>Freedom

>

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose….”


The Janis Joplin song came on my husband’s satellite radio as we were driving back to Memphis from Seagrove Beach, Florida, on Monday. We’re a lot like Donnie & Marie Osmond in our music tastes—I’m a little bit country; he’s a little bit rock ‘n roll. So we go back and forth between the Nashville country stations and the classic rock stations when we travel together. But my husband loves the music that was big when we were dating, in the 60s. And that music has been streaming into my email box with a vengeance lately… from Chuck Anepohl. Chuck is a classmate of mine from the Murrah High School class of 1969. We’re having our 40th Class Reunion in Jackson, Mississippi this July 31/August 1, and classmates are coming out of the woodwork in response to Chucks emails, each one having another song from our era attached.

I’d be less than honest if I said that I have no reservations about going to the reunion. I skipped the 30th, after feeling kinda’ like an outsider at the 10th and 20th. My high school, at least at the height of its glory—in the 60s—was full of Golden Boys and Beauty Queens. Beautiful People. It was like practice for Ole Miss, where I went to college my freshman year. So many movers and shakers … I feel like I need to lose 30 pounds and get a book published before going to the reunion! So, the book thing isn’t going to happen. And I’ve been trying to shake this 30 pounds for 20 years. So, if I go back, I go back just like I am. In 3 months and 3 days from today. Several things have helped bolster my courage:

A few months ago I began to reconnect with a few classmates I hadn’t seen or communicated with in, well, 40 years. One of them, who will go unnamed because he would be embarrassed, was someone I was totally intimidated by during high school. I thought he was “too cool” to speak to me, so I would look the other way when I passed him in the halls. Turns out he’s a great guy. We’ve connected a little bit through writing, and I told him how I felt in school and he said, “We were all scared to death back then. It was just a façade… acting cool like that.”

Some folks reading this won’t believe that I felt this way, because I had lots of “honors” in school—I was Secretary of the Student Council and voted a “Favorite” in the Feature Pageant, an officer in the theater guild, business manager of the school newspaper, honors and activities that led to my being inducted into the Hall of Fame. But I was so lonely. Even with a non-stop flow of boyfriends (which I clung to in my insecurity) I never felt like I “fit in.” Thirty-something years

later I would learn some things about myself that explained some of my outsider status—my inability to connect, intimately, with people. But I still struggle to believe it wasn’t because my thighs weren’t skinny. Or my hair wasn’t perfect. Or my—fill in the blank….

So today when I picked up yesterday’s New York Times and read the Sunday Styles section’s article about Susan Boyle, “Yes, Looks Do Matter,” I wasn’t really comforted. The psychiatrists and sociologists and journalists quoted in the article pretty much gave us all a nice big hall pass—an excuse for the judgments we make about people based on their appearance. Even Boyle herself is resigned to it, saying: “There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are.”


Okay I get what the NYU psychology professor says about stereotypes being “a necessary mechanism for making sense of information,” but I don’t think we, as fallen human beings, stop at that. I think we go far beyond categorizing. I thinkwe judge. And it causes wounds that can last a lifetime. So how do we break free from those wounds? How do we quit caring what people think of us? Is Susan Boyle immune to it? She’s made a change in her looks since her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

Check out the difference in these photos.

While we were at the beach I read two amazing books. I’m saving one of them to review in June, just before its release. (I got an advance copy.) But I’m dying to talk about how the author also felt this pressure to perform, this hunger for applause, this people-pleasing urge. And how, even at the end, having been through an unbelievable life-changing experience, he still felt that way, to a degree. The experience helped him grow, but he wasn’t a completely different person. He left room for “discovery,” as I discussed in my last post. That’s something I’m working on in my own writing.

So, instead, I’ll talk about the other book I read at the beach, Same Kind of Different As Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Ron Hall was an upscale art dealer in Fort Worth when his wife, Deborah, plunged them into the world of the homeless, including Denver Moore. Denver grew up in modern-day slavery on a plantation in Louisiana, escaping to the streets, which seemed a luxury by comparison. I won’t spoil the story line (it’s a true story) by saying too much, because I really hope you read this book, but I learned something about freedom from it. Denver was more free than the rich people who were enslaved to their “stuff” and their way of life. And he freed some of those who were slaves to riches and image and comfort through the big heart of one woman who had enough love and courage to cross the line, over the stereotypes, over several comfort zones, to truly love without prejudice. (He eventually became in artist himself. You can see his work here.)

This is Denver, with Ron Hall, the art dealer.

It got me to thinking about the slavery I’ve lived in for almost 60 years, and how maybe it’s a slavery of my own making. This caring about what other people think to the point of trying to “achieve” acceptance. But how does one break free of this?

Maybe recognizing the chains is the starting point. And that’s where I am today. Wanting to break free, but realizing that I still believe I have something to lose… which makes me a slave to things I wouldn’t want to lose. Or to things I want but don’t think I can ever have.

Either way, maybe Joplin was right: Maybe freedom is about having nothing left to lose.

>Discovery

>“Discovery consists in seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”—Albert Szent-Gyoryi

When I read that quote in the middle of an article in VIE-people+places by Chris Kent, I knew he had a message for me. Kent is the man responsible for spear-heading the real estate sales here at Seaside since its beginning, in 1981. (Since then Chris has consulted in over 60 communities regionally, nationally, and internationally.) I say “here” at Seaside, because I’m writing this post from Seaside, Florida. Amazing place. It’s a warm April afternoon on the patio at Amavida Coffee. I picked up a copy of VID-people+places yesterday and have been enjoying this article.

Kent wasn’t interested in real estate sales when he met Robert Davis, Seaside’s founder. He had been reading fiction, philosophy, psychology, anthropology… and he found, in Seaside, “a laboratory to test whether people could understand and embrace depth and subtleties presented at a level beyond those found in a typical real estate brokerage office.”

He found all that and more. He found a place that didn’t need “selling” in the traditional sense. Seaside only needed to be discovered, and embraced. As he said, “Our role was shifting from ‘selling’ to acting as guides and interpreters of the physical and cultural elements of place.”

That’s what I’m doing this week, on vacation in next-door Seagrove Beach, and also hanging out here at Seaside as much as possible. Listening to local music while enjoying great food and wine on the patio at Café Rendezvous one night… watching sunsets on the beach other nights… reading some really good books (more on them in another post) … and taking a bit of a break from writing. But still thinking about my work… my essays, and especially my memoir. Thinking about how it needs more discovery.

