>A Few of My Favorite Things

>Here I go again. Irreverently combining serious stuff with fluff in the same post. What can I say? I’m a spiritual girl living in a material world. So… first the fluff.
A few of my “Favorite Things” from Christmas 2007:

My Goddaughter Stacy gave me this awesome CD by Chris Botti (and a gift card for Barnes and Noble!). Botti can really make a horn sing.

In with the chocolates and other goodies in my stocking was this Sugarland CD. Yes. I especially love “Stay” which you can watch on video here. And “Settlin’” on video here.

These cordial glasses from Pamela are PERFECT for drinking Bailey’s Cream Sherry… a pleasure I was introduced to about six years ago by my friend, Urania. I guess she decided I was old enough when I turned fifty.

And this collapsible tote from Tim & Deb is awesome. It goes from completely flat to tall and sturdy in seconds. I can already think of about ten things I’ll use it for. And not pictured (because we are eating it right now… while watching football games with our son Jason and friend Caleb) is the rest of her gift: yummy, melt-in-your-mouth artichoke lemon pesto dip and cheese-melt crackers.

You’ve already seen pix of “Scrubby” … my Build-A-Bear from Beth. But here’s a closeup in her scrubs… all ready to go with me to Campbell Clinic on January 8 for my foot surgery. After my foot heels, I’ll post a picture of Scrubby in her cowgirl boots and hat… as soon a I can wear mine again!

Two Goddaughter gifts went together so perfectly this year: Hannah’s necklace, made by a Memphis artist, and Sophie’s bracelet, an antique mother of pearl piece from Syria (yes) are elegant. I wore them together for our family’s holiday dinner out at Texas de Brazil on December 27. Gorgeous. They are shown here (at right) on a beautiful pashmina scarf my friend Nancy Mardis brought me from her trip to Italy.

Three more gifts that coordinated perfectly are this beautiful sandblasted jet with white pearl necklace that my friend Sue brought me from Q Evon Design … from her trip to Asheville and the Biltmore House. It’s shown here with a bracelet I got in Alaska a few years ago… with hematite stones… and so I asked my friend Stephanie Harants, who makes jewelry, to make me a necklace with one of the stones from the bracelet, and she gave it back to me on Christmas Eve. They are all pictured here with the beautiful scarf another Goddaughter, Julie gave me. I love being coordinated!

You’ve already seen these personalized William and Sonoma aprons from our Godchildren, Damon and Madeleine and Damon and Weezie… we forgot to wear the matching oven mitts for the photo… probably because we were dancing at that point on Christmas morning….

There’s much more. Gorgeous candles from Yankee Candle Company and beautiful note cards and homemade food gifts and movie passes and an amarylis bulb that I just planted today and …. Wow. Such tangible reminders of how loved I am. When I was a little girl I would arrange all my Christmas gifts on my bed and then get in the middle of them and Mom would take my picture. Yeah. I still love stuff. But mostly I love the people they remind me of. Thank you, everyone.

Segue into a spiritual moment that almost undid me… on Friday afternoon. Our oldest son, Jonathan, was leaving. He had spent about ten days with us this Christmas. In the next few weeks he will deploy to Iraq again. This time as a helicopter pilot. Just before he left, my husband (an Orthodox priest, for those reading my blog for the first time) called us all into the dining room for prayers before our icon corner. I smiled, thinking of Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies.” That’s what these would be.

We gathered before our family icons, lit the candles, and my eyes caught sight of an icon that Sally Elliott gave me a while back… of Saint Menas the Soldier. I often pray to Saint Menas for both of my soldier boys. Saint Menas is on a horse in this icon. It struck me that he’s like Jon… helicopter pilots are modern day Cavalry. They even have “cowboy” hats.

So, we stood in a semi-circle, at one point Jon and I had our arms around eachother, and we participated in the “Office of the Blessing for Soldiers Going Off to War (or Battle) … from The Abridged Book of Needs. The Office includes the Trisagion Prayers, the reading of three Psalms, several priestly prayers, a Gospel reading, and a final blessing. It’s long, so I’ll only quote a few parts here. It’s interesting to note that Jonathan’s patron saint is David (Jon’s name is Jonathan David…..and today is the day the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Prophet and King David. It’s Jon’s Name Day.)

O Holy Master, Almighty Father… Who condescends to raise up military columns to help the people…. We entreat You, with compunction, that as You gave Your child David power to defeat Goliath… so, too, grant protection in righteousness and truth to these Your servants against the enemies rising against them….O Master, to grant them the fear of You, together with humility, obedience, and good endurance, that they kill no one unrighteously, but rather preserve all righteousness and truth… that they run in friendship to those who are scattered, extending Your love to those near them, serving the elderly with justice; and that their ranks fulfill all things righteously….

And then he sprinkled Jonathan with Holy Water and gave the dismissal, which included these words:

May Christ our true God, through the prayers of… the holy Great martyrs George, Demetrius, Procopius, Theodore Stratelates, and Theodore the Recruit… all saints who fought immense battles against evil enemies.

And I added, under my breath, “and Holy Saint Menas.”

We all hugged. I cried, of course. But a few minutes later, as Jon drove down the driveway and away from us, I wept and wailed loudly… at the irony of it all. This 30-year-old man, Jonathan David, whose name we gave him at his adoption and which means, “Beloved Gift of the Lord,” brings me to the depths of anger and frustration one minute and to tears with love and tenderness for him the next.

My daughter, Beth, says Jon and I have a “weird relationship.” She has seen us say unimaginable things to each other over the years. I’m sure there were times when she was confused about which one of us was the parent. (I can give as good as I get.) So here we are. Two imperfect people trying to find their way in a world afflicted with generations of war and families suffering from the sins of their fathers (and mothers.) Here’s to you, Jon. Go blow things up in Iraq and come home ready to make nice. I love you beyond words.

