>Southern Writers Quiz #1, Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford, and Beach Reads

>One of the little treasures I found at Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter recently was this little paperback from 1999 called The Southern Writers Quiz Book by Patti Carr Black. (Patti was the former director of the Old Capitol Museum of Mississippi History in Jackson, Mississippi. You can read about her and her publications here .)

And this is one of those very SMALL WORLD stories: I noticed that the (delightful) illustrations in the book were done by Patti Henson. I’ve been trying to chase her down, because there was a Patti Henson in my class all the way through junior and senior high school. So, today I found her! Here’s her senior picture from high school (left). We just got off the phone together. I remember that Patti was one of the “serious” artists in our senior art class in high school, but we did work together on stage scenery that year. We just had a great “phone reunion” and I hope to see her some time when I’m in Jackson to visit my mom. She’s done a few book covers and other graphic design work, and has recently gotten into watercolor. I hope to see more of her work some day. Here’s Patti, when we were seniors in high school, working on stage scenery (right).

So… I enjoyed the book on the beach in Gulf Shores so much I decided to share some of the quizzes on my blog from time to time, beginning with this one. Since we just drove through parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama before returning to Tennessee, I’m feeling the vibes of these writers and their hometowns.

Match these Southern writers and the towns associated with them, either as their birthplaces or the places where they later lived and worked:

1. Lillian Hellman
2. Ellen Glasgow
3. Elizabeth Roberts
4. Katherine Anne Porter
5. Flannery O’Connor
6. Eudora Welty

7. Conrad Aiken
8. Kate Chopin
9. William Faulkner
10. Thomas Wolfe
11. Marjoorie Rawlings
12. Richard Wright
13. William Styron
14. Joan Williams
15. Carson McCullers
16. Walker Percy
17. James Agee
18. Shelby Foote
19. James Dickey
20. Willie Morris
And the towns to match the authors with:
a. Natchez, Mississippi
b. Memphis, Tennessee
c. Newport News, Virginia
d. Oxford, Mississippi
e. Greenville, Mississippi
f. Cross Creek, Florida
g. Savannah, Georgia
h. Milledgeville, Georgia
i. Knoxville, Tennessee
j. Atlanta, Georgia
k. Covington, Louisiana
l. Richmond, Virginia
m. Jackson, Mississippi
n. Yazoo City, Mississippi
0. Columbus, Georgia
p. Springfield, Kentucky
q. Cloutierville, Louisiana
r. New Orleans, Louisiana
s. Indian Creek, Texas
t. Asheville, North Carolina
I’ll post the answers on my next blog so you can see how well you did!
And speaking of Southern writers… one week from today I’ll be back in Oxford for the 2008 Yoknapatawpha Summers Writers Workshop . The faculty is shaping up wonderfully, including my favorite poet, Beth Ann Fennelly, Neal Walsh (last year’s critique moderator, a graduate of the Ole Miss MFA program, now at LSU), and others. You can still register (and send a writing sample) through Monday, June 2. This is the workshop (last year) that I met my friends Doug, Patti, Herman and Tom, and the five of us formed the Yoknapatawpha Writers Group. We’ve been meeting monthly since last August, critiquing each other’s work and having a great time together.

It’s almost June, so I thought I’d include something in this post about “beach reads.” We’ve already been to the beach, and I enjoyed Elizabeth Dewberry’s book, Break the Heart of Me, which I also got at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans. Actually I bought two of Dewberry’s books, which are novels based on aspects of her life. The other one is His Lovely Wife, which I haven’t started yet.

If you want some suggestions from authors, check out “Best Summer Books” in the June issue of Real Simple: “Ten beloved top-selling authors share their favorite lazy-summer day reads.” The books are sorted into categories: one-day reads, books for a long weekend, and books to savor all summer. Some of the authors who share their beach read suggestions are Augusten Burroughs, Jackie Collins, Elizabeth Gilbert and Jodi Picoult, so there’s a diverse offering.

So… happy summer reading!

And writing! Remember to register for the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop HERE … by Monday!

Have a great weekend. And if you didn’t have a chance to comment on Tuesday’s blog—The End of Art?—just scroll down to the next post and spend a little time with it. I really appreciate the 160 people who visited the blog, and especially everyone’s comments.

>The End of Art?

>There’s a thought-provoking article in the June-July issue of First Things by Roger Kimball called “The End of Art.” You have to have a subscription to read it online, so if you’ve got one, sign in and click on the article, “The End of Art.” If not, I’ll try to quote enough of the article so you can get the thread of the post, and hopefully contribute! Please leave me a comment at the end, or email me at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com.

This is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, since I’m an artist, an iconographer, a writer and sometimes, a (very mediocre) poet. And while I’m being those things, I’m an Orthodox Christian. Why don’t I call myself a “Christian writer” or “Christian artist”? Because not everything I write or paint is “religious.” This is a distinction that I think many Protestant Evangelicals don’t make. There is much in their realm that is considered “Christian art” or “Christian literature,” etc. And many of them do call themselves “Christian artists” or “Christian writers.” But like Madeleine L’Engle, I prefer to say that I am a Christian who is also an artist and a writer. Here’s why the distinction matters:

When I sit down to write an essay, or continue work on my memoir-in-progress, or paint a whimsical watercolor, I do not have as my purpose the goal of evangelizing or preaching. My goal is to do good work. It’s for the work to touch someone else’s heart, soul, emotions. To elicit a response, yes. But not to try to direct how that response might be. At the same time, the fact that I’m an Orthodox Christian infuses the work. It’s just who I am.

The same would be true if my work were in another field, like science or education or business. Hopefully my spirituality would come through there, as well… in the form of a morality and work ethic, as well as an Orthodox Christian world view. But the work itself would not necessarily be “Christian.”

