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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.