>Artful Hat Trick

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My cup overfloweth… with three days of creative activities… soulful times back here in the U. S. of A. (Still slightly jet-lagged, but recovering!)

Starting on Saturday, as I carpooled down to Oxford (Mississippi) for the second monthly meeting of the Yoktapatawpha Writers Group. With three new “members” (everything about this group is pretty loose) in tow―Sue Brownlow, Terry Bernadini, and Cindy Beebe―we met up with Doug McLain, Herman King and Tom Hamilton on the balcony at Square Books for a full day of peer review, lunch, and, at the end of the day, drinks on the balcony of City Grocery (above, right.) It was “my pleasure” (inside joke for Terry) to buy drinks for everyone this month, as we agreed last month that anyone who got published was buying. My essay, “myPod,” appeared in the October issue of Skirt! Magazine. And actually, we should have made Cindy buy, because she’s already a published poet, with a recent publication in The Southern Review. See her name under “poetry” on this link. Only problem is, she can’t find a print copy of the magazine, so if anyone reading this knows where she can get one, please leave me a comment or send me an email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com and I’ll pass the info on to Cindy. She’s an amazing poet… I can’t share a sample of her work, though, as poems in blogs are considered published. The group gave Terry a nickname, “The Slasher,” which gives you an idea of how shy she was with her criticisms! Seriously, with two folks writing poetry, four writing fiction, and two writing creative nonfiction,the peer review was fun, enlightening and very useful. Again, thanks to Doug, our fearless leader!

Sunday afternoon and evening brought another fun event, the RiverArtFest on South Main in Memphis. Dozens of artists sold their works from booths (check out these homemade hats by Kimmerle Green … that’s me and Elisabeth Crabb, who works at the Brooks Museum of Art here in Memphis. She’s married to Will Crabb. They’re both friends with our son, Jon, who was home from Fort Drum, New York, for a 5-day visit. (He’s the one who flies helicopters for the army and spent a year in Iraq back in 2003-4.) Anyway, the RiverArtsFest was full of music, wine and beer, and art… beautiful weather… and a great place to hang out with friends and family. (Sounds like a Sprint commercial. Ugh. Not sure why I’m so sappy tonight.) Jon got a poster commemorating a previous “Blues on the Bluff” event (cute girl at the booth, we don’t know who she is!) and we also ran into an old roommate of Jon’s, Jeff, who is in the trolley picture. We ended up at the Pearl Oyster House for dinner.

I loved this sign at the restaurant!

It reminded me of the one at the Blue Fish, also downtown:

We love children, too, but

unattended children will be
given a shot of expresso
and a free puppy.

You think these places have been overrun with ankle-biters?

Final pix from Arts Fest… Elisabeth and WIll show Jon their art find.

This morning I woke up at 6 a.m. inspired to write. But I drank my first cup of coffee with the new issue of Poets and Writers, which always inspires me. A favorite article this time is “And the Winner Is” … Tips from a Pushcart Prize Editor, by Anthony Brandt. What I loved about this article is the way he describes the two very different approaches to writing that characterize himself and his good friend, Bill Henderson. It reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my friend and fellow YWG member, Sue Brownlow. Sue’s a purist … she’s of the Bill Henderson ilk. (about painting and writing) All Bill cares about is writing because you love it, but doing it well, again because you love it. Anthony is all about writing as a business… writing for money, where you have to satisfy others first… others like editors. I was wondering why you can’t do both (you know me, I want it all!) and just as I was thinking this Brandt says, “When you write for literary journals and the small presses, you’re writing to satisfy yourself first of all, and not for the money.” Okay. So I’m trying to start out there… but when I get this novel cleaned up, I’ll be a marketing maniac… Later in the article he gives some warnings about the exciting new genre, “creative nonfiction,” … the warning being that the genre encourages a certain amount of self-indulgence with its plethora of personal essays, the most common being about the loss of a parent. Huh. Just as I was putting together my stories about nursing my father and aunt and brother during their deaths. I’ll probably keep working on the piece… even if the market is flooded with this type of story… with a nod to Bill Henderson. And Sue. Anyway, there were lots of good articles in the Nov/December P&W, so run out and get it if you’re not a subscriber! (If you’re interested in writing….)

My 2nd, 3rd and 4th cups of coffee fueled three hours of writing after a little time with P & W. It felt sooooo good to get back to serious work after two weeks of traveling. After lunch with our son (still in town visiting) I headed over to Starbucks for more writing… this time outside on their sunny patio. Gorgeous day… and a few more pages… in longhand, my preference for first drafts. I just like the way a good pen and paper feel in my hand… and watching the words follow the pen is much like watching the paint flow from my brush. The image was doubly satisfying today, as I was writing about painting. (creative nonfiction essay… working title is “Painter’s Block.”)

Tonight (Monday) I traveled all of three blocks from my house in midtown to the “Gallaway Mansion” for a reception sponsored by the River City Writers Series (University of Memphis MFA Program) honoring author Charles Baxter. Baxter is author of four novels, including A Feast of Love (2000) which was recently made into a movie, four collections of stories and three volumes of poetry. Hear an interview with him here. I purchased his latest book (this one is for writers) called The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, which he graciously autographed “with best wishes and good hopes for your work.” Tonight he read from his forthcoming book (February 2008) The Soul Thief… based on a brush he had with identity theft. He was thoughtful, entertaining, and personable… and the event was lovely… complete with wine and fancy finger foods… and and introduction by Rebecca Skloot, new director of the RCWS, Creative Nonfiction Writing instructor in the MFA program, and published author. (I didn’t snap her picture tonight, but here’s one from the net.)

So… that’s my artful hat trick for the “weekend” (Saturday-Monday this time)… stay tuned as the week unfolds! And please let me know if you find a hard copy of The Southern Review. (Although they recently rejected a short story I sent them…. no sour grapes here… way to go, Cindy!)

>Greek Cats and Lesser Creatures (and remember last 4 posts are about Greece)

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Before the 2004 Olympics, there were reportedly over 70,000 ownerless dogs in the city of Athens (which has five million people.) The Olympic Committee worried that visitors would be bothered by them, although they are clean and friendly, just lolling around in the sunshine everywhere you go. There was talk of shipping some to Germany. I don’t really know what happened, but during our 10-day stay in Greece, we saw lots of them. Sissy petted them all and took pictures of many of them.
Me? I’m a cat lover. It was difficult leaving our 18-year-old cat, Oreo, (left) home with a sitter for twelve days. But when I found out the sitter was letting Oreo sleep with her, I knew we were in for it… sure enough, she’s been scratching and crying at our bedroom door since we’ve been home. Sigh. It’s good to know she was loved while we were gone!

Back to Greece… the felines weren’t to be outdone by the Athenian dogs… although we saw more cats in Leros and Patmos than in Athens… here are a few that caught my camera’s lens. Like the beautiful black and white number just outside the walls of the Monastery of Saint John on Patmos. She reminded me so much of Oreo!

And this one, on a ledge above Starbucks in the Plaka area of Athens (below).

In Athens, one cat sat on the chair beside me inside a restaurant! (wish I had photographed him.) These next two are on the island of Leros… where the cans of catfood were set out near the pebble road from our pension to the sea, nearby.

There were a few other interesting animals … like these ducks (below) that joined Sissy and me for a swim at Patmos!

And the beautiful gulls chasing the wake of our boat to Aegina …
Greece is a beautiful place, and animal-watching was part of the joy of our visit. It’s late and I’m too tired to download the pix of the rooster who woke us on Leros or the donkey or the chickens… but you get the picture!

