>Wish We Were There

>Here’s a new spin on those postcards people send with pictures of themselves in a tropical paradise that say, “wish you were here”—our 2008 Christmas cards are going out just in time for New Year’s, and I think the message should read, “wish we were there!” Here’s the artwork on the card. Yep. Mr. and Mrs. Claus have got the right idea for post-Christmas recovery… margaritas on the beach at sunset. And it looks like Mrs. Claus took some time out for a pedicure and some hat shopping. And neither of them are worrying about silly New Year’s resolutions about exercising and losing weight. Now that looks like paradise.

For those who have been worried about my blog addiction, I am proud to report that I have stayed away from the blog for five days—that’s a record! If you follow the progression of events and photos posted here, you’ll understand that it wasn’t really hard to stay away. Every minute was scheduled up. Let’s take it a day at a time:

Christmas Eve Day
Stacy and Jared Autrey visited from Nashville with their precious daughter, Olivia Kate. Stacy is one of my Goddaughters, and she and Jared have been good friends of our son, Jon, for many years. It was great being together, if only for a short visit.

Olilvia Kate has obviously learned to kiss… and enjoyed practicing on Father Basil!

Christmas Day

Jason and his new bride, See, arrived from Denver at 8:30 a.m. on Christmas morning! I prepared with the usual Cushman traditions, like caramelizing the coffee mugs (dipping the tops of the mugs into sugar which has been melted in a cast iron skillet)

and making mimosas and hiding the pickle.

We’ve been hiding the pickle ornament in the tree on Christmas Eve for years… and its seems like Jon, Jason and Beth have pretty much taken turns finding it—not because they aren’t competitive! It’s just worked out that way. We always have an extra gift for the finder of the pickle. So, this year, our tree is tiny tiny tiny (pre-lit but no ornaments, until Beth put candy canes on it)… so we explained the tradition to See, and all four “kids” rushed at the tree, searching for the pickle.

After a few minutes I said, “you guys need to think outside the box.” That was about the same time Jason was making a dash for the other tree… an even smaller one in the front hall. And there it was!

Here are the kids with Jason holding the pickle, and the pickle gift. This year it was a copy of the New York Times #1 best-seller: Outliers. I liked Gladwell’s other books (Blink and The Tipping Point) and figured any of our kids would appreciate a book about how to be successful. We also gave all the kids there very own pickle ornaments this year, to continue the tradition with future generations.
Breakfast was next, and then stockings and presents.

As usual, there were lots of “gadgets” involved… including my new pea green wireless mouse, Mio Moov (GPS) system, and a small portable printer for when I’m traveling. There were gadgets related to iPods and also cappuccino makers (for Jon, the new home owner). All the girls were happy with artsy new jewelry and Beth got enough books to read 24/7 until she goes back to grad school. Money gifts for the newlyweds new apartment (we really couldn’t expect them to carry furniture back to Denver on the plane) and fancy wine and wine openers rounded out the goodies.

Jon Autrey joined us for our traditional Christmas lunch: Honeybaked Ham, Aunt Barbara Jo’s Dressing (the best!), Sweet Potato Casserole, Marinated Green Bean Casserole, Rice and Gravy, Rolls, and Pecan Pie with Ice Cream. Yum!

Kevin came by later with a fancy architectural 3-D puzzle for Beth, and of course we put him to work on various computer problems that are always around. (He’s a computer engineer.) We ended the day with a Scrabble game and pleasant food comas and football games on tv. Actually, that’s kinda’ how the past few days have felt!

December 26

The next day we piled into two cars and headed down to Jackson, Mississippi, to visit Granny Effie at Lakeland Nursing Home. (Jon would be leaving from there to head back to Savannah.)

I’m not sure if Mom really knew all her grandkids or not, but she loved the visit and seemed to understand that See was new, whether or not her Alzheimer’s kept her from getting the concept that Jason was married. Or that they would be providing her with her first great-grandchild next July!

We visited in the lobby of the nursing home, where she opened gifts and enjoyed the comings and goings of other visitors.

And posed for group pictures… I’m always wondering which year will be the last, so each year has its own special meaning.

December 27

Saturday was sight-seeing day… showing See around Memphis, mainly Harbor Town, South Main, the Elvis statue, and Beale Street. But it was also “spa day” for the girls… with See getting a haircut, and Beth and See getting manicures and pedicures while Mom and Jason shopped at Oak Court Mall. Somewhere in there we found time for a Scrabble game that ended badly for everyone but Beth, and polished off the evening at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I don’t remember how we made it home….

December 28

Sunday night we celebrated Jason and See’s marriage at a lovely party hosted by dear friends from St. John church. (Hostesses Reem Mansour, Pamela Mashburn and Deb Mashburn at right.) I know I’m a writer, but in this case I really do think the pictures will speak better than words. When I wasn’t busy enjoying the amazing food and wine, or the company of so many people I love, I played photographer, catching some candid shots but also “posing” groups like they were going to be in RSVP Magazine or something. Lots of fun was had by all, and it was such a joy to introduce See to so many people who welcomed her with love.

