When I began talking about a Door of Hope writing group book, people told me the book had to include my voice. Feature my voice, even. This was not what I wanted. Specifically, I didn’t want to be the well-off white woman who began working with those who had no shelter and immediately had the bright idea to write a book about her experience. What I wanted was for people to read the book, get to know the writers, and shift their view of “the homeless.” Specifically, I wanted readers to eagerly approach the authors at book signings and start talking to them as if they knew them. I wanted the book’s readers to love and appreciate the authors as much as I did.
But how to structure the book? I went around the block several times over this but eventually landed on a group memoir: WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS. Chronological chapters tell the authors’ stories: When We Were Young, As We Grew Up, What Sent Us into Homelessness. The wonderful review done by Chapter 16.org noted that this structure gives the full picture of the authors’ lives, not just the “dramatic second act” when they experienced living on the streets. How grateful I am for this insight. Because homelessness is only one part of the authors’ fluid lives, an overwhelming, proud-to-have-survived part, but nonetheless only a part.
As I am in New Orleans recovering from hip surgery, I couldn’t be there in person to accept the award. My good friend and proud homeless champion Marisa Baker accepted for me. And here’s the group photo of all the winners:
I love it that the book is literally standing in for me, accepting the honor. So very fitting. For the award means my decision long ago to focus on the writers’ voices was the correct choice. The Champion choice. The one most supportive of those who have experienced homelessness in their lives. For they, the authors, are the true Champions.
To honor this award, please go to Amazon and buy a copy of the book. Read it, then pass it along to whoever you feel led to share it with. Thank you!
This morning at the church service attended mainly by those living on the streets, one of the guys told me about two recent incidents when he’d been told he was an inspiration. He began the story by saying, “I’m not telling you this to to be bragging.”
I’ve known him for about a year and a half. He wasn’t telling me to be bragging. He was sharing this development because such amazing moments require acknowledgement and respect.
To be minding your own business, going about doing what you feel you’re supposed to be doing, and to have someone tell you your action—or the very example of your life—helped them make a life-changing decision: how wonderful is that? Not only did you have an impact, but the person cared enough to take the time to tell you. In the sharing of such moments I can’t help but detect a certain amount of awe: can you believe I was lucky enough to impact another person in a good way?
Yes, if you’re a first grade teacher or a parent. For the rest of us, it’s a little surprising.
I know the feeling because in the last week, when three members of writing group had the chance to name someone whom they admire or who had a positive impact on their lives, they named me.
I am not someone who hears compliments well. I shrug them off, if they even penetrate my brain. Sometimes I think: well, they probably felt sorry for me and thought I needed a pick-me-up (don’t analyze my psychological (ill) health—it’s shooting fish in a barrel.)
The point is: the third time someone from writing group took the time to claim my influence on them, I heard it. I heard them say I was loyal and nonjudgmental and quietly assertive (how Southern is that?) and a follower of God and (hallelujah!) funny.
I share this with you with the same awe I saw in my friend’s eyes this morning. Damn, he seemed to be saying, isn’t this the coolest thing?
I knew him as a willing orator. At any given Memphis School for Servant Leadership gathering, he might rise and recite one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches. “Recite” is too tame a word. He would perform the speeches. From memory, without notes, with passion. I knew him as a part of the life of the school. I was quite taken with him.
Now I learn two new facts about him at once: he was homeless, and the police in another city killed him:
I’m glad a jury awarded his family $4.6 million in damages for his killing, but he’s still dead. If he were me—a white, well-off, straight woman—he wouldn’t be dead. I believe his death is the result of our belief, as a society, that a life is valued, either more or less, based on how much money we perceive the owner of that life to have. More money, more respect. Less money—well, no matter how talented you are, you may very well wind up on the floor of the jail in a deadly chokehold then tasered until you are dead.
I don’t know her, but she is the friend of my friends. She was sleeping on the streets but had been approved for housing. Soon, her ordeal would be over, but before that could happen she was attacked while sleeping in the doorway of a church.
If she were me—a white, well-off, straight woman—she wouldn’t be in the hospital. I believe her attack is the result of our view, as a society, that only the lives of those who’ve earned our respect by conforming with our own values deserve a place of protection. Step outside the lines we draw, and you might end up in the ICU of the local trauma center, struggling to survive.
