Some authors emerged from the womb knowing they wanted to be writers. Not me. What I did know from early childhood, though, was that I loved books, and my mom encouraged this love. Despite being an Army wife with six kids and a hectic home to manage, she often took me and my brothers and sisters to the library and allowed us to roam freely in the children’s section. It was like being turned loose in a candy store and just as fun.
As I grew up, books offered more than simple entertainment. They connected me to other people—even those who had lived centuries before and came from places I’d scarcely heard of. They helped me see the commonalities I shared with them and the rest of humanity. After all—we basically want the same things despite the differences in where we come from, who we pray to, what color our skin is, and so on. In addition to increasing my understanding of others, books heightened my understanding of myself, life in general, and how to better cope with its inevitable ups and downs.
Despite my love of books, it never occurred to me to write one until my late twenties, when a coworker encouraged me to join the South Carolina Writers Association (SCWA), a nonprofit organization with chapters across the state. From the first meeting I attended, SCWA members cheered me on as I learned the craft of creative writing. One of the first things I learned was that while good writing appears effortless, it is anything but. In fact, it can be downright grueling, especially when working on long projects like novels without any guarantee they’ll ever be published.
It was while slogging through my second novel (which deservedly ended up in the recycling bin like my first) that I realized I needed shorter projects with quicker (and hopefully positive) feedback from editors to keep me going, so I started pitching stories to magazines. I’ll never forget my first sale—a travel article to Transitions Abroad in the spring of 1994. They paid $25 for it. I was ecstatic—though small, the check was enough to officially make me a professional writer, and that gave me confidence to sell freelance work to the Washington Post, Family Motor Coaching, and more publications.
Getting accepted in 1999 as a monthly community op/ed columnist by The State, South Carolina’s most widely read newspaper, inspired me to take my writing to a higher level. I tackled a wide range of topics, but the one that connected with readers the strongest was race relations. It was a particularly painful issue as SC grappled not only with what to do with the Confederate battle flag, which legislators put on top of the State House in 1962 to protest court-ordered school desegregation, but also how to stop an epidemic of racially motivated arsons targeting rural African-American churches.
One of the first churches hit was St. John Baptist Church in Dixiana, only about eight miles south of the State House. Compounding the tragedy was that this was the second time the church had been destroyed by racists. The first was ten years earlier when white supremacists vandalized it in the most sickening ways imaginable. It took over a year for an interracial group of volunteers to rebuild the church while enduring threats from the Klan. Because Barbara Simmons, a longtime member of St. John and her close friend, Ammie Murray, a white labor union organizer, led the reconstruction campaign, the Klan and its sympathizers especially targeted them. The two women began receiving death threats then had to escape actual attempts on their lives. Nevertheless, they and other volunteers persevered until they successfully reconstructed the church only to see it burned to the ground on August 16, 1995.
Once again, St. John needed a massive rebuilding effort. For some volunteers, it was too much—they had to walk away. For those who remained, they faced nearly impossible odds. It seemed for every step forward they made over the next few years, they got knocked back two.
Still they soldiered on and their determination and courage started attracting media attention. By 1998, Bill Moyers and a crew from CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on them, PBS included them in a documentary about the worsening epidemic of church burnings, and reporters from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times wrote extensive articles about them.
However, it was an article in The State about the church’s second rebuilding campaign that prompted my parents—George and Mary Johnson—to get involved with it. Despite being in their seventies, they enjoyed every minute of grunt work they did at St. John along with volunteers from all walks of life.
My parents’ enthusiasm was infectious, so when Dad asked me to go with him and Mom to the church on a bright day in October 1998, I heartily accepted and spent the rest of the day helping to paint St. John’s interior. I liked being part of such an important endeavor and helping to push the reconstruction project toward the finish line. We crossed it the next month and capped it off with a huge celebration that attracted people from across the country.
It soon dawned on me that while the media attention St. John attracted had been wide, it hadn’t been deep enough to truly tell the church’s compelling saga that spanned many years. So I wrote it in Standing on Holy Ground: A Triumph over Hate Crime in the Deep South, which earned glowing reviews from O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Southern Living, and other publications. The book even landed me at the Time-Life Building in New York City to receive a literary award from The Christophers, an international organization that highlights artistic accomplishments which promote social justice.