Or with stories about Jason, like Father Troy was telling here!

Enjoy the photos! Maybe I’ll be back before New Years’s… but probably not, so Happy New Years!

See is welcomed by our hosts’ five-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is also one of my Goddaughters.
And Isabelle and Sophie give Jason some “new daddy practice” during the party.

Sarah and Joel Finley are in town from Nashville…

and enjoyed catching up with Peter McKelroy and his fiance, from Laurel, Mississippi.
Jason reunited with childhood friends, Nicholas Henderson (from Jackson, Mississippi), and Memphians Tim Elliott and Jon Autrey, both also formerly from Jackson.

I found John McGee in the kitchen with Jason’s friend from school days in Memphis, Brian Edmondson …

along with Jason and Beth’s friend from the University of Tennessee, Kevin Davis of Bartlett, visiting with hosts, Deb and Tim Mashburn…

I had lots of funs with girfriends: Reem Mansour, and Lori O’Brien and Margaret McKelroy….

And Goddaughters Hannah Snowden and Katherine Thames bond with my daughter-in-law, See…
Nancy McGee and Deacon James Elliott catch up with Troy Mashburn, home for the holidays from grad school in Boston…

Matthew and Hannah conspire with Katherine and Hardy Thames to change the world, one child, book, painting, song, or sociological idea at a time….

We enjouyed lots of laughs with See throughout the evening…

After a delicious meal, the crowd gathered in the dining room for cake cutting…

which I tried to capture from several angles…

It was a wonderful night. This afternoon Jason and See flew home to Denver with an extra suitcase for their new clothes and wedding and Christmas gifts, and hearts full of gratitude for this outpouring of love. Thanks to the hosts and hostesses and friends who came to celebrate their marriage!

>Shepherds Are Playing

>

I was going to name this blog post “This Great and Strange Wonder,” but then I found this post from December 11, 2007 and it had all the same quotes I wanted to share today. So, you can read it here if you’re interested. It’s about the response of the Mother of God to the Incarnation. And now I have to think of something else to post about on this Christmas Eve Day.

Last year on December 24 I wrote a long post with photos called “Christmases Remembered.” So, that’s done.

This morning I’m at home, still sick, and missing the Royal Hours and Divine Liturgy at St. John. I’ll go to the Christmas Eve service tonight at 10:30, no matter how I’m feeling. It’s the Feast of the Nativity and I’ve only missed it once in twenty years (when I was even sicker than I am now) and so I will be there, God willing. I missed our annual children’s Christmas play at St. John this past Sunday. They use a backdrop that looks like the icon of the Nativity, and dress up as the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph, etc. It’s always wonderful.

I’m searching my memory, books on my shelves, and yes, the web, for something to share, because my creative well feels a bit dry this morning. Or maybe I’m just letting my physical illness steal some of my joy. JOY! That’s it. That’s what I’m looking for. You see, my mother fell out of her bed at the nursing home Monday night. She didn’t hurt her (broken but healing) hip, thank God. But the nurse said she tried to get up (she can’t walk alone yet) because she “heard someone crying and wanted to help them.” I guess there are always people crying in a nursing home.

And three of my close friends—yes three—have parents in the hospital this Christmas. Well, one was just discharged, but still, it’s easy to let the pain and sadness steal the joy, isn’t it?

So, here’s what I found on my web search. First this site with lots of videos of Orthodox Christian Nativity music and other information about Orthodoxy.

And then these two videos below I found on Father Stephen’s blog. I don’t know how old this is and many of you might have already seen it, but it was so joyful that it brought tears to my eyes when I found it this morning. First, I’ll set it up:

This is a beautiful hymn by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, A Serbian Christmas Song

Andjeli Pevaju (in Serbian)
Noć prekrasna i noć tija,nad pećinom zvezda sija,u pećini mati spi,nad Isusom andjel bdi.
Andjeli pevaju,pastiri sviraju,andjeli pevajumudraci javljaju:Što narodi čekaše,što proroci rekoše,evo sad se u svet javi,u svet javi i objavi:Rodi nam se Hristos Spasza spasenje sviju nas.Aliluja, aliluja,Gospodi pomiluj!

(deep voice) no matter what you are doing, spin threads for heaven!

Angels Sing (lyrics)
the night so grand and placid,

a star shining over the cave,

the mother sleeping in the cave,

where the angel of Jesus hast been.
the angels are singing,

the sheperds are fluting,

the angels are singing,

the wise bring it forth:

what the nations awaited,

what the prophets had said,

here and now it is announced,
it is announced and brought forth:

Christ, our Redeemer is born!

for the Salvation of us all.

halleluya, halleluya,

Lord, have mercy!

“Shepherds are fluting” means that they are playing music, in Serbia for example traditionally shepherds are playing wooden fife.

And now for the treat: two Serbian Orthodox Christmas videos that just radiate joy. My gift to you. Just click on each video below and enjoy.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!



>Shepherds Are Playing

>

I was going to name this blog post “This Great and Strange Wonder,” but then I found this post from December 11, 2007 and it had all the same quotes I wanted to share today. So, you can read it here if you’re interested. It’s about the response of the Mother of God to the Incarnation. And now I have to think of something else to post about on this Christmas Eve Day.

