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Month: February 2014

Let’s Hear it for the Experienced

Listening to the anti-bullying speeches given by the COOL kids—high school juniors and seniors participating in the academic after-school program for those who will be the first in their family to attend college—I wondered about our everlasting tendency to deny those with first-hand experience a voice in solving our problems.

The men and women who’ve survived homeless are a source of wisdom for us on how to end homelessness. The teenagers who have watched bullying, been bullied, and acted the bully are the ones with ideas on how to solve bullying in the schools.

Yet when we are putting together a committee on ending homelessness, a task force on stopping bullying, how often do we nominate for the coveted slots those with actual experience with the problem? Not often. Rather, we tend to turn to the trained, the educated, the ones with the degrees who are being paid to address the problems, as if their stature ensures, of course, they know what they’re talking about. I have no problem with using their help. I have a problem with relying on these types of folks to the exclusion of the experienced. When we do that, we let the wisdom of those on the front lines slip through our fingers.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Train of Thought

The train whistles in the distance. Slanting sunlight filters through the living room window—the train, which arrives and departs Memphis morning and night in the darkness, is late. Seated on the floor, I rub the dog’s belly and confide, “I love the train.” How I can love the instrument of my daddy’s death is beyond me.

In college I lived beside the railroad tracks. In my Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, the train snaked through the woods, unseen. When I ran away from home and divorced, I gave up the train for the tractor-trailers rumbling down the interstate—it wasn’t the same. I moved to Memphis where the train passes my house twice a day on its way to and from Chicago. Not satisfied, I leased a second residence in New Orleans where the train passes so near I can almost touch it.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if my habit of sitting my butt down by the railroad tracks is a form of “keep your enemies closer.” It’s not. The train releases in me, as it does for so many people, the excitement of possibilities, the flying into the fabulous future and, at the same time, the remembrance of hope lost, the past retreating into a place where it will never be seen again.

So it is with my Daddy Joe, my birth father who died when I was three, hit by a train then dead. The evocation of lost things always brings that poignant mix of happiness and sorrow. But this morning seated on the living room floor letting the dog gnaw my hand, I realized I would never have to miss the past again because it is still with me, always. Nor do I have to “miss” the happiness of the present, overly aware it, too, will pass away. The moments I’ve lived live on inside me, as present as the whistle of the train, which I also cannot touch or see but feel in my heart, vibrating.

Life is good, and it will always be good, as long as I sit on the living room floor in the sun, rubbing my dog’s tummy.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Morning of Hearts and Crosses

I groan and complain because it’s early in the morning and as my husband says, “You’ve never been a morning person.” I’ve decided, in fact, this is not my ministry. Opportunities to give back abound; it’s my choice how to respond. I’ll go one more time and then I’ll ease out. Let someone more suited take over. Life is a series of choices, and I have mine to make.
He sits next to me, one eye injured, the other gently making a connection. He calls me by name because I’m wearing a name tag—this has happened the entire morning and I keep forgetting the name tag and wondering, how do you know me? He tells me he hasn’t seen me around these parts before. I explain my disjointed living schedule, and I throw in that I’ve cut my hair; I suspect most folks won’t recognize me with such a radically different look. “It looks good,” he says. When I demure, he adds, “I’m serious. It lets the beauty of your face shine through.”
“Ellen!” he yells. He told me he wanted to read me his story before I left and, distracted, I’m walking out the door. I sit on the couch. He reads, giving it inflection where needed, demonstrating the surprise he felt at the time of which he writes. The narrative flows easily. Toward the end, he arrives at a pause in the telling where beautiful imagery rises with his words, and time begins to stand still. Slowly, he closes the story, and I must reach out and give him a hug. The story is amazing.
They’ve been together for ten years. His face glows as he tells the story of their recent trip to marry. They wear matching wedding bands. His spouse’s sleeve threatens to drape through the breakfast grits. He rolls the sleeve for his spouse, removing it from danger. He allows me to write a prayer of thanksgiving for their newly committed love.
I’m supposed to be giving. I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be volunteering. I’m supposed to be bringing. I am folding paper and cutting out hearts and crosses. I am doing nothing. I am the recipient. If I return, it’s not because I have a ministry to fulfill. It’s because I’ve left that much more indebted.