I tend to agree with W. H. Auden, as Kimball quoted him in “The End of Art,” saying, “There can no more be a ‘Christian’ art than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work.”

But the one arena in which this differs, for me, is iconography. Iconography differs from art in that it is specifically liturgical art. Its form belongs to the Church. I thought it was interesting that Kimball paraphrased the Welsh Catholic Poet David Jones as saying that “We have no specifically Catholic art… any more than we have a ‘Catholic science of hydraulic, a Catholic vascular system, or a Catholic equilateral triangle.’”

But I believe that iconography is specifically Orthodox art, just as traditional designs for Orthodox churches is Orthodox architecture, and the music used in our worship is Orthodox music.

But an architect who designs Orthodox Churches and monasteries, for example, can also design a residential home or a commercial business, and those designs would not be “Orthodox” or “Christian,” although they might be designed by an Orthodox Christian.

Okay, maybe this is too much “back story” for the point I’m trying to make here, but I think it’s necessary as we move forward into Kimball’s essay. Near the beginning he says:

“Traditionally, the goal of fine art was to make beautiful objects. The idea of beauty came with a lot of Platonic and Christian metaphysical baggage, some of it indifferent or even hostile to art. But art without beauty was, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a description of failed art.”

So he begins with beauty. But quickly shows how art (in his opinion) has moved away from beauty as it has championed innovation in contemporary art with “a tired repetition of gestures inaugurated by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, creator of the first bottle-rack masterpiece and the first urinal fountain.”

He quotes Leo Tolstoy (from What is Art) as saying that “art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost.” And that was in the 1890s!

Kimball says that there’s still good art today, but it is “rarely touted at the Chelsea galleries, celebrated in the New York Times, or featured in the trendier precincts of the art world. The serious art of today tends to be a quiet affair, off to the side and out of the limelight.”

He doesn’t say what or where he thinks this serious art is, and I’d sure like to know. Instead he delves into concerns that art can “counterfeit beauty in lieu of revealing it.” Quoting Iris Murdoch: “Art is dangerous, chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”

This is what I think much so-called “Christian art” does. Whereas iconography is spiritual. And “good art” doesn’t try to be something it’s not. But the place or purpose of art in the world today is defined according to one’s world view, one’s spirituality.

Kimball goes into considerable detail about the affect of the Renaissance and Romanticism on art, and later about how man’s Promethean nature—his emergence as a second god, as someone whose goal is to create something from nothing—has affected art.

“When human reason is made the measure of reality, beauty forfeits its ontological claim and becomes merely aesthetic—merely a matter of feeling.”

Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter (in my opinion)… this business of evoking feeling. Dr. Andrew Louth, in his essay, “Orthodoxy and Art” (in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World,) speaks to this issue:
“The Orthodox are defensive about the aesthetic because they feel, quite rightly, that the whole realm of the aesthetic is something immensely seductive. There is a danger that their own appreciation of the importance of beauty will be drawn into a way of looking at things that is fundamentally at variance with Orthodoxy itself.”

When I first read that, I was afraid that Louth was going to diss art completely. But then I read further. Louth makes an argument for an Eastern Christian justification for art, starting with his answer to this issue of an artist being a creator:
“For the notion that the artist is essentially creative has scarcely any roots in the Tradition that is the treasury and touchstone of Orthodox theological reflection. It is something that has grown out of the ideas of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement—all movements of thought and sensibility that bypassed the historical continuity of Orthodox Christianity…. The truth is not that Orthodoxy is an answer to the West’s problems, but that Orthodoxy transcends those problems altogether. So with icons and art: the truth is not that icons are a more satisfying form of religious art than Western art has been able to evolve…. The truth is rather that if icons are art, then this poses questions about the very nature of art that are quit different from those that have come to be taken as fundamental in the experience of the West.”

Yes. This is something I’ve tried to explain time and time again but I just don’t have the vocabulary for it. (I quoted from Louth’s essay in my article, “Icons Will Save the World,” which was published online at First Things in December, 2007.)
Quoting fom Hermann Broch’s novel, The Death of Virgil, where Broch says that the real artist “hears the call beyond the border….” Louth says that Broch gives us a different way of looking at artists (which includes poets and writers): “…as a seer, on who has glimpsed beyond the everyday, rather than as a creative personality.”
So, in Louth’s opinion, what does the artist do?
“He makes something: a poem, a painting, a musical work. He makes something that moves in the realm of the imagination and appeals to the memory.”
Like Kimball, Louth quotes the poet, David Jones, who explains the incarnational nature of art, tying his wisdom in with St. John of Damascus (who wrote On the Divine Images, in defense of icons.) And then he ties it all together:
“Art is important; it is concerned with things; it makes of these things signs or symbols whence they derive meaning….And perhaps it is this very capacity to make and use signs—which is the premise of art—that reveals our condition as created in the image of God.”

So, when someone (Christian or not) writes a poem, or a book, or paints a picture, they are making and using signs, and revealing their condition. Kimball agrees at this juncture, I think:
“Without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself; it is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive; but aesthetic experience itself degenerates into a kind of fetish or idol if it is held up as an end in itself….”

One doesn’t have to look far to see this in society today, with the profusion of pornography, which has done just that—made an idol of the image… or really, of a bad representation of the image. A few months ago, Andrew Williams, a student at Holy Cross Seminary, interviewed me for a practicum report he did for his Church History Class: “The importance of venerating the image: can iconography help defeat the power of pornography?” One interesting aspect of his report deals with the way pornography damages the image of God within each of us:

“So while iconography leads us into the communion of heaven, pornography destroys the communion designed by God for the human person as an icon of Christ, separates the image from the full personal reality of the person portrayed therein, and separates the sexual impulse from the essential aspect of communion for which it was created. Unsurprisingly, the end result of this is to damage pornography user’s ability to experience any level of communion. As one of the women interviewed by Pamela Paul (Pornified, New York, NY 2005) put it, “I don’t know any man who is into porn who has been able to be truly intimate.”

