Here it is. The cover for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. I love this cover. My sister Elli shot the photo—yep, she’s a professional photographer. That’s Goldie the Chicken as the chicken cover model. For the record, I am walking down abandoned railroad tracks. I wasn’t going to get hit by an oncoming train. The tracks run outside the Morris Ice Company in Jackson, Mississippi. As in Ellen MORRIS Prewitt. Anyway, here’s the back cover blurb. Look for a June release date.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins
If Fannie Flagg and Jack Kerouac had a daughter, her name would be Lucinda Mae Watkins. Single-again Lucinda—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace friend chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.
They are elderly and beloved. They drove from Jackson to the coast, as we once did when I was a child. When they arrived, we piled into the car and toured, the way folks once piled into automobiles and went motoring when that was considered the thing to do. We laughed and remembered days that stretched back to when they were children. Some of the memories were vague, lost in time, some bright as diamonds.
After they left, my husband and I went downtown by ourselves. We were stopped by the train. The fast-moving train crossed from land to water, riding the trestle. The train was long, long enough for me to escape from the car and move closer until I could capture the image of the train disappearing into the fog.
My daddy—who was killed by a train—was the brother of these two beloveds. He is gone. Their memories tie me to him and them to me and me to the long line stretching behind me.
Jogging, I made it back to the car before traffic beeped at us to get going. Turning, I saw: the train was gone. Nothing but fog. I know my husband wondered why, when I settled into my seat, I was crying.
I have lived in shock for a year. I could not believe that a man who put himself at the center of the universe and tore down everyone around him in the ugliest manner possible had been elevated to the presidency. The vote of my fellow and sister Americans sanctioning his behavior felt like gaslighting, an attempt to convince me that all I saw in him was not so. I have spent the last twelve months searching for, and latching on to, evidence that I was not, in fact, deluded but was right about him, which evidence has poured forth like the proverbial floodwaters.
I’m done with that. I was right. And I’m moving on.
I have my own little red God wagon to take care of. By which I mean, my most important duty is to try to discern the actions God wants me to take, and take them. Every second I spend confirming and reconfirming and confirming yet again that the president is a bigoted bully is time spent away from my work.
The year wasn’t wasted. It’s made me struggle with my own reactions. To parse my very personal anger at a man I don’t even know. To understand how hate-filled public policy gets adopted. To identify exactly who I want to support in the political process. To put the onus back where it belongs: on me.
And what is the next step for me? I have a voice, and I intend to use it in the way I have been given. I will publish work about grief and homelessness and racism and God’s love for the world, the categories I use on this blog to describe who I am. I guarantee you, not a one of them will align with the president’s beliefs. That won’t matter. What’s important is that they will align with mine.
At one point in my life when I was struggling with betrayal, I went to my Episcopal priest for advice. He suggested that during this difficult time, I might find it easier to pray to Mother Mary. I followed his suggestion, and thus began a lifelong relationship with the mother of God. CHERRY BOMB takes this concept and expands it to a near-magical degree. Rather than Mother Mary, in CHERRY BOMB, it is St. Mary of Egypt who offers redemption. How satisfying it was to read Susan Cushman’s new novel that advocates for redemption and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
This literary novel (Dogwood Press, 2017) traces the life of a young woman in Macon, Georgia who uses graffiti to process the hurt that life has brought her. (I’m pretty much illiterate about graffiti, but the apartment where I live in New Orleans has as its patron saint Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I was pleased to see his name mentioned in the novel’s early pages.) The story follows homeless young Mare as she meets famous artist Elaine de Kooning.
Elaine de Kooning, of course, is a historical figure, whose life Cushman has fictionalized, while using many facts from her life. De Kooning recognizes Mare’s talent and mentors Mare as an artist. Mare and Elaine came to art by very different paths—one through MTV videos, the other via the Museum of Modern Art. Their interaction leads Mare to enter the more traditional word of art via art school, and to question what she really wants from her art and life. CHERRY BOMB follows the stories of these two women in alternating viewpoints, which enables us to watch as their life histories gradually intersect. It’s wonderful to watch the author weave them together.
I am not going to give away plot points, but I was fascinated with how Cushman brought together the world of graffiti and the world of icons. Icons are a deeply historical form of worship, which Cushman has worked in herself (she created the icon on the back cover of CHERRY BOMB). I didn’t know both graffiti and iconography use the language of “writing” and “stories,” rather than drawing and pictures.
Of course, I’m also drawn to Mare because of her homelessness during much of the story. Her living on the street is well-told, as is the way she copes in that life. Both Mare and Elaine struggle with deeply difficult backgrounds of sexual abuse and abandonment. Working their way to forgiveness of those who have hurt them is hard. St. Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of the author, figures prominently in this process. To include forgiveness of themselves in that journey is remarkable.
