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Tag: Memphis

Uncultured Smells


Traveling North Parkway with the windows open, I drive through a scent, and my head jerks in memory: a cracked sidewalk with weeds springing tall; a blossoming hedge that smelled so sweet. That’s all I remember, but it’s enough to keep me searching for the bushes all spring. Along roadways, on vacant lots, in other untended places, the hanging Ligustrum drapes the city like weedy Babylon. With the nonchalance of a woman tossing her hair to course water before wrapping a towel, the May branches weep cream, almost colorless blossoms. 

“Noxious” the garden manuals call the smell and advise us to await its departure in June. My nose has never been compliant. 


Mississippi summer nights in the 1960s, dusk descending on our block, we run behind the fog machine. The orange truck, spraying for mosquitoes, idles down the street, hitting every yard, and my sisters and I are right up underneath it, breathing in, holding the burning in our lungs, breathing out—the heavenly smell!

The dense smoke plumes white, the motor chugs. The evening descends around us, the thrall of summer stretches just beyond our reach. We weave inside the fairyland down our block, then—Mother said just our block—turn and trudge back home.

Behind us, mosquitoes drop dead in droves.


On Sunday afternoons, on our drive to Mamo’s farm, we cut through the poorer section of town. The linseed plant rises full of steel tubes and open-air wires. We kids tumble to the car window, roll the glass, gasp in the oily smell. 

A thing I loved: leaning out of the car as Mother slowed for the linseed plant. But sometimes when we drove and rolled, the linseed plant was shut down, and there was no smell. Disappointed, we wrapped our fists around the crank and slowly closed the dividing window.


A rainy day descends on the farm. Restless, we run outside as soon as the rain slacks off and discover the tarp over the tractor. The onslaught has filled the green tarp with water, wetting the mud below. We slosh our hands through the warm water, pat the fat belly of the tarp as if it were a beloved water baby. We squat and shape the slick mud into doll plates and saucers, our noses full of the clean mud smell. The caramel clay curves and molds; the tiny dishes sit sweet. The scent of the canvas tarp is as strong as an animal hide.

When we return the next day, the water has soured. Dirty moss furs the belly of the drained tarp. The dishes are no more. We don’t go near the tractor again.


All grown up, visiting a tony Memphis flower shop, I walk the dampish aisles. Expressing leaves reach from pots and kettles and man-made bird’s nests. As I venture deeper, the musty earth and growing smells close rank as if the floor itself might crumble to dirt. I bend to smell the red roses. 

“Now, roses aren’t going to smell,” the clerk says.  

Excuse me? Rose hand cream and rose body powder and rose eau-de-toilette, all thick in the outer vestibule of Mamo’s country Methodist church? The old lady smell that wafted the sanctuary, burrowed into the oaken pews, colored the rose light streaming through the cheap stained-glass windows? 

Since when are you telling me roses don’t smell?


Hit Madison Street at the right time of day and you’ll slam into the yeasty hotness of the Wonder Bread factory. The scent billows like a cloud through downtown Memphis, spreading to Monroe, Adams, Jefferson Streets. I inhale and recollect: one time at Mamo’s Sunday dinner I ate seven Brown-N-Serve rolls. In this new, adult city where smells give way to concrete, the white bread factory provides an unencumbered memory.

Or maybe not. Turns out, the wages paid by the bread factory are crumbs. The workers picket. The smell stops. For weeks, the streets run blank while we hunch along, cobbling life together best as we can in an arid world.


“Those puppies stink,” my husband says, so I take the dogs—finally at the ripe stage where I can bury my nose in their fur and sniff deeply—and reluctantly hand them over to the groomer. No, do not perfume them, I recoil. Bows, that’s okay. 