This might seem like a big rabbit trail in a blog post about the end of art, but I think Andrew’s thesis can be applied to other realms of what Kimball calls degenerate art… “art that has become a caricature of itself.” I think pornography is what happens when art degenerates to its lowest point. For those caught up in it, it truly is the end of art… and maybe the end of communion for that person, with God, with others, even with himself.

So how do we preserve true art, and the beauty that Dostoevsky said would save the world? I’m hoping to hear from some readers on this—please leave a comment by clicking on “comments” below… or if you’d rather, send me an email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com and let me know if it’s okay to publish your comment.

>Triple Threat or Hat Trick?

>If you’re not an Orthodox Christian, what I’m about to say might sound very strange. But every now and then, the liturgical calendar for the Orthodox Church deals out what could be considered a “triple threat”…. or maybe a “hat trick,” depending upon your personal ability to sustain three significant commemorations at one time. Kind of like keeping several balls in the air at once, without dropping any of them. A liturgical juggling act. That’s what we did today, on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman. Which is also the day we commemorate the Third Discovery of the Head of the Forerunner and Baptist John, and the day known as “Midfeast”—which marks the half-way point between Pascha and Pentecost.

I realized what we were in for at Great Vespers last night, when the hymns and verses introduced all three elements of the liturgical day, which, for Orthodox, begins at sunset the evening before. The choir added a few verses about John the Baptist that weren’t in our hand-outs, and omitted some that were… a sign that some last-minute juggling might be going on. See, if we were in a monastery, rather than a parish church, nothing would be left out. The services would just be longer, to include all the verses for every event and person being commemorated. For most of us lay people with varying degrees of spiritual ADD, that would be a “triple threat,” for sure! But for lovers of lengthy services or even sinners like me who on any given Sunday might have a hankering for this amazing poetry (yes)… it can, indeed, be a spiritual “hat trick.”

At Ninth Hour Saturday night, we sang:

In the middle of the Feast, O Saviour, fill my thirsting soul with the waters of godliness, as Thou didst cry to all: If anyone thirst let him come to me and drink! O Christ God, Fountain of our life, glory to Thee.

This theme of “thirst” was reiterated at Liturgy this morning, with this verse (among others) to Saint Photini, the “Woman at the Well,” or the Samaritan Woman:

When the compassionate Lord came to the well,
The Samaritan woman asked him, saying,
Give me the water of faith, O Giver of life
That I may take the water of baptism for delight and for salvation;
O Lord, glory to Thee.

I’ve been thirsty recently. Maybe because I’ve felt a little depressed, emotionally. And a little lonely, socially. Some of that is just a writer’s life, and I accept that. And some of it is kind of a spiritual “cycle” that I seem to move in, because of my immaturity, or maybe my love of the flesh, or both. I told a friend the other day that I was needing to seek Christ’s face, and not just reflections of Him in myself. So I went to my church on Friday and sat in the nave for a while to pray. Sure, you can seek Christ anywhere. But sometimes you can get a clearer view in Church. So I listened to the prayers (Sixth Hour Prayers were being prayed) and tried to join in with my heart and voice… and took deep breaths, wanting to smell the incense… to be reminded that our prayers arise in His sight as incense. And it was like a glass of cold water on a hot and thirsty day.

Now I’m stretching to find a segue here … feeling a need for symmetry… for my blog post to follow the hat trick theme throughout. So… I’ll throw three balls up in the air and see what happens: here goes: whoosh—liturgical and spiritual stuff…whoosh—New York Times articles… whoosh—poetry.

As I write these words, I’m thinking about an article I read in today’s New York Times Magazine by Emily Gould, called “Exposed.” It’s about her experiences as a blogger, and eventually her job as an editor at Gawker. I cringed as I read some of her words, because they reminded me of how I feel sometimes when I’m blogging:

I think most people who maintain blogs are doing it for some of the same reasons I do: they like the idea that there’s a place where a record of their existence is kept—a house with an always-open door where people who are looking for you can check on you…. Sometimes that house is messy, sometimes horrifyingly so. In real life, we wouldn’t invite any passing stranger into these situations, but the remve of the Internet makes it seem O.K. Of course some people have always been more naturally inclined toward oversharing than others. Technology just enables us to overshare on a different scale…. As nerdy and one-dimensional as my relationships with these people [onlne] were, they were important to me. They made me feel like a part of some kind of community, and that made the giant city I lived in seem smaller and more manageable.

Bingo. I feel that sense of community that she’s talking about. And also the part about having a record of your existence. But I also get the part about oversharing and I’m definitely guilty of that. Gould goes on to talk about what she calls the “will to blog”:

The will to blog is a complicated thing, somewhere between inspiration and compulsion. It can feel almost like a biological impulse. You see something, or an idea occurs to you, and you have to share it with the Internet as soon as possible. What I didn’t realize was that those ideas and that urgency—and the sense of self-importance that made me think anyone would be interested in hearing what went on in my head—could just disappear.

(She’s talking here about losing the “will to blog.”) I’m sure there’s a great deal of ego involved here (for me) in blogging. And instant gratification. And it’s not even as though I get lots of comments on my blog, because I don’t. (I get quite a few emails… like most of my readers aren’t interested in seeing their words on the world wide web.)

There was an article in the New York Times (the paper, not the magazine) today about Salman Rushdie and his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence. Interesting read, but it was the final paragraphs of the story that interested me most:

Regardless of whether he is writing about politics, Mr. Rushdie said he finds writing both scary (“Are you going to be able to sustain it all the way to the end?”) and exhilarating. “There’s a writing self which is not quite your ordinary self and which you don’t really have access to except at the moment when you’re writing, and certainly in my view, I think of that as my best self,” he said. “To be able to be that person feels good; it feels better than anything else.”

