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Category: General

#MLK50: A Hostile Land

In reading Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, I was struck by Dr. King’s repeated point that, following the Civil War, the country released the formerly enslaved into the land of their oppressors. These men and women found themselves  in the “territory of their enemies.” In their new life, they were financially dependent on those who had enslaved them. Jobs and work and the ability to earn a living were completely controlled by those who seethed with hatred that they no longer could claim ownership of the ones now freed.

I took a moment and let this sink in. “Enemy territory.” No place to turn for work other than the one who had claimed ownership over you. How could this strike anyone as fair?

We haven’t gotten the story of race in America right yet. It’s as if the wound of race scabs over with time, but the scab is only the latest version of events palatable to white America. Perhaps we inch closer to the truth with each iteration, but we aren’t at the truth, and we must—once again—rip off the scab and try again. Why go through this agony? Because if we accept the bowdlerized version of history, we deny the injustices of the past and experience no motivation to fix them.

Here in Memphis, we are about to roll from Holy Week and Easter Sunday into the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination.

In preparation for this, I’ve been reading Where Do We Go from Here, Dr. King’s last book published in 1968. This phrase—Where Do We Go from Here?—is the tag used by MLK50 for its year-long remembrance. Not until I bought the book did I realize the slogan was the title of a book Dr. King wrote. The full title is Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Dr. King is explaining the arc of the civil rights movement in a way I’ve never heard before. Basically, good white people couldn’t stand to see the terror and violence in the South—the fire hoses and dogs and killings—and they insisted it stop. The country enacted laws to remedy wrongs. But when the crisis passed, so did the emotional involvement. The laws lay unenforced and, when time came for the next step—away from “brutality and unregenerate evil” and towards “brotherhood”—forward motion stalled.

Why? That would cost money.

“There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites.”  But equality? “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect … They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low-paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor.”

Dr. King saw the civil rights movement, up to that point, as establishing a foundation for change. Not the end, the beginning. “From issues of personal dignity they are now advancing to programs that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control.” (emphasis mine). “At this level Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists.”

I sold Dr. King short. As much as I’ve read over the years about the civil rights movement, I saw it as a battle in a point in time to end segregation. I knew Dr. King was “shifting his focus” to economic ills when he died, but that’s a mischaracterization. The remedying of economic ills was part of the civil rights movement’s long, complex plan for bringing about equality. Attacking Southern racism at its roots was what I’ll call Phase 1. Phase 2 was to change the system.

These days, it seems we are in a thicket of re-fighting Phase 1. As Dr. King said, white opposition “remained a formidable force capable of hardening its resistance when the cost of change was increased.” Waves of backlash constantly appear in this country, forcing us to play Whack-a-Mole with those assaulting the personal dignity of African-Americans. But while we are so occupied, what becomes of systemic reform? The question remains: Where Do We Go from Here?

I’ll write more as the week goes on.

 

We are Risen

On Easter morning, we sing a song of “He is Risen,” and thus miss the point.

We are risen, a Resurrected people.

This Easter season (yep, there’s an Easter season—50 days of it)

I will walk eyes-open every day

for images of Resurrection.

The season is one of joy.

Y’all know me—the images will be my own.

Happy Easter, you rabbits.

We are Risen, indeed

 

 

 

Forgiveness Reiki

I knelt at the altar rail. Recently out of the hospital, I was frail. I stood 5’5″ and weighed 92 pounds. I was 26 years old. The other supplicants—ordinary men and women who had taken their lunch break to attend St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral’s noontime healing service—gathered around me. They laid hands on me. The priest, a middle-aged white man, asked me for my request. I told him I needed to be healed.

I was raised Episcopalian, but you know how we Episcopalians are—vague on details. I didn’t know we had a healing service as one of our seven sacraments. I knew communion, I knew baptism. I knew these were foundational acts of my faith. When I learned of the healing service, I assumed it was the same. I assumed it was intended to heal. And by heal, I mean cure. Actual physical healing.

When the priest finished his whispered prayer, he dipped his thumb in oil and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. I’ve since learned the “healing” of this service is interpreted as a spiritual healing—you know, to give you a better attitude about whatever crap is in your life. I also came to realize this particular priest could lay his hands on your head, press down, and pray for what your heart needed. He had the gift of healing.

When his thumb completed the sign of the cross, I fell out. Slowly, as if pushed over by a feather, I toppled from my needle-pointed perch as easily as if I’d been in a sawdust-floored tent with sweaty Holy Rollers clapping and swaying while chickens pecked for bugs in the aisles.

