30 May 2015

For the Children...and the Artist

Life is strange. A week after chasing these boys to get my purse back -- a theft they perpetrated about 3 feet away from where they're sitting in this photo, I was serving them pizza on the same front porch. Some folks now describe me as heroic, a mensch, an inspiration. High praise...  And you know how difficult it can be to accept praise.

Honestly, it was never a choice between heroism and cowardice. I will allow that somewhere in me there must exist the capacity to press criminal charges against children; but that day in the police station, pressing charges was beyond me. It was out of reach. It was somebody else's movie.

I've spent a good bit of energy this week trying to find work for these two ready, willing and able candidates. Their stated reason for stealing my purse was "We weren't thinking. It was just something to do." I'm trying to find them something else to do -- and it is not easy.

Chores around my place require a financial investment I can't make yet:  cleaning supplies, a ladder, tools, lawn mower, etc. Chores somewhere else in the community require getting the word out -- and that takes time. Two possibilities have presented but one is an opportunity that won't begin for another two weeks. The other is a secondhand offer that has not yet been substantiated...though I've called at least once a day, leaving voicemail, for the last 4 days.

The summer youth program accepted applications in March and final placements were completed this week. All 30 of them. According to latest statistics, nearly 50% of the population here is under the age of 22. Judging from what I see, most of them are unemployed.

I don't know what I want. As I chased the boys, I wanted my purse back. By the time I was standing in the police station, embracing them, I wanted a productive outlet for two bored adolescents; a few days later, the objective had become paid summer employment for them and as many other Holly Springs youth as possible.

In pursuit of that objective, I've had conversations around town with identified adult power brokers. My inquiry about summer jobs has provoked long-winded diatribes about rampant irresponsibility and lack of ambition among (variously):

  •  young people generally, 
  • single mothers, 
  • all young black males, and 
  • black people generally 
I've heard self-righteous umbrage at the ungrateful behavior of people the speaker has"tried to help." And I've received sharp warnings from people who recognize the family names of the boys that my goodwill is sure to end badly.

It's been a disheartening and exhausting week on this front. I recognize that I cannot find or create work for the boys -- and the other unemployed youth in the community -- by myself. Yet, I don't yet see much assistance in the vicinity.

If I were to mount a bully pulpit today, I would express my dismay and disappointment that the community finds resources to sustain a church on every other street but can only muster summer jobs for 30 kids. I am asked over and over "What church do you attend?" as proof of my character; but, to my eye, folks are long on thumping the Bible and short on living its precepts.

Placing blame on people who need help (and who among us does not need help?), can allow a tiny clearance for wiggling away from our human responsibility to help; but for Christians, there is no such clearance available because the basis for the practice is the life of Christ, a man notorious for opening his arms and his life to people rejected by their communities for one reason or another.

I don't know exactly what I want. I know I don't want to talk to any more people unwilling to look beyond their own needs or relinquish their death-grip on well-rehearsed tirades about people who (they think) need to change their ways and attitudes. (Am I talking about myself?)


I accept there's no way to avoid interactions with such people. I can't do this alone. I'm not "from here" so my personal influence is limited.

I feel out of my element. If I could tackle this thing with purely artistic intention...

27 May 2015


Last week I submitted a piece for the Letters to the Editor page of the South Reporter, the local weekly newspaper. A combination thank-you letter to all the people who have come to my rescue in the last two weeks and love letter to Holly Springs for its recent affectionate regard, it began: 
On Monday 11 May,  a few minutes before noon, a “friend” who had hosted me in his home for nearly three years, handed me a court-issued Removal Order giving me 5 hours to vacate.  There was no advance warning, no explanation, no day in court. Because of my work schedule, I actually had only two hours to find boxes, pack my belongings, hire a truck and transport everything – somewhere. I was shocked, distraught and heartbroken.
The editor called me yesterday afternoon. He thanked me for the submission, complimented the writing and, in response to my concern about the length, assured me there was no problem with the length.