I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but that’s how I feel about writing. And blogging is a form of writing. And just because it feels good, of course that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do. But until and if I find myself, like Emily Gould, “losing the will to blog,” I’ll stay at it. And I’ll continue to imagine that it matters to someone besides me.

So, catching the third ball before it falls… I’ll end with some poetry. Not mine, you’ll be glad to know! The other day I saw this book in a friend’s office and asked him about it. The book is called Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life by Scott Cairns. Turns out the friend isn’t so big on the book, which takes the words of thirty-seven mystics of the Church and turns them into poems. (My friend liked Cairns’ book about his pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven.) But I loved Cairns’ poems. Hard to decide which to share, but I’ve decided on one based on the writing of Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395)… because his mystical writings are some of my favorites. Especially his book The Life of Moses . So, here’s one of Cairns’ poems: (with apologies to Cairns because my blog won’t keep the formatting of the poem)

Soul’s Eternal Rapture

The soul that looks
Finally to God, conceives
A new, mouth-watering
desire for His
Eternal beauty,
And tasting this, she
awakens to an ever
Greater yearning—
An ache never
to be fully satisfied.
By this sweet hurt,
She never ceases
To extend herself,
to touch those things
Beyond her reach
And ever beckoning.
By this she finds herself
Passing, always,
From her present
circumstance to enter
More deeply the interior
And to find
there yet another
Circumstance awaiting.
And thus, at every point
She learns that each
New splendor is to be
eclipsed by what will come—
The ever-exceeding
Beautiful that draws, and calls,
and leads the beloved
To a beauty of her own.

At every point, each new splendor will be eclipsed by what will come. Am I reaching too high? This poem reminds me of the song, “The Drop and the Dream,” by Chris Delmhorst. Especially this verse:

It’s both our curse and our grace, here in this place

To reach for heights that we’ll never climb
And the distance between the drop and the dream
Is our one little piece of the divine

So maybe the nave at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis is my one little piece of the divine. Or maybe it’s poetry. Or music. Or writing. Even writing a blog. Plop! Was that a ball falling?

>Hallowed Places: Gulf Shores

> One of my favorite authors, Thomas Howard, opened his classic book from 1976, Splendor in the Ordinary (later renamed Hallowed Be This House) with this line:

The ancients used to hallow places. They set aside groves and grottoes and mountains, and built temples and shrines and enclaves. Places mattered to them…. Here was a holy well, and there was an oracle. Here was an altar, and there was a tabernacle. The landscape of antiquity is dotted with these things, and it is natural that it should be. If the gods are there, and if their influence touches our realm, then memorable things are going to happen, and we men do well to mark off the precincts.

As an Orthodox Christian, I get this, on several levels. The “religious” precincts we mark off concern our temple, our place of worship. And within our temple, the nave, the place where the people gather to pray, is marked off from the sanctuary, where the altar is, by the iconostasis, and the royal doors. Only those who serve at the altar step across the line between the nave and the sanctuary. It is a sacred place.

But outside the temple, there also places that become sacred, but in a much less “religious” way. The places where certain events in our lives happened become special to us, like where we were born. Where we went to school. Where we had our first kiss. Where we were married. Special vacations and pilgrimages. Where we were when we heard certain life-changing news, like the death of President Kennedy. Or the destruction of the World Trade Centers. Or Hurricane Katrina.

So, as I traveled from New Orleans to Gulf Shores, Alabama, this past Sunday, I remembered places, events and people along the way. I remembered my honeymoon, thirty-eight years ago next month, at the Broadwater Beach Hotel in Biloxi, which had survived Hurricane Camille, but wouldn’t survive Katrina in 2005. Actually, the President Casino had opened on a riverboat dock at the Broadwater Marina in 1992. But on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore the barge from its moorings and washed it ashore 1/2 mile west of the Broadwater Resort Marina. It’s been rebuilt, as the President Casino Broadwater Resort. I’m sad that it’s a casino. The old Broadwater was so family-friendly and classy. It even had a lighted nine-hole par-three golf course you could play on at night.

Another memory: I was on the beach in Biloxi on August 28, 2005, the day before Katrina hit. I had taken my mom and my daughter to visit my son, Jason, who was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base. We went to dinner at the The Chimneys, right on U.S. 90 (right)… an antebellum home turned restaurant where we ate out in this sun room (left) with a view of the ocean. The Chimneys was destroyed by Katrina and I don’t know if the owners plan to rebuild or not, but it was sad driving down 90 and seeing the devastation, almost 3 years later.

So we kept driving east to Gulf Shores, which brought back memories of our 5th anniversary trip to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear (in 1975!) … and also my childhood memories of summers at Daphne, Alabama, on the Mobile Bay (1959-1967.) But more recent memories are the ones I started writing this blog about… just six months ago, when I took off to the beach alone. Because I was angry and wanted to get away. I wrote about that trip in my blog post of November 2 . So this time, I stayed at the same condo, with my husband and daughter. Beth gave me this awesome journal for Mother’s Day… she wrote some sweet words on the first two pages, and included some photos, and then gave me a tiny, traveling watercolor set to go with it! So… I wrote these two pages at the beach… the same place I began to let go of my anger six months ago. And as I walked along the ocean’s edge, I remembered the feeling of letting go. It’s something you have to keep doing over and over, the way you have to keep loving and forgiving over and over.

Gulf Shores doesn’t have the beautiful beach houses along the water that you see in Seagrove, but it’s quiet. Our condo was right next to a wildlife-protected area, so there were no buildings east of us at all. We read books, (well, Beth and I did… hubby worked on his lap top) and napped and went for walks and got lots of sun.

