>Scootch, Scootch, Bog, or Grace (Eventually)

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I was in Little Rock yesterday, with my best friend and her daughter, Hallie, who turned 16 the day before. After lunch, I picked up my friend’s youngest son, Ian, from school and he and I visited at Starbucks while we waited for his sister to take her driver’s test. Waiting was fun… for me, at least… I’m not sure how fun it was for a 9-year-old to be stuck at Starbucks with a 56-year-old woman…. but we found common ground. Ian loves books and theater and art. We discussed the importance of book covers. Of getting a college education even if you’re going to Hollywood to direct films. This is Ian at Seagrove Beach last March, painting a picture of a sea otter.

Anyway, around 3:30 Hallie arrived at Starbucks with a big smile on her face. She got it! Freedom. Independence. All that a driver’s license represents. Which brings me back to prayer, because that’s what her mom is going to be doing more of as her first-born hits the road in her own car today. This is me and Hallie at Starbucks. Oh, and that’s my new (winter) hat from Salahie. It’s felted wool, crushable for packing, and so warm. And that’s Hallie, texting her friends about getting her license.

But before we get back to prayer, I must wish my daughter, Beth, a HAPPY 25th BIRTHDAY today. Yes. My BABY is 25! See how they run… She’s finishing up her first semester of architecture grad school at UT.

That’s me and Beth at Seagrove in April. And now you see why I wear hats… that wind gives you what my mom always calls a “bad hair day”… perpetually, at the beach!

And speaking of running, another of my (successful overachieving) Goddaughters, who is pregnant and due in April, is running the St. Jude ½ Marathon here in Memphis tomorrow! Stacy lives in Nashville, and she’s been training for a while. This is one of her personal goals. These young women are all so amazing. See how they run…. This is me and Stacy … you guessed it, (dancing) at Seagrove Beach last November! And here’s one of Stacy and Jared at Seaside that night.

And finally (you’re probably thinking)… back to prayer. Wednesday I wrote about Met. Anthony Bloom’s wonderful book, Beginning to Pray. Today I’m writing about another of his books on prayer, Living Prayer. These books are just full of spiritual pearls, so it’s really hard to just write short little excerpts from them, but maybe it will make you want to get the books and read them. It’s not formula prayer. It’s about going inside and having a relationship with God. But first, it’s about finding our real selves. Here are some excerpts, from Chapter VIII, “The Prayer of Silence”:

In social life we have a variety of facets to our personalities. The same person appears as one in one setting and quite different in another, authoritative in any situation in which he commands, quite submissive at home, and again quite different among friends. Every self is complex, but none of these false personalities or of those which are partly false and partly true, are our real selves to such an extent as to be able to stand in our name in the presence of God. This weakens our prayer, it creates dividedness of mind, heart and will. As Polonius says in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

So, how do we find the “real self”? (said the Velveteen Rabbit to the Skin Horse)
We all know that there are moments when we are nearer to being our true selves; those moments should be singled out and carefully analysed in order to make an approximate discovery of what we really are. It is our vanity that usually makes it so difficult to discover the truth about ourselves; our vanity in itself and in the way it determines our behavior. Vanity consists of glorying in things that are devoid of value and of depending for our judgment about ourselves, and consequently for our whole attitude to life, on the opinion of people who should not have this weight for us; it is the state of dependence on other people’s reactions to our personality.

Bingo. I’ve been a slave to this my whole life. How do we get free of this? The answer isn’t easy to hear. Even harder to do.

Humiliation is one of the ways in which we may unlearn vanity, but unless it is accepted willingly, humiliation may only increase our hurt feelings and make us even more dependent on the opinions of others…. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, fertile ground. The fertile ground is there, unnoticed, taken for granted, always there to be trodden upon. It is silent, inconspicuous, ark, and yet it is always ready to receive any seed, ready to give it substance and life. The more lowly, the more fruitful….it has accepted the last place and cannot go any lower. In that position nothing can shatter the soul’s serenity, its peace and joy.

A few weeks ago I blogged about “soul chatter”… I think there’s a connection here. The opposite of soul chatter is silence….

The Greek Fathers set this silence, which they called hesychia, both as the starting-point and the final achievement of a life of prayer. Silence is the state in which all the powers of the soul and all the faculties of the body are completely at peace, quiet and recollected, perfectly alert yet free from any turmoil or agitation…. Another simile… used by the Fathers is that as long as the mud which is at the bottom of a pond has not settled, the water is not clear and one can see nothing through it…. As long as the soul is not still there can be no vision, but when stillness has brought us into the presence of God, then another sort of silence, much more absolute, intervenes: the silence of a soul that is not only still and recollected but which is overawed in an act of worship by God’s presence; a silence in which, as Julian of Norwich puts it, “Prayer oneth the soul to God.”

I know that’s a lot to take in. Which is why both of these books, Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer, are classics, to be read over and over throughout life.

