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Category: GRIEF

In Mississippi, We Pull Over

For all its fun and foolishness, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is a story of a young woman coping with grief. Lucinda Mae’s dad died two years before the novel opens. Losing her dad threw Lucinda’s life off track, as it were, and the cross-country train trip hopefully will set it to rights. As I’ve shared on this blog, grief is a recurring topic of mine. My dad died when I was three; grief comes up a lot in my writing (even my first book, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, arose in response to the grief of the tragedy of 9/11). I’ve also mentioned I’ve been reviewing old writings and sharing them here with you. Those two rivers converge with this short essay I wrote during the 19 years I lived in Mississippi: In Mississippi, We Pull Over

In Mississippi, when a funeral passes, we pull over. Even if you’re only going on down the road a piece – I’m turning right there, at the BP station – when you see the daytime headlights and the hearse, you ease to the side of the road and wait.

The reaction is more uniform in rural Mississippi. There, everyone remembers: it’s rude to pass a funeral. To keep going like it makes you no never mind. To act as if death is unimportant, as though the passing of one of us doesn’t matter. That’s just not the way it’s done.

While you’re stopped by the side of the road, you count the cars as they pass. If it’s a long procession, you may, deep inside yourself, marvel at how many folks this fellow got to come out for his going-away party. If the line is only three or four cars, rattletraps full of rust and tired looking folks, still: you pull over.

When I was a teenager, away from Mississippi and living in North Carolina, I rebelled. I wanted – fervently desired – for funerals to be held only at night. I did not want to be sucked into the grief of strangers, did not want it flung in my face: this person is dead. Ambulances, too. I wished they would stop screeching their death-and-destruction news, shattering the sunlight with tragedy, interrupting the lives of those of us who had no choice but to listen. I was, shall we say, sensitive to death.

Now, where I live in Memphis, people sometimes give me angry glances when I slow down and pull to the side of the road. Like I’m a nut case. I do it anyway. And sitting there, as the last ride on earth passes by, I’ve been known to tear up. Because all of us pulled over, we anonymous people in our anonymous cars and anonymous trucks, we are stopping our busy modern-day lives to honor the dead. Not because we knew him nor because we admired her. But because they are gone and will never pass this way again.

The special way New Orleans honors its dead

 

All the Way From Canada!

Please enjoy this kicking review of Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure found on Susanne Fletcher’s Wuthering Bites blog. I am thrilled Susanne compared the comic dialogue to P.G. Woodhouse, whose Jeeves collection I long ago fell in love with and read in its entirety (how one gets so lucky as to be compared to a beloved writer, I don’t know.) It’s an extra special bonus when a review quotes some of your very own favorite lines from your book (“…a woman who represented everything I was not: sophisticated, voluptuous, and a really good speller.”) A well-written review is surely a gem unto itself.

If you haven’t discovered Susanne’s Wuthering Bites blog, take some time to look around. She is a great creative nonfiction writer, a true wordsmith who combines spectacular turns of phrase with insights that make you nod in recognition. I have followed her for years and thoroughly enjoy her work.

As an extra special super bonus, if you follow the link below, you can enjoy a haunting rendition of Gordon Lightfoot singing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which, yes, is relevant to the review. Happy reading!

“Tracking Happiness”

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi.

Now, Now, Now!

Today, today, today! Time to buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

AUGUST 1st: Time TO BUY TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE has arrived!

E-BOOK

PAPERBACK

BOTH ON AMAZON

For you go-getters who’ve already bought into Lucinda’s antics, TODAY IS THE DAY TO POST A REVIEW!

Join others who’ve found Lucinda’s adventure “uproariously funny” with “gritty Southern determination” and a feel reminiscent of Confederacy of Dunces and Wicked while presenting a story that “truly entertains the reader” and “defines the greatness of the human spirit.” All in all, “perfect summer reading.”

To post a review on Amazon, follow this link and click on Write a Customer Review.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life.

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape from the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

What Makes a Good Book?

