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Tag: the homeless

Spiritual Bottleneck

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.

 

Transparent Thumb Prayers
Transparent Thumb Prayers

He calls me over. Wants to know if I work out. “‘Cause you sure got a nice shape.”

The breakfast St. Mary’s offers for those currently homeless is almost finished. He’s mopping up his grits. His friend on the other side of the table is interested in my answer to his question. The friend cranes his neck, surveying my shape to form his own opinion.

“I have metal hips,” I tell the questioner.

That sets him back.

“Uh hunh,” I say, doubling down. “Two metal hips.”

“Well, you sure don’t look like it,” he concedes and returns to his grits.

*

“You look younger today,” she says. She’s been talking the entire Door of Hope Writing Group session, this woman who heretofore I’ve only heard say five words in a row. Now she’s turned her streaming attention on me.

“I don’t know you that well, but I’ve seen you. And you look younger. You look younger today. It’s your jeans,” she adds, indicating the tattered jeans I’m so proud of having boro patched with my own two hands.

“Well, I thank you for that,” I say as her friend chimes in.

“My aunt does that,” he says. “She’s in her fifties and wears urban clothes. They look good on her. Better than on some people our age.”

I decide to wear these jeans forever.

*

Sometimes I see him at Wednesday morning church service. Sometimes at Caritas Village. Sometimes on Sundays at the main 11:00 church service. We see each other often enough, I know his name. He knows mine.

Today I see him at a funeral when I’m dressed in my best black suit. I wave. Call him by name. Finally, his face lights up.

“Hey, Ellen.” He gives me a hug, smiling big. “I didn’t recognize you. I’ve never seen you looking so good before.”

I take this as a compliment.

*

She’s studying my hair, a young girl at the shelter. I can’t remember if I washed it today. Maybe I did, but let it dry naturally? As I recall, the last time I looked in the mirror, I noted it might need some attention. A wayward tendril creeps into my eye.

“Your hair looks . . .”

I wait.

“Like you belong at the beach,” she finishes, her face beaming.

*

“You remind me of the girl on that show.”

We talk for a bit about what girl on what show that might be.

“She’s a redhead too,” he says.

Hmmmm. We soon exhaust my list of redheaded actresses.

“She’s a cartoon,” he corrects me. A girl cartoon. With red hair. And a dragon.

A week or so later, he returns with the answer: Jane and the Dragon. I look up the cartoon show. She’s 12 years old. She found her life as a lady-in-waiting boring and, after a series of adventures, was allowed to train to be a knight instead. She’s funny. The dragon is her best friend. She’s known for her spunk. Did I mention she’s 12 years old?

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and offers to loan me his taped collection of the show.

“You’d like her,” he says. “She’s cool too. Like you.”

*

It’s funny when people gush over my “working with the homeless.” Selfless, they say. Or such a good person. Or something else totally wrong.

I might’ve begun volunteering with those who live on the street because the durn Spirit told me to. Fair enough. But I keep at it not because I’m obedient or nice or selfless or a do-gooder or even because I feel this is what Jesus spent his life telling us to do. I volunteer for a very, very selfish reason.

I work with the homeless because those who are going through a period which for most of them is the most difficult time of their lives still find a way to cheer me up.

Think of that the next time you’re knee-deep in seventh-rung-of-hell cocktail party chatter. Go home. Look up your local homeless shelter. Go volunteer. Bet you’ll keep at it too.

Allison Furr-Lawyer illustration from Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness
Allison Furr Lawyer illustration from Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness

 

Do you call those without housing “the homeless”?

Do you talk about “entitlements”?

When someone commits a crime, do you respond with “thugs”?

James Deke Pope, who has served on the Community Advisory Board of Memphis’s Africa in April, suggests we pay attention to the language we use and change it if necessary. Mr. Pope attended the race and power workshop at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral last weekend, which I wrote about here. At the end of the gathering when the time came to offer comments, Mr. Pope suggested we quit saying “police force” and rename them “peace keepers.”

Can you feel the shift that occurs with that change?

Another reaction might occur too. Maybe you don’t fundamentally agree with the implication of the change. “Well, they aren’t peace keepers. They’re enforcers of the law.” As they say, it’s not just semantics.

Whether you see reactions as “riots” or “uprisings”—another Mr. Pope suggestion—will, in fact depend on your world view. The point, of course, is to be aware of your world view and use language accordingly.

I’m sure Mr. Pope’s suggestion resonated with me because I am a writer. I deal in words. But the truth is, we all deal in words. Every day. We choose how to characterize something. If you share my frequent laziness, you might go with the flow and use whatever words everyone else is using. Or you might roll your eyes at this focus on words as political correctness. (The Tennessee legislature so objected to a non-gendered pronoun they’re holding hearings on it.) But remember the shift from police force to peacekeepers. It’s not just words. Beneath the words lie positions. We should all respect ourselves well enough to think about whether our words properly reflect our positions.

If you believe there is no such thing as a monolithic bloc known as “the homeless,” you might want to say “men and women experiencing homelessness,” in recognition that this is a time in a person’s life, not the person.

