Early Wednesday morning, the man who’d spent the night on the streets walked the hallway at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He stopped at my table, lingering. He did not look happy.
I think of this church hallway as the “neck” between Sister’s Chapel, where we hold the church service attended mostly by those living on the streets, and Martyrs Hall, where breakfast is served. Those who’ve attended church line up for breakfast and pass through the hall—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For several years I stood in a niche in the hallway at a folding table, encouraging passers-by to engage in small art projects. This morning, for the first time, I was offering the congregants “church to go,” pocket reminders of the Spirit.
The man was in earshot when I cast my net of explanation over the line of waiting folks. He drew nearer as I explained, “Thumb Prayers, I call them. Just small things for you to take with you to remind you of church this morning.”
“Say again?” he asked.
So I did, adding to it. “You can run your thumb across them to remind you of God’s presence in the world.”
“That’s not God,” he said, pointing.
“No, it’s just a reminder,” I repeated, my cache of words depleted by his unhappiness.
“That’s of the devil,” he insisted. “Fetishes.”
“Well, it may not be for you,” I said, and he willingly moved along.
It’s really hard to do anything involving religion that doesn’t offend someone. One time, I had a man tell me our church being named St. Mary’s was a blasphemy because the only focus should be on Jesus. Another time I had a man object to the crosses we were making from chip bags collected from the neighborhood. I don’t think the problem was our using trash to make a cross, the most sacred symbol of Christianity—the colors were all wrong.
I’m okay with this. My view is none of us knows the truth (a view I realize many also find blasphemous—we do know the truth; it’s what my church teaches) so who’s to argue?
For me, much of the difficulty lies in trying to explain the unexplainable, to translate the non-analytic with analysis. Trying, maybe, to traverse the neck between heart and head, body and soul, knowing and unknowing, without getting clogged up in the process.
In the end, I can only do the best I can do and hope that, as I once told a friend when she asked about cremation destroying the body that was supposed to rise again, God won’t let us make an irreversible mistake.
Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. All proceeds will go to Outreach, Housing, and Community, a Memphis organization working to end homelessness. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.
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!
I’d ducked inside the Support Center to make sure he hadn’t already arrived, and I exited as he walked up the drive, waving. “I’m late!” he called, though it was still a few minutes until 7:30. He told me he saw me drive by. I didn’t see him. I was concentrating on hoping he showed up—when you make plans a week ahead of time and there is no cell phone contact and the other party is walking or riding the bus to the meeting, the gathering is almost a matter of faith. “She’s ready for us,” he said as we buckled in. So we would be three, me and my friend and my other friend who announced—out of the clear blue—that she wanted to go to church Wednesday morning at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He helped her get her oxygen tank in the backseat. She’s always been no bigger than a minute. This morning she looked strong. Pretty with her hair up. Her friend was wearing a jacket. I’d dressed same as the others who would be at the church service: jeans and t-shirt. I’d forgotten about getting dressed up for church. I hoped my friends didn’t think my clothes meant I didn’t care about going to church. Or them.
As we arrived and settled on the pew, I worried my friends had gotten so past being homeless that this service for those living on the street would insult them. Maybe my friend didn’t know the makeup of the service when she’d asked to go. I leaned and tapped them both on the shoulder. “Y’all doing okay?” They both nodded. The guy seated next to me talked absolute gibberish, mostly about the Black president and Michael Jackson. Then he followed along on the bulletin as we read the Psalm.
The priest asked for someone to serve the wine for communion, and my friend stepped up. She left her oxygen tank beside her chair. The priest offered her communion before the rest of us. I realized she would be serving me communion. I turned my face to the side as I recalled the number of months before she would sit with us in writing group, how the Executive Director said one word when I wondered aloud what had changed such that she was willing to join us: “Trust. She trusts you.” Now we were at church together, and she was about to offer me the communion cup. Afterwards, she said it was a bit tricky. Not letting people get too big a gulp. I would never tell her that seeing her holding the cup made me cry.
