The alarm went off, and I drifted, reliving my dreams. Startling awake, I checked the time. I still had an hour to make it to church. Until I looked closely. The secondhand was stuck on the 4, click, click, clicking. After I hurriedly dressed, I ran downstairs where real clocks exist. I had 8 minutes to make it to St. Mary’s.
I was only a bit late, as were others. This service fills up as the liturgy unfolds. By the time Dean Andy asked me to come down front and assist with the chalice, the space was bursting with worshipers.
What was I thinking? Sending out such a request? Yes, my agent is shopping my novel to big name publishing houses. Yes, editors at those houses—complete strangers—are judging my work. Plus, I’ve been in writing groups for years where judging nascent work is the name of the game. But this is different.
I put out a request on Facebook for Beta readers on my Memphis mystery, Harboring Evil. The story is set in Memphis and features a formerly homeless man who gets involved in a murder (the technical genre is “amateur sleuth mystery”). Here is its “elevator” sentence:
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 . . .”
“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.
Many years ago, when I was letting the Spirit lead me around by the nose, I went to Door of Hope and asked if I could start a writing group for men and women living on the street. Dr. June Mann Averyt, the founder and then Executive Director of Door of Hope, watched me toddle through the door in my high heels and said, “What the hell—go for it.”
Well, not exactly. But kind of exactly. Because June is not a sentimental person.
For years, every Wednesday, unless I was out of town or something else created an actual physical impossibility, I was at Door of Hope facilitating writing group. Every time I slunk into June’s office with another bright idea—why don’t we have a public reading? why don’t we make notecards? why not ask for a grant so we can hold Community Writers Retreats where the housed and unhoused write together? can we do an e-zine?—she said, “What the hell—go for it.”
Maybe not in so many words. But in that tone. Because June is not a sentimental person.
None of these endeavors was easy. They required hours at her dining room table wrestling with grant applications. Or appearing before grant boards. Or all of us—me, June, a VISTA volunteer—learning what it really meant to put out an e-zine. June never complained about this side activity—writing? for the homeless? are you sure? the grant board asked—when her basic mission already required so much of her. She supported me in what my mother would call a flat-mouth way. Direct. Unvarnished. June’s way.
When life changed for June, she left Door of Hope and started Outreach, Housing and Community, where she continued her work to help people get and stay housed. She never gave up on Writing Group—her program offerings at OHC were not scheduled at 1:00 on Wednesdays because she wouldn’t interfere with writing group time—and when Writing Our Way Home came out, her name was all the way through it. In tributes, in stories, in thanks, in dedications. She even added a Special Note for us to include in the book. A simple, to-the-point note because June is not a sentimental person.
When life changed for me, I began co-facilitating writing group, sharing duties with the amazing Germantown United Methodist Church, and, when the wheel turned again, I continued as simply a member of writing group, where now every Wednesday when I’m in town, I go to Door of Hope and do writing group.
That’s a total of nine years.
Then, last spring, I was playing with paper clay and something told me to roll it out, make it thin, almost like porcelain. As I was gently rolling, it came to me: you are making a gift for June. I thought, well that makes sense. I had never fully thanked June for saying yes to writing group, thereby setting my life on a certain trajectory. June wouldn’t mind if my desire exceeded my talents. She would accept my gift as offered.
So I fashioned a house from the rolled paper clay. Using found objects, I created a door. Above the house I positioned an angel. I mounted the house and angel on paper I’d made by whirling scraps in a blender. I took the creation to a framer, and we picked out a really nice frame, me hoping the frame would turn my work into something more than my abilities could create.
While I was waiting on the framer to finish my surprise gift, I got word: June had been diagnosed with cancer. An aggressive lung cancer. Of course, I heard the news from one of the folks June had helped get off the streets. She said the diagnosis was serious.
I called June. I said, “I have something for you. It has nothing to do with your diagnosis,” I hastened to add. Because June is not a sentimental person.
I left the gift on her front porch.
She called. She said she’d hung the piece in her bedroom. She’d positioned it next to a painting by an actual Memphis artist. That painting had an angel too. June said she saw the angels every day. Each time we spoke, she reminded me of her angels watching over her.
When I created the gift, in my mind, June was the angel. She was the one who watched over those on the street and helped them into houses. Of course, June would never think of herself as an angel. Because June is not a sentimental person.