>Baby News and Movie Reviews

>First the Baby News: My Goddaughter, Hannah (Mashburn) Snowden, had a baby boy yesterday afternoon! (Hannah is the one who is pictured in my last post, GREAT with child.) His name is Peter Cuthbert Snowden. Hannah and her husband, Matthew, went to England last year and learned more about Orthodox saints from that country. Like Saint Cuthbert. Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert is here. You can see icons and read short lives of several British Orthodox Saints here.

So, Hannah called me (yes) from her hospital bed yesterday afternoon, having been awake for like 36 hours and having just given birth. We talked for about 30 minutes as she held Peter in her arms. I’m going out to visit them this afternoon. Can’t wait!

7 p.m. addition to morning post:

Photos from visit with Hannah & Peter this afternoon.

He’s awesome!

So is Hannah.

This morning with my Morning Prayers I read this wonderful quote by St. John Chrysostom, from Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar that we keep at our icon corner. It’s long, so I’ll excerpt it a bit:

If artists who make statues and paint portraits of kings are held in high esteem, will not God bless ten thousand times more those who reveal and beautify His royal image?—For man is the image of God. When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, and to be forgiving—all attributes of God; to be generous, to love their neighbor, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them.

I thought about Hannah and Matthew as I read these words this morning… because Matthew is an artist and Hannah is a musician and also just got her Master’s in Education (or some sub-specialty of Education) and will be a teacher some day when Matthew is in seminary. They understand about the beauty of images. Matthew has painted icons. Hannah has chanted and sung in the choir in the Divine Liturgy of the Church since she was a child. And performed in musical productions. I can still remember the chills I got watching her in “Godspell” at St. Mary’s when she was in high school. And they were both raised by kind and gentle parents who love God and taught them these things that St. John Chrysostom says, to be good, to be gentle, and to be forgiving… All this to say that baby Peter Cuthbert is in good hands. And Many Years and Congratulations, Hannah and Matthew!

It almost feels like sacrilege to write about movies in the same post as the birth of baby Peter, but hey—life isn’t always about mountain top experiences. Sometimes it’s just families hanging out and relaxing together during the holidays, right? So… this is the beginning of my Pen and Palette Movie Review:

Atonement” was nominated for 7 Golden Globe Awards… I love Keira Knightley…and the cinematography was amazing. It’s a morality tale … with an element of surprise (yes) at the end, which was good…although I’m a sucker for happy-ever-afters, which this movie definitely did not have. Still, two thumbs up for Atonement. I went to see it with my husband, and we both thought the writing and acting were excellent.

Next I went with my 30-year-old son, Jonathan, to see “No Country For Old Men.” Jon and I both like the Coen Brothers … more about them here. We both really liked “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and Jon liked “Fargo” (1996) and “The Big Lebowski.” (1998). I liked “Raising Arizona,” (1997). Anyway, back to “No Country For Old Men.” We were both a bit surprised by it. Not because it was dark (which it was). Or because we found ourselves laughing at its dark humor (which we did.) But because it was slow. And the ending was disappointing. So, we give it two thumbs down, actually. Although the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review both gave it “Best Picture” awards. But what do we know. We’re just the consumers, right?

Next, when Beth (my 25-year-old daughter) got in town, she and I went to see “P.S. I Love You” with Hillary Swank. We loved it. Swank is a great actress, I think. She really becomes the characters she plays. Lisa Kudrow, an actress Beth and I both like, played one of Swank’s charcter’s best friends. But she seems to be the same character in most of her roles. Maybe all those years on “Friends” got under her skin. But she delivered some great lines and we laughed a lot. The scenes in Ireland were beautiful. Harry Connick Jr. was lovable. Kathy Bates was believable as Swank’s mother. The plot wasn’t too predictable, either. We give it two thumbs up.

Thursday afternoon I went with hubby and both boys (Jason is 26) to see “Charlie Wilson’s War.” We all thought it was great. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts can’t do anything wrong in my book. Roberts was great in this because I kept forgetting it was her. She transcended her “Pretty Woman” image… not that she wasn’t pretty because she was. But she was, well, different in this. And strong. And smart. And sexy. (Okay, so she was all those things in Pretty Woman, too.) And Philip Seymour Hoffman was great. It was a bit surreal, though… sitting next to my son, Jon, who flies helicopters for the Army and will return to Iraq in a couple of weeks… and watching helicopters being blown up by stingers. Later I asked him if it didn’t scare the bejeezies out of him watching it and he said no, that usually they won’t “waste” an expensive stinger on a Kiowa (the chopper he flies) with two men in it… they’d rather blow up a Blackhawk or something big with lots of guys in it. Comforting words for a mother to hear, don’t you think? Anyway, two thumbs up from all four of us.

Jason and I still want to see “The Great Debaters” … and he and his dad want to see “I Am Legend” … and Beth and I might want to see “Margot at the Wedding” … so…. Stay tuned. The holidays aren’t over yet!

>Time For All These Holy Moments

> Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

My cup overfloweth…. but with my nest full I’m finding little time for writing. This morning I found a window of quiet to Read. Pray. Reflect. Write.

My prayers were mostly thank yous. I love it that over and over again in Anne Lamott’s books she says her two favorite prayers are “help, help, help” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I was saying “help, help, help” a few days ago when I was preparing for Christmas, visiting my mother in Mississippi, trying not to feel guilty about not having her here with us in Memphis, and trying to let go of my obsessive-compulsive behavior that peeks at this time of year. I even considered, briefly, finding a 12-steps meeting somewhere the other day. Instead, I took a few deep breaths and said help help help and He did.

First He helped by blessing my visit with my mother last week. Her joy over the gifts I took her and just over my being there. Her growing contentment at the assisted living home she moved into almost two years ago. The relative calm in the cloud of her progressive Alzheimer’s.

Next He helped by bringing all three of my “children” home safely, Jason making it in on Christmas Eve from Wyoming. And then the joy of watching the three of them, now 25, 26 and 30, learn the new steps to the dance that siblings do when they don’t see each other but once or twice a year.