A good book should remind you of another book you really loved.
Ellen’s incredible imagination, keen wit, perceptive knowing, and spoofy style is reminiscent of John Kennedy Tooles’ “The Confederacy of Dunces,” as she captures the delightful craziness of small-town Mississippi life. Amazon review

It should have values you share.
gritty Southern determination
and a particularly strong confidence in her abilities
scoops of endearing drama that spell out what honor, integrity, loyalty, sex, and determination are made of
Amazon Reviews

The writing should be awesome.
The book is beautifully written, with phraseology reminiscent of Gregory Maguire’s writing In “Wicked”. This is a fun story that you will love. Amazon Review

You always want a page turner, no draggy plots allowed.
“Tracking Happiness” kept me turning the pages to see what could possibly happen next to such goofy but very likable characters. Amazon Review
It only gets better from there. Amazon Review

A healthy dose of humor is a must.
Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure is an uproariously funny and refreshingly different look into life in the modern South and beyond. Amazon Review

It really, really can’t be fake or a stereotype.
Author Ellen Morris Prewitt, a Jackson, Mississippi native, utilizes her unerring eye for the real south to bring to life a story that truly entertains the reader with a quirky hilarity that defies description. Amazon Review

You want a deeper message mixed in with the fun times and entertainment.
Ellen Prewitt shares Lucinda Mae’s cross-country, coming-of-age journey that paints not only a picture of the New South but defines the greatness of the human spirit. Amazon Review

It should all come together and work.
Prewitt has produced perfect summer reading. Amazon Review

When you finish, you want to know your time was well-spent.
It’s worth the ride! Amazon Review

So there it is. The reviews are in: TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE is all a good book should be. Hope you enjoy it soon.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins

Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi, fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way. Join Lucinda on the most hilarious—if slightly ribald—adventure of her life. 

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape from the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi

Enjoy this excerpt from TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE where Lucinda Mae’s amazing train trip is interrupted by a phone call from her mama Rita Rae and her mama’s boyfriend Clyde Higgenbotham. Turns out, back home in Edison, Mississippi, gossip is flying about Lucinda’s poor dead daddy’s role in the local drug scandal, with the flames being fanned by none other than her daddy’s old business partner, Bennie “Big Doodle” Dayton. 

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure: CHAPTER 3

Clyde was talking in that nasally voice he used when he wanted to sound important, like at the supper table when he was spouting off Learning Channel wisdom. “Law enforcement are crawling all over the Chicken Palace, looking for evidence on the drug ring. And Stirling’s getting remarried.”

“Don’t tell her that.” Rita Rae was back on the line. “She can only take so much. You wouldn’t believe what they’re saying about your daddy now.”

“Who’s saying?” I asked.

“Newspaper. Online.” Clyde again, a real I-told-you-so tone to his voice. Clyde was at his most obnoxious when the topic was small-town politics. Clyde’s dad had been a state legislator. Never mind that after the man had died, they discovered the old coot had another family over in Jackson. Mother claimed that mortification didn’t count because Clyde “wasn’t from that other family.” 

The Clarion Ledger’s been quoting inside sources saying your daddy was the linchpin king behind a goat-doping, chicken-smuggling scandal.” 

“Daddy? A goat-doping scandal?” I flashed on an image of a goat sitting on a stool, arm braced for the illegal shot that would make him a better mountain climber. “What does that even mean?”

“Focus, Lucinda.” It was my mother. “They’re saying Bill ran a drug ring out of the Edison Chicken Palace, and Bennie Dayton isn’t raising a finger to stop this malicious talk.” 

“Ol’ Bennie practically called Edison a rogue operation,” Clyde added. “‘Whatever the local investors were up to shouldn’t reflect on the good name of the Chicken Palace Emporium,’ blah, blah, blah.” 

“They’re calling Daddy a criminal? Are you sure?” Mother and Clyde had a tendency to exaggerate (“They’re closing the I-20 exit to Edison! Traffic’s being re-routed to Bovina!” When the only thing that was happening was a re-paving). It was best to ask twice. 

“You got your work cut out for you, little lady, dealing with that Bennie Dayton. Your mama is counting on you to clear this mess up. Everybody in town is believing your daddy was a criminal. People’ll believe anything they read on the Interweb.” 

He paused. “The scandal could improve attendance at the museum, though.” Clyde was referring to Big Doodle’s Chicken Palace Emporium Museum located off the highway exit. The museum featured memorabilia commemorating the Chicken Palace story, such as the Ride-a-Rooster—a big, bucking chicken whose name took on a whole ’nother meaning when us kids hit middle school. “That crappy museum might finally outdraw the Tomato Museum in Bovina.”