In my neighborhood, when a crime spree occurs (by which I mean cars are broken into), police surveillance increases. What has happened is this: the police have been given specific information on crimes that are greater-than-likely to occur, and they respond by giving protection that is greater-than-normal. So if we have a group of citizens, such as those experiencing homelessness, that we know are greater-than-likely to be victims of violence, shouldn’t we through our police be giving them greater-than-normal protection? Why instead do we hear about greater-than-normal police violence against homeless men and women? I think the answer lies in the values of our society I’ve described above. Those values seem to place “the homeless” who don’t conform to our values and have no money at the bottom of the list of those we care about.
After a long hiatus, I submitted a couple of short stories to literary magazines today.
I’ve been working on the new website, mulling over what stories I wanted to include. The website will have a “Photo Bio” featuring a sentence about my life that reflects a dominant themes in my work and a representative photo. Click on the photo and you can read (or listen) to work that engages the theme.
For example, under the “I grew up to be a lawyer and show clothes on the runway,” you will be able to click on a glamor shot and read The Dress, which appeared in Skirt! Magazine, or listen to “Show the Clothes.” where two models get into fisticuffs.
Given my recent proclivities, much of the fiction will be in audio form, but I also want to include PDFs folks can read. I knew I’d use “Held at Gunpoint,” the story that received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses. But what else?
In search of an answer, I wandered through old stories lurking inside folders entitled “Odd Devices” (where the structure doesn’t follow a standard “and then this happened” telling); “Distance Stories” (where the narrator is not as close a point of view as I normally use), and one folder I can’t tell you the name of without blushing.
Inside the “Women” folder, I found two old stories I liked so well I don’t want to “self-publish” them by placing them on the website. Instead, I slipped them into envelopes (yes, no email submissions) and sent other copies to Submittable and other online submission processes.
One story is a post-Katrina story set in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m hoping the topical nature of it, given the upcoming 10th anniversary of the storm, might help with its acceptance. The other is a story about a young woman who had to leave her children and live on the street. Because I wrote this BEFORE I began facilitating a writing group of men and women who live on the street, I shamelessly began my submission letter: “For seven years, I’ve facilitated a writing group of men and women who know homelessness.” I measured the story against that experience to see if it rang true (it obviously did), but I had no fear of exploiting the experience since I wrote it prior thereto.
We shall see if anyone wants them, but here’s the primary thing: they are good stories. Right now, when I’m going through so much rejection trying to get an agent for the novel, it was really nice to run across these stories and realize with the cold eye of not having seen the work in a long, long time—you CAN write.
As I always say, you never know why you’re going from A to B but, most of the time, it’s not the reason you think. I thought I was getting my new website ready for launch, but what I really was doing was laying a balm on my soul.
I cannot be at the Wednesday morning church service this week where “art” is defined as crosses made from chip bags thrown into the streets of the neighborhood, but I’m there nonetheless.
I stab my thumb with my needle, and I’m remembering the suggestions for images to include on our new banner: an eagle, World Love, a Harley belt buckle.
I snip a patch from my old dress—I loved this dress, I really looked good in it, I grieved when I literally wore holes in it—and I don’t worry about the uneven edges. We who attend the Wednesday morning service know uneven edges. That’s why the background of our banner will be a patchwork. That, and a patchwork is what I can do.
I peruse the large green canvass I’ve selected as the form for the patchwork of our banner, and I realize how much I’ve taken on. That’s the way life works for me. I glance up during our fancy Sunday morning service, and my eyes land on the banner at the front of the church. Hunh, I think. Our Wednesday morning service doesn’t have a banner. Why don’t we have a banner? I know—we can make a banner!
Banners, by definition, are big. Patches, by definition, are small. Banners are mighty and waving and proclamative. Patches are utilitarian, subversive, and deceptive in their strength. Did I mention that most of the congregants at the Wednesday morning service walk in from the street mission down the road?
We are going to take these small patches and sew them together and create a big-ass banner. People will look at it and say, a Harley belt buckle? And we’ll say, if you don’t like it, make your own banner. Well, we probably won’t say that. We’ll say, what would you like to see on the banner? Then we’ll work that in too. Because if there’s one thing we are at Wednesday morning service it’s inclusive. Even when it comes to our very own banner.