Apologies were made on my behalf (“She’s recently out of the hospital.” “She’s vey weak.” “She needs air.”). But I knew I’d been healed. And I had. My affliction was removed and—while it should have returned on a regular basis every few months—it has not done so in 34 years. I always attributed the healing to my ignorance: I believed I would be healed. Plus, I was in the hands of a healer for a priest.

Why am I telling you this? Despite how important this experience was in my life, I consider the healing offered by FORGIVENESS REIKI to be more important. This practice can heal not only the body, but also the mind, heart, and soul, which is sorely needed these days.

Forgiveness Reiki: Hands-On Healing, Distance Healing, and Prayer with both Reiki and the Holy Spirit (Michael S. Van Hecke, 2017) was written by my cousin. He lost his sixteen-year-old-son to a traumatic event then stood up in front of the funeral congregation and led them in a prayer of forgiveness. Several days later he posted a long Jesus Healing System Prayer asking, among other things: “I ask and pray for assistance in transforming our grief and sense of loss into love…”; and “I ask and pray that any fear-based prayers regarding Maurice or us be transformed …”; and “I ask and pray for assistance in forgiving those who might have prevented his death but did not.” (page 64)

Lots of folks know prayer. Some know Reiki hands-on-healing. This practice combines the two. The essence of the practice is forgiveness. The practice can be used as hands-on-healing modality; a forgiveness program; or, a process starting with forgiveness and moving into hands-on-healing: “After exploring forgiveness, participants are given new tools to love their neighbor, particularly as a healer.” (page 26).

The forgiveness practice is not easy. For me, the first hardest step is wanting to forgive. For example, despite my having experienced healing in a church, I’d much rather hold on to my grudge against the church of my childhood for not allowing girls to carry the cross down the aisle or act as altar boys, for only sponsoring a Boy Scout troop and not a Girl Scout troop. I mean, I’ve spent years figuring out and cataloging ALL THE WAYS the church let me down as a child—you want me to let that go?

Yep. I have a feeling I will be practicing the forgiveness aspect for a while.

Forgiveness Reiki by Michael S. Van Hecke

The book contains prayers to use as you practice. It has a step-by-step description of how to conduct a Jesus Healing System session. It is also full of wisdom. I can’t quote the whole book, but here are some good ones:

“But for now, let’s make a huge shift and chose to interpret everything that happens as an act of love.” (p. 10)

“It’s about not being ruled by our judgments so we can show up spiritually regardless of what’s going on.” (p. 10)

“Only God knows the truth about divinity, heaven and hell, the Gospel the virgin birth, Buddha Krishna, Allah, and everything else. So why in our arrogance do we have to pretend that we know the answers then use our ignorance to pick sides and tell others that they are wrong?” (p. 14)

“Perhaps our greatest teachers are those who help us learn what we’d prefer to avoid. God wants what’s best for us and will provide both teachers and lessons to help us learn. How we perceive them is up to us. Christians and healers of all faiths must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is being revealed to us.” (p. 56)

And here is my very favorite:

“At night, I’d shut my eyes and see ‘shooting stars’ going across my eyelids. A hypnotist friend suggested ‘reaching up and pulling one down’ with my energetic hand. I did so, and upon examination, found that each was a note, or sorts. One said ‘Thinking of you.’ Another said ‘We are with you, you are not alone,’ and many others said ‘We love you.’ These shooting stars were prayers. The next time a crisis occurs, please remember this story and pray repeatedly for all those involved. Prayer matters.” (p. 65)

FORGIVENESS REIKI is available on Amazon. I haven’t done it justice. Buy one for yourself and see. Thank you, Michael, for writing it.

Forgiveness Reiki by Michael S. Van Hecke

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

at first

then I forget about it

until

a middle-aged white man keeps staring

or

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

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

I am uneasy simply wearing a shirt.

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

so brave.

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

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

 

Beware the Crazy Toilet

I wasn’t asking for much. I only needed to pee. But the toilet had a mind of its own. It kept flushing. An automatic flusher. Annoying, show-offy, overachieving toilet. Making that whooshing noise then shooting water into the bowl like a Yellowstone geyser on steroids.

I jumped up. If you think I’m gonna sit there and let a mad toilet spray dirty toilet water into my private places, you’ve got another thing coming.

It quieted. I sat back down . . . in an incorrect, insulting manner apparently because the toilet got angry again. Really flipped its lid. Whoosh! It attacked.

This time when I rose, I twisted to check out the gizmos. Toilets shouldn’t have gizmos. They should have a handle and a tank with a porcelain top that you raise only when you’re certain it’s about to overflow and you need to lift the rubber ball and hold it out of the water or jiggle the chain. Or something.