DON’T MISS SUSAN’S BOOK SIGNING THURSDAY DECEMBER 14 AT 6:00 pm AT NOVEL. BOOKSTORE, LAURELWOOD SHOPPING CENTER, 387 PERKINS, RD EXTD, MEMPHIS, TN
Recording this TRACKING HAPPINESS novel is about to do me in.
The final take is almost in the can (is that an appropriate phrase for a recorded novel?) I’m laying in bed, worn out. I’ve recorded the durn thing three times. On the first take, the quality sucked. I hadn’t yet found the Amazing Black Box that Eats Ambient Noise (photo here.) After I invested approximately $50 in the Amazing Box, I recorded the entire novel a second time (that’s 26 chapters, 304 pages.)
On the second recording, the voices sucked.
See, if you’ve got lots of characters—as novels tend to do—the listener has to be able to aurally distinguish them. One character can’t start yakking, and the listener think, who the hell is talking? It’s up to me, the narrator, to distinguish the voices. Then—this is the real rub—you have to continue to use the right voice for each character EVERY DAMN TIME SHE OR HE SHOWS UP. That means re-listening to already recorded material to re-familiarize yourself with the character’s voice before you jump back in.
On the second recording, I used one voice for a character that caused the most inexplicable, unpleasant mouth noises. A main character who appeared throughout the novel. Because I’d done the second take in a marathon 3 day session, I didn’t know how truly disgusting the noise was until my sound guy sent me the compressed file. It was terrible.
On to round three.
This time—the third time—I gave myself three weeks to do the recordings. A nice easy pace of 2-3 chapters per weekday. I missed a couple of days and had to trot some to catch up. Each recording session takes much longer than you’d think. Recording—for me— requires a lot of stops. For example, even after recording this sucker three times, in the oral reading, I sometimes make corrections to the written word that are actually improvements. So I have to stop and make a notation to keep my sound guy from thinking it’s an error he needs to correct.
I also stop when I say the wrong word. I stop when I use the wrong inflection. Plus, there’s the dog collar jangles, stomach gurgles, text message dings, water running through the pipes, and the train (yep, I’m recording in Memphis in the apartment that is UNDER THE TRAIN TRACKS—even the Amazing Black Box can’t muffle a train).
It is exhausting.
I blithely undertook recording a novel because, hey, I’d successfully recorded a short story collection. The two works had about the same number of pages. And I’d won a 1st Place Award for Audio Books in the CIPA-EVVY national contest. I could tackle a novel, no problem.
All I can hope is that it is worth it. That the frequent stops means errors were caught and erased. That my diligence about voices means listeners hear the characters with no interruption in the pleasure of the narrative. That I can soon declare this over and never, ever again have to lean into a handheld microphone.
At least not until I record A MODEL FOR DECEPTION, the fashion model detective novel. Yeah, I think that’s next on the agenda. After all, once you actually acquire a skill, you need to make the most of it.
A friend recently said she has read Young Adult novels all her life. When another friend asked why, she said, “I find them more honest.” When I return to Memphis, I am carrying with me in the trunk of my car as a gift to my friend the novel, Almost Paradise, by Corabel Shofner. It makes me smile to think I will have introduced my friend to Ruby Clyde Henderson, and now I’m doing the same for you.
I must confess: I read a snippet of Almost Paradise when the novel was in the works. Corabel is my cousin’s cousin, no blood kin of mine, but she labels us “leap cousins,” which I love. At some point on the long road we call “getting published,” she shared parts of her writing with me. Ruby Clyde’s voice—Lord help me, it jumped off the page and grabbed ahold.
Now, such a wonderful voice could be hard to sustain. Or not supported by the plot. Or turn sappy at the end when it comes time to wrap things up. Without the other structural elements in place, voice is nice but not enough. The book will collapse of its own weight. Almost Paradise has all these necessary things, plus wonderful secondary characters, humor that never gets stale, and unexpected plot twists. It is simply delightful.
Okay, to be more specific: Ruby Clyde is twelve years old. She was born when her father was shot during a robbery, and her mother, witnessing the shooting, gave birth prematurely. This history affects her in ways gradually revealed as she tries to extricate herself from a situation that is humorous only because of Corabel’s deft telling. I believe the story is Middle Grade (which might be a subset of Young Adult?), but there is nothing babyish about it. We should all be so lucky as to have the wisdom of Ruby Clyde.