Now this might seem like a huge leap, but I am reading everything I can find by Anne Lamott right now. It started with Bird by Bird, her excellent book on writing. And now it’s her latest, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. What I love about Anne is her truthfulness. And humility. (Well, except when she gets on a rant about politics, which I wish she wouldn’t do so much because I think it lessens the beauty of her work and surely it doesnt help her inner peace….) Grace (Eventually) is a bunch of essays about life and faith and struggles. Stuff we can all relate to—some of us more than others, depending upon what your struggles are. She’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and openly admits to having had several abortions. She’s a single mom raising a teenage son. She found Jesus along the way and writes about her relationship with Him with tenderness and awe. And gritty candor. Her chapter, “The Muddling Glory of God,” is full of all of this. She describes the steps (incredibly patient) she went through to get her young son to sleep in his own room in a new, large, and to him, spooky house. It was a process, starting with him in a sleeping bag on the floor by her bed. Then by her door. Then out in the hall. Down the hall. Eventually he had the courage to sleep alone in his room. She drew a beautiful parallel of this process with her own life:

That’s me, trying to make any progress at all with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch…. Clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark. I suppose that if you were snatched out of the mess, you’d miss the lesson; the lesson is the slog.

Then she describes an emotional crisis in which she was assaulted by temptation to break her sobriety. (She’s been sober 20 years now.) As all of us who struggle with addictions know, they just take turns assaulting us. Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Food. Spending money. Here she describes the demon of gluttony attacking her:

Within minutes I was on the edge of full-on food binge, assault eating. I couldn’t even remotely find my way back to the path that I’d relied on for the past fifteen years, the path of feeding myself when I am really hungry, trusting my own appetite, and staying at the same weight without too much painful obsession. I was starting, and nuts.

I prayed for God to help me find my way out, and what I heard was, “Call a friend.” But something edgier was speaking more loudly, and I pricked up my ears at the sound, even though an old man at church once told me never to give the devil a ride. Because if he likes the ride, pretty soon he’ll want to drive. It felt as if someone determined and famished had taken the wheel….

And I did discover an important clue—that whenever I want to either binge or diet, it means that there is some part of me that is deeply afraid. I had been worrying about Sam (her son) more than usual, and only partly because he had just begun to drive….

All I could think to do was what every addict thinks of doing: kill the pain. I don’t smoke or drink anymore, am too worried to gamble, too guilty to shoplift, and I have always hated clothes-shopping. So what choices did I have? I could go on a strict new diet, or conversely, I could stuff myself to the rafter with fats, sugars and carcinogens. Ding, ding: we have a winner.

She goes on to describe her food/sugar binge… not a pretty picture, but one that wasn’t altogether unfamiliar to me. Maybe also to some of you reading this. Afterwards she summoned the strength, and humility, to do the right thing: she called a friend. Or two.

I told them that I was lost, and fat, and had once again, in trying to give myself comfort, turned to the wrong thing. That I’d been binging all day.

Oh, honey, they both said. Oh, bubbie. How can we help you?
Telling helped a little. It felt as if maybe the worst was over. “But why didn’t my faith protect me?” I asked one friend.

“It did,” my friend pointed out. “You found your way out of danger—and disgust—through humility, and even confession—to the love of safe people. Now you are safe again.”

“You’re a hero to me,” my friend continued. “You struggled through something really miserable. You told the truth, when it’s so tempting to cover up and disguise it. You said, “This is the mess of my life, and I need help.” And now you are being helped.

Grace arrived…. When I woke the next morning, I felt more kindly toward myself…. The spirit lifted me and now it holds on lightly, like my father’s hands around my ankles when I used to ride on his shoulders….

I have a friend like hers. One who doesn’t judge me. One who helps me when I fall. This bog, bog, scootch stuff is hard. Which is why we need the wisdom of the Fathers, like Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. But also the wisdom of beautiful human beings like Anne Lamott, who is learning the lessons about humility and sobriety and sharing them with compelling narrative in her essays and books. I haven’t read her fiction yet, but I’ve bought Blue Shoe, which sits on the table by my chair. Waiting. Like my novel, which has been waiting for me to come back and revise it, again. Maybe I will some day. For now, I’m more about the non-fiction stuff. I think I need to get a better handle on how to be a Real Person and write about Real People before I can make up Pretend People with any believability. Picasso was a master realist painter before he did the abstract stuff, you know.

There’s a great interview with Lamott here (in Christianity Today.) I love what she says about her novel, Blue Shoe:
‘I wanted to write about a character who is a Christian and yet not the kind of Christian that you might encounter at a Christian bookstore,” Lamott explains. “Somebody who is crabby—you know, like me—and lusty, and a mess, and a true believer.”

That’s how I want to write ficiton, too… sigh. (To have her gift.)
Happy scootching. And remember, the lesson IS the slog.

>Beginning to Pray

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Most mornings I try to stand in my icon corner and pray. I say “try” because sometimes I just stand there and say the words mindlessly and wonder if they make it past the ceiling. And some mornings I don’t even go there, because, well, I’m lazy, and also because prayer is hard. Especially if you’re all about wanting God’s gifts and not really wanting God.

I was reminded of that this morning as I began to re-read a book that blessed me when I first read it about fifteen years ago. Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Met. Anthony was a Russian émigré who lived many places, but ended up becoming a French citizen in 1937. He was a physician, a monk, a priest, and a Metropolitan. But mostly he was a humble man and a wonderful teacher. He still teaches today… through his books, like this one.

The Introduction is really an interview with Met. Anthony. One thing that struck me about it this morning was the respect and love he had for his father, who said to him when he had been out of touch for a while:

“I worried about you.”

Anthony said, “Did you think I’d had an accident?”

His father answered, “That would have meant nothing, even if you had been killed. I thought you had lost your integrity.”

On another occasion his father said to him, “Always remember that whether you are alive or dead matters nothing. What matters is what you live for and what you are prepared to die for.”

