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Category: HOMELESSNESS

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.

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Yikes!

What was I thinking? Sending out such a request? Yes, my agent is shopping my novel to big name publishing houses. Yes, editors at those houses—complete strangers—are judging my work. Plus, I’ve been in writing groups for years where judging nascent work is the name of the game. But this is different.

I put out a request on Facebook for Beta readers on my Memphis mystery, Harboring Evil. The story is set in Memphis and features a formerly homeless man who gets involved in a murder (the technical genre is “amateur sleuth mystery”). Here is its “elevator” sentence:

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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.

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Like a Hawk

You see, I’d just held a fundraiser for Outreach, Housing, and Community, the organization June Averyt founded to end homelessness. She also founded Door of Hope, which is where I met her when we started Door of Hope Writing Group. She died. I’ve told you about it here. Wanting to do something in her memory, I held my first popup to sell Thumb Prayers and donate the proceeds to OHC.

It was fun. I got to see a lot of folks I care deeply about. Friends came and we visited. We remembered June. Her impact on the community. The gaping hole left since she’s been gone. I sold Thumb Prayers. Tomorrow I will be able to take a check to OHC.

When it was all over, I untied the balloon I’d used to direct people to the sale location. Actually, I’d bought eight balloons. I put one inside and the other seven I tied onto the railing outside. When folks kept texting me about where the hell we were, I kept responding, “Look for the balloons.” Then I happened to glance outside. The balloons were gone. Whether the wind had wiggled them free or someone had stolen them, I can’t say. But they were gone. So I took the lone remaining balloon and retied it outside as the marker, and when it came tie to wrap things up, I untied the scraggly green balloon and stuffed it inside my car.

But before I could get the door closed, the wind reached inside and sucked the balloon from the car so quickly I didn’t have time to grab the string. In a split second, it was free, flying into the air. I craned my neck, watching the balloon sail past the trees then over the building and up, up, up into the sky.

Yes, it had helium. Yet it soared not like a balloon but like hawk catching the updraft. In less time than it took for me to get in my car, the balloon was sailing into the next quadrant of Memphis air space—I could tell you it was over the Target but unless you know Memphis, this means nothing to you.

It was so rivetingly quick, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It became less balloon and more soaring explorer. A brave soloist taking off on an adventure. Free. On its way.

I stayed in the parking lot until I couldn’t see the balloon any longer. Then I too left. It’s never a good idea to stay when the main act has left the stage.

The balloons before they flew away
The balloons before they flew away

Thank You for the Soul

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.soul

Spiritual Bottleneck

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.

 

Transparent Thumb Prayers
Transparent Thumb Prayers
Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God (Paraclete Press, 2009). By Ellen Morris Prewitt. Available on amazon.com andbarnesandnoble.com

A while back, I conducted a workshop where I took my writing mentor Rebecca McClanahan‘s book Write Your Heart Out and translated the types of nonfiction writing into types of prayer. I don’t remember all the parallels (writing from joy, for example, became adoration or praise prayer.) I’ve been thinking about this as I make Thumb Prayers, the little pocket prayer prompts I’ll be selling for Housing Justice. I’ve wondered who this woman was who so believed in defined types of prayer. Specifically, I’ve been thinking how much my view of the word “prayer” has changed, not to mention to whom I am “praying.”

The traditional Christian views of prayer conceive of it as a conversation. Talking to or with God in defined, analytical ways. “I need this.” “She needs that.” “Thank you so much for this thing.” “You are wonderful in this way.” This has come to feel to me like yakking.

(I emphasize: feels like yakking to me. It’s very hard to talk about one’s own religious life without folks feeling as if you are criticizing their religious life. I hope it’s clear my description of my path is simply a description of what I’ve experienced, period.)

This shift in my approach to prayer has been a long time underway. Perhaps it started with my making crosses from broken and found objects, where I became drawn to action-based prayer. But if you read the book I wrote about this prayer practice—“Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God”—you see I very much still viewed cross-making as a foundation for conversation with God.

So, was it my practicing meditative periods free from thought? Or was it the Lent I focused on spying God in the world? When did it change? It’s probably like water colors bleeding into art paper—a process where, eventually, a new image takes shape.

The prayer I’m striving for these days some wouldn’t even call prayer. It’s not word-based. It’s not “upward” directed toward a God in Heaven. It’s not a set-aside time, unless it’s the time I’m waiting for Walgreens to fill my prescription. It’s not between defined entities—me, Ellen, and you, God.

It’s a stilling, a directing my awareness into the world immediately around me. A living in the present. An intent to diffuse my spirit into the God in the world. A Gestalt moment. A being in the world. 

The Thumb Prayers fit perfectly with this place of prayer where I now find myself.

  • They are physical, small dollops of buttons and paper clay.
  • The idea behind them is active: run your thumb across the top, feel the texture.
  • They are diffused—not a particular prayer but a reminder of whatever God or Spirit or love or goodness you believe suffuses the world.
  • And, thankfully, they’re available all day long, when we so easily get caught up in trying to make it through the day and any idea of God actually being in this world of chaos and traffic and splattered eggs and crying babies and the damn internet being out again—touch, remind yourself, re-ground your spirit in the Spirit.

 

Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page. 

A collection of Thumb Prayers
A collection of Thumb Prayers

 

He calls me over. Wants to know if I work out. “‘Cause you sure got a nice shape.”

The breakfast St. Mary’s offers for those currently homeless is almost finished. He’s mopping up his grits. His friend on the other side of the table is interested in my answer to his question. The friend cranes his neck, surveying my shape to form his own opinion.

“I have metal hips,” I tell the questioner.

That sets him back.

“Uh hunh,” I say, doubling down. “Two metal hips.”

“Well, you sure don’t look like it,” he concedes and returns to his grits.

*

“You look younger today,” she says. She’s been talking the entire Door of Hope Writing Group session, this woman who heretofore I’ve only heard say five words in a row. Now she’s turned her streaming attention on me.

“I don’t know you that well, but I’ve seen you. And you look younger. You look younger today. It’s your jeans,” she adds, indicating the tattered jeans I’m so proud of having boro patched with my own two hands.

“Well, I thank you for that,” I say as her friend chimes in.

“My aunt does that,” he says. “She’s in her fifties and wears urban clothes. They look good on her. Better than on some people our age.”

I decide to wear these jeans forever.

*

Sometimes I see him at Wednesday morning church service. Sometimes at Caritas Village. Sometimes on Sundays at the main 11:00 church service. We see each other often enough, I know his name. He knows mine.

Today I see him at a funeral when I’m dressed in my best black suit. I wave. Call him by name. Finally, his face lights up.