The story takes Ruby Clyde from a campsite in Arkansas to the rolling hills of Texas. It involves a bad boyfriend, a nun, and cowboy boots. It’s Southern. I don’t want to give any more away, except there’s a pig named Bunny. The folks at Farrar Straus Giroux (one of the Big Five in New York City!) knew a winner when they saw it, and I’m so glad they did. Thank you, Bel, for bringing Ruby Clyde into the world.
When I was a child, one of my favorite places at my grandparent’s farm was the hill above the big lake. There, a square of concrete hid beneath the pasture grass. In the springtime, yellow and white daffodils pushed through the grass and bloomed in swaying clumps. Someone had planted the flowers; they spilled down the hill. We children played there, skipping across the broken concrete, pretending we were in the kitchen or bedroom or dining room of our very own house. Intrigued, I would squat in my shorts set and part the grass. Planting my palm on the pebbly concrete, I dreamed of what I never knew.
For almost a week now, creeping unbidden into my brain is the image of me early voting. I keep seeing me walking across the voting precinct floor. I pause, touching the arm of the poll worker who is leading me to my machine. He is older, African American, and he pauses too.
“I feel like I did when I voted for President Obama,” I tell him, trying to explain my emotion.
For some of you
this might be too much
but for too long we haven’t shared
then complained when others don’t understand.
So here goes:
During the abortion wars of my youth (and by “youth” I mean when I was in my 30s) when the airwaves were filled with demands to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest, I wrote a letter that, if I found myself pregnant with a rapist’s child, I could leave for my family explaining why I killed myself rather than allow someone to have that type of control over my body.
I was in the eighth grade. We had recently moved to North Carolina where we met our new Van Hecke family. One branch of the family lived in Charlotte, the same city we did. That was Daddy’s younger brother Merwin, his wife Faye, and the kids, Kelley, Michael, and Charlie. My sister and I had played in their yard; they’d visited our duplex. Yet, we didn’t know each other that well. Until the day Aunt Faye took me to school.
Faye was a high school English teacher. I wasn’t in high school. I was an extremely shy junior high student who thought she was naturally smarter than most everybody else. (I’ve always thought more of myself than I should.) Faye wasn’t an ordinary teacher. She was an intellectual free-thinker. Thus did she bring me up short the day I began talking about the war we were studying in geography class.
I no more want to know you like assault weapons than I want to know what kinky things you do with a porn magazine in your hand. You see, if you’ve moved past guns for self-protection into defending your right to own war weaponry, that’s a fetish. And—I’m not trying to be rude—I simply don’t need to know that about you.
Yes, I understand that 1st Amendment rights limit how much I can say about your flipping that magazine page, doing whatever turns you on. You might argue 2nd Amendment rights also prevent me from asking you to please remove your trigger finger from your assault rifle.
The problem is, whether or not assault weapons are constitutional and what I think about someone are two different things. You might be someone I care about. Or respect. Or even just know in passing. And if you tell me you love your assault rifle, I’m going to look at you sideways. Hell, I might give you the side eye if you just say you like assault rifles. Or that you believe others should be able to own assault rifles. My view of you will change. And not in a good way.
In order to prevent that from happening, everyone, please rely on your absolute right to keep fetishized behavior private unto yourself. Seriously, don’t tell me. I’m not making some sort of fancy argument here—I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
Yeah, yeah. We’re supposed to respect divergent opinions. How can we “engage in dialogue” if I turn my head? And, man, am I being judgy or what? Telling folks their macho military gun is a fetish?
But I have to say something. Because it’s gotten to the point people think an assault rifle is a normal thing, perfectly okay to talk about in public (we can thank the NRA for selling us that bill of goods.). If I don’t issue a warning, you might launch into a defense of your private behavior, not realizing what you’re revealing. In the end, I’ve only got your best interest in mind.
Before 2004, this public disclosure of private facts wasn’t a problem. Congress banned the sale of these weapons. But the NRA went on a campaign to rebrand weapons of war as “sporting rifles.” And, voila—a fetish slunk from the back pages of gun magazines into the glaring light of day.
Do I want to repeal the 2nd Amendment? I certainly do not. Do I want commonsense regulation of gun ownership? I do. I’m not even asking for radical regulation, such as we impose on abortion rights. Or unnecessary restrictions, such as what we’ve done with voting rights.
I’m asking that we declare limits, the same way we do for 1st Amendment rights. Pornography, protected; obscenity, not protected. What I’m saying is, by community standards, your assault weapon designed to kill fifty of our fellow and sister human beings in a matter of minutes, is obscene. I mean, for heaven’s sake, even Walmart won’t sell these things.
But I have strayed from my main point, which is: please don’t tell me if you support allowing military-style assault weapons in the hands of private citizens—yeah, baby!!! I don’t want to know that type of information about you.