What struck me about these passages is how I felt in 2003 when my oldest son was in Iraq. People would ask me, especially other mothers, “How can you stand it? Watching the war on TV and knowing he’s in danger all the time?’

They were often surprised by my response, which usually went something like this, “He is in just as much danger when he lives in the U.S. and faces the trials and temptations of young people today. And of course my heart falls into my stomach everytime I hear the words, ‘another Blackhawk was shot down.’ I love my son and pray for his safety, but I am more concerned that his heart is in the right place.”

Jon will go back to Iraq in January, so I’ll have another opportunity to learn to pray. To try to hold this tension, as Met. Anthony says in another place in the book:

As Christians we are always in tension—in anguish and at the same time in bliss. This is mad, ridiculous. But it is true—accepting the dark night just as we accept the brilliance of the day. We have to make an act of surrender—if I am in Christ, there are moments when I must share the cry of the Lord on the cross and the anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. There is a way of being defeated, even in our faith—and this is a way of sharing the anguish of the Lord. I don’t believe that we should ever say, ‘This cannot happen to you.” If we are Christians we should go through this life, accepting the life and the world, not trying to create a falsified world.

So as I stood there this morning, beginning again to pray, I looked at my 2007 Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar and read the short paragraph about the saints being commemorated today. One is Anna, Martyr for the Holy Icons. She was from a noble family in eighth-century Constantinople and was a spiritual daughter of St. Stephen the New, also commemorated today. When her husband died, she became a nun. Emperor Copronymus was one of several iconoclast emperors. He urged Anna to slander her spiritual father. She refused and was flogged and thrown into prison, where she died. The story reminded me of how little is asked of me, in comparison to Anna and so many other saints, and yet how easily I run to, as Met. Bloom said, “create a falsified world” when I think the real world is too difficult to accept. Anna died for the holy icons. I struggle to paint them because of my pride and anger. Sigh.

And then I read the “quote of the day” at the bottom of the page, this one by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem. An excerpt:

The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as His only is. Take heed, therefore, les for the slight and trivial sins against you, you shut out for yourselves forgiveness from God for your very grievous sins.

These words reminded me of something my own spiritual father, Father John Troy, said recently:

“The King and Prophet David should have more effect on your life than any other writer. He wrote, among other things, Psalm 50, which, as Orthodox Christians, we read about four times a day with our prayers.”

It’s the Psalm we read just before the Sacrament of Confession, too. The one that begins, “Have mercy on me, O God… Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity….”

And then it says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

And I love this part, “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation.”

As this season of the Nativity Fast continues, may God restore to us the joy of His salvation. May he grant us all a spirit of humility and forgiveness. And may it begin with me.

>I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight

>Well, not tonight. I felt like Hank Williams on Saturday night. That’s when I went to hear my friends, Bill Stanek, Mitch Childress, Timothy Stanek and Melanie Stanek play and sing at Mo’s Edge Coffee House near the University of Memphis. It’s not that they played Hank’s music. They didn’t, actually. They played a few original tunes (written by Bill) … and Melanie sang a show tune, “Summertime,” (look out, Broadway!) and near the end of their set, Bill played and sang, “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.” (You can listen to Jerry Jeff Walker sing it here.)

That was your trailer (the first paragraph). Now, let’s back up and break it down. First there was the preparation. Mo’s serves sandwiches and snacks and espresso drinks… but if you wanna’ drink, (as Hank would say)it’s BYOB. So… my friend, Sue, and I decided to each bring a bottle of wine to share. Red wine. So, I was choosing between Red Truck and Red Guitar… and decided on the Red Truck. Sue ended up bringing Red Guitar. It’s from Spain and I thought I was going to like it better, but the Red Truck won the night. Well, until the music began. Let me set that up for you.

Bill Stanek is a mild-mannered computer Geek by day. And a wonderful chanter in our church. But he also writes and sings his own tunes from time to time. His friend and ours, Mitch Childress

(also a fellow parishioner at St. John) joined him for a few numbers on guitar and vocals Saturday night.

Bill’s son, Timothy, is a music major at the University of Tennessee. But he’s also been a member of Copper Possum for several years. You can read about them and listen to some of their music here. Tim does vocals and keyboard.

Youngest daughter, Melanie, is into theatre… here she is, belting out “Summertime” with a strong, soulful voice that will take her far.

A good time was had by all, as you can see in these pictures.

Now, back to “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” the song by Jerry Jeff Walker that Bill introduced me to. I laughed out loud at some of the lyrics, like these:

I like classical when it rains and country when I’m in pain… and jazz when I’m confused and country whenever I lose… and rock and roll when I’m high and country when I’m losing control…. It just hit the spot.

The next day a friend sent me an excerpt from a paper about the effects of classical music on learning, memory and concentration. Evidently a high school kid did an experiment with mice and music, to find out if listening to certain kinds of music would affect the mice’s learning potential. Each group of mice listened to 10 hours of different kinds of music, and then were tested to see how quickly they could run a maze. The results are hilarious:

The mice that listened to NO music cut their time to run the maze by 5 minutes.
The mice that listened to CLASSICAL music cut their time by 8.5 minutes.
The mice that listened to HARD ROCK music added 20 minutes to their time.
The mice that listened to COUNTRY music sat in the corner weeping over their broken hearts.* (my friend just told me she added this line because she knew I loved country music….)

And then the kicker: “It is also interesting to note that he had to run his experiment twice as the first group of mice listening to hard rock music ate each other.”

Ate eachother?