“Hey, Ellen.” He gives me a hug, smiling big. “I didn’t recognize you. I’ve never seen you looking so good before.”

I take this as a compliment.

*

She’s studying my hair, a young girl at the shelter. I can’t remember if I washed it today. Maybe I did, but let it dry naturally? As I recall, the last time I looked in the mirror, I noted it might need some attention. A wayward tendril creeps into my eye.

“Your hair looks . . .”

I wait.

“Like you belong at the beach,” she finishes, her face beaming.

*

“You remind me of the girl on that show.”

We talk for a bit about what girl on what show that might be.

“She’s a redhead too,” he says.

Hmmmm. We soon exhaust my list of redheaded actresses.

“She’s a cartoon,” he corrects me. A girl cartoon. With red hair. And a dragon.

A week or so later, he returns with the answer: Jane and the Dragon. I look up the cartoon show. She’s 12 years old. She found her life as a lady-in-waiting boring and, after a series of adventures, was allowed to train to be a knight instead. She’s funny. The dragon is her best friend. She’s known for her spunk. Did I mention she’s 12 years old?

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and offers to loan me his taped collection of the show.

“You’d like her,” he says. “She’s cool too. Like you.”

*

It’s funny when people gush over my “working with the homeless.” Selfless, they say. Or such a good person. Or something else totally wrong.

I might’ve begun volunteering with those who live on the street because the durn Spirit told me to. Fair enough. But I keep at it not because I’m obedient or nice or selfless or a do-gooder or even because I feel this is what Jesus spent his life telling us to do. I volunteer for a very, very selfish reason.

I work with the homeless because those who are going through a period which for most of them is the most difficult time of their lives still find a way to cheer me up.

Think of that the next time you’re knee-deep in seventh-rung-of-hell cocktail party chatter. Go home. Look up your local homeless shelter. Go volunteer. Bet you’ll keep at it too.

Allison Furr-Lawyer illustration from Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness
Allison Furr Lawyer illustration from Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness

 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

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

 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

 

Trust the River

I arrived at a certain point in the writing of Jazzy and the Pirate that felt like a period. An ending about to soar to a new beginning. Exciting, but also a bit daunting. I needed a break. How does a writer take a break? Revise a different novel, of course.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning Jazzy. I’m simply letting my mind focus on something different for a couple of weeks. Going with the flow, trusting that my hidden brain will keep working on Jazzy while I consciously and intently work on another project.

I chose to revise a mystery novel set in Memphis, because I was physically in Memphis, and the novel kept calling to me. I wrote this novel last year in between hip surgeries. First time I thought that sentence, I wondered, can that really be true? It’s true. After the first surgery when I could do little else, I devoured mysteries. Then I wrote my own mystery before the second hip surgery. The working title of the mystery is Cracks in the River. My working “elevator sentence” is:

A homeless man gets caught in a deadly real estate scheme when he finds a car in the Wolf River Harbor, a missing developer barb-wired to the wheel.

Yes, the novel includes stuff I know about. Homelessness, from being in the Door of Hope Writing Group for almost nine years. The Wolf River Harbor, on which I live. And, as a former lawyer, the intricacies of real estate deals. I hope I’ve put it all together in an interesting, intriguing way. 

Here’s the opening paragraph of Cracks in the River, a Coot Long Mystery:

CHAPTER 1

“Don’t you ever stick so much as a big toe in that swirling river,” Mother would say whenever we drove the old bridge to Memphis, leaving the Arkansas cotton fields behind for the wet cobblestones and low rumbling barges of the Mississippi River. I was not a compliant boy. Or maybe Mother had made the river too tempting. Whichever, I gave in at age six and dashed into the water. I probably would’ve ridden the current to New Orleans if Father hadn’t spied me tumbling head-over-heels fifteen feet south of where I’d gone in. He waded out, snatched me up by my belt, and all was fine. But I’m convinced that ten years later when I was newly sixteen and my mind broke in two, half of it went searching for that river, the golden flow of silt and light rounding into a bubble of sheer terror. Whether the river remembered me or not, it’s hard to say. But that’s one explanation for why, after so many fruitless years of searching for my baby sister’s killer, the river opened its mouth and spit a murdered man at my feet. At the time I thought to myself, isn’t that just like the river, keeping its trap shut all those years then handing me the body of a man I had no quarrel with? Should’ve trusted the river.

Here’s a story: conditions are so bad at an apartment complex in Jacksonville, Florida, it brings a council member’s assistant to tears. A tour of the complex affects the mayor to such an extent he’s activated to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure “all residents of subsidized multi-family housing in Duval County receive the benefit of safe, clean and healthy living conditions.” The mayor announces he wants the owner, who has 61 housing complexes in 8 states, transitioned out of owning the housing complex.

Who is the Christian in this scenario?

Is it the owner, whose website interview by a local radio station tells you he has traveled  the globe spreading the Gospel and is transforming “these communities” by bringing them the word of Christ? (NB: no mention of black mold here)

Or is the Christian the mayor, who has seen something terrible wrong in God’s world and was convicted to change it?

Do we care?

I don’t. In fact, I have no clue about the mayor’s religious affiliation, if any. In a long arc of change, I have come to not give two f*s about someone’s beliefs. All I care about is how you act in the world.

So. If you do bad things in the name of your God, I’m not taking into account at all your religious motivation. The only thing that matters is the bad things you are doing.

If you do good things, and you give not two whits about God, more power to you.

Does this mean God doesn’t matter to me? Hell, no. The only reason I care if people in Jacksonville, Florida are living in substandard conditions while we pay the owner millions of dollars in federal funds is because of the movement of the Spirit. I love God. What I’m saying is I’m not forming an opinion about your impact in this world based on whether or not you love God.

It’s not that I’ve thought pejoratively of you if you are of another religion or an atheist or agnostic or never even thought about God. But I have tended to take into account in my internal assessing of your actions your Christian beliefs. No more. So don’t count on your love of God to influence how I feel about what you’re doing (again, NB: I’m not saying “professed” or “so-called” or any other adjective because I’m not questioning whether you’re actually a Christian; I’m saying I don’t care one way or the other what your beliefs are.)

One of the Gospels—James, maybe?—says something about knowing Christians by their fruits. I’m saying this whole appellation of Christian or not (ahem, Donald Trump) is a waste of time.