The gizmos looked okay. Just a black button the size of a pea with a sign that read: “Press to flush.” I wasn’t pressing. It was flushing anyway.

Feeling like a gullible fool, I gingerly sat down again. And finished. And stood up. It didn’t flush.

Stupid-ass defective toilet.

When I exited the stall and washed my hands, a woman wandered into the washroom (have I mentioned I was at a Mississippi “The Hospitality State” rest area?) The woman looked lost. I thought to warn her about the aggressive toilet, but she instinctively chose the handicapped stall. She didn’t need my help. If I could remember exactly which rest stop I was at, I’d tell you. Someone needs to do something with that toilet.

I’m not gonna post a photo of a toilet. Here’s a much cuter photo of Evangeline in a Saint’s hat

My definition of the Holy Spirit at work is when you think you’re doing a very important x, but, unbeknownst to you, the true point of your activity is y. You trundle along, doing your x, and all the while, God is doing y. Suddenly, a beautiful thing blooms into being, something you had no idea was in the works, and all you can do is stand in awe, mesmerized by God’s hand in the world.

This is the way I feel reading Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018). The book is about the history, use, and joy of praying with (and without) beads, but what’s really happening in the book is an encounter with a life lived hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit.

Bead by Bead is part of the Active Prayer series that contains my Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God (Paraclete Press, 2009) and written by my friend Suzanne Henley. It opens with the concrete—a history of beads and specific instructions on how to pray a set of beads—and moves to the metaphysical: praying “beads” even when we don’t have a string in our hand, and making our own lives into prayer beads. Suzanne has lived with beads for years, patiently creating her extraordinary creations, which are featured on the cover and throughout the book. I can’t help but think this immersion informs her ability to view the world as a luminous string of prayer.

In all ways, the book expands the concept of prayer beads beyond the traditional view of a rosary. The book contains a wide variety of prayers (or hymns or chants or whatever your little heart desires) to be used as we pray the beads. Those who love history and memoir and diamonds of insight will savor the book. Those who specifically appreciate the opportunity to combine physical activity with prayer will find a home in the book—Bead by Bead concludes with suggestions on how to draw and label our own beads. Along the way, there is no retreat from the messiness of prayer, or our lives, for that matter. Suzanne invites us into her  experience of a “widow maker” heart attack, for example. The primary prayer beads are not called Cruciform beads for nothing.

Please, take the time to be with this book. Settle in. Absorb it as you slowly turn from page to page enjoying the beautiful photos of Suzanne’s prayer beads and the delightful phrases crafted by her pen (okay, probably her computer, but definitely her unique mind.) You are going to want to re-read sentences. You’ll pause and ponder the insights she is making. You’ll guffaw at her humor. You will never look at lemons in the grocery store the same way again. Instead, when you spy the lemons in the bin, you will stop and say a prayer. I can’t think of a more wonderful gift a book can give.

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley

Latest Edition of Weird

It takes a lot to break through my dedication to finishing an ongoing project and write a blog post these days, but the last 24 hours have succeeded. Or, as I like to think of it, The Latest  Edition of Weird in My Life:

  • Today when reading the front page of the local newspaper, I learned how mules chew (sideways, if you feel I’m intentionally withholding information.) The mules had been abandoned in a cemetery. Their rescuers found them a new home, if you’re worried.
  • Tomorrow I go to the Wal-Mart to buy a metal detector so my husband and I can become old people who search for dimes on the beach (actually, this purchase is the result of arrows lost in the lot next door, an even weirder fact if you think about it.)
  • I had to ask the server at lunch today if the restaurant has a body buried in the front yard. She had no idea what I was asking. Here’s the photo. You decide. I halfway expected to see two abandoned mules wandering around.

    Is it a grave or not, and if so, why is it at a restaurant?
  • Next week, I will go to a lecture on how to compost and another lecture on the history of the Hancock County Historical Society. At the latter, I intend to ask where the water was missing from when Hurricane Katrina pushed it over Waveland and inundated the county (water wasn’t created by the hurricane; it had to come from somewhere: were the beaches in Cuba or Cancun dry?) I’ll let you know if they consider this a proper historical question or tell me I’m full of compost. I might need to find the Hancock County Oceanographical Society.
  •  I woke up at 5:30 this morning when the dog sat on my head. This is a meteorological event that might interest the Hancock County Oceanographical Society, should I find one: the dog is afraid of storms and considers my head a safe place.
  • I am reading children’s books. Middle grade, specifically Lemony Snicket. I’ve already read two. You can read them in one sitting. Or standing. The premise is that life is actually a series of unfortunate events, a philosophy I (and, I’m sure, the dog) can identify with.
  • I am now the proud owner of a live oak. If you don’t know what a live oak is, here’s a photo. This is NOT my tree. It’s the tree behind the “is it a grave or not?” headstone. My tree might become this beautiful with some TLC and time. My tree is situated on the lot next door with the missing arrows about to be located with a metal detector, which lot we just bought.

