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Category: LOVE

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

Take a Look at Scribl

Y’all know me. I’m always experimenting. I don’t know if I’m easily bored or what. But one of the many plates I’ve currently got spinning in the air involves crowd pricing my short stories.

I’m talking about CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE, the short story collection that was on Podiobooks, which was itself an experiment, a very successful one. Listeners downloaded the stories across the globe, over and over again, which tickled me to no end. I mean, imagine all those folks in France straining to understand my very Southern voice. Then—nothing ever stays the same, does it?—Podiobooks merged with Scribl.com. Because I was an existing author, Scribl gave me the option of staying on Podiobooks as a Legacy (you know, like when you rush the same sorority your mom was in). In addition, I could choose to join Scribl, which offers both ebooks and audiobooks.

Scribl’s thing is crowd pricing. The way crowd pricing works, the stories start out free. When the downloads reach a certain threshold, a price begins to attach. Scribl prices the ebook and audiobook differently, based on how often readers or listeners download each. The more the stories are downloaded, the higher the price creeps. In effect, the price point acts as a “review.” As the site says, the books with higher prices “have proven popular.” Does that make sense?

I suspect it takes a while for all of this to happen—downloads to break the threshold, price to rise, then perhaps for prices to plateau/fall as the price exceeds what people are willing to pay. However, the first part has gone quickly—the stories are no longer free! The stories went from free, to costing .39 to listen and .29 to read, to $2.79 to listen and $1.99 to read. Woo hoo!

I know, I know—it’s not a very high price. But it’s exciting. Plus, listeners downloaded the stories on Podiobooks over 55,000 times. I do NOT anticipate this happening with Scribl, but even a little blip would be fun. Check it out here.

What’s funny, when I quit lawyering and began writing, my uncle started signing his letters to me, “Keep on scribbling.”

Little did he know how true that would turn out to be. 🙂

My award-winning short stories are off on a new experiment

 

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.

How to Garden with Distinction

My sister lives in a neighborhood with a replica of Mount Vernon.

The houses are big and solid. On one lot, a developer razed a house and put up two modern “high-end” houses. They look cheap as hell. I bet the other houses hate the interlopers.

Some of the houses have brass plaques sponsored by the Raleigh Historic Association. Strategic ivy climbs facades, pea gravel softens driveways. Mt. Vernon has a “Service Entrance Please.” In every house, the garbage cans have their own niche.

I love the neighborhood, how thick and solid the houses are. It’s not flat; unlike Memphis and New Orleans, Raleigh has hills. I walk and admire the stately allees of crepe myrtles and the formal triple-deep shrubs. I tut-tut the scraggly pines and skimpy cast iron plants. It’s like walking in a park from the early 1900s. Porte cohere is a word not out of place here. The whole damn neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In this neighborhood, my sister has a vegetable garden in her front yard.

Okra and pea plants

 

The front yard garden curves behind double crescents of deep luscious grass.

The iron fence gives a sense of order to those walking the sidewalks.

 

Hidden inside are paths for people, baths for birds, and flowers for caterpillars hoping to become butterflies.

The secret path from the parking pad to the front porch.

 

The entire yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

“Give me your tired creepy-crawlies, your thirsty winged creatures”

 

This evening as rain sprinkled our heads, my sister and I headed into the garden and harvested the crops.

Silver peas, okra, peppers, and lemon balm

For supper, Tom will make cornbread, and we will eat vegetables from a garden nestled beautifully in my sister’s front yard in the most exclusive neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina.

George Washington would have been so proud.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon 

Memories in My Yard

Since I quit practicing law, I’ve done two tasks first thing in the mornings: clean up the kitchen and check on my plants outside. The latter was on hiatus for several years. My hips went to crap, and I quit working in the yard. Since the hips have been recovered, I haven’t had a yard to work in. I do now.

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The rose is scraggly. Its head droops. The petals cannot hold their shape. It’s damn lucky to be here.