Some how (thank you thank you thank you) I was able to relax (yes-me!) and enjoy being with them and not get overly stressed by preparations. The Christmas Eve service at St. John was beautiful. Again, surrounded by my children in the pew felt like oil being poured over my head. Healing oil. And the music! Our choir sings well with the angels. Our leader, Margaret, with babe in arms, chants and directs and it’s heavenly. Thank you thank you thank you.

After the Liturgy we continued the feast in the parish hall, where we enjoyed so many visitors, like Stacy and Jared, who were here from Nashville to visit family. I loved this: two of my Goddaughters great with Child as we celebrate Christ’s birth. Hannah due any day now… having a Christmas baby. And Stacy due right around Pascha…. A double celebration of new life. Thank you thank you thank you.

Many people stayed until the wee hours of the morning, as the Feast Committee worked to set up and clean up. Ethan and Claire, Brandon and Caitlyn, Jeremy and Amy. Thank you thank you thank you.

Saint Isaac the Syrian says it so eloquently:

This Christmas night, peace was bestowed upon the whole world; so let no one threaten. This is the night of the Most Gentle One; let no one be cruel. This is the night of the Most Humble One; let no one be proud. Now is the day of joy; let us not revenge. Now is the day of goodwill; let us not be mean. In this day of peace let us not be conquered by anger….Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness. Now the Divine Being took upon Himself the seal of humanity, in order for humanity to be decorated by the seal of Divinity.

Christmas morning at our house was pretty wonderful. No “schedule.” One by one we wandered into the den from the four corners of the house. Coffee wafting up the stairs. Bubbly mimosas and Jon’s special Bloody Mary mix and the smell of bacon and cinnamon rolls was, well, intoxicating. In a good way.

Usually I’m so worried about my “list” of which casseroles need to be fixed by what time, what needs to thaw, go in the oven, the table set perfectly, etc. that I often miss the dance. Not this time. I remembered Bud Smith’s song that I listened to on the beach in November, “Let Go,” … and I did. It was like having my own private 12-steps meeting in my head. And when I let go, guess what happened? I made room for everyone else to be a part of the doings. Someone set the table. Someone mixed the sweet potato casserole together. Someone washed dishes as I assembled the marinated green beans. Someone helped arrange the Honey Baked Ham slices (well… everyone likes to mess with the ham and nibble on those crunchy brown sugar crusty pieces, you know?) and… it was peaceful.

We scaled down our gift-giving, and everyone seemed to enjoy the small goodies and surprises so much. Music is always involved, and as we took turns playing everyone’s new CDs we danced and laughed and it was magical. (Sorry, my hubby wouldn’t let me post pictures of us dancing…. Beth even caught us on her phone video-cam….. sigh.)

Because of my foot surgery in January, Beth went to Build-A-Bear and made me “Scrubby”…. She has cowgirl boots and a cowgirl hat … but also scrubs… including little scrub booties, hat, and surgical mask. I’m going to take her with me on January 8 for the surgery. She will wear a cowgirl boot on her right foot and a green bootie on her left foot… the one that’s being operated on. I’ll hug her while I’m waiting anxiously for the procedure and she’ll sit with my sweet hubbie in the waiting room until I’m done. I know he will enjoy that. Having her company while he waits for me. Can’t you just picture that? Dr. William Cushman in the waiting room at Campbell Clinic, with… “Scrubby.” Makes me smile. Everyone loves Scrubby. Even Jon.

Beth is going to the Outback Bowl in Tampa on New Year’s Day, so she found a UT hat in her stocking… as did her Dad… we’ll be watching it at home and looking for her on TV in the sea of Orange. Here’s our fearless leader … with his Saint Basil figurine (his patron saint, whose name day is January 1) and his new Energizer Bunny, which he found in his stocking. He just keeps going and going and going…

I love this picture … the Boiles gave us peronalized William Sonoma aprons… so we look like real cooks. Actually, I (not we) do cook… at least once a year… at Christmas!

After a morning of gift-opening and a huge meal at 2 pm… Beth and I went on a walk and then we all napped. Gradually everyone found their way back to the den … three laptops starting purring and leftovers got pulled out over and over and finally we watched a movie on DVD as we all recovered from too much of everything.

Just before my nap I read a few more chapters in Traveling Mercies, my current Anne Lamott read. Each chapter is a yummy essay. I loved the one called “Gypsies.” She went with friends to see a movie called Latcho Drom¸ which means “Safe Passage.” It’s a 1993 film about the Romany gypsies who traveled from India to Spain, preserving their culture through music and dance. Lamott’s reflections on the movie speak volumes about our own tribes, our own lives, and especially about the sandwich generation of women caring for aging parents and still raising children and trying to embrace middle age. A taste of Lamott’s feast of words, as she decribes these gypsy women:

The mothers, women in the last gasps of carnality, are the sandwich women, like us—taking care of their own mothers, taking care of the young. But oh, the old women dancing: the old women who shine with the incredible stirring of spirit that has kept them lit over the years, even though the winds howl all around them…. The crowd of gypsies—squatters and outlaws, outside in winter, huddled together at train stations, cold and exposed—stands around while the music begins to play. Then the old women seem to cackle, Oh, what the hell, and they start dancing. They’ve stopped chasing anything down, and you feel the rush of life force that this frees up inside them. [I love this.] Their gnarled witchy fingers are on the carotid artery of the culture, the link between the living and the dead, and in their faces and their bodies and their movement, you see the beauty of having come through…. It’s so sexy and intimate and stark that you almost have to look away… Watching the old gypsy women most carefully, of course, are the children, the girl children.

Oh, this reminds me so much of my dear friend Urania, who died on October 6. And of our dance at a wedding in August. And of her life and how all of us “girl children” especially had been watching her for years. Later Lamott describes how one of the younger girls, around twelve, practices dancing after watching the crone. She talks about the freedom of the young girl and the freedom of the crone and how hard it is to be where we are now… stuck in the middle. But also about how to get unstuck:

But if the fortune of the girl is in the newness, in being the bud, and the fortune of the crone is in the freedom, the lack of attachment or clinging, where does that leave a youngish middle-aged American woman like me? Maybe it leaves me needing to consider how wealthy I am in the knowledge that the girl of my past is still in me while a marvelous dreadlocked crone is in the future—and that I hold both of these females inside.