Discovery is an important element in creative writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. The writer leaves something for the reader to discover… and even for herself—the writer—some room for discovery is essential to keep the story alive… open, not so tightly wound. This is really difficult for me. I like everything wrapped up neatly. Yeah, I’ve never been comfortable with loose ends. But I’m learning. And the beach helps. Several people have asked me what the bumper sticker on my car means: the waves represent the ocean, and sowal means South Walton County, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

I’m posting from Amavida Coffee in Seaside ‘cause there’s no wi-fi in our condo this time…

But it’s a great excuse to hang out in Seaside… and buy more pearls from Wendy and Jean-Noel Mignot at their shop, La Vie Est Belle , which is right next door to the Café Rendezvous Wine Bar.

This trip I got these earrings to match the necklace and bracelet from previous visits. The Mignots are going to be in Memphis with their jewelry at a show Memorial Day weekend… I’ll post details closer to the date and invite some friends to go with me!

So many treasures here… like the folks you meet from all over the place. Two of our “neighbors” at the condo this week are this couple from Atlanta… I caught them doing “bench aerobics”on the bench near our patio one morning..

and then I was even more impressed when the woman started doing pushups! Well, at least I did an hour walk on the beach every morning. And of course hubby got in his 5-mile run everyday on the bike and jogging path of nearby “highway” 30-A.

We had dinner at “Fish Out of Water” in the Watercolor Inn one night… and caught sunset on the balcony as we ravished our lemon drop martinis (yum!)…

Coffee every morning on our first-floor patio with steps to the beach was magical…

Tonight we’re headed to Stinky’s down on Santa Rosa … after enjoying “just one more sunset” in Seagrove…

I’m rambling now so I can hurry and post these photos while enjoying $2 Chardonnay from Modica Grocery’s “happy hour” …

We’ll be heading home on Monday, and I’ll get back to regular email, blogging and Twittering… but you know it’s been kinda’ nice to be less attached to it for a few days. This may be the most relaxed I’ve been in a while….

… searching for that lost shaker of salt….

>Got Poetry?

>Only 9 more days of National Poetry Month left, and I’ve barely given it a mention this year! It’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it… and reading it… and reading about it quite a bit. But two things happened yesterday to prompt this post:

The May/June issue of Poets & Writers arrived in the mail, and a friend invited me to hear the Orthodox poet, writer and speaker, Scott Cairns, in Oxford on May 2 and 3. In his biography on the Orthodox Speakers Website, Cairns talks about his journey to Orthodoxy and his development as a poet: “the poems —the writing of the poems, learning to lean into the language, learning to trust poetry as my vocation— actually led me to Orthodoxy.” He has also written a memoir about visiting Mount Athos, A Short Trip to the Edge, and several others books of poetry and prose.

My first brush with Cairns’ art happened last May, when I discovered his book of paraphrased mystical writings, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. I blogged about it and excerpted from it here. So, if you’re interested, Cairns is speaking at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Oxford at 5:30 p.m. on May 2, and again on Sunday morning. A bit of info from their announcement:

On Saturday, May 2nd at 5:30, renowned spiritual writer and poet Scott Cairns will conduct an informal discuss/Q & A about writing, creativity, spirituality and religion.
On Sunday, May 3rd, Mr. Cairns will be featured at the adult forum. He will read briefly from his poems and/or memoir, followed by a Q & A.

Scott Cairns (pronounced K-air-nz, one syllable, “air” in the middle) is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Missouri. His work has been featured in The Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton-Mifflin), and his memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, was recently published by HarperCollins. A dynamic reader and speaker, as well as one of the most prominent spiritual writers in the U.S., Cairns received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006.

I’m looking forward to heading down to Oxford on May 2 with a friend, so I’ll report back in a couple of weeks!

Poets & Writers always has some great stuff in it, and this issue did not disappoint. However, since I write prose rather than poetry, I always head for any craft articles about memoir and essay, and also interviews with agents and editors. I won’t spend any time commenting on my reads in this issue, but instead would like to congratulate two friends on their awards which are announced in P&W:

Dinty Moore, with whom I studied at the Creative Nonfiction Conference last year, won the 2008 Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize for his essay collection Between Panic and Desire, which I blogged about here. Congratulations, Dinty!

The second name I recognized in the awards section of P&W was Ravi Howard of Mobile, Alabama, whom I enjoyed meeting this past November at Southern Writers Reading, down in Fairhope, Alabama. Ravi was the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for his novel, Like Trees, Walking. (This award honors an African American author for a book of fiction.) Ravi lived in my home town of Jackson, Mississippi for part of his childhood, and I enjoyed hearing Ravi read from this book last year. Kudos, Ravi!

On a different but related note, a friend reminded me the other day of the treasure-trove the Scriptures are, and how they’re offered up to us over and over in the services of the Orthodox Church… especially the Psalms. I memorized a fair amount of scripture growing up, but the verses that are in my heart now are there just from repetition in the services. And yes, in times of fear, anxiety, depression, they can be an arsenal against the enemies of soul and spirit. As the Psalmist says, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11).
John Burgess, in his book, Why Scripture Matters, says: In hearing and repeating Scriptures daily, early Benedictine monks memorized large portions of it. Because they would then recite Scriptures to themselves as they worked, they were sometimes known as “the munchers.”…. The traditional training of Orthodox priests included memorization of all 150 Psalms.
Burgess also talks about how various people during times of imprisonment have been strengthened by the Scriptures that are embedded in their hearts, giving them “assurance that God had not abandoned them, that God was indeed with them.” He goes on to say, “In a word-weary world, memorization is a lost art.”

I was thinking about his words when I picked up last Sunday’s (April 5) copy of the New York Times Book Review and read the essay on the back inside cover, “Got Poetry?” by Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. Holt started memorizing poetry a few years ago, and now has about 100 poems in his mental cache, including some as long as 2,000 lines! He takes them in short pieces, reciting them while jogging or just walking around Manhattan. Holt shares tips on the process of memorizing, but it’s the why that struck me:

“At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.”
Kind of like the monks “munching” on God’s word during the day.
Holt quotes Clive James’s book, Cultural Amnesia, where he declares that “the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.”
Maybe there’s really that much at stake. Or maybe it’s just a heightened experience of pleasure (poetry) or spirituality (Scriptures) that I’m intrigued by. For Holt, it was definitely the former:
It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within.
I’m reminded that every time I’ve heard my favorite poet, Beth Ann Fennelly, “read” from her work, she rarely looks at the written words on the pages in front of her. Her poetry is a part of her, and her delivery is much more transparent as a result. And really, I think the same can be said about reciting the Psalms, or even prayers, in church. During the sections of the service that I know by heart, my intellect gets out of the way and lets my heart take over.