But in the short time it took to get from the conception of the gift to its receipt, life had changed. June became the one who needed the watching care of an angel.
I have a peculiar definition of grace. It is when God gives you the chance to do what is right before you know you have a dog in the fight. Before you know you have a personal connection to whatever it is that you are being called to do. Before your motives can become potentially muddled.
So, for example, I was given the opportunity to chair the annual fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation . . . years before I gave up both my God-given hips to arthritis.
In the same way, the Spirit whispered in my ear to make a gift for a friend in thanksgiving for the impact she’d on my life . . . before I knew she was dying of cancer.
That was a gift to me, the Spirit nudging me to make that gift. It was also a gift to June.
You see, she wouldn’t have liked it if I’d given her something in reaction to her dying.
Because June was not a sentimental person.
June requested that donations in her honor be made to Outreach, Housing and Community, 135 N Cleveland St, Memphis, TN 38104. To read more about June’s life and the impact she had on the city of Memphis, click here.
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.
I come to Deborah Koehn Loyd’s Your Vocational Credo: Practical Steps to Discover Your Unique Purpose (IVP Books, 2015) as a Southern female raised in the 1960s and 70s. The adjectives this statement evokes for me are “stricture,” “judgement,” “demanding.” Peering down the tunnel of time, I see a long line of women staring back at me, frowning. Love wasn’t missing, not by a long shot, but it was filtered through expectations. My mother didn’t participate in this cadre of women dedicated to molding young girls into proper female roles. But grandmothers, aunts, friends’ moms, Sunday school teachers, total strangers—they all did.
As a youngster, my first outlet of rebellion against my native culture was clothes. Mother, bless her soul, let me dress myself from a young age. Free to choose my own way, I turned my toddler underwear backwards so I could see the ruffles. I fell in love with my blue plaid jumper with the oversized wooden buttons and wore it three days running. You can imagine, then, that Dr. Loyd captured my heart with her declaration, “I consider dressing myself an art form.” (Vocational Credo, p. 103).
The goal of Dr. Loyd’s book, as the title suggests, is to help the reader discover a creed that defines his or her vocational credo. “Vocation” she defines as “speaking or living forth the truest form of self.” (Vocational Credo, p. 19). A vocational credo is “a description of a personal passion directed toward a course of action that occurs for the sake of a specific outcome, that of doing good to and for others.” (Vocational Credo, p. 96). I came across the book because she quotes me in it. 🙂
The “Investigating Ellen” work I’ve done over the years in the Memphis School of Servant Leadership, Enneagram workshops, Myers-Briggs, weekend retreats, and elsewhere has taught me some of the concepts Dr. Loyd advocates for discovering your vocational credo, such as leading with your gifts: when choosing your path, act out of what you really, really want to do. She names as one of the “myths of vocation” the belief that doing the right thing/following God is a sacrifice, and you prove your spirituality by doing what your really, really don’t want to do. (Dr. Loyd is a spiritual person so God is present in her language; if it helps, replace God with the Universe, which can clear out the more troubling images/characteristics of what so many call God). I need to be constantly reminded of this truth, as one of my deeply held beliefs—a common one, if we’re honest—is that I’m not inherently likable, so I have to show how very other-oriented I am to make people like me.
Also, similar to Henry Nouwen, Dr. Loyd advocates as the first step in discovering your credo examining your places of brokenness and using them as sources of strength. Even so, her suggestion to physically draw an image of your life then add your earliest hurt was, literally, enlightening. I drew a sun, and added a black spot to represent the death of my dad in a train wreck when I was three years old. Studying the picture, one can see either a sun with rays of pain shooting from its black spot or a sun with a solar flare of expanding energy radiating outward. The choice is mine to make.
What is the strength I gained from that hurt? Daddy Joe’s death made me feel a loss of belonging, even a feeling of being cast out. My sense of existing outside the box is not irrational; less than 1% of the population shares my INFJ Myers-Briggs personality. The difficulty comes from interpreting “outside the box” as “outside the fold,” which is likely to occur when you are different and your culture values conformity (see “I was a Southern Female Child” above). As a result, I’ve been left with a lifelong search for belonging and community—I famously wanted to buy a Saturn just to be invited to the picnic. As Dr. Loyd puts it, Daddy Joe’s death cast a negative prophecy over my life. (Vocational Credo, p. 79).
