Monday, October 30, 2017

Orange Jello Fluff

I received an invitation from Maria Polson Veres to attend an open mic event where she would be reading selections from her newly released chapbook Church People. Being a big fan of Maria and her work, I accepted. 

As the title suggests, Church People is a collection of poems about individuals she has encountered on her faith journey as a Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and—I love this—“failed agnostic.” The few poems she read aloud enticed me to buy her book, and since then I’ve read through it at least three times and have insisted other people read it as well.
Having experienced a rather varied path on my own journey of faith and having made my own observations from both the front and back pews, I recognize many of the characters Maria features in her poems: the searching, the sure, the broken, the restored, the disillusioned, the inspired. However, I could never portray them with the heart-tugging poignancy or laugh-out-loud humor Maria does. 

Lines and images from her poems linger with me long after I’ve read them, surely a mark of meaningful literature. In “Breakdown,” the despair of a man who “all his life [has] fixed” things but is helpless to repair his “broken” wife haunts me. On the lighter side, in “Billie Sue Gets Her Way,” the “lurching, dive-bombing” notes of bagpipes screeching out “Amazing Grace” give Billie Sue the final send-off she’d hoped for. 

There it was, right inside the door emitting
an orange, ethereal glow.
As proof of the persistence of Church People, I offer this incident. On one of my tri-weekly drives to Walmart, the image of orange Jello fluff (from “Pot Faith”)  popped into my mind, and I burst out laughing. Not grinning or chuckling, mind you. Laughing. At that point I figured any literary piece that could invade my thoughts at random and elicit such a strong reaction needed to be shared. I toyed with the possibility of posting about Maria’s book on my humble blog but had misgivings. Worrying about whether I could do her work justice, I walked into Walmart. 

What happened next is the stuff of miracles. After I smiled at the greeter and stepped into the deli section,  my eyes were instantly drawn to a kind of orange, flourescent glow. And right there on the middle shelf was ... wait for it ... Orange, Jello. Fluff. With the millions of products Walmart offers, what are the odds that item would be the first one I saw? No doubt, many of Maria’s “church people” would’ve considered it a sign. 

I know I did.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Story Behind the Story

Available here
 This Saturday, Oct. 28, from 1-3 PM, I will be launching my second novel, Some Form of Grace, at Exodus House in Oklahoma City. After my first novel was published, I wasn't sure there would be a second. Oh, I enjoyed writing that book and will be forever grateful to the publisher who thought it worthy of taking a chance on. And there were many good experiences connected with the journey of publication. But there was also lot of stress that I didn't feel was necessary at this stage in my life. I decided to limit my writing efforts to blogging and contests and maybe the occasional magazine submission. But I changed my mind. I changed it because sometimes a story comes along that needs to be shared. Because sometimes people's lives are so inspiring that their experiences can possibly inspire others. 

   In 2008, I became acquainted with a few of the residents and workers of Exodus House in Oklahoma City. Exodus House is part of the prisoner re-entry program sponsored by the Criminal Justice and Mercies Ministry of the Oklahoma Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Until I became aware of this program, I had never considered the difficulties ex-prisoners face in trying to piece their lives back together.  I was dumbstruck at the challenges: finding an affordable place to live with a supportive environment; getting a job while having a criminal record; overcoming mountains of debt that have accumulated from unreasonable fines and jail and court costs. Day-to-day operations become big problems when a person doesn’t have transportation to get to a job or money for bus passes or a drivers license. Even getting decent work clothes can be difficult. Add to this list, child custody battles or dealing with addictions or health issues, and it is no wonder that in Oklahoma the prisoner recidivism rate—without additional support—is almost one in three. 

   As I became more involved with Exodus House, I discovered another group of story-worthy people--the dedicated people who work with this program. Some are employees of CJAMM, and some are volunteers from churches in the OKC area. So many of them give tirelessly of their time and generously of their money because they are convinced that "you can't just preach the Word, you have to be the Word." This book is a work of fiction, but in it I’ve tried to present some very real issues in a sympathetic and entertaining way and to show loving Christians actively responding to those issues. 

Equally important, I wanted to demonstrate the impact faith can have in overcoming impossible odds. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), about the time I became acquainted with Exodus House, my pastor began preaching a series of sermons on grace. I had already been thinking of writing a novel inspired by Exodus House, and when I began deeply considering the concept of grace, the idea for my character Gracene and her faith journey was born. Hopefully, this book can be used to bring about social awareness and, at the same time, spread the message of God’s matchless gift of grace made available through his Son, Jesus.

If you would like to learn more about CJAMM and Exodus House, please visit their website.