At that, Mother snatched the phone and launched into a garbled explanation of the “biggest drug ring in the Southeast”—something to do with goats imported from Jamaica, smelly chicken parts, and a tractor-trailer distribution system—until I said goodbye, trying to remember as I hung up: did someone say Stirling was getting remarried?

Hope you enjoyed this excerpt. For the rest of the story, get TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE in print or e-book on Amazon—audio book coming soon!

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

Lucinda Mae takes off on a cross-country train trip to, among other things, escape from the goings-on back in her hometown of Edison, Mississippi

 

 

Ladies in Waiting

At the end of the dock on Ocean Isle Beach, three ladies sit.

They are waiting on the moon.

Together in their small southern town, they were high school friends, skinny as bean poles all. Waved and curled in the 1940’s style, their group was “It.” Now they’ve spread. Not spread as in, “You gaining weight, or are you just starting to spread?” Spread as in across the years, over the miles, through the landscape of their lives. Into and out of time, like waves upon the beach, like the moon rising in the sky.

                      *

At the beginning of the ladies’ beach week, the moon rose quickly. The first evening, at six o’clock, hardly allowing the sun to set, the ready moon showed its shiny face. 

But each day thereafter, it lagged.

The women waited impatiently—there wasn’t enough time left to waste. Just one week together, just one life. The unheeding moon took its own sweet time.

                        *

The bouncy redhead of the group, the one with the gangly young-girl limbs: she lives in Boston now. Married to a doctor who works at a university, she’s in academia. Sophisticated, you know. Still, her whole face erupts when she smiles, and when she says “Hello, darling,” she swallows her vowels like any woman of the South. 

Which she is. 

Not even up North for fifty years can erase that. 

Her first marriage still intact, all her children alive, when the moon arrives, she might look at it and slowly say, “Hello, darling.” Sophisticated even with the moon.

                     *

The night is May, the ocean air cool. When the moon drags its feet, the women drag blankets from the beds. In their rockers on the dock—each has her own by now—they wrap themselves warm. 

Eleven o’clock, the moon deigns to rise.

                      *

The lithe brunette with the big brown eyes, she has survived three marriages, and she’s never going to do it again. “Lord, no,” she’ll say if you ask. “I tell them right up front”—she points a shaky finger —“Friends. That’s all.”

But she has family and fests and luncheons she beautifully readies, and sometimes a man friend is at the table. When he tells a joke, she just laughs. Because without the softening glow of the moon what is the night but endless?

                     *

The women have talked all week, catching up. They’ve giggled themselves back into the group they once were. But when they sit on the end of the dock, waiting, they are quiet.

                      *

The third and final lady—the auburn beauty who is now my white-headed mother—she is the hostess of the group. Early on, right out of college, she married the brunette’s brother. “People think we’re sisters, not sisters-in-law,” the two brag. But the brother died, the auburn beauty remarried. Her new husband brought her to Ocean Isle Beach where she fell in love with the pounding surf (“We don’t have a surf on the Gulf Coast.”) Now she’s brought her high school friends to her beloved beach so they, too, can fall in love. Who knew it would be the moon that stole their hearts?

                       *

It’s the last night of the trip. At two o’clock the stubborn moon rises. “We set our alarms,” they proudly tell us afterwards. In the darkness, at the time when the sea oats wave alone, when only the phosphorescent waves lick the shore, the moon appears.

Cold. White. Haughty moon.

Trailing into the sky like a queen ascending her throne.

Down below, on the dock, the shimmering light catches on weathered boards. The moon’s attendants gaze into the distance. Their upturned faces shine silver, bathed in the coveted glow.

Leg Memories

In 1969, in Jackson, Mississippi, the summer before I entered junior high, I played tennis. I played under the boiling sun. No cloud drifted overhead, no shade cut the heat. In the afternoons, the temperature on the courts hit 110 degrees.  

I could’ve chosen the cooler Rubico courts where the adults played, but the hard courts with their slick, green-painted surface favored power and speed. I chose the heat, the power, the speed.  

I did not come to the courts alone—I’d followed my mother onto their demanding surface. Mother began playing tennis soon after she turned thirty. She started me in lessons when I was seven, because she wanted me to learn along with my older sister. The pro’s rule: you had to be eight years old to begin lessons. Marcee turned eight, and the pro made an exception for me. Turns out, I had “natural talent,” “a perfect swing.” By the summer of ’69, I knocked the cover off the ball and aced grown men. I weighed less than eighty pounds. 

