>More Grads, Lloyd Mardis Art Show, Skinny Bitch, Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop, & Neil White Reading at Burke’s!

>Okay, call it multiple senior moments, but I left out two VIGs (Very Important Grads) on my last post, one of whom is another Goddaughter! (And of course I got some of the info wrong in that post, saying that Julie got her Masters of Music, rather than Art Education (at Memphis College of Art–duh!) and writing that Jay is going to U of M, when he’s going to Harding, but I did go back and fix those! My excuse? I didn’t get the memo! Yes, I knew both of these wonderful women were going for higher ed degrees, and I even had some measure of awareness that they were finishing up, but got nothing in the mail, as I did with the grads I featured on Wednesday. That said, I love these women and want to send out kudos to them, so here goes!

Another Goddaughter, Sarah Hodges, got her second advanced degree in May. Sarah has been teaching at Colonial Middle School for the past couple of years, while working on her Masters of Art in Education, which she was recently awarded. