i always think i am about to have the words. then i sit down, and they don't come. i'm ready for them like a sneeze. my nose itches. i blink a lot. i wait.
what are you waiting for? becca keeps asking us during this advent season. wait for the lord, i hear like a psalm. again, i say, wait.
in the dailyness of my little bananieworld, what does this mean? i don't stop much to ask. but i'm stopping now, after nine more hours at starbucks, with coffee grounds under my fingernails, and mocha on my sleeves. the house is asleep. sandy is probably in bed, hands folded over her round belly. she's waiting for amber to come. any day now any day now.
i think that i'm waiting for something to begin which has already begun. waiting for it to begin differently--more neatly, perhaps--than it has. what a messily written statement i have just made.
what i mean is, i'm holding back, waiting for what is already happening. you know: the kingdom of God is at hand. God is really among you. but i'm straddling. belief. unbelief. all because of experience. all because of depression.
i confess: all i have felt in my life over the past year has been the ache. the pain. the separation and the fear. there are so many stories that have yet to be told. someday i hope to sneeze. someday, i hope to have the bravery to put them here, laid bare. (but now is not that time.)
i have wanted to choose the joy in the sorrow, to redeem the hopeless moments. to live when everything felt lifeless. i touch the bluestar on my shoulder. i'm still alive.
suddenly, i'm remembering jesus and jairus' daughter. she's dead she's dead! all the townspeople cry. if only you had been here.
and there has got to be so much resentment, so much anger, at a healer come too late. but jesus says that the girl is not dead. she is merely sleeping.
he wakes her up.
i am that daughter. i am waiting to be woken up. and in the waiting, i am somehow waking.
this is groggy writing. i can't say it well. stay with me here. there are so many stories to tell.
here is where my words have been. with the women of magdalene. i wrote the following ethnography for a class in creative nonfiction. i want to share it with you all, let you know i'm not utterly wordless these days.
The first time I meet a Magdalene resident, I am in church. Seated in the last pew, I am the new girl, holding a bulletin in my hands. Alleluia! He is Risen is drawn in black and white Xeroxed bubble letters on its front. A woman near the front of the church stands up after the peace is passed, and clears her throat. It is announcement time. She puts her hands in her jeans pockets. “Um, don’t forget you guys, there are always Thistle Farms products for sale after church. What better way to say ‘I love you’ than with the gift of bath salts or candles?” The congregation, a group of about 100 people, chuckles. I ponder for a second the idea of church-sold bath salts, but forget about Thistle Farms as soon as the music starts.
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel is a small, A-frame building, located on Vanderbilt’s campus. It has no sound system. The place relies on its natural acoustics; sound travels from its source to the rafters, slides down the A-frame and into the ears of the congregants.
Another woman stands up after the announcements, and walks to the front of the church. She picks up a guitar, and slings it over her shoulder. From underneath thick black glasses sitting on her nose, and a wild mane of graying black hair, she smiles out on us and says in an unmistakable smoker’s voice, “Hey y’all.” A small choir gathers behind her: a man with another guitar. Someone with bongos. Women in khakis and jeans and skirts.
She begins to strum, and soon a low, soulful voice fills the chapel. She sings of hope and grace and mercy. The choir echoes her. She sings like a star, holds her guitar with confidence. She wows the sleepy church. Episcopalians whistle and clap at the final chord. She smiles wide as she walks back to her seat.
Always the advocate for the underdog, St. Augustine’s chaplain, the Rev. Becca Stevens has spent years working with the homeless. From the beginning, she realized that there were substantially more homeless men in shelters than women. “I couldn’t figure out where they all were,” she explains. It didn’t take long to realize that the homeless women were walking the streets of Nashville, turning tricks and often ending up in jail.