As I read her words on Christmas afternoon while my family napped, I realized that I wasn’t as exhausted as usual. The doing hadn’t done me in. Maybe because, as Lamott says:

…life is not about doing. The crones understand this, and it gives them all kinds of time—time to get much less done, time for all these holy moments.

Holy moments. That’s what we had in our home this Christmas. Okay, teardrops are making my computer keys slippery now… sniff. Blow. Wipe. Maybe I’ve begun to practice cronehood, as Lamott says: watch. Smile. Dance. And maybe I’ll have dreadlocks some day. But probably not. After all, she does live in California.

>Christmases Remembered

>

It’s Christmas Eve and we’re preparing for the Feast of the Nativity. At St. John Orthodox Church, we have services tonight, with feasting afterwards. So, I’ve got a pan of The Best Cornbread Dressing Ever ready for the oven and a platter of homemade fudge ready to go. And another pan of TBCDE in the fridge for our family’s feast tomorrow.

Beth is on her way to the airport to pick up Jason, flying in from FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It will be our first Christmas in a few years with everyone here, for a variety of reaons. Jon was in Iraq in 2003. Jason and Jon were both unable to travel home last year. So it’s wonderful to have 5 stockings on the mantle.

But a bit sad that it’s our first Christmas without my brother, Mike. And without Father Basil’s dad, Bud Cushman.
All this caused me to spend some time in the photo albums again this afternoon. As a result, you’re going to get a slide show of Christmases Remembered instead of lots of words on this post. Here goes:

This is me with my brother Mike in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963.

I’m 12.

Mike is 14.

We are showing great restraint not to attack the presents yet.

And here I am afterwards, I always liked to arrange my gifts around me for photo ops. Yes, another HAT. And a tiny player piano. And clothes.

Now I’m jumping ahead to 1978… Jon was a year old. This was his first vehicle…. also in Jackson, Mississippi.
Seven years later was our first Christmas with all three kids here…
Beth arrived from South Korea in November 1985.

I’m including this pix from Atlanta with Grammy Ginny and Grampy Bud…. We miss them a lot this Christmas.
1985 was also the year of the OMAGLES. Sears was selling them for $99 a set, so it was a “group gift” to all three kids. They got lots of miles out of them… building forts like this one in the den with their dad…

and vehicles like this one.

It’s hard to believe Beth had only been in this country seven weeks when these pictures were taken.

Those Omagles were amazing… the kids actually rode this vehicle down the street! We should have known then we had an engineer/architect, army pilot and air force man in our midst!
Our last Christmas in Jackson was also our first Christmas as Orthodox Christians… 1987:
yikes… that hair! The 80s…. sigh.

But the kids were cute:

1988 was our first year in Memphis…
Here’s Jon with Granny Effie.

Okay… Jason just got home so I’ll close for now..

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

>It Is What It Is

>

And What It Is is three days until Christmas.
And also the Feast Day of the Holy Martyr Anastasia, patron saint of my Goddaughter, Stacy. There’s a thread here, I promise.

Let’s start with Saint Anastasia. (You can read more about her here and here.)

Anastasia was a wealthy, beautiful maiden who visited Christians in prison in Rome, to minister to them. She was eventually martyred (†290) and since then many have been healed by her and pray to her as the “Deliverer from Potions” because she has freed people from the harmful effects of substances. I’m praying to her now to help me and others who struggle with addictions of any kind.

Or even people controlled by obsessive compulsive disorders. And for all of us who tend to get a bit stressed out trying to make everything perfect for Christmas or any other time. I’m wanting a sign like this to put up in my house to remind me how far I’ve come in this regard. Well, maybe without the cigarettes in the picture.

Okay, so I did send out Christmas cards. And visit my mother in Mississippi and take her gifts. And today I got my Christmas grocery shopping done. But my “Christmas Day Menu and Schedule for Food Prep” is much less complicated than in years past. Yes. I save the ones from other years, like these, from 1999 and 2005. But that’s not so weird.

My husband saves notes from homilies (sermons) he’s given over the years, filed on index cards by topic or Gospel passage or date or something. So when he’s running short on time to prepare a homily, he pulls out his index cards and goes from there. Works for me.

And really, my family wants pretty much the same menu every Christmas, so why re-invent the wheel?

Everything is a bit downsized this year…. Tiny tiny tiny little fake tree with lights and no ornaments.

Just brought it down from the attic and plugged it in the other day.

But we do have stockings hung… but not the usual display of St. Nicholases that we’ve collected over the years. And nothing much else around the house that’s Christmassy. Oh, but Jon and his dad (yes!) did hang the outdoor lights today! I’d take a picture but it’s raining outside. They’re the icicycle kind. I love them.

The point is I’ve done most of this BY MYSELF many years, for one reason or another. So this year I said No. I’m a full time writer and iconographer and wife and daughter and mother to three and Godmother to thirteen and I just decided it was time to slow down. And un-decorating is always such a chore… and the house is still on the market and my foot surgery is still scheduled for January 8 and… well, you get it.

So this morning I got up early, at 7 a.m., because my dear friends Sarah and Keith were leaving town for Christmas and were stopping by to swap gifts at the last minute… After they left, I sat with my coffee and read more in Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, Traveling Mercies. Every page is a treasure, but here are a couple that really helped me start my day out right:

I prayed for the stamina to bear mystery and stillness.

What a great way to say it. And yes, bearing mystery and stillness does require stamina. A different kind of stamina than the frantic energy we sometimes use when we’re trying to be perfect.

And this one:

“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” – Persian mystical poet Rumi

So I combine these two thoughts and come up with this:

“When I can be still enough to bear mystery, in the midst of the messiness of life, I can find the treasure.”