Maybe at some point I’ll finally get past judging people and their actions altogether. Until then, all that matters to me is whether you are kind, acting to make the world a better place, sip tea while the sun sets, tussle on the rug with your dog, laugh at someone’s awful joke, raise chickens, give a tetanus shot with expert skill, struggle to make the numbers add up at the end of the banking day, battle the dang Christmas lights because your kids love them, sing in the shower, write supportive comments on newspaper articles, remember birthdays, attend funerals, always say “You’re welcome,” stand up to bullies, say hello to everyone who walks in the door, feed the poor, listen to the troubles of your clients without laughing, fix breakfast every day, paint murals, indulge in your love of Dr. Who, serve turkey at Thanksgiving, post your gratitude thoughts so that everyone who reads them wants to be more like you, lean in and pay attention when your friend speaks, love the children who tumble through your classroom door, ride the river, light up when you hear your loved one’s voice, carry the cross with dignity through the sanctuary, let your hair grow long and gray, host the holiday meal even when you’re dog tired of doing it, offer quiet advice, offer goodbye kisses, march in parades, swim against the tide, share your troubles and await the inrushing of well wishes, buy the damn groceries again, burst into laughter that makes the room stare, write the words that make us weep, wear the funny hat because you’ve always worn the funny hat and everyone will be disappointed if you don’t, say “I love you,” and all the other many, many, many things you do that light up the world.

Long live love.

 

 

I hate the Holy Spirit. Okay, hate is a strong word. But I have issues with this Spirit that constantly tells me to do things that embarrass the hell out of me.

Take the recent prayer vigil I attended. A friend of mine was to be a featured speaker at the vigil. She is one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. She fought her way out of homelessness, only to run into the brick wall of filthy conditions at her federally-subsidized housing complex. In response, she co-founded the Warren Apartments Tenant Association, a group organized to address the needed repairs (and by repairs, I mean—for example—fixing the plumbing so sewage wouldn’t back up in the sink). Her work produced results. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) yanked its contract with the landlord, Global Ministries Foundation, for (repeated) failure to pass inspection. The prayer vigil was organized by Mid-South Peace and Justice, which has been assisting the tenants in their efforts, as an occasion to pray globally for housing justice.

I was giving my friend a ride, and as I walked out the door, I thought, take your thumb prayers with you.

Thumb prayers. Small round objects embedded with vintage buttons. Drop them in your pocket and rub them with your thumb when you need a reminder of the Spirit’s presence in the world. I use vintage buttons because they provide texture. And what the hell—I love buttons. Here’s a pic:

A batch of Thumb Prayers
A batch of Thumb Prayers

As I’ve blogged about here, I began making Thumb Prayers in connection with the Wednesday morning service my St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral offers for those living on the streets. In searching around for my “next thing” project, I had been doing a VERY informal art program at the church service and wanted to create something to give to the congregants. I wondered, what could I make that a person experiencing homelessness could keep on their body?

I landed on these little portable prayer prompts. Often, I need a physical reminder to pray for someone who I’ve said I’d pray for. Or in the middle of a busy day I need a reminder that God is still around. So, with some trial and error, I made a batch and gave them away at the service. They were mostly well-received, and I made more, always giving them away in the context of homelessness. Folks seemed to share my need for a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.

Clarification: I don’t always feel this way about God’s presence. In fact, when the Spirit arrives unbidden, I sometimes wish She would go away. But there she is, jumping up and down, waving her metaphorical arms, hollering and telling me what a great idea she has. Never are these ideas rational, sedate, or respectable. Nope. She always wants me to do something the very idea of which makes me cringe.

Such as taking my bag of Thumb Prayers to the prayer vigil. The vigil wasn’t about me or my prayer tokens. I didn’t want to insert myself into the goings-on. I only wanted to go and lend my support. But I’ve been at this thing called Life long enough to know to take the damn bag. Besides, I might not actually have to DO anything with them . . .

When we arrived at the vigil, my friend gave an excellent talk to the group. She was factual and passionate, a rare combination. Another activist spoke about her particular concerns, and the leader talked to us about the work needing to be done after we left the vigil. When all had finished talking, the leader asked if anyone else wanted to offer a prayer into the group space or maybe relate an experience as a tenant.

I did not want to offer a prayer. So I kept my mouth shut, and another tenant chose to speak to us about her personal experience. This, I thought, is as it should be. Those affected by the terrible conditions should be the ones who teach and inform the rest of us. Also, her answering the call meant I didn’t have to do anything with the durn Thumb Prayers.

When she finished, we clapped, and then the leader did it again. “Before we disperse, does anyone else want to offer a prayer into the group?”

Before I knew what was happening, I heard my voice saying, “I make Thumb Prayers. Just little things to put in your pocket and rub when you want to remember the presence of God. If anyone wants to take a Thumb Prayer with them, to remind us that work still needs to be done after we leave here, they can have one. For free.”

I added the last bit because the leader’s face told me he thought I might be ACTUALLY USING THE PRAYER VIGIL TO SELL SOMETHING!!!

I’m telling you, this is why I really don’t like the Holy Spirit.

My mortification was mollified when the preacher who had led us in prayer immediately raised his hand indicating he wanted a Thumb Prayer. After that, people swooped over to get their prayers. So I walked around our small but committed group, offering each person a Thumb Prayer. Several said, “Whaaaat?” And took one after I explained.

So, all ends well, right? Except it hadn’t ended. It came to me that I needed to make more Thumb Prayers, sell them, and donate the proceeds to housing justice.

You see what the Spirit did there? She took a question I’ve been asking myself: what is my next project? She connected it to one of my passions: homelessness. And she led me to the next step: quality housing for those who have moved one step beyond homelessness.

Truly, She is divine. I don’t deserve such a wonderful friend.

Thumb Prayers made with donated vintage buttons
Thumb Prayers made with donated vintage buttons—soon to be for sale!!

THAT’s Creativity?

Creativity is the glue that holds my life together. This week in my creative life, I:

  • re-explored Facebook’s Notes feature
  • published a long, involved blog post
  • put together a new outfit that I liked so much I wore it two days in a row
  • did final edits on an essay before sliding it into the metaphorical drawer for its “out of sight/out of mind” resting period
  • began reading the Count of Monte Cristo as research for the new pirate novel
  • made up a story for Searcy while he sucked on his nighttime bottle
  • drafted the next blog post (not this one!)
  • decide to offer, and began formulating, a creativity workshop for next year
  • designed pirate costumes for Tom and me
  • conversed about a new blog for the Door of Hope writing group
  • crafted many sentences for FB status updates
  • boiled sea oats to (possibly) make a cross
  • filed essays and short stories with umpteen literary journals (really not part of my creative life, but necessary business support of that life)
  • back-and-forthed on a custom Thumb Prayer request
  • drafted my vocational credo
  • plotted the redesign of my front yard
  • critiqued a friend’s essay
  • tinkered with my Pinterest boards on the new beach house
  • revised a short story for submission to Conjunction’s “Friendship” issue
  • updated an essay that won a contest but was never published
  • snapped a few pictures

 

How about you? How much of your daily life actually involves creativity? No, I didn’t create a musical or theatrical masterpiece. I do my work in clothes, the blank page, home and yard, detritus as art material. The commonness of the medium does not make it any less creative.