Okay. If *my friend made this up I’m looking like an idiot about now. But it wouldn’t be the first time. In a future post I’ll tell you about the time I drove to Gluckstadt, Mississippi, looking for the Hiney Wine Store…. or maybe not.

>Piece of Mind

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My mother has Alzheimer’s. She’s been on meds for over five years and has been at an assisted living home which specializes in memory loss for almost two years. At first her mind actually seemed better, possibly because her meds were managed by the nurses there and she was actually taking them regularly. And because her world became smaller. More manageable. The people at Ridgeland Pointe seem to really care about her. Which gives me much peace of mind.

I visit Mom about once a month (she’s 200 miles away) and of course I can see the gradual decline. My husband went with me to see her on Thanksgiving Day. First time he’d seen her since my brother’s funeral, February 1. So the decline was much more noticeable to him. It’s not just her memory that’s being destroyed by this awful disease. It’s how she functions in the present, as well. Even when we’re having a good time, like in this photo taken at Starbucks on Thanksgiving afternoon, there’s a fog moving in, covering her mind over. Making it hard for her to see out and for us to see in.

So, yesterday when I met up with some friends at the Brooks Museum of Art for the Pissarro show, I was really more anxious to see the exhibit of art work done by some of the participants at the Alzheimer’s Day Services of Memphis. The exhibit was called Piece of Mind. You can read the Commercial Appeal article about it here. And see some of the placards explaining the exhibit and some of the photos I took of the exhibit on Friday here in my blog. Amazing work.

Art therapist, Karen Peacock, helped them with their work. My friend (another Goddaughter, actually) Julie Stanek was with us Friday. She teaches art at Rossville School and is working on her Masters at the Memphis College of Art. In fact, she’s working on a project dealing with art therapy right now.

Of course it made me wish my mother could participate in something like this. She’s got lots of talent, but hasn’t painted since college. I’m going to send info about the program to her assisted living facility director, in hopes that they can find an art therapist to work with their residents. Helping them get in touch with parts of themselves that are slipping away. Giving them an outlet for their creativity.

It’s not that I don’t have “peace of mind” about Mom’s care where she is. It’s a wonderful place. It’s just that this exhibit made me want more for her. All the years that she was too busy being a full time mom, school teacher, and later small business owner with my dad, she set aside her own creative impulses to take care her children and later to support my dad in his dream of running an athletic retail business and organizing community running events. (They owned Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports in Jackson, Mississippi from 1982-1997. Dad also ran many marathons, including Boston and New York quite a few times, while he was in his 60s.)

So now I’m thinking maybe it’s Mom’s turn. I hope she’ll have a chance to paint.

My post today will be short, so you can take time to enjoy reading about “Piece of Mind” and enjoying the drawings and paintings. If you live in Memphis, I hope you can find time to go by the exhibit.

The Pissarro isn’t bad, either, if you like that sort of thing…. world class impressionism by one of its masters, that is….

So, here are photos I took of the placards explaining the exhibit. CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO SEE IT FULL SIZE.

>Feasts, Four-Year-Olds and Forefathers

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Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos (Mother of God) in the Temple. It’s the day the Orthodox Church has set aside to honor the miracle of obedience that took place when the Mother of our Lord was four years old. Yes. Four. Her parents, the pious elderly couple, Joachim and Anna, took her to the Temple in obedience to God. They knew she was special. As they approached the steps, tradition tells us that she went joyfully up the steps and into the Holy of Holies, the sacred place that only the priests went. It was a foreshadowing. She would become a new Holy of Holies. She would contain in her womb Jesus, the Son of God.
So, she lived there, being fed by angels (as shown in the icon above) until she was somewhere between fourteen and sixteen and was betrothed to Joseph, and the rest is, as they say, History.

We celebrated the Liturgy at our parish last night (the eve of the Feast.) Holy Communion was a healing balm to me. The anger has faded. I’m ready to paint icons.

Specifically, to work on the icon of the Mother of God, Directress. The one I quit working on five months ago, when I got angry. The one that will go on an icon stand in our church when it’s finished, along with one of Christ the Lifegiver, which I’ll work on next. But today it was all about HER.

I began with prayer. Then a time of stillness (very very hard for me) and contemplating the work to be done. While we were in Greece one of my greatest blessings was to venerate one of the icons attributed to Holy Apostle Luke (yes!) which is on the Island of Leros. The icon (at left) is mostly covered with a metal overlay now, but you can still see the original painting on the faces. This little girl was being lifted up by her grandfather so she could venerate the icon. She looked to be about three years old. I wondered if her papou would tell her about what the Mother of God did when she was about her age. Maybe some day.

The faces and hands were what I worked on today, having finished the rest of the icon previously. Hands are the hardest for me, so I started with them. Because I didn’t want to start with the faces, the most important part. As I began, I realized immediately this is not like riding a bicycle. It doesn’t just “come right back to you” when you stay away from it for five months. Or at least not for me. I struggled to recover the skills that would enable me to blend the highlights into the background colors and to make the lines sharp and defining and the “life-giving lights” just right. Here are some pictures of the icon before I started today (The faces and hands in the first pictures have the “sarka” on them, the orange-ish modeling that was done early in the summer, with help from a fellow iconographer, Kerry Sneed.)