Last year on December 24 I wrote a long post with photos called “Christmases Remembered.” So, that’s done.

This morning I’m at home, still sick, and missing the Royal Hours and Divine Liturgy at St. John. I’ll go to the Christmas Eve service tonight at 10:30, no matter how I’m feeling. It’s the Feast of the Nativity and I’ve only missed it once in twenty years (when I was even sicker than I am now) and so I will be there, God willing. I missed our annual children’s Christmas play at St. John this past Sunday. They use a backdrop that looks like the icon of the Nativity, and dress up as the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph, etc. It’s always wonderful.

I’m searching my memory, books on my shelves, and yes, the web, for something to share, because my creative well feels a bit dry this morning. Or maybe I’m just letting my physical illness steal some of my joy. JOY! That’s it. That’s what I’m looking for. You see, my mother fell out of her bed at the nursing home Monday night. She didn’t hurt her (broken but healing) hip, thank God. But the nurse said she tried to get up (she can’t walk alone yet) because she “heard someone crying and wanted to help them.” I guess there are always people crying in a nursing home.

And three of my close friends—yes three—have parents in the hospital this Christmas. Well, one was just discharged, but still, it’s easy to let the pain and sadness steal the joy, isn’t it?

So, here’s what I found on my web search. First this site with lots of videos of Orthodox Christian Nativity music and other information about Orthodoxy.

And then these two videos below I found on Father Stephen’s blog. I don’t know how old this is and many of you might have already seen it, but it was so joyful that it brought tears to my eyes when I found it this morning. First, I’ll set it up:

This is a beautiful hymn by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, A Serbian Christmas Song

Andjeli Pevaju (in Serbian)
Noć prekrasna i noć tija,nad pećinom zvezda sija,u pećini mati spi,nad Isusom andjel bdi.
Andjeli pevaju,pastiri sviraju,andjeli pevajumudraci javljaju:Što narodi čekaše,što proroci rekoše,evo sad se u svet javi,u svet javi i objavi:Rodi nam se Hristos Spasza spasenje sviju nas.Aliluja, aliluja,Gospodi pomiluj!

(deep voice) no matter what you are doing, spin threads for heaven!

Angels Sing (lyrics)
the night so grand and placid,

a star shining over the cave,

the mother sleeping in the cave,

where the angel of Jesus hast been.
the angels are singing,

the sheperds are fluting,

the angels are singing,

the wise bring it forth:

what the nations awaited,

what the prophets had said,

here and now it is announced,
it is announced and brought forth:

Christ, our Redeemer is born!

for the Salvation of us all.

halleluya, halleluya,

Lord, have mercy!

“Shepherds are fluting” means that they are playing music, in Serbia for example traditionally shepherds are playing wooden fife.

And now for the treat: two Serbian Orthodox Christmas videos that just radiate joy. My gift to you. Just click on each video below and enjoy.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!



>The Attic

>

I know it’s been a while since I posted… and I could spend several paragraphs telling you about how I’ve been sick (still am) with fever, coughing, headaches, chills, etc., but that would be boring. And a few paragraphs more about the three days my daughter and I just spent in Jackson, cleaning our my mother’s assisted living apartment and visiting her at the nursing home. But that also might be boring. Not that we didn’t also have a good time at the beautiful new outdoor mall in Ridgeland, Renaissance, where we found the Lucky Jeans store (for Beth) and Anthropologie, which was a really cool place. And yes, we had fun at dinner with my nieces, Aubrey and Chelsea, Friday night, and Aubrey’s husband, Tommy, at PF Chang’s. Didn’t take pictures though.

But what Beth has been doing since we returned to Memphis Saturday afternoon is anything but boring. She’s been cleaning out our attic! Yes. Three days before Christmas.

Here’s how it happened. We were talking about houses (she’s in architecture grad school) and she was suggesting ways I could make our current house (which I don’t like) better and I was saying I’d rather just wait ‘til I get into a house I really like, but she realized how much the disorder in this house is bothering me, especially the attic, because if I clean out something in the house, like a closet or bookshelves or drawers, there’s no place to put stuff I want to store. Seriously, you could not walk through the attic as it was… dozens of yucky old cardboard boxes, many opened with their contents spilling out. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of it … it would have made a great “before” picture. Instead I took it after Beth emptied everything out of it, into her room, which opens directly into the attic on the second floor of the house.

Here’s the almost empty attic.

But here’s how it happened. When we got home from Jackson, we unloaded all the stuff from my mom’s apartment (my car was packed full) upstairs, into the room where all the boxes of stuff from her house have been since I cleaned it out in May of 2006. So that room now had about 20 boxes of “Granny Effie stuff.”

Next we went to Home Depot and bought 40 large Rubbermaid tubs with lids and white tape for labeling everything with a black Sharpie.