Stevens began to visit the county jail, where her eyes were opened to the reality of prostitution and homelessness. These women were not whores; they were not throwaway people. They were victims and survivors. After spending time with several prostitutes, Stevens learned that not only had all of them been raped, but most had mental health problems, had been abused as children, and were addicted to drugs. “These women didn’t have just one thing go wrong,” she says “They had several things go wrong, and the safety net wasn’t there to catch them.” Furthermore, most court-ordered rehab programs were not meeting the deep needs of these women. They provided detox, and it was possible to get clean. However, most women had no family, no tools for survival. They returned to the streets, to familiarity.
Rev. Becca Stevens made it her mission to provide the desperately needed safety net for Nashville’s prostitutes; she founded Magdalene House in September 1997. Named after Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ close friend and follower—the broken woman that He deemed whole—Magdalene House is committed to offering women safe housing, tools for survival, as well as community. Medical and dental care is provided, as well as therapy. According to its mission statement, Magdalene House is a two year recovery program, with the following goals:
Recovery from alcohol and drug addiction
Legal employment at a living wage
Safe, permanent housing
Improved physical, emotional, and spiritual health
Reunification with family
Improved social functioning
Magdalene House operates by donation only, and receives no government funding. From 1997 to 2003, the program has significantly expanded: residents have grown from 5 to 20 women, now living in three houses. Since its inception, 87% of the women who have stayed in the program beyond the first three months remain in recovery.
On the purple thorny labels of Thistle Farms products, a scripture is written: “And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers, won’t he more surely care for you?” (Matt 6:30 NLV). This verse is the spirit with which Thistle farms, the cottage industry of Magdalene House, thrives. The thistle is the sole flower growing in the sidewalk cracks and grass patches of Dickerson Road, the central strip for Nashville’s prostitutes. A weed. However, the weed is also a flower, and this flower is an image of hope, one that Magdalene residents stamp on every healing product they create.
Thistle Farms offers manifold benefits for the Magdalene residents: it is the opportunity to create, to learn marketing, sales, and financial skills. The candles, sachets, healing balm, and bath salts are provision. Sales create paychecks, and a sense of independence and hope. Sold online (www.thistlefarms.org) as well as in various shops throughout Nashville, Thistle Farms products are much in demand.
Two years after sitting in the last pew at St. Augustine’s, listening to a woman called Cheryl sing the Gospel, I am now a full-fledged member of the church. I have volunteered at Magdalene House. My home is filled with Thistle Farms products.
Cheryl is one of the few Magdalene women who have returned to the streets, though she comes around every once in awhile, and we always pray for her. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.
The church has planned a weekend retreat at Camp Nakanawa, a woodsy place with a lake and cabins, not too far east of Nashville. Magdalene women have joined us, as have their children. We have had easy conversation in rocking chairs overlooking the water. We have canoed and hiked.
A storm has just passed, and we are gathered together in the wigwam: a round, wooden community gathering area, where we danced to 80’s Hip Hop the night before. I offer my pink lighter to light a fire. The room is otherwise dark. We sit in a circle. Becca prays: thank you God for the darkness of this room. Magdalene women give the meditation. “Pray against over-reacting,” one says. “Pray for spirit ventilation and perspective. For patience in place of worry.” We all offer hushed amens.
These women are leaning hard into their prayers, refusing to give into the despair of being infected with HIV, of suffering the constant cravings for crack and alcohol. They tell us their stories, one by one, and we honor them with silence. They speak of the brokenness and unspeakable horrors of life on the streets. Tears spill from their eyes as they tell of the real hope that they now embrace: they have been spared. They have been loved. They are reclaiming their lives. I listen, inspired. Moved. I write about it, but I don’t really understand it. Their reality is not mine.
After the meditation, I realize I am out of cigarettes. Clemmie, a Magdalene graduate is smoking outside. “Can I bum a cigarette?” I ask sheepishly. We’ve never spoken before. “Sure, baby,” Clemmie replies, handing me a Marlboro menthol. “Here you go.”
It is Wednesday night, and I walk into the church for the 5:30 service. I am early. Darlene is early too. She greets me with a big hug. “Hey baby girl!” she says, embracing me. “Damn, you smell good!”