>Trains and Boats and Planes… and Amsterdam

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October 22 and 23

Our last afternoon in Patmos, as I was walking back to our hotel from the internet café (see my last post) I saw lots of people dressed up (it was about 5 pm) at the town square. As I rounded the cor ner I heard music, and then I saw it (see photo)… a wedding procession coming down the main street of Skala! Musicians led, followed by the bride and groom… the bride’s train was being carried by several “train bearers” and there was a crowd of about 50 people. The procession started at the bride’s home, and continued to St. Nicholas Church, where the wedding would be held. (Louka told me this, as I watched the rest of the procession from his café.) The people at the square joined the procession as it went by. This is an aspect of community that has been lost in most places in America, I think. Later, there would be a line of cars honking their horns and following the bride and groom, in a car decorated with FLOWERS, out of town for their honeymoon. Groups of wedding guests gathered back in the town square to continue celebrating. All evening, as we walked the tiny winding streets, we saw people gradually wandering home in their wedding attire.

In the midst of this we walked again to the bay on the west side of Patmos to watch another sunset before our final dinner and checking out of our hotel. At midnight we caught this boat (the Blue Star Ferry) to Athens. We had a “deluxe” sleeping cabin on the bow, with comfy beds and the treat of being rocked to sleep by the rolling waves of the Aegean Sea. We were asleep by 1 am and up again at 6 am, just in time for a cappuccino before getting off the boat at Pireus (near Athens)… where we grabbed a taxi for a ride to the airport. There we rented a car for our overnight trip to Arohava, up in the Parnassus Mountains near Delphi. Three hours later we arrived… the only problem was we couldn’t figure out how to put the Saab we rented into reverse (not even Fr Paul, who drives a standard and is quite the car guy!)… so, as we missed our left turn into the hotel, we stopped crosswise on the narrow street against a curb, causing a huge traffic jam in the skinny, winding street. It was raining, and Fr Paul got out of the car to push us backwards, joined by two local men, while a local woman directed the other cars and truck to back up and make room for us to turn around in the middle of the street… it was hilarious. I would have taken pix if I hadn’t been so embarrassed. (Later we figured out the reverse, thank God!)

Our hotel, The Santa Marina, was a popular ski resort in the winter… with amazing views … the first snow of the season landed on the peaks during the night. This was just two days after I swam in the ocean in Patmos, but it seemed a season away because of the altitude and temperature drop. After checking in, in the chilly rain, we drove to the Monastery of Ossios Loukas, on a picturesque slope on the western foothills of Mount Helikon, near the ancient town of Steiri.

Several churches in this monastery have well-known icons, like these 11th century Byzantine mosaics of Christ the Pantocrator and the Crucifixion, which are in the narthex of the main church.

Ossios Loukas secretly followed two monks from Rome to Athens and entered the monastery of Pandanassa when he was only 14. He returned to his family later, and with his mother’s blessing, became an ascetic at Ionnitzi. Later he lived at this monastery where he was visited by thousands of pilgrims seeking help for their hardships, as he had also suffered much. He died in his cell here in 953 A.D. Miracles continue to gush forth from his holy tomb, which we venerated next to the small chapel of St. Barbara, where we attended 6 pm Vespers. The icons on the iconostasis in this 10th century church were stolen by Turks, so the ones in the photo are copies, but there are some very old icons in the larger church here.. by the well known Cretan iconographer Michael Damaskines (1570) who instructed El Greco in painting.

Back to our hotel at 7:30 then out for dinner at a local tavern (best lamb Father Basil has ever tasted!) and back to the hotel lounge for 32 flavors of hot chocolate! (Well, we only sampled three of them.) Hot baths, (we were cold and wet) and good night’s sleep under down puffs… waking to first snow on the peaks (behind me and Father Basil in the pix) and sun starting to shine again. Father Basil, Father Paul and Sissy got up early and headed off to Delphi… but I took a “personal morning” to sleep in, shower, and have cappuccinos and posting on my blog. We left around 11 am.

Driving to Athens we went through Thebes… and then COTTON FIELDS (yes, in northern Greece!) with this beautiful, tiny church, which Sissy and I named the Church of the Cotton. Our GPS system wouldn’t work in English, so we got lost a couple of times in small towns, finding various degrees of filoxenia (hospitality, for those who haven’t read my previous posts) from the locals we asked for directions, but finally made our way into the Athens area. We hailed a cab for Fr. Paul and Sissy, who were spending another night in Athens, and Father Basil and I headed for the airport to return the rental car and catch our flight to Amsterdam. I’m in the KLM Lounge at the airport now, finishing up this post. I’ll down load photos in Amsterdam and hopefully post this tomorrow (Wednesday) before we fly home… if I have internet access. Maybe I’ll have time to add a few more photos to previous posts, or figure out a way to link to a larger photo gallery… I’m not really very computer-savvy.

Reflections as we leave Greece? Beauty and holiness everywhere we went, from the busting city of Athens (five million people) to Aegina to the spiritual haven of Patmos to the lesser known jewel, Leros, and the ski-town of Arohova. Inconveniences are accepted more easily by people here … yes, we Americans are spoiled. I already knew this, but I recognize it even more as we start our trip home, because I’m finding myself looking forward to some of the things that spoil me… even in Memphis. But oh, I am going to miss the “Greek light” and the colors of blue in the Aegean that you don’t see anywhere else. And my dear friends and trip buddies from Mississippi, Father Paul and Sissy Yerger! Good thing they’ve got a grandson in Memphis… and a second grandchild due in November. (Oh, yes, and a daughter and son-in-law:-) So, when we kissed goodbye today, it wasn’t really goodbye…

Addendum… Amsterdam, October 23 and 24

I hesitate to even write about Amsterdam… it’s cold and cloudy and dreary compared with Greece…. but maybe a fitting transition as we return to Memphis….

We ride a double-decker train from the airport to Amsterdam Centre, then walk a few blocks to our hotel, the De Roode Leeuw, in the famous Red Light District. (No, we didn’t walk down the narrow streets where the world’s oldest profession flourishes… a sad commentary on the blatant disrespect for women here. ) On the streets, the women are mostly slim, in tight jeans and high-heeled boots. The men also mostly slim here, as everyone walks everywhere.

Sitting at breakfast in the glassed-in restaurant at our hotel on Wednesday morning, the street scene looks like a page in a Richard Scary book for children… those books that offer too much stimuli: there’s a lane for walking, but machines that clean the street also ride on this lane. Then the bicycle lane. Then the metro (train) lane, and finally a lane for cars. Then it all repeats on the other side of the street. At 8:15 am this morning all lanes were going at once, and it was still dark outside, with sunset at 8:28 today. Such a contrast with the sleepy, sunny streets in Greece.

A man is begging, and we watch him approach several people, who don’t stop or even look at him, as they rush to work. He would have better luck in Memphis, where the pace is slower. After breakfast we walk outside to check the temperature and he approaches us and explains, very politely, that he is homeless and it costs 7 Euros for the “hostle.” We give him a few coins and he thanks us, again, politely.

We decide it’s too cold to even walk to the boat rides in the canals, and we don’t have enough time for the museums, which open at 10… so we sit with our laptops and coffee at the hotel restaurant and just watch Amsterdam go by outside the window. We’re really in no shape to keep up with these fit people! We’re ready to go home. Back to the south where everything is slower. Our plane leaves in a few hours. My next post will be from Memphis. I’m actually ready to be there now.

>Patmos, Island of the Apostle of Love

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Saturday, October 20

We visited the monastery of St. John this morning, and were welcomed into the office of the Abbot, Archimandrite Antipas for coffee and a visit before touring the monastaery churches and museum. Again the hospitality was amazing… to sit and “chat” with this man who is abbot of this amazing monastery… and to see him later vested and only a few feet from us among the crowd later tonight. A genuine, warm man, who acted as though visiting with us was the most important thing he had to do.