Over the next 24 hours, Beth completely cleaned out the attic and room with Mom’s stuff, threw away a good bit of stuff, packed up quite a few Goodwill boxes, and organized everything else into the tubs and labeled them. And in the process, as she found treasures I hadn’t seen in years, I would get excited and think about ways to use them in my newly organized house. And so many photographs I haven’t been able to find as I’ve been scanning pictures from albums in our den as I continue to work on my memoir.

Here it is—my newly organized attic. Voila!

And here’s the other end. Pretty amazing, huh? Almost makes me want to put in rugs and a rocking chair. Almost.

So, now I can start to clean out the stuff that’s bothering me downstairs and finally feel at peace in this house. We kept a dozen empty containers for my overflow when I start with the closets and drawers downstairs. Yep. I’m really hoping for a serious trickle down affect… a reorganization that starts at the top.

And my realtor is going to love our attic when we get ready to sell and find something that works better for our lifestyle. When the market gets better. Now we’ve got one of those attics that house-shoppers walk into and say, “Oh, my God! Look at how organized they are!”

Who knew that an organized attic would end up being the Best Christmas Present Ever? But it is. Thanks, Beth.

>Support Your Local Independent Booksellers

>Yesterday I picked up my order at Burke’s Books here in Memphis. Over $200 worth of books for Christmas gifts. And yes, I could have saved some money by ordering on Amazon or other online sites, but then I thought, “what have they done for me lately?” Or rather, for the writers who enhance our lives with their art?

It was delightful to stop in at Burke’s and visit with owner, Cheryl Mesler and remember delightful evenings with writers reading and signing their books at Burke’s. I think the first reading I attended at Burke’s was John Grisham signing The Firm back when Burke’s was on Poplar and under different ownership. I actually did an interview with Grisham following the signing, for a literary magazine in Oxford. But more recent memories are of Beth Ann Fennelly’s reading from her poetry book, Unmentionables, this past summer. But I also remember how Cheryl, her husband and co-owner Cory, and the other staff always help you find what you need. Last year I walked into Burke’s and just described one of my children’s tastes in books and she led me to authors I didn’t know and books that he would love. It reminded me of that scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Meg Ryan’s character, the small bookstore owner, walks into the big mega-store and overhears a customer asking one of the clerks about a certain well-known author and he had never heard of her.

So, yesterday I asked Cheryl (left) how business was going this Christmas season and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “oh, it’s slow, but it’s slow everywhere.” I was thinking about how everyone has to decide where to cut back. And again how important art is to our culture. I’m doing my part as a consumer, buying hardbacks whenever I can. A friend and fellow writer once told me that she always tries to buy hardbacks from living authors because they need the money. For dead writers, she goes to the library. Not a bad plan.

There’s a short little piece by Roy Blount, Jr. at Square Book’s website called “Buy From Your Local Bookstore Now,” that says it better than I can.

So, today I’d like to encourage everyone to stop by their local independent bookstore and browse and visit with staff members and buy gifts for family and friends. Even for folks who aren’t big readers—they need it most! I know lots of my readers live all over the country, but I’m just going to list the booksellers I know personally in the Southeast: (click on the names to link to their websites for directions to each store)

Burke’s Books in Memphis, Tennessee.
Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve got lots of posts that involve Square Books, but here’s one about Camp Square Books, this past July.

Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Here’s a post about meeting Delaune Michel and hearing her read at Lemuria.
Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama.
Over the Transom in Fairhope, Albama.
Carpe Librum in Knoxville, Tennessee. Read my blog post about my visit to Carpe Librum in September.

Wordsworth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.

And yes, even during this busy season I’ve been reading voraciously. It’s an essential food group for a writer, and one of my recent feasts has been A Sound Like Thunder by Sonny Brewer. Having met Sonny at Southern Writers Reading in Fairhope in November, I was anxious to get into his books, and I started with this one. It’s a jewel… literary writing that doesn’t bog you down with too many pages of descriptions of trees (I’ve got a touch of ADD) and keeps you turning the pages, wanting more. But also pausing and re-reading a sentence, or even a paragraph, every now and then, just for the sheer beauty of how the words sound. Sometimes I read them aloud, like this sentence, describing an extraordinary sunset:

“I knew better now than then that not even a magician with words or paints or music could handle the picture in the sky when God is feeling frisky, showing off, baking for his mortal children the daily bread of the eye.”

And this section, where Sonny is describing, through the eyes of the teenage protagonist, Rove McNee, the process of healing the loss of his complicated father:

“My hope of relief lay at the eye of this thing, and seeking work among men who had known him would put me in the middle of the hurt. And the hurt had surprised me, springing unexpected from my psyche like a determined tendril from a scuppernong vine, curling towards the light, a brightness issuing from forgiveness. It’s easier to reconcile a bad story if you know the sense behind its first line.”

A young writer, Scott Morris, captured my senses with his first, and also very literary, novel, Waiting for April. Here are a few amazing metaphors and phrases:

“My little experiences with her when I was growing up, the sort that most people would discount as mere child’s play or fancy, were for me the wet clay of my slowly setting world.”