When I gave the Thumb Prayers away, folks bent and peered and scooped them up as I offered my spiel: “They’re to put in your pocket and rub with your thumb when you need a reminder that God is always with us.” Some said no, then kept looking and said, “I’ve changed my mind. “Can I have one?” One guy kept asking, “How did you know how to make these? Did you read about it? Did someone tell you how to do it?” I told him I made them up from scratch. I’m not sure he ever believed me. When I had been leaving home that morning, I second-guessed myself and wondered if anyone would want them. I gathered 100 little thumb Prayers and brought them with me to church. I went home with five.
My friends both got glasses from the eyeglasses give-away. They enjoyed breakfast. She said she liked the Episcopal service. Twice, they asked if the woman conducting the service was a priest (she was.) When I dropped them back off at the house, he said they’d be spending the day together watching old movies. We talked about Perry Mason because he got me into Perry Mason. She said, “Do you remember me calling you and wishing you a Merry Christmas? I was sitting there thinking to myself, who can I call and wish Merry Christmas? I thought, I’ll call Ellen.” I wrapped my arms around her in a long hug goodbye, pressing my palms against her backbone. We promised to get together when I return in August. I hope we do.
No one owes you anything in this world. Everything anyone does for you is a gift. Some gifts—the gift of love or forgiveness or a trust fund enabling you to graduate law school and make your way in this world for a while—are pretty damn big gifts. Others may seem small, but those gifts are the ones that often bring tears to my eyes.
Chapter 16.org is a service of Humanities Tennessee that creates and strengthens community by talking about books, authors, and ideas. Stepping into an ever-widening gap, Chapter 16 publishes a newsletter offering in-depth (!) book reviews. The organization then provides the reviews to local newspapers. Today, a review of WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS was featured in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, thanks to Chapter 16.
The reviews given by Chapter 16 are precious, in the old-fashioned sense of referring to a limited quantity. Small staff, small budget. Lots of books requesting—and deserving—review. Yet they gave a review to a book written by fifteen formerly-homeless authors who have little to offer in return—no celebrity, no political pull, no fund-raising assistance, no cache—other than the power of their words.
And it wasn’t just “a review.” The book was assigned to a reviewer who himself has written about homelessness. Thus, when the reviewer analyzes, for example, the suitability of the book’s structure for telling the authors’ stories, he knows what he’s talking about. The book received a top-drawer, professional, thorough review. Not the “nickel-tour,” as one of the authors calls the free, truncated tours given by local nonprofits on charity days.
Many of the authors in the book have been writing for years. Before they were authors, they were writers. Every week, they walked from wherever they were staying to the Door of Hope support center to join writing group, writing and sharing their words. Most of the time, folks want to focus on the homeless part of “formerly-homeless writers.” Chapter 16 focused on the writer part. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.
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?
Today as I was leaving the 8:00 church service, which is mostly attended by folks living on the streets, a man stopped me. I was in my car; he was on foot. He stood in the exit to the parking lot, flagging me down. He’d already stood before me in the hall where breakfast is served, asking me to go find the pastor. He didn’t remember that.
When I rolled the window, he tugged his shirt tail from his britches.
“I’ve been sliced down the middle,” he said. On his bare abdomen, a wound ran from belly button to sternum.
I gave him two dollars. He wanted one, until I said two. Then he wanted four. I stuck with two. He began to sob. I told him two is what I wanted to do. He released my hand; the crying stopped. He went on his way.
The wound was yellow, not yet healed. I’d never seen anything like it.
At noon today, I sat with a friend who once lived on the streets. She had quesadillas; I had soup. We talked about her dad coming to live with her. She’d just finished an hour-long presentation to a group of college art students, sharing with them about her life. She told them twenty women were in her group on the street; only three still lived.
In the course of her talk, she pushed up the sleeve of her blouse. “I have scars all over my body,” she said, brushing the skin on her arm.
“God,” she said, when one of the students came up afterwards to interview her and asked how she got off drugs. “You can’t get out of something like that by yourself.”
At 5:00 today, I pulled into my garage and paused, returning a phone call.
The phone had rung earlier in the afternoon when I was involved in a talk with Rhodes College students. We were talking about a new art project for the 8:00 church service that had begun my day. Of course, I silenced the phone. It wasn’t until the drive home that I learned a friend was in the hospital. He’d been stabbed. The knife pierced his lung. He then had a heart attack.