One Mother’s Day, a long time ago, my dad gave my grandmother a rosebush. The bush was planted beside the lattice gate.  The two-story, white-columned house has a grand front door, but everyone comes and goes through the back gate. The rosebush grew large and tangled and mighty. It threatened to grab everyone who entered (what were they thinking, planting it in such a well-traveled path?). In the spring it was covered with a blanket of pale pink, delicate roses. Soon, my dad died, quite young. Later, Bigmama died, quite old. Then the rosebush began to die, and now it’s dead.

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What do London and San Francisco have in common?
They are the top two cities downloading my short stores.

Where in Canada—the third highest download site—are listeners downloading the stories?
Everywhere but Nova Scotia—Nova Scotia don’t like Cain’t Do Nothing with Love.

After France, what’s the next most popular country downloading the stories?
Iran

Where do Moscow and St. Petersburg fit in?
Right after Queensland and Victoria in Australia.

Who’s next?
Beijing and Frankfurt.

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The Flexible Heretics

I shuffled clothes through the narrow hallway. Brick wall on one side, eclectic paintings on the other, I didn’t have much room to maneuver. I’d spent the week sorting my stuff (this pile goes with us, this pile to the Salvation Army) and two suitcases had come with me to our small apartment in New Orleans, not a particularly good solution. Earlier, on my 59th birthday, I had decided to physically get up and move every day until I turned 60—my decade birthdays always generate a year-long preparation. This year, I vowed to be in motion every day in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise done—mostly walking really fast down the sidewalk. As I shoved a bag aside with my foot, it dawned on me that I had inadvertently landed on a theme for the year.

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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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The Morris Girls

Her face is alive with joy. And beauty, such beauty. In her fitted navy dress that hugs every curve, with Bigmama’s diamond bar pin sparkling in the vee of her neckline, she walks down the aisle with perfect poise. And confidence. She has such confidence. My heart swells with love for, and pride in, my sister. My big sister. The mother of the bride. She is gorgeous.

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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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Entertaining Angels Unawares

Like a water bug on a lake, he zipped past me, twirling around the display case, flailing his skinny arms, talking to himself, entertaining himself at the T-Mobile store. He was my favorite kind of child. A frenetic, voluble young boy of five or six, the type of child who might puzzle his classmates and drive his parents to distraction.

A child who, in fact, was driving his parents to distraction as they tried to talk to the clerk about business plans and Tax IDs. Every once in a while his mother—stepping around the baby sleeping in its carrier at her feet—would scoot away from the counter to tell the boy to quit, or stop, or sit. His dad divided his attention, too, between his business dealings and cutting his eyes to see what his older child was up to.

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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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Two years ago, my husband and I went to Central Europe and heard the stories of those once neighbors—laughing together, eating supper, playing cards—who fell to pieces over “Serb” and “Croat” and “Muslim,” and began killing one another.

We all know the stories of Germany where those who were once the piano teacher, the gardner, the old lady in the flat below became “the Jews,” and were sent to the ovens to die.

We read with dismay how those in the Middle East—Sunnis and Shias, Coptic Christians and Muslim Egyptians—work together, play together, marry one another—do everything but worship together—then begin slaughtering one another.

We say it can’t happen here, but it already has. With Native Americans—even those who had become Christians, living next door to the whites, knocking on their doors to borrow sugar. Our neighbors, until the sparkle of gold or the greedy cotton seed forced them off the land and onto the Trail of Tears, a trail that swallowed one-fifth of the Cherokee nation in death. And that’s only part of it.

I pray it won’t happen here again, but I read how Facebook “friends” talk to one another, and I hear it in the name-calling, labeling, cursing. The objectification of the “liberal” or “conservative” (and folks aren’t using those words, but I’m not gonna repeat ugliness). The coarse appellations tagged on the other side’s candidate, then repeated with glee. The discourse is as unattractive when someone’s attacking an “opponent” as when those in a like-minded thread are echoing their beliefs. It’s terrible, really. The way neighbor is speaking to neighbor. Friend to friend. Former neighbor, former friend.

I type these words from the great room of the house we recently finished building. During those many months, we dealt with electricians and assemblers, landscapers and garbagemen, utility workers and architects, designers and cabinetmakers, curtain hangers and sofa salesmen. I don’t know the political persuasion of a one of them. Some, I’m certain, are “conservatives” who hold wildly different ideas than my “liberal” self.