I went to junior high and high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte was the home I returned to in college and law school. When my daddy died, I sang over his grave: “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.”
The North Carolina legislature recently passed a new law authorizing LGBT discrimination. The law requires men and women to use the restroom of their birth gender. It also prohibits cities from passing ordinances that protect transgender or gay citizens. (It does much more, removing the right of North Carolina citizens to sue in the state courts for any type of discrimination, but that’s another issue.)
The impetus for the legislative action was the city of Charlotte’s passage in February of a pro-LGBT ordinance. The law expanded protection of sexual orientation and gender identity. As they say, the legislature couldn’t handle it, and they jumped up a special session to take away cities’ rights to make these decisions for themselves.
The All-Star game is held in Charlotte. The Paypal center was to be built in Charlotte. The Boss’s concert was to be held in Greensboro. So the progressive cities—those who were trying to protect LGBT rights—are paying the price for the state legislators’ bigotry. The NFL, making the distinction between Charlotte and its state legislature, has been noted as one of those who aren’t taking a “stronger stand.”
What is to be done? All across the South, a similar progressive/conservative breach exists between cities and rural areas. Urban areas, progressive. Rural areas, conservative. The divide is as wide as that which separates progressive states from conservative states. Southern cities float like islands in a hostile land. This is true in my state of Tennessee. It’s true in Louisiana where we live part-time in New Orleans. While I know many folks in small North Carolina towns who are actively fighting discrimination of all kinds, this general divide appears to be true in my daddy’s beloved North Carolina as well.
Will the North Carolina legislature care if Charlotte suffers? I don’t know. In Tennessee, when the legislature passes laws that hurt Memphis or Nashville, the legislature doesn’t give two f***s. Because the state legislative leaders—and their constituents—are from the rural areas. Or sometimes they’re from suburbs that hate the cities that pump their life blood. Either way, the health of the cities is not their concern. North Carolina appears to have exceptions to this rule (what’s wrong with you, Raleigh?), but most of the leadership lives in places I’m having to look up on the map to find.
My solution? Those who want to protest discriminatory laws passed by Southern states should take action in the areas where the state legislative leaders live. The state leaders are passing laws to please their constituents. Thus, their constituents should pay the price for any backlash against those laws. Yes, this is a bit more difficult than a wholesale state boycott, requiring more precise decision-making. But I’m going to make it easier for you. Here are the counties the leaders of the North Carolina state legislature represent:
North Carolina House Leadership:
Speaker: Speaker Tim Moore: Cleveland
Speaker Pro Tempore: Representative Paul Stam: Wake
Majority Leader: Representative Mike Hager: Burke
Deputy Majority Leader: Representative Marilyn Avila: Wake
Majority Whip: Representative John R. Bell, IV: Craven, Greene, Lenoir, Wayne
Deputy Majority Whips: Representative Dean Arp: Union
Representative James L. Boles, Jr.: Moore
North Carolina Senate Leadership:
President: Lt. Governor Dan Forest: statewide
President Pro Tempore: Senator Phil Berger: Guilford, Rockingham
Deputy President Pro Tempore: Senator Louis Pate: Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne
Majority Leader: Senator Harry Brown: Jones, Onslow
Majority Whip: Senator Jerry W. Tillman: Moore, Randolph
What the hell is in Moore County, you might ask? Answer: Pinehurst Golf Course, which has hosted the US Open and plans on doing so again, as well as the US Amateur Championship. USGA, are you listening? Burke County touts its filmmaking credits, and part of The Hunger Games were filmed in Cleveland County. Filmmakers, are you listening?
Maybe none of this boycotting matters. Greensboro is in Guilford County, so you’d think Bruce’s cancellation would’ve gotten President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s attention. Instead, he issued a bizarre public statement full of convoluted logic. Still, (cynically) I trust the power of money over morals. Particularly grandstanding morals. In time, it adds up.
My point: if you’re going to boycott over LGBT discrimination, spread the love into the nooks and crannies where North Carolina legislators live. I’m sure they’ll thank you for (not) stopping by.
For one reason then another, I’ve been off the blog for a while, not adding posts, not reading posts from my fellow and sister bloggers. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed reading your thoughts. I hope as the year unfolds, I will do better. I have, however, been writing, and I share with you this wisdom the Universe sent to me at the beginning of the new year.
Living with the Iffing
He’s seated in the chair next to me at the bank—at this New Orleans bank, they’ve done away with teller windows. The tellers hold court behind a long desk, customers sit in chairs on the other side. The man and I sit side by side. He’s in the midst of a complicated financial transaction. While the teller works, he talks.
“All that fighting going on in my neighborhood.”
“You peeking from behind the curtains?” the teller asks.