And since I love sunsets, I’m always taken with the endless ways gifted authors have of describing them:

“The sunsets, especially in the warmer months, were thick as fruitcake, dripping like caramel, a swarming canvas of buzzing colors. An expert would point to the great humidity visited upon that part of the country, how the light refracts again and again through pale planets of water that catch flame and turn into a billion tiny palpable prisms, but I say it is nothing less than the exalted exhalations of angels.”

And here’s one more paragraph, describing young Roy Collier’s search for the truth about his father:

“The convolutions and confrontations. The constant zigging and zagging between peace and paranoia. The relentless reverberations from missing facts and well-kept secrets. The ghosts, goblins and lore. The endless stories and the endless stories within those endless stories. With a mere flick of my wrist I could set that glowing globe spinning in Mother’s darkened library and the entire world repeated itself to me over and over again.”

I read these brilliant writers not only to feed my art-hungry soul, but also hopefully to learn from their finely tuned craft. To be a better writer. When I was picking up my Christmas gifts at Burke’s yesterday, I also picked up a book for myself, so if my blog had a “Susan’s Bookshelf” section, this would be on top. I started reading it last night. It’s Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos. I loved Kallos’ book, Broken For You, so I was eager for her latest work.

So, whether you’re a writer or a reader or both, or even if you only have a slight sense of the importance of literary art to our lives, give the gift of literary to someone this Christmas. Or to yourself. And buy it from your local independent bookseller. Can’t find one? Look here.

Happy shopping!

>Transcending Art

>

The Yoknapatawpha Writers Group held its second annual Christmas meeting and dinner party this past Saturday, hosted again by Patti Trippeer here in Memphis. (Group photo by Doug McLain, includes: Herman King, Patti Trippeer, me, Michelle Bright and Daphne Davenport.) Ladder in background, I think Patti would want me to say, is because she’s not finished trimming her gorgeous Christmas tree! Last year’s party was in January, when things are a little calmer. It was brave of Patti to host this close to Christmas!

Coffee and breakfast treats and lunch and dinner were seamlessly interwoven throughout our day of critiquing each other’s manuscripts and challenging and encouraging one another in our craft. Six writers from five cities in three states came together for this intense twelve hours of work and play.

Writing groups can be very intimate settings for soul-baring and soul-searching and one must learn that delicate balance—allowing just the right amount of access to your soul. It’s difficult to hold onto the boundaries sometimes

As one person reveals the works she’s doing for a journalism class at Ole Miss and another begins to share family stories from a distinct but distant place and time, and another mixes memory with fiction in his stories from the war and yet another creates a voice like Scout in Mockingbird with her child-like clarity, we all are learning to treat each other’s treasures with tenderness but also with truthfulness.

And yes, I got my dander up when challenged to consider a different approach to my work and even a bit frustrated that I couldn’t find words to describe with clarity exactly what it is I’m trying to accomplish.

But this morning my frustration was greatly diminished when I read Haven Kimmel’s blog post. Haven was doing an email magazine interview and was stopped in her tracks by this seemingly simple but oh so complex and personal question:

“What do you hope to accomplish (italics mine) with your books?”


You’ve got to read her response! I’m not even going to quote much from it because it’s just too wonderful and I might misrepresent it. Except for this one part that I must share for those who might not go to her blog and read it:

Writing a book is an accomplishment in and of itself, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for. The question was phrased such that I imagined my books going out into the world and doing something, like qualifying for one of those obscure Norwegian sports in the winter Olympics. Maybe one of them would join a boy band, and another could buy a bar in the Florida Keys. Then I decided it was the pronoun “I.” I don’t have anything to do with this, the books are themselves, discrete. They aren’t about me, there is no “I” in them. I would argue that even the two memoirs aren’t about me: they are studies in a particular way of crafting memoir.

Studies in a particular way of crafting memoir. That’s it. That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not just about me or the other people involved in the memoir. I keep going back to what Scott Morris told me in the workshop at Ole Miss last June—you have to get up above the truth and create art.

I love the quote Haven opens with in today’s post:
The object of writing is to grow a personality which in the end allows one to transcend art. Lawrence Durrell
If that doesn’t make you want to read her blog post, I don’t have anything more to say to entice you. Just read it. Here.

So, I’ve interspersed photos from our day together on Saturday, and now I’ll close with a big THANK YOU to Patti for hosting (again) and to Herman for his amazing bananas foster and to Doug for the wine and fruit salad and to Daphne for being so wonderful (even though I did get mad at you) and for Michelle for her bubbly enthusiasm and youth that we all need a shot of. And to the spouses who made it for dinner—and I’m so sorry I didn’t get a picture of us all at the dinner table! But Doug sent me this one of my husband, with the caption, “Chilled.” I think that says it pretty well, Doug. Father Basil came straight from Vespers at St. John, where several new members were Chrismated, which explains the black cassock at the writing group party!

I really love each of you and am so blessed to have you as friends, and also to be able to trust you with my treasures. You are helping me grow a personality that will hopefully allow me to transcend art through my writing. Lofty goal? But isn’t that the only kind worth having?