Today I began the highlights, working for several hours on the Mother of God’s hands and face. Still have a ways to go, (don’t worry, the eyes and mouth are coming) but the main thing is, I AM PAINTING AGAIN. The joy I feel is the heart-bursting kind. But I am also humbled and a bit fearful, as people begin registering for my next icon workshop, which I will lead in March, and I tremble at the responsibility of passing on this sacred art to others. I am NOT a Master Iconographer. All I can do is share what I know and encourage the gifted ones to seek more instruction elsewhere. But we pray together and struggle together and yes, even laugh together during the workshops. And God always blesses, in spite of my shortcomings. (Icon should look like this one (right) when it’s finished. This is the one I ruined by using two kinds of varnish which had a chemical reaction and crackeled all over the paint. So I had to start over. Some lessons are hard learned.)

So, as I painted I contemplated this amazing thing that little four-year-old Mary did that day, and I thought about my Goddaugher, Sophie, who is four. Tuesday I went to Grandparents’ Day at her preschool, because her grandparents live a long way away and couldn’t come. It was so much fun watching her with her classmates, singing Thanksgiving songs, showing me the class rabbit, Snowball, and sending me home with homemade gifts, like this paper model of the Mayflower. I told Sophie that my husband, her Godfather, will LOVE the Mayflower she made for us, because his great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Robert Cushman, helped charter the Mayflower’s voyage and his son Thomas Cushman came to America from England on the real Mayflower. Some day she will realize what a big deal that is. But not that day.

That day she was into this: snacks on the patio at Starbucks, where I got her “Bearista Bear.” Book Hour at Davis Kidd. (First we read about five books together and she chose this one to take home with her: Pinkalicious, written and illustrated by these two sisters, which was all about how it’s okay to love pink (or anything else) even if other people make fun of you. And also about mixing colors. An art book and morality tale rolled into one.) Pink is also Sophie’s favorite color, but I watched her out run two boys on the playground at her school easily. She can handle pink just fine.

Sophie got sleepy during the “song time” before the book lady read to us, so she climbed in my lap and we snuggled quietly while the group of about twenty kids and mothers did the hokey-pokey and other such physical things. Most of them were younger and hadn’t just finished performing for a room full of grandparents at their preschool.

Next it was time for lunch at Chick Fil-A. Then a stop at Walgreen’s to buy stickers, because I refused to buy her a stupid (poorly written) book she found at Davis Kidd that had stickers in the back. So, for $1.99 we found a book at Walgreen’s with about 250 stickers in it.

My favorite part of the day was sitting on the patio at Starbucks, of course. Nice warm breeze. My favorite latte. Time to talk about important things. Like, “Can we go to the bookstore now?”

“Nope. Not until we get through talking.” I knew that once we got to the bookstore I would lose her to the magic world of words and art and all the same things I get lost in when I’m there. Patios at coffee shops have less distractions. I think our future outings will always include Starbucks. Like this one (left) in Athens, Greece!

So now it’s Thanksgiving Eve and guess what? I am NOT COOKING. Sadly, none of our “kids” could come home for Thanksgiving this year, so we’re driving down to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother at her assisted living home and have lunch with her there tomorrow. And then stop in to see some friends who moved there from Memphis a couple of years ago. So I’ll blog again on Friday or Saturday. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving and Blessed Feast of the Mother of God!

>There Is A God… and Good Friends, Good Food, Good Music

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It was our turn to host Dinner Club last Friday night… the second day of the Nativity Fast. It’s hard to be festive without meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil. Sigh.

Okay, so we took a bit of liberty… I found out the Orthodox Church in America (another jurisdiction within the U.S.) celebrates the Feast of St. Matthew (November 16) with fish, wine, and oil… and since one of our dinner club members was celebrating his Feast Day (Matthew) we decided to be ecumenical and enjoy some wine with our meal. Otherwise, we stuck with the Antiochian Orthodox tradition. And it wasn’t so bad, actually. All the recipes came out of our parish’s second cookbook, Saint John Cooks Again. This was the menu:

Appetizers: Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms (without the egg) – page 238
Main course: Shrimp & Rice Casserole –page 247 and Fresh Green Beans
Dessert: Dump Cake – page 295 with (non-dairy) Cool Whip, and
Decaf coffee served with liquid non-dairy creamer

Voila! Feast! If anyone wants one of these recipes, and doesn’t have a copy of Saint John Cooks, just leave me a comment or email me at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com and I’ll send you the recipe.

Saturday night I discovered another yummy recipe from the same cookbook: Charles Ingram’s “Greek Potatoes” on page 133, only instead of cubing regular size potatoes, I tried something new from the produce section at Schnuck’s: they’re called Frieda’s “Fingerling” Potatoes, and they come in several colors and shapes. My favorite were the Yellow Russian Banana potatoes, which tasted like butter. Yum. (Even without the feta cheese or grated boiled egg garnish, which I might try after the Fast is over!) Served them with ahi tuna steaks and leftover green beans from the night before. Simple. Healthy “fast foods.”

All this with another nod to my friend Erin, who does a great job of keeping the fast with her family of four in Kansas… and keeps a great blog about it here.

Okay… one of our dinner club members is a young man in his 20s, a new friend, and he and I talked about books and music and then we shared our favorite music via email later, and Oh. My. Goodness. All of you out there under age 30 (40?) probably think I’ve been living under a rock because I’ve never heard of Regina Spektor (above) or Joseph Arthur, (right) but I’m hooked on these “new” (to me) sounds now. Watch this. (that’s Regina Spektor’s story) and listen to this (Joseph Arthur on Uganda.) Good stuff.