One day Beth ran into an old friend of ours from Jackson (Mississippi) at the WalMart, Sharon Meadows, so she joined us for dinner at the Original Oyster House one night. It’s on a little bayou… beautiful just before sunset.

We tried to feed the fish … But we mainly enjoyed the atmosphere. And the food. Beth even tried her first raw oysters.

The next night we went to Lulu’s (owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister) and enjoyed the atmosphere as much or more than the food. The band was a local group, Big Muddy. The lead singer had a great voice and played a mean harmonica.

And these over-sized chairs were comfy….
The view of the bridge over the intercoastal canal was really pretty after dark.

We caught Beth coming out of the gift shop and made her pose with me for this butt-shot!

The Dizzy Bean Coffee Shop provided us with lattes and wifi… and great atmosphere.

The weather was perfect and we’re thankful for this time to be together in such a beautiful setting. Yes, I think we hallowed it. We sure made some new memories. Our last night we went walking on the beach with flashlights and watched some little kids catching crabs with nets. There was this gorgeous moon, but it just didn’t show up well in photos. But here are a few my daughter took with her camera, including the one that explains why I always wear a hat at the beach! Yikes!

Okay, here’s the moon behind us … again, really bad hair!

But these little girls catching crabs really reminded me of crabbing on the Mobile Bay when I was a little girl….

I’ll close with a few more “day shots.” They pretty much speak for themselves.

>My Artist Date in New Orleans

>Julia Cameron (The Artists’s Way) says we (creative people) need to schedule an “artist’s date” once a week. That’s when we take ourself out and do something creative… visit an art gallery, watch a sunset on water, or relax in a book store or coffee shop without a deadline. So Saturday, my fifth day in New Orleans, I went on an artist’s date. First I went to Cafe Du Monde for beignets. okay kind of gluttonous rather than artsy, but, waiting in line I met Hack Bartholonew, playing his horn (with a friend on banjo )and singing his heart out for Jesus… they let me join them for one song, and of course I bought their CD to help them rebuild their church, destroyed by Katrina. And ate all three beignets that came with my cafe au lait. yum.

After three days of thunderstorms, the weather Saturday was beautiful, so more artists and musicians were out around Jackson Square, and I enjoyed watching them and snapped a few pictures. This little man was my favorite (right). And this guy played a pretty good horn (left). But then I found the tattoo artist. Well, they weren’t real tattoos, but they last about a week. So I asked for a peacock, because they’re one of my favorites… and here we are, in process… and the finished result, which looks so real, but is supposed to wear off in about a week. I had fun “surprising” my husband with it this afternoon… of course he’s glad it isn’t real!

My next stop was Faulkner House Books on Pirates Alley. (That’s is, at right, and the historic marker, left.) William Faulkner actually lived here for about six months in 1925 while writing his first novel, Soldier Pay, and now it’s a lovely book store with lots of first editions and signed books. The manager, Joanna, was delightful. I enjoyed meeting her and browsing for a while before purchasing several books, including:

Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and Break the Heart of Me, both by Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn. These are novels, but according to Joanna (at Faulkner Books) they are very autobiographical, so they read more like memoirs. They just might be my “beach reads” for Gulf Shores this week!
Next I took the trolley to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where I especially enjoyed the photography of Elliott Erwitt, and Roger Brown’s “Southern Exposure” exhibit of “imagist” works, which are a blend of folk art, surrealism, comic strip, advertisements and flea market “finds.” Walking down the street in frontof the museum I ran into this bride and her maids, in town for their bachelorette party.

At the end of the day, we planned a casual dinner at Jacques-Imo’s, an eclectic uptown restaurant recommended by my “tattoo” artist. Located near Tulane, they’re popular with the college crowd, and we didn’t realize that Tulane’s graduation was actually today. (the photo I posted of the grads earlier in the week were from Loyola, not Tulane). Anyway, I’d heard the food was good, and they even had a pickup truck out front with their “VIP” table for two inside! This lucky couple, from London and Boston, got to eat in the truck. While we were waiting for our name to be called, we saw some familiar faces going into the restaurant…

the Klimkowsky family (from Memphis and St. John Church)! Dalia had graduated from Tulane (both undergrad and grad school on the same day!) and the family was there to celerate. They had a reservation for 5, and were able to make room for 2 more, so we joined them for a wonderful time and delicious food. Here’s Dalia with her mother and younger brother, Myron. AND it was Dalia’s 23rd birthday, so we got samples of creme brulee, cheesecake and bread pudding on the house. Older brother, Sergio, also graduated from Tulane a few years ago, and younger brother, Myron, is a junior at Vanderbilt. Alex and Ola are dear friends, and we were so blessed to be part of their family’s special evening in New Orleans last night! One of the waiters recognized Dalia and congratulated her (right). And we all enjoyed this keyboard player (in another pickup truck) outside the restaurant after dinner. Talent seems to ooze through the cracks in the sidewalks.
Or maybe it’s the “seasoning” of the city. As Roy Blount, Jr. says (in his essay, “An Epilogue: Spice of Life,” in My New Orleans:
Everything in New Orleans, not just the food, is highly seasoned…. People in New Orleans are seasoned, as in spicy and as in veteran. Here is one definition of “season”:
“To render competent through trial and experience.”Not weather-beaten. That goes beyond seasoning. New Orleans has neve been beaten by weather yet.
I’m posting this early on Sunday morning, and we’re leaving for the beach today, so I might not post again for a few days. I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief account of our wonderful time in New Orleans! The people have definitely made an impression on me, as has the city… I won’t wait another 25 years to visit again!