Every day I was on the courts. So I was probably there—my shoes squeaking as I pounded and hustled—the moment Mother decided to re-marry. Maybe I was resting between games, my muscular, trophy-wise legs stilled, my hip leaning against the cording of the net, when Mother concluded that widowed ten years was long enough. As I filled the tennis ball can and drank the metallic water, she put an end forever to the four of us. A man would join the mother and her three girls.

That November, during Thanksgiving week, in the middle of our living room, Mother married. Her friends from her single days—tennis buddies, all of them—clustered on the front porch, peering through the picture window, because the wedding was family-only. 

What the tennis buddies saw was not Mother in her tennis whites, but Mother wearing a dazzling suit of formal, distancing beauty. As she exchanged vows with my new father, I fell in love with the suit.  

The suit was blue watered silk. Jeweled buttons closed the jacket. A matching hat, small and round, perched on her head. A hip-fitting skirt with the hem cut high showed her legs. On her legs: nylons.  

The stockings bent and shaped the light. Their swishing texture gave Mother a shimmering calf, a sparkling thigh, so different from the bare leg under the tennis skirt. Only once before—when she wore a Flapper costume to a party at the tennis club, a make-believe outfit—had I seen Mother dressed beautiful. But the wedding suit wasn’t a costume. It was the real thing. 

Several years later Mother would pull the wedding skirt from the closet and whoop and holler at its short length. Dated, she’d say. Much later, when she was handing down vintage clothes, I got the suit. It hangs in my closet. I wear the jacket all the time, with my torn and patched jeans, in an ironic way. It is gorgeous. 

                                                                   *

Two weeks after the wedding, while Mother and my new father were away on their honeymoon, I sat in the bathtub at my grandmother’s house on the farm. The tub was low on the ground, without feet, and its sloshing well water slid brown and slippery between my fingers. My curved back was cold, my skinny bottom hard against the ridges that kept old people from slipping. Beside the tub, Mamo’s yellowing galoshes bent against a galvanized washtub. A slightly dirty smell lifted from the galoshes.

It was my birthday. I had just turned twelve, the age Mother said I could start shaving, so I scraped a razor up and down my legs. The razor was my birthday gift from Mother. She’d left the razor with Mamo who’d handed it to me—not even wrapped—and left the room. I’d punched a hole in the cardboard backing and lifted the razor from its plastic case. I puzzled over the mechanics of the blades, maybe even shaved bladeless for a while, but now I was going steady.  

The door to the bathroom stood open. Mamo was twenty steps away in the kitchen, complaining. What was someone my age doing shaving, she queried my two sisters, my absent mother. I was using only soap—no shaving cream came with the gift, no instructions for the ignorant—and I sliced the blade up my shin. A long white streak appeared over the bone, and, slowly, as the skin recovered from the shock, blood filled in. I kept that scar for a long time. 

                                                               * 

By the eleventh grade, I’d given up tennis. I wasn’t the best anymore, my stride no longer the swiftest. I had changed from the girl with the strong legs who could best teenage boys on the courts to the one they called “Stick” in honor of my long, thin body. Eventually, my legs would return as an asset. But even so, by college, and ever after, I engaged in battle with those legs. 

                                                                * 

The razor touches the skin. The burning inside my legs ignites.  

Or I shave and all is fine, until the next time I step into the shower. The water hits the smoothed legs, and the pain—like ants burrowed below the covering skin—stings afresh.

“Does it burn right after you shave or two to three days later?” one dermatologist asks.

“Both,” I say, seated on the end of his examining table, my bare leg dangling under review. 

The doctor waits, staring at the leg. He suggests an experiment: leave one leg unshaven, shave the other. I do as he suggests, and the unshaved leg rests sanguine for weeks. We conclude it is indeed the shaving, but remedy doesn’t follow diagnosis.

Another dermatologist lectures: “If you lived in France, you wouldn’t have this problem. Women in France don’t shave their legs. It’s a cultural problem, not a medical one.” I pay him for the office visit anyway.

Finally, a new doctor prescribes hydrocortisone. I slide the white cream onto my newly shaven legs. 

All is quiet. 

But I pity the skin, for consistent use of the cream will leave it thin and vulnerable, the very thing that made the legs angry in the first place.