“I was sitting on the porch with a baseball bat.”
The teller comments that maybe this isn’t so smart. “Bullets don’t carry a name.”
He agrees, but remains undeterred. “That family. You know, you lose somebody, you bring in chicken. You bring in food. That family, they buy liquor.”
The teller lends one ear to his story as she steadily works. I get the feeling they know each other pretty well.
“They buy liquor then they start to fighting. I look out there, the boyfriend has a board. The girlfriend, she’s got a stick.”
He demonstrates the stance of the two neighbors, weapons raised above their shoulders.
“He’s holding the board, and she’s got the stick. I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’”
“You what?” The teller begins paying attention.
“I can’t stand that iffing—are they gonna hit someone or not? I said, ‘Somebody hit someone!’ I can’t take that iffing.”
The old year rolls out. The New Year rolls in. We are asked, as always, to live with the iffing.
I’m pleased to report that the essay Grief: The Best I Can Do will be published in Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine. EAP is an amazing magazine whose ethic is spreading ideas, not exclusivity. So the “already published” nature of the essay is not an issue. In fact, the magazine encourages writers to get their work out anywhere they can, thus seeding the germinating idea in every garden possible.
In an aside, THE BONE TRENCH is currently being considered by an editor at a wonderful publishing house. You can read about the long journey of this novel here. My wonderful agent at the Virginia Kidd Agency is doing a fabulous job of getting it into the right hands. So send good thoughts to the editor, surrounding her with vibes that hum, “I love this manuscript! I love this manuscript! I must buy this manuscript!”
Finally, I’m a little—what? bemused? mystified?—to share that the Grief essay was picked up by a service called The Obitstream.com Daily. I learned about this via a Twitter notification. Perusing my notifications, I discovered a tweet by ObitStream.com including my Twitter name. Following this link, I found this new service that contains curated articles about grief. Who knew? It’s an ever-changing brave new world out there.
I’m hoping—fingers crossed—the popping of this publication news portends a fruitful 2016!
My Daddy Joe was killed by a train when I was three years old. My older sister was four, and my mother was newly pregnant with my little sister. After the baby was born, my mother had what we would now call postpartum depression, complicated, of course, by the death. She thought to herself, Well, I’ve had this baby. The two older girls can take care of themselves. I’m not needed here anymore.
That’s traumatic grief manifesting into physical thought.
It’s impossible to put my finger on who among us Daddy Joe’s death affected the most. Me, who was at the age when a daughter carries the strongest attachment to her father. My older sister, who had fourteen months greater understanding of the event than I. My younger sister, who lived for almost ten years without even the briefest experience of a father, until my amazing stepdad arrived. Or maybe it was my grandmother, who buried her child then sealed off her grief so completely she mentioned her son no more than a handful of times until the day she died. Or my mom, who sometimes emails me on December 19 in remembrance of an event that happened over fifty years ago. Each of us, in our own way, felt the pressing hand of loss shaping, molding, forming us.
My life experiences—watching my stepdad pass over to the other side; communing with those who have left this world before me; reading about others’ death experiences—have convinced me the dead are fine. We can pray for the dead, but we needn’t worry about them. They are fine. We are the ones riveted by loss.
Left behind, we grapple with a pain that physically wounds us. Holes riddle our hearts, digging deep wells in our souls that neither time can heal nor grieving remove. No matter the good things that rush in—my stepdad whom I loved so much—those places of emptiness stay with us. I question why life is set up this way. What is the point of bonds that tie so closely but can be severed so quickly? Why is life devised to cause us so much pain from loss? So many, many of us walk around with wisps of loss at the edge of our consciousness constantly asking, where is daddy? What happened to mommy? Why did God take my child from me? The loss ripples out until it seems the whole world shudders.
Nor must the loss be traumatic. We grieve, inconsolable, for our aged parents who have lived long, good, full lives. We miss them terribly. We pause and hang our heads when a memory strikes us full force, not wanting the world to see how grief can still slay us. We love and we love and we love and we lose.
Who thought this was a good idea?
And yet it is.
So, what to do with it? My cousin, what he did was to lead the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the actions that took his teenage son from him. Let me repeat that—a grieving parent led the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the loss of his son.
My mother, she decided “things” were unimportant, only people mattered. She has spent the rest of her life throwing away, de-cluttering, and smiling at everyone she meets.
Me, I write. In many of my novels and short stories, the dad is dead. The daughter or son who is left behind wrestles with the loss, trying to find a place to step that doesn’t turn into quicksand. As I write, I try to see through the loss, to claim back from death everything it would try to take from us.
