.”
If so, Ms. Newsome’s teaching example is 1) know your history 2) use your passion/talent to act 3) stay in tune with your spiritual life 4) be part of a community you trust 5) discern your role 6) know your personal motivations 7) recognize your support team 8) encourage others to act in ways right for them 9) stay true to yourself.