We are doing fine, my legs and me, but the legs envy my mother, who at eighty-nine, still stands on the baseline, racket in hand, waiting for the ball to come her way so she can knock the hell out of it.

Tennis trophies converted to a kitchen coffee bar

DIY Saturday

I needed a place to read my Walter Mosley mystery so I put together the porch cot.

My summer afternoon Coleman reading cot

The last two years, I’ve put together lots of furniture in this house.  Some of it was easier than others, like these pieces:

My claw foot writing table
A canvas sink/champagne holder
A sextant lamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others were harder, like these sets of shelves:

A wheeled set of shelves
My makeshift closet area for the bunk beds
These shelves came fully assembled but I did drag them up 3 flights of stairs (yep, those are bitty pirate hooks holding up the netting)

I guess I technically put this side table together, but it was more of a design: add a tray to a discarded garden table:

That lamp is made from a water collection my sister brought to me from her travels around the world—the Nile, the Arctic Ocean, Great Barrier Reef, Indian Ocean, and way more

 

And here is my piece de resistance:

This chair was HARD to put together, but I did it

 

I’m getting out the bookplates on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. If you want one, use the Contact form, and I’ll mail it to you. As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “They are VERY popular.” As Lucinda says, “I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”

Bookplates for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE

Speaking of beds, I’m now off to the garden to add stepping-stones to the soon-to-be flower/crops bed. Being productive makes me feel so good!

It’s 94 degrees—of course I’m out moving stones

 

Have I told you about the time I was at a book launch for my beloved mentor Rebecca McClanahan where I found myself seated on a sofa and a woman with the most pronounced South Carolina low country drawl I’d ever heard leaned over and said, “My huzzzz-band wrote Riiiiising Tide,” and I realized the man seated next to me was John Barry, the author of the book that was at that moment my most favorite book ever? I was not cool. I erupted into a fit of hero-worship. John graciously offered to sign my book if I mailed it to him, which I did, and he did, and I have loved him even more ever since.

Autographs matter.

Now I’m the one who’s published a book that’s calling for me to sign it for all the lovely people who are buying it. I refuse to be daunted by the geographical distance that separates us. Blame it on my peripatetic life or relationships born on the Internet, but we’re miles apart. You couldn’t sling the book at me if you had the world’s strongest arm. And I WANT to sign it. 

Sooooooo.

If you click here and send me your address using this website’s contact form, I’ll send you a bookplate, a little sticker you can put in the front of your book. I’ll sign it. With my name. And inscribe it to whomever you want (you or a person receiving the book as a gift.) It’s specially designed for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and features a shot of the book cover. I’ll send it to you FOR FREE (I mean, it’s an envelope and stamp 🙂 ). It’s cute as all get out.

To make this work, put Sign My Book! in the Subject box of the Contact form and in the Message box tell me:
* how many you need—I’ll send you one for each book you’ve bought
* who you want (each) inscribed to or if you simply want me to sign (them)
* the address where you want me to send it

Then hit Submit. In a few days, you’ll have a book signed by me, the author. It’ll be magic.

TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE Bookplate for Your Book

For all of you who’ve been following my tortuous path to publishing a novel, I am pleased to announce that TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE will be released this coming Tuesday, June 26. Full and exciting instructions on how to purchase it will be posted right here on this very blog on Monday. Love to you all, ellen

RELEASE DATE: Tuesday June 26, 2018

The Tooting Trolley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here it is. The cover for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. I love this cover. My sister Elli shot the photo—yep, she’s a professional photographer. That’s Goldie the Chicken as the chicken cover model. For the record, I am walking down abandoned railroad tracks. I wasn’t going to get hit by an oncoming train. The tracks run outside the Morris Ice Company in Jackson, Mississippi. As in Ellen MORRIS Prewitt. Anyway, here’s the back cover blurb. Look for a June release date.

“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins

If Fannie Flagg and Jack Kerouac had a daughter, her name would be Lucinda Mae Watkins. Single-again Lucinda—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace friend chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.

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

at first

then I forget about it

until

a middle-aged white man keeps staring

or

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

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

I am uneasy simply wearing a shirt.

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

so brave.

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

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

 

The Fog

They are elderly and beloved. They drove from Jackson to the coast, as we once did when I was a child. When they arrived, we piled into the car and toured, the way folks once piled into automobiles and went motoring when that was considered the thing to do. We laughed and remembered days that stretched back to when they were children. Some of the memories were vague, lost in time, some bright as diamonds.