What I saw in reading this wonderful little book, however, was that the “out” of “outcast” is a place of power. When you’re “out,” you’re no longer restricted by the rules/judgement/dislike/disapproval/superiority/hierarchy of the “in” places. Even better, my experience of the last few years has taught me God is more easily accessed in the out places. My healthiest response isn’t to lick my wounds of rejection, but to find community in the out places.
My favorite new concept goes to the heart of Dr. Loyd’s book. In her definition, credo isn’t the “how” of what you are doing (making crosses, teaching writing group); it’s the larger why of it. “A well-developed vocational credo can be exercised almost anywhere at any time.” (Vocational Credo, p.40) Dr. Loyd guides the reader through a concrete set of exercises (I love exercises, don’t you?) to get to your credo. In addition to your first wound, her pyramid is built on your favorite quote, your favorite childhood book (The Tall Book of Make-Believe), and the value you learned from the book (the absurd is often the only proper response to life).
Following Dr. Loyd’s guidance, the credo I arrived at for myself is:
GOD PUT ME ON EARTH TO create trusting spaces where people in community can experience the delight of themselves and others SO THAT we experience God. (Yes, the queen of puns subconsciously wove a pun—drawing a sun, seeing de light. Go ahead, groan).
This focus on delight is new for me, not something I attribute to my sometimes melancholy self. But Dr. Loyd points out we often give to others from our own meager share.
Because Dr. Loyd’s view of vocational credo tracks the Frederick Buechner view that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” she also asks the seeker to define those she wants to help. For me, that’s anyone who has been told he or she can’t do or can’t be—see how all this is fitting together? Dr. Loyd provides a survey for finding the “how” of implementation, discovering the motivators that allow you to act in the way most natural to you. My motivators—Caregiver, Creator, Activist—sound very familiar.
All of this leads to a vocational credo easy for me to see at work in my two huge undertakings of the past decade, making crosses from broken and found objects (Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God) and facilitating writing group (Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness). These are perfect fits: pursuing individual creativity in a group setting with those who have been denied their right to “be.” The real question is, how does this credo fit with the novel my agent is currently shopping to publishing houses? What can any novel do to create space to experience God?
Well, The Bone Trench could be viewed as an anthem to slip-sliding to the margins where truth and God lie. A rollicking, rambunctious, outrageous—some have said blasphemous—anthem, but, hey, is there a more fun way to get to God? The Bone Trench places first our connection with each other, and lets the rest of it be threshed away. In my fondest dream the novel would be discussed—no, debated—in small groups . . . spaces where readers can discover the delight of themselves and God. Would the church host such a conversation, a body whose focus on rules, judgment, expectations, values, exclusion, and titles often specializes in smothering the discovery of the delight? I don’t know, but maybe if we could make caring about one another our priority, we would trip into what Dr. Loyd characterizes as Joseph Campbell’s appreciation of “the human need to experience a transcendent aspect of being alive.” (Vocational Credo, p. 170).
Oh, and where am I quoted? On page 123 in the chapter Pursuing Change and Chaos. How apt is that? Here’s the quote.:
As we embark on a new creative venture, it helps to remember that we are working with a God who loves us more than anything in the world. (Making Crosses: a Creative Connection to God, Paraclete Press, 2009).
Deborah Koehn Loyd (DMin, Bakke Graduate University) is a professor, conference speaker, writer/blogger and pastor. She is the Scholar Practitioner of Vocation and Formation at Warner Pacific College and an adjunct professor at George Fox Seminary. Her organization, Finding Forward, expresses her passion to empower people to find their voices and vocations. She is also co-creator of Women’s Convergence, Women’s Theology Hub and The Bridge Church. Deborah holds an MA in exegetical theology and a DMin in transformational leadership. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Ken and they have three grown children and two beautiful granddaughters.
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!
The incense hangs in the chapel air. We’re all squeezed in where we can fit, no concern for “our pew.” We listen to Gospel readings using The Message translation, so the words makes everyday sense. There is—or isn’t—an unpredictable response to the music.The blessing of the wine and bread is abbreviated. That’s okay. I know all that stuff anyway.
I began attending the Wednesday morning church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to help with the art ministry. Most congregants at the service stay at the Union Mission down the street or are otherwise homeless. The amazing Canon Laura Foster Gettys wanted to add an art component to the morning and asked me to be involved. She knew I facilitate a weekly writing group of those who’ve experienced homelessness and that I’d written a book about making crosses from found objects. She combined the two and asked me to come make art at this service for those on the streets. In my opinion, this is what priests should do: identify a ministry that might gladden a church member’s heart and ASK the member to do it. I’m glad she asked me, glad I said yes.