The Non-Laity

We were talking last night about our inward journey—what we are doing spiritually for ourselves—and I was describing a blog I had recently started following. “He’s a priest,” I said, “but—.” I stopped and laughed. I was about to say, “But I like what he has to say.” He’s a priest, but. Sometimes if I listen to myself, i can learn a lot about what I think.

This episode made me wonder: what is it I find lacking when it comes to the non-laity? I’m using this word non-laity instead of ordained because I know a bunch of ordained clergy who I respect immensely. These men and women, however, don’t create a barrier between me as laity and themselves as ordained. Which leads me to the first thing my brain thinks about non-laity:

I can’t connect spiritually with the non-laity
We put such proscribed limits and expectations on the non-laity, and unfortunately they comply, presenting to us what they believe we have told them we want to see. The maintenance of an acceptable philosophy, demeanor, thought process, phraseology, etc. means the non-laity are hiding who they really are. The only way you can connect with the spirit in someone else is to see that spirit. If the non-laity are busy being who they perceive their audience wants them to be, then we are unable to connect spiritually with those who are supposed to be enriching our spiritual lives. This is a problem.

The non-laity never talk about God
Yes, the non-laity talk about what God wants, how God acts, what God is telling us to do, but they never talk about their personal experience of God in this world. I am trying to remember the last time I heard a non-laity say, “I felt God enter our space.” I know they must experience God—too many people come to them in too many diverse circumstances searching for God for God not to be present an extraordinary number of times. But they don’t talk about it. Leaving the rest of us to put God in an analytical box we struggle to understand with our minds rather than experiencing God as a living breathing presence in this world.

The non-laity preach all the time
This is not meant to be funny. The non-laity are always talking at people. Telling us what to think, how to act, what to believe. They never ask: what do you think? If they do, usually you can detect the agenda running underneath their words as they try to subtly guide you in a defined direction, more like a law professor practicing the Socratic method than a searcher, really. I don’t think this is a function of hubris; I believe it’s because they’ve spent so much time trying to figure out this religion thing and they want to help us figure it out too. But instruction doesn’t have to come from preaching. It can come through horizontal modeling, if you’re willing to give up a hierarchical perception of being in charge.

The non-laity use un-evolved language
God isn’t a male person; God isn’t a person. God isn’t even an a. God is the force that moved across the face of the waters at the beginning of time, the burning in the bush, the quiet after the wind whistled past the cave. Any personification of God limits God and, worse, it casts on God attributes of ourselves: jealousy, anger, petulance, resentment, sadness, vengeance, disappointment, pride, etc. Once you start talking like this, you’re soon thinking like this, and you wind up less than one step removed from the Roman and Greek belief in Jupiter and Zeus, just rolled all into one.

The bottom line? I’m afraid I start from a very different place than most non-laity in what I think is important, which is connecting spiritually with other folks on this journey to get to know God in this world. Or maybe it’s the structure of our concept of church that lies at the heart of the problem. I don’t know, but the laity are a totally different matter. They’re essential to my quest, with their open, seeking, acting, and accepting demeanor—plus, they aren’t sticklers about using language prescribed by a creed old as dirt.

At least that’s what I think today.

Love is not a Competitive Sport

He walks out the door to earn our daily bread,
and somehow I’ve lost the pants he puts on every morning
in the dark
to walk the
anxious dog.
He stops to check our wine supply—
it’s Valentine’s tonight—
and I glance at the dry cleaning basket
by the door,
He does so much for me
I struggle to keep up.
I know, I know—love is not a competitive sport.
But my heart yearns to do a better job
of telling him
I love you.

The Shark Freed from Her Cage

I am getting out of sync with time.
Arriving at 9:45 for my 10:45 appointment.
Waking at 5am and returning to sleep by re-entering my dreams.
Sincerely believing it to be Monday when I attended church that morning but it seems SO LONG AGO.

I don’t want to scare you, but I think I’m drifting away from the framework of this world, raising that invisible grid we place over our experience of living that leaves us as captured as a shark in a cage.

The Grid
The Grid

For good or bad, I’m freeing myself, swimming uninhibited in the ocean, a world without time.