    An example of a live oak with a lot of epiphytes in Hancock County, Mississippi 
  • I may leave my brain to science. This thought occurred to me while in church this evening. I know you’re thinking, what damn church does she go to? I can’t remember the prompt, and thus can’t explain why this arose during the service. But I thought, if you like the brain so much, you ought to contribute to its understanding: leave your brain to science so that when you’re turning to compost, scientists will be learning from your brain. I haven’t talked to my husband about this idea. He might read about it in this blog post. My husband’s weird fact for the day: I read about my wife donating her brain to science in her blog post.
  • I bought two sailboats and a turquoise house and hung them on the window sill where they can hold my dreams.
    The receptacles of our dreams

    Life is only as weird as you can make it.

The Pope’s Cat

When I read a book to my grandsons, I read from the beginning. Specifically, we pause and read the page containing the author’s name and illustrator’s name (I’m sure there’s a fancy word for this page, but I don’t know what it is.) I start here because I want the boys to understand that who wrote the book is important and who illustrated it is important. Without these two folks, the boys would not have the joy of the book.

Even so, I have never approached a book from the slant of the illustrator. I did so for THE POPE’S CAT, Illustrated by my friend Roy DeLeon (and written by my former editor at Paraclete Press, Jon M. Sweeney.) Roy is an Oblate of St. Benedict, spiritual director, author of Praying with the Body (an offering in Paraclete’s Active Prayer Series that includes my Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God), an engaging professional visual artist, and a man as delightful as his illustrations.

The Pope’s Cat

In this chapter book recommended for ages six and up, (though I intend to read it to my 4 and 6-year-old grandsons), we are introduced to a stray cat via a charming glimpse of her crouching outside an Italian gelato stand in Rome. Next, we are given what has to be the most endearing image of the Pope that’s ever been. He’s waving at us. When this delightful Pope strolls past the cat’s gelato stand, the magic begins.

The next time we see the cat, she’s tucked into the cassock of the Pope as he walks into the Vatican apartments, then licking her lips over a plate of sugar cookies—her life is definitely on the uptick. The cat acquires a name (“Margaret”) and, as cats are want to do, goes exploring—the image of her with the Swiss Guard is adorable. We are also given the iconic image of the papal view from the balcony looking out over the crowd in the plaza below . . . except it’s Margaret the cat sitting at a window facing the crowd. I won’t give away plot complications. Suffice it to say it involves a sneeze. The image of a satisfied Margaret giving a broad wink is worth the price of the book.

As you read, be sure to note the whole of the illustrations, not just the foreground but what Roy has chosen for the backgrounds as well. I expect you are going to wind up with a well-thumbed and beloved book.

The Pope’s Cat

 

THE POPE’S CAT (Paraclete Press, 2018, paperback) will release March 13, 2018 and is now available for preorder on Amazon.

Mardi Gras Day

It isn’t what you’ve seen on YouTube. It’s not drunkenness and lifting tops. It’s exuberance and cleverness and so much work spent on costumes simply because being alive is an amazing wild ride.

I wore a diorama of myself. That’s my book, THE BONE TRENCH, in the diorama. It may never get sold, so I made one myself. 🙂

My diorama with the Barbie from the Muses parade and a copy of The Bone Trench

Mardi Gras is families and kids and kids and families.

The family that Mardi Gras together stays together: Things You Wish On: the Lincoln penny, a shooting star, and a dandelion. Plus me and Tom. (youngest grandson not pictured because he didn’t want to have his picture taken, but he was a shooting star too)

Mardi Gras is everyone in a city dressing up to strut down the street and hoot at the costumes and applaud each other in their creativity and, oh, you should have seen strangers accepting wishes from the shooting stars—they LOVED it.

I love Mardi Gras. This was a good one.

Hedgehog, Spirit Animal

My spirit animal for 2018 is the hedgehog. This is not new. I own the cutest collection of hedgehogs ever, which isn’t hard because hedgehogs are fundamentally cute. My focus on hedgehogs is, let’s say, resurrected. And this love will be incorporated into my Mardi Gras costume.

My hedgehog nailbrush and dental floss dispenser

Thus, in preparation and general betterment of the world, I offer you Hedgehog Facts.