Where does your creativity spill out? Do you give yourself credit for the impulse? For the talent? Do you see the love in doing what you do?

I come to Deborah Koehn Loyd’s Your Vocational Credo: Practical Steps to Discover Your Unique Purpose (IVP Books, 2015) as a Southern female raised in the 1960s and 70s. The adjectives this statement evokes for me are “stricture,” “judgement,” “demanding.” Peering down the tunnel of time, I see a long line of women staring back at me, frowning. Love wasn’t missing, not by a long shot, but it was filtered through expectations. My mother didn’t participate in this cadre of women dedicated to molding young girls into proper female roles. But grandmothers, aunts, friends’ moms, Sunday school teachers, total strangers—they all did.

As a youngster, my first outlet of rebellion against my native culture was clothes. Mother, bless her soul, let me dress myself from a young age. Free to choose my own way, I turned my toddler underwear backwards so I could see the ruffles. I fell in love with my blue plaid jumper with the oversized wooden buttons and wore it three days running. You can imagine, then, that Dr. Loyd captured my heart with her declaration, “I consider dressing myself an art form.” (Vocational Credo, p. 103).

The goal of Dr. Loyd’s book, as the title suggests, is to help the reader discover a creed that defines his or her vocational credo. “Vocation” she defines as “speaking or living forth the truest form of self.” (Vocational Credo, p. 19). A vocational credo is “a description of a personal passion directed toward a course of action that occurs for the sake of a specific outcome, that of doing good to and for others.” (Vocational Credo, p. 96). I came across the book because she quotes me in it. 🙂

51Z0mvuMStL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The “Investigating Ellen” work I’ve done over the years in the Memphis School of Servant Leadership, Enneagram workshops, Myers-Briggs, weekend retreats, and elsewhere has taught me some of the concepts Dr. Loyd advocates for discovering your vocational credo, such as leading with your gifts: when choosing your path, act out of what you really, really want to do. She names as one of the “myths of vocation” the belief that doing the right thing/following God is a sacrifice, and you prove your spirituality by doing what your really, really don’t want to do. (Dr. Loyd is a spiritual person so God is present in her language; if it helps, replace God with the Universe, which can clear out the more troubling images/characteristics of what so many call God). I need to be constantly reminded of this truth, as one of my deeply held beliefs—a common one, if we’re honest—is that I’m not inherently likable, so I have to show how very other-oriented I am to make people like me.

My Life with First Wound
My Life with First Wound

Also, similar to Henry Nouwen, Dr. Loyd advocates as the first step in discovering your credo examining your places of brokenness and using them as sources of strength. Even so, her suggestion to physically draw an image of your life then add your earliest hurt was, literally, enlightening. I drew a sun, and added a black spot to represent the death of my dad in a train wreck when I was three years old. Studying the picture, one can see either a sun with rays of pain shooting from its black spot or a sun with a solar flare of expanding energy radiating outward. The choice is mine to make.

What is the strength I gained from that hurt? Daddy Joe’s death made me feel a loss of belonging, even a feeling of being cast out. My sense of existing outside the box is not irrational; less than 1% of the population shares my INFJ Myers-Briggs personality. The difficulty comes from interpreting “outside the box” as “outside the fold,” which is likely to occur when you are different and your culture values conformity (see “I was a Southern Female Child” above). As a result, I’ve been left with a lifelong search for belonging and community—I famously wanted to buy a Saturn just to be invited to the picnic. As Dr. Loyd puts it, Daddy Joe’s death cast a negative prophecy over my life. (Vocational Credo, p. 79).

What I saw in reading this wonderful little book, however, was that the “out” of “outcast” is a place of power. When you’re “out,” you’re no longer restricted by the rules/judgement/dislike/disapproval/superiority/hierarchy of the “in” places. Even better, my experience of the last few years has taught me God is more easily accessed in the out places. My healthiest response isn’t to lick my wounds of rejection, but to find community in the out places.

Inside or Outside?
Inside or Outside?

My favorite new concept goes to the heart of Dr. Loyd’s book. In her definition, credo isn’t the “how” of what you are doing (making crosses, teaching writing group); it’s the larger why of it. “A well-developed vocational credo can be exercised almost anywhere at any time.” (Vocational Credo, p.40) Dr. Loyd guides the reader through a concrete set of exercises (I love exercises, don’t you?) to get to your credo. In addition to your first wound, her pyramid is built on your favorite quote, your favorite childhood book (The Tall Book of Make-Believe), and the value you learned from the book (the absurd is often the only proper response to life).

Following Dr. Loyd’s guidance, the credo I arrived at for myself is:

GOD PUT ME ON EARTH TO create trusting spaces where people in community can experience the delight of themselves and others SO THAT we experience God. (Yes, the queen of puns subconsciously wove a pun—drawing a sun, seeing de light. Go ahead, groan).

This focus on delight is new for me, not something I attribute to my sometimes melancholy self. But Dr. Loyd points out we often give to others from our own meager share.

Because Dr. Loyd’s view of vocational credo tracks the Frederick Buechner view that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” she also asks the seeker to define those she wants to help. For me, that’s anyone who has been told he or she can’t do or can’t be—see how all this is fitting together? Dr. Loyd provides a survey for finding the “how” of implementation, discovering the motivators that allow you to act in the way most natural to you. My motivators—Caregiver, Creator, Activist—sound very familiar.

All of this leads to a vocational credo easy for me to see at work in my two huge undertakings of the past decade, making crosses from broken and found objects (Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God) and facilitating writing group (Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness). These are perfect fits: pursuing individual creativity in a group setting with those who have been denied their right to “be.” The real question is, how does this credo fit with the novel my agent is currently shopping to publishing houses? What can any novel do to create space to experience God?

published_bio

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, The Bone Trench could be viewed as an anthem to slip-sliding to the margins where truth and God lie. A rollicking, rambunctious, outrageous—some have said blasphemous—anthem, but, hey, is there a more fun way to get to God? The Bone Trench places first our connection with each other, and lets the rest of it be threshed away. In my fondest dream the novel would be discussed—no, debated—in small groups . . . spaces where readers can discover the delight of themselves and God. Would the church host such a conversation, a body whose focus on rules, judgment, expectations, values, exclusion, and titles often specializes in smothering the discovery of the delight? I don’t know, but maybe if we could make caring about one another our priority, we would trip into what Dr. Loyd characterizes as Joseph Campbell’s appreciation of “the human need to experience a transcendent aspect of being alive.” (Vocational Credo, p. 170).