I’m leaving for the beach (Seagrove) tomorrow through Monday…. and maybe I’ll take along a few of my favorite poems and try memorizing them on my morning walks. Ahhh, I can almost smell the ocean breeze now. But I’m leaving Memphis with a mixture of joy and sadness, as my dear friend, Nancy, lost her husband Lloyd to cancer today. I was blessed to spend some time with them on Friday, and I hope that my presence was even a tiny balm on Nancy’s pain. (This is Nancy and Lloyd about a year ago.) And that hope is expressed beautifully in one of my favorite poems, (which was also set to music by Kim Delmhorst, “Invisible Choir,” on her Strange Conversation CD), so I’ll leave you with George Eliot’s 1867 poem: (the last verse is my favorite)
O May I Join the Choir Invisible
Longum Illud tempus, Quum Non Ero, Magis Me Movet, Quam Hoc Exiguum.—Cicero, Ad Att., Xii. 18O
MAY I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, fail’d, and agoniz’d
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolv’d;
Its discords, quench’d by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.

And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobb’d religiously in yearning song,
That watch’d to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better,—saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shap’d it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mix’d with love,
—That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gather’d like a scroll within the tomb
Unread forever.

This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow.
May I reach That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!

So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

>Christ Has Risen and the Women Dance With Joy!

>Christ is Risen! Today is Pascha for Orthodox Christians all over the world… including my brothers and sisters here at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, where the celebration is ongoing with today’s “Agape Vespers,” egg hunt and picnic. But let’s back up to yesterday:

Holy Saturday afternoon brought a heightening festive spirit to the kitchen at St. John where a few of the women in the choir gathered to practice new music and “help” the others who were preparing the Easter Soup. Many thanks especially to Kim and Mindy, my main cooks… but also to Christine, for squeezing all the lemons!

Chopping green onions, cilantro and parsley… squeezing lemons… browning the ground lamb… sautéing the spices… simmering the soup…

All the while enjoying a little wine (as is allowed on Holy Saturday) and the feeling of being inside a multi-tasking spiritual organism… others were decorating the nave and fellowship hall with flowers for the feast, while others still were upstairs reading scriptures during the vigil.

And finally, at 11 p.m., we gathered to begin the Feast of Feasts. It was raining, so we weren’t able to do an outdoor procession this year, but that didn’t dampen our joy. At. All.

One of my favorite hymns of Pasch says it all:

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered!
A sacred Pascha today hath been shown unto us:
a Pascha new and holy,
a Pascha mystical,
a Pascha all venerable,
a Pascha that is Christ the Redeemer;
a Pascha immaculate, a great Pascha;
a Pascha of the faithful;
a Pascha that hath opened the gates of Paradise unto us;
a Pascha that doth sanctify all the faithful.

As smoke vanisheth so let them vanish!
Come from the vision, O ye women, bearers of good tidings, and say ye unto Sion:
receive from us the good tidings of the Resurrection of Christ; adorn thyself, exult, and rejoice, O Jerusalem, for thou hast seen Christ the King come forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.

So let sinners perish at the presence of God and let the righteous be glad!
The myrrh-bearing women in the deep dawn stood before the tomb of the Giver of life; they found an angel sitting upon the stone, and he, speaking to them, said thus: Why seek ye the living among the dead? Why mourn ye the incorruptible amid corruption?
Go, proclaim unto His disciples.
This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad therein!

Pascha the beautiful, Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha, the Pascha all-venerable hath dawned upon us. , with joy let us embrace one another. O Pascha! Ransom from sorrow, for from the tomb today, as from a bridal chamber hath Christ shone forth, and hath filled the women with joy, saying: proclaim unto the apostles.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Both now and
ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

It is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say: Brethren, even to them that hate us, let us forgive all things on the Resurrection, and thus let us cry out:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, And on those in
the tombs bestowing life.

I was missing my children… I think this might be the first year that none of my three grown kids were able to come home for Pascha, so I was especially clingy to my 6-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, who obliged with lots of hugs and smiles all weekend.

And this amazing card she drew for my husband me. Look at the depths of spiritual symbols in her art work… souls raising from the dead… a spiral which represents God’s wisdom and the angels… the heart at the center of the cross, because without love sacrifice is meaningless…
After sleeping from 3:30 – 9:30 a.m., we joined Sophie’s family for a morning brunch, and again, it was Sophie who warmed my spirit, along with her little sister, Isabelle, by joining me in some joyful Middle Eastern dancing by their pool house… (music and photography by their father)…

So, I’ll leave you with these images…

Because, even as a writer, I still agree,

That a picture is worth a thousand words.

(Nawar did a video with the music, but I didn’t ask for it to download here, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Here’s a hint: when it comes to moving our hips, it’s in the genes. As in Sophie and Isabelle’s genes. I’m from Mississippi, remember? But hey—I do the best I can.)
Christ hath shown forth and filled the women with joy!
What a beautiful and mystical Pascha!

>Who Wears the Face of God?

>My cup runneth over. So much going on—I could fill several blog posts. The only thing to do is combine several items that each deserve their own post. [Reminder for blog newbies: click on anything that's underlined to link to more information.] I’ll begin with another book review:

The Unbreakable Child by
Kim Michele Richardson

A Pen & Palette Book Review

“Who wears the face of God?” This question is asked, silently for the most part, about a half dozen times throughout Kim Richardson’s gritty memoir about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the nuns and priests in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Kentucky in the 1960s. First she asks her attorney, William F. McMurry, and later she asks the Catholic Church’s attorneys. She asks Father Lammers, the priest who abused her, her older sisters, and numerous other orphans. With years of pent-up emotion she finally asks God, Himself:

“I’m so disappointed in you, God…. You forgot to tell the world, I was supposed to be a princess, God, a princess!”

Finally she concludes that her attorney, the one helping her, is actually the one who wears the face of God for her, all the while declaring that “only the innocent child could wear the face of God.” Her innocence, and that of the forty-four other children, now adults, who received a monetary settlement from the order of Roman Catholic nuns for decades of abuse, could never be restored, but, as McMurry says in his Afterword, “Kim’s book will empower all of us to look beyond the cloak of secrecy of any institution responsible for the protection of children.”