Later we venerated the relics of Saint Christodoulos in the small chapel of the Theotokos, surrounded by frescoes which were damaged by an earthquake in 1956 but still were beautiful. Saint Christodoulos founded the monastery in 1088. The monastery website will be in English (they told us) after Monday, October 22, so I suggest you Google the Monastery of St. John the Evangelist, Patmos, Greece for information and photos, as we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the church here.

At the museum I saw the original icon of St. John (Cretan c. 1500) that I used as a prototype for the icon I wrote of him this past year. A huge collection of mostly 16th century icons here. My favorite “style”…. And then I saw it: a much more Western style icon of the Holy Napkin (face of Christ) – the “Weeping Icon of Holy Mandylion” from the late 18th century. It was very humbling because it reminded me that God chooses when and how to show His grace… He is no respecter of persons… or icon styles! Here’s the story:

A woman named Irene Kontouri was abandoned by her husband to the U.S., leaving her to raise two children alone. She told the children she must sell their icon of the Holy Mandylion in order to buy food. They wept and begged her not to… and the icon began to weep. She took it to the church and people from all over Patmos came to see it. Her husband was contacted in the states. He came home to Patmos, repented and returned to take care of his family. The icon was placed in the monastery of the “Holy of Holies” for a time, but later moved to the Treasury of the Monastery (museum) so that many pilgrims could be blessed by it. I sat before this icon for a long time, sketched its setting (no photos allowed) and prayed to Christ for healing for my family and others.

Leaving the monastery we ate lunch at a café with a view of the mountains and sea. Had meatballs with wonderful unusual flavor… jasmine!

Back in Skala (our little village) later I shopped a little, finding some wonderful handmade leather thing sandles from Crete and a few more gifts.

A light snack at Louka Grillis’ waterfront café, and then he drove us back to the monastery for the 3 ½ hour vigil. Many monks and priest (and lay people) were gathered not only for the usual Saturday evening vigil, but also the litia for St. Christodoulos. The bold, beautiful voices brought me to tears… with responsive chanting from two chanters stands … especially on “Gladsome Light” with a procession of priests making a semi-circle in front of the Abbot as 5 HUGE loaves of artos (special bread) were blessed. Louka’s cousin is a priest, and his brother is a chanter, and I watched the three Greek men gathered around the chanters stand and raising their faces, their hands, and their voices together as one. Later Loukas told us, “it’s a family affair.” (That’s Loukas and his taverna at left.)

There’s a break after two hours … while some remain in the church reading the life of St. Christodoulos and other prayers, we joined the Abbot and other for coffee in a reception area, then returned to the church for the rest of the vigil. Well, we left at 11:30… it wasn’t quite over but our physical endurance was waning….

Asleep just after midnight, the only sounds I heard before morning was a rare thunderstorm…. And at 6 we were up for Liturgy at the Cave of the Apocalypse at 7!

A cruise ship pulled into the harbor just as our taxi took us to the cave… where the priest-monk, Father Isidoras, was aided only by a 15-year-old boy, Dimitry, and three chanters. The four of us were joined by one Greek family… and then a steady stream of tourists from the cruise ship, who were escorted in one side and out the other during the Akathist and other preparatory services. Thankfully the tours were over by the time Liturgy began.

It was surreal being in that cave where St. John heard the voice of God… saw where he rested, the place in the wall where he placed his hand when getting up… the ancient icons there… and the air of holiness. As the time for communion approached, Father Basil was asked to read part of the service, and then Father Isidoras handed the chalice to Father Paul to serve us. Something none of us will ever forget.

Coffee and refreshments near the cave afterwards with this one family and the priest and chanters was intimate and friendly… we only wished that we spoke Greek! Dimitry was our main translator… he is at the new boarding school in Patmos, but live in Thessaloniki during holidays. His poise and maturity astounded us.

From there the taxi took us to the Monastery Evangelismos (Annunciation) where the nuns had finished Liturgy and coffee hour. Sister Tabitha greeted us and gave a tour of the ancient church, the “new” (renovated) church, and Father Amphilochios’ cell. He was a spiritual son of St. Nektarios, and when he died in 1970, the bell outside the tower in which he lived rang of its own volition for 40 days!

Sister Tabitha showed us the iconography of Mother Olympia, the nun who trained under Fotios Kontoglou (my favorite) and then trained the other nuns, and they filled the entire church (icon of Crucifixion, below, by Mother Olylmpia) with egg tempera icons. Again, wonderful filoxenia… a beautiful monastery with views of the sea…. more photos later… have to run soon…

Returning to Skala, we ate lunch at another outdoor café … this time the best lamb chops ever! As the others napped, I’m at the internet café writing… hoping to download photos and post this tomorrow. Our boat leaves at midnight tonight….with a sleeping cabin for the 8 hour trip back to Athens…. More later!

>Farewell to Athens; Discovering Leros

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Wednesday October 17 was our final day in Athens. Lunch at “The Something Else” was fun – our waitress went to the University of Arkansas, then married a Greek and here she is. After lunch, the men took the walking tour of the Acropolis, while Sissy and I opted for a slower pace and a little shopping. Our first discovery was the working studio and gallery of a world-known artist, Takis Moraitis. This pix shows the huge cistern which was discovered in the ruins during renovation of this part of the Plaka, so he just works around it! My favorite piece of his is called “Byzantine Chapel,” but I also liked many of his paintings of doors. (I couldn’t make this link work, but you can try if you want to: http://www.gallerymoraitis.gr/. )

My first Starbucks since we left the States did not disappoint. Our final stop was at a fine jeweler for a special gift… then back to the hotel. Our final night in Athens proved to be an adventure… we were walking to a nearby hotel when we stopped at a corner newsstand for post card stamps. Someone decided to ask the lady to recommend a restaurant, so she sent us on a long walk to the Greek House. We were almost there when a taxi driver stopped, got out of his car and offered to take us to a better place, not so touristy… for only 3 Euros, and then a round trip back to our hotel afterwards. He said it was nearby. So we got in and rode for miles and miles… I had visions of the Greek mafia waiting for us in an abandoned warehouse or something. Finally we arrived at the supposed non-touristy spot, and the owner’s business cards were in ENGLISH…. Duh… but the food and service were good and indeed another taxi driver drove us back, and the first trip was “free”… The young man at our hotel desk said we’d been scammed. I said I wondered if the taxi driver was paid by the restaurant owner. You think?

Thursday October 18 offered opportunities to learn the Greek saying, “What can you do?” (I asked how to say this in Greek many times, but I keep forgetting!) Anyway, we board our plane for Leros, only to be told there is NO CREW, so we deplaned and were told it would be an hour and a half delay. What can you do? We got another cappuccino and relaxed, and were happy when the delay was over in thirty minutes. Back on the plane and off to Leros, where we land only a few feet from the bluest water I’ve ever seen. We arrive at our lodging, the Hotel Archontiko Angelous built in 1895… lovely, country manor, but only a short walk to the sea. Coffee is served on the patio by Lucy, our hostess the owner’s mother. The owner, Marianna, and her daughter, Irene, have gone back to Athens for the school year. We are the last guests of the season.

After lunch only a few feet from the water (small fish, shrimp, Mythos beer) I decide to go for a quick swim while the others rest at our hotel. Floating on the salt water, I take in the scooters rounding the curves by the water, the gulls overhead, the cats everywhere on my walk back to the hotel, and even a man on a donkey who turns to pose and smile as he rides away.