Hedgehogs have changed little in the last 15 million years. They are a distant relative of the shrew. They shed their spines when under extreme stress.
Hedgehogs are not rodents. The species native to the Americas is extinct. They sleep during the day and wake at night to waddle around. A group of hedgehogs is called a prickle. Ferrets eat them. They can hibernate if their tummies are full enough. If they do hibernate, their body temperature drops to 36 degrees. They get cold as hell. They grunt like a pig.
Hedgehogs talk a lot. Like honey badgers, they are immune from snake bites. They eat frogs and watermelon and other things. They live long because they control their diet. They give humans ringworm. People ate hedgehogs in the Medieval ages, the barbarians.
Hedgehogs sleep rolled up in a ball.
Their ears are huge.
They like to live alone.
They bite.
Their babies are called hoglets.
Hoglets whistle to find their moms.
Adult hedgehogs squeal when excited.

Hedgehogs hiding in plain sight in my home altar

Hedgehogs are shy, hidden creatures. You will have to look closely to see my  “Homage to Hedgehog” on my Mardi Gras outfit, but now you know what to look for.

 

“Mahdi Graw”

Can y’all hardly wait to see my Mardi Gras Day costume?

Mardi Gras DAY because it’s already Mardi Gras season, and I’ve been in costume for a while.

For Tuesday, I’m making a tableaux.

And I’m wearing it.

You’re gonna LOVE it, I just know.

For the tableaux, I’m using one of the throws I got last night at the Muses Parade, readapted. Technically, my oldest grandson got the throw, but he didn’t want it, and I swapped him a blinking rubber ducky for it. He doesn’t know I’m using it in my Mardi Gras Day costume. He’s gonna LOVE it, I just know.

This morning, we went to his school’s Mardi Gras parade. Yep, after doing Muses last night, we were up at 8:00 this morning to be the grandparents at the kindergarten parade, which was the cutest thing you have ever seen, all pre-K and K students. Aubrey was the banner-carrier, head of the parade. He was so pleased. When he finished, all he wanted to know from his dad was, “Did you get any beads?”

I’ll post photos of the costume. In the meantime, here’s a random photo of New Orleans.

Right down the street from us in NOLA at Dr. Bob’s

 

New Year’s Eve Wishes

Happy New Year to those with stars in their eyes on how grand life has become. And to those struggling with the dismay of dreams lost. And to those standing in the middle, unable to discern whether they feel happy or sad with the way life is going. Our lives are our stories, writ large. May each of us have the best tomorrow we can. And the day after, and the day after . . . .

So I was in a hurry today and I needed to get my life insurance premium paid and I ran into the Farm Bureau office and I flashed a smile at the clerk behind the desk and shoved the check into her hands and whirled to the door, and she said to me, “It’s nice to see you again,” at which point I was already halfway through the parking lot.

So I did my errands, and I went back.

I hate doing this. It makes me feel like a fool. But the clerk had been extraordinarily nice to me and, besides, the reason I was so harried was because I was trying to get things done for the damn Christmas season!

Can you tell that returning to the scene of my error irritates the fire out of me?

I learned to endure this embarrassing humility during the eight years I facilitated the Door of Hope Writing Group. I knew so little about what I was doing, and I so often messed up, only to realize my mistake when I was in the parking lot, my hand on the car door handle. It was very important to me to get it right, and so I tucked my tail between my legs and went back inside to do it over again, or apologize, or set it straight.

Of course, the feelings of the Farm Bureau clerk didn’t matter that much, right?

I don’t give a rat’s ass whether she thought it was important or not. (See? Irritated.) It was important to me.

Plus, I figured if I didn’t go back and say something to her then I would be at the intersection of Poplar and Walnut Grove at the very time a car came barreling through the red light, and it would flatten me, all because I had acted like an asshole.

When I stood in front of her again and apologized for my earlier rudeness, she said, “No worries.”

She said, “It’s really good to see you again.”

The clerk at the desk beside her laughed.

She said, “Merry Christmas.”

It’s all good.

I hate nutcrackers

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

Die, Spam

This is not a major post. It’s a minor post. Due to website upgrades, my spam protection disappeared. Naked, I was inundated with sleazy messages about limp penises, opioid-crisis-level drugs, and loose women.  I realize now that this has kept me off the blog, as if creeping near exposed me to cooties.