"But," he said, "I think it's better not to include that first paragraph. This is a small town and people might not like that kind of thing. Too personal. Everybody knows everybody around here and they'd rather not get involved in your personal affairs." He suggested an edit along the lines of "On Monday 11 May I was given five hours to vacate my home. Because of my work schedule...."

I didn't quibble. Although I could argue that the first paragraph provides a context for the magnitude of my gratitude, it isn't essential.  I am grateful and, for the first time, genuinely happy in Holly Springs and my sentiment can be clearly understood without the original opening lines.

Besides noting the amusing irony of editing newspaper content to spare readers involvement in "personal affairs," in a town where talking about each others' personal affairs is the primary entertainment, I started thinking about social censorship and silences here, what's OK and not OK to say in Holly Springs.

It's OK, for example, to decry the constant persecution of the Christian minority in the U.S.by the unbelieving majority from any pulpit in town -- though there is little evidence in the "real world" to support such a statement; but it is not OK to recount the details of a real-life event in the local newspaper, even if you don't use names.

This is, of course, a problematic comparison since the Church, here and around the world, is often exempt from many of the social, political and cultural restrictions that apply in secular life. I employ it, however, because  conservative Christian values are primary and pervasive determiners of culture in Holly Springs.

To a large degree, standards governing day-to-day behavior in Holly Springs -- everything from dreams to jokes to fashion, education to commerce to  interpersonal relationships -- are set by a generic Church with specific denominational tweaks in effect here and there. The standards might as well be written in the sky or tattooed on every resident's body. Believer or non-believer:  you feel it when you've broken a rule.

In place of skywriting or body-writing, the Upcoming Events section of each week's edition of the newspaper is given over to church-related events. When I last attended a city government meeting, it opened with prayer -- Christian prayer. Store clerks regularly close transactions with "Have a blessed day."

A window in the entryway to the only grocery store has become by default a community bulletin board. The typical "roommate wanted," "car for sale," and "drum circle forming" notices found on such boards in other places I've lived, are replaced here by Church anniversary, Bible study group, Praise group meeting and "Repent and Be Saved!" announcements.

The "Writers Group" notice I posted during my first summer in town mysteriously disappeared after a few days. I got the message and didn't even consider posting a "Piano Lessons" flyer when I opened a piano studio soon after.

I feel better about living here now than I have at any time since arriving. Still, as I observed social censorship (in the guise of "etiquette" especially) a perception formed that persists even now.

Secrecy and certain kinds of silence are social toxins. A contaminant in the water of community. Applauding and celebrating openly when a celebrity comes to town. No comment or critique of the generally inadequate public schools. No comment or critique of public officials whose corruption and unresponsiveness are common knowledge among the people they serve. 

The culture and psyche of a community where free speech and thought are suppressed or proscribed are necessarily malformed. Philanthropy, innovation, historic preservation and entrepreneurship are just a few of the civic impulses desirable and necessary for a thriving community; all of them are diminished and damaged when free speech and thought are prohibited.

There is a contest in progress here. "Outsiders" like myself who see ourselves as residents of Holly Springs for the foreseeable future tread lightly, carrying big sticks of possibility and change. We arrived as free thinkers and make every effort to persist without wounding others or becoming martyrs ourselves. In every "what to do about Holly Springs" conversation, someone says "The town needs an influx of new blood, new people with new ideas and strategies." The outsiders are the new blood. We are outnumbered by "insiders" and outweighed by their collective memory.

Sometimes things change. Sometimes places change.

But sometimes they don't. They just die. The algorithm of why and which places is somewhat mysterious.

We do what we can. And hope it works out.