At 4:30 we head up a treacherous road to the Monastery of the Holy Angels, to meet Sister Gavrilia, the nun who is starting a new monastic community here. She has a special devotion to Mother Gavrilia who has a similar reputation among Orthodox Christians as that of Mother Theresa among the Catholics. Here we saw filoxenia at its maximum, as Sister Gavrilia welcomed us with smiles, tears, joy, hugs, showing us Mother Gavrilia’s bed, other personal items, and shared more of her story with us. She also allowed us to do prayers in the main church as well as in the room where Mother Gavrilia’s things are kept. As we were leaving she gifted us with many icon prints and other special items. We all felt a special love for her.

That evening we walked around the corner from our hotel to a lovely Italian restaurant, Osteria Italiana, owned by two professional musicians, da Giusi e Marcello,who often broke out in song as they came and went from the kitchen. Delicious pizza, pasta, salad, and cream caramel on the outdoor patio. Finishing up around 10:30, we walked back to our hotel and reluctantly said goodnight.

Friday, October 19

The next morning,… we woke to the sound of jack hammers and men shouting in Greek. The power was out due to local cable work, and there were electrical trucks blocking the road and entrance to our hotel. No worry … we sat and enjoyed breakfast on the patio (best French toast ever, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee) and then we were off to the “castle” that housed another monastery… this one containing the original tomb and relics of Mother Gavrilia. But as we were leaving the hotel, Father Paul noticed the smoky cross made above the doorway as a family member brought home his candle from Pascha one year and made the cross with the smoke… and ancient custom here.

The church at the castle contains the icon of the Mother of God attributed to the Apostle Luke in AD 34. Also contemporary wall scenes of the icon being brought to Leros by boat and received by the town and church. On the iconostasis there are three icons painted in the 14th century and one in the 18th century. Zambetta, a lovely Greek woman who works at the church, greeted us and lit incense so we could do prayers by Mother Gavrilia’s tomb and relics. Zambetta, it turns out, once lived in Houston. We kept finding how small our world is.

As Niko, our wonderful taxi driver all over Leros for 24 hours, drove us to our boat to Patmos, we all agreed that Leros was the surprise treasure of our trip. We met regular visitors there who come back year after year for its unspoiled atmosphere, hospitality, and spiritual treasures. Views from the “castle” were amazing… the water really IS this blue! And the villages and churches below are storybook beautiful.

First day in Patmos…

Our boat pulled into Patmos and we walked from the dock to the Hotel Scala… then back to the waterfront for lunch at the Ostria Café: fried cheese, cheese pies, and “tomato balls” – yummy! Sissy joined me for a swim (brrrrrr) before resting in our rooms for a bit. Father Basil and I took a walk to the other side of the island (skinny part) to watch the sunset at Hohlaka Bay. On our way back to the hotel we found a tiny church of St. Paisius… we wouldn’t have noticed it, but an elderly woman dressed in black with a black head covering walked past it and crossed herself. Treasure everywhere.

A light supper at a waterfront café owned by Louka Grillis, a Greek man who lived for many years in Jackson, Mississippi (co-owner of the Mayflower Café there, for those who know the place) and a short walk back to our hotel finished off our first day in Patmos. Slow. Relaxing. Preparing for a big weekend of services at the Monasteries…. Sunday is the feast day of St. Christodoulos, who founded the monastery of St. John the Evangelist. More about them later! (I’m at an internet cafe in Patmos now, having spent the day up at the main monastery, but will write about it another day….)

>More Random Acts of Filoxenia… and boat rides and Holy Places

> Monday, October 15

Monday morning we rode the metro into the Plaka area rather than walking the whole way. The cleanest metro station I’ve ever seen! Evidently they did lots of renovations around the city for the 2004 Olympic Games, and it still shows. The Men in Black were on a mission this morning, and we wove in and out of the numerous church supply stores until we found just the right place. While they were trying on new cassocks, kontos (vests) and skoufi (hats) I wandered up and down the street until I found the iconography studio of “George” (Evangelos Tsaprounis). He was working on a large icon (egg tempera) of St. Basil the Great, but also had samples done in fresco… “things I just play with while drinking coffee” so I bought one that illustrates the strong Greek Byzantine features of the eyes and nose, especially. There was a large wall piece of Archangel Michael taking the soul from a dead person (represented by the small body wrapped in a funeral shroud which he appears to be taking to heaven.) I had never seen this image before, but George assured me it was “traditional.”

Walking around central Athens we continually saw priests and monks in their skoufi and black cassocks… icons in most of the store fronts. How interesting it felt to be in this country where all the trappings of Orthodox Christianity are so common.

We continued to experience much filoxenia … like from Christos, our waiter at Ithaka, a sidewalk café named for a famous novel by a Russian poet. Christos went several blocks out of his way to show me an internet café so I could post my last blog, as I have having difficulty getting online at our hotel.

I had read in Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, the explanation about how the detached houses were torn down after WWII and replaced with apartment buildings, creating narrow dark street passageways where neighbors who once visiting on each other’s yards and porches now waved across from their balconies… but also how this did not disturb the wonderful sense of community… of belonging which is still evident, as school children walk to neighborhood schools together and everyone speaks to everyone on the streets. (Sofka Zinoieff, the author of Eurydice Street, is an English anthropologist who married a Greek man and moved to Athens. Her observations about life here are insightful and helped me interpret the life around us each day.)
Our greatest challenge came as we walked UP and UP and UP hundreds of steps to catch the lift up to the tiny church of St. George, which sits at the highest peak in Athens. Sissy loved the dogs, which seem to roam free all over Athens. (Again, Zinoieff says that there are over 70,000 of them in Athens!)

Monday night we met Sophia and Demetrios and their lively three-year-old Charalambos for a memorable evening at Acropol Café on the Plaka. As we walked in, I realized I had left my camera in the taxi! Sophia and the restaurant owners went into action, calling our hotel, getting in touch with a taxi company, and within thirty 30 minutes the driver returned the camera to us at the Plaka! More incredible filoxenia. Later we discovered that Sophia was a member of the Athens City Council and joked about making a run for Mayor some day. We believe she can do anything … as evidenced also by the three Greek dancers who had been trained at her dance classes, which she teaches after she finishes her day teaching physical education at a high school! Demetrios was charming, also… he does public relations for a company in Athens, and they choose to live in the inner city rather than out in the ‘burbs. Of course they wouldn’t let us pay for our meal, and Sophia gave us gift bags full of special items, including an icon of St. Luke the new physician for Father Basil and one of Saint Charalambos, patron saint of their son, for Sissy, who had become so attached to him… missing her grandson, James, who is also three and a half. She had only met us the day before, but seemed to know just the right personal gifts. Sophia for Mayor!

Tueday, October 16

We rode the Metro to the port of Pireus to catch our boat to the island of Aegina. More random filoxenia in Pireus… a lovely man saw the confusion on our faces as we exited the Metro, and walked with us several blocks to the pier! As I turned to thank him, he smiled, waved and was off.

As we boarded our boat the sun was shining and it was 66 degrees… gulls flew along with us, searching our wake for fish. We drank cappuccinos and soaked up the sun and sites… perhaps my favorite part of our trip so far. The deep azure water turned a brilliant turquoise as we neared the port at Aegina, our destination. A few steps off the boat we found a tiny white church of St. Nicholas, patron saint of, among other things, sailors. Along the docks are rows of sidewalk cafes, so we stopped for more coffee and delicious flat omelets with cheese, ham and tomatoes. And for a cowboy hat for my collection (my other two are from Seaside, Florida and Chicago.)