Here we are, at the end of this post, with you waiting for me tie the thread of these thoughts together.

It is what it is.

The phrase I learned from my precious God daughter, Stacy, who is celebrating her Name Day today. Because of the wisdom and example of people like Stacy, I’m learning to accept the ruin and believe there’s a treasure to be found. Thank you, Stacy, and Happy Name Day!

>My Life

>On August 6, I wrote my second ever blog post and called it “These Are My People.” Because I was taking another big step towards re-embracing my roots by attending the first Mississippi Writers Guild Conference in Clinton, Mississippi.

Since then I’ve returned over and over to (Oxford) Mississippi for monthly meetings of my writers critique group, workshops, and regular visits to my mother, who lives in an assisted living home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. She’s at a stage with her Alzheimers where she’s more comfortable staying in her “small world” at Ridgeland Pointe rather than coming up to Memphis for Christmas, so I made a pre-Christmas trip to see her this week. More about that later in this post.

First I want to talk about reconnecting with my best friend from childhood. Jan and I became best friends in 1960 when her family moved to Jackson from Memphis. We were 8 and 9 years old. (I’m one year older.) Last night I searched for photo albums but couldn’t find the ones that showed us at Daphne, Alabama, where her family owned a summer home on the Mobile Bay. They taught me to water ski. And crab. And play poker. And eat homemade pickled watermelon rinds (the best). We haven’t seen eachother much since 1969, when I went to college. Except that she was Maid of Honor in my wedding in 1970. (Yes, I already loved hats!) We were 18 and 19. Then our paths pretty much parted for most of 37 years. She lived and worked in Atlanta, DC, and Nashville. Until she moved back to Jackson to take care of her mom, one of my mom’s best friends, a few years ago. (Her mom also had Alzheimers, and died in 2006.)

Oh, and she came to my brother’s funeral on February 1, 2007. And we started emailing more frequently. Her dad lives in Memphis (he’s 84) so when she called to ask me a favor the other day (to run some faxed papers out to his apartment) she invited me to stay with her when I came down to see Mom. She lives about a mile from Mom. So, I said yes.

What a trip down memory lane. As I walked down the hall to her guest room, I stopped in my tracks, captivated by the photos on the wall. Pictures of me when I was 9 or 10, on a ski boat at Daphne. (That’s me, with the criss-cross straps on the back of my swim suit. A picture of a picture, hanging on the wall, so the quality is pretty bad.) Pictures of my parents when they were young and beautiful, also on a boat, on the deck and in the cabin at Daphne, in the late 50s. My mom was always wearing HATS! I didn’t remember that about her. Of course, it was the 50s, and maybe lots of women wore hats then.

Jan and I were cheerleaders together in junior high school. But mostly I remember the fun, crazy times at her house. They had a pool table. And her stepfather would stay up all night with all us kids, cooking steak at 2 in the morning and playing games with us. It was the antithesis of my home, where everything was always so uptight. So… we drank wine and talked about the good and the bad things about our childhoods. And how sometimes they were the same thing. Because people aren’t all good or all bad. Just all human.

This is a fuzzy picture taken by her TV repairman (yes) on Wednesday night at her house. We both look just a bit older than we did back in 1970, you think? Sigh. And we’re both looking so much like our mothers. (a good thing)

Oh, and the next day Jan came to Mom’s apartment and visited with her, which thrilled Mom, once she figured out who Jan was. Jan will visit her again on Christmas Day, since I’ll have a house full here in Memphis. What a treasure to rediscover this dear friend so many years later. She’s My People.

Pre-Christmas with Mom was really fun. I took her some Ugg boots (I love them!) because her feet are always cold and she loved them and wore them around the facility showing them off. After lunch the daughter of another resident was playing the piano in the upstairs lobby, so we gathered around and sang and danced to her beautiful Christmas music. This is me and mom with her best friend, Elizabeth (in red). And with the piano-playing daughter (who lives in Los Angelos and came home to see her mother for Christmas) and another resident here. Yes. LA. Makes me feel better about living 200 miles from Mom!

Sitting in her apartment earlier, Mom had said, “I’m really happy here.” (She’s been in assisted living almost two years.) I can’t remember her ever, ever saying those words. “I’m happy.” That was probably the best Christmas present I could ever receive.

Driving back to Memphis yesterday afternoon, I was listening to one of my Iris Dement CDs, “My Life,” and especially to the cover song, “My Life,” when a dear friend called in tears. One of her children had a medical emergency and she was asking for my prayers. It always seems that the Christmas holidays are charged with more intensity about family situations. I think she mainly needed some comfort. I don’t know if my words helped her or not, but I hope so. Iris’ song says how I feel about my friends… and my mother. They save me from myself. Over and over again. You can listen to it here.

My life, it’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that never turned out right…

But I gave joy to my mother
And I made my lover smile
I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting,
I can make it seem better for a while.

>Icons Will Save the World

>

Today my article, “Icons Will Save the World” is appearing on the website of First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life. To read the article, click on the link here and then click on the brown square on the left side of the page that says “Read Our Daily Article.”

I have a listing at http://www.iconofile.com/ for my studio, Mandorla Icon Studio. On the Iconofile website, click on “Resource Guide” and then “Icons-Instruction” and also “Icons-Hand-Painted.” Iconofile lists a number of iconographers, workshops, etc. And they sell good pigments and other supplies. I’ve been to one of the workshops they sponsor and learned much from the instructors and from George O’Hanlon, Iconofle’s founder.

The icon at right is similar to the one that is described in the article at First Things… in the scene where the woman is sitting in the nave looking at the icon of Christ on the cross.
A few more icons that I have painted are included in this post, which will be short on words so that you’ll have time to read the article at First Things.

Leave me a comment here (by clicking on comments at the end of this post and then signing in and leaving your comment) … or email me at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com.

My next icon workshop will be at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis March 27-30. It’s currently full (10 students) but if you’d like to be on a waiting list, drop me an email and let me know.