Oh, and where am I quoted? On page 123 in the chapter Pursuing Change and Chaos. How apt is that? Here’s the quote.:

As we embark on a new creative venture, it helps to remember that we are working with a God who loves us more than anything in the world. (Making Crosses: a Creative Connection to God, Paraclete Press, 2009).

Deborah Koehn Loyd (DMin, Bakke Graduate University) is a professor, conference speaker, writer/blogger and pastor. She is the Scholar Practitioner of Vocation and Formation at Warner Pacific College and an adjunct professor at George Fox Seminary. Her organization, Finding Forward, expresses her passion to empower people to find their voices and vocations. She is also co-creator of Women’s Convergence, Women’s Theology Hub and The Bridge Church. Deborah holds an MA in exegetical theology and a DMin in transformational leadership. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Ken and they have three grown children and two beautiful granddaughters.

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

Luanne Castle at Writer Site is a poet and essayist working on her memoir. As she considers the best structure for her story (Scrap: Salvaging a Family—she’s the daughter of a garbage man), she’s reading memoirs by other gifted writers to see how those authors chose to organize their mini-lives between the pages. Best of all, she then turns around and offers us, her readers, thoughtful critiques of what she has read. Her own memoir is sure to be dynamite. Her writing is lovely, and she’s digging deeply into the best way for presenting her unique story.

The memoir featured on her blog this week is our very own Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. If I could, I’d reblog the whole thing because it’s just wonderful, but technical differences don’t allow me to do that (if any of you readers know who to reblog a WordPress hosted site to a self-hosted site, I’d be glad to know the secret.) So here are a few highlights:

If you have ever—even once–looked at a homeless person and forgot that he or she has a whole history of living, relations, emotions, and past belongings, as well as current needs, hop over to Amazon and pick up a copy of this book! If you want to find out if you should give a handout to someone who asks, you will find eleven answers.

And this:

Now that I’ve read Writing our Way Home and had time to let it settle into my bones, I feel it’s permanently changed me. A big thanks to Roderick Baldwin, Donna Connie, Cynthia Crawford, Jacqueline Crowder, Veyshon Hall, Tamara Hendrix, William L. Hogan, Jr., Latasha Jackson, Anthony Johnston, Robbin K., Rhonda Lay, Jockluss Thomas Payne, Leroy Scott, WJS, and Master Major Joshua Williams for inviting me into your lives.

You can visit her site and read the entire review for yourself. You can also like her author site on Facebook. If you’re a Goodreads person, you can find her there too. Most of all, follow her career path so you don’t miss out when her own memoir hits the scene. 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness is available on Amazon.

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness

 

(Triton Press, 2014) 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. The story of an extraordinary group of men and women who wrote their way out of homelessness.

 

Do you call those without housing “the homeless”?

Do you talk about “entitlements”?

When someone commits a crime, do you respond with “thugs”?

James Deke Pope, who has served on the Community Advisory Board of Memphis’s Africa in April, suggests we pay attention to the language we use and change it if necessary. Mr. Pope attended the race and power workshop at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral last weekend, which I wrote about here. At the end of the gathering when the time came to offer comments, Mr. Pope suggested we quit saying “police force” and rename them “peace keepers.”

Can you feel the shift that occurs with that change?

Another reaction might occur too. Maybe you don’t fundamentally agree with the implication of the change. “Well, they aren’t peace keepers. They’re enforcers of the law.” As they say, it’s not just semantics.

Whether you see reactions as “riots” or “uprisings”—another Mr. Pope suggestion—will, in fact depend on your world view. The point, of course, is to be aware of your world view and use language accordingly.

I’m sure Mr. Pope’s suggestion resonated with me because I am a writer. I deal in words. But the truth is, we all deal in words. Every day. We choose how to characterize something. If you share my frequent laziness, you might go with the flow and use whatever words everyone else is using. Or you might roll your eyes at this focus on words as political correctness. (The Tennessee legislature so objected to a non-gendered pronoun they’re holding hearings on it.) But remember the shift from police force to peacekeepers. It’s not just words. Beneath the words lie positions. We should all respect ourselves well enough to think about whether our words properly reflect our positions.

If you believe there is no such thing as a monolithic bloc known as “the homeless,” you might want to say “men and women experiencing homelessness,” in recognition that this is a time in a person’s life, not the person.

If you believe that those receiving assistance paid taxes for many, many years before needing some help, you might not want to call them “entitlements.”

If you decry broad brush racial stereotyping that effectively dehumanizes people, “thugs” might not be your go-to word.

You probably have your own suggested word changes. Mine, obviously, come from my own world view and life experiences. Words. Help me to thoughtfully set them adrift in the world.

 

 

What Can I Do?

I’m starting a new series here. I’m announcing this new series so you can skip over my followup posts if you want, ’cause I’m a polite Southern woman, and I sure don’t want to impose. But some of you want these posts. I know you do because I’ve been reading your comments and the question you’ve been asking as a result of the terrible murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. is, “What can I do?”

I don’t know what you can do. Well, that’s a confidence-inspiring beginning, isn’t it? But hang in there. What I do know is that some of the best news of the Good News is that we aren’t all feet. Or heads. Or ears. We each get to discern our own role in being God’s body on earth. I’m not gonna cite the Bible because, Lord, that gives me the willies, but it’s in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Sr. Simone Campbell on Krista Tippett‘s show On Being revealed herself to be stomach acid.) Paul’s “body of God” analogy is worth finding because—of all things—it has Paul, the king of interminable yadda, yadda, yadda, being funny.

So. You will need to figure out what you can do. But, if you’re like me and you love nothing more than being in community, MORE GOOD NEWS! You don’t have to figure it out alone. Nor, if you’re like me, do you have to discern correctly right out of the box. In fact, who’s to say I ever discern correctly? I may never know the true value of what I do. That’s okay. I do the best I can, and I trust others are doing the best they can. I duck my head and focus on my own little God wagon. And when I look up, I see the community that is supporting me in my trying. There’s a lot of comfort in that.

In this series, I’m gonna share names of groups, speakers, essays, events, columns, memoirs, paintings, classes, tweeters, pages, and other opportunities that have in function helped me answer the question: what can I do to fight racism?