I’m glad to report protections have been put back in place and spam has dried up. Like a slithering, prehistoric, slimy creature that cannot live without swamp water, it gasps its last breath. I promise to be more loquacious.

peace in creativity, Ellen

I Bet You do it Too

The first Community Writers Retreat I put together for Door of Hope Writing Group, the panel of facilitators was white. Every writer I’d identified to come and teach us about writing in an all-day conference was Caucasian. I wasn’t being racist. I was asking for favors: will you come—unpaid—to the Retreat and teach a workshop on writing? Of course I had hit up my writer friends, people I knew best. And the people I knew best were white.

When I had the lineup completed, I looked at the folks I’d selected and thought, wait a minute. So many of our audience weren’t gonna  be white. They would be African American. How could I offer them an all-white panel?

This, as they say, would not do.

So what did I do?

That year, and in all the years that followed, I went WAY outside my comfort zone to make sure our lineup of facilitators was predominantly Black.

I asked a mutual friend to please introduce me to a glorious African American writer who I’d heard reading her work. I met with her. I asked if she would be a facilitator for us.

I researched Memphis African American writers. I cold-called a published novelist. I asked if he would please come teach a workshop for us.

I contacted a famous local African American journalist and asked her if she would, perhaps, consider coming to speak to us about writing.

I went to Maggie’s Pharm and asked Valerie June—who had not yet blown up the roots music world and clerked at the store—if she would talk about songwriting to our group.

I called a well-known orator and politely asked if he would perform for us during lunch.

I reached back in time and asked a writer from an old writing group to please come educate us about getting published.

I emailed a preacher who I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat and asked him to come talk about spiritual writing.

I asked a young spoken word artist to entertain us during our lunch break.

I kept at my talented writer friend who did not believe herself ready yet to, please, come enlighten us.

In each and every instant, those I asked said yes. Immediately, graciously, enthusiastically. Several became friends. One we believed for a while to be related to my husband, but that’s whole ‘nother story. All were full of information the participants lapped up. I continue to be incredibly proud to know each one of the facilitators.

The point?

It’s not weak to admit your natural approach is to favor your friends. Those who are like you. People you know and are comfortable with. It is, however, wrong to not analytically examine the results for evidence of implicit bias. To ask yourself, is this skewed? Can I benefit from widening the lens? Am I, in fact, abusing my position of power to exclude those who should be included?

That was one of the many, many lessons the Door of Hope Writing Group taught me over the years.

Recording Under a Train

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

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

On the second recording, the voices sucked.

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

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

On to round three.

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

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

It is exhausting.

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

Foolish woman.

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

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

Evangeline, wondering when all this recording will be over

I hate being manipulated. Donald Trump wants a second term as president. So, he’s running his presidency the same way he’s managed his life so far: divide everyone beneath him. He ran his companies that way—pitting each subordinate against the other so advancement depended on the other losing. His current goal: to pit me against you.

To succeed, he has to put our deeply held values in play. We’re Americans—we’re not going to claw at each other over Duke’s or Hellman’s, Wendy’s or McDonald’s. But race, or the flag, or first-responders, yep, that’ll do it. That’s why he tweets, to stir up our emotional reactions. It’s hard to rile emotions with proper, boring governmental action. In fact, our founders designed the country’s governance structure to prevent emotions from flaring (see de Tocqueville). But if you insert yourself personally into a public conversation in a VERY LOUD VOICE, you succeed.

Trump’s game plan to divide us also requires that he fracture the things we use to connect. We won’t fear the other if we see them as on our team. Literally, that was what this weekend’s attack on the NFL was about. Sports are one of the major avenues we use to connect with strangers. When I first heard about the planned protests, I thought everyone should buy game tickets and support the men on the field by taking a knee in the bleachers. That’s exactly what Donald Trump wants. He wants the man next to me to quit thinking of me as a Saints fan and instead look at me as a pinkie, Commie, libtard kneeling. (And listen, y’all, it worked: I got mad at Drew Breese for not kneeling. DREW BREESE, whose Saints led New Orleans into a remembrance of joy after the levees broke. My Lord.)

Unfortunately, Trump’s management style doesn’t work. The companies he managed tanked, until he learned to slap his name on a business and let someone else run it. If we participate in his manufactured divisiveness, our country will tank too.

The good news is, I don’t work for Donald Trump. Neither do you. My livelihood doesn’t depend on staying in his good graces. I don’t have to fight you to keep him happy. If I let him lead me by the nose into more and more extreme positions until we both think the other has lost their damn minds, it’s purely voluntary.

At this point, you might pause and blink—is he really manipulating me? Is my righteous anger being manufactured to serve another man’s goals? But, after a minute, chances are you’ll return to the emotions you brought to the second sentence of this post. You’ll decide your feelings on racial injustice or the flag are too important, and I’m an appeasing Neville Chamberlain. Only problem, you aren’t Churchill. You and me, we’re Czechoslovakia. Pawns. We’re victims of the man who destroyed our ability to connect over the sentence: “How ’bout them Saints?”