These students just finished an icon of the Mother of God.

Thanks for reading!

>Giving Voice to Hopes and Fears

>Why do we read books about people whose lives are broken by addiction, abuse, disabilities, tragedy, and even garden-variety dysfunction? Well, sure, some folks are just drawn to the sensational… the way people rush to the scene of a car wreck or a fire. I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (books or movies) but I get it. The rush. I just like to get my kicks without the dark, scary stuff, thank you.

But reading books about how people deal with their brokenness isn’t about getting kicks. At least it’s not for me. It’s about gaining clarity about my own life and the lives of those I am close to. It’s about the bond we share with other imperfect people. It’s also about the hope we often gain from the stories of people who are fighting or have fought battles similar to our own.

Writers who can get this message across with fiction are just brilliant. I think. To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s so much there for all of us. And sure, Harper Lee brought her own life experiences and relationships and acquaintances and family stuff into the work. But it’s fiction. Some one said that Pat Conroy has made a cottage industry out of writing fiction books about his own broken family. The Prince of Tides is my all time favorite. Not just because it’s a beautiful literary work. And it is. But also because it deals with some hard issues but also gives us hope. For healing.

The other day I was reading some craft essays on the Brevity website and found a link to an interview with Sue William Silverman, author of Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and other memoirs. Williams said she was drawn to memoir, as a genre, because “it helps me to better understand, mainly through metaphor, the connections between events in my life. Metaphor gives these events a shape, an organization. By ‘collecting’ all my words on pieces of paper, my life becomes a tangible entity that I can hold in my hands, look at, and think: Yes, this is my life. I see it now.”

In my own writing journey, I’ve been recently drawn to creative nonfiction. In fact, I’ve registered for a memoir-writing workshop at the University of Mississippi in February/March. For some of the same reasons Silverman was drawn to it. Here’s a bit more of her history:

Back in the early 1980s, shortly after I began to write, I met a woman I’ll call Lisa at a writers’ conference in Houston. She had recently published an autobiographical novel about her autistic son. I was in awe of her…. But how quickly I was disillusioned when I learned Lisa’s book ha not received a “Times” review. She had not flown to New York City to meet the literati. Instead, she described giving a reading at a conference on autism. How touched she was, she told me to share her experience with other parents of autistic children, touched because she’d giving voice to their hopes and fears.

Silverman wanted to write fiction. She continues here:

From 1980 to 1992, I wrote five (or six) bad novels. I received a MFA degree in creative writing. I published a handful of short stories. Nevertheless, with every bad novel I churned out, I knew I was learning how to write…as much as I feared I didn’t have a voice with which to tell my stories….. I never considered that my own truths could be heard, that my real life was important, that a woman’s story could be art.

That a woman’s story could be art.

Silverman struggled with some ethical issues that I struggle with. About writing, publically, about personal, family stuff. After her parents died, she felt safer about writing about some of her family history. Her therapist encouraged her to tell her story. So she did…. and there was good news and bad news….

But then, amazingly, the moment I began to write I heard my real voice. I felt as if I’d just learned to speak.

You can read the rest of the story here, at her web site. The “bad news” about how women’s “confessional writing” often isn’t taken seriously. Or it’s bashed by the media. She gives advice on promoting your work once you write it. And she reflects on the strokes she gets from real people who are encouraged by her work:

While women memoirists wait for our metaphors to be appreciated, for our work to be judged on literary merit, for our stories to be taken seriously, we must never overlook our equally important and much more heartfelt reviews. I received reviews in whispered phone calls from women who have read my books and need to make a connection. I receive reviews in handwritten notes from women barely holding on, thanking me for giving a voice to their own stories.

Silverman’s story is fueling the fire of this long, hard look I’ve been giving the fiction novel I just spent close to a year writing. Revising. Revising again. And again. It might still have potential as a novel. Maybe even a good one. But it might just be that writing it has been part of learning to write. If I can’t find the right voice for Caroline (in the novel)… maybe I need to give voice to some of my own stories. Write memoirs. Or to other people’s stories, in the form of creative nonfiction.

But oh, it’s hard to leave The Sweet Carolines in that drawer. Maybe I won’t abandon them forever. Maybe I’ll learn how to write them better if I tell my own stories first. Maybe. This cartoon from The New Yorker shows how I invision myself trying to sell these stories someday! I’ve drafted two chapters of Oreo Finds Her Voice (Oreo is my 18-year-old cat)… but so far I don’t think it’s working…. we’ll see.

Tonight I went to the last of our church’s Monday night services during the Nativity Fast… the weeks leading up to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation. These services, as I described here, are called Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God.

Just standing in the candle-lit nave, chanting, praying, singing, and listening, reminds me of how the Real Life of this Real Woman changed the course of history for the world. And the more I draw near to Her, the more She changes me.

The Orthodox Church has its own Christmas music. It’s beautiful. We sang a few of those hymns tonight. But as I was leaving the church, it was a hymn from my childhood that came to me, and reminded me of what I wanted to write about on my blog tonight. It was these words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The hopes and fears. Because Real Life is full of fears. But it can also be full of hope. Henri J. M. Nouwen, one of my favorite Catholic writers, says, in The Wounded Healer:

Man tries to find in his inner life a connection with the “reality of the unseen,” “the source of being,” the “point of silence.” There he discovers that what is most personal is most universal (cf. Rogers’ On Becoming a Person. Houghton Mifflin, 1961, p. 26). Beyond the superficial laylers of idiosyncrasies, psychological differences and characterological typologies, he finds a center from which he can embrace all other beings at once and experience meaningful connections with all that exists…. There he experiences himself no longer as an isolated individual caught in the diaboli chain of cause and effect, but as a man able to transcend the fences of his own predicament and reach out far beyond the concerns of self. There he touches the place where all people are revealed to him as equal and wehre compassion becomes a human possibility.

In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.