I did this with the tiny pearl necklace I wore this Christmas Eve. After Daddy Joe died, a man came to Mother and said her husband had ordered the delicate necklace for his daughter. That made no sense to Mother—why would Joe buy one necklace when he had two daughters? But she paid the man for the necklace and tucked it away with the handful of things she kept from that time. Last year, going through her stuff, she came across the necklace and offered it to us girls, scam though it probably was. I took the necklace and this year, because my dress needed a second necklace, I wore it to Christmas Eve dinner.
Even as I closed the cheap gold clasp around my neck, I wondered anew, why? Why had I accepted something that surely had no connection to Daddy Joe? Did I pitifully act on the slim chance he had, in fact, bought it for me? Or was it something else?
I held the tiny pearl in my fingertips and felt the answer: the “probably a scam” necklace graced my neck because nothing is sacred. Not the wallet that was Daddy Joe’s, not the Ole Miss memorabilia strewn across my house—none of it. The joke is on the man who sold the necklace to Mother. He thought a memento grasped in a sweaty palm could contain and assuage grief. But the only thing that can do that is love, a force so strong it can redeem even the sacrilege of death. Love makes anything, and everything, sacred, even a scam necklace.
When the grief of death strikes anew—as it did this Christmas Eve when I was wearing the tiny pearl necklace and my nephew suddenly, traumatically died—I can only look for the moments when that love manifests itself.
The memory of my Daddy Joe’s arms enveloping and comforting me.
The image of my nephew’s smiling face lighting up whenever he greeted me.
These rays of love that were once in this world left their imprint, and they stay in this world for all time, waiting only for us to reach out and touch the memory of them.
So, basically, I come around to saying those who die are still here. That’s not letting go. It’s not accepting death as a part of life. It’s not reconciling myself to this configuration that includes repeated, painful loss. I hate death. I always will. But I love love.
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 we were interring Daddy in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery (x marks the spot, a shovel, and an urn), rain fell. We held umbrellas, but we were moving, digging and tossing dirt. The August rain dripped slow and steady—not warm, not cool, just rain—and even as it was happening, I knew I’d never act afraid of the rain again. No running to get out of a sudden shower. No hunched shoulders. No grimacing face. Just rain.
The dog and I exit for our 1:00 walk, and rain patters the cobblestones. The clouds have been bruised all morning, but if I’d known the rain had finally arrived, I would’ve worn my yellow slicker—I love every opportunity to wear my yellow slicker. Without the slicker, I stand in the white tee I stole from Tom, the rain wetting the cotton and revealing my turquoise bra beneath. We wander across the parking lot, and petrichor rises from the hot cement. This—walking in the rain without exhibiting any of the social conventions that silently say I know I’m caught in the rain, nothing I can do about it—is the start of insanity. Or sanity, maybe.
When I was a child, rain fell in sheets from heaven, marching down Arlington Street while I stood with arms outstretched, willing it to come to me. Exhilarated at its arrival, I scooted beneath the giant oak whose sturdy arms umbrellaed me as rain splattered the ground. How long does it take to get back to the joy of rain? Not looking through the rain to the sunshine returning on the other side, but the dimples in the puddle, the fish at the surface of the pond opening its mouth, the rivulets sluicing through the waving green grass. Rain for the joy of rain. Does anyone ever pray, dear God, send me what I love even if no one else in the world would ever want it?
A daughter orphaned from her dad at age three, I wrapped myself in all things Daddy Joe. Because he moved to the Rockies, I loved the snow, demanded a Frosty the Snowman cake every December birthday, cherished my red sled—in Mississippi, where it snowed once every seven years. I folded and unfolded the postcard he sent me of a Palomino until it disintegrated, but not before I’d lied, telling some of my friends my Daddy Joe gave me that beautiful horse. I was even more proud of the postcard he sent me featuring two deer killed in battle, their horns locked in death. His message? “This is what will happen if you don’t stop fighting with your sister.” At one point, I harbored dreams of moving to Colorado and living on the land he’d left us, so ignorant I didn’t know the “land” was mineral rights. No one can live on a mineral right. I thought I could. I was an ornery pip.
I wish I could say this Kafkaesque search ended with maturity. It didn’t.
In my first marriage, I recreated Daddy Joe’s marriage to my mother, holding the reception in the white-columned house where he grew up, marrying a man who made the wedding guests gasp, he looked so much like Daddy Joe. When my grandmother died, I insisted the family give me Daddy Joe’s memorabilia from the hallway secretary. His Ole Miss megaphone and University of Denver beer mug and his diplomas and U.S.Navy documents. And his scrapbook of his motorcycle trip out west. I took as much as my scared self could harvest and went to a professional photographer and made copies of the sepia photographs and the black and white photographs and gave them to my sisters. I don’t think they much cared about it one way or the other. I did. I kept caring.