I told the caller, to whom I was so thankful for letting me know of these upsetting developments, that I’d certainly go see him tomorrow.
“Is there anything I can take him?” I asked.
“Flowers,” she said.
Then we talked about how I’d lost weight. “You’ve always been small,” she said. “But I thought you seemed smaller.”
I told her it was the near-constant pain in my hips; I can’t get interested in eating. I asked how she was.
“I can’t complain,” she said.
She’s dying of lung cancer.
I’m trying to be rational here without losing my temper, but this idea of “forming relationships with those pushed to the margins” sounds lovely in theory, but all it means in reality is that your heart will be broken, over and over again. Did I understand this when I began this journey? I did not. Would I go back and change my choices? I would not. If I did, I would lose my friends.
But make no mistake about it: it’s not in your best interest. You’d be much better off never knowing, living in your protected cocoon, la-de-da’ing it through life, enjoying the barrier that money and privilege and ADVANTAGES give you.
I’ve hit the gold standard. I’m not “doing charity,” merely handing out sandwiches. I’m not “merely” writing checks (don’t get me started on this particular condescension: how is anyone supposed to do good without someone writing checks?). I’ve formed relationships. I have come to care deeply about people to whom life has been a true bitch. And my reward? Scars permanently etched on my heart.
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.
So my friend had three polyps; two benign, one malignant. So he had to have another colonoscopy this year to recheck things. So he’s on Medicaid. So Medicaid doesn’t pay for the prep material that you must drink and cannot have a colonoscopy without. So he had to postpone the colonoscopy until a day came when he didn’t have to choose between a colonoscopy and sitting in the dark because he couldn’t pay the light bill.
So my friend needed a procedure done. So he has no car, and he lives downtown. So he’s on Medicaid. The Medicaid provider is in Collierville. So my friend, with no transportation, must bypass the Med and Methodist and go to what might as well be the moon. So he’s trying to figure out how to get there.
So my friend is trying to listen to what I’m saying, but her mind is too full. “I’m worried about my health insurance,” she says. So she’s covered by Medicaid. So they keep switching around doctors on her. So she’s not sure what’s going on with her care. She’s dying, by the way slowly but surely.
So people want to protest “Obama Care.” So they complain, for ideological reasons. So they rail about the poor not doing enough to take care of themselves. So they rant about inappropriate use of the ER, and why can’t these irresponsible people try a little preventive medicine? So they sit on their high horses and JUDGE. So easy.
All wonderful stuff but, for me, stressors. Even now, I am continuing to prepare for the Launch Party tomorrow.
But, thank God, you gotta take a break from whatever is going on in your life and WALK THE DOG!
So, back home, how happy I was to put the dog on the leash and walk the edges of the island where cicadas sing and turtles slip into the murky harbor water; where the mud rises damp and the dog tugs on the leash to get at all the fresh smells; where ‘dappled’ doesn’t begin to describe the shade and the delighted cries of birds fill the air.
One of the Door of Hope writers wrote about how God was so smart to make us critters with long-lasting bones so that millions of years later we can re-construct an image of what once walked the earth. I think God was so smart to make dogs with eliminatory systems that force me into the natural world every day, to enjoy, to relax, to love. To remember that, while I am living on this earth, I need to enjoy it.
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.
At 8:00, I go to church. The priest sometimes stops the liturgy to urge us to look overhead and watch the light show: dust motes floating in the sunbeams from the stained glass windows. Today, because it’s Fourth of July week, the guitarist during communion plays “This Land is Your Land.” The lyrics include this verse:
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
As the congregants move from the chapel to breakfast in the fellowship hall, they pass the table where I sit in the hallway, making art. Except today we are sharpening pencils, because the church has a bucket of colored pencils and not a one of them has a point that will write. I think it’s not much of a morning of art but then after I de-camp to the fellowship hall, a guy I’ve met who moved to Memphis from New Orleans sits with me and makes a cross. As he works, we talk about the shootings on Bourbon Street. He says, “These days, someone my age . . . and race, that’s what there is for you. That’s why I left. I can do other things. I have other talents.” He folds the chip bag in such a way that a rising sun graces the top of the cross.
I don’t understand people who praise me as creative. I don’t understand our hierarchy of judgment. I don’t see how you can come to any conclusion but that those of us who reside inside “privileged society” live in a world that is pure illusion.