I say “in function” because I did not begin this journey wondering how I could help combat racism. My feet first hit this path when I left my Mississippi home and moved to Memphis and, like Lot’s wife, I paused and looked over my shoulder. I, too, turned to salt. I stood transfixed by my ignorance. Ignorance of my state’s history. Of the country’s history. Of racial history. I read and read and read and read. Then, in one of those evolutionary dog-legs where sudden change occurs, my husband asked Evelyn Baker, what is this Memphis School of Servant Leadership I hear you speak of? He and I began taking classes, one of which was Racism to Reconciliation. I began facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, a group whose members have experienced homelessness and who published its first book last year, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. And I kept reading.

Major disclaimer here: I’m still not sure I’m doing anything to end racism. If this confuses you, refer to paragraph 3 above.

With that out of the way, here’s my kick-off organization. Drum roll, please: the Memphis School of Servant Leadership!!! I know. If you were paying attention, you already guessed. It’s a dynamic organization. Things are happening all the time. Follow them on the FaceBook page. Or if you prefer a group, you can join here. The current inspiration asks us to create and post signs with the hashtag DontBurnOurBlackChurches. Here’s how MSSL arrived at that action:

Today we met at the table to discuss Racism to Reconciliation.
We met Black, White, young, old, weary, fresh, seeking and knowing—- all Beloved.
In the tension and in the tender moments we listened to each other, shared thoughts and frustrations and then we strategized.
We’re not finished but we ask you to join us.
White Brothers and Sisters please post a picture of yourself with a sign saying {{{Don’t Burn Our Black Churches}}} using the hashtag #DontBurnOurBlackChurches. OUR STATEMENT: 
Seven Black Churches have burned since Charleston. We, white people, stand in solidarity with the Black Christian community. Arsons are intended to intimidate, silence and disembody Black people.Not in our name, Community Friends of The Memphis School of Servant Leadership

Obviously, you can join this movement even if you’re not in Memphis. Or—this is so very important—this activity might not be for you. I’m making a big commitment here, but I truly promise to keep going and post about other avenues I’ve used in my path of discerning. Maybe a later post will strike a chord with you. Until then, I’ll throw out a few more options:

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow, David M. Oshinsky. Because one day at Square Books in Oxford, during the time of my life when I automatically went first to the African American section of bookstores, I spied this book, unaware it would send me on a journey of discovery about my family’s racist past.

Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer. Because listening is a vital skill to bring with you on this path and, while I’m not altogether certain this is the best Parker Palmer book to learn his listening techniques, it will have to do.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh. Because when I read on the list in this foundational essay the fact that “flesh tone” bandages match my skin, I mused, hunh–I already thought of that, and it always makes me feel smart to have my own observations confirmed.

Wendi C. Thomas‘s Facebook page. She’s a journalist who this fall will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Better jump on her bandwagon now. Seriously, she does so much of the work for you; all you have to do is read.

The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman. Because he spoke to me so completely, and he might to you too. Besides, I need something of beauty on this list.

 

We are The Champions

When I began talking about a Door of Hope writing group book, people told me the book had to include my voice. Feature my voice, even. This was not what I wanted. Specifically, I didn’t want to be the well-off white woman who began working with those who had no shelter and immediately had the bright idea to write a book about her experience. What I wanted was for people to read the book, get to know the writers, and shift their view of “the homeless.” Specifically, I wanted readers to eagerly approach the authors at book signings and start talking to them as if they knew them. I wanted the book’s readers to love and appreciate the authors as much as I did.

But how to structure the book? I went around the block several times over this but eventually landed on a group memoir: WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS. Chronological chapters tell the authors’ stories: When We Were Young, As We Grew Up, What Sent Us into Homelessness. The wonderful review done by Chapter 16.org noted that this structure gives the full picture of the authors’ lives, not just the “dramatic second act” when they experienced living on the streets. How grateful I am for this insight. Because homelessness is only one part of the authors’ fluid lives, an overwhelming, proud-to-have-survived part, but nonetheless only a part.

And now the Community Alliance for the Homeless has given me an award for my work on the book. Yesterday, I received the Memphis/Shelby County Homeless Consortium Champion of the Year award.

Champion Award
Champion Award

As I am in New Orleans recovering from hip surgery, I couldn’t be there in person to accept the award. My good friend and proud homeless champion Marisa Baker accepted for me. And here’s the group photo of all the winners:

2015 Homeless Consortium Awards
2015 Homeless Consortium Awards

I love it that the book is literally standing in for me, accepting the honor. So very fitting. For the award means my decision long ago to focus on the writers’ voices was the correct choice. The Champion choice. The one most supportive of those who have experienced homelessness in their lives. For they, the authors, are the true Champions.

 

To honor this award, please go to Amazon and buy a copy of the book. Read it, then pass it along to whoever you feel led to share it with. Thank you!

Stepping Out in Faith

I’d ducked inside the Support Center to make sure he hadn’t already arrived, and I exited as he walked up the drive, waving. “I’m late!” he called, though it was still a few minutes until 7:30. He told me he saw me drive by. I didn’t see him. I was concentrating on hoping he showed up—when you make plans a week ahead of time and there is no cell phone contact and the other party is walking or riding the bus to the meeting, the gathering is almost a matter of faith. “She’s ready for us,” he said as we buckled in. So we would be three, me and my friend and my other friend who announced—out of the clear blue—that she wanted to go to church Wednesday morning at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.
Thumb PrayerHe helped her get her oxygen tank in the backseat. She’s always been no bigger than a minute. This morning she looked strong. Pretty with her hair up.   Her friend was wearing a jacket. I’d dressed same as the others who would be at the church service: jeans and t-shirt. I’d forgotten about getting dressed up for church. I hoped my friends didn’t think my clothes meant I didn’t care about going to church. Or them.
*
As we arrived and settled on the pew, I worried my friends had gotten so past being homeless that this service for those living on the street would insult them. Maybe my friend didn’t know the makeup of the service when she’d asked to go. I leaned and tapped them both on the shoulder. “Y’all doing okay?” They both nodded. The guy seated next to me talked absolute gibberish, mostly about the Black president and Michael Jackson. Then he followed along on the bulletin as we read the Psalm.
*
The priest asked for someone to serve the wine for communion, and my friend stepped up. She left her oxygen tank beside her chair. The priest offered her communion before the rest of us. I realized she would be serving me communion. I turned my face to the side as I recalled the number of months before she would sit with us in writing group, how the Executive Director said one word when I wondered aloud what had changed such that she was willing to join us: “Trust. She trusts you.” Now we were at church together, and she was about to offer me the communion cup. Afterwards, she said it was a bit tricky. Not letting people get too big a gulp. I would never tell her that seeing her holding the cup made me cry.
Thumb Prayers
When I gave the Thumb Prayers away, folks bent and peered and scooped them up as I offered my spiel: “They’re to put in your pocket and rub with your thumb when you need a reminder that God is always with us.” Some said no, then kept looking and said, “I’ve changed my mind. “Can I have one?” One guy kept asking, “How did you know how to make these? Did you read about it? Did someone tell you how to do it?” I told him I made them up from scratch. I’m not sure he ever believed me. When I had been leaving home that morning, I second-guessed myself and wondered if anyone would want them. I gathered 100 little thumb Prayers and brought them with me to church. I went home with five.
*
My friends both got glasses from the eyeglasses give-away. They enjoyed breakfast. She said she liked the Episcopal service. Twice, they asked if the woman conducting the service was a priest (she was.) When I dropped them back off at the house, he said they’d be spending the day together watching old movies. We talked about Perry Mason because he got me into Perry Mason. She said, “Do you remember me calling you and wishing you a Merry Christmas? I was sitting there thinking to myself, who can I call and wish Merry Christmas? I thought, I’ll call Ellen.” I wrapped my arms around her in a long hug goodbye, pressing my palms against her backbone. We promised to get together when I return in August. I hope we do.
Thumb Prayer