Until last night.
As I lay in bed contemplating how to revise an old novel, wondering what it was that motivated the child protagonist, I understood her goal was to set things up so that when she returned to her house in New Orleans, her dead dad would walk back through the door.
She’s eleven. This is a totally unrealistic goal for an 11-year-old protagonist. It’s equally unrealistic for a twenty-five year old. Or thirty-eight year old. Or fifty-seven year old.
Here’s the kicker: I made a terrible mistake. Everything I aligned myself with, Daddy Joe had run away from. The white-columned house he abandoned for a free-wheeling life out west. The memorabilia he left behind. The past, all of it past but clinging like ivy clamping onto bricks. None of it was for him.
This revelation made me almost laugh out loud. I felt closer to Daddy Joe than I had in years.
I will revise this novel. I will set the child to rights. She will work through her issues, and the story will make you weep. Not with sorrow. With laughter. I promise, you’ll be laughing and wiping away the tears.
The small weight of sorrow in my life, ragged as a sinker on a fishing line, will always be with me. It’ll keep bobbing up and down like the red and white cork on the end of the line. That’s life. In the end, though, I’ll know who I am.
Every morning and every afternoon I walk toward the river. The river flows past the oversized window at the end of our hallway. Sometimes when I walk, a behometh ship passes, rusty hull slicing the air. At other times it’s the train passing, the cars laden with graffiti. On the rarest of occasions, the train runs in front of a ship and even though the train is raised on a concrete retaining wall, the ship behind it is higher still, because this is New Orleans and we are almost underwater.
I am now five weeks post-surgery. I have a new hip, and diminished resolve. My sense of need to accomplish, which usually flares like a coke-stoked oven, has died into embers. Only yesterday was I able to pick up a Reader’s Report on Jazzy, my New Orleans novel, and begin to revise. Yes, I read 17 mysteries and watched many episodes of Perry Mason in preparation for the homeless mystery I intend to write next, but those are passive activities. When it comes to writing, I’ve been underwater.
Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ve revised a handful of short stories and submitted them to journals, an activity I let fall by the wayside as I focused so completely on perfecting (ha!) the novels. Two journals—Missouri Review and American Short Fiction—want more work. I’m trying to send them more work, good work. But I’m kind of treading water (see, I can learn, adapt, quit exaggerating).
Baby steps, that’s probably the answer. Baby steps down the hallway towards the river. Baby steps back into my normal life. When I go to physical therapy they zip me into an anti-gravity treadmill. Oxygen puffs the rubber and carries about twenty-five percent of my weight for me as I walk. It’s funky as hell, but for now it enables me to take long, strong strides. Soon, this too will be in my past. I keep this in mind as I walk toward the river.
My body is aghast at what I’ve done to it. Open-mouthed, slack-jawed, incredulous. Like the time in the 11th grade when I was playing powder puff (Ha!) football for the Keyettes. I was standing there minding my own business when wham! I was knocked senseless onto the ground. I struggled upright to see the grinning face of a girl on the other team named Margaret. She said something along the lines of that being her assignment—to knock me out. After many years of watching football, I’ve concluded her move was an illegal block in the back. Be that as it may, at the time I was too discombobulated to even protest.
My body is at the same stage. In shock over the betrayal, really. In every moan and groan, I hear its protest: Why’d you have to go and do this? Things weren’t that bad, were they? We were getting along fine; we were working it out. Your reaction seems somewhat drastic.
It was drastic. As my husband says, a week ago, they sawed off my hip. I am progressing amazingly well, everyone says. Up and out of the bed by myself. Practicing walking with a cane. Good with the physical therapy movement.
Tell that to my disillusioned body.
I’m sure it will come around. Grudgingly, as my movement returns to what it was five years ago, my body will concede the wisdom of my decision. It will see this as a difficult but necessary step in what I hope to be a long road into the future.
The problem? Just as my body begins to put all this behind us, when I am rehabbed, recovered, and back to normal, I’m getting the next hip done.
Be thinking about me when this reality dawns on my body: you knew how bad this was going to be and you did it to us AGAIN? As the characters in the British mystery novels I’ve been reading would say, Bloody Hell!
Her hair wound in a braid down her back, always. She was Indian, her dad a professor at Duke. Sonja was her name. We were in the 7th grade, she a part of the group of girls who had welcomed me, the new student, into their friendship. She wore tennis shoes to school and the long black braid.
One time, at a spend-the-night party, I saw her hair freed. It was beautiful, thick and lifting. It nestled around her neck, kissed the air like a black halo. I talked her into wearing it loose to school. She’d never done that before.