Our new dinner club friends had actually driven to Nashville (from Memphis) for a Regina Spektor show that was cancelled on the spot earlier in the week, as she passed out from an ear infection. Hopefully she’s on the mend. What an amazing young woman, songwriter and performer.

And while cruising through the You Tube videos (no, I’m not on You Tube) I found Trent Willmon, (at left) who brought me to tears singing “There Is A God,” here. Trent also designed a wooden paper doll for Project Paper Doll (PPD), a celebrity driven auction of original artwork. PPD will generate national awareness and support for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, a leading provider in pediatric health care. A national online auction facilitated by eBay’s Giving Works division launches November 26 allowing fans to bid on over 50 of these unique creations. Here’s Trent, with some other country music stars, visiting St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital here in Memphis in 2006.

So, on this Monday of Thanksgiving Week, I’m thankful for good food, good friends, good music, and good people supporting good causes, as far away as Uganda and as close as Nashville. And most of all, I’m thankful that, as Trent Willmon sings, There Is A God.

>Emotional Truth and Imitation of Life

>

Thursday night was the third installment of the University of Memphis’s River City Writers Series (Sponsored by the MFA program,) this time featuring Pulitzer Prize-wining poet, C. K. Williams (Repair), who also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood and the National Book Award for The Singing. Impressive enough, but I was also drawn to hear him because of his memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself. A man who writes poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton, and lives in Paris half the year. I’m game.

So I joined the crowd (about 150 people, I’d say) at the Pink Palace Museum’s Ballroom for a reception, reading and book-signing on November 15. After purchasing Repair and Misgivings from the book table, and enjoying a few refreshments, I took a seat in the lecture hall and began to read some samples of his work. I was hoping to hear him talk about memoir-writing, but his prize-winning poetry was selected instead. Mostly reading from a newly published large collection, he struggled with a less-than-adequate PA system and a scratchy voice, so his deliverance left me longing to hear Beth Ann Fennelly. Beth Ann doesn’t read her poetry at readings. She becomes the verse she speaks aloud to us, rarely looking down at the printed words on the podium. But the Powers That Be chose Mr. Williams’ verse for the Pulitzer, so I investigated further.
One of my favorite poems is one he did not read Thursday night. It’s from the prize-winning volume, Repair. It’s called “The Dance.” (with apologies to Mr. Williams that blogspot doesn’t let me format the lines of his poem accurately….)

A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and somewhat
stout, to be more courteous still,
But when she and the rather good-looking, much younger man she’s with
get up to dance,
her forearm descends with such delicate lightness, such restrained but
confident ardor athwart his shoulder,
drawing him to her with such a firm, compelling warmth, and moving
him with effortless grace
into the union she’s instantly established with the not at all rhythmically
solid music in this second-rate café,

that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some sad
conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we’d ever thought of as a real lack, nothing not to be
admired or be repentant for,
but something to which we’ve never adequately given credence,
which might have consoling implications about how we misbelieve
ourselves, and so the world,
that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which sometimes
shows us, lovely, what we are.

Good stuff. But I was really wanting to get into his memoir, so I read the first half of it when I got home from the poetry reading. It’s really about the death of both of his parents, but also about how their lives affected him, and the universal elements of this experience, which he delivers with a strong poet’s voice. Here’s a short excerpt:

We see our lives so much as though through a lens that bends all the light of existence towards that tiny circle in the center of which we pose for ourselves. When we look at ourselves, though, and at those others once so near, as we’re cast against the shadows of the reality of the larger world that contains everything, that chaotic, unlikely screed of possibility and dread, we find we’re constantly rearranging the group portrait of our contemplation, because nothing in it can ever remain quite as it was even a moment ago. Yet doesn’t all we’ve gone through have a domain where it persists always just as it once was? Though every minute we live can make its own demands, require its own justifications, its own healing, aren’t there always still those covert images and feelings, even odors and tastes, out of which we began and which will always assert their essential linkage to everything else, every other emotion, every fugitive or fleeting speculation as to who we might finally be?

I had been reading an essay in The Best of Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 1, just before attending the reading and discovering Williams’ memoir. The essay, “Notes On Frey” by Daniel Nester, is a look back at the scandal of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Nester had profiled Frey for Poets & Writers Magazine in 2005, before it was discovered that Frey had fictionalized parts of his “memoir.”

The essay is an excellent study of creative non-fiction in general and memoirs in particular. He talks about the use of drama, of exaggerating the eccentricities of oneself in order to spice up the writing. He talks about the trickiness of dialogue, which is often embellished, because who can really remember exactly what was said, especially from childhood or during personal crises. He delineates between essay (which focuses on a particular situation) and memoir (which delivers wisdom) and autobiography (which is history.) And in all these genres, how the authors are trying to get to what he calls emotional truth. He calls on Pablo Picasso for help: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” These words have also been said about fiction, so I’m not sure what to do with them, when considering the memoir. (I’ve only written five pages of a memoir so far, so I’m digging around for some solid moral ground as I continue… or not.)

Nester quotes Frey, looking back on what he did, and his words strike a chord, as I consider the fiction novel I’ve drafted, that sits waiting for yet another revision:

“My mistake,” he writes, “and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope and not the person who went through the experience.”