It’s a scary thing to confront evil when it’s embedded in the church. One of Kim’s sisters, a cancer survivor, backed out of participation in the law suit near the end because of this fear, saying, “Have you ever thought, Kimmi, God will punish us if we punish the Catholic Church and their priest and brides of Christ? Maybe I’ll get the cancer back.”

My own memoir-in-progress contains elements of abuse, so I thought I was ready to read Kim’s story without flinching. I was wrong. I flinched. I wept. I raged. But most importantly, I took some personal steps towards forgiving those who hurt me—and those who allowed it—because of Kim’s amazing journey of forgiveness. I also took a long, hard look at my own dysfunctional ways of dealing with my abuse, compared with Kim’s commitment not to give in to the things that ultimately destroyed one of her sisters, who followed their own mother’s path of drug and alcohol addiction.

I read with admiration as Kim “wavered between guilt and rage” and even felt compassion for the nuns themselves, “the dysfunction of these innocents.” I read with amazement as she told of keeping her silence about the abuse, even from her husband until she began the depositions. “I felt as if I were abandoning God, my soul. I prayed for forgiveness. I wished I could talk to God about it… but my voice screamed silence…. And with age came more silence…”

The Unbreakable Child moves seamlessly between the graphic scenes of a nightmarish childhood and the present depositions and interactions with her attorney, her husband, and her grown siblings. The scenes within the orphanage are written without judgment. She just tells the story, almost as if she were writing fiction, and lets the story reveal the truth—emotional and actual—to the reader. So, from a literary point of view, Unbreakable Child is creative nonfiction done well, a beautiful example of the old adage, “Show, don’t tell.”
Kim’s on her first book tour now. You can read about it and see photos on her blog. Just before her book launch, she took time to speak with me on the phone at length about my own writing, sharing wisdom from her experience dealing with agents, editors, publishers, and lawyers. A generous woman, on top of being creative, brave and …. yes, unbreakable. Kudos, Kimmi!

Next, Holy Week Continues…

Last night was Holy Unction—the service of anointing with holy oil for healing—the Holy Wednesday service in the Orthodox Church. I lit a candle for Kimmi, and thought about her a lot during the service. And when the priests anointed me with the oil of healing, I thanked God for these good men who love and protect their people, unlike the priest who abused Kimmi. One of the three priests anointing us tonight was my husband, Father Basil. That’s him in the picture. My six-year-old Godddaugher, Sophie, slept in my arms for much of the service, but woke in time for the anointing. I explained what was happening, and she said, “So, the holy oil on my hands will help me not to hit? And the holy oil on my mouth will help me not to say bad things?” She gets it. If only the nuns and priest at Kimmi’s orphanage had gotten it.

Today is Holy Thursday. Read my post from last year for info about dying eggs red and be sure and read the comments at the end for important tips from Erin and Anne Marie! This afternoon we’ll celebrate the Last Supper, and Jesus’ act of washing His disciple’s feet.
Then we’ll have a meal together in the fellowship hall. Afterwards we’ll return to the nave for the Twelve Gospel Readings that tell the story of Christ’s crucifixion.

And then comes Holy Friday. I won’t be blogging on Holy Friday this year, but you can watch videos and see photos and read about last year’s services here. There’s Royal Hours. Then the women and children decorate the bier, and in the afternoon there’s the Taking Down from the Cross. And Friday night is maybe my favorite service, the Lamentations.

On Holy Saturday, after the morning service, during which I usually fall in love with my husband all over again (he’s the one throwing the bay leaves with such vigor in these videos) I’ll be making Easter (Lamb) Soup again. This year I’ve invited some of the younger women at St. John to join me in the church kitchen Saturday afternoon to help me make the soup—I’m wanting to pass on this tradition, which was taught to me by my dear friend, Urania, before she died in October of 2007. I miss her so much. Here’s the recipe:
Easter (Lamb) Soup

This is the recipe in St. John Cooks, originally contributed by Urania Alissandratos, with a few alterations* made by Urania’s daughter Julia and me, from our experience making the soup together in 2008. Also, the amounts have been adjusted for making a large pot to serve at the Paschal feast at church, rather than the smaller pot for eating at home. Suggestions for making it in stages before, during and after Pascha Liturgy are also included.

8-10 lbs. ground lamb
(depending upon how meaty you want it)
1 large batch parsley
1 large batch cilantro
4 bunches green onions
2 yellow onions
2 T fresh dill
1 stick butter
salt and pepper to taste

Ingredients for Avgolemono Sauce:

15 eggs
juice of 12 lemons
5 T cornstarch

Wash and chop onions, parsley, and cilantro. Brown meat until juices are absorbed. Do NOT drain off fat.* Add 1 stick butter. Add all chopped ingredients and cook until tender. Add enough water to make soup. This is a personal choice, as to how thick you want the soup. Cover and simmer one hour. While it’s cooking, prepare the Avgolemono sauce:

Squeeze 12 lemons, removing and disposing of seeds. Dissolve 5 tablespoons cornstarch in ½ cup of the lemon juice. In large bowl beat 15 eggs ‘til fluffy. Add the lemon juice and cornstarch mixture and the rest of the juice from the lemons. Put all of this into a large jar with a lid, or a large plastic container with a tightly fitting top and shake together well. Place in refrigerator for use after Paschal Liturgy.

Cool soup enough to place the pot in the refrigerator. This first part can be done as early as Holy Thursday, or as late as Holy Saturday afternoon. It is not recommended that lamb soup be cooked on Holy Friday. (It’s traditional not to cook or eat any food on Holy Friday.)

When arriving at church for the liturgy on Saturday night, place the soup on the stove on low and stir. Come into the kitchen once or twice during the liturgy to stir and be sure the soup gets hot but doesn’t boil over. Immediately after communion, return to the kitchen and get the Avgolemono sauce out of the refrigerator and shake vigorously once more. Remove lid. Pour sauce into small saucepan. Gradually add broth from soup so that eggs do not curdle. Finally, add blended sauce and broth from saucepan into large soup pot, stirring constantly. (See why it helps to have more than one set of hands!)

Last: Add salt and pepper to taste. It’s better to wait and add these last for two reasons: (1) You can’t taste the soup if you’re fasting on Saturday afternoon, and (2) It’s really better to add salt near the end because it loses its flavor when it’s cooked for a long time.

I’ll think about Urania and her husband Andy when I have my cup of soup, along with a glass of champagne, after the midnight Pascha service, greeting others with “Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!”… “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!” Urania would love this next part:
Our Baby Robins!