After they left, my husband and I went downtown by ourselves. We were stopped by the train. The fast-moving train crossed from land to water, riding the trestle. The train was long, long enough for me to escape from the car and move closer until I could capture the image of the train disappearing into the fog.

The train on the trestle as it disappears into the bay

My daddy—who was killed by a train—was the brother of these two beloveds. He is gone. Their memories tie me to him and them to me and me to the long line stretching behind me.

Jogging, I made it back to the car before traffic beeped at us to get going. Turning, I saw: the train was gone. Nothing but fog. I know my husband wondered why, when I settled into my seat, I was crying.

 

When all is fog

 

 

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.

This train is moving on

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.

Cherry Bomb by Susan Cushman

This literary novel (Dogwood Press, 2017) traces the life of a young woman in Macon, Georgia who uses graffiti to process the hurt that life has brought her. (I’m pretty much illiterate about graffiti, but the apartment where I live in New Orleans has as its patron saint Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I was pleased to see his name mentioned in the novel’s early pages.) The story follows homeless young Mare as she meets famous artist Elaine de Kooning.

Basquiat’s portrait in the lobby of Rice Mill Lofts

Elaine de Kooning, of course, is a historical figure, whose life Cushman has fictionalized, while using many facts from her life. De Kooning recognizes Mare’s talent and mentors Mare as an artist. Mare and Elaine came to art by very different paths—one through MTV videos, the other via the Museum of Modern Art. Their interaction leads Mare to enter the more traditional word of art via art school, and to question what she really wants from her art and life. CHERRY BOMB follows the stories of these two women in alternating viewpoints, which enables us to watch as their life histories gradually intersect. It’s wonderful to watch the author weave them together.

I am not going to give away plot points, but I was fascinated with how Cushman brought together the world of graffiti and the world of icons. Icons are a deeply historical form of worship, which Cushman has worked in herself (she created the icon on the back cover of CHERRY BOMB). I didn’t know both graffiti and iconography use the language of “writing” and “stories,” rather than drawing and pictures.

Of course, I’m also drawn to Mare because of her homelessness during much of the story. Her living on the street is well-told, as is the way she copes in that life. Both Mare and Elaine struggle with deeply difficult backgrounds of sexual abuse and abandonment. Working their way to forgiveness of those who have hurt them is hard. St. Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of the author, figures prominently in this process. To include forgiveness of themselves in that journey is remarkable.

DON’T MISS SUSAN’S BOOK SIGNING THURSDAY DECEMBER 14 AT 6:00 pm AT NOVEL. BOOKSTORE, LAURELWOOD SHOPPING CENTER, 387 PERKINS, RD EXTD, MEMPHIS, TN

Recording Under a Train

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

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

On the second recording, the voices sucked.

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

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

On to round three.

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

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

It is exhausting.

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

Foolish woman.

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

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

Evangeline, wondering when all this recording will be over

Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner

A friend recently said she has read Young Adult novels all her life. When another friend asked why, she said, “I find them more honest.” When I return to Memphis, I am carrying with me in the trunk of my car as a gift to my friend the novel, Almost Paradise, by Corabel Shofner. It makes me smile to think I will have introduced my friend to Ruby Clyde Henderson, and now I’m doing the same for you.

I must confess: I read a snippet of Almost Paradise when the novel was in the works. Corabel is my cousin’s cousin, no blood kin of mine, but she labels us “leap cousins,” which I love. At some point on the long road we call “getting published,” she shared parts of her writing with me. Ruby Clyde’s voice—Lord help me, it jumped off the page and grabbed ahold.

Now, such a wonderful voice could be hard to sustain. Or not supported by the plot. Or turn sappy at the end when it comes time to wrap things up. Without the other structural elements in place, voice is nice but not enough. The book will collapse of its own weight. Almost Paradise has all these necessary things, plus wonderful secondary characters, humor that never gets stale, and unexpected plot twists. It is simply delightful.

Okay, to be more specific: Ruby Clyde is twelve years old. She was born when her father was shot during a robbery, and her mother, witnessing the shooting, gave birth prematurely. This history affects her in ways gradually revealed as she tries to extricate herself from a situation that is humorous only because of Corabel’s deft telling. I believe the story is Middle Grade (which might be a subset of Young Adult?), but there is nothing babyish about it. We should all be so lucky as to have the wisdom of Ruby Clyde.