“Thanks,” I reply, as I remember I have an extra tube of my fragrant lotion in my car. “You want some?” I ask. Her black eyes open wide and she smiles, hugging me again. “Oh thank you baby! Yes!” I return with the lotion and hand it to her. She looks at me as though I’ve given her something precious. “Now I’m gonna smell real good.” I laugh. “Yeah, we’ll be twins.”
Darlene is nearly 6 feet tall, with smooth dark skin, and full purple lips. She is very slender, with neatly straightened black hair. She looks like an African queen or a supermodel. A weathered, tired supermodel. We chit-chat awhile, and she tells me she has been clean for 65 days today. I hug her. “Congratulations! That is amazing!” Her eyes well up, and she says, “I wrote a poem about it. It’s not very good though.” I beg her to read it.
Darlene smiles as she unfolds pages of notebook paper. Her poem is simple, and its first and third lines rhyme. She tells a story of a woman and her lover, whose first name is Coke and last name is Cane. She describes her strung-out self as “beef jerky with eyes.” And then comes Becca Stevens. And then comes Magdalene House. The Darlene of the poem is saved by grace. She has survived.
Becca says, “I really believe love and grace are more powerful than all the forces that drive someone to the streets. And if you say that to people over and over, they eventually come to believe it.” Darlene is beginning to believe it. She has just had her first sober Thanksgiving with her family. She begins to cry again as she tells me about how much food there was, how much joy. “Nothin’ went wrong at all,” she says.
Darlene and I have made plans to have lunch on Friday. I am supposed to pick her up at the church, where she has just begun employment for Thistle Farms. However, she is not there when I arrive, and so I sit on a couch, and watch the other women work. Taking a break from packaging candles, five grown women, of whose devastating stories I am very much aware, run around the fellowship hall like schoolchildren, laughing hysterically. They are putting heart stickers on each other. Soon, I, too, am wearing a pink heart on my left cheek.
Darlene arrives, and I drive us to Rotier’s for burgers and cokes. She is wearing the lotion I gave her. “Baby, everybody love my lotion. Girl, I gots to keep it hidden in my dresser drawer. My roommate, she used to boost. I gotta be careful.” I nod in agreement, wondering what boosting means. “You know what boosting means?” I smile and admit that I don’t. “Shoplifting, baby. Girl, she used to steal clothes and all kinds of shit to buy drugs. She been boosting stuff here too. A hard habit to break.”
Darlene and I sit in a corner booth in the back of Rotiers. “Girl, I never get to come out and do this sort of thing. Thank you for this. Thank you.” She looks around her and folds her hands on her lap, obviously content to simply be out and about.
We light cigarettes, and I ask questions.
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Detroit. We had to move to Nashville after an incident where I lost my mind for awhile. I was six.” I want to know about this ‘incident’, but I am not sure she wants to tell me, so I continue with the basic questions.
“How old are you? Do you have siblings? Tell me about your parents. Do you have kids?”
“Baby, I am 45. I got 2 sisters and a brother. I’m the youngest. My parents divorced when I was one. My mama treated me different, because I was the black sheep of the family. I looked like my daddy, had a relationship with my daddy. So my mama was mean. Treated me bad. I gots a 25 year-old son, and a 7 year-old daughter.”
I put out my cigarette. I ask about the ‘incident’. She says she doesn’t mind telling me. She recounts the story to me in a detached, narrative manner: When she was six, Darlene witnessed a pimp shooting off the head of a woman in her neighborhood with a sawed-off shotgun. She went mute in shock. She entered intense therapy, and ultimately, the family had to relocate, not only for their safety (as Darlene was a witness to a crime in which a man got away with murder), but for relief from reminders of the incident.
I fully expect Darlene’s life story to sound much like the others I have heard: a story of rape and lack of education and an early introduction to the wrong crowd. Instead, I am introduced to a woman who spent two years at Tennessee Tech, playing basketball and running track. At age 19, she got pregnant the first time she had sex, and her mother practically disowned her. Dropping out of school, young Darlene raised her son on her own, working two or more jobs to support them. She did her best to create family, to create a sense of safety for her son, which she had always lacked. “I was tryin’ to love someone and didn’t know how because I didn’t have. You feel me? That was the main reason I didn’t abort him. I wanted to love.”