(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?
Way back at the beginning, I was puzzled about how 15 writers and a nonprofit could publish a book. What would be the arrangement between the authors and the nonprofit? What about the understanding among the writers, some of whom had many entries, some of whom had few? How would we make this fair? The questions overwhelmed answers.
My former-lawyer self said, we need to work this out before we move forward. We need to know what the deal is. We need to be able to describe it and have everyone buy into it. We need to know on the front end what we are getting into.
I tried that for a while. Then, in November of 2012, I realized that the process of figuring it all out would, ultimately, smother the book. If we defined our relationships first, we would never get past the deal-making to the creating of a book. We needed a book first, then we would figure it out.
This concept was a**-backwards, to a lawyer.
I asked the group, are we ready to get started? They said yes. Are we willing, I asked, to move forward trusting that we can work out the details later? They agreed. So we set the Book Retreat and began putting our book together.
This is the moment I quit being a lawyer.
I’d already given up my power suits. I’d told nonprofit boards that I would no longer offer legal advice. I’d even relinquished my law license. But that month, when we put art first, I became a former-lawyer. I became a writer.
William and I began our lessons on “How to Play Bridge.” We established that you arrange your hand by suit; you must follow suit; the higher card in a suit wins; ace is the highest card. The rules called the winning process taking “tricks.” William called them books. We played. We made books. William made more books than I did. Next week, what are trump cards?
* We made tiny books to hand out at church this morning. The tiny books were inspired by ‘Tit RƏx, a New Orleans micro-krewe (the floats are shoe boxes). The folks at church accepted the tiny books. One man, a newcomer to Memphis, chose a book with the word Saint on the front cover. He wrote a poem in the book. He gave me the book. Guess where he’s from? New Orleans.
* The contract with Triton Press to publish our book, “Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness” is (mostly) signed—we have one writer who didn’t make the meeting. We’re tracking him down. When he’s found, the contract will be (all the way) signed. The manuscript will be submitted to the publisher and, soon, we’ll have a book.
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’ve had a book published, okay? I went through the fairly tortuous experience of editing and re-editing and receiving a proposed cover and approving the interior illustrations . . . I’ve done all that.
I am beyond thrilled to see the examples of how Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness might look.
This isn’t even our mock-up. It’s just samples of how others have attractively put a lot of author’s names on the front cover. We have 15 authors, all of whom have personally experienced homelessness. I never thought we could actually put their names on the cover.
We have an original painting by a local artist that will grace the front cover. We have a great painting by one of the writers that will be on the back cover. We have a local publishing house publishing the book. We have blurbs from local standouts in the community. The book is going to be amazing before you even open it up.
Then just wait until you read it.
I am beyond thrilled.
That little glimmer of hope that appears like a flickering flame when you’ve been immersed in darkness for so long you’ve allowed the prospect of success to dim, smoldering. Not a giving up—no way!— but a dampening down, a waiting, a refusal to let hope spring into false hope until real tender presents for a true igniting.
That’s where I am. I’ve seen the glimmering.
We may get the writing group’s book published.
After 14 months of trying, a surfeit of words, a tangle of structuring, a brick wall of legality, and now, finally: we may get the book published.
Not “we will.” But “we may.”
That is the flickering of hope.
I want housing for the homeless to be designed by men and women who have been homeless. I want us to ask: where would be most convenient for you? What do you want in terms of size? What community space do you want? Do you want a front porch? I want us to care enough to design space useful to people instead of putting folks in available apartments because the apartments need tenants.
I want a Plan to End Homelessness that a normal person can read and make heads or tails of.
I want us to stop putting quotation marks around “experts” when we turn to men and women who’ve experienced homelessness for advice on how “we” can best “serve” them.
I want us to require developers to put dollars toward public housing whenever tax breaks are given by the city.
I want our “mixed income” communities to actually be “mixed income,” not faux “affordable housing” for $600 a month that folks coming off the streets cannot afford.
I want us to have options available to men and women living on the streets, regardless of income, so that not only people with “checks” have the “privilege” of being housed.
I want us to quit thinking our goal is to make “the homeless” productive members of society and to start thinking our duty is to structure housing in a way that lets people live the lives they need to live.