>Born to Raise the Sons of Earth

>Last night a group of folks from my church went Christmas caroling at Kings Daughters and Sons Nursing Home here in Memphis. We’ve been doing this for several years, but I missed it the last couple of times the group went. I was especially interested in going this year, not only because I love Christmas carols, but also because now that my own mother is in a nursing home (in Jackson) I am more acutely aware of how much joy visitors in general, and children and music in particular, bring to nursing home residents.

Since we caroled at night, most of the residents were in their rooms, so we just paused in front of their doors and waved as we caroled up one hall and down another.

At times some of the residents who were out in their wheelchairs would catch up with us and roll along beside us. One in particular led the procession the whole time.

Since we only sing these carols at Christmas time, I forget about how wonderful the lyrics are… how rich in theology and how full of hope. For some reason I found myself singing this one when I got home last night and during the day today: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! You can read all the verses and listen to the instrumental version here.

I love this part:

Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Born to raise the sons of earth. Who are the sons of Earth? The people in the nursing homes are the sons of Earth. And so are those of us fortunate enough to be visiting them and singing carols. (Like little Sarah Anne, straining on tip toes to reach the high notes!) And… raise them how? Where? The Orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is all about restoring the image, God’s image in man, that was lost at the fall. Raising us up to be all that God created us to be. In this life. Now. But also in the life to come, as the line says, “Born that man no more may die.” So those are two gifts of the Christ child to us: restored life now and eternal life.

I almost got weepy a couple of times last night as I looked into the rooms where these people were confined. I thought about my mother and wondered how she was last night. This morning one of her nurses called to tell me that Mom’s hip seems to be healing, that she doesn’t mention any pain any more and is beginning to walk a little, thank God! But she also mentioned some concerns… she’s not eating well and is losing weight. I offered suggestions about snacks throughout the day, and small finger sandwiches rather than big “meat and 3” type meals, which she’s never preferred. Later in the day the nurse called me back to tell me all the things they were doing to help mom, including snacks 5 times a day, hydration with juice, and nutritional supplements in the form of smoothies and juices. Her tone was so compassionate that my eyes filled up with tears and I thanked her for taking such good care of my mother. She said, “Oh, you’re welcome! We love Miss Effie.”

Then I opened my mail and there was an invitation to the Christmas party at the nursing home, and the suggestion that we send a gift with her name on it by the day before the party, so that Santa’s helpers can give them out during the party. I’ll be visiting Mom the day after Christmas, but the party is on the 23rd so I won’t be there since we’re not visiting until the 26th. But her gift will be there. And Santa’s helpers, who are local volunteers.

It struck me how important volunteering is, not only for those in need, but for those doing the volunteering. It’s good for our souls. It raises us up and reminds us that we are the kings of Earth. It’s our job to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. There are endless opportunities to do this, all year long, but especially during this season. Our church took up toys for the Memphis Inter Faith Association’s Christmas store again this year, and we’re also putting together baskets for several families that we help on an on-going basis. We’re also collecting items for the children who go to Rachel’s Kids for after-school tutoring, where a number of our members have also volunteered as tutors. You can even make a donation to Rachel’s kids here.

You don’t have to look far to find someone in need. Even the guy at the corner holding the cardboard sign, who is also one of the sons of Earth.

>Scrambling

>

That’s what I’m doing these days—scrambling around trying to buy Christmas gifts and plan for all the festivities coming up and for some reason I have managed to schedule my annual physical exam for December (what was I thinking? I think it’s been slipping a month later each year since it used to be in March, near my birthday, so I could remember it!) But it’s today. Also my mammogram. Don’t you just love ‘em? I’m sure some guy invented the darn thing. But back to scrambling…

Last weekend a friend of mine from Memphis met his daughter in Jackson, Mississippi for the weekend. (She was there for a business trip.) He asked me for suggestions for entertainment, and I put him onto Hal and Mal’s… which has really good shrimp and oyster po boys and great down home music. Did I mention that the friend is Bill Stanek, a singer-songwriter himself?

Well, Saturday night at Hal and Mal’s a group called The Scramblers was playing, and when Bill got back to Memphis he emailed me to say that he and his daughter both thought the woman in the band looked like me, and wondered if it was a relative of mine down in Mississippi. He sent me a link to this picture.

And this closeup, and I thought oh, my gosh! My alter-ego! She really could be my younger sister, if I had one. Look at her face compared with me, when I was closer to her age. (left) Just imagine me in my wire rims.

Oh, here’s one of me with a cowboy hat and glasses, which might show the resemblance a bit more, although I’m a few decades older (right).

I know what you’re thinking, that all those trips I’ve been making to Jackson haven’t really been to take of my 80-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s, that I’ve been using that as an excuse to jam with The Scramblers at Hal and Mal’s. In my dreams.

Sixteen days ‘til Christmas—hope everyone is enjoying peace on Earth and goodwill towards man while you’re out there in the crowds at the malls. Or maybe, like me, you’re opting for more online shopping and even the ever-beloved but oh-so-impersonal gift cards. I always love getting them, don’t you? And today, I’d be happy to get anything but a mammogram. But here I go….