These were heady experiences and made me ponder what my next book should be. Three things I already knew about it:
1. It would be a novel. While I liked the challenges of nonfiction, I wanted the freedom fiction offered to create characters and a plot from my imagination.
2. One focus of the novel needed to be the ever-present issue of racial conflict, especially in the South, which—for better or worse, will always be my home.
3. The main focus, however, had to be on the serious impact of failing to adequately treat mental health disorders, especially among youth. The stigma attached to having such disorders is one of the main barriers to care, and American teens are paying too high a price for it as evidenced by suicide being their second leading cause of death according to the Centers for Disease Control. I wanted to raise awareness about this preventable tragedy through the book.
While waiting for sleep to come one night, the first and last scene of Flowers for the Living came to me fully formed, as did its main characters: Emma Jennings, the mother of a troubled African-American fifteen-year-old boy, and Rusty Carter, the young white rookie cop forced to kill the teen. His death ignites a race riot and spins the lives of Emma and Rusty out of control. Both of them blame themselves for the fatal shooting and the horrible aftermath that devastates their families and rips apart their town.
Ironically, the only place Emma and Rusty find refuge from the worsening chaos is the boy’s serenely beautiful grave, and it is through halting steps there that they forge a bond that empowers them to restore their lives and heal their community.
When I completed Flowers for the Living around 2008, I had no idea that by the time I found a publisher for it eight years later, the novel would read like the latest national stories about controversial shootings of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers. The parallels between the book and the violence following Michael Brown’s tragic death in Ferguson, MO, were so striking that many readers assumed I fictionalized the events in Ferguson when I hadn’t a clue they would ever happen.
Flowers for the Living wasn’t published when I wanted it to, but when it was needed; when we needed books to foster open, honest discussions about race, mental health, and what can unite us instead of divide us.
By the time of the novel’s release in 2016, my long career as a clinical social worker led me to a job at South Carolina Department of Corrections’ psychiatric facility where male inmates who were too mentally ill to be treated at any of SCDC’s other prisons were sent. My nine months there were among the worst in my life, but I learned to transform them into one of the best things that ever happened to me.
It all started when I quickly discovered that the facility made the one in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” look like paradise. What inmates received at the SCDC facility wasn’t so much “care” as “anti-care”. Too many of the staff went out of their way to worsen inmates’ psychiatric symptoms by doing things like forcing them into solitary confinement for weeks on end for arbitrary reasons, physically abusing them, and denying them critical medical attention.
Upon learning this, I started drawing the wrath of my coworkers, supervisor, and other members of management for trying to stop the abuse and neglect. They couldn’t stand that I treated the inmates like human beings and tried to keep me from counseling them in a substantive manner. Indeed, my supervisor even told me I shouldn’t be seeing inmates at all unless they were “having problems” though she didn’t explain how I was supposed to know that if I wasn’t seeing them regularly. I found it bitterly ironic that although nearly half of the men in my caseload were convicted murderers, it was SCDC staff who posed the greatest risk to my physical safety. What gave me the courage to keep walking into that maximum-security institution each day was knowing the inmates would protect me from my fellow employees.
How could such a horrific work environment become one of my biggest blessings? The inmates showed me no matter how mentally ill they were, they benefited from counseling that included the teaching of mindfulness. Through engaging them in this type of therapy, I watched them make light years of progress in comprehending their psychiatric disorders and how to better cope with them. They loved when I would quote sages like Patanjali and give them mindfulness-based writing exercises to do. Their enthusiasm sparked the idea of creating a 30-day meditational journal for them to complete while attending the weekly group sessions I led.
I started developing the journal but realized the increasing hostility from SCDC management signaled I wouldn’t be an employee much longer. A more important realization followed: the 30-day journal had the potential for being a year-long one that could help anyone wanting to improve the quality of their lives through mindfulness. From this came The Mind-Body Peace Journal. Like a lotus emerging from dark depths, it has emerged to illuminate paths to serenity. May it illuminate yours also.