>This Isn’t The Last Dance


Rick Bragg wrote a great post-Katrina essay called “This Isn’t the Last Dance” (published in My New Orleans) in September of 2005. I read an excerpt in our hotel room before heading out on a three-hour bus tour of the now almost three-year post Katrina city, especially the lower Ninth Ward. A short excerpt:

I cannot stand the idea that it is broken, unfixable. I watched the men using axes to hack their way into hundred-year-old houses to save people trapped there by the suffocating water… Just a few weeks ago, I spent a week there, walking along Magazine, walking into the Quarter, not minding the heat because that is what the devil sends, heat and water, to make you appreciate the smell of crushed cherries and on the balcony at the Columns Hotel…. How long before that city reforms? Some people say it never will. But I have seen these people dance, laughing, to the edge of a grave. I believe that, now, they will dance back from it.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I share what I learned on the tour, let me back up to yesterday afternoon. After the tornadoes had cleared the parishes just north of the city, I ventured down Saint Charles on the street car, then walked part of the same route back to the hotel, taking in the amaing ambiance and architecture. I’m highlighting a few of my favorite houses, like these… Our trolley stopped just as these kids were celebrating their graduation from Tulane, so eveyone on the trolley cheered for them and they waved at us. (I didn’t expect them to wave, so I didn’t get a picture.) I wondered how many of them had their college experience interrupted by Katrina… but also how many of them knew what incredible beauty surrounded their college here on Saint Charles. I snapped a couple of pix of early signs of beautiful flowers…
and also this quirky bike rack, in front of an optometry shop.
Thurday night was the Faculty Dinner for ASH (American Society of Hypertension) and we were on top of the World Trade Center of New Orleans, with a great view down Canal Street one way, and of the river on other sides. It was the annual ASH meeting. It was great to meet Keith Ferdinand (pictured here wih me and my husband) a cardiologist who lost his practice in the Ninth Ward when Katrina hit. Insurance wouldn’t pay for him to build back, so he moved his family to Atlanta. Keith was involved in the ASH initiative to provide free hypertension tests and treatment to some of the folks here in New Orleans last Saturday at the free health check fair in the French Market. Keith’s daughter, Rashida, was featured on This Old House, renovating her shotgun home at 505 Lizardi in the Ninth Ward. You can watch the video here.
So, I boarded the bus in the rain this morning to tour the areas hardest hit by Katrina. Our guide, Pat Dupuy, sustained considerable damage to her home in Jefferson Parish, but was able to move back in on November 8, 2005. She was one of the lucky ones. 80% of the city was flooded. The population of New Orleans was about 468,000 before Katrina; about 2/3 of the residents are there now. I won’t share all the details here, but she recommended the book, Lost in Katrina, which I plan to check out soon. A few significant items of interest that I learned today:

In Gentilly, 80% of the Vietnamese community are back… because they worked together to re-build. Community.
In St. Bernard Parish, home to the Lower Ninth Ward, only 5 houses were livable after Katrina. 5. Houses. It was a densely populated, mostly lower-economic area.

Here’s Fat’s Domino’s house. (right, with yellow trim on the fence) He didn’t leave the Ninth Ward, so he ended up in the Superdome, then in Baton Rouge. But he wants to come home. His house, like so many, is surrounded by blight. Some people come back and renovate while others don’t. It’s like a ghost town.
This house used to be on Caffin Street, but Katrina picked it up and moved it to another street!

There’s so much more to say. But I’ll let the pictures do the talking. We did take a break half way through, stopping at the Botanic Gardens for snacks. I snapped this gorgeous flower as a reminder of the beauty that can be recovered. Over 800 volunteers have helped replant at the Gardens. But it will take years. And lots more volunteers, to replant the homes needed to rebuild the communities that have been lost. One of the places you can read about this is http://www.makeitright.org/. They’re doing some “green” building here now. And we drove past these colorful homes in “Musicians’ Village,” re-built by Habitat with help form Harrick Connick, Jr. and others. Okay, it’s time to download photos. And sit quietly, trying to take it all in. Lord have mercy.

>Celebrations and The Big Easy Days 1 and 2

>Tuesday we stopped in Jackson to take my mom to lunch (belated Mother’s Day)… and happily, my two nieces (my brother, Mike’s daughters) were able to join us. We went to AJ’s Seafood… really good food, by the way. Here’s Aubrey and Chelsea. Aubrey just graduated from law school on Saturday, and Chelsea (who just finished her freshman year at Mississippi State) celebrated her 19th birthday on Monday. So we had a big time altogether… three generation of Johnson women.

Our first night in New Orleans (for me, the first in 25 years!) was lovely… we had a great time and delicious food at Commander’s Palace with some nice folks .The chef is an ex-military guy. And this “birthday girl” at the next table, is showing off her Fleur De Lis creme brulee! (Her boyfriend is one of the cooks.) Anyway, it was a great evening. In the taxi on the way back to our hotel, the driver pointed out the home of Anne Rice. You can read her notes about Hurricane Katrina here. I’m planning on going on a tour of the Ninth Ward Friday.

This morning I headed out for Magazine Street… riding the bus for about 3 miles, and then walking a few more… finding wonderful little boutiques and great atmosphere everywhere I went. Here are a few shops and houses and interesting people along Magazine Street. The smell of the honeysuckle on these vines stopped me in my tracks as I strolled along in the 85 degree, high-humidity weather. (turned cloudy and breezy in the afternoon)