Outside my wintertime house, the Mississippi River sinks low, the thick river smell rises high, and I step into the brushy bank to get close. You have to be near and stilled to smell it. I use the dog as my excuse. She sniffs the tips of leaves, and I peer down the slope through the angled tree trunks, searching for the moldering scent of narrow, matted pecan leaves and a play house that never lost its raw lumber smell and knit hats tight on heads. Only once every seven years did it snow and bring out the sleds that crunched on ice that slicked because it melted fast. More normally, it was a cold too wimpy to scare a soul and bare fields of swinging vines with the cool rot of lake mud and the slick part of the branch exposed when bark the color of coffee peeled away, and the bark stuck to your gloves and the vine’s nasty thorns must be slowly carefully plucked from your sweater or the vine would grab again, loathe to let you go. 

Like a woman stepping into the hidden current of the river, I move through my days, desperately seeking my known world of uncultured smells. Yet, you cannot hold on to scent. I must wait until the end when I am embedded in the coughing aroma of incense, the bitter scent of a chrysanthemum blanket, the wormy aroma of turned earth. And, finally, when all is over, I’ll sleep in the thin, clean aroma of Ligustrum, weeping over my grave.

The weedy bank of the harbor by my old house on Mud Island in Memphis

(This essay is another of the old essays I wrote a while back and dutifully sent off for publication and received warm gushes of praise in return but no offer of publication. I’ve decided life is too short to keep them sequestered in my computer. If one person enjoys the words or grasps at their own flickering memories, I’ve succeeded in doing a good thing. – ellen)

The Flexible Heretics

I shuffled clothes through the narrow hallway. Brick wall on one side, eclectic paintings on the other, I didn’t have much room to maneuver. I’d spent the week sorting my stuff (this pile goes with us, this pile to the Salvation Army) and two suitcases had come with me to our small apartment in New Orleans, not a particularly good solution. Earlier, on my 59th birthday, I had decided to physically get up and move every day until I turned 60—my decade birthdays always generate a year-long preparation. This year, I vowed to be in motion every day in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise done—mostly walking really fast down the sidewalk. As I shoved a bag aside with my foot, it dawned on me that I had inadvertently landed on a theme for the year.

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What I Love about My Life in Memphis

I live in Memphis on an island with wild edges and a dog who loves them as much as I do.

I have a wood-burning fireplace in my house.

I go to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral where the Dean stands up in the pulpit and preaches the most unsettling, Holy truths, in a caring, loving way.

I can walk to the grocery store. I can walk to the coffee shop. I can walk to the cleaners, but I don’t because if I’m going to the cleaners, I’m toting clothes.

I have a weekly writing group where we can talk about anything and, while you might get hooted for your comments, you know you’re loved.

I have a monthly writing group that is made up of some of the finest writers I know.

I have wind chimes outside my bedroom window and a dove of peace that coos.

I have good friends who invite me to meet them for coffee where we exchange wisdom and laugh.

I can hang out at Caritas Village whenever I want.

I can drink the world’s best water straight from the tap.

I know how to work the burners on the stove.

I walk past flowers blooming in my yard whenever I leave through the front door.

I can see the Mississippi River—sometimes sparkling or flat or muddy or laced with the deepest sheen of blue—every single day.

I know my way ’round Memphis town. I know which direction is east, west, north and south. I don’t get lost.

I have a bathtub.

I have a printer.

I have a guest bedroom where people can come and stay and fill the house with love.

I can go for walks in the Old Forest in one of the country’s most famous parks where the boughs lean over us like a hushed sanctuary.

I know where to buy petit fours.

I share this life with my husband, whom I love dearly and who is with me most anywhere I go, but life in Memphis would be bereft of fun without him.

Evangeline loves Memphis
Evangeline loves Memphis

We are The Champions

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 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.

And now the Community Alliance for the Homeless has given me an award for my work on the book. Yesterday, I received the Memphis/Shelby County Homeless Consortium Champion of the Year award.

Champion Award
Champion Award

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:

2015 Homeless Consortium Awards
2015 Homeless Consortium Awards

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!