Remember this when I’m late for our meeting.

Blind Justice

I HATE politics. I HATE getting riled up about current events. I HATE taking positions that appear so judgmental. Then I read an article like the one this morning on the defense strategy in the latest “Stand Your Ground” shooting in Florida.

“Loud music”
“Thumping bass”
“Menacing expressions”
“I wasn’t going to ask for favors anymore.”

If you pass a law that then invites the accused to defend himself using racist code words, how can you say the law isn’t racist?

So, yes, I’m judging the law in Florida. If it successfully allows a white man to shoot someone because he feels he has the right to ask perfect strangers to turn down their music then has the further right to take matters into his own hands when they won’t comply with his request and seeks to defend himself by conjuring images of the dangerous music-thumping Black thug, and we don’t see that as racist, then we are the ones who are blind.

I’ve seen the Glimmering

That little glimmer of hope that appears like a flickering flame when you’ve been immersed in darkness for so long you’ve allowed the prospect of success to dim, smoldering. Not a giving up—no way!— but a dampening down, a waiting, a refusal to let hope spring into false hope until real tender presents for a true igniting.
That’s where I am. I’ve seen the glimmering.
We may get the writing group’s book published.
After 14 months of trying, a surfeit of words, a tangle of structuring, a brick wall of legality, and now, finally: we may get the book published.
Not “we will.” But “we may.”
That is the flickering of hope.

Word to the Wise: Pay Attention to Your Beta Readers

Three years ago, or maybe four, a man I did not know arrived at my writing group, and during a long conversation about the first chapter of The Bone Trench, he said, “I’m ready to see Cat Thomas return.” I assured him Cat, who opened the novel in a brief scene, would be back shortly, specifically at the beginning of the next chapter. Believing his concern satisfied, I put it out of my mind.

During this recent revision process, I’ve been working on development of the Jesus character, trying to make Jesus’s scenes as active as Mother Mary’s. Problem was, I did such a good job that when I read the opening chapter with Mother Mary, I thought, why is this not working?

To answer that question, I did what I often do during revision (not during writing, during revision.). I pretended the novel was being filmed and looked at the scenes through the eyes of a film director. This trick immediately shows me when a scene is flat, static, and ultimately boring—I can just hear the film director saying, what am I supposed to be filming here? Nothing’s happening!

When I directed my camera on The Bone Trench‘s first chapter, I saw them . . . walking down the sidewalk. Jesus, by contrast, was hunting the Mississippi River, preaching to a gathering crowd, and being attacked by Demonittes. When I asked myself how to fix it, the man’s comment from long ago rose into my brain and, mirabile dictu, I listened.

Now Mother Mary meets Cat directly in the first chapter. The scene provides the action I wanted, but it also adds an additional layer to the imagery that will close the novel, a benefit I wasn’t looking for but received just the same.

So, in the immortal words of ZZ Top, to the man, whoever you are, who gave me this piece of advice, I thank you.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Redeeming the Synopsis

I know you hate it, but consider writing a synopsis of your novel. Not to accompany a submission to an agent—usually the only reason any of us take on this mind-stupefying task. Do it to see the holes in your manuscript.

Like many, I have long hated the idea that in order to gain agency representation, the writer had to reduce her 80,000 word manuscript to one single-typed page. Where goes the art? What about the lost intricacies of plot? So true, so true. But, over time, I have come to realize that being forced to give a “big picture” view of my novel helps me see, quite logically, what should be there but often is not.

A difference of opinion exists on what exactly a synopsis is (doesn’t it always?), but helpful to me have been the recent articles I’ve read which don’t focus on synopsis as condensed plot. Rather, they encourage a synopsis to focus on the main characters’ motivations, goals, and conflicts. Once I began to write such a synopsis, I immediately saw where the plot was zigging when it should have-if I had truly been following the needs of my main characters—zagged.

For example, in The Bone Trench, I added a major scene where the Mother Mary character is forced to relive her experience at the foot of the cross so she can face her fear that, unless she does a better job as a mother, God will again let her son die. Since this desire to be given a chance to keep her son from harm is the major motivator of this character, for this scene not to have been previously included is almost an unbelievable oversight. But it wasn’t in there until I wrote the dreaded synopsis.