We took a taxi up to the monastery of Saint Nektarios. Sissy and I planned ahead, wearing skirts and taking head coverings with us. Then we laughed at this sign (below) just outside the chapel where St. Nektarios’ relics are kept. We felt a sad contrast at the monastery, compared with the filoxenia of the people who had helped us in Athens. No one invited us to visit with the nuns or meet the abbess or have a cup of coffee or anything. In fact, the woman who seemed in charge of the small chapel (she’s not a monastic) hurried us through, as though we were tourists in Disney Land… but finally Father Paul asked her if he could pray a short service of healing in the chapel, and she reluctantly agreed, but told us to “be quick about it.”

So we prayed, the four of us, and a visitor who seemed glad for the prayers joined us. Afterwards we were allowed to go into the cell where St. Nektarios lived… a tiny apartment full of icons, a very small bed, and a receiving room, where I imagined the life-changing conversations people were blessed to have with him. The grounds of the monastery were beautiful… immaculate, colorful, full of flowers in bloom and views towards craggy cliffs with small hermitages on them. It was hard to leave. We stopped in the monastery bookstore to purchase some holy oil before taking a tax back down the mountain. We had an hour or more before our boat would leave. Walking along the docks, I purchased some huge, sweet fresh figs and we found another café for coffee and drinks. Then I briefly explored a few “back streets” and found a wonderful little shop called IZA where I bought this bracelet, perfect with the blues and browns which I have chosen as my wardrobe staples this fall.

The boat ride back to Athens from Aegina was magical… we were filled with the joy of Saint Nektarios and the beauty of the islands… and watched the sun begin to set just before we arrived at Pireus. Back in Athens, we found a quiet restaurant, Diogenes, and enjoyed the best whole grilled bream and “cream Diogenes”… the chef’s own special recipe for Crème Brulee. Returning to our hotel I found myself thinking about Urania in this land of her ancestors. Surely she would feel, walking around here, as I do when I return to Mississippi…. “these are my people!”

(Tomorrow is our last day in Athens before we fly to Leros and take a boat to Patmos for there days. I’ll post again the next time I’ve got internet access.)

>Filoxenia

>The contrast was startling. Enough to cause an uprising… an outright revolt against democracy. I had not seen such blatant inequality since my childhood years (the 1950s) in Mississippi.

We were traveling to Greece on Northwest/KLM with our dear friends, Father Paul and Sissy Yerger, from Clinton, Mississippi on October 12/13. Our tourist class seats cost almost 200,000 World Perks miles. An upgrade to Business Class would have been double that, so we chose the “cheap seats” and the company of our friends, who were spending hard-earned American money for their seats.

It wasn’t so bad at the beginning… a new plane with individual TV monitors and movie selections for each passenger. But we soon discovered how uncomfortable the seats actually were. So, as others slept, I got up to walk “laps” around the plane… up one aisle and down the other. But when I attempted to walk through the business class section on my laps, entering the sacred space beyond the curtain, the stewardess jumped up quickly from her seat, blocking my way and announcing gruffly, “Your washroom is in the back, dear.” Instantly I felt like a child who had been reprimanded. Or worse… it brought up the image of my black neighbors in the 1950s South being sent to the back of the bus.

“I’m sorry. I can’t sleep and I’m walking laps. I wasn’t trying to use the restroom.”

“You may not walk through here.” Her voice became firmer.

I looked around at the first class customers, all sleeping soundly in the new, spacious, horizontal seats. Is she afraid I will accost them or what?

Obediently I returned to the back of the plane. Three more hours ‘til breakfast. Sigh. I watched yet another movie from the in flight selection, tried to sleep again, opened my window shade and watched the sunrise… from above the clouds. Calming. But I dreaded the next leg of the trip and the nausea that would undoubtedly come with jet lag. And my knees and back were hurting.

As we were about to board our connecting flight in Amsterdam, we heard ourselves being paged to the counter at the gate. We had been upgraded to first class! After settling down, enjoying complimentary cocktails and a little more wiggle room (not the flat seats for sleeping that were available on the flight from Memphis to Amsterdam) I got up to use the washroom … in the first class section. While I was there, a gentleman from the tourist section came up to use “our” restroom. The stewardess, a warm, friendly lady from eastern Europe, asked his forgiveness, explaining humbly that it was a small plane with only one forward restroom, to be shared by 24 first class patrons and the cock pit crew. When the man retreated, she told me how embarrassing and difficult it was when she had to explain that, but she could get in trouble if she didn’t enforce it. She said her supervisor had told her, during training, to think about the business side of it: you don’t get a Mercedez for the same price as a Toyota. That helps… but her approach was so different than the stewardess in the previous plane… it was a lesson in human relations I hope not to soon forget. (The Bailey’s Irish Cream Liquor which I poured over Ben and Jerry’s Vanilla Crunch ice cream won’t be forgotten soon, either… not your typical airplane food!)

Our hotel room in Athens, on the 3rd floor of The Phillipos on Mitseon, has a balcony with a partial view of the Acropolis. But more interesting to me is the street scene. Across the narrow street are the balconies of private apartments, with dogs barking and babies crying (not excessively, on either account) and birds chirping in the tall mimosa-like trees that seem to grow out of the sidewalks into the sides of the six-to-seven-story buildings up and down the street. At 6 pm we hear bells ringing, and the four of us walk one block south and as we look to our left, there’s an Orthodox Church (St. John the Baptist). We approach it and smell incense, then hear chanting. Vespers is in progress, so we stop in and join the prayers of the faithful who live nearby. There are Orthodox Churches all over Athens. We meet the priest afterwards and decide to come back in the morning for Divine Liturgy.

Off to dinner nearby… we find “Smile,” a casual restaurant run by a Greek woman who lived in Chicago for a while. Calamari and lamb and a cool night breeze work their magic. Walking back to our hotel we stop into an open art gallery/studio, where the artist works with natural powders to create works that remind us of Chagall. Sissy and I were showing too much interest, so our hubbies reminded us that we had collectively had only about an hour of sleep on the combined 12 hours of flying time, so we meandered back to our hotel. We were asleep by 9:30!

Waking to the bells again (this time for Orthros, which Fathers Basil and Paul went to) I sit on the balcony to read and write and take in the morning sites, sounds and smells. Finally reading my third “trip book,” Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff, various phrases come to me during the day and evening, as we are given several opportunities to observe what Zinovieff calls the Greek people’s respect for politismos – a word meaning both culture and civilization.

A woman brings in several colorful garments from her rooftop clothesline at the end of the street. A dark grey cat meanders around the corner. A blonde lady in a bright pink blouse walks a small white poodle. The smell of strong Greek coffee wafts up to our balcony, tempting me to break the liturgical fast my first Sunday morning in Greece. Strands of brownish gray clouds foretell a morning shower, so I toss my umbrella into my bag before heading downstairs for my short walk to the 8:30 a.m. church service. (Sissy went earlier.) Gently, tentatively, the sun tries to break through the clouds, creating a mottled look, like the skin of a peach. The scene from my balcony is so serene, it’s hard to tear myself away….

But when I do, the magic continues… walking up the steps of the church I am approached by one of four beggars… the only word she says that I can understand is “Yugoslavia.” But even if she spoke English, explanations aren’t required when an opportunity for alms is present. As I place the money in her hands, she weeps and kisses me. The man with only one leg and the woman with a patch over her eye and the fourth beggar look on with sad smiles. It was my only cash.