We have to resist this manipulation. But how do we do that? How do we break the circuit of emotions that keep us ready to anger, dismiss the other, hate them for not appreciating how important our values are?

You turn to the person next to you and ask, So, how’s your mama?
Or say, I love your earrings.
Tell me what fun things are in your life these days.
You a Game of Thrones person or not a Game of Thrones person?
Would you share the recipe to this green bean casserole?
Can you believe how hot it is?

For this to work, you must actually do it. You can’t intellectually admit that it might be a good idea. (And, please, don’t try to “talk” someone into seeing your point of view—it factually doesn’t work.) You have to experience a conversation with a particular person whom you perceive as fighting against your most precious American values, even if that conversation takes place in your mind with their image in your brain. Afterwards, your brain will untighten, and you’ll seek to find slivers of light into which agreement can slip. You’ll come up with ways to support the other’s values while maintaining your own. I know—where’s the integrity in that?

Go ahead. Give it a try. I’ll go first.

So, Donald Trump—how’s your mama?

The Brain and Writing Contests

As part of my quest to become an amateur neuropsychologist, I have recently read two books on the brain. Even though they were national bestsellers, I am taking the position they gave me insights into the workings of the brain that few others possess. The latest book focuses A LOT on statistics and probability.

Now, I tutored football players in statistics when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It was a GREAT gig because the tutoring was through the athletic department (rich as Croesus in the academic world) and, back in the dark ages, it paid $5.00/hour. Anyway, my statistics professor recommended me for the job based on my stellar performance in his classes (true story). What I had discovered in studying statistics—a subject everyone HATES—was that men from Ohio say “May-sure” rather than “measure.” More substantively, I also learned that statistics were counterintuitive. If I thought the answer was clearly one thing, I was probably wrong. In reading this book, I’ve learned that statistics are, literally, counterintuitive. Your intuitive mind always goes to the wrong answer. If you want to get the right answer, you have to slow down and use your System 2 analytic brain.The authors of these books call the intuitive brain with its preference for shortcuts and rules of thumb “lazy,” but that seems a little judgmental to me. Expert neuropsychologists can be hard-core like that.

Of course, to become an expert in anything, you must practice. So I’ve been putting myself to sleep at night by figuring the probabilities of winning or placing in a writing contest I entered. (I’m not going to name the contest in case the judge is reading this blog post and is subconsciously swayed by my keen neuropsychology skills.)

To do my analysis, I used a total figure of contest submissions of 600. I used this figure for the sole reason that in the first contest I ever entered, I placed in the top 25 of 600 entries. The experts would call this an unreliable base line, but amateur neuropsychologists frequently are called upon to work in less-than perfect conditions. I proceeded to calculate my chances of winning (too minuscule to report) or placing in the top 25, 15, 5, 3. Figuring these probabilities requires converting fractions to percentages in your head, but neuropsychologists must be able to do this to make everyone else think they are super smart.

Did I mention this is the way I put myself to sleep at night?

Anyway, I did arrive at percentages for each tier. Plus, I evaluated my chances of winning once I landed in each tier. I did NOT assume success in a lower tier has any relation to advancement in the next tier. Of all things, it is statistically incorrect to use your experience of advancement to one point to project how you will advance from that point on. This dynamited my hopeful feeling that if I made it to the top 15, my chances of advancement were greater. Not true. By that point, all applicants have proven themselves superior, which means they have met the basics of grammar, typos, good structure, finely drawn characters, engaging story. Those advancing must prove something else. (This fallacy is akin to a graduate student projecting her stellar undergraduate career will continue in grad school, when every person in grad school has the same stellar undergrad record—to project success, she must identify how she well she will perform on grad school criteria.)

Which brings us to the factor these books say no one wants to talk about. (I know, you’re thinking, no one wants to talk about ANY of this. I’m being more specific here.)

Novels in contests are judged by people. All people have subconscious biases. In fact, our brains share many, many biases of function. We make decisions using common shortcuts and illogical logic and all sorts of other things. The books I’m reading would say at all levels, but particularly in the higher tiers of a writing contest, luck takes over.

By “luck,” they mean a confluence of circumstances outside the control of the individual that work out as “bad” luck or “good” luck. For example, the best novel in the entire bunch might not make not even make the first cut. Say a reader loves a big, sweeping, story with beloved—predictable—plot lines. She gets a submission that meets these criteria. It also is full of typos and grammatical errors (which the rule contest call a real no-no). Another novel is throughly edited but experimental in nature (a harder to follow plot). Based on her belief in the promise of the first novel, she could advance it, as her brain begins to formulate analytical justifications for doing so. Or maybe she uses the shortcut, “My gut just tells me this one is better.” The better written novel winds up in the dustbin.

