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.
I have been grappling with—what the hell, that makes it sound so sophisticated; I’ve been moping around the house wondering—the “Why?” question. Actually, it’s a “What?” question. What am I doing with my life right now that matters?
When I was facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, the answer to this question was easy: I’m bringing to a group of folks who might not otherwise have it a tool to understand and speak their truth into the world.
Even earlier, when Paraclete Press published Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, and I conducted ALL THOSE WORKSHOPS, I could tangibly see what I was doing: giving a tool to folks for them to better understand their relationship with God.
So, okay—maybe the problem is my history of “purpose” sets the bar kind of high.
Be that as it may, even when I was recording my short story collection, I knew exactly why I was doing it: to transition from everyone knowing me as “the cross lady” to seeing me as a fiction writer. And I paired the stories with charitable contributions, so all was good.
And—here’s the important part—that venture was laying the foundation for Something Big. For my novel. Which would be Full of Importance. Even if the Importance was wrapped in words and plot that were funny as hell. It would Matter.
But as my telescope narrows to focus on my own writing career, I’m getting lost. Yeah, TRACKING HAPPINESS has as a major theme being nice to chickens. Raise them humanely. Treat them like living animals sharing the planet with us. But still. It’s mostly funny. And fun. It’s not earth-shattering. Where is the “What?” of it?
Then I read this article entitled Teaching and Purpose by Jon Chopan on the Glimmertrain website sent to me by the Jane Friedman emails (total aside: her emails are great; if you’re a writer and don’t already get them, you should sign up.) Mr. Chopan said a lot of things (though the essay is mercifully short), but he quotes Tim Seibles as saying, “I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”
I read this and thought, ahhh, that’s it: my purpose is to not be in cahoots with the nightmare. And it’s enough. (Are poets the smartest ones among us?) I can go with that. To gently ask us to be kind to chickens. To explicate grief rather than shoving it aside. To offer folks an escape, if just for a moment, from the grind of our lives. This I can do. Thank you, Jon Chopan and Tim Seibles. Thank you.
Can I talk about God for a minute? I mean the God that presents when we step out in vulnerability, trusting that the Spirit guided our first faltering step and will be there if we succeed or fail. Lord, these steps are hard. Not because they involve a dramatic climb to the mountaintop where we’ll change the world. Rather, they mock us with how very simple—and frightening—they are.
Say you’re the Dean of a big ass traditional Episcopal cathedral, and you want to open the service with a call for the congregation to take a deep breath together as we center ourselves in the Spirit—well, that’s just not done.
Or you’re African-American in a mostly white church and unfamiliar with a liturgy that confuses even cradle Episcopalians (and then you pick up the 8:00 bulletin at the 11:00 service) but you’re in the pew, determined—well, how uncomfortable is that?
Or you’re a mama with a fussy—no, screaming—baby that drowns out the guest preacher and makes all heads in the pews swivel your way—well, mortification is a real thing.
Or maybe you’re saying goodbye to a beloved staff member, and you choose to call the congregation down front so they can lay hands on her in blessing—well, only the Episcopalians in the group understand how truly odd that is.
They’re simple and easy, these steps—bringing your baby to church, worshiping in a new way, granting blessing, breathing— but those taking them make themselves vulnerable. They risk failure, ridicule, embarrassment, shame, rejection. Oh don’t exaggerate, you’re thinking, but that’s because you’re not the one taking the step. Imagine that each person is doing the one thing they wish they would never have to do—be the object of staring eyes, feel out-of-place, appear foolish, risk no one joining in. That is hard.
Becoming “that mama with the screaming baby,” showing yourself as an outsider, leading the congregation down an unfamiliar path. Each of these tiny steps in vulnerability manifests God. A spark is lit. If more than one of us is being brave and lighting sparks at the same time, the result is extraordinary. The congregation breathes deeply, calling forth the Spirit. Those in the pew who arrived as strangers leave as new friends. A baby—when he’s not screaming—bestows joy all around him. And blessing hands laid on shoulders create a bond of God.
Maybe, if we’re sure of ourselves, God struggles to be present because our focus on ourselves leaves so little room. (Don’t confuse passion with certainty—a heart fluttering like a frightened wren can beat beneath a wash of passion.) And I know—God is there, always, always there.
