Saturday, July 22, 2023

An Elven Messenger In The Woods

Sometimes I run into people who, even if we never interacted so much before, my life and theirs intertwine like the roots of two trees in the same patch of forest, deep and wide pushing through the same soil, pulling out the same moisture and nutrients to keep our leaves alive and send out new buds.

Wanting to be a writer, calling myself a writer, and actually being a writer are all very different things.  I can, and did, type a thousand words a day for forty years, but I'm still not a writer because unless I offer those thousand words for anybody to read, it's not communication; my typing is a dead message with no listener.  With no listener, there is no writing.  

When the prospect of turning sixty came into my sights as a reality, I decided that regardless of whatever health challenges I have left (which get fewer every day), I should mend this situation.  God created me wanting to type a thousand words a day, more than wanting to--needing to.  If I don't get my words out in a day, I feel incomplete, and if I go two or three days without it, depression starts to set in.  I don't know how much I believe in the idea of "God's Plan," but I don't believe that much of a compulsion to do something would come without there being some purpose in it.  

I knew I could do the work.  I've been doing it as long and sometimes much longer than I've known most of you.  Other than my brother and sister, there's a pretty small fraternity of people who knew me before Mrs. Kitchings suggested I learn to type.  Doing the work and getting it out in the world are two different things, so I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to start making connections with writers.  I grew up seeing Willie Morris and Larry Brown in bars and Eudora Welty at parties and socialite functions, but that's something different.  I needed to make connections with people who were trying to do the same thing I was doing, only better and with more confidence and more experience, who could show me the way.

Since today's prospective college student consumes twenty times more new media than traditional media, one of my strategies for the past two years has been to identify and amplify the social media message from organizations that are important to me.  I know how this works.  The social media companies "publish" millions of messages every day and decides how many people to show this message to by how much engagement the message gets and how much engagement the sender normally gets.  That means if I like, comment, and share the social media messages of the organizations I care about, then it greatly increases the chances that the social media company will serve the message to another target of the message, in this case, prospective students and prospective donors.  

This might sound dumb, but tapping "heart" or typing "Great Job" on the stuff Millsaps posts makes a huge difference.  Every time you do it, you increase the algorithm score on both the message and the school.  As a side benefit, whenever I log into social media for the day, I get a pretty comprehensive run down on what's happening on campus, a task I used to accomplish by strolling around campus or just talking to Joe Lee Gibson while he emptied the garbage cans.  

This way, I end up knowing, every day, what's going on with the Phi Mu's, what's going on with Food Services, the Baseball Team, Campus Pride, The Many Adventures of George Bey, and what was the original kernel of this story, whatever Liz Egan and the Writing Center was doing, which one day included a one-sheet about the McMuling Writing Workshop.  Having just seen it that morning, I mentioned to my sister in church that maybe I should go to that.  She said I should.  Having that conversation at that place at that time with that person probably meant something.   I was still basking in the blessing Cary transmitted to us at the end of his sermon, so when I got home, I shot off an email to the address on the post, which I assumed would be Liz or one of her students.

Preparing for the course, I sent in the possible first chapter of a book I'm working on, and the first person to respond to it was a woman who I knew worked at Millsaps named Isabelle Higbee.  Even though it said "Ezelle" in her Facebook profile, I wasn't yet making a connection with who she was.  Isabelle had just retired from a position at Millsaps that I always knew as Jack Woodward's office, so that's a pretty big connection there, but there was still a lot more I didn't know about yet.

Part of the writing workshop is reading to the other participant's pieces of what we're working on.  Sharing your work with other people doing the same sort of work is an important part of the creative process.  Isabelle's project is stories her mother told her about how her parents met during World War II in what became occupied Belgium.  As she told the story, my ears began to tingle.  Holy Shit, did James "Paddy" Hearon have a daughter I didn't know about?  James worked for my father for most of his life and took a special interest in me when it became clear that I was drowning in my professional life and struggling to find a place where I belonged.  

"Who was your father?" I asked.  "Robert Ezelle," she said.  I still wasn't making the connection.  I said that her story was so incredibly familiar to me that I knew a guy who had almost the same life story.  "James Hearon?" She said.  Her mother and James' wife Paulette knew each other and spoke frequently as the only two Belgians living in Jackson.  Then she said something about Mississippi Bedding, and the pieces started falling into place.  "Do you mean Bob Ezelle?"  I said.  I'd known her father and her brothers my entire life, but I had never heard the story of how her mother came from Belgium during the war.  