If you’re not a writer, or not even interested in creative non-fiction, I’m sorry for boring you… come back in a few days and I’ll probably be blogging about something completely different. But today, I’m stuck on this issue that is important to me as I consider where to go from here with my own work. So I’ll close this segment with a quote from Vivian Gornick, who admitted, while speaking at a writers conference, that her memoir, Fierce Attachments, had scenes and conversations that she invented… and that she used some composite characters for some of the pieces she wrote for The Village Voice between 1969 and 1977. Here’s her reply to her accusers:

A memoir is a story taken directly from the raw material of a writer’s own life and shaped into a piece of experience that can hold meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only material; what the writer makes of what happened is everything. To state the case briefly: Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of factual accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or literary journalism. What is owed [by the memoirist] is only the ability to persuade that the narrator is honestly trying to get down to the bottom of the experience at hand.

Or, as Nester says, in the last sentence of his piece about Frey, “Writers will always have the desire to imitate and transform, not simply record, real life.”

>Shut Up and Pray!

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Well… it’s been 48 hours since I asked for comments about how to hold your opposites intact… about how to be passionate about things you feel strongly about and also be at peace in your heart. No one commented. No. One. Maybe no one knows how to do this. Or maybe you’re all just ready for me to SHUT UP AND PRAY. With a nod to Natalie Maines…. who was told in BIG WAYS to Shut Up and Sing.) Yes, I really like the Dixie Chicks… and I believe in freedom of speech. But I also believe in being respectful. I’m not saying that I always am respectful, but that I want to be. And that’s where we begin to repent. By the way, this isn’t an anti-war post… although I’ve always been pretty-much anti-war at heart… but I’m not smart enough or informed enough to know what is the Right Thing To Do concerning the war on terror. I have two sons in the military. This one, Warrant Office Jon Cushman, flies helicopters for the Army and has already done a year in Iraq. He will deploy again in January. Another BIG reason for me to Shut Up and Pray, don’t you think?

But first… here’s what I did on Monday night: since the Orthodox Nativity Fast begins TODAY (40 days without meat and dairy products, and limits on fish, wine and oil on other days) … my illogical brain tells my tummy to EAT MEAT QUICKLY … to “store up” or something irrational like that. So, like they say in the Army, GO BIG OR GO HOME. We went to Ruth’s Chris. This is what it looked like and sounded like.

I was happy to learn that I was in good company regarding pre-fast gourmandizing… I read my good friend, Erin Moulton’s blog post here (it’s really a good blog about the Orthodox practice of fasting in general, recipes, etc.) and felt as though I had been given permission to be human.

The thing about the Nativity Fast that makes it more difficult in some ways than Great Lent is that the rest of the world is already celebrating Christmas when Orthodox Christians are trying to PREPARE for it… with fasting and special church services and giving alms. We celebrate from Christmas Day through the Theophany (January 6) … rather than celebrating from Halloween until Christmas… or New Year’s. It’s where the Twelve Days of Christmas got its origin.

So… I went to Confession today. Yep. The Sacrament of Forgiveness. Great way to start a Fast… with the best human effort one can make towards being at peace with yourself and others. In the Orthodox Church it’s not a juridical thing… it’s not about making up for breaking rules. It’s therapeutic. The Church is the Hospital. My soul is sick. The Sacraments are for its healing. I feel better already. Ready to make nice. Even with magazine editors.

Forgive me.

>Soul Chatter

>

The inside of this greeting card says:

I can quit any time.

No, this isn’t going to be about alcohol. Or even food. It’s about … chatter.

And not only the verbal kind, which is hard enough to control. But also that voice inside my head that just won’t shut up at times. The voice that says I need to keep going and doing and moving and not be still or quiet because I might have to face something unpleasant in the stillness. Like… me.

This morning I was visiting with a few wonderful young twenty-something folks during coffee hour, the social time after worship. We were sitting around a table in the fellowship hall, discussing all sorts of things, when I picked up a Sunday bulletin and noticed the quotes “From the Fathers” on the back. I sat and read the first one:

Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together.” – St. Philotheos of Sinai

The soul’s chatter. Wow. That’s how it feels inside me sometimes… especially recently. You would think that a trip to the beach would have fixed that. But the state of peacefulness, the “soul’s proper state,” isn’t a geographic location. It’s truly a state of mind… of soul.

Just as I was reading this, Caitlyn, one of the twenty-somethings (a college student and Starbucks employee) said, “I can see the title of your next blog post right now: “Soul Chatter.” Cairlyn just started her own blog, The Caitlyn-cosm, where she writes about her journey towards Orthodoxy, among other things. She’s in our supper club, so we’ve been getting to know eachother at our monthly culinary gatherings in each other’s homes, and now we’re blog-buddies. Caitlyn (a Starbucks employee, remember?) also encouraged me to write in to Starbuck’s “How You See It,” entries… so maybe I’ll give it a shot and see if my comment ends up on one of their disposable coffee cups. So, I wonder: Would that be considered being published? Like, could I use that as a clip when I query an agent or send a manuscript out for publication? I can see it now: Previous publications include “How You See It”… on a Stabucks coffee cup. Or not ….

Back to the soul chatter. Another quote on the back of today’s bulletin:

“What is most important in life?” I asked Father Michael. “Love,” he answered. “Never judge anyone, have no foes, revere everyone. In life avoid anything which makes you proud and which disturbs your serenity of mind. – from Interior Silence by Elder Michael.

Avoiding things that disturb your serenity of mind is tricky for those of us who are easily shaken… I would personally have to avoid thinking, much less reading, writing, listening to music, leaving the house, talking with others…. like the Three Monkeys!