* I weave through folks, passing the peace. He sits on the last row of chairs, his back to me. Seasoned by the rigors of living on the street, he feels my approach and glances out of the corner of his eye. I smile. He realizes I am going to talk to him. His face softens. His eyes smile. We shake hands and pass the peace.
* I’ve been showing up at the service—when I’m in town—for over a year. This stint in Memphis, I’ve not been doing art work. The—again—amazing students from Rhodes College have been offering art projects over the last several months. So I am now simply a congregant. *
The guitar player says, “Y’all sing along with this one. You know it.” She strums into Amazing Grace. I walk back from communion and sit on the piano bench. My voice wobbles. I keep at it until I hit the same note she’s hitting. When she finishes, we all clap.
Why do I go to this church service? What about it makes me want to come back?
Not everyone does the same thing–some go to communion, some don’t. Some stand when prompted, some don’t. Announcements describe services for those listening (blood pressure checks, computer classes), not committee work of the church. The group murmurs when the priest touches a soft spot. Sometimes the murmurings are in disagreement. An impromptu ending “off bulletin” sends us into the next phase of the morning: raucous rock-and-roll music during breakfast where, occasionally, folks dance.
The church service I keep coming to is the exact opposite of what most folks want out of church: shared beliefs, planned movement, familiar readings, behavior understood as appropriate, known faces, church music, beautiful language, written ritual you can follow along, predictability. Others at the service around me may keep coming for the chance to sit down. For the opportunity to serve at the altar. For the amazing breakfast afterwards. To wipe trays. Who knows. Who cares.
After the service, I speak to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich-makers. Those waiting in line for breakfast trail past me. I find I like it, standing there, saying hi to everyone on their way to get food. “I’m just standing here,” I explain. “I’ve been out of town for several months, and I’ve missed seeing y’all.”
“We’ve missed seeing you too,” one guy says.
I have no idea if he knows who I am. Maybe he’s just being kind. That’s sort of the point. Those at this service let me be happy without judging my happiness, which makes me happy.
We all come to church for our own reasons, and mine aren’t any better than anyone else’s. This service isn’t any better than any other church service. It only better suits me. Which, I think, is the purpose of this thing we call church.
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.
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.
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.
Way back at the beginning, I was puzzled about how 15 writers and a nonprofit could publish a book. What would be the arrangement between the authors and the nonprofit? What about the understanding among the writers, some of whom had many entries, some of whom had few? How would we make this fair? The questions overwhelmed answers.
My former-lawyer self said, we need to work this out before we move forward. We need to know what the deal is. We need to be able to describe it and have everyone buy into it. We need to know on the front end what we are getting into.
I tried that for a while. Then, in November of 2012, I realized that the process of figuring it all out would, ultimately, smother the book. If we defined our relationships first, we would never get past the deal-making to the creating of a book. We needed a book first, then we would figure it out.
This concept was a**-backwards, to a lawyer.
I asked the group, are we ready to get started? They said yes. Are we willing, I asked, to move forward trusting that we can work out the details later? They agreed. So we set the Book Retreat and began putting our book together.
This is the moment I quit being a lawyer.
I’d already given up my power suits. I’d told nonprofit boards that I would no longer offer legal advice. I’d even relinquished my law license. But that month, when we put art first, I became a former-lawyer. I became a writer.
William and I began our lessons on “How to Play Bridge.” We established that you arrange your hand by suit; you must follow suit; the higher card in a suit wins; ace is the highest card. The rules called the winning process taking “tricks.” William called them books. We played. We made books. William made more books than I did. Next week, what are trump cards?
* We made tiny books to hand out at church this morning. The tiny books were inspired by ‘Tit RƏx, a New Orleans micro-krewe (the floats are shoe boxes). The folks at church accepted the tiny books. One man, a newcomer to Memphis, chose a book with the word Saint on the front cover. He wrote a poem in the book. He gave me the book. Guess where he’s from? New Orleans.
* The contract with Triton Press to publish our book, “Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness” is (mostly) signed—we have one writer who didn’t make the meeting. We’re tracking him down. When he’s found, the contract will be (all the way) signed. The manuscript will be submitted to the publisher and, soon, we’ll have a book.