Monday, I saw her at the water cooler, her hand whipping around to braid her hair back into place. “No,” I said, when she told me they’d made fun of her, laughed at her hair. “It’s beautiful.”
“I listened to you,” she said, wiping away the tears with the back of her hand then taking a drink of water to hide her crying. “I won’t do it again.”
I had forgotten how much I hate giving advice to kids. Then yesterday I spoke to a roomful of 10th-12th graders about writing a speech for a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratory Contest. I was asked to speak because I believe in encouraging every writers’ voice. I believe in giving folks an opportunity to express what they want to express in their own particular, personal, creative way. I also believe in elbowing room at the table so others will listen to what they have to say. But until yesterday, my audience had always been adults.
In the middle of the night last night, I woke up in a cold sweat wondering what I had done. And I remembered Sonja.
I saw the clump of boys. They were down the hallway where Sonja had pointed. Her taunters weren’t other girls. They were boys. Our group was not the popular girls. We were the smartest girl in the class; the only Indian girl in the grade; the skinny Black girl in heavy glasses; the new girl who wore inappropriate clothes (my Lord, when I read this, I see an awful after-school special). The boys were the athletes, the cute boys. Boys who never paid one iota of attention to us. Now they are making fun of Sonja. And it was all my fault.
The topic for this years’ MLK speech was bullying. The facilitator asked me to use an example of a “good” speech as part of my talk. To comply, I had to do some research. I don’t remember reading anything about those who inadvertently put someone in a situation to be bullied, because it was only in the middle of the night that I remembered Sonja. When that happened, I lay there thinking, I told those kids to talk about what was interesting to them. I told them what they had to say was going to be what really mattered. I told them to put themselves out there, the very thing that could wind up leading someone to bully them.
What I can only hope is that Sonja grew up into a world that appreciated her beauty. I hope she did not spend her life with her hair tightly braided because releasing it had not worked well for her in the past. I hope she does not remember me as a rash girl who thoughtlessly stuck her nose into a place it didn’t belong, resulting in hurt. I hope that if one of those kids writes an amazing speech that reveals his or her heart in an extraordinarily odd way, their peers will clap and cheer, the sound of applause drowning out anyone who might jeer at a child’s willingness to be vulnerable.
She rises behind the lectern, carefully taking the steps. Each time, before she reads us our Sunday morning lesson, she flashes a smile our way. Not all lay readers approach their task with such lightness; some bring a decided solemnity to the event. Not her. We’ve walked with her through a recent journey—she’s lost an incredible amount of weight—and her joy spills over. Always a happy woman, she now almost glows.
I see him kneeling at the table during Hospitality Hour, knee to the oriental rug. He’s monitoring the little boy who sometimes reaches his hand to grab a treat from the laden table. Meanwhile, she cares for the little girl, splitting their resources like parents do. He’s a slight man, fair of complexion. The little boy has the same fair look, different from his mama’s dark hair and dark eyes. If he says anything to his son, I don’t hear it.
Her picture has appeared in the paper, one of those blown-up photos that result in a fuzzy, distorted image. Static, too: the same image, over and over again. Overcome with concern, I confess to the stranger seated beside me on the train, “A woman from my church is missing.”
“The kindergarten teacher?” she asks, and my heart sinks. Could this be real, this narrative that we all nudge along. Woman missing. Husband questioned. Tumultuous marriage of late, as though all divorces aren’t the most tumultuous times many of us ever face.
I remember her at a cross making workshop, enjoying the child-like activity as much as the daughter seated beside her. I didn’t know she was a kindergarten teacher, I didn’t know much at all. I remember each time I clicked “like” on the beautiful, smiling photos she posted, until I quit, embarrassed that I was making too big a deal out of how lovely she looked, as if she hadn’t been lovely enough before.
He appears on the evening news; his choice of their network puffs the reporters with pride. Under the “Husband Questioned” headlines his quiet demeanor has become unsettling—you know, his photos do look disturbed. Answering questions, he shifts his head from side to side, his gaze sliding away. When he says, his voice flat as a man on quaaludes, “I would never put my hands on her,” I wonder, who uses that kind of language? Then I think, is that the first time I’ve head him speak?
In my mind she rises from the behind the lectern. Like the “Have You Seen this Woman?” photo, my image of her is broken, snapped off from the stream of her life. A life I did not know, but a woman of whom I was very fond. They were a family, I thought, a part of our church family. Now with the answer to the only question that matters revealed, we know she will no longer lead us in our lessons on Sunday mornings. I dread seeing more images of her that I don’t want to be a party to. I will keep my own:
She rises from behind the lectern, happy, a little shy, and flashes us a smile.
May God rise to meet her coming.