>Silver Bells, Medicare Part D, Jesus, Santa and Jerry Lee Lewis

>It’s December 6 and I don’t have the Christmas spirit yet. Or I didn’t until this afternoon. Today is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, which I posted about here. And a more extensive post last year, here. And yesterday we received this Christmas card, which I love. It was our third card this season, which also began to get me in the mood for Christmas, but it was also a reminder that I haven’t done anything to prepare. Usually by now I’ve decorated the house, bought most of my gifts and designed, printed, and mailed over 100 Christmas cards. Okay I know that’s a little over-the-top, but that’s how I’m wired and how I’ve functioned all my life. Until now. Today I was whining about this to a close friend and she said, “welcome to my world.” I think that was supposed to make me feel better. And it did.

So what’s been keeping me from preparing for Christmas? I guess it’s a combination of my work (writing) and travel (again for writing) and my husband’s surgery in Nashville and our trip to the beach for his “recovery,” and my mother’s broken hip, her two surgeries, and moving her from the hospital to one nursing/rehab center to another, all since October 1. Yep, that would be it. And I have to move everything out of her assisted living home by Christmas. Did I mention it’s not in Memphis? It’s in Jackson, Mississippi, so I’ve put some miles on my Camry this fall and winter.

Change of address forms, change of pharmacies, change of primary care physicians, change of physical therapists (from one nursing/rehab home to another), change of cable TV (3 times in 3 weeks, yes, even as she moves rooms in a nursing home, a technician has to come out and yes, there’s another fee) and even the morbid but necessary business of looking ahead by finalizing funeral arrangements… all the while withdrawing money from her Schwab account to pay for private duty sitters when I can’t be with her… it’s been overwhelming, but somehow it’s getting done. And like the song says, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Not only my close friends in Jackson that I’ve known for years, who fill in for me when I can’t be there, but even friends of my parents that I barely know. Like Guy Parker and his daughter Mary Lynn, who own Group Health Specialists . Guy responded to my email for help with Mom’s Medicare Part D situation by saying:

“Your mom and dad were important to Judy and my ‘journeys’, and we have fond memories of them. Send us the information we need and we’ll take care of this for you.”

Mom has had Humana as her Part D for the past couple of years, and it’s about to price itself out of the business, or at least that’s the word on the street. And not just on the street, but in the AARPBulletin which came in the mail today. There’s a good article called “Medicare Part D: How to Avoid Bigger Bills” here if you need to consider making a change for yourself or your parents. It’s so overwhelming to my brain and I am so thankful to Guy and Mary Lynn for their help! I just scanned all Mom’s info and emailed it to them yesterday. Changes to a new plan have to be made by December 31, of course, just a week after I have to have Mom’s stuff moved out of her assisted living apartment.

Every time I start to panic I just start humming, “I get by with a little help from my friends!” Thanks so much, Guy and Mary Lynn! You guys are what paying it forward is all about.

So this afternoon I decided to get out of the house and see if I could catch some Christmas spirit. I had some errands to run, at Wolf Photo, Kinko’s and Office Depot, but it was when I got to Pier One that I began to perk up. The shiny stuff, the sparkly things… brought to mind that old song, “Silver Bells” and I realized how much the “city sidewalks, even stop lights, blinked a bright red and green” and the decorations and the music in the stores cheered me. I bought this little tree…

And this matching garland (hard to see, but it’s on the mantle) and I came home and hung our stockings. Count ‘em—six! Tonight Oreo is snuggled in her little bed by the fire just waiting for everyone to come home. We’ll be welcoming my new daughter-in-law this Christmas, as she and Jason fly in from Denver on Christmas morning. So I bought a 6th stocking, this cute one here, for See. (That’s her name, “See.”) Twenty days and counting!

Here’s something on the light side that also perked up my holiday spirit today. The latest issue of Garden and Gun arrived in the mail recently and I finally took the time to sit and look at it and even read some of the articles, while watching the Alan Jackson special on CMT. (If you missed it, you can watch it, here.) If you’ve never seen Garden and Gun, you should check it out, if for no other reason than to feel the paper (yes) and look at the pictures. It’s just a beautiful publication. (Hey, Flannery O’Connor once bought a chess set just because she liked to feel the chess pieces; she couldn’t play chess. And she loved the way National Geographic smelled. “A sensualist I am,” she once said. I’m in good company!)

And the December/January issue has a fun article by Marshall Chapman callled “Whole Lotta Christmas: Making sense of Jesus, Santa and Jerry Lee Lewis.” Chapman tells a story about when she and her sister, Mary, hid in a closet to watch Santa on Christmas Eve, but got carried away in the closet, singing Jerry Lee Lewis’s song, “Whole Lotta’ Shakin’” but later felt guilty and asked Baby Jesus to forgive them “for being so bad on the eve of His birthday.” I am so there. I love it when people give themselves room to be human. Isn’t that why Jesus came in the first place? To redeem the image that fell and restore it?