But that’s not the way I see them.

I see the Direct TV guy who sweated on my porch for an hour in 100 degree heat to get our TV working. And the mover who lifted an entire set of bunk bed iron onto his shoulder and hauled it up two flights of stairs. And the cabinetmaker who patiently met until we came up with not cabinets at all but a work table. And the sofa salesman who called two days after his surgery to make sure the sofa delivery had gone well. And the garbagemen who made a second, special trip to pick up our trash because they didn’t know we’d moved in and needed garbage pick-up. And the architect who specified down to the detail of frigging lightbulbs, because he wanted us happy.

These men and women built us a sanctuary and became our neighbors. Yet, I am supposed to redefine them based on whether they are “liberal” or “conservative”? I won’t do that, anymore than I will give into the incessant, seductive political drumbeat and redefine friends who have shown me their caring, support, and even love, simply because we have differing political thoughts.

They say the election is “divisive.” But it can only be divisive if we agree to be divided based on thoughts we’ve conjured up in our heads. I don’t agree to let that happen.

No, you are not my conservative friend. You are my friend.

 

 

 

Our New Surroundings

We’ve finished the beach house. I told y’all about the narrative I’d created to guide the process along. I’m only gonna share one photo, or else I’ll go crazy showing you my whole house. This is a guest bedroom, which actually gives you a good idea about what the house looks like:

The Memphis bedroom
The Memphis bedroom

I need to pick up a round table from our house in Memphis to use beside the right of the bed, but otherwise this room is finished. The maps over the bed, a gift from our daughter-in-law, show the meanderings of the Mississippi River from the 1820s to the 1940s. I love them. We wanted a peaceful, “non-beachy” beach house. Or, as my husband says, “a 1940s Caribbean beach house.” I’m pleased with how it turned out.

So. Having gotten the house in manageable order, I’ve returned to revising JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. Here’s the foot on the new table I’m using on the beach house porch as my writing desk:

The Claw table
The Claw table

I figure if that doesn’t inspire pirate writing, I don’t know what will!

Oh—and stay tuned: a new Thumb Prayer page for this website is in the works!!!

Onward and upward!

In the pouring rain, across a highway divider in an unknown town, I sit at a red light, listening to the rain thump the car. Gone are the jokes about the cheap hotel room that cut the tension while we toured the tiny downtown where trees squared the block and the rotunda stood tall. I fell in love with the sidewalks so straight, but then we left the white concrete and landed on the streaming highway with the rain sloshing the four corners of our truncated world.

Something rustles inside my husband’s head and, turning toward me he suggests we eat at the 5/4 Steakhouse across the median. A big red sign flashes in the standing water: “Welcome to the Quarter.”

Once upon a time when we traveled for fun, we’d ride to the real French Quarter in New Orleans where we ventured into the coolness of the antique stores and wandered until the wooden floors gave way to dirt three rooms back. One such trip, I bought the Jesus icon with the silver cover that slipped on and off. I carried it under my arm, out of the overpowering smell of the merchandise rotting on the shelves and across the parking lot to gaze at the boats docked on the river, so mechanical, black and greasy and full of metal. Churning and smoking and heaving through the water. Then we drove home, and I hung Jesus on the bathroom wall.

We exit the car, struggling through the rain, and land dripping in the entranceway. A stop clock graces the maitre d’s table with a sign below it: “Served in a Quarter of an hour or your meal free!” The place is big on signs.

We order steak and potatoes, and while we wait for the arrival of the food, Paul throws his hands in the air. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you. I have to tell you this.”

It’s a long story about two drunken women at a roulette table in Vegas, a mother and daughter, I think. Paul travels to Vegas on business. He’s in the entertainment business. He says he needs to travel on the weekends, that’s when business is done. Today is Thursday and only Alabama, so he’s brought me with him.

I read the little stick that came protruding from my potato. “I’ve been rubbed and scrubbed and you can eat my skin.” Shaped like a small smiling spud, the potato stick winks at me. I slip it in my pocket.