That’s what I want my writing to be. That’s what books like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies are for me. It’s the next in the line of her nonfiction/memoir books that I’m reading. In fact, that’s where I’m heading now… to soak up some more thoughts on faith….
I’d love to hear your comments on books–fiction or nonfiction–that have given voice to your hopes or fears. That have made you feel connected rather than isolated in your own struggles. Leave me a comment here, or email me at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com. Good night.

>Once You Know Where True Is

>I started to name this blog post “Manic in Memphis.” I was looking for something catchy like “Sleepless in Seattle” and didn’t want to spend an hour on the title for my blog post. The deal is, I couldn’t sleep at all on Tuesday night. Went to bed at 11:30 or so… tossed and turned until 1:45 a.m. Got up and went to the den, lit the fire, and sat on the couch reading until about 4. Tried to write. Tried to pray. Cried a little bit. And finally just sat still. Fighting back thoughts. Have you ever tried to not think? Poured a glass of sherry at 3. Another at 4. Finally crawled back into bed at 6:15, just before my husband’s alarm would be going off for the day. Maybe I slept a little on and off between 6:30 and 9:00 a.m., when I finally got back up for the day.

Insomnia is an old friend. I took tranquilizers when I was a child. To sleep. Mom called them my “worry pills.” When I was in my twenties I had trouble sleeping. Another wave of it hit me in my early 40s. But I’ve had a good decade and a half of sound sleep. So when it visited me again Tuesday night, I was miffed. A fluke, I thought. Until it happened again on Thursday night.

This time I went out into the den around 1:30, I grabbed a book and a blanket and sat in my chair reading. Then I closed the book and closed my eyes and just sat. Staring at the fire and Oreo (my cat) and my undecorated mantle and room empty of a Christmas tree. My eyes searched for a visual snack and at last found our Christmas card “tree” on the kitchen counter, filled with cards and photos of friends. And then it hit me. I was anxious.

It was less than two weeks before Christmas and I had so much to do. My three grown children would be coming home in shifts, starting today … and the final exits would be January 4. Other relatives would be visiting after Christmas. Somewhere into the mix there would be a trip to Jackson, Mississippi to visit my mom in her assisted living home. She doesn’t like to leave it any more.

New Year’s Day we always host an open house. January 1 is also the Feast Day of Saint Basil the Great, my husband’s patron saint. Lots of folks come and watch football, play games, eat, drink, laugh. It’s wonderful, but lots of work to prepare for.

Then on January 8 is the foot surgery and a month of convalescing. Followed by writing workshops in February and the icon workshop I’m teaching in March and the house is still for sale and… yes, all of this is why I can’t sleep. Or… maybe my obsessing about all of this is why I can’t sleep. You think?

A couple of years ago I went to a Twelve-Step program three times a week, for about six months. I remember when it got close to holidays, especially Christmas, everyone would start getting nervous. People shared their coping mechanisms. Some left town. One woman hung a sign up on her front door for visiting family members: “Check your baggage here before entering.” They talked about having “boundaries” so they could survive. They passed around a “hot line” of phone numbers to call when people needed help. All this to survive Christmas. Not to celebrate it.

I talked with a friend about the anxiety. And with my husband. They both helped me figure out that I was buying into the old lie that I’ve believed most of my life, that what I do defines who I am. So if I “do” Christmas (or whatever) perfectly I am a good person. A good wife. A good mother. A good friend. A good hostess. A good daughter. Of course no one can “do” Christmas (or anything else) perfectly. But we can “be.” Be authentic, that is.

I’ve been reading some creative nonfiction essays and books and articles, and also a novel, Blue Shoe, by Anne Lamott. Her memoirs are amazing, so I decided to try one of her novels. Part of my journey to figure out what I really want to write (fiction or nonfiction). But the novel, Blue Shoe, has wisdom in it. The way fiction can contain truth, can show it, in a universal way. Like Arlo and Janis, you know?

Mattie, the protagonist in the book, is a lot like me. She’s a mess. She’s trying to take care of so many people, including her mother, who’s getting dementia and she has to move her to “Personal Care” from her independent living apartment. She describes those struggles with amazing clarity. She learns to love herself and others as they are when everything seems to be falling apart. She lets herself be human. She sees the beauty in the brokenness.

For example, at one point her friend Daniel who is a construction worker, is helping her make some repairs, starting with building a new fence for her yard. He teaches her children, Harry and Ella, how to use a level to get the posts straight. He says, “Now that we know these posts are level and true, everything can be measured from them. Once you know where true is, it defines everything else that has to happen.”

Once you know where true is. There’s the rub. Finding true. I wish it was as easy as using a level. But often it involves more than that. It involves sitting still and listening. It involves suffering. It involves clearing the rubbish to get to the good stuff. It involves letting things be what they are, and more importantly, letting people be who they. And being authentic with each of them.

Sy Safransky, editor of The Sun, says,

in an editorial in the December issue:

So, how do I keep my passion alive?

By recognizing the difference between something that’s genuinely important and something that merely clamors for my attention….

By living as authentically as possible, which means not turning one face to my readers and another to my co-workers and another to my friends….

By allowing hope to rise in me; that’s the nature of hope….

By reminding myself regularly of The Sun’s motto: “What is to give light must endure burning.” I doubt that those words would mean much to me if they’d been written by a young poet who’d just returned from a weekend vision quest. But they were written by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who, with his wife and parents, was deported to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. As Frankl was transferred from camp to camp, his wife, his father, his mother, and virtually everyone else in his immediate family were killed by the Nazis. The suffering he experienced and witnessed taught him that even in his most painful and dehumanizing situations, life has meaning, and therefore even suffering is meaningful.

I knew that. That suffering is meaningful. I’ve learned it over and over through the years. But I still do everything possible in life to avoid suffering. To avoid unpleasant interactions with people. To avoid painful self-knowledge. But all these “activities” sometimes come back to bite me in the butt… this time, in the form of insomnia.