For several weeks now I’ve been watching a mother bird build her nest just a few feet from our front door, on top of a brick column on our front porch, lay her eggs, and sit patiently protecting them through the storms of the past few weeks.

Today when I looked up at the nest while showing a visitor out the front door, we saw them—four baby robins!

To keep from scaring them, I’ve been watching them through the front windows, and taking pictures through the transom above the front door.

Once I opened the door and snatched a couple of better pictures while the mother was off digging worms.

What a joy to watch her arrive back with food for them and see their tiny beaks rise up out of the nest like the trumpet section of an orchestra!

The intimacy of this image, of the mother feeding her young, reminded me of something Frances Mayes wrote, in her essay in All Out of Faith: Southern Women On Spirituality: “Intimacy. The feeling of touching the earth as Eve touched it, when nothing separated her.”

What a beautiful way to anticipate Christ’s glorious resurrection in just three more days!

And remember that whole thing about rhythm vs. balance in my last post? Well, with all that’s going on this week, I’ve decided to go with the “rhythm” that’s telling me to slow down and not stress myself by trying to do too much. So… this year I won’t be dying eggs. Or hosting a Pascha Brunch at our house on Sunday morning. Instead, maybe I’ll have the time and energy to be more present with those around me… my family and friends who wear the face of God.

>Rethinking the whole BALANCE thing…

>Since my posts earlier this year about finding Order Out of Chaos, I’ve been struggling to balance those 3 goalswrite, exercise, organize. In fact, recently I’ve pretty much given up the struggle, and adopted a much less balanced lifestyle: write, write, write. Exercising 3+ times a week has turned into maybe once a week, which has resulted in weight gain and increased arthritis pain, depression, lack of energy, etc. And it seems all I can do to keep the progress I made on organizing from backsliding, when what I really need is to keep going with the projects.

Just today I found Julie Verleger’s “Organized Home” blog, and website, both through Twitter . As I looked through some of her posts, I couldn’t help but wonder, “when does she have time to post and tweet? Does she actually have time to enjoy the order in her own home, her own life? Is she at peace?”

If you keep up with my blog, you know that one third of my goals is actually going well—I’m writing prolifically and continuing to publish essays and not losing hope in querying agents with my book proposal. So… how come I’m not at peace?

Yesterday I found an article in the May issue of Working Mother that spoke to my struggle with balance. It was the cover story, “This is How She Does It,” by Suzanne Riss that caught my attention. Riss was writing about Blair Christie, a 37 year old SVP of a big corporation, who juggles work with a marriage of ten years and mothering two daughters, ages 6 and 3, all while looking gorgeous. I read the entire article, which chronicled Blair’s parents’ divorce, her career path, a high risk pregnancy, her leadership qualities…. Until finally, I got to the last section of the four-page article and read the subtitle, “The Balance Myth.” Here’s an excerpt:

One thing you won’t hear Blair talk about is balance. She prefers to talk about work/life integration. “We have it in cycles,” she says. “Sometimes my home life is very important, and it needs more than fifty percent of my focus. Other times it’s work. It’s about finding the right rhythm.” Blair readily admits that some weeks she never finds the right rhythm, and that’s okay, too. She wishes working parents would be less harsh with themselves.

I think we can expand her words to apply to everyone, not just “working parents.” My kids are grown, and I work at home, on my own schedule, and I can’t seem to find the right rhythm. Or maybe I’ve got it but just don’t recognize it because of feelings of guilt about the areas that are being ignored at the time. Rhythm and balance aren’t really the same thing, are they? Come to think of it, I’ve always had rhythm.

Okay, enough about the whole write, organize, exercise thing. You won’t hear me talk about trying to balance that trio here again. Now I’m going for the rhythm thing. I feel better already! Excuse me, I’ll be right back.
I’m back now. Had to get up and do a little dance. And sing along with this amazing woman, who inspires me to keep plugging away, hoping that one day an agent or publisher will respond the way Simon Cowell did.

Yeah, that felt good, but…. something’s still bothering me. Maybe it’s spiritual. Did you notice that none of those three goals for 2009 was “pray”? But prayer is something ongoing, no matter what other activities are pressing, right? Or at least it should be. One of my favorite theologians is Saint Theophan, the Recluse. In his wonderful book, The Path to Salvation (and his earlier work, The Spiritual Life, which is incorporated into the larger book) Saint Theophan says that man has three levels of life:

spiritual: communion with God, prayer, worship, sacrament, fellowship, “interior work”
intellectual: reading, art, music, philosophy, science, educational pursuits, “mental work”
corporeal: food, housing, clothing, rest, exercise, sex, “physical work”

He says that each level has needs which are natural and peculiar to each person. And while it’s important to satisfy our intellectual and corporeal needs, it’s the balanced satisfaction of them that gives man peace:

Spiritual needs are above all, and when they are satisfied… peace exists; but when the spiritual needs are not satisfied… there is no peace. That is why the satisfaction of them is called “the one thing needful….”

During this Holy Week (for Orthodox Christians, in case you’re new to my blog) I’m trying to refocus my attention more to spiritual things, and as a result, I seem to upsetting the whole apple cart, so to speak. Just take a look at bthe levels of life into which my three goals fit:

Write—intellectual “mental work”
Exercise—corporeal “physical work”
Organize—corporeal “physical work”

All of this, whether kept in balance or not, leaves very little room for “interior work,” during “normal times,” much less during Great Lent and Holy Week, when extra prayers and church services and fasting are called for.

So, what have I learned from all this? I’ll try to sum it up:

Rhythm is as important as—or for some people maybe even more important than—balance when it comes to our intellectual and corporeal lives.

But balance is crucial when you bring in the spiritual life. As Theophan says, “the balanced satisfaction of them gives man peace.” And what kind of peace?

“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”—John 14:27

Tonight is the final—and my favorite—of the three Holy Week services of Bridegroom Orthros. It includes the beautifully penitential “Hymn of Kassiane.” I love this part of the hymn:

I will cover your spotless feet with kisses, then dry them with my tresses.
That’s an icon of Saint Cassiane, at right. Tomorrow night is Holy Unction. Healing. Balance. Rhythm. Peace. It’s a lot to take in… but God is with us.