[Here's a link to the letter in it's entirety: The full edited letter]

22 May 2015

Clairvoyance: The Move to Yellow Fever House, Part 2

2.     quick, intuitive knowledge of things and people; sagacity.

a digital representation of Rene Magritte's painting 'La Clairvoyance';
harvested from Google Images search results

 The second day after the move, a Saturday, my purse was snatched from my front porch by two adolescent males. Don't ask what I was thinking:  I couldn't tell you. But I took off in hot pursuit. A 60-year-old smoker, I chased these boys. Reflecting on the whole episode a few days later, I thought "Wow! Adrenaline is real!"

Here's an excerpt of my FaceBook post (FaceBook, the record of human history not told in History Books):

So much for a relaxing rainy Saturday. ... I sat an armload of bags and my purse on the porch and turned to retrieve the things from the trunk of the car. I was about 10 or 11 feet away from my bags when two young males dashed onto the porch, snatched my bag and started running. I yelled "Stop! Stop them! They snatched my purse" and started running after them. "Stop! Just drop it, it's OK. Just drop it!" I screamed but they did not drop it.

A driver on the next street over saw and heard what was happening and set out in pursuit. ...another car pulled up, ..and shouted "Get in! We'll get them!"

We called the police while in pursuit and chased until we hit a dead end. The boys had cut across the graveyard and run into the adjacent woods. Within 5 minutes HS police, Officer Glover, was on the scene. My driver let me out when the police arrived and the other driver jumped out of his car and ran a short way into the field/woods before returning. "I know one of those boys, " he said. ...

...The policeman took me home and ...I went ...to the library to use internet and cancel cards, phone, etc.

Back on my front porch with friends ...I was into the story when Chief Harris pulled up. "We caught them. We got your purse. Can you follow me to the station?"

..."Do you want to press charges?" I started crying. "No, I don't. Like we need two more black boys dropped into the justice system..."

"Well, do you want an apology?" "Yes!" I followed him to his office. The boys were there. ... One 15 years old and the other 18. The grandmother who has custody of the older boy was there. The mother of the other arrived a little later. They apologized. We talked. We all cried at some point. Even the boys. I hugged them both, a lot. ...

Chief Harris mentioned a mentoring program that meets every second Saturday. The boys apologized ..and I asked them to promise me to attend at least the next six sessions ...I also asked them to keep in touch with me. ...

I told them they have power and choice. "Holly Springs is your home, babies. You have power to make this community. You can live like you want a Miss Alex Piano Teacher's house, where you can stop by and get a coke or help with homework or talk about your girlfriend; or you can live like you want Miss Alex to start carrying a gun and looking at you and every other young man with suspicion." ...

...I have two new princes in my circle of acquaintance. I care about these boys. They said they "just weren't thinking" when they snatched the purse. The opportunity presented and they took it.

I got everything but my phone back. This is how bright these youngsters are: they figured the phone would have GPS so they tossed it wide into the woods first thing. I'll have to buy a new phone but, otherwise, what a happy ending? Who knew I could run two blocks?
 I thought this blog post was about clairvoyance. About seeing. The crystal clear view I experienced during the adrenaline rush of chasing the boys. My self perspective one morning this week when the boys stopped by unexpectedly: I was still in pajamas, uncombed and unwashed, with coffee. A little embarrassed but very glad to see them. I wanted to write about how I felt this morning when D___ (one of the boys; they're both minors so I won't use their names) dropped by. In search of a pencil sharpener.

I was in pajamas again. This time pre-coffee even. I was glad to see him. Also felt a tinge of suspicion and fear -- he came specifically to my house? to sharpen a pencil?  Alone?  Also excited:  I asked him what he was working on and he mumbled something about a Spanish project. I said, "Bueno! Tu hablas espanol?" Blank stare and something mumbled about not knowing about "all that." I told him it sounded like an exciting project and offered whatever assistance he needed since I speak Spanish fairly fluently.

Yeah, I wanted to write about how my view of the boys, as well as the view of myself, is changing through encounter.