Yesterday I went to lunch with my husband and told him some of what I was thinking about all of this. He doesn’t get anxious. Ever. And he always uses a level. Even to hang a picture. Yes. Always. Every time we move, I quickly hang up all the pictures while he’s at work because I can’t stand to do it his way. With a level. It’s so slow. So, at one point I told him about a quote from Blue Shoe where Mattie tells Daniel something her therapist has told her:

You should go only as fast as the slowest part of you could go.

I looked at my husband of thirty-seven years and said, “You know, I do the opposite of that. I go as fast as the fastest part of me can go. And then I end up dragging the slower parts of me behind like tin cans tied to the back of the get-away car at our wedding.”

He smiled across the table, laughed gently (baby blues eyes twinkling) and said, “and the rest of us, too.”

We both laughed and then I thought, catch me if you can.

Mattie gets like this, in the book. I love this part:

Mattie sat at the table, obsessing, orbiting around herself. She was sick of her worried, hostile mind. It would have killed her a long time before, she felt, if it hadn’t needed the transportation.

That’s probably how my mind feels about me sometimes. It’s just along for the ride. Or how my soul feels about the way I treat its home… my body. I don’t give it enough rest. Or exercise. Or healthy foods. So, my mind and my soul are both crying out and saying slow down! Wait for us!

I slept really good last night. When I woke up the phone was ringing. It was Jonathan, our 30-year-old. He’s driving home from upstate New York to spend two and a half weeks with us before his deployment to Iraq. He’s driving through the snow and ice storm. By 8 a.m. he had made it just south of Cincinatti and was calling in a blinding blizzard to ask us to look at the Weather Channel online and see what he should expect. He had another 100 miles or so of bad stuff before making it into central Kentucky. Then he’d have mainly rain the rest of the way. We’ve talked with him several times this morning. Once, when he was going only 30 mph, a woman passed him going about 60. He was tempted. (Jon and I both hate to drive slow.) But he made himself go slow. A little while later he passed the same woman. She was off the highway in a ditch. A lesson in what he already knew, to only go as fast as the slowest part of you can go. In this case, his tires on the ice.

Thank you, God, for helping him know this. Please bring him home safely. And please help me be level and true when he gets here. Maybe he’ll help me decorate the house for Christmas. If I can only slow down enough to let him catch up with me.

>These Boots Were Made For….

>

…. walking. Dancing would also be nice. But even wearing would be good. My cowboy boots, pictured here. The ones I got in Santa Fe a few years ago. The ones that I can’t wear because of the bunion on my right foot. And the arthritis that’s causing my big toe extreme pain and curvature… it’s starting to turn under the toe next to it.

You can see it here… with my feet coming up out of the waters of the Aegean Sea in October… when I was swimming on a beach on the island of Patmos. And here…. just standing here doing nothing. Or so it would seem.

If boots were the only issue, I wouldn’t mind so much. I can still wear my Crocs. And my Uggs. I do miss my running shoes though… and serious exercise. Well, I don’t really miss the exercise, but my body does… and I’m putting on weight and my arthritis is getting worse because of the lack of exercise. Because the running shoes hurt the bunion.

When did I get so old? My best friend from elementary school, who was Maid of Honor in my wedding (in 1970) is having a bunionectomy this month. Yes. Another good friend is considering surgery for foot problems. My housekeeper called in sick this week because of—you guessed it—foot surgery. What’s a girl to do?

I thought about moving to the beach, where I wouldn’t have to ever wear anything but flip-flops. On my feet, that is.

The problem is, the pain is there even when I’m not wearing shoes. Like someone pushing a nail through my foot. Just any time, unexpectedly. A normal toe looks like the drawing on the left. Mine looks like the one on the right.

So on January 8 I’m doing it. I’m going under the knife. I’m having surgery for hallux rigidus. A form of degenrative arthritis. That’s what’s happening to my big toe. But guess what? The smart folks at Campbell Clinic are going to fix it. If I like the results, I’m thinking I’ll get the right foot done next. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

This series of illustrations shows the problem caused by the bunion, how they’re going to fix it. They said I’d be in a cast for a month, then a “soft shoe” for a month, and then, get this, “by the third month you can wear two-inch heels if you want to.”

My cowboy boots are only 1 ½ inches, so that’ll work.

Of course I did some reading about the surgery and recovery. Here.

And then friends are so helpful. Like the one who told me about her friend who had foot surgery and was in more pain afterwards than before.

And another friend who said she went to visit her aunt, who had had the surgery, and when she walked into the room she saw this metal pin sticking out of her aunt’s big toe and she fainted. It’s enought to make me cancel my subscription to AARP the Magazine.

I’m really a wimp and these stories would usually be enough to make me chicken out. But I remember my grandmother’s feet. My father’s mother. Her big toes turned completely under the toes next to them. Her bunions were huge and ugly and she could only wear bedroom slippers during her last years of life.

Genetics are interesting. My father, the son of the grandmother with the bad feet, had perfect feet . He ran marathons until he was 68, with no pain in his feet. Ever. New York. Boston. Trained hundreds of runners at the business he and my mother owned in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1982-1997, Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports. No bunions. No arthritis. But he didn’t wear pointy-toed shoes in junior high school. And he go didn’t go dancing in high heels like these… ever. I guess we reap what we sow. And I can’t help but notice yet another generation of girls and young women out there looking great in those high heels (with their blue jeans, even) and thinking if I was in med school, I’d go into orthopedics and specialize in bunionectomies….

But hey! I’m going to put a big happy face on my calendar on the square for March 8, 2008. Three reasons:

(1) On March 8, 2008 I’ll celebrate seven years free of cancer. Yep. I had surgery for endometrial cancer on that date in 2001.

(2) And on March 8, 2008, I’ll be two months post-op foot surgery. It will be the day I should be able to wear my cowboy boots again. And go dancing. Oooh! That was scary. Let’s try this one. Okay… maybe I’ll just celebrate by wearing my boots to the movies….

(3) March 8, 2008 will be my 57th birthday…. sigh.
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