As a bonus, when the time comes to actually submit the synopsis to an agent, the current one is SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING. Rather than a staccato “this happened, then this happened, then this happened,” this approach makes me actually want to read the synopsis. I find myself thinking, wonder what happens next?

One way to start this undertaking is to re-envision the synopsis. The synopsis no longer is something you MUST do. It’s a great tool you have at your disposal.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

I Remember the Dancing Samoans

I think too much from the spot I stand in. So when I watched the Coke commercial during the Superbowl and felt tears start in my eyes, it never dawned on me people would complain. Calling the commercial names, some much worse than un-American. At best, divisive.

To put this in perspective, my favorite physical metaphor of community is the San Francisco Pride Parade I attended one year. It was a HUGE parade. Everyone in the parade was in the parade because they were either LGBT or LGBT allies. Inside that overarching connection, you had every type of marching group imaginable. The dancing Samoans. The walking, waving District Attorneys. The leather contingent and the angel contingent. The barely-not-naked contingent.

What I loved about the parade was that the identification of the connection was so strong each group was allowed to celebrate its individuality to the max. That, to me, is community. Not “be just like me,” or “think what I think,” or even “agree with me on my basic tenets.” But “we are all in this together in our very own unique way.”

This isn’t easy, mind you. Social scientists will tell you that we as humans are naturally, easily drawn to those who are similar to us. It’s the bridging to connect with different groups that requires intentionality.

But when that happens, when those who have an overarching connection that allows them to stand together despite their differences—the gay policemen and the gay public defenders; the old men who meet on the battlefield and shake the hand of their former enemy while tears stream down their face; the Americans who cannot understand a dang thing you’re saying but think it’s beautiful that an American can say it—it creates in me a moment of vibrating certainty that I know is God’s presence in my life. It’s the universal expression of this connection—the knowing so strongly our connection to others simply because we are the beloved community—that would see us rejoicing in all our differences.

So when I saw the Coke commercial, I thought something I don’t often think. I thought, damn. I’m proud to be an American.

When Following the Money is a Good Thing

My last blog post left several people wondering, what did Utah do? The state examined the amount of money homelessness was costing the state and implemented a “housing first” program that gives supportive housing to those who have experienced homelessness for an extended period and have a disabling condition. You can read more about it here. As a result, Utah is on track to end homelessness in the state by 2015.

Today, my friend Emma Connolly sent me another article written by Mike Kessler in Takepart. The article contrasts the various responses of local governments to homelessness and mental illness. Here’s the big point: treating those with mental illness as “a whole person” and providing the assistance needed to keep them out of jail is the course that makes economic sense. The example given is Miami-Dade County, which switched tactics thanks to a judge who said, “enough”:

“Florida’s Miami-Dade County’s misdemeanor prison diversion program, now in its 14th year, has prepared more than 4,000 law enforcement officers to handle mental health crises among civilians. The program is the result of a summit called by Judge Steve Leifman, in which “[there] was a realization that we had an embarrassing, dysfunctional system and it was abusive and not accomplishing anything positive and people just kept re-cycling,” he said.

Leifman said that since the start of the program, law enforcement has responded to approximately 10,000 calls involving the mentally ill. “Out of the 10,000 calls, [officers] only made 27 arrests, which resulted in a decrease of our jail [population] from about 7,800 to 5,000,” Leifman said. (That’s a 36 percent drop, which is more than the prisoner reduction mandated by the Supreme Court.) At the same time, he said, there hasn’t been a shooting by a mentally ill offender “in a really long time.” Inspired by the program’s efficacy, Miami-Dade applied it to nonviolent felons, who Leifman says recidivate at a rate even lower than misdemeanor offenders. Thanks to the program, the nonviolent felon population is holding at 6 percent, he said. It’s been such a success that Miami-Dade County closed one of its jails for lack of inmates, saving taxpayers $12 million a year.”

You can read the article in full here.

So, when economic good sense and compassionate caring coincide, why is everyone not doing this? The article provides some answers. You might have some of your own.

© 2017 - Ellen Morris Prewitt |