Gone Girl, Ellen Style

Hip rehab, yes. But obsession in writing a new novel too. That’s why I’ve been so absent—the combination of these two life facts have been deadly to blogging, for which I apologize. BTW, I’ve missed being here. 🙂

Here’s my latest:

* The University of North Carolina was eliminated from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Sooooooo, I won’t be singing this year. When UNC wins the NCAA, I fling open my front door and sing at the top of my lungs, “I’m a tar heel born, I’m a tar heel bred . . . ” The neighbors are currently breathing a sigh of relief.

* The dog and I are easing back into relationship, something that pretty much died when she absolutely could not jump on my new hip and I could not take her for walks. Our new relationship involves a lot of stretching out in bed together.

* I’m making thumb prayers, to be put in your pocket and rubbed with your thumb when you need a reminder of God. Here’s a pic of a few:

Thumb Prayers
Thumb Prayers

* A random stranger on the internet sent me a message that, in the opening sentence, contained the phrase, “and I think you’re brilliant.” This has tickled me to no end. I Googled her, to make sure it wasn’t a sham. She’s the real deal. And she’s been reading my work and thinks I’m brilliant. 🙂

* I have kept up my Lenten discipline of having a God sighting each day and sharing it on Facebook. Here are a few:

I Saw God Today
when I opened my eyes this morning and realized I live in a wonderland—the reaching branches of the cottonwood, the glint of water in the harbor, the blue sky peeking through. My unease at returning to Memphis and the “grind” of daily living evaporated. This is what I see when I wake up. I live in a wonderland. ‪#‎Lent2015‬

Out my bedroom window
Out my bedroom window

I Saw God Today
in the faces of cousins and cousins once removed and leap cousins and cousins so distant I don’t know how they’re my cousin: the never-ending circle of life and love ‪#‎Lent2015‬

I Saw God Today
in this hand soap. HAND soap, shaped like a hand. I can’t remember who gave this to me. Was it you, my sister? Or you, my cousin? Someone who knew me well enough to know I would adore it. And where is God in this? Well, God—the creator of laughter—loves puns too. ‪#‎Lent2015

HAND soap
HAND soap

* I’m ‬going to write a “How to Write in Community” pamphlet to be distributed to anyone and everyone who is interested in starting a writing group in a homeless shelter, women’s shelter, prison group, cancer support group, divorce group, etc. It’ll be simple. “Get someone to donate a packet of notebook paper, lined.” “Secure pencils and pens.” “Expect writers to fall asleep. Expect writers to arrive late. Expect absences because writers are in the hospital or at chemo or in drug rehab or jail or at the Social Security Office or a job interview or at the lawyer’s office or in trial or they’ve moved to a new part of the city and can’t make the trip to writing group. Everyone’s going through something. Life takes precedence.” That type of thing.

Oh. And the new novel? It’s a mystery set along the Wolf River Harbor where I live. The hero, a scion of a Arkansas plantation family and formerly homeless, investigates the murder of a real-estate developer who wanted to improve the harbor for the benefit of the poor neighborhood. Our man Coot is also trying to come to terms with a long-ago murder that occurred when Mud Island was still a wild place of squatters living on floating oil-drum homes. Here’s the harbor from my front door during a recent flood:

Mud Island during the 2011 flood
View of the harbor from my front door during the 2011 flood

Thanks for hanging in there during my absence. I appreciate you.

So Easy

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.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

A Good Book Day

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. 

It’s been a great book day.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . 

Where Exuberance Will Get You

I live in a jungle:

The Cottonwood Grove
The Cottonwood Grove

Technically, this is a zero-lot line house within spitting distance of the next zero-lot line house. The balcony wraps around two of these massive cottonwoods. We have an interior garden:

a garden spot
a garden spot

This is what it feels like when you walk out of the front door, through this garden spot, and onto the sidewalk:

The path to the world
The path to the world

I’ve over-planted the yard:

What used to be my front yard
What used to be my front yard

And I’ve extended the tiny yard by planting in the median between the sidewalk and the street:

healthy iris fronds
healthy iris fronds

I’ve unintentionally invaded the neighbor’s yard:

incipient annabelle hydrangea
incipient annabelle hydrangea

We can sit on our front porch and no one knows we’re there:

The hidden sitting area
The hidden sitting area

In case you’re worried, it’s not claustrophobic in there:

A glimpse of open space
A glimpse of open space

It all comes down to desire. I have plants in my yard because my grandmother grew iris, I passed spider lilies on my way to elementary school, my daddy loved Lenten roses, I fell in love with ferns when I went to Pickwick Lake the first time, I can’t get enough of hydrangeas, my uncle gave me a cutting from Mississippi’s largest fig tree (owned by my family) and from the rose bush my daddy gave his mother on Mother’s Day when he was a little boy:

Hebron's roses
Hebron’s roses

I have exuberant desire and a small yard. So now I live in a jungle. Thank God our house is on the Mississippi River. Nothing I can do can top that.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Whoa—Need to Pay Better Attention

Last year I sent my manuscript to Kore Press.They had some deal going where if you submitted, the press would provide limited critique of the submission—yes, precious critique of the first fifty pages of your novel. I sent them The Bone Trench in which a controversial private prison in modern-day Memphis brings Mother Mary and her son Jesus back to earth. Mother Mary tries—this time—to protect her son from harm, while Jesus goes about doing what he always does: causing trouble.

My Mother Mary float
My Mother Mary float

I did not get accepted for publication; I did get a lovely email. The editors really enjoyed the manuscript, though it wasn’t right for Kore Press. I also got a quite upbeat critique.
In the critique I learned the term “Urban Fantasy,” which is a subset of the fantasy genre where the action is set on earth in a real place (yes, Memphis is a real place). The email began with the standard caution—don’t wig out, this is the subjective view of only one reader—then said nothing remotely negative.
The tone of the novel is “humorous” and “bold” with “quick, funny dialogue.” She found that the “unique character choices” worked, even with “the juxtaposition of holy figures, natural images, and well, spit.” But, more seriously, the novel gave “an intrinsic sense of the culture of Memphis, the importance of recognizing the history of this place, the relationship of people with one another and with their past.”
A scene from Graceland, the setting for the short story that birthed the Mother Mary character
A scene from Graceland, the setting for the short story that birthed the Mother Mary character

I reveled in the review and forgot it, because I didn’t get accepted for publication, and there was nothing negative for me to work on in making revisions.
Today, I picked the review back up because I am, once again, revising the manuscript. I wanted to share the review with y’all. I re-read the first line, something about not being able to help but compare it to a novel by a writer I didn’t know, Neil Gaiman.
Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman.
Hadn’t that been the dude staring back at me from the front of the Poets and Writers Magazine I had been meaning to read for months?
Neil Gaiman, the author of the Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel, American Gods.
I’d already put American Gods on my list to read—I wasn’t going to ignore the reviewer’s identification of a book similar to this odd book I wrote—but for some reason I read her description to mean “cult classic.” As in, an odd book like your odd book beloved by odd people. Not a book that actually gained a wide appreciation.
I don’t know why this gives me hope but it does.
Hope I need as I begin, again, to revise a novel without any guarantee anyone will want to read it.

The Once and Future Booksigning
The Once and Future Booksigning

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Don’t Tell a Memphis Girl about Barbecue

When I ordered fries with my pulled pork sandwich, the waitress said, “It comes with slaw.”
“On the sandwich,” I corrected her.
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s what I want,” I clarified. “Slaw on the sandwich, fries on the side.”