Luck can also work out well for me, the applicant. For example, maybe my reader reviews my novel right after she’s had a snack. The rest of the submissions she reads at the end of the day when her tired brain defaults to the easier choice: eliminate, eliminate. (Experiments have repeatedly shown this to universally happen even in situations of the greatest importance). Outcome: I advance to the next tier, and a (perhaps) better novel does not.

This realization—lying there in the dark, still not asleep—led me to switch in the dead of the night from statistics to ethics. I began to wonder if praying for my readers’ brain malfunctions to work in my favor was ethical? For example, can I pray that the reader/judge on my novel spent her summers in Memphis with her grandparents and thus adores Memphis where my novel is set? What if her grandfather recently died, and she connected with the grandfatherly protagonist in my novel? If so, she will be emotionally drawn to my novel without realizing the strength of the pull (I chose to believe ethical readers/judges do their damnedest to keep free of known biases). Her brain will then backfill her choice with rational reasons for her selection (the description was stunning, the character unique, the plot gripping.)

I ran this ethical dilemma past my sister, and she said it would be unethical if my biases prayers involved death. Fair enough.

In any event, even if I get into the top 3 finalists, it hit home that—after all that success—my chances of winning would still be only 33%. Terrible.

Ultimately, as I drifted off to sleep, I concluded that predicting success in a writing contest is pretty near impossible. Unless, say, Neil Gaiman entered. Then I’m pretty sure he would win. Even an amateur neuropsychologist can tell you that.

My Brain on Statistics

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 

If I had lived during the 1860s, I probably would’ve done exactly what my mother’s grandfather did. Cursing, I would’ve picked up a gun and left my Mississippi family to protect my homeland. I would’ve fully understood I was fighting for a cause I did not support—preserving the right to own people. But the irresistible love of home would’ve forced me to take on lice and rain and mud and cannon fire.  I would’ve tromped through land that so recently had been someone’s backyard, aiming to kill men I had no quarrel with.

When the war ended and my side was the glorious loser, would I have wanted to see monuments erected to the politicians and generals who’d gotten us into the war? Helllllll, no! Those fools forced me to fight a war I didn’t want to fight, and then the sons of bitches f**ing lost!

So I’m not surprised veterans didn’t erect the Confederate States of America statues strewn across the American South. Almost all were erected after 1900. Quick reminder: the American Civil War ended in 1865. Reconstruction—the post-war era of Southern occupation by Federal troops during which it might not have been prudent to erect statues—ended in 1877.

It wasn’t until 40 years after the war that CSA statues gained momentum. (You think we waited a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War and erect a memorial? Saigon fell in 1975. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was fully completed by 1983). Those still seared by the heat of war didn’t erect the CSA statues. White people erected the statues in a cold, calculated move to assert white race dominance.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, given as New Orleans removed four of its Confederate statues, explains the history:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. . . . These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

True, the statues are “historical.” But the only history they teach is about America’s continuing surges of white supremacy. If you can’t answer the question, what was happening in 1900, 1909, 1957, and 1962 that led Americans to erect statues of a war that ended in 1865?, we can’t begin to have a conversation about whether the statues should stay.

You might say, “My ancestor fought in the Civil War!” But, yeah, so did mine. It’s not enough. You have to ask yourself, would my great-grandfather really want me to peg my identity on the worse experience of his life? Isn’t it more likely that his fervent prayer would be that his children and grandchildren live good lives? To be better in all things than they were? If your ancestor didn’t fight to preserve slavery but to defend his homeland, allowing the war to take center stage offends the reason he served. So there’s your choice: my ancestor fought to own people (unacceptable) or my ancestor fought to defend his home and I’m gonna ignore that to focus on the war (unacceptable).

I know—there’s that sticky thing called pride. Listen, I absorbed my family’s story about a relative going overseas with a legislative committee to buy one of these damn statues. We were proud of our relative—he sailed across the ocean to France, mind you. Only with time did the glow fade as we collectively absorbed the fact that the honoree was one of the most virulent racists the state ever produced. Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.

We must stop loving the South for its war. We must love it for the same reason our ancestors did. For the ripe figs and pebble-bottomed creeks and the light calling us home at night. To do otherwise sells the South down the river. We can’t cling to our ancestral myths when we really do know better.

With the whole picture in front of you, what do you choose to focus on?

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

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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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