(Written today at Door of Hope Writing Group)
When I was in junior high, I wanted to be a Viking. A Viking wife, actually, who stood on the deserted beach and threw logs on a blazing bonfire as I gazed out to sea, awaiting the return of the long-unseen ship.
In high school, I dreamed of moving to Maine and living on the pounding coastline where waves crashed and snow fell so thick I had to trudge through the knee-high drifts just to get a carton of milk from the grocery store.
I didn’t do either of these things—obviously, I couldn’t go back in time and as I grew up, my more rational side took me to college, law school, marriage, and a mainstream law firm where the biggest excitement I faced was the time I thought a client was calling me into the lobby to shoot me (he didn’t).
Now when I dream, I see what is already in front of me: the lush ferns waving in my yard, my husband’s smile when his eyes meet mine, the grandbaby’s taking me by the hand because he knows his Gogi will play with him.
The only remnant of my childhood dreams appears when I stand transfixed by the barges plying the river, the seagulls pestering the air above them, the heavy thump of the engines traveling from the island’s soil into my adventurous heart.
How have your dreams changed? What were they when you were younger (we had a 14-year-old write today about her dreams when she was 6)? What are they like now?
The entries are from 2008. I had been involved with writing group for a year. Each week, after we met, I came home and wrote into the journal every significant thing I could remember having happened. The journal helped me process the chaotic hour that was a weekly writing group of men and women who had experienced homelessness. I am reviewing the journal to draft a template for “What Worked For Us When We Did Writing Group.”
The pages are hard to read. I can only read a few at a time. Memories come flooding back. At least three of those who were writing with us during that period are dead. I recorded their dialogue. They, and the times, come alive as I read what I wrote. I loved the group and the process of becoming accepted by them. They each gave me particular delight.
On these pages, I recorded when W. asked me my name. This is astonishing: at one time W. didn’t know my name. We have now been through the terrible period of W.’s arrest; his interminable trial appearances; his incarceration in both jail and the mental facility for evaluation; his release when the DA realized the woman’s physical description of the man who stole her pocketbook had nothing—nothing!—in common with W. But in June of 2008 he didn’t know my name.
Humbling that, six years ago, the Executive Director of the Door of Hope was asking me if we had enough writings for a book. Tomorrow, we hold the final meeting necessary to send our manuscript to the publisher. Six years after I recorded the words. “Do we have a book?” the answer is, “Almost. Almost.”
I groan and complain because it’s early in the morning and as my husband says, “You’ve never been a morning person.” I’ve decided, in fact, this is not my ministry. Opportunities to give back abound; it’s my choice how to respond. I’ll go one more time and then I’ll ease out. Let someone more suited take over. Life is a series of choices, and I have mine to make.
He sits next to me, one eye injured, the other gently making a connection. He calls me by name because I’m wearing a name tag—this has happened the entire morning and I keep forgetting the name tag and wondering, how do you know me? He tells me he hasn’t seen me around these parts before. I explain my disjointed living schedule, and I throw in that I’ve cut my hair; I suspect most folks won’t recognize me with such a radically different look. “It looks good,” he says. When I demure, he adds, “I’m serious. It lets the beauty of your face shine through.”
“Ellen!” he yells. He told me he wanted to read me his story before I left and, distracted, I’m walking out the door. I sit on the couch. He reads, giving it inflection where needed, demonstrating the surprise he felt at the time of which he writes. The narrative flows easily. Toward the end, he arrives at a pause in the telling where beautiful imagery rises with his words, and time begins to stand still. Slowly, he closes the story, and I must reach out and give him a hug. The story is amazing.
They’ve been together for ten years. His face glows as he tells the story of their recent trip to marry. They wear matching wedding bands. His spouse’s sleeve threatens to drape through the breakfast grits. He rolls the sleeve for his spouse, removing it from danger. He allows me to write a prayer of thanksgiving for their newly committed love.
I’m supposed to be giving. I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be volunteering. I’m supposed to be bringing. I am folding paper and cutting out hearts and crosses. I am doing nothing. I am the recipient. If I return, it’s not because I have a ministry to fulfill. It’s because I’ve left that much more indebted.