Entering the church a few minutes into the service, I find a place close enough to the front to see the priests through the royal doors. Father Nicholas, the young priest, comes out first. Later it’s Father Panagiotos (sp?) who has been at this church for 45 years. The icons are wonderful… so much like the work of Photios Kontoglou, my favorite contemporary Greek iconography. They fill the temple up into the dome towards the sky. The chanting is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Although it’s in Greek, the Liturgy is part of my heart, so I can follow the service and join the line for communion, and later for the blessing at the end. A woman enters my row after me and finds a place on my left, introducing a new element to the aroma of the incense… now what is that? Oh – moth balls! It’s the first chilly day and she has undoubtedly just retrieved her wool jacket from the closet.

A young woman with a three-year-old invites us to join her for coffee afterwards, so we follow her to a nearby outdoor coffee shop, where she treats us all to Greek coffee, cappuccinos, and “toast,” which is really grilled cheese and thin meat sandwiches. Her name is Sophia Soubasi. She tells us that she teaches physical education at a high school and her husband is in public relations. Her son, Charalambos, is adorable… and very active and anxious for the promised outing with his mother after church. So, she invites us to dinner the following evening. Her husband will join us, at a nice restaurant in the Plaka area. We are overwhelmed and thank her over and over. Her response reminds me of a concept in my book about Athens: “Hospitality is the most important thing.” The book says:

Known as “filoxenia” (literally love of the stranger or guest), hospitality is still considered a national characteristic by Greeks.

And we thought we knew something about hospitality in the South!

Saying goodbye to Sophia and Charalambos, we spend the afternoon walking around the Acropolis, through a flea market, and into the Plaka area for lunch and a little souvenir shopping. Stopping into several small churches as we walk along, I am again struck with the depth to which Orthodoxy permeates the everyday life of the Greek people. But also with their love of life, like these girls singing on the street.

We opt for a short rest back at our hotel before heading out at 8:30 for dinner, considered early by Greek standards. We find a nice restaurant nearby, this one with live music. We are their first customers for the evening, and we enjoy delicious traditional Greek food and drink, and complimentary Brandy from the owner. Sissy and I try to follow along with our waiter in a traditional Greek dance, with our husbands and the other couples in the restaurant clapping along. I apologize for my clumsiness, explaining that I was raised on rock and roll. “Rock and Roll? Ah, yes!” And they break out with “Shake It Up, Baby,” and we’re doing the bop and the twist and whatever else we can remember from SO LONG AGO… (no photos here!!!)

Again, the words from Eurydice Street come back to me:

We Greeks have… a particular relation to rhythm and language…. folk music runs deep inside us. In Greece, we live with our emotions.

A girl dancing is described as “excluding everything outside her personal space at that moment.” Exactly. That’s how I feel when I’m dancing!

The Greeks have a name for this, too: kefi – high spirits and an ease that comes from “knowing the rules and respecting the alchemy of music and wine.”

You can’t even start to understand anything about Greece if you don’t realize that everything is expressed through poetry and song.

I feel such a kindred spirit with these wonderful people. It’s after midnight on Sunday night, so I’ll get some sleep so I can get up and enjoy another day of filoxenia… and maybe another evening of kefi!

>"Good Grief " and a Spiritual Response to the Tribe of Liberal Humanism

>

C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after his wife, Joy, died of cancer. I first read this book in 1998 after my father’s death (also cancer) and I shared the book with my mother. She didn’t like it. I asked why. She said, “It’s just too hard to read.” She prefers to continue to live as though my father is still with her. Every morning, as she looks at his picture in her room, she says, “This is the day the Lord has made,” and then she says the response, as though they are still sharing their traditional morning greeting, “let us rejoice and be glad in it.” They were married 49 years. After my father died, my husband and I took up their morning tradition. It really helps set the tone for the day. (This is my mom and me on Mother’s day, at her assisted living home in Mississippi.)

At my father’s funeral service at the Protestant church in which he and my mother were very active, people were encouraged to “celebrate his life” and not to mourn. Over five hundred people packed the sanctuary, singing hymns, giving testimonies to the great things he did in his life. And then I spoke of the suffering he and my mother had endured during his fourteen month battle with cancer. About the ups and downs and the stress on their marriage. About how they came out victorious. And about how awful it is when one dies before they are old (My dad was 68, and had run over thirty marathons, including Boston and New York several times.) And people began to weep. Afterwards, several people thanked me for “giving them permission to mourn” my father’s death.

Here I am, nine years later, looking at grief through an expanded spectrum of loss. In the nine years since my father’s death, I’ve lost a twenty-year-old Goddaughter, a dear uncle and aunt, several elderly friends from my church, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, my brother, and most recently, my dear friend, Urania. Through all these losses I have observed that grief does look different on each of us. For some reason, when I started writing this post, I thought about the Peanuts characters and how they’re always saying, “good grief.” It made me wonder, what is “good” grief?

I wrote about some of my grief in an earlier post, but not
since Urania’s funeral on Monday. Urania was well known and well-loved in the community, so there were quite a few folks at the funeral. Her four children and four grandchildren loved her dearly, and there were many tears, but mostly smiles and thankfulness for Urania’s life, and for being part of her family or her circle of friends. She was eighty six and lived a full life and was ready to go be with her husband in heaven. I knew all this, but it didn’t stop the initial onslought of weeping which lasted a good bit of three days. Hard, gut-wrenching tears.

“I weep and I wail,” goes the Byzantine funeral chant.

At the cemetery Monday afternoon we threw dirt on her coffin after they lowered it into the ground. Then we sang Orthodox Paschal hymns, joyful songs about the Resurrection, like “Shine, Shine, O new Jerusalem!” and I cried harder. And the sky was amazing. Dark, beautiful clouds moved over the funeral tent just as we were about to leave, and the rain followed as we returned to our cars and to the church for the mercy meal. It was so hard to leave her there.

Nikolaos Vassiliadis says, in his book The Mystery of Death:

Death, an exceptionally emotional event, always evokes pain and grief in man. The Christian faith, which embraces man with special love, has always respected this kind of human pain…. The sorrow at the departure of our beloved ones… is usually expressed by sobbings, funeral lamentations, many tears and rending of the soul.

But the same author (who was part of the Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians in Athens, Greece, where I’ll be on Saturday!) also says this about grief:

A rational man, however, and especially one who is a believer, must exercise restraint and prevent himself from mourning beyond measure. Too much mourning helps neither the dead nor the mourner…. He can and must overcome this sorrow and not allow it to overwhelm him.

How do we do this? What tools does the Church provide for our healing from this grief?

Because our love remains, our Mother Church has, from the very beginning, established the practice of saying special prayers for those who have fallen asleep, and on certain specified days it has memorials for them.

This helps: For forty days following the loved one’s death, it is a pious Orthodox practice to read a section of Psalms each day, followed by the appointed “Prayer for the Reposed.” Standing before the icons in our prayer corner at home, I read these Psalms and this prayer, and each day, my pain is lessened. My soul feels lighter. But I also look at my life with new sobriety, because I’m reminded that death waits for each of us. So, at least for forty days, I try to live each as though it might be my last. Of course I fail and go right back to slothful, selfish living over and over again, but maybe I won’t fall as far if I keep coming back to the Psalter and the Prayers for the Dead.

We leave for Greece this afternoon. Today I looked again at the wonderful book by Peter France, A Place of Healing for the Soul: Patmos. France was a BBC documentarian and host of The Living World and Everyman. But he was a self-proclaimed skeptic and agnostic of forty years. His book weaves the story of his conversion to Christianity throughout a beautiful travelogue and spiritual memoir.

One of my favorite passages in the book is on pages 81-82, where he describes a turning point in the way he approached faith. It’s an interaction he had with Father Amphilochios, who was known on Patmos as a man of great charity and compassion.