But God sometimes goes from unseen to seen. When we risk being real with each other, we see God’s presence in each other, in our interaction with each other, and finally in the collective infused experience that is the sum of all of our strivings to do what seems odd but is God.
Without him, I might have never liked eggs. That seems like such a small accomplishment, frivolous even. But I’d been forced to eat eggs almost every morning of my life. I hated eggs. My loathing of eggs exceeded the bounds of good manners—as a child, I hid my eggs wherever I could find a secretive spot: under my plate, tucked against the clapper of the dinner bell. Later, my older sister would wake in the mornings to fix our breakfast before school, but I was a kid without an ounce of gratitude. I ranted and raved against her eggs. I was incorrigible. The only way I could tolerate an egg was hardboiled with a sliver of butter on it. Even then, I wouldn’t eat the white. I especially hated scrambled eggs.
Then my new uncle came over to our duplex on Colony Road. I was in the seventh grade, and my mother had recently married “Mr. Van Hecke.” All of my dad’s extended family came to a huge gathering at our Charlotte house for brunch. My new Uncle Merwin not only cooked; he put cheese in the scrambled eggs. Miraculously, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the hated eggs tasted good.
My Uncle Merwin was a journalist and a scholar. He is in the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. He chronicled the rise of Charlotte, NC, from an awkward pro-wrestling town to a proud Southern city. He was the last living brother of the four Van Hecke boys who grew up in Chapel Hill where their dad was the Dean of the Law School and their mom a saint. He learned and taught and shared all he knew. But, for me, his impact was deep and personal in ways most people wouldn’t even credit.
At family gatherings, at some point, I would find myself seated on the sofa next to Merwin. I was not unique to this. Most family members gravitated to his side for a spell. There, he would explain to me the intricacies of North Carolina’s participation in the Revolutionary War. Or the true story behind a power play to take over the Charlotte airport. He was a man of broad knowledge.
When I was forced to have my hips replaced at a far-too-young age, Merwin took me aside and told me not to listen to negative things people might say. He had also faced hip replacement in his 50s, and he said those bad things wouldn’t happen. When deep panic set in the night before the first surgery—I was willingly allowing someone to cut me open and insert something artificial into my body—I held on to his reassurance. I told myself, Merwin did this. I can too.
I don’t know if we ever understand the impact we have on others. If we take time to think about it, surely we place odds that our mark will be left by the “big things” we’ve managed to do. If my experience is any measure, we’re probably wrong.
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.
I knelt at the altar rail. Recently out of the hospital, I was frail. I stood 5’5″ and weighed 92 pounds. I was 26 years old. The other supplicants—ordinary men and women who had taken their lunch break to attend St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral’s noontime healing service—gathered around me. They laid hands on me. The priest, a middle-aged white man, asked me for my request. I told him I needed to be healed.
I was raised Episcopalian, but you know how we Episcopalians are—vague on details. I didn’t know we had a healing service as one of our seven sacraments. I knew communion, I knew baptism. I knew these were foundational acts of my faith. When I learned of the healing service, I assumed it was the same. I assumed it was intended to heal. And by heal, I mean cure. Actual physical healing.
When the priest finished his whispered prayer, he dipped his thumb in oil and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. I’ve since learned the “healing” of this service is interpreted as a spiritual healing—you know, to give you a better attitude about whatever crap is in your life. I also came to realize this particular priest could lay his hands on your head, press down, and pray for what your heart needed. He had the gift of healing.
When his thumb completed the sign of the cross, I fell out. Slowly, as if pushed over by a feather, I toppled from my needle-pointed perch as easily as if I’d been in a sawdust-floored tent with sweaty Holy Rollers clapping and swaying while chickens pecked for bugs in the aisles.
Apologies were made on my behalf (“She’s recently out of the hospital.” “She’s vey weak.” “She needs air.”). But I knew I’d been healed. And I had. My affliction was removed and—while it should have returned on a regular basis every few months—it has not done so in 34 years. I always attributed the healing to my ignorance: I believed I would be healed. Plus, I was in the hands of a healer for a priest.