Who does she think she is, lecturing me about the way Corky’s serves its barbecue sandwiches, treating me like I’m someone from . . . New Orleans.
Corky's New Orleans
CORKY’S NEW ORLEANS (actually Kenner)

An Ode to Freedom

I am not patriotic. I don’t like red, white and blue. I mean, I don’t like the colors. I’m not particularly a flag person, either. The only time I reacted to the flag was shortly after 9/11. The color guard marched in at a University of Memphis game, and everyone stood up like they meant it. Even then, the wave that washed over me was more a response to the honoring of the choice these young people made to serve their country before it was popular.
Still, it bothers me when I can’t find a window into something so universally held as 4th of July patriotism.
On our way to Overton Park, Tom driving, me sitting in the backseat of the convertible, the wind blowing the dog’s hair, I thought, this is my definition of happiness. Traveling North Parkway to walk through an old forest situated slap in the middle of Memphis, the forest still in existence only because a group of Memphis women protested the ramming on an interstate right through its gullet. I lean back against the bucket seat. The arbor of trees throws off dappled light. We’ll soon be deep inside the shaded paths of the forest. The dog turns to me, her eyes bright. I hold onto my ball cap so it won’t escape.
“The pursuit of happiness,” the founders said. This is the freedom they gave to me. The freedom to decide for myself what constitutes happiness. It might be smoothing down my dog’s fly away hair. It might the dappled light on my upturned face. It might be the scent of smoke permeating the picnic area. It doesn’t matter: it’s mine to decide. I could be the only person in the country who defines as 4th of July happiness the quick hug Tom gives the dog as he lifts her from the car. What this country gives me is the right to pursue that happiness.
On the way home, we pass the Coast Guard station. The station sits across the harbor from our house. When our bedroom windows are open, we hear the Coast Guard playing reveille. This endears them to me. I’m aware of the 4th of July sentiment that asks me to focus on our freedoms being made possible by our every-ready military. I prefer to focus on you. I want to thank you for your belief that my happiness does not have to be yours. That, in this country, no one will ever tell my husband our religious society prohibits him from shaving his head for the summer or tell me I can’t practice law in our culture because that’s a “man’s job” or ban you from lacing on your tennis shoes and protecting your park just because you love it. Thank you for my freedom. Thank you for my 4th of July happiness.

Cain’t Do Nothing with Love

Terra firma info:

Launch date: Thursday June 27th
Time: 6:00 pm
Location: The Booksellers at Laurelwood
Memphis, TN
What it is: collection of award-winning short stories written and read by the author (me) and made available on CD

Ether info:
Launch date: earlier than June 27th
Time: anytime I choose
Location: on the ethernet
What it is: a collection of award-winning short stories written and read by the author (me) made available on iTunes, YouTube, my blog, email links, podcaster sites, my website – wherever sound is found.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Watching the Oyster Shells

I live in Memphis, Tennessee. In the mornings I walk to the yoga studio. In class we address the channel of the Wolf River Harbor, the initial source of water for us Memphians. When we relax on our mats, we are trusting the land beneath us that is a sandbar, accreted from a wreck until it was firm enough to build our houses and the yoga studio. I walk home when I’m done and immerse myself in an old-fashioned cedar hot tub. Above my head, wind chimes made from oyster shells hang from a pergola. The shells tinkle in the wind. Sometimes the dog blunders up the hot tub steps. She sits, and watches me soak. The scent of wet cedar surrounds us.

I would not have this house in Memphis if my first marriage hadn’t died a sorrowful death. I would not have the tinkling oyster shells if my husband hand’t needed a place of rest after a tendon popped in his heart, requiring immediate open heart surgery. I wouldn’t have the pergola if the beating down Memphis sun hadn’t raised steam from the courtyard’s surface. I wouldn’t have the hot tub except for the creeping arthritis that has made one leg visibly shorter than the other. I wouldn’t have the dog if the three little Yorkies who were my heart for almost twenty years hadn’t all gone off to college.

This is not a Pollyanna, look-on-the-bright-side view of life. It is not “God does all things for a purpose” view—God did not give my husband a faulty mitral valve so I could find a bunch of damn oyster shells. Nor is this the dratted “cycle of life,” which mercilessly extracts death as the price for each new breath.

This is gratitude. Gratitude for my husband who healed my heart. Gratitude for the shucked-clean oyster shells. Gratitude for the leafy pergola, the new dog, the sandbar that is my home. This is love: me watching the shaking oyster shells, thinking: and it was good.

peace in creativity, Ellen

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