>Caffeine-free Toothpaste

>LISTEN: twenty-nine short conversations:
A Pen & Palette Book Review

Corey Mesler who owns Burke’s Books in Memphis, (with his wife, Cheryl) sent me a copy of his first collection of short stories. It’s called LISTEN: twenty-nine short conversations. Corey is a poet, and his gift is apparent in this diverse collection of lyrical prose, erotic email exchanges, gritty conversations between x-lovers, and interactions that dip into forbidden realms between therapist and hypnotized client. He includes exchanges between the ghosts of musicians past and unorthodox interviews with living artists. Corey captures words fresh from the lips of everyday people and stirs them together with his own dark roux for a spicy hot literary gumbo.

Marly Youmans describes Listen in her blurb as “… the still point of a see-saw between up-light and down-dark….” Yeah. That’s exactly what I was thinking.

My personal favorite is “Adman.” Maybe because I always crack up when products like fruit and vegetables are advertised as being “fat free,” when they never had fat to start with. Mesler’s “Adman” is point on with his caffeine-free toothpaste, and it speaks volumes to the buyer’s perception of truth, and ultimately, to the Adman’s wife’s perception of him. Good stuff.

Also liked “Punk Band.” Made me think of the lyrics to a Brad Paisley (apologies to Corey) song: If you’re living in a world that you don’t understand, find a few good buddies, start a band. I’m sure much of Corey’s genius is lost on my parochial mind—it’s such a stretch for me to travel with him into the darkness of “The Hen Man,” and I felt guilty relishing the artsy gore of “His Last Work.” But I know good writing when I read it, and this is good. It’s like Jill McCorkle said in “Cuss Time,” when an elderly woman approached her after one of her readings and fussed at her for using bad words: “I wanted to say fuck you, and even knowing it would have been completely out of character for me to do so, I like knowing that I could have.” My point is, I won’t ever write like Corey, and I might even blush a little bit while reading his work, but when no one is looking, I might say, “Wow.”

>Crawfish, Crab Cakes and a Guest from China

>Palm Sunday weekend is a festive break between Great Lent and Holy Week for Orthodox Christians. Our festivities were heightened and brightened by a visit from our daughter, Beth, and a friend of hers from school. Beth and Xin are both graduate students in architecture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. When a number of their classmates took a trip to Xin’s home town—Beijing, China—in March, Xin played hostess much of the time. Beth wanted to return the favor, so she brought Xin home and showed her Memphis. This is Xin. We fell in love with her this weekend, and hope she’ll visit again.

I hadn’t seen Beth since Christmas, so it was great being with her, and she brought me this beautiful hand-sewn wallet from Hong Kong (left) and had lots of stories to share about her trip there.

I wanted to greet Beth and Xin with some good Southern treats, but we’re fasting from meat and dairy until Pascha, so I decided to boil peanuts. If you haven’t had them, they’are awesome. You start with RAW peanuts (not roasted) and lots of salt. Cover the peanuts with water. For two large bags, I probably added 1/4 cup or more of salt. Boil for 3-4 hours. Cool and enjoy! My mother made these often when I was growing up. The shells get soft and salty and taste good to suck on after you eat the peanut out. Refrigerate uneaten peanutes for finishing up later.
My husband and I took the girls to our favorite seafood restaurant in Memphis, Blue Fish in the Cooper Young neighborhood on Friday night. The owners used to live in Destin, Florida, but moved to Memphis to try to have more of a year-round, rather than seasonal business. They carry 8-10 different “fresh catch” fish each night, each of which can be prepared about a dozen different ways. Good stuff. We started our Cooper Young evening at the outdoor patio at Celtic Crossing for a drink, and then walked to the restaurant, taking in the shops and atmosphere along the way. Xin had her first red fish and loved it. Hubby had his favorite soft shell crab. Beth had red snapper and I had Destin scamp.

On Saturday Beth took Xin to Graceland. It was actually Beth’s first visit. I’ve only been once… in order to take my in-laws when they wanted to go a few years ago. It’s one of those things we often take for granted—our hometown stars. Xin loved everything about it, from the house to the plane to the museums and gift shop.

Saturday afternoon the weather was perfect for the 14th Annual Crawfish Festival at Overton Square. Gumbo, red beans and rice, crawfish, beer and margaritas were the order of the day. I love that the festival benefitted the Alzheimer’s Association, on top of being a great time for the community to come together on a beautiful spring afternoon in midtown Memphis!

It was fun to run into Jon Autrey. . .

and Tim Elliott.

And to enjoy the music of Memphis musician Amy Lavere.

Beth and Xin dropped me off home and headed downtown for the evening, which included ribs at the Rendezvous, shopping at A. Schwab’s, and cruising Beale Street.
Sunday morning Beth and Xin caught the Peabody Ducks arriving in the lobby for the day, and then met up with me and hubby for lunch at Tug’s Grill at Harbor Town. Tug’s Easter Brunch included crab cakes, which were delicious. I had been wanting some since reading about Pat Conroy’s crab cakes (right) in “The Romance of Food,” by his wife, Cassandra King, in AARP Magazine. Pat and Cassandra are two of my favorite writers, and it’s fun to see their romantic side. The recipe is in the article, but I’m copying and pasting it here for convenience. Can’t wait to try it! Okay, no more about food this week, as we enter Holy Week with tonight’s first of three Bridegroom Orthros services at St. John Orthodox Church. A brief explanation of the services tonight, Monday night and Tuesday night follows. (It’s from this link.) My “favorite” is Tuesday night’s service, which includes the “Hymn of Kassiane.” Read all about it here:

Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: The first thing that must be said about these services, and most of the other services of Holy Week, is that these services are “sung” in anticipation. Each service is rotated ahead 12 hours. The evening service, therefore, is actually the service of the next morning, while the morning services of Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday are actually the services of the coming evening.
Understanding that, let’s turn to the Services of Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (celebrated Palm Sunday , Monday and Tuesday evening). The services of these days are known as the Bridegroom or Nymphios Orthros Services. At the first service of Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries the icon of Christ the Bridegroom in procession, and we sings the “hymn of the bridegroom.” We behold Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, bearing the marks of His suffering, yet preparing a marriage Feast for us in God’s Kingdom.