The story takes Ruby Clyde from a campsite in Arkansas to the rolling hills of Texas. It involves a bad boyfriend, a nun, and cowboy boots. It’s Southern. I don’t want to give any more away, except there’s a pig named Bunny. The folks at Farrar Straus Giroux (one of the Big Five in New York City!) knew a winner when they saw it, and I’m so glad they did. Thank you, Bel, for bringing Ruby Clyde into the world.

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

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My Patriotism, Who Knew?

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

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

“It’s important, voting is,” he says.

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My Choice, One Way or Another

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

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1: You don’t get Fitbit steps by wearing walking shoes.

2: The heat index is real.

3: Toilet paper doesn’t buy itself.

4: The dog likes me best when I’m giving her a treat.

5: When I say “I don’t want to do anything today,” I mean, “I only want to do what I want to do today.”

6: I spend most days not doing what I want.

7: Doing what I want is really hard.

8: Some days it is simply too hot to be outside (see #2 above).

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The Unvarnished Truth

I was in the eighth grade. We had recently moved to North Carolina where we met our new Van Hecke family. One branch of the family lived in Charlotte, the same city we did. That was Daddy’s younger brother Merwin, his wife Faye, and the kids, Kelley, Michael, and Charlie. My sister and I had played in their yard; they’d visited our duplex. Yet, we didn’t know each other that well. Until the day Aunt Faye took me to school.

Faye was a high school English teacher. I wasn’t in high school. I was an extremely shy junior high student who thought she was naturally smarter than most everybody else. (I’ve always thought more of myself than I should.) Faye wasn’t an ordinary teacher. She was an intellectual free-thinker. Thus did she bring me up short the day I began talking about the war we were studying in geography class.

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I no more want to know you like assault weapons than I want to know what kinky things you do with a porn magazine in your hand. You see, if you’ve moved past guns for self-protection into defending your right to own war weaponry, that’s a fetish. And—I’m not trying to be rude—I simply don’t need to know that about you.

Yes, I understand that 1st Amendment rights limit how much I can say about your flipping that magazine page, doing whatever turns you on. You might argue 2nd Amendment rights also prevent me from asking you to please remove your trigger finger from your assault rifle.

The problem is, whether or not assault weapons are constitutional and what I think about someone are two different things. You might be someone I care about. Or respect. Or even just know in passing. And if you tell me you love your assault rifle, I’m going to look at you sideways. Hell, I might give you the side eye if you just say you like assault rifles. Or that you believe others should be able to own assault rifles. My view of you will change. And not in a good way.

In order to prevent that from happening, everyone, please rely on your absolute right to keep fetishized behavior private unto yourself. Seriously, don’t tell me. I’m not making some sort of fancy argument here—I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

Yeah, yeah. We’re supposed to respect divergent opinions. How can we “engage in dialogue” if I turn my head? And, man, am I being judgy or what? Telling folks their macho military gun is a fetish?

But I have to say something. Because it’s gotten to the point people think an assault rifle is a normal thing, perfectly okay to talk about in public (we can thank the NRA for selling us that bill of goods.). If I don’t issue a warning, you might launch into a defense of your private behavior, not realizing what you’re revealing. In the end, I’ve only got your best interest in mind.

Before 2004, this public disclosure of private facts wasn’t a problem. Congress banned the sale of these weapons. But the NRA went on a campaign to rebrand weapons of war as “sporting rifles.” And, voila—a fetish slunk from the back pages of gun magazines into the glaring light of day.

Do I want to repeal the 2nd Amendment? I certainly do not. Do I want commonsense regulation of gun ownership? I do. I’m not even asking for radical regulation, such as we impose on abortion rights. Or unnecessary restrictions, such as what we’ve done with voting rights.

I’m asking that we declare limits, the same way we do for 1st Amendment rights. Pornography, protected; obscenity, not protected. What I’m saying is, by community standards, your assault weapon designed to kill fifty of our fellow and sister human beings in a matter of minutes, is obscene. I mean, for heaven’s sake, even Walmart won’t sell these things.

But I have strayed from my main point, which is: please don’t tell me if you support allowing military-style assault weapons in the hands of private citizens—yeah, baby!!! I don’t want to know that type of information about you.

I thank you for your cooperation.

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