If you believe that those receiving assistance paid taxes for many, many years before needing some help, you might not want to call them “entitlements.”

If you decry broad brush racial stereotyping that effectively dehumanizes people, “thugs” might not be your go-to word.

You probably have your own suggested word changes. Mine, obviously, come from my own world view and life experiences. Words. Help me to thoughtfully set them adrift in the world.

 

 

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 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.

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!

Scars on My Heart

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.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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 . . .

Thank God Dogs Gotta Pee

Thank God dogs have to pee.

My time at my dad’s family reunion this past week was invaded by the Door of Hope book, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. Calls from TV news anchors; an interview with Leonard Gill of the Memphis Flyer, which resulted in this great article:

MEMPHIS FLYER

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.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . .

Old Stories Found

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.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Becoming a Writer

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.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . .

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.”

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Why Utah Set Me Off

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 Silence of Joy

Writing Group is often hectic. We have, on average, 14-16 writers every Wednesday. Many of us only see one another this one hour per week. We use the time to catch up on the progress of the cancer treatments. Whether the child-custody hearings were held. How the visit with the grandbabies went. The latest on the wait for housing. What, if anything is new on the Writing Group’s book. Oh—and we also write.
It’s easy, in this swirl of activity, for important things to fly right over my head. When I first began with writing group, I kept a journal. When I got home from group, I’d write down everything I could remember that happened while we were together. So very often, a crucial request or a key piece of information about someone’s life popped back into my head, until then totally forgotten.
Over the years, I’ve become more accustomed to the flurry of activity, and I no longer need the journal (I hope!) I’ve learned to pay better attention when someone is talking to me. To focus and really listen. Absorb what they are saying. When I look back on these moments, they feel like prayer.
Of course, things still get lost. Today, the lost thing was found. Between the writer who had the need, another writer who had a notecard, and me who had a stamp, we sent a note to her son. A written note with an envelope that was addressed. This accomplishment filled her with joy. Her joy filled me with joy. That she’d been waiting all week to finish this task fills me with shame. Shame at what I think is important. Shame at what I demand out of life before I call it valued. Shame at the hurrying through of important moments as if they were the same as every other minute of the day. They are not. They are the presence of God in our world. Stop. Listen. You want to know about the sound of Advent? It’s in the silence of joy.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

A Sister Sledge Moment

“Like an adopted family,” A. said.
We were bumping along in the church van. Ten of us crowded the back seats, plus the two church members driving the van. We’d eaten lunch, opened gifts, and enjoyed Christmas caroling. Now we were finishing up our shopping spree at Wal-Mart, returning home. As we traveled through the beautiful tree-lined streets of Germantown, W. asked, “You don’t go to church there?” She had assumed I was a member of the church hosting the writing group on this wonderful outing.
“No,” I explained. “They joined us for writing group one time and sent a note afterwards, saying how much they enjoyed it. So I asked them if they wanted to get more involved.”
“And it was happily ever after,” D. added.
“Yes,” I said.
That’s when A., gazing straight ahead, said, “Like an adopted family.”
I don’t know A.’s story except that, like all the members of writing group, he has a personal experience of homelessness. At one point, after writing with us for several months, he decided he wanted to be a writer. This happens often. Someone who has no history of writing attends writing group for a while, and the writing catches fire.
Of all who have experienced this thrill of discovery, A. is the one who came most intimidated by writing. A quiet man, he sits, then offers observations that make me say, “Yes! Exactly that!” Once, when we were discussing writing group, he said, “It’s like we’re writing our dreams.”
I hope our adopted family holds together. I hope A. continues as a member. In any event, I’ll remember everyone on the van smiling at his purchase of a space heater, impressed with what he’d snagged at Wal-Mart. Enjoying the connection that’s a mix of fondness and joshing, being impressed and enjoying. The peculiar love that signals: we are family.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

I’m wading off into deep water here, but as you consider your charitable giving this Christmas, will you consider taking?
Take a minute and find an organization that offers you the opportunity to actually talk to someone who is different from you.
Take up your courage and go to that organization expecting nothing.
Take your heart and enter a world that frightens you. Talk to the woman sipping from her cup of coffee. Smile at the man sitting hand-in-chin on the sofa. Don’t side-step like a horse skittering away from a snake.
Stay.
Still.
Take a breath. Sit. Let common ground emerge. Or marvel at just how different people in this world can be.
If this idea scares you, or attracts you, find a quite spot and contemplate whether it is the right path for you this Christmas. There are more ways than one to make a difference in the world. We need everyone discerning HIS OR HER OWN WAY.
If you are like me, your path might be to take a step out of your comfort zone.
In order to begin to grow into the person the God of this Universe wants me to be, I had to step off my high platform of security from which I could look “down” on people, doing for those poor unfortunate souls in a heart-warming Hallmark way, and instead discover there is no “poor” or “homeless.” There is only Warren and Robb and LeRoy . . .
Take the time. It will give you a new perspective and maybe a new life.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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