But I ran a Google Image search on "boys will be boys" and found so many intriguing images, I decided to devote the rest of the post to sharing some of the ones that piqued my interest. Enjoy!

21 May 2015

Lies and promises: The Move to Yellow Fever House, Part 1

Exodus 20:3-17 (Holy Bible, NRSV)

1.       You shall have no other gods before me
2.       You shall not make idols (“…whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Note: verses 4-6 are potent and provocative.)
3.       You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord
4.       Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
5.       Honor your father and your mother
6.       You shall not murder
7.       You shall not commit adultery
8.       You shall not steal
9.       You shall not bear false witness (against your neighbor)
10.    You shall not covet (you neighbor’s house…wife, male or female slaves, ox, donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor)

There’s so much bad behavior not mentioned in the Ten Commandments...

It is a little strange to find myself sitting before an open Bible at 7 a.m. But I have a new address. A new home. New rooms. New views from new windows. I’m in a new space, doing new things and everything is a little strange. Not unpleasant or frightening. Just…..new.

The events precipitating my relocation were also strange. Sudden and unexpected and unexplained. There is some chance that I will eventually file a detailed written account of the whole “episode”; but the task is not a high priority. I posted an S.O.S. on FaceBook early (during the first — and only --  moment of panic I have felt since my mother died in 2012).   That post generated many Comments and I engaged with them briefly and sporadically; but the moving process required vigorous mental, intellectual, physical and spiritual attention. There was little energy leftover for interactions on FaceBook.

It’s been eight days since that Monday morning when I stood in pajamas making coffee and heard the front door open. The night before, I’d had the dream about losing teeth again. In the dream, as usually happens, I am startled to find teeth, unanchored, in my mouth. New in this edition of the dream:  they are not my teeth. My teeth are all anchored evenly in my gums, bright white and shiny. I am deeply amused by the situation. I feel fat and solid and content. I am about to spit the loose, alien teeth out into my palm to take a closer
look when I wake up.

An hour later, a few minutes before noon, a troubled man who has been my housemate for over a year and was a friend for ten years before that, walked through the house and into the kitchen, said “Good morning” for the first (and possibly only) time since I returned from Brazil at the end of March, and handed me a Removal Order from the Justice Court of Marshall County, Mississippi. “The Court says you have to be out of here by 5 p.m,” he said.

We had the briefest of eye contact before he turned and walked out of the house. We had had infrequent eye contact for a long time. His eyes that morning were disturbing; I saw coldness, death, fear, bondage, hatred and confusion there. I saw sickness and suffering. 

Days later, I would remember the dream and think “Those were Troubled Man’s teeth!”


It took less than 72 hours to travel from receiving the Removal Order to receiving the keys to my beautiful new home but a lot happened in that time.  Three days of Amazing Grace:  rescue and resources from trusted friends, surprising support from acquaintances and strangers, fortuitous serendipity and coincidence, profound experiences of gratitude washing over and within me.

Unpacking and settling into the new house has gradually revealed “what I lost in the move.” I had students scheduled the day of the Removal Order so five hours was in actuality less than three. I loaded what I could into my car and relocated Piano Studio to the Episcopal church for the afternoon. At 5:00 p.m., I started my final lesson for the day but back on Johnson Park, I imagine Troubled man began feverishly dumping my belongings on the curb. By the time I arrived over an hour later, with Angels of Mercy, there was  a jumbled mess on the sidewalks of 216 Johnson Park. 

We had no boxes. We worked fast to cram everything into my VW and the two vehicles of the Angels. By Wednesday, things had been sorted and boxed and made for transport from the fancy front rooms of the Angels to my new home.

Thoughts of Troubled Man and Johnson Park now arise most often when I need something and discover it is no longer in my possession. It might be a knife – carefully chosen and preferentially used for three years…and “lost in the move” (LIM). Or the matching chopstick to the surviving singleton of a cherished pair. Or the beautiful wooden linen shelf from the bathroom. Or the handy undulating floor fan. Or a set of plastic nesting containers for leftovers. Or measuring cups, brandy snifters, champagne glasses, cherry-red barbecue grill…  Can goods and spices and cooking oil. All LIM.