Why am I telling you this? Despite how important this experience was in my life, I consider the healing offered by FORGIVENESS REIKI to be more important. This practice can heal not only the body, but also the mind, heart, and soul, which is sorely needed these days.
Forgiveness Reiki: Hands-On Healing, Distance Healing, and Prayer with both Reiki and the Holy Spirit (Michael S. Van Hecke, 2017) was written by my cousin. He lost his sixteen-year-old-son to a traumatic event then stood up in front of the funeral congregation and led them in a prayer of forgiveness. Several days later he posted a long Jesus Healing System Prayer asking, among other things: “I ask and pray for assistance in transforming our grief and sense of loss into love…”; and “I ask and pray that any fear-based prayers regarding Maurice or us be transformed …”; and “I ask and pray for assistance in forgiving those who might have prevented his death but did not.” (page 64)
Lots of folks know prayer. Some know Reiki hands-on-healing. This practice combines the two. The essence of the practice is forgiveness. The practice can be used as hands-on-healing modality; a forgiveness program; or, a process starting with forgiveness and moving into hands-on-healing: “After exploring forgiveness, participants are given new tools to love their neighbor, particularly as a healer.” (page 26).
The forgiveness practice is not easy. For me, the first hardest step is wanting to forgive. For example, despite my having experienced healing in a church, I’d much rather hold on to my grudge against the church of my childhood for not allowing girls to carry the cross down the aisle or act as altar boys, for only sponsoring a Boy Scout troop and not a Girl Scout troop. I mean, I’ve spent years figuring out and cataloging ALL THE WAYS the church let me down as a child—you want me to let that go?
Yep. I have a feeling I will be practicing the forgiveness aspect for a while.
The book contains prayers to use as you practice. It has a step-by-step description of how to conduct a Jesus Healing System session. It is also full of wisdom. I can’t quote the whole book, but here are some good ones:
“But for now, let’s make a huge shift and chose to interpret everything that happens as an act of love.” (p. 10)
“It’s about not being ruled by our judgments so we can show up spiritually regardless of what’s going on.” (p. 10)
“Only God knows the truth about divinity, heaven and hell, the Gospel the virgin birth, Buddha Krishna, Allah, and everything else. So why in our arrogance do we have to pretend that we know the answers then use our ignorance to pick sides and tell others that they are wrong?” (p. 14)
“Perhaps our greatest teachers are those who help us learn what we’d prefer to avoid. God wants what’s best for us and will provide both teachers and lessons to help us learn. How we perceive them is up to us. Christians and healers of all faiths must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is being revealed to us.” (p. 56)
And here is my very favorite:
“At night, I’d shut my eyes and see ‘shooting stars’ going across my eyelids. A hypnotist friend suggested ‘reaching up and pulling one down’ with my energetic hand. I did so, and upon examination, found that each was a note, or sorts. One said ‘Thinking of you.’ Another said ‘We are with you, you are not alone,’ and many others said ‘We love you.’ These shooting stars were prayers. The next time a crisis occurs, please remember this story and pray repeatedly for all those involved. Prayer matters.” (p. 65)
FORGIVENESS REIKI is available on Amazon. I haven’t done it justice. Buy one for yourself and see. Thank you, Michael, for writing it.
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.
My husband is “watching football” on the couch. He’s snoring. The dog is curled up in the nest made by the crook of his bent knees. I’ve just hung up Facetiming with my family in North Carolina after 3 days of celebrating with my family in New Orleans. The grandsons are 6 and 4. They will grow up and will remember as if a dream their daddy’s hands patting out the sugar cookie dough, and the stage with lights where they played their new guitar under the disco ball, and the thick limbs of the magnolia tree where they climbed so high on Christmas Day. All of it will seem magical, as in, could anything so perfect have really existed?
I know this because it is how I remember the unknown Santa standing on the stoop with a gift for my widowed mama, and diving into the gigantic coloring book with the best pictures ever, and strutting into my grandmother’s house in my cap guns with snap shirt and cowboy boots so proud of how awesome I was, and how wonder-filled it felt. Not because I’d gotten “things,” but because the world cracked open and spilled unearned joy into my life.
This is Christmas Day, when God came into the world to bring us tidings of great joy: unto us a child is born and his name shall be called wonderful!