“I told him to hell with that.” Paul is cutting into a steak so rare it could get up and walk away from the table. “‘My damn plane is leaving,’ I said, and I hung up on the son of a bitch.”

Somewhere I think the story has changed, like channels surfed in the night when you’re not paying good enough attention. The waiter comes up for more service, but Paul waves him away, dismissive the way he is.

“Well?”

He’s talking to me.

“Well, what?”

“Well, what do you think?”

I finger my plastic potato prize. “Sorry. I kind of lost the plot.”

“That’s not very nice.” He wags his head, jaw to the side. “I tell you what, I bring you on a trip and a spool of barbed wire, and I’m fixed.”

No, I tell you what. When I get home, I’m going to take the Jesus with its silver cover from the wall and I’m gonna take the gold-embroidered bath towels and the silver candlesticks from the dining room table and the writing paper from inside the writing desk—and maybe the writing desk, too—and I’m going to stuff it in a suitcase with my new potato prize and then when it’s time to go, I’ll be ready.

And you can take that truth and hang it on the wall.

(an old short story I came across when cleaning out papers; as it was thoroughly written, I thought I’d share)

 

 

 

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

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

 

I live in Memphis on an island with wild edges and a dog who loves them as much as I do.

I have a wood-burning fireplace in my house.

I go to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral where the Dean stands up in the pulpit and preaches the most unsettling, Holy truths, in a caring, loving way.

I can walk to the grocery store. I can walk to the coffee shop. I can walk to the cleaners, but I don’t because if I’m going to the cleaners, I’m toting clothes.

I have a weekly writing group where we can talk about anything and, while you might get hooted for your comments, you know you’re loved.

I have a monthly writing group that is made up of some of the finest writers I know.

I have wind chimes outside my bedroom window and a dove of peace that coos.

I have good friends who invite me to meet them for coffee where we exchange wisdom and laugh.

I can hang out at Caritas Village whenever I want.

I can drink the world’s best water straight from the tap.

I know how to work the burners on the stove.

I walk past flowers blooming in my yard whenever I leave through the front door.

I can see the Mississippi River—sometimes sparkling or flat or muddy or laced with the deepest sheen of blue—every single day.

I know my way ’round Memphis town. I know which direction is east, west, north and south. I don’t get lost.

I have a bathtub.

I have a printer.

I have a guest bedroom where people can come and stay and fill the house with love.

I can go for walks in the Old Forest in one of the country’s most famous parks where the boughs lean over us like a hushed sanctuary.

I know where to buy petit fours.

I share this life with my husband, whom I love dearly and who is with me most anywhere I go, but life in Memphis would be bereft of fun without him.

Evangeline loves Memphis
Evangeline loves Memphis

Constructing Life

The boss man wasn’t there today. That’s what the worker told me, standing in the great room of our half-finished house. He was sanding. I was inspecting. He thought the homeowners might want to talk to the boss. I wanted to talk to him, the man guiding the sanding machine, the one who would rub the stain on the floor. The man who knew what he was doing.

Later, after our business conversation ended, he called me aside. “You want to see a pretty floor?” he asked, thumbing his phone. A photo of a herringbone floor segued into view. A lovely, complicated floor. “That’s a 5000 square foot job,” he said, swiping to the next photo. “That’s a beautiful floor,” I told him, proud that he wanted to show me the floor. That he understood I loved the work he was doing on my floor. Before I left, he  showed me a photo of the boss man, kneeling on the herringbone floor. The two men were friends, it seemed. This is the way it is when you work with local businesses. People. Craftsmen. You work with life.

*

One of our errands took us to another supplier. The supplier and I had been corresponding on email: me changing my mind and him being patient. I stood at the counter and placed my ordered. But before he took my credit card and charged me, he said, “I need to have a conversation with you.”

He told me about a bad PSA count, a biopsy, a doctor’s hints at cancer. He expected a bad report, and, if he was right, he and his wife would have to close the store. He wanted me to know the warranty would be good, but he might not be there for followup. “Before you paid me,” he said. “I wanted you to have that choice.”