This man in front of a Poetry place (?) was interesting… after shopping (yes, I did buy a couple of things) I walked up a side street, through the Garden District, to St. Charles Avenue. This was my favorite house in the Garden District. (the blue one) And this one, along St. Charles, was awesome (left). I rode the trolley back to Canal Street, and then walked to Jackson Square. I was disappointed that there were only a few “artists” around the square… but I did find some interesting people…like this man, who made hats from some sort of plant leaves… and I bought a new cowboy hat (forgot to take mine) to block out the sun. That “rose” on my hat is made from palm leaves… which I bought from another arisan near the square. I walked past Cafe Du Mond, but decided to wait until a morning visit for their beignets, which really would go with my 20-ounce frozen margarita! Instead, I relaxed down by the River for a while… listening to the water lap the steps and feeling the breeze on my face and watching the steam boats and barges go by. I thought about how I could get on a boat and ride it straight up the river to Memphis… I don’t know where “The Natchez” goes… but she was sure pretty to watch. Ooops… it’s almost 8 pm… i’m in the Conceierge Lounge on the 21st floor of the New Orleans Marriott (free internet) watching severe thunderstorms building outside the window… I’m heading to our room to watch “American Idol” and see who gets cut. I think it will be Syesha Mercado … leaving the two Davids as the final two. What do you guys think? I’m pulling for David Cook, the rocker (far right)because, well, he rocks. MORE TOMORROW OR FRIDAY! (P.S. It’s Thurs morning and I just posted the link to the results from American Idol… a sad goodbye and best wishes to Syesha!

>The People Without a Country

>When I was eight years old (1959) the U.S. created a pact with Vang Pao and the Hmong people after North Vietnam began carving the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the jungles of Laos to send its soldiers and spies southward. In the final days of the Eisenhower administration, the CIA began shipping weapons and military materials to the Hmong, the mountain tribe whose members were an isolated minority in Laos. Gen. Van Pao’s army grew to some 39,000 Hmong guerillas over the next eight years. This is a picture of him in 1961. Thousands of Hmong died throughout the 60s. This remains one of the least-known chapters in the story of the Vietnam War.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been completely ignorant of all of this until this past year, when our son, Jason, began dating a Hmong woman in Denver. And now she’s my daughter-in-law. Her story will be a significant part of my grandchildren’s history some day, and I’m eager to understand it and share it with others.

You can read an in-depth story about this in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. (which also has an interesting story about what sports are doing to young women….)

I’m not well enough informed to figure out whether recent charges against 78-year-old Vang Pao, indicting him as a terrorist, which resulted in his imprisonment, and even house arrest following his release, have any legitimate foundation. The indictment charged that “Vang Pao led a conspiracy aimed at the overthrow of the existing government of Laos by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civil officials of Laos and destruction of building and property.” It might take a year or more before the case comes to trial… but meanwhile, Hmong people in the U.S. see this as an attack on them, and many are frightened.

A young Hmong musician is putting the story into rap music so the younger generation will learn about it and try to help their people who are still trapped in Laos. At one point on the video, he collaborates with his grandmother, who teaches him a form of Hmong oral poetry which he combines with his rap music. You can watch it here.

Reading all this and commenting on it makes the other things I was going to share today seem unimportant. But I’m leaving for New Orleans early tomorrow morning, and I did want to share something a little more upbeat before leaving. One of the agents I’ve queried about my memoir asked to see the full book proposal today (yes!) so I’m about to put it in the mail to her. She requested more sample chapters than I’m ready to send, so I plan to do lots of revising while I’m on my trip.

My husband and I are often seen at our “dueling computers” … sitting back to back in our tiny office… him working on medical lectures or articles, and me working on essays or my memoir. Yesterday he was reading the Sunday comics and started chuckling aloud. He handed me one of our favorites, “Non Sequitur.” It was so apropos, I decided to share the entire comic strip here.

Why Non Sequitur? I looked up the definition and found two, that kind of explain it, together:

An inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premises or evidence.

A statement that does not follow logically from what preceded it .

So, I tried to cut and paste the strip, but it’s so tiny, but if you click ON THE COMIC a larger version will appear, or you can CLICK HERE to see it full size on its web site.

But then I started thinking about the memoirist in the comic strip, and about the chapters I need to revise in my own memoir, and a quote by Oscar Wilde came to mind:

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

I’ve heard that criminals copy the shows they see on television, and that people tend to become emboldened to pursue behaviors they might not have otherwise, when they read about them in a book. So, maybe those are negative aspects of life imitating art.

But for me, personally, good fiction, and good narrative nonfiction (like memoirs) both imitate and reveal life. They show people at their best and their worst, struggling with their beautiful, flawed humanity, to find meaning and purpose in life. And sometimes forgiveness and redemption.

Hopefully I’ll send some posts from New Orleans this week. I haven’t been there in about 25 years, so it will be a journey of discovery. One of my favorite blogs is “A Good Blog Is Hard to Find.” A recent post by Kimberly Willis Holt is called, “Escaping to the French Quarter.” Reading it got me in the mood for New Orleans! Kimberly has several published books–her first was My Louisiana Sky. I’ll be looking at that sky tomorrow afternoon, God willing.

>The Spice Girls and Uncle Oscar


Tonight my husband asked me, “Do you know what Sunday tomorrow is?” He was referring to the Sundays in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.

I thought about it and said, “Hmmmm, well, it’s the second Sunday after Pascha, but I can’t remember who we commemorate.”

He smiled and said, “the Spice Girls.”

I got it. It’s the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women. (You have to know him to appreciate his sense of humor!) But he’s leading the services and giving the homily (sermon) at an Orthodox Skete (small monastery) tomorrow morning, so I doubt he’ll use The Spice Girls for humor… the nuns probably don’t know who they are! But they know who the Myrrhbearing Women are.

You can read a wonderful homily by Saint Gregory Palamas about the Myrrhbearing Women here.

Here’s my favorite part:

The Myrrhbearers are all those women who followed with the mother of the Lord, stayed with her during those hours of the salvific passion, and with pathos anointed him with myrrh. After Joseph and Nicodemos asked for and received the body of the Lord from Pilate, they took it down from the cross, wrapped it in a cloth with strong spices, placed it in a carved out tomb, and closed the door of the tomb with a large stone…. they went and bought spices and myrrh; for they did not yet clearly know that he is truly the perfume of life for those who approach him in faith, just as he is also the odor of death for those who remain unbelievers to the end. They did not yet clearly know that the odor of his clothes, the odor of his own body, is greater than all perfumes, that his name is like myrrh that is poured out to cover the world with his divine fragrance.