I recognized Father Amphilochios as a promising interviewee: he was firmly rooted in a primitive Christian faith which shaped his every waking hour…. Since he had experience as a missionary, spreading the Christian message among the tribal people of West Africa, it seemed fair to ask him about his techniques for enlightening unbelievers. I was one of them, and I was tackling him on behalf of liberal humanism.

I explained to him that I was a member of an enormous modern tribe that rejected the Christian message. This was not because we knew too little but because we knew too much. We understood the human psyche; we had analyzed the workings of the human mind, conscious and unconscious; we knew that religious faith was simply a compensatory mechanism that gave emotional reassurance to the insecure. We could not be deceived by myths, no matter how powerful their archetypal resonances. We sought the truth and, unlike Christians, saw no virtue in putting our trust in so-called realities for which there was insufficient evidence.

For the past three hundred years leading intellectuals of our tribe had examined the philosophical proofs for the existence of God and found them wanting. Our scholars had looked at the linguistic and archaeological evidence for biblical truths and had pronounced them flawed. Our biologists accepted a version of the story of life on earth that needed no external directing hand. So, we had abandoned Christianity after long and careful consideration of its claims and with some regret. That rejection was a consequence of our fearless pursuit of truth. “If you came,” I said, “as a missionary to my tribe today, what would you say to us?” I sat back, conscious of having put him on the spot. He looked at me with a smile and said simply: “I would not say anything to you. I would simply live with you. And I would love you.”

… When I heard these words from that man at that time, I experienced a shift in understanding. It was like the impact of great music. We all hear important truths many times in our lives, but it is only when we are ready for them that they penetrate.”

Someone very dear to me recently challenged me to a “rational discussion” about spiritual things. This person asked me to read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. I agreed to read it, if they would read A Place of Healing for the Soul. But I told this person that I have no desire whatsoever to argue. That I only want to be with them, and to love them, no matter what they choose to believe about God or anything else. Today I’m thinking what name I would give to a Christian apologetic if I ever wrote one (not that I would ever try to write a theological work) and all I can come up with is this: The End of Words.

And as we leave for Greece today and especially as we set out for Patmos in a few days, I am anxious to be in the place where the beloved Apostle John wrote these words, “Little children, love one another.”

I’ll be home on the 24th… and I hope to post on my blog while I’m in Greece, so stay tuned! And as you go about your day today, remember to love.

P.S. Today is the feast day of The Jerusalem Icon of the Mother of God, painted by the Holy Apostle Luke. You can read about it here.

>Wildly Disparate: Inspiration, Spark & Passion!

>As a writer, I’m always fascinated to see where my inspiration comes from. This morning as I was walking to and from my church for Third Hour prayers, the birds were chirping and the promise of fall was floating in on the crisp breeze. Walking to church, I was thinking about my friend, Urania. But walking home from church, I was thinking about my blog. About what to write next, because my life is so full and so much has already happened since my last post on Sunday. Will people get bored if I just rattle on about a variety of unrelated things?

Back at home I open my email and there’s my answer, an email from my new friend, Terry Bernadini (below, right) whom I met at the Creative Nonfiction Workshop (read about her on my post of October 1.) Anyway, Terry has started a blog, and guess what she named it? Wildly Disparate! Don’t you love it? Her first post will take your breath away. (Turn your speakers up!) I just bought a greeting card with this anonymous quote on the front:

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.

Anonymous. Wish I had written it… it’s how I felt about Terry’s blog post. I’m adding it to my links today.

And now I feel like I’ve been given permission to write about wildly disparate subjects today, so buckle up.

Walking up my driveway I noticed that my crape myrtles are finally finished blooming. I’m glad I took this picture of them a month ago when they were so full. I added the shot to our realtor’s pix that she took yesterday. We’re putting our house on the market TODAY because we found one we really really love… just around the corner, actually. Anyway, if anyone knows someone looking for a four bedroom (two downstairs) three bath house in midtown Memphis, tell them to call Linda Sowell or go to http://www.sowellandco.com/ and scroll down to 279 N. Avalon Street. It should be listed later today. Read a great article about Linda here.

Linda (that’s her at left) has helped us buy and sell several houses in the nineteen years we’ve lived in Memphis, and it’s always fun to catch up on news about the kids, etc. (We’ve both got adopted children… all grown now.) I’ve always been a bit in awe of Linda, because she seems to have it all, to do it all. She’s strikingly beautiful, slim, fashionable, owns her own (very successful) company, and raised two well-adjusted kids. But she can also be a girlfriend. Like yesterday, when we moved a shoebox off my bed so she could photograph our bedroom, and I showed her my new shoes and she said, “Oh, would you mind if I got some just like them?” and I felt so complimented. (And they are soooo comfy … for my trip to Greece… yikes! We leave on Friday!)

(Remember the line in “The American President” where the president’s daughter says to her dad, a widow getting ready for his first date since his wife’s death, “Compliment her on her shoes, Dad. Girls like that.”?) My other shoes for the trip are Crocs… style name is “Athens” – how cool is that? Couldn’t download a pix, but you can see them here, in Chocolate and light blue.

Anyway, yesterday Linda told me that each time she’s met with us over the years, she’s always noticed that I’ve got a homemade meal on the stove and plans to take my daughter to a soccer tournament the next day while juggling church activities and whatever my current entrepreneurial pursuit happens to be and that she always loved the way it looked, my life. Aren’t we women an interesting bunch. Each of us living the lives we’ve carved out for ourselves (or that were handed to us) with our own beautiful styles, our own flavors. And yet always wondering, just a bit, what another woman’s life might have tasted like.

It reminds me of a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, especially the line that says, “We’ve got two lives, one we’re given, and the other one we make.” So… Linda, Daphne, Terry, and all my girlfriends out there working in your homes, raising children, working in your careers, trying to figure out how to make your life “work” …. and looking around to see how other women are doing it… this song’s for you!

The Hard Way

Show a little inspiration, show a little spark
And show the things that drew me to you and stole my heart
And tell me something I don’t know instead of everything I do
And look at me as if I mean something to you
Our hearts are beating while we sleep, but while we’re wide awake
You know the world won’t stop, and actions speak louder
Listen to your heart, and what your heart might say
Everything we got, we got the hard way
Show a little passion, baby, show a little style
And show the knack for knowing when and the gift for knowing how
And have a little trust in us when fear obscures the path
You know we got this far, darling, not by luck, but by never turning back
Some will call on destiny, but I just call on faith
That the world won’t stop, and actions speak louder
Listen to your heart, to what your heart might say
Everything we got, we got the hard way
Caught up in our little lives, there’s not a lot left over
I see what’s missing in your eyes; you’re searching for that field of clover
So show a little inspiration, show a little spark
Show the world a little light when you show it your heart
We’ve got two lives, one we’re given and the other one we make
And the world won’t stop, and actions speak louder
Listen to your heart, and your heart might say
Everything we got, we got the hard (everything we got, we got the hard way)Everything we got, we got the hard way(Because the world won’t stop) hang on, baby…

>Catch and Release and "Watching" continued…

> We’d been on the White River in Arkansas since about 10 a.m. on Saturday and still no fish. The boat we rented at Jack’s Fish Resort seemed to have all the right stuff. And my friend’s 13-year-old son, Will, brought his tackle box and gear. We even asked the guys in the bait shop at the marina what to use. But at 3:30 p.m. we still hadn’t caught the first fish. We did have some excitement, though… when we hit a rock or something and the cover flew off the motor and we had to circle around and scoop it up with a net. Ian (that’s him, at right – he’s 9) helped save the day.