I’m not revealing any details on the supplier because he had told no one of his health issues but his wife and now me. That’s what happens when you work with local businesses. You come to care for them. As people. Kind people. Then life interferes.

*

When we arrived home, a text burbled onto my phone. The metal table legs the woodworker had ordered from his friend had arrived. Were the legs at his shop? Yes, and he would be there a bit longer if we wanted to see them.

We walked over—down three blocks, over two. The dog was ecstatic to be outside. We arrived to meet the woodworker’s dog. The woodworker cranked open the backend of his truck cab, slid out the legs. Good looking legs. He was happy, pleased with what he’d found. I was happy. He and I admired the legs, a cigarette dangling from his lips. We said our goodbyes and walked back home, the dog happy.

This is what happens when you work with artisans. You walk to the neighborhood shop. You meet the dog. A bubble machine floats bubbles onto the sidewalk. The train whistles. Life.

*

When it all comes together and I’m sleeping on my bed, I’ll dream. The dreams will expand, contract. In the moment between the focus, I will see the artisans who have put together my shelter. The mustached tiler kneeling on the bathroom floor, carefully trimming the tile to fit the space. The electrician, catching my eye as we discussed whether a sconce was necessary beside the fireplace. The sander smiling at the photo of his boss, the store owner solemnly fulfilling his ethical standards, the woodworker tapping his cigarette onto the sidewalk. To each I am grateful. For his contribution. His  talent. The excuse of a house that led their lives to intersect with mine.

The Path Less-Traveled

We were tramping through Couturie Forest in City Park along the well-mulched trails, and I noticed an option. The Couturie Forest contains the highest point in New Orleans, Laborde Lookout. The mountain—their words, not mine—measures a daunting 43 feet above sea level (or 53 feet, according to some sources, or 46 feet above a 3 feet-below-sea-level base according to others—New Orleanians aren’t particular about facts, preferring a good story or maybe even myth.) That measurement puts Laborde Mountain at about the height of an average pitcher’s mound. Later, researching for more information about this amazing site, I learned that it’s not even natural! As I understand it, the “hill” is manmade, built using leftover soil from the building of Interstate 610. This puts Laborde Mountain in a neck-in-neck contest with manmade Monkey Hill—a children’s hill at the Zoo, I kid you not—as the highest point above sea level in New Orleans.

Laborde Mountain in Couturie Forest
View from Laborde Mountain in Couturie Forest

But I digress.

The point is the trails. They zig-zagged through the forest. This, again, is kind of a nebulous term, “forest.” You aren’t, for example, whispering because your surroundings are so lush and dim and humusy that you don’t want to speak out loud. Nor are you constantly sweeping vines from your face, slapping at the unknown things grabbing at your body. It’s green, in early March, springish. And open, airy. We did run across a live oak grove, but basically you could see through this forest, so let’s call it a transparent forest. No Hansel and Gretel houses here.

Evidence of a lost civilization located deep in the forest
Evidence of a lost civilization located deep in the forest

The “forest” trails were unmarked, I mean in the sense of railings or guideposts or anything to keep you on the beaten path. The main trails were, as I’ve mentioned, mulched. But many were foot paths, trails beaten more by usage than maintenance. This was what I noticed on this glorious sunny day. The “path less-traveled”:

The path less-traveled
The path less-traveled

You see, I’d always viewed life as a choice between, on the one hand, the well-trod path and on the other, the wild, brambled, dangerous non-path. That’s binary thinking. Either/or. Black or white. Dualism.

The truth is that frequently branching off the main path in the forest were slight paths. Tributaries, created by spontaneous curiosity: wonder where this leads? The curious take off across the forest, stamping down a way that others walking the mulched trail notice—is that a path? And, intrigued, they take off in the same direction.

So, if you are considering your choices in life, and you are feeling depressed by the predictable way of the well-trodden but the uncharted forest daunts you, remember: if you take that narrower, less-defined path, someone has been there before you. You, in fact, are not alone at all.

My love, joining me on the trail
My love, joining me on the trail

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!!

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