The incense hangs in the chapel air. We’re all squeezed in where we can fit, no concern for “our pew.” We listen to Gospel readings using The Message translation, so the words makes everyday sense. There is—or isn’t—an unpredictable response to the music.The blessing of the wine and bread is abbreviated. That’s okay. I know all that stuff anyway.
*
I began attending the Wednesday morning church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to help with the art ministry. Most congregants at the service stay at the Union Mission down the street or are otherwise homeless. The amazing Canon Laura Foster Gettys wanted to add an art component to the morning and asked me to be involved. She knew I facilitate a weekly writing group of those who’ve experienced homelessness and that I’d written a book about making crosses from found objects. She combined the two and asked me to come make art at this service for those on the streets. In my opinion, this is what priests should do: identify a ministry that might gladden a church member’s heart and ASK the member to do it. I’m glad she asked me, glad I said yes.
*
I weave through folks, passing the peace. He sits on the last row of chairs, his back to me. Seasoned by the rigors of living on the street, he feels my approach and glances out of the corner of his eye. I smile. He realizes I am going to talk to him. His face softens. His eyes smile. We shake hands and pass the peace.
*
I’ve been showing up at the service—when I’m in town—for over a year. This stint in Memphis, I’ve not been doing art work. The—again—amazing students from Rhodes College have been offering art projects over the last several months. So I am now simply a congregant.
*
The guitar player says, “Y’all sing along with this one. You know it.” She strums into Amazing Grace. I walk back from communion and sit on the piano bench. My voice wobbles. I keep at it until I hit the same note she’s hitting. When she finishes, we all clap.
*
Why do I go to this church service? What about it makes me want to come back?
*
Not everyone does the same thing–some go to communion, some don’t. Some stand when prompted, some don’t. Announcements describe services for those listening (blood pressure checks, computer classes), not committee work of the church. The group murmurs when the priest touches a soft spot. Sometimes the murmurings are in disagreement. An impromptu ending “off bulletin” sends us into the next phase of the morning: raucous rock-and-roll music during breakfast where, occasionally, folks dance.
*
The church service I keep coming to is the exact opposite of what most folks want out of church: shared beliefs, planned movement, familiar readings, behavior understood as appropriate, known faces, church music, beautiful language, written ritual you can follow along, predictability. Others at the service around me may keep coming for the chance to sit down. For the opportunity to serve at the altar. For the amazing breakfast afterwards. To wipe trays. Who knows. Who cares.
*
After the service, I speak to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich-makers. Those waiting in line for breakfast trail past me. I find I like it, standing there, saying hi to everyone on their way to get food. “I’m just standing here,” I explain. “I’ve been out of town for several months, and I’ve missed seeing y’all.”
“We’ve missed seeing you too,” one guy says.
I have no idea if he knows who I am. Maybe he’s just being kind. That’s sort of the point. Those at this service let me be happy without judging my happiness, which makes me happy.
*
We all come to church for our own reasons, and mine aren’t any better than anyone else’s. This service isn’t any better than any other church service. It only better suits me. Which, I think, is the purpose of this thing we call church.

Hip rehab, yes. But obsession in writing a new novel too. That’s why I’ve been so absent—the combination of these two life facts have been deadly to blogging, for which I apologize. BTW, I’ve missed being here. 🙂

Here’s my latest:

* The University of North Carolina was eliminated from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Sooooooo, I won’t be singing this year. When UNC wins the NCAA, I fling open my front door and sing at the top of my lungs, “I’m a tar heel born, I’m a tar heel bred . . . ” The neighbors are currently breathing a sigh of relief.

* The dog and I are easing back into relationship, something that pretty much died when she absolutely could not jump on my new hip and I could not take her for walks. Our new relationship involves a lot of stretching out in bed together.

* I’m making thumb prayers, to be put in your pocket and rubbed with your thumb when you need a reminder of God. Here’s a pic of a few:

Thumb Prayers
Thumb Prayers

* A random stranger on the internet sent me a message that, in the opening sentence, contained the phrase, “and I think you’re brilliant.” This has tickled me to no end. I Googled her, to make sure it wasn’t a sham. She’s the real deal. And she’s been reading my work and thinks I’m brilliant. 🙂

* I have kept up my Lenten discipline of having a God sighting each day and sharing it on Facebook. Here are a few:

I Saw God Today
when I opened my eyes this morning and realized I live in a wonderland—the reaching branches of the cottonwood, the glint of water in the harbor, the blue sky peeking through. My unease at returning to Memphis and the “grind” of daily living evaporated. This is what I see when I wake up. I live in a wonderland. ‪#‎Lent2015‬

Out my bedroom window
Out my bedroom window

I Saw God Today
in the faces of cousins and cousins once removed and leap cousins and cousins so distant I don’t know how they’re my cousin: the never-ending circle of life and love ‪#‎Lent2015‬

I Saw God Today
in this hand soap. HAND soap, shaped like a hand. I can’t remember who gave this to me. Was it you, my sister? Or you, my cousin? Someone who knew me well enough to know I would adore it. And where is God in this? Well, God—the creator of laughter—loves puns too. ‪#‎Lent2015

HAND soap
HAND soap

* I’m ‬going to write a “How to Write in Community” pamphlet to be distributed to anyone and everyone who is interested in starting a writing group in a homeless shelter, women’s shelter, prison group, cancer support group, divorce group, etc. It’ll be simple. “Get someone to donate a packet of notebook paper, lined.” “Secure pencils and pens.” “Expect writers to fall asleep. Expect writers to arrive late. Expect absences because writers are in the hospital or at chemo or in drug rehab or jail or at the Social Security Office or a job interview or at the lawyer’s office or in trial or they’ve moved to a new part of the city and can’t make the trip to writing group. Everyone’s going through something. Life takes precedence.” That type of thing.