It was not until she was 33 that Darlene fell in with the wrong crowd. Two years previous, her mother had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her siblings thought a nursing home would be most suitable for their mother, but Darlene disagreed. Three weeks shy of finishing her nursing studies, Darlene dropped out and took care of her mother. “I was there 24/7. Me and my son. Mama got on her bed of affliction and the one who she despised was there.”
Darlene experienced a deathbed reconciliation, as the words “I love you” came from her vocal chordless mother’s lips for the first time in her life. However, not long after her mother’s death, she began using drugs. “I asked a girl for a cigarette, and she gave me a hand-rolled one laced with cocaine. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt…different. That kind of feeling don’t have a name. No more pain, no more hurt, no more nothin’. I felt real light. I asked for another, and she freely gave it to me. When I asked for a third, she told me I had to pay $10 for 2…Two became three became four. Everyday.”
After awhile, though, the cigarettes weren’t enough. “I wanted to try somethin’ new,” Darlene explains. “Everybody was doin’ crack then, so I said ‘show me’. It was over after that.” Darlene was instantly addicted. She started selling everything: furniture, her car, her son’s toys. Eventually, Darlene began to sell herself.
Darlene leans over her plate of food, and looks me straight in the eye. “Listen, baby girl, any time a woman is on a drug, unless they financially able, they take whatever means necessary.” She sits back and sighs. “I waited till I was this damn old to do all this stuff. Let myself go like this…” Her phone rings, interrupting us. It’s her therapist. Darlene has an appointment in ten minutes. We have to stop. I want to hear about her recovery, how she got to Magdalene. She speaks as though she passed through the fire many years ago, and is looking back with aged wisdom. But, in reality, Darlene has only been clean for two months. This is all new.
Before we leave Rotier’s, Darlene sums up all we have discussed so far. “If I could turn back the hands of time, I wouldn’t change nothin’, baby. Nothin’. Sure, I fucked up, but it takes somebody who knows somethin’ to help somebody else.” She begins to stand up, looks puzzled a moment, and sits back down. “And another thing, baby. When I love people, I love hard, from a gut level, you know? In spite of what people do to me, and all the shit that’s happened to me, I can’t hate. I asks God about that all the time. I don’t understand it.” I am speechless. She is more entitled than anyone I know to harbor hate. “I just can’t hate,” she says again, getting up.
Darlene and I play phone tag all weekend, but do not connect. We see each other quickly on Sunday, as she is seated at a table, selling Thistle Farms products. She hugs me and tells me she loves me. I tell her I love her too. And then she pulls me aside. “Baby, we had a relapse last night.” She looks afraid. “It was my roommate too. Damn, girl was clean three months, and she just relapsed. Tried to overdose. Tried to kill herself and shit. I don’t understand. I keeps askin’ God why. I so scared, baby girl.”
I am not qualified for this. I have no experience with recovering addicts. I know nothing about relapses. But I know fear. And I know love. And so I try my best to help. “What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid I’m gonna relapse. That I’m next. Baby, I only been clean two months. It is so hard. So hard.” She is holding both my hands very tightly, facing me. “But I know, I mean I know I ain’t gonna use today. I know it. I know that I know.”
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s start there. You’ve got to grab onto that. All you have is today. And you’re not going to use today. You’re ok today.”
“I know, but I scared. What if I’m next?”
“I know you’re afraid. But you are loved. Surrounded by people who believe in you. Who believe in your recovery. You have to focus on all the women around you who have not relapsed. There is so much hope, Darlene. So much.”
She hugs me again. She has to go sell product at a Presbyterian church. “We gonna talk soon,” she says as we say goodbye. “You call me, baby girl. We gonna get you an A on that paper you’re writing.”