I was re-reading part of Vigen Guroian’s http://www.guroian.com/Welcome.html wonderful book, Rallying the Really Human Things, the other day when I ran across his chapter about Flannery O’Connor, titled “The Art of Incarnation.” (The subtitle of the book is: the moral imagination in politics, literature and everyday life—don’t you just love it?) Anyway, the chapter on O’Connor is all about how she refuted Gnostism and promoted Christian humanism as she embraced the whole person. Guroian quotes from O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” at one point:

“The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil….This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so very much an incarnational art…. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust.”

Guroian later says:

“In her fiction, O’Connor…endeavors to show through narrative that the only real path to happiness is one that includes our bodies; not our bodies as mere bodies, but rather as no less than the whole person made in the image of God…. She concludes that the Christian writer must show in his art, therefore, that grace ‘penetrates the natural human world as it is,’ concrete and embodied.”

I think O’Connor would have enjoyed Chapman’s piece about Jesus, Santa and Jerry Lee Lewis. As Chapman says, fifty years after hiding in the closet with her sister on Christmas Eve:

“Now, in this holiday season, I often wake up in the middle of the night and tiptoe down the stairs, where I stand transfixed, staring at our Christmas tree with its lights all aglow like a thousand golden halos. And in that moment, the only thing I know for sure is that I am happy and at peace. And it makes no more sense, considering the broken world we live in, than flying reindeer, a virgin birth, and Jerry Lee Lewis. But I love it all. I have to. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

>I Hope You Dance II and Write, Don’t Pitch!

>Okay, the title for this post wasn’t meant to be as schizophrenic as it sounds. It’s just that I’ve got these two powerful topics on my mind and I want to give them both their due. So, this will be a two-part post.

The reason the first part of the post is called I Hope You Dance II is that I already did a post called I Hope You Dance, just over a year ago, here. It was about dancing with my friend, Urania, at a wedding, just two months before she died.

But this one is about my mother. Her physical therapist at the nursing home called today. They can’t get mom to cooperate with therapy. She’s in a wheelchair and might not ever walk again (she broke her hip in October and has had two surgeries… scroll down to posts in October and November to catch up) if she doesn’t do the physical therapy. But she doesn’t understand, or remember, that her hip is broken, or that she can’t walk. So they were asking for my help… for any suggestions.

I said, “She loves to dance. Put on some Benny Goodman and entice her onto the dance floor.”
“That might work,” the therapist agreed. “What else did she like to do in her past life? Did she garden or sew or paint or—”

“She was in a garden club and a luncheon club, and she painted in college, but we couldn’t get her to paint later in life. She sort of pulled out of her social circles when she and Dad started their own business, Phidippides Sports, in 1982. Mom ran the aerobic dancing part of the business. So, you could talk to her about aerobics at Phidippides and maybe that would get her going!”

This therapist was hanging on my every word, looking for something that might work. How can I ever thank her enough? These are good people.

Juxtaposed against the backdrop of my mother’s struggles with Alzheimers and broken hips and nursing homes is the ongoing issue of finding representation for my memoir. Just yesterday I received a lovely rejection letter from another literary agent in New York. You laugh. But listen to this:

We think you have something really original and unique here. Ms. [agent’s name] looked over the partial and proposal and didn’t quite think it was something she could place for you. The competition in memoir is fierce and though this has a nice hook, she doesn’t quite think it’s right for her. As this is a highly subjective business, we trust you’ll find representation elsewhere.

I have some writer friends who have wallpapered their bathrooms with such rejection letters.

So, when I shared the news with friends in writing groups and friends who are, well, just friends, the responses weren’t all exactly what I would have expected. In fact, two very close friends began to talk about how I should maybe finish writing the book first, before continuing to seek representation. They had some pretty powerful arguments to make for this approach, and I have to admit I was caught up short by them. Especially since they came the day after I read this article in the new (February 2009—in December?) issue of Writer’s Digest by Susan Shapiro called, “ Nonfiction: Don’t Pitch—Write.”

Shapiro got my attention when she wrote:

“Yes, I know… scribes who’ve signed six-figure memoir contracts based on 30-page summaries and a sample chapter…. But I’ve also heard follow-up nightmares about authors who had to pay back huge advances three year later because they couldn’t come up with what they’d promised.”
Yeah… I’ve thought about that. Can I deliver what I promise? Do I over-sell myself, and my writing, at times?

But there’s something deeper at work here, as Sharpiro’s article continues:

“When I started my addiction memoir, Lighting Up, I thought I’d chronicle the process of quitting my fierce 27-year two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. By the time I finished the addiction therapy I needed for research, I’d also quit alcohol, marijuana, gum and bread, and found that the only thing I was still addicted to was my addiction specialist. I hadn’t anticipated this humorous twist and ‘the substance shuffle’ turned out to be extremely common with addicts, and a huge asset because a no one had done that angle before. Your story often turns into a different story you can’t control. Give yourself time and space to let it evolve.”

I’m listening. I’m not convinced yet, but I’m listening.

And yes, I queried one more agent today.

Just couldn’t help it. Maybe I’m addicted to the marketing process. Just hope I can deliver the goods when the time comes!

Have a great weekend, everyone! Thanks for reading.

© Copyright SusanCushman.com