I'm ashamed to admit this, but sometimes little sisters get overlooked.  I always thought I tried not to do that, but I guess I missed one.  Isabelle's brothers were a huge part of Galloway Youth Ministries and a huge part of my youth.  They and the Gobers pretty much ran the place.  There's more to the story, though.  Part of our business at Missco was selling furniture for dormitories at schools and (unfortunately) furniture in prisons, and each of those furniture sets required a pretty durable mattress that we always bought from Bob Ezelle.  We laughed; even though Franklin Dorm is mostly used for storage now, I'm sure there are still a bunch of mattresses in it that came from Mississippi Bedding.  Our lives had roots that had interwoven for years, and because I'm sometimes completely socially blind, I had missed her.  Deciding to take this course in writing mended that.  Now that I've been given a second chance in life, I'm paying a lot closer attention to the trees around me, and this was one of them.

In The Lord of the Rings, it means something where there's a member of the Elven race in the woods.  They're this powerful class of being with magical forces that tie them deeply to the roots of Middle Earth, and their presence means something important is happening.

One of the first faces I picked out of the crowd when I attended the McMullin Writer's Workshop was Jeanne Luckett.  I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Jeanne Luckett was.  Even though she was considerably younger than my Daddy, he was incredibly impressed by her, not only because she was a Millsaps kid (which she was) but also because, on a professional level, she was involved in everything he thought was important, so throughout my life, whenever we would discuss these major campaigns going on, like the re-naming of First National Bank, or giving Millsaps a new look, or giving Missco a new look, her name was part of the conversation, and her work was not only evident but prevalent.  

To be honest, she always kind of intimidated me.  One of Daddy's business associates, whom I never got to fish with or drink with, was always kind of a mystery to me.  But I knew that everybody who knew her loved her, including some really important ones like Suzanne Maars and Rowan Taylor.  During the night, when Graphic Novelist Andrew Aydin lectured, I saw him talking with Jeanne.  Passing to my seat, I touched his elbow and said pretty cheekily, "Don't let her fool you; that's one of the most important marketing people in Mississippi history."  I meant it too, but I think I embarrassed her.  Having grown up at the feet of people who had remarkable careers, most of them didn't impress me with what they created, but she did.  Just driving around town, even now, I can look at things and say, "She did that.  She did that.  She did that too."

On the last day of the conference, I came early because I always try to go early to things now.  I spent so long not going to things at all that I figured I needed to start going early so I could catch up.  Going early, I had a chance to get Jeanne alone for a few minutes.  Talking like that, one on one for a good spell, really for the first time ever, I learned that our lives overlapped and intertwined in so many ways.  It means something when you love the same things and the same people, and that's something I share on so many levels with Jeanne Luckett.  For me, her face will still always mean that there's an Elven messenger in the forest, but now I'll always know this was someone who drank from the same well I drank from, someone whose history is part of my own.

One of the last things Ellen Ann Fentress said before I left at the end of the conference was, "Why don't you try putting together a short story."  I've always liked short stories, but I never thought I could write them, even though I've had some great teachers in short stories, including Austin Wilson and Suzanne Maars.  

Even though they ordered in some really great sandwiches from Broad Street for the conference, I made a tomato sandwich when I got home, just because we're rapidly running out of tomato sandwich season, and holding it over the sink to eat it so I don't get tomato seeds and tomato goo on my shirt, I started putting clay on the board and poking around at it with the idea of what sort of short story I could write.

Ray Bradbury's name came up over and over during the conference.  One of my peers, Kate, who was a very recent Millsaps Graduate, is taken with him too; she should be; he's Ray Bradbury.  One of the things Bradbury told me at the House of Pies, with Uncle Forry across from us, was that I shouldn't worry about writing, that I loved robots and dinosaurs, so I should be ok.  With that in mind, I started turning over ideas of robots and dinosaurs and rocket ships and Martians in my head, and what I heard was a whale song, and I knew I had my story.  

I've already written a crap ton this morning.  God knows if anyone will read this.  I have my idea for a short story.  Hopefully, I'll have at least the skeleton laid out by Monday.  

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