Each of these Bridegroom Orthros services has a particular theme. On Holy Monday, the Blessed Joseph, the son of Jacob the Patriarch, is commemorated. Joseph is often seen as a Type of Christ. Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by them. In the same way, our Lord was rejected, betrayed by His own, and sold into the slavery of death. The Gospel reading for the day is The Barren Fig Tree, which Christ cursed and withered because it bore no fruit. The fig tree is a parable of those who have heard God’s word, but who fail to bear the fruit of obedience. Originally the withering of the fig tree was a testimony against those Jews who rejected God’s word and His Messiah. However, it is also a warning to all people, in all times, of the importance of not only hearing the God’s word, but putting it into action.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins is read on Holy Tuesday. It tells the story of the five virgins who filled their lamps in preparation for receiving the bridegroom while the other five allowed their lamps to go out and hence were shut out of the marriage feast. This parable is a warning that we must always be prepared to receive our Lord when He comes again. The theme of the day is reinforced by the expostelarion hymn we sing: “I see Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Savior, but have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.”
The theme of Holy Wednesday is repentance and forgiveness. We remember the sinful woman, Kassiane, who anointed our Lord in anticipation of His death. Her repentance and love of Christ is the theme of the wonderful “Hymn of Kassiane” which is chanted on this night, reminding us one more time, before “it is too late,” that we too may be forgiven if we repent.

So, here we go… six days of fasting and prayer leading up to Holy Pascha. But first, as promised earlier, the crab cake recipe:

Pat Conroy’s Crab Cakes

Serves 2)
· 1 pound lump crabmeat
· 1 lemon, divided
· Salt and pepper
· 1 large egg white
· Flour
· 5 tablespoons butter
· 2 handfuls baby arugula or butter lettuce
· Extra-virgin olive oil (citrus, if available)
· Champagne vinegar, to taste
· 2 tablespoons capers
1. Put crabmeat in a bowl; pick over for shells. Squeeze 1 wedge of lemon over crab; salt and pepper lightly. 2. In a small dish, beat egg white until foamy. Pour over crab and mix in. 3. Using as little flour as possible (1 to 2 tablespoons), form mixture into four crab cakes. 4. Melt 2 to 3 tablespoons butter in a flat, heavy skillet, until sizzling and just beginning to brown. Carefully add crab cakes. Brown on 1 side until crispy; turn carefully and brown the other side, then remove to a platter. 5. While cakes are browning, put arugula (or butter lettuce) in a bowl. Drizzle leaves with extra-virgin olive oil and toss until coated, then sprinkle lightly with champagne vinegar to taste, and toss. 6. To make a sauce, add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to the hot skillet, stirring to dislodge any crab bits still stuck to the skillet. When butter begins to brown, squeeze in juice of 1/2 lemon and turn off the heat. Throw in capers and toss. 7. Divide arugula among 2 plates, top with 2 crab cakes each, pour sauce over all, and serve.
Nutrients per serving (2 cakes) 485 calories, 53g protein, 11g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 27g fat, 205mg cholesterol, 1,897mg sodium

>The True President of our Souls

>This past week I got into a bit of a tiff with a friend on Twitter. She was tweeting about how President Obama was saying America is not a Christian nation, and she was really upset about it. While I understood her concern, my tweet-back to her was about how Jesus said His Kingdom is not of this world, that if it was, his servants would be fighting, and therefore our hope is not based on our nation being Christian. Her reply was just as strong as her original statement: “Of course Jesus’ Kingdom is not USA, but any Nation that wants to have God’s blessing must have leadership that recognizes Him.”

I thought long and hard about her words. I thought about Sodom and Gomorrah. And I began to worry that God might abandon us if our nation abandons its Christian roots… if we actually had Christian roots to begin with. Every day I pray for our leaders, for our country, but even as I ask God to bless them, and us, it’s always with a measure of trust that He holds us in a safer place—in His Kingdom.

A few days ago my copy of “The Burning Bush” arrived in the mail. It’s the monastic journal published by the Dormition of the Mother of God Orthodox Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, where I have been on many pilgrimages over the past fifteen or more years. (There’s no link to the journal yet, but they’re working on it. You can get on their mailing list to have the journal sent electronically here. ) I always read the articles with eagerness, knowing the beautiful souls of the nuns and priest-monk from whom they spring.

Archimandrite Roman Braga, the priest-monk at the monastery, wrote an article for this issue of “The Burning Bush” called, simply, “Palm Sunday.” To understand more of where Father Roman is coming from, you might want to read this excellent article about him, or this one, and also watch this amazing video. Father Roman has also authored several books, my favorite of which is Exploring the Inner Universe, which you can get here, and you can read an excerpt here.
All that to set up my comments on Father Roman’s article about Palm Sunday! He opens by saying:

The earth, the moon, the stars, the galaxies, and the entire universe is made by god, and God is the true king. He is the Emperor and He is the Creator…. It is at this time that we proclaim Jesus the King. Until now Jesus spoke only in parables because He did not want to be revealed…. It is at this time that He reveals Himself to us…. The people of Israel were waiting for Jesus to be an earthly leader. But Jesus did not come to be the King of Israel. Jesus is the King, but no the King of this world: “My kingdom is not of this world….” He tells Pilate….

In a book I read in 1946 when I was a student in Bucharest, the author, a Rabbi, talked about Jesus and why the Jews had to kill him. They recognized Jesus as one of the prophets, but they did not like His philosophy. He explained that the Jews were slaves at that time and they needed the young people to become heroes, to be educated, good soldiers and to fight against the Roman Empire. They did not like the preachings of Jesus Who was teaching: “…love your enemies, do good to him who strikes you….” This kind of philosophy was dangerous for our young generation. And if we look at this from a historical point of view and judge only with our logical mind, we probably can say that the man was right; they did not need that kind of philosophy.

I think my Twitter friend is still anxious for Jesus to be “King of Israel,” which is for her, the U.S. But, as Father Roman goes on to say:

Jesus did not come to be King of Israel or Palestine, He was not a revolutionary, a reformer, a philosopher or a superstar…. According to the existing tradition of the Orient, when a King entered a city riding a horse he was coming as a warrior. Jesus, however, entered Jerusalem riding on a colt of a donkey, He came in the name of peace, not of war; He came humbly…

The same people who on Palm Sunday greeted Him shouting: “Hosanna, Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord”are the same people who Friday sit at the foot of the cross and shout: “Crucify Him, crucify Him” (Lk. 23:21). Why did they do that? Because they were frustrated. Jesus frustrated their expectations. He did not want to be their warrior-king.

And I believe He doesn’t want to be the warrior-King for America, either. As Father Roman explains:

It is important for us to understand that we are citizens of the kingdom of Christ. The kingdom of Christ is the Church, and our emperor is Christ. The President of our nation is in the White House, but our Emperor, the true President of our souls, under whose rule we should be, is in heaven. And as He said to us on the day of His Ascension that He will be with us to the end of our lives, He is with us. And we must feel Him in our hearts, not the physical heart, the flesh, but in our soul. We must feel that He rules there.

