I spent eight years assisting those who were experiencing homelessness to get their voices into the world. So I am acutely aware that in my short story, The Yellow Line, I am writing in the voice of a woman whose experiences I cannot actually know. But Leroy Scott, one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness, once told me, “Ellen, you’ve been with us every week for years. You can do that.“
So, Memphis folks, go pick up a copy of Storyboard Memphis. Read The Yellow Line. Then say a silent thank you to the men and women who joined the Door of Hope Writing Group and let me be a part of their lives, if only for a little while.
He stopped me in the stairwell of the yellow brick church on Monroe. It was our first session of the Door of Hope Writing Group held at the church. The church was temporary. We’d moved there from the backyard of Manna House where I teetered across the gravel in my high heels and June Averyt flung out her arm and said, “This is Ellen Prewitt. She’s going to teach us how to be a writing group.” In the church, we wrote in the kitchen, but at least we were inside.
I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anyone yet, though Leroy Scott and Tommy Payne had already lodged themselves in my memory. I don’t know if I even recognized him from a prior session—was his beret familiar?—or if this was our first time going from strangers to a person. He wanted to know, “What was that word you used about my writing?”
We talked about craft in writing group. We talked about it a lot. Each time a member shared their writing, I commented on something craft-driven in what they’d written. He had written a story about his time working on Beale Street and, to describe the impact the glittery African-American street in Memphis had on this small-town boy, he included backstory on his life.
“Backstory,” I told him in answer to his question. “When you include something that is necessary to understand the point you want to make.”
He repeated it—”Backstory”—like I do when I wanted to stick something in my brain.
Gradually, I came to know him as Roderick. Roderick Baldwin. I wasn’t clear if he was a guest at Door of Hope or in charge, but that was a decision I made early on, not to differentiate between staff, who often joined us writing, and guests who were experiencing homelessness. Over time, he became the manager of the Door of Hope support center where we moved shortly thereafter.
Roderick—along with Leroy Scott, Tommy Payne, Robb Patton, and William L. Hogan, Jr—was a founding member of the Door of Hope Writing Group (not me, because—and this is basic—one person can’t start a group; I was the instigator, trigger, grit in the oyster, but not a founder.) He was at the first organizational meeting of what became The Bridge, the Memphis street newspaper started by the Rhodes College students. He because its vendor liaison. He became one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. He became my mentor, guiding me along the path of interacting with those who were living on the street. And he became a friend.
Unless Roderick was out of town or had a doctor’s appointment, I think it’s safe to say he attended every Door of Hope Writing Group meeting we ever had. We met for 8 years. Weekly.
Roderick passed last week, and we will be having his funeral Saturday. We talked on the phone whenever I was out of town. We visited whenever I was in town. One of the last things he said to me when I told him I was stopping by with something for him but not coming inside because I had a bug and might be contagious was, “Oh, you and me, we’ll be okay.” Of the Door of Hope Writing Group founding members, only Tommy remains.
I have been grappling with—what the hell, that makes it sound so sophisticated; I’ve been moping around the house wondering—the “Why?” question. Actually, it’s a “What?” question. What am I doing with my life right now that matters?
When I was facilitating the Door of HopeWriting Group, the answer to this question was easy: I’m bringing to a group of folks who might not otherwise have it a tool to understand and speak their truth into the world.
Even earlier, when Paraclete Press published Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, and I conducted ALL THOSE WORKSHOPS, I could tangibly see what I was doing: giving a tool to folks for them to better understand their relationship with God.
So, okay—maybe the problem is my history of “purpose” sets the bar kind of high.
Be that as it may, even when I was recording my short story collection, I knew exactly why I was doing it: to transition from everyone knowing me as “the cross lady” to seeing me as a fiction writer. And I paired the stories with charitable contributions, so all was good.
And—here’s the important part—that venture was laying the foundation for Something Big. For my novel. Which would be Full of Importance. Even if the Importance was wrapped in words and plot that were funny as hell. It would Matter.
But as my telescope narrows to focus on my own writing career, I’m getting lost. Yeah, TRACKING HAPPINESS has as a major theme being nice to chickens. Raise them humanely. Treat them like living animals sharing the planet with us. But still. It’s mostly funny. And fun. It’s not earth-shattering. Where is the “What?” of it?
Then I read this article entitled Teaching and Purpose by Jon Chopan on the Glimmertrain website sent to me by the Jane Friedman emails (total aside: her emails are great; if you’re a writer and don’t already get them, you should sign up.) Mr. Chopan said a lot of things (though the essay is mercifully short), but he quotes Tim Seibles as saying, “I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”
I read this and thought, ahhh, that’s it: my purpose is to not be in cahoots with the nightmare. And it’s enough. (Are poets the smartest ones among us?) I can go with that. To gently ask us to be kind to chickens. To explicate grief rather than shoving it aside. To offer folks an escape, if just for a moment, from the grind of our lives. This I can do. Thank you, Jon Chopan and Tim Seibles. Thank you.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .”
“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.
updated an essay that won a contest but was never published
snapped a few pictures
How about you? How much of your daily life actually involves creativity? No, I didn’t create a musical or theatrical masterpiece. I do my work in clothes, the blank page, home and yard, detritus as art material. The commonness of the medium does not make it any less creative.
Where does your creativity spill out? Do you give yourself credit for the impulse? For the talent? Do you see the love in doing what you do?
The red table runners glowed, the tiny gold trees sparkled. The voices rang out in clear, clean notes—some among us could sing—and the warmth of the group welled up in me to the point I needed to leave the room. Not because I’m ashamed to cry in public, but because, over the years, I’ve grown tired of stifling the emotions Life knocks loose in me, grown weary of my self-scolding: no one else is crying, buck up! Instead, when I want to experience what is coursing through me fully, I often excuse myself and let the tears flow as they will. Today, at lunch, I stayed.
We sang, “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” and even though the smiles of the group enjoying each other in a safe, warm place as if they’d never known it otherwise almost tore me apart, I stayed.
We listened as Reverend Richard Smith recounted his story of first meeting the group, and even though the ghosts of those no longer with us rose before my eyes, I stayed.
We ate a meal that wasn’t pizza or bologna—”don’t nobody feed the homeless nothing but bologna sandwiches”—and even though Major explained to me how she did what the other group leaders asked her to do, “but it isn’t El-len Pre-witt,” I stayed.
I stayed because I could not leave the presence of the group, this marvelous thing that exists with no more substance than the people who make it up and yet more than that because people come, they go and still the group continues, yet never would have been if Joe Porter hadn’t said, “You should go to the Door of Hope and start a writing group,” and yet still would not have made it into this world if I hadn’t gone to the Door of Hope and June hadn’t let me do it and LeRoy hadn’t sat down and started asking questions and Roderick hadn’t stopped me on the stairs to ask, “Tell me again what is that ‘backstory’ thing you said I did,” and Tommy hadn’t arrived a beautiful writer and Judy hadn’t decided— finally, finally—that we weren’t out to do her any harm and William hadn’t taken to the written word like a duck to water and Robb hadn’t sung his Glory of God onto the page every week—if the group hadn’t made itself a group, this atmosphere of love, joy and thanksgiving never would have shone into the world.
So close we came to never being.
So incredibly lucky we are to continue being.
Thank you to Germantown United Methodist Church for being our benefactors. For providing the cozy room and gold Christmas trees and writing journals and the spinach cakes that became the talk of the lunch. Thank you for being with us for almost two years, the angels on whose wings our spirits soar. I cannot thank you enough for what you have given us: the opportunity for our group to live its life to the fullest.