It was fun. I got to see a lot of folks I care deeply about. Friends came and we visited. We remembered June. Her impact on the community. The gaping hole left since she’s been gone. I sold Thumb Prayers. Tomorrow I will be able to take a check to OHC.
When it was all over, I untied the balloon I’d used to direct people to the sale location. Actually, I’d bought eight balloons. I put one inside and the other seven I tied onto the railing outside. When folks kept texting me about where the hell we were, I kept responding, “Look for the balloons.” Then I happened to glance outside. The balloons were gone. Whether the wind had wiggled them free or someone had stolen them, I can’t say. But they were gone. So I took the lone remaining balloon and retied it outside as the marker, and when it came tie to wrap things up, I untied the scraggly green balloon and stuffed it inside my car.
But before I could get the door closed, the wind reached inside and sucked the balloon from the car so quickly I didn’t have time to grab the string. In a split second, it was free, flying into the air. I craned my neck, watching the balloon sail past the trees then over the building and up, up, up into the sky.
Yes, it had helium. Yet it soared not like a balloon but like hawk catching the updraft. In less time than it took for me to get in my car, the balloon was sailing into the next quadrant of Memphis air space—I could tell you it was over the Target but unless you know Memphis, this means nothing to you.
It was so rivetingly quick, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It became less balloon and more soaring explorer. A brave soloist taking off on an adventure. Free. On its way.
I stayed in the parking lot until I couldn’t see the balloon any longer. Then I too left. It’s never a good idea to stay when the main act has left the stage.
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.
A while back, I conducted a workshop where I took my writing mentor Rebecca McClanahan‘s book Write Your Heart Out and translated the types of nonfiction writing into types of prayer. I don’t remember all the parallels (writing from joy, for example, became adoration or praise prayer.) I’ve been thinking about this as I make Thumb Prayers, the little pocket prayer prompts I’ll be selling for Housing Justice. I’ve wondered who this woman was who so believed in defined types of prayer. Specifically, I’ve been thinking how much my view of the word “prayer” has changed, not to mention to whom I am “praying.”
The traditional Christian views of prayer conceive of it as a conversation. Talking to or with God in defined, analytical ways. “I need this.” “She needs that.” “Thank you so much for this thing.” “You are wonderful in this way.” This has come to feel to me like yakking.
(I emphasize: feels like yakking to me. It’s very hard to talk about one’s own religious life without folks feeling as if you are criticizing their religious life. I hope it’s clear my description of my path is simply a description of what I’ve experienced, period.)
This shift in my approach to prayer has been a long time underway. Perhaps it started with my making crosses from broken and found objects, where I became drawn to action-based prayer. But if you read the book I wrote about this prayer practice—“Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God”—you see I very much still viewed cross-making as a foundation for conversation with God.
So, was it my practicing meditative periods free from thought? Or was it the Lent I focused on spying God in the world? When did it change? It’s probably like water colors bleeding into art paper—a process where, eventually, a new image takes shape.
The prayer I’m striving for these days some wouldn’t even call prayer. It’s not word-based. It’s not “upward” directed toward a God in Heaven. It’s not a set-aside time, unless it’s the time I’m waiting for Walgreens to fill my prescription. It’s not between defined entities—me, Ellen, and you, God.
It’s a stilling, a directing my awareness into the world immediately around me. A living in the present. An intent to diffuse my spirit into the God in the world. A Gestalt moment. A being in the world.
The Thumb Prayers fit perfectly with this place of prayer where I now find myself.
They are physical, small dollops of buttons and paper clay.
The idea behind them is active: run your thumb across the top, feel the texture.
They are diffused—not a particular prayer but a reminder of whatever God or Spirit or love or goodness you believe suffuses the world.
And, thankfully, they’re available all day long, when we so easily get caught up in trying to make it through the day and any idea of God actually being in this world of chaos and traffic and splattered eggs and crying babies and the damn internet being out again—touch, remind yourself, re-ground your spirit in the Spirit.
Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.
I hate the Holy Spirit. Okay, hate is a strong word. But I have issues with this Spirit that constantly tells me to do things that embarrass the hell out of me.