Each instance produces a tiny psychic stab and, for a couple of days, elicited an automatic “Fuck you, C______.” The utterance happens less and less often as a) feelings of annoyance are overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude and contentment; and b) remembrance and reflection on the final days of our relationship reveal the sad underlying dis-ease compelling his actions.  It is within these reflections that the issue of “lies and promises” occurs. 

I would rather receive scathing criticism or outright argument than be ignored. I would rather hear hard truth than a lie. I prefer being flatly denied a request to being belatedly betrayed. 

Troubled Man preferred non-communication and betrayal. In retrospect, (see "Both Sides Now" post here at SITC) signs of the likelihood of the failure of our friendship were in evidence from the beginning. Recurrent pangs of “Ah! I should have known. I should have listened to my gut…” have been features of this transition. 

An essential and enduring mystery at the center of this story is “Why did he kick me out?”  Additional questions include:

·         Why is he angry?
·         Why did he stop talking to me?
·         Why did he deposit his mother on the front porch to watch the eviction?
…all of which can be distilled to “What happened?”

And then I remember his eyes. And the answer is right there:  Something broke.

It is frightening to think about it too often or for too long. I imagine the psychic and physical condition associated with eyes that gleam with such hostile confusion. 

I shudder…and willfully turn my attention away from such imaginings.


Through silence, cowardice and passivity, the Troubled Man avoided outright lying. The Ten Commandments include no specific prohibition against the default lying that results from omission or silence, for example. Or lies of denial or deception. The Removal Order permitted him to passively withdraw his hospitality (“The Court [‘not me’] says you have to be out of here by 5 p.m.”). 

Back in August 2012, the first or second night I was in Holly Springs, before Troubled Man flew back to his pastoral duties on the East Coast, he said “As long as you live in Holly Springs, you will always have a home on Johnson Park.” It sounded like a promise. My gut clenched. These almost-three years later, I can admit that that clenching sensation was the physical expression of instinctual distrust; I did not believe his words. 

It was embarrassing. I did not say “I don’t believe you.” (In my memory, only once have I ever told someone to their face “I don’t believe you.” Contemporary social culture seems to generally regard it as rude to say such a thing outright. In my lexicon it is akin to throwing a drink in someone’s face….which I also remember doing only once in my life. I confess experiencing supreme satisfaction after each faux pas.) I remember he also shed tears during this conversation. The whole thing was rare and embarrassing and memorable.

I shudder now…and willfully turn my attention away from such memories.


I am happier now than I have been since my first days in Holly Springs. The undergirding of this joy is different from those first happy days fueled by anticipation and curiosity. This joy is sparked by the blatant and relentless generosity and goodwill I have received from members of a community I thought despised me. I feel at last the dawning embrace of acceptance. A hundred times a day, I stop in my tracks and gaze around me and say aloud “I love my home!” All anxiousness to “get out of Holly Springs” has disappeared. 

I want to take on more piano students. I want to make this house a home. I want to attend a City Council meeting and research the history of this house, the other “named” houses on the street and the town in general and share the stories with tourists (I’ve done a bit of this already after living here for only five days!) I want to maintain a relationship with the young men who stole my purse Saturday (that story for another post). I can imagine a future of unspecified duration here in Holly Springs. 

My gut is not clenched. A thrum of  “possibility” winds through me. Mornings glow. The breeze at dawn has a secret again….”Don’t go back to sleep.”

[Note:  This posting was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was those boys who stole my purse last weekend, plus a friend! They came to visit and talk about what they could do to make amends. The Future and Possibility came to my door this morning. Amazing Grace!!! Who would have imagined I would end up in  MS playing Debussy on piano for adolescents I met for the first time at the police station?]