As Jesus travels to Golgotha this week, follow Him, be together with Him, suffer with Him because He is with us. God is in us…. During this week, Passion Week, we do not commemorate Christ’s passions and crucifixion, we actually live it. He is in us and we are in Him. He is crucified and we are crucified with Him….

As Orthodox Christians we prepare to travel with Him on that donkey into Jerusalem tomorrow morning, and then to join him, in whatever small way we are each able to, on His journey of suffering during Holy Week, which begins for us Sunday night. (My blog post from last year’s Palm Sunday is here. It has photos, reflections on the Feast, and a poem.)

May God, the “true President of our souls,” bless our journey this week.

>Not Becoming My Mother

>I’ve never served on jury duty. The only time I was ever asked to was the exact week that our adopted daughter would be arriving from South Korea, in November of 1986. I panicked when I received the letter from the United States District Court ordering me to appear. Thankfully it only took a quick phone call and a simple explanation of my situation for me to be excused. That was 33 years ago. So when a similar letter arrived in my mailbox earlier this week, I thought, “Okay, I can do this now.” But the letter wasn’t for me. It was for my mother. All her official business mail comes to my address since I became her Durable Power of Attorney three years ago. I opened the form and began to fill out the questionnaire:

4. Do you read, write speak and understand the English language? I bubbled in the “yes” circle, although it’s a stretch to say that Mom “understands” much of anything these days. Where would there be a place to explain her situation? Ahh… there it was:

8. Do you have any physical or mental disability that would interfere with or prevent you from serving as a juror? I bubbled in “yes” and turned the form over to the “Remarks” section and briefly explained that Mom is 81 years old, has Alzheimer’s, is in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair since her Alzheimer’s prevented her full recovery from a broken hip and two surgeries this past fall.

Then under “Grounds for Requesting Excuse” one of three “grounds” was: (2) All persons over 70 years of age. It didn’t say this would be a given, so I wondered if someone was still alert, but over 70, would be excused. At any rate, I filled out both pages of the questionnaire and dropped it on the mail yesterday.

The same day my copy of preserving your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope arrived in my mailbox. It’s published by the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. I’ve shared a couple of copies with friends because I find it helpful—short, pertinent, and easy to read. There’s an article about a new book by Leeza Gibbons called Take Your Oxygen First that’s coming out in May, specifically for Alzheimer’s caregivers. Since my maternal grandmother also suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, as did Leeza’s, I’m interested in learning all I can.

All this was on my heart as I drove down to Jackson, Mississippi today for a “pre-Easter” visit with my Mom at her nursing home. (I wrote about last year’s Easter visit here.) Click on the video of Effie’s Bunny Hopper for a laugh. Although I took Mom a basket of Easter candy, she still enjoys watching the Bunny Hopper, a year later.

It was a gorgeous day to sit on the patio at the nursing home. The trees are greening up and the flowers are blooming, birds are on the bird feeders. Just lovely. As I commented on how pretty the courtyard area was, Mom said, “Yes, I’m so proud of everyone. We’ve been doing the work a little at a time. I helped with the flowers.” This is the same thing she told me on my last visit. I couldn’t help but be glad that she enjoys helping with the flowers, if only in her mind.

A young mother with two little girls came by, giving out Easter candy to the residents. Mom was confused, thinking that she should give some of her candy to the girls instead. I guess it is a reversal of roles that one never quite gets used to. Mom was the ultimate holiday person—making a huge deal out of every celebration.

But when we sat quietly for a while, and I managed not to rush to fill the silences, she would stare off into the sky and there’s no telling where she went, as she would say things like, “the numbers are sometimes up, up, up” and her hand would point up, “and then sometimes they are down, down, down.” Later I wondered if she’d been watching the news about the economy, because she added, “I heard something about where we need to put our money. Do I need to be doing something about that?”

“No, Mom. I’m taking care of all that for you.”

“Oh, thank you, dear. You’re such a good daughter.” She was more subdued than usual. The nurses had told me they had increased some of her meds since my last visit because she had become agitated a good bit.

An hour or so went by with only pleasantries being exchanged. She would ask about family members, whose names she doesn’t remember, but her face lit up when I told her (again) that she was going to be a great-grandmother this summer. And that her granddaughter, Beth, was going to travel to Europe this summer. At one point an aide that helps Mom with personal hygiene joined us. She told me how Mom cared about how her slacks and blouses matched and sometimes needed ironing. She talked about how pretty Mom’s hair and skin are, and how Mom had been enjoying wearing a little makeup recently. (I didn’t comment that it was overdone—I think Mom’s roommate gave her some foundation which is two shades too dark!) Anyway, the aid was real attentive, and after a while she asked me, “Has your mom always been so sweet? I mean, was she sweet to you when you were growing up?” This struck me as an odd thing to ask, personal, invasive. But I wondered if she understood that often Alzheimer’s changes people’s personalities….sometimes even for the better. When Mom wasn’t looking, I shook my head, “no.” The aide gave an understanding nod and smiled gently.

A few minutes later the “old mom” peeked back out briefly. A young woman who was considerably overweight walked through the courtyard. Mom looked at her, then at me, and puffed her cheeks out with air in immitation of the woman and said, “They shouldn’t let the big ones in here—they ruin the beauty of it.”

Sigh. So much of my life I felt that that’s exactly what I did—ruin the beauty of her world by being overweight. Her barbs about my weight left permanent wounds, leading to eating disorders, depression, and other issues. But today I tried not to let her words sting. They weren’t directed at me, but at the generic world of imperfect bodies that have always bothered her.

Driving home to Memphis, I thought about a book I just read. A short memoir by Ruth Reichl called Not Becoming My Mother. I received the book in the mail from the marketing department at Penguin Press—it’s actually an advance proof they were giving away on Twitter. Only 112 pages, so I read it in one sitting, and it was refreshing seeing the way another daughter dealt with her mother’s issues—in this case late diagnosed bipolar disease, but also repression by an era and a generation that held women back from their potential. Her mother told her that “once you find out who you are, you will find your beauty. You have to grow into your face.” Ruth’s mother had been told, as a teenager, that she was ugly, and Ruth felt the same way about herself during her own adolescence. She was determined not to pass this on to her own daughter, and her mother’s gift to her was to free her not to become her mother.

I’ve spent most of my life trying not to become my mother. But today, I’m also embracing my own mother where she is, forgiving the past and trying to be thankful for the present. It’s a lot to hold onto all at once… without losing myself in the process.

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