Take the recent prayer vigil I attended. A friend of mine was to be a featured speaker at the vigil. She is one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. She fought her way out of homelessness, only to run into the brick wall of filthy conditions at her federally-subsidized housing complex. In response, she co-founded the Warren Apartments Tenant Association, a group organized to address the needed repairs (and by repairs, I mean—for example—fixing the plumbing so sewage wouldn’t back up in the sink). Her work produced results. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) yanked its contract with the landlord, Global Ministries Foundation, for (repeated) failure to pass inspection. The prayer vigil was organized by Mid-South Peace and Justice, which has been assisting the tenants in their efforts, as an occasion to pray globally for housing justice.
I was giving my friend a ride, and as I walked out the door, I thought, take your thumb prayers with you.
Thumb prayers. Small round objects embedded with vintage buttons. Drop them in your pocket and rub them with your thumb when you need a reminder of the Spirit’s presence in the world. I use vintage buttons because they provide texture. And what the hell—I love buttons. Here’s a pic:
As I’ve blogged about here, I began making Thumb Prayers in connection with the Wednesday morning service my St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral offers for those living on the streets. In searching around for my “next thing” project, I had been doing a VERY informal art program at the church service and wanted to create something to give to the congregants. I wondered, what could I make that a person experiencing homelessness could keep on their body?
I landed on these little portable prayer prompts. Often, I need a physical reminder to pray for someone who I’ve said I’d pray for. Or in the middle of a busy day I need a reminder that God is still around. So, with some trial and error, I made a batch and gave them away at the service. They were mostly well-received, and I made more, always giving them away in the context of homelessness. Folks seemed to share my need for a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.
Clarification: I don’t always feel this way about God’s presence. In fact, when the Spirit arrives unbidden, I sometimes wish She would go away. But there she is, jumping up and down, waving her metaphorical arms, hollering and telling me what a great idea she has. Never are these ideas rational, sedate, or respectable. Nope. She always wants me to do something the very idea of which makes me cringe.
Such as taking my bag of Thumb Prayers to the prayer vigil. The vigil wasn’t about me or my prayer tokens. I didn’t want to insert myself into the goings-on. I only wanted to go and lend my support. But I’ve been at this thing called Life long enough to know to take the damn bag. Besides, I might not actually have to DO anything with them . . .
When we arrived at the vigil, my friend gave an excellent talk to the group. She was factual and passionate, a rare combination. Another activist spoke about her particular concerns, and the leader talked to us about the work needing to be done after we left the vigil. When all had finished talking, the leader asked if anyone else wanted to offer a prayer into the group space or maybe relate an experience as a tenant.
I did not want to offer a prayer. So I kept my mouth shut, and another tenant chose to speak to us about her personal experience. This, I thought, is as it should be. Those affected by the terrible conditions should be the ones who teach and inform the rest of us. Also, her answering the call meant I didn’t have to do anything with the durn Thumb Prayers.
When she finished, we clapped, and then the leader did it again. “Before we disperse, does anyone else want to offer a prayer into the group?”
Before I knew what was happening, I heard my voice saying, “I make Thumb Prayers. Just little things to put in your pocket and rub when you want to remember the presence of God. If anyone wants to take a Thumb Prayer with them, to remind us that work still needs to be done after we leave here, they can have one. For free.”
I added the last bit because the leader’s face told me he thought I might be ACTUALLY USING THE PRAYER VIGIL TO SELL SOMETHING!!!
I’m telling you, this is why I really don’t like the Holy Spirit.
My mortification was mollified when the preacher who had led us in prayer immediately raised his hand indicating he wanted a Thumb Prayer. After that, people swooped over to get their prayers. So I walked around our small but committed group, offering each person a Thumb Prayer. Several said, “Whaaaat?” And took one after I explained.
So, all ends well, right? Except it hadn’t ended. It came to me that I needed to make more Thumb Prayers, sell them, and donate the proceeds to housing justice.
You see what the Spirit did there? She took a question I’ve been asking myself: what is my next project? She connected it to one of my passions: homelessness. And she led me to the next step: quality housing for those who have moved one step beyond homelessness.
Truly, She is divine. I don’t deserve such a wonderful friend.
updated an essay that won a contest but was never published
snapped a few pictures
How about you? How much of your daily life actually involves creativity? No, I didn’t create a musical or theatrical masterpiece. I do my work in clothes, the blank page, home and yard, detritus as art material. The commonness of the medium does not make it any less creative.
Where does your creativity spill out? Do you give yourself credit for the impulse? For the talent? Do you see the love in doing what you do?
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.
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:
* 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
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
* 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:
Thanks for hanging in there during my absence. I appreciate you.