Oh. And the new novel? It’s a mystery set along the Wolf River Harbor where I live. The hero, a scion of a Arkansas plantation family and formerly homeless, investigates the murder of a real-estate developer who wanted to improve the harbor for the benefit of the poor neighborhood. Our man Coot is also trying to come to terms with a long-ago murder that occurred when Mud Island was still a wild place of squatters living on floating oil-drum homes. Here’s the harbor from my front door during a recent flood:

Mud Island during the 2011 flood
View of the harbor from my front door during the 2011 flood

Thanks for hanging in there during my absence. I appreciate you.

No one owes you anything in this world. Everything anyone does for you is a gift. Some gifts—the gift of love or forgiveness or a trust fund enabling you to graduate law school and make your way in this world for a while—are pretty damn big gifts. Others may seem small, but those gifts are the ones that often bring tears to my eyes.

Chapter 16.org is a service of Humanities Tennessee that creates and strengthens community by talking about books, authors, and ideas. Stepping into an ever-widening gap, Chapter 16 publishes a newsletter offering in-depth (!) book reviews. The organization then provides the reviews to local newspapers. Today, a review of WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS was featured in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, thanks to Chapter 16.

The reviews given by Chapter 16 are precious, in the old-fashioned sense of referring to a limited quantity. Small staff, small budget. Lots of books requesting—and deserving—review. Yet they gave a review to a book written by fifteen formerly-homeless authors who have little to offer in return—no celebrity, no political pull, no fund-raising assistance, no cache—other than the power of their words.

And it wasn’t just “a review.” The book was assigned to a reviewer who himself has written about homelessness. Thus, when the reviewer analyzes, for example, the suitability of the book’s structure for telling the authors’ stories, he knows what he’s talking about. The book received a top-drawer, professional, thorough review. Not the “nickel-tour,” as one of the authors calls the free, truncated tours given by local nonprofits on charity days.

Many of the authors in the book have been writing for years. Before they were authors, they were writers. Every week, they walked from wherever they were staying to the Door of Hope support center to join writing group, writing and sharing their words. Most of the time, folks want to focus on the homeless part of “formerly-homeless writers.” Chapter 16 focused on the writer part. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.

p.s. he liked the book!

 

Standing at the point on Poplar during rush-hour traffic waving at the passing cars in the most half-assed living nativity I’ve ever seen-what was missing, you might ask? Mary for one. And Joseph. And the Baby Jesus (except for the moment when the bearded man in the toga (a shepherd) lay down on the hay bale and popped his thumb in this mouth.) Tom and I were stars. I mean, we had huge silver stars scotch-taped to deely-boppers. Plus, the nativity had a dinosaur. And a cow. It was awesome.

Our friend the director of the coolest theatre in town bursting out laughing when Tom asked him to take our picture with Mrs. Clause—”You want me to take your picture?”—then doing it, choreographing the photo so that it was PROFESSIONAL with Tom seated on Mrs. Clause’s lap.

The delight on the authors’ faces when I told them I’d learned Memphis Theological Seminary was using Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness in its classes (“I’m being taught in school!”) and the Binghampton United Methodist Church was featuring readings from the book during their Advent services as the Word from the world (“Word!”).

Buying my grey and pink “Go Ask Alice” t-shirt from the Literacy Mid-South Book Sale, which features an imprint of Alice in Wonderland reading a book but for me is a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” the closest thing Tom and I have to “our song” and without which we might not have gotten married. Then wearing the t-shirt for 5 days straight.

The Advent tassels (that means purple) awarded to, and modeled by, the cleverest writer at my Memphis writing group. What I’m saying is you have to be way clever to be the cleverest writer in our group. And you have to wear purple tassels when you win them.

Presenting at the 8:00 service the newly-completed banner (off of which had fallen a D so that the Window to the Soul was a Win ow to the Soul) but no one gave a damn about that because they were all busy rounding the corner and smiling wide at me, greeting me with “good morning,” because I had said during the presentation that connection with them—when they rounded the corner and made eye contact—was the Window to the Soul.

Tom buying for me a necklace “just  because I wanted it.” After which I wore it for 3 days straight. (I fall in love quickly and devotedly).

After I announced at writing group that I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while because I had to have hip surgery, one of the writers coming up to me and asking, incredulous, “They’re gonna cut on you?” FINALLY, the proper amount of admiration for this journey I’m about to embark on.

The image of all of us writers parading (our host’s word, not mine) into one of the largest Methodist churches in Shelby County—invited, beloved guests—where we filled two pews; gave an impromptu (and solo—the only person in the sanctuary who hopped up) standing ovation to the bell-ringers; and otherwise sat when all around us stood as we enjoyed “in action” the gracious men and women who lead writing group every week: preaching, bell-ringing, sermonizing, loving all God’s children.

Finally, the sparkle of the Traditional Christmas Peacock:

My Walgreens Peacock
My Walgreens Peacock

Merry on-our-way-to-Christmas!

This morning at the church service attended mainly by those living on the streets, one of the guys told me about two recent incidents when he’d been told he was an inspiration. He began the story by saying, “I’m not telling you this to to be bragging.”

I’ve known him for about a year and a half. He wasn’t telling me to be bragging. He was sharing this development because such amazing moments require acknowledgement and respect.

To be minding your own business, going about doing what you feel you’re supposed to be doing, and to have someone tell you your action—or the very example of your life—helped them make a life-changing decision: how wonderful is that? Not only did you have an impact, but the person cared enough to take the time to tell you. In the sharing of such moments I can’t help but detect a certain amount of awe: can you believe I was lucky enough to impact another person in a good way?

Yes, if you’re a first grade teacher or a parent. For the rest of us, it’s a little surprising.

I know the feeling because in the last week, when three members of writing group had the chance to name someone whom they admire or who had a positive impact on their lives, they named me.

I am not someone who hears compliments well. I shrug them off, if they even penetrate my brain. Sometimes I think: well, they probably felt sorry for me and thought I needed a pick-me-up (don’t analyze my psychological (ill) health—it’s shooting fish in a barrel.)

The point is: the third time someone from writing group took the time to claim my influence on them, I heard it. I heard them say I was loyal and nonjudgmental and quietly assertive (how Southern is that?) and a follower of God and (hallelujah!) funny.

I share this with you with the same awe I saw in my friend’s eyes this morning. Damn, he seemed to be saying, isn’t this the coolest thing?

Yes, yes it is.

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