I want us to quit worrying about giving things away “for free” and start caring about people.
I want us to realize that people are still “homeless” if they are jailed.
I want us to quit talking about “low neighborhood impact” from housing for the homeless, as if homelessness were something to be afraid of.
I do not want to have to look at Utah—Utah!—and envy their action to end homelessness.
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.
The man and I sat down at the art table, staring at the chip bags we would turn into crosses, when he asked, “What led you to do this?”
I was preparing to give him my standard spiel about how the tragedy of 9/11 led me to make crosses from broken and found objects. But something made me ask, “Making crosses, you mean?”
“No,” he said, gesturing to the church’s fellowship hall full of currently homeless men and women eating breakfast. “What led you to come out here among the people?”
Earlier during the church service preceding breakfast, I’d been squatting on the floor in the crowded chapel, my back against the wall. All the chairs were taken; plus, I wanted to leave chairs for those who didn’t have access to chairs, beds, tables, etc. and couldn’t sit their asses down whenever they wanted, like I could. This decision put me at calf level to most of the group (except for the man who was squatting next to me). I knew it was where I was supposed to be; for several years now I’ve believed in—and responded to—the Christian call to form relationships with those pushed to the margins. But squatting there in the tiny, crowded chapel where folk slouched on chairs willing the service to be over so they could eat breakfast or maneuvered their shopping carts full of possessions through the narrow aisles or sneezed into their palm—the palm that would later be offered for me to shake as we passed the peace—I thought, “Christianity is too hard.”
Jesus hung out with the poor. The sinners, the tax collectors, the ceremonially unclean. The great unwashed, as it were. When we read this about him, we think, “Of course he did, he was Jesus!” But the clear implication is that Jesus hung out with people different from him. He chose to put himself with a group he wouldn’t otherwise have naturally associated with. People he was not used to. People he might have been uncomfortable around, particularly when he looked, not across the table at his friends, but over a jostling, crowded mass of folks. Maybe when that happened he had to force himself to begin: “Blessed are the poor.”
The men and women from the church service snaked past the art table, on their way to the fellowship hall. As they passed, we talked art. I explained about the chip bags; they gave me advice on what a cross was supposed to look like. They said good morning, their faces broke into smiles; they broke down from a clump of folks into individuals. One man, curious about the objects, asked why I picked them up from the sidewalk.
“To make crosses out of,” I said.
When he continued to wait for an answer, I added, “Because God is in everything.”
“Now that’s the truth,” he agreed and, satisfied, moved on down the line.
When the man said, “among the people,” I realized that I live my life in my privileged world and dip into service, believing I’ve left the normal world and encountered a special group of folks for whom life has not been kind. Really, I’ve left a rarefied world of safety, love, acceptance, regular meals, a hot bath, and such abundance that I can afford to select trash as my medium of expression. Crossing a chasm as wide as the one that separated the rich man in Hades from Lazarus seated on Father Abraham’s lap, I’ve entered the world of the people. Thankfully, when I crossed the chasm, I was greeted by those who smiled at me in the hallway while I made my insubstantial art.
Oh my goodness—I just typed “THE END” on the Door of Hope writing group’s book!
It’s not the end. But the hard part is over. The assembling of five years of handwritten pieces; the typing of those pieces by volunteer typists. The merging of all that work into a single document that can be called a manuscript. And last, but not least, the mass shifting of content—like when South America picked itself up and said, “I’m gonna be my own continent”–a task that makes my head hurt. Such is in the rearview mirror.
Now I will rake through the document, combing it into untangled order. This is something I enjoy, the gentle lifting and separating, like a mother playing with her child’s lovely locks. Also, I must write the introduction, the only place in the book (other than my dedication and my remembrance of Robb Pate) where my voice will be heard.
This last part is my greatest accomplishment. Early on, when I would describe my desire not to follow the standard narrative for this book—well-off white person gets involved with actual livers of a life and writes a book about her experience—time and again I was told it wouldn’t work. I was advised to include my voice, that my voice was needed to hold the book together—to, in effect, make the book mine.
I doggedly refused. And if, by organizing and editing, I have created a narrative that readers want to read, I will have done my job.