I have lived in shock for a year. I could not believe that a man who put himself at the center of the universe and tore down everyone around him in the ugliest manner possible had been elevated to the presidency. The vote of my fellow and sister Americans sanctioning his behavior felt like gaslighting, an attempt to convince me that all I saw in him was not so. I have spent the last twelve months searching for, and latching on to, evidence that I was not, in fact, deluded but was right about him, which evidence has poured forth like the proverbial floodwaters.
I’m done with that. I was right. And I’m moving on.
I have my own little red God wagon to take care of. By which I mean, my most important duty is to try to discern the actions God wants me to take, and take them. Every second I spend confirming and reconfirming and confirming yet again that the president is a bigoted bully is time spent away from my work.
The year wasn’t wasted. It’s made me struggle with my own reactions. To parse my very personal anger at a man I don’t even know. To understand how hate-filled public policy gets adopted. To identify exactly who I want to support in the political process. To put the onus back where it belongs: on me.
And what is the next step for me? I have a voice, and I intend to use it in the way I have been given. I will publish work about grief and homelessness and racism and God’s love for the world, the categories I use on this blog to describe who I am. I guarantee you, not a one of them will align with the president’s beliefs. That won’t matter. What’s important is that they will align with mine.
At one point in my life when I was struggling with betrayal, I went to my Episcopal priest for advice. He suggested that during this difficult time, I might find it easier to pray to Mother Mary. I followed his suggestion, and thus began a lifelong relationship with the mother of God. CHERRY BOMB takes this concept and expands it to a near-magical degree. Rather than Mother Mary, in CHERRY BOMB, it is St. Mary of Egypt who offers redemption. How satisfying it was to read Susan Cushman’s new novel that advocates for redemption and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
This literary novel (Dogwood Press, 2017) traces the life of a young woman in Macon, Georgia who uses graffiti to process the hurt that life has brought her. (I’m pretty much illiterate about graffiti, but the apartment where I live in New Orleans has as its patron saint Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I was pleased to see his name mentioned in the novel’s early pages.) The story follows homeless young Mare as she meets famous artist Elaine de Kooning.
Elaine de Kooning, of course, is a historical figure, whose life Cushman has fictionalized, while using many facts from her life. De Kooning recognizes Mare’s talent and mentors Mare as an artist. Mare and Elaine came to art by very different paths—one through MTV videos, the other via the Museum of Modern Art. Their interaction leads Mare to enter the more traditional word of art via art school, and to question what she really wants from her art and life. CHERRY BOMB follows the stories of these two women in alternating viewpoints, which enables us to watch as their life histories gradually intersect. It’s wonderful to watch the author weave them together.
I am not going to give away plot points, but I was fascinated with how Cushman brought together the world of graffiti and the world of icons. Icons are a deeply historical form of worship, which Cushman has worked in herself (she created the icon on the back cover of CHERRY BOMB). I didn’t know both graffiti and iconography use the language of “writing” and “stories,” rather than drawing and pictures.
Of course, I’m also drawn to Mare because of her homelessness during much of the story. Her living on the street is well-told, as is the way she copes in that life. Both Mare and Elaine struggle with deeply difficult backgrounds of sexual abuse and abandonment. Working their way to forgiveness of those who have hurt them is hard. St. Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of the author, figures prominently in this process. To include forgiveness of themselves in that journey is remarkable.
DON’T MISS SUSAN’S BOOK SIGNING THURSDAY DECEMBER 14 AT 6:00 pm AT NOVEL. BOOKSTORE, LAURELWOOD SHOPPING CENTER, 387 PERKINS, RD EXTD, MEMPHIS, TN
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.
And while we wait, we write.
“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.
Jesus summed up this phenomenon with his “plank in your own eye” lesson, as well as his “the measure by which you shall be judged” warning. I think too often we take Jesus’s sayings as scoldings rather than simple truths: this is the way the world works. Listen and learn. Proceed at your own risk.
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.
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.
I call it “spiritual dyslexia.”
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.
Glennon Doyle Melton says I need to pick it back up.
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.
As she says in this blog post:
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.”
I’ll try to start paying better attention.
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.