Maybe the trick is in the first part of the quote: “Never judge anyone.” Maybe that’s how Haven Kimmel and Jeanette Walls wrote such non-judgmental memoirs about such broken people. Maybe they know how to shut down the soul chatter and just tell their stories with love and acceptance and humor.

I was thinking the other day about how Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird through the eyes of a twelve-year-old character during much of the story… a difficult story to tell. A difficult but beautiful story to read. A twelve-year-old doesn’t have much soul clutter yet. She’s got a pure heart.

Like Oreo. And so I begin my memoir of life in Memphis through the eyes of my 18-year-old cat:

It was Labor Day weekend, 1989. I was playing in the backyard with my brothers–chasing each other through the shrubs near the patio in the early autumn air. Our mother sat on the steps nearby, washing herself and still watching over us, but allowing herself to slip into moments of casual inattenton… even closing her eyes in the sunshine. We were, after all, six weeks old and newly weaned. And completely oblivious to what was about to happen to our family….

>Soccer and the Cycle of Life

>Today was just everything a Saturday was meant to be. PERFECT weather. Autumn colors peaking here in Memphis, as these gorgeous trees around midtown are strutting their stuff… as are the purple clematis on the fence to our backyard.

Here are a few of my favorite trees, on our street and nearby. (and the clematis, below, left)

Had breakfast at Dino’s (neighborhood cafe) with hubby, so as not to mess up our kitchen, as our realtor was showing our house today. (3rd time this week:-)

My Goddaughter, Katherine, and her husband, Hardy, have three precious children whom we have adopted as surrogate grandchildren (until the real thing comes along?)… Benji, Mary and Simon.

They all had soccer games this morning, including Simon who is really just 3 and not quite old enough for the team. Of course, he scored a goal.

As did Mary. (She’s recovering from her goal in this picture.)

Benji is goalie for his team, when he’s not playing defense. (Here he is, in green, outrunning his opponent.) He is very protective and careful by nature, so these are both perfect positions for him. I had to leave before his game was over, but I think Evergreen was holding their own when I left.

It was such déjà vu sitting at the little soccer field between Evergreen Presbyterian Church and Snowden Elementary/Middle School… on the very field my children (who are now 24, 26 and 30) used to play. In fact, Beth was “discovered” on this field… when she was playing on the first EVER Snowden Middle School Girl’s Soccer Team back in 1995. A month later she was playing for the Germantown “Storm”… a competitive team, which catapulted her “career” with the Storm, later the Fury, and the Memphis Futbol Club. Can’t resist running this picture here (scan of old pix, pre-digital camera!) … she was playing for MFC here… in 1997, I think. She’ll be 25 in a few weeks. Sigh. I really loved being a Soccer Mom.

The Evergreen recreational league folks have done a good thing with the young ones (ages 4-6)… The Mini-Strikers play three-on-three with no goalie. And they don’t change ends at half-time, to cut down on confusion. Sadly, one little guy did score for the other team this morning anyway. It happens. I think everyone just cheered anyway and there were smiles on all the kids’ faces, so that works.

After the games I met up with my dear friend, Urania’s, two daughters, Julia and Theresa, here from New York for their mother’s 40 Day Memorial service at St. John Orthodox Church tomorrow morning. Their cousin, Toula was also here, from Charleston, and joined us. Sarah, Nancy and I, all “regulars” at “Thursdays With Urania,” the women’s gathering in Urania’s home for the past few years, and Nellie, Urania’s main volunteer chauffeur to church this past year, all met at Bronte’s Café for lunch. We cried together as we recounted wonderful memories of our years with this dear friend, who passed away on October 6. I know I ran lots of photos of Urania a few weeks ago when I was blogging about those last days I spent with her before her death, but here’s one more, taken at her grandson, Andrew’s wedding a few years ago.

There will be more tears tomorrow at church as we all sing “Memory Eternal” again… and we’ll also be thinking about our friend, Claire,’s mother, Anne Walker, who lost her battle with ALS at the young age of 51 this past week. Her memorial service was today, so it’s an emotion-packed weekend here in midtown Memphis.

As I visited with two mothers and their newborn boys this week, I thanked God for the cycle of life… for the way we can bury two amazing women we loved and celebrate the birth of two precious little boys all within a few weeks and how we can see God’s love through it all. It’s almost more intensity than I can take in at once. Maybe we’ll have a quiet week coming up. An theli o Theos. That’s Paul Elliott above and Nicholas Williams, below. I’ve known their grandparents for many years…. sigh.)

Oh, I almost forgot… after lunch at Bronte’s, which is inside Davis Kidd Bookstore for those of you outside Memphis, I found these two books (The Used World and Something Rising) of Haven Kimmel’s which she autographed while she was in Memphis (and I was in Greece)… I’m still hooked on her memoirs, She Got Up Off the Couch and A Girl Named Zippy… and will get into her novels next. But her non-fiction stuff is inspiring me… and keeping me laughing out loud and reading excerpts to my husband. I’m not usually into humor. This stuff is good. She is a gifted writer. So… yesterday I started a memoir. Swore I’d never write one. But that’s before I read Haven’s books. I’m writing in first person… but with an unusual voice… it’s through the eyes of my cat, Oreo. In fact, the working title is, Oreo Finds Her Voice. Okay, that’s way more than I would usually share this early in a piece of writing… but, as my friends know, Oreo is not your usual cat. She’s 18 (people) years old… and all I can say is, she’s seen a lot in those 18 years. Stay tuned….
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