Wow. Jesus is “the perfume of life for those who approach him in faith.” And “the odor of his own body is greater than all perfumes, and his name is like myrrh that is poured out to cover the world with his divine fragrance.” Imagine what the world would smell like without Him.

We miss this earthiness in much of today’s funeral practices, with the body usually being prepared by a stranger, a professional mortician, rather than by “myrrhbearing women.” Ten years ago this summer, when my father died (July 9) at home, I was blessed to at least bathe him before they took him to the funeral home. And then when my Goddaughter, Mary Allison was killed in a car wreck (in September) the time I spent helping her mother comb her hair and apply her makeup before the funeral was a time of tender “anointing” in a sense.

I started thinking about these deaths yesterday, when my cousin Kathleen called to tell me that her father, my Great Uncle Oscar, had died. He was my grandfather’s brother. My father’s father’s brother. Uncle Oscar was 96 years old, and his brother, Papa Willis, died at half that age, at 48. I barely remember him. He died of a heart attack, probably with undiagnosed heart disease back then. Uncle Oscar was a sweet, dear man, who never smoked, drank or ate meat his entire life. Years after retiring from his “day job,” he worked outside in his garden and his mind was sharp. He lived in Star, Mississippi, hometown of Faith Hill .

I’ve lost a brother, an aunt, an uncle and a father to lung cancer caused by smoking. They were all between 58 and 68 years old. Uncle Oscar was 96. I think I said that already.

Forgive the digression from my post about the Myrrhbearing Women… but this smoking thing has been on my mind this week. Today I read an article in The New Yorker by David Sedaris called “Letting Go” … it’s his story of quitting smoking. It’s not at all preachy… mainly his reflections on smoking as a social phenomenon over the years, and how he was finally “finished with it.”

Made me also think about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell… the book about social trends and how they become epidemics, like teen smoking. (fascinating book, by the way… you can read a good interview with Gladwell here.

So now I’m rambling… and I’ll close with a nod to my husband, the biggest anti-smoker I know. One of the hats he wears is Dr. William Cushman, doctor of Preventive Medicine… so he’s all about healthy lifestyles. Our neighbors are used to seeing him jogging through the neighborhood with his white beard and baseball hat. He’s been a runner since high school.

So, yesterday he received this award at the VA Hospital here in Memphis where he works. It’s the 2008 Memphis Metropolitan Area Federal Employee of the Year award—specifically the Outstanding Scientific/Professional Employee Award. He got this beautiful plaque, so I made him pose for a picture when he came home from work with it.
Maybe he’ll live to be 96, like Uncle Oscar.

>Life is an Audition: One Little Song

>Tuesday I watched Barbara Walters on Oprah, talking about her new book/memoir, Audition. Barbara says the title of the book comes from her sense that her entire life has been an audition. “As a child, I felt that I didn’t belong—I was auditioning. I kept going to different schools—I was auditioning. Most of my professional life, I’ve been auditioning,” she says. “I think for a lot of us, life is an audition.”

I remember telling someone, quite a few months ago, when they asked me if I felt that I had something to prove by my writing/publishing, that yes, I do feel that way. It was both sad and heartening to hear someone of Barbara Walters’ reputation say that she felt that she was always auditioning in her life… for acceptance. Her book is now on my “to buy” list.

With the plethora of memoirs on the market, a writer like me, with a memoir-in-progress, can either get discouraged and think, like the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” or choose to take encouragement from the popularity of the genre. One of the literary agents that I’ve queried recently replied to my email today, requesting to see the full book proposal, so here’s hoping he finds something original, something new, in what I have to say.

One of my Goddaughters, Katherine, gave me a Gillian Welch CD as a Pascha gift. I’m loving it. It’s called “Soul Journey.” My favorite song is called, “One Little Song.” You can listen to it here, or watch the video here.
The lyrics are yummy:

There’s gotta’ be a song let to sing

Cause everybody can’t of thought of everything
One little song that ain’t been sung
One little rag that ain’t been wrung out completely yet
Gotta’a little left
One little drop of fallin’ rain
One little chance to try again
One little bird that makes it every now and then
One little piece of endless sky
One little taste of cherry pie
One little week in paradise and I start thinkin’
There’s gotta’ be a song left to sing
Cause everybody cant of thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word that ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhythms
One little drop of fallin’ rain
One little chance to try again
One little bird that makes it every now and then
One little piece of endless sky
One little taste of cherry pie
One little week in paradise and I start thinkin’
Gotta’ be a song left to sign
Cause everybody can’t of thought of everything
One little song that ain’t been sung
One little rag that ain’t been wrung out completely yet
Till there’s nothing left.
So, as I continue reading memoirs and querying agents, I choose to believe Gillian Welch, that “everybody can’t of thought of everything,” and that there’s gotta’ be “one little word that ain’t been abused a thousand times”…. Even in the world of the memoir.

Two of my recent favorites are:

The Mistress’ Daughter by A.M. Homes and The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. You can read a great interview with Karr here. I’ve just finished this first volume and am about to begin her sequel, Cherry. Great stuff.

The Mistress’ Daughter is about an adopted woman’s journey to her past, and her efforts to heal her brokenness by embracing both her birth family and adopted family. The Liar’s Club is about Karr’s childhood in southern Texas… an often rough and tumble ride through lots of craziness, but also tenderness.

As I continue with first drafts of the next chapters of my book, it’s so enlightening to see the courage and the craft of these talented women. With Gillian Welch’s earthy tones playing in the background…. reminding me to find that “one little word that ain’t been abused a thousand times.”

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