I thought I wouldn’t care whether or not I caught anything. After all, I’m not a fisherman. I think the last time I caught a fish was in about 1959… on a pond at my Aunt Lorena’s in Prospect, Mississippi, just outside Meridian. I was really just along for the ride. Enjoying my friend and her four kids (at right, on the road to the house we rented for the weekend) and the beauty of the river and the Ozarks.

But then we asked some successful folks what they were using for bait. A white fluorscent grub with one Power Bait red salmon egg on a golden hook on a spinner. My friend, Sue, a seasoned fisherman, wanted proof that I baited my own hook and everything, so here’sthe pix, Sue!

We headed back up river. The current was fast because they were lowering the river about two feet at the dam, or something. (I obviously don’t understand these things. I leave them to the experts and busy myself with less important matters… )
So we kept casting and floating until we began to get it right. Will caught two in a row. I had gotten a nibble or two, which were exciting enough to leave me longing for more. We were supposed to return the boat to the marina at 5. Daphne gave us a five minute warning. And then it happened.

I cast upstream… this time actually getting the line more than 10 feet out from the boat. I felt a tug. Suddenly my pole arched and I cried out, “I’ve got one!” Daphne grabbed the camera. Will grabbed the net. Simon urged me on, “Reel him in, Aunt Susan!”

It was an exciting few seconds. And there he was. A rainbow trout. All of about 14 inches long. Sure helps to have the right stuff. I’m hooked now. It’s a thrill, feeling the line tighten and the pole tug in your hands. Will added him to his catch of two, and we headed back in. Near the marina we saw this sign, “Catch and Release Area.” Fortunately ours were caught away from this area, where it’s “legal.”

I added my lure to the Evil Eye ornament on my hat. The one Daphne bought at the Greek Festival in Little Rock. It helps fight against jealousy. Must be working, because the people who pulled into the boat slip next to us had a basket full. They must have figured out what worked earlier in the day. I didn’t care. I had a beautiful day on the White River. Even saw cows in the water, a blue heron on a tree, and an otter sneaking between the rocks on the shore. All of which goes to show that you can take the girl out of the city.

Later that night we ventured into Mountain View for live music on the square. Various groups of bluegrass musicians were gathered under gazebos and at the courthouse. Not my favorite music, but a nice taste of local culture in a quaint little town.

I’m too tired for a smooth transition to the next installment about my friend, Urania. So I’m just going to cut to the chase. “Watching” continues here. If you missed the earlier installments, read my post of October 4.

“Watching” continued…

Friday

At 5 pm I’m driving from Memphis to Mountain View, Arkansas. I stop in Locust Grove and call Father John Troy on my cell, thinking I might lose the signal as I ascend down to Mountain View. The sun is bright, just before it slips behind the foothills. The clouds are dark and threatening. The contrast is vivid. Autumn is late this year… everything is still green with a few tinges of brown and orange.

“Did you see Urania today?” I ask, as my phone cackles with a bit of static. I’m at the edge of the Ozark National Forest.

“Yes. I spent about three hours with her today.”

A pang of envy strikes my heart. “How was she?”

“She’s sleeping a lot. But I read the Canon with her, and cried. Then the Hospice nurse gave her some Morphine, and I helped turn her and make her more comfortable once or twice. Mainly I sat with her.”

I weep as I picture my priest’s tears of love and sadness mingling with his prayers for this woman who has been so important to him… to all of us at St. John.

A half hour later I’m driving into Mountain View. The first thing I see is a cemetery. I cross myself. Just down the road I stop at the main intersection. If you turn right, you end up at Wal Mart. But that’s true at most intersections in Arkansas, isn’t it? No matter… there’s a man sitting in the back of a pickup truck in front of me. He has a ponytail with streaks of grey and a striking profile―a chiseled Roman nose, high cheek bones, and a sunken amber jaw. The sign behind him says, “Live music on the square tonight.” Sounds inviting.

Turning off Highway 5 at 5:45 pm into Jack’s Fish Resort, I hurry to check in and get to the deck behind Jo Jo’s Catfish Wharf for sunset on the White River. It’s pretty, but it can’t compete with the view from Urania’s balcony earlier in the week. So I soothe myself with the best hushpuppies in the world, mediocre catfish, and melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cream pie.

Daphne and her kids arrive at 8:30 and we settle into our rental house for the night. It backs up to the river. The plan is to rise early to go fishing. I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Saturday

Father John Troy calls at 6:30 am. I know why he’s calling.

“She died at 5:30 this morning. George [her son] was with her… and Mary [his wife].”

“Today is my husband’s birthday.” My first words in response have nothing to do with Urania’s death, but are a way of marking the day… a double significance. I’ll call him later at his hotel in Chicago, where’s he’s at a medical meeting. But now I open again the red Prayer Book, this time to page 24: “A Prayer For the Dead”:

Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend the soul of Thy servant, Urania… grant her rest, where all thy blessed saints repose, and where the light of they countenance shineth forth….

At 7:30 am I’m lured to the kitchen by the enticing aroma of bacon frying. Daphne sees the news on my face and I cry into her arms. We tell her four children about my friend , Urania. They know about loss… they just lost their aunt Debbie four weeks ago. Daphne’s sister was only fifty one. Her family’s grief mingles with mine today, tempering our activities with a gentle overlay of somberness. The joy I share with her and her children as we spend the day fishing on the White River and later experiencing a bit of the local music scene on the square in downtown Mountain View is full of reminders of Urania’s love of life. Well, except that this is Arkansas, after all.

Sunday

I drive home from Mountain View and go straight to St. John and upstairs to the nave, where Urania’s body was brought on Saturday. My friends Deb and Laura are there, arranging flowers. The casket is on the solea, in front of the icon of Christ. Her presence in the church brings on another round of weeping, first in Deb’s arms, and later on my knees. And yes, I’m happy that she didn’t suffer greatly and that she’s with her beloved Andy and with Jesus in Heaven. But the hole she leaves in my heart, in our church, our community, our city, is significant.

I find each of her children before the service, during visitation, and we share updates, stories, and hugs. But when I find Julia, her daughter who moved her membership to St. John in Memphis when her parish in New York City, St. Nicholas, was demolished by the collapse of the World Trade Centers in 2001, I fall completely apart in her arms. How many times will my grief leak out so physically? I’m still in her arms, shaking and crying noisily when a hush falls over the nave. It’s time for Trisagion Prayers for the Dead. So I leave Julia to sit on the front pew with her family, and I find my way to the back, and to my friends. We comfort each other as we join in the prayers and hymns.

Again I’m overcome with tears, especially as we sing, “Memory Eternal,” and when Father John Troy gives a brief talk about Urania. And then the vigil begins. I join one of my Goddaughters, Sarah, at the reader’s stand and we begin reading the Psalms, interspersed with a Prayer for the Departed. People sign up for one-hour “slots” to read during the evening and the next day… up until the funeral, which will begin at 2 p.m. tomorrow. It’s an Orthodox tradition not to leave the departed one’s body alone. We do what we can to honor this tradition, and the person’s body, made sacred by the Incarnation.

After the interment at the cemetery, a “mercy meal” will be served back at the church. Long before her death, Urania made the arrangements… for Greek-style fish and vegetables to be catered. The “church ladies” will bring desserts.

Hugs are as plenteous as tears tonight, and my dear friend Nancy says to me, “What will we do without her?” She’s referring, I’m sure, not only to her love and inspiration, but her matriarchal place amongst us… teaching us how to live.

“I guess we’ll have to grow up now.” The words are out before I can stop them… but there it is. The truth about losing mothers. It’s our turn now. But these are big shoes to fill. By God’s grace, we will grow into them. Or not. But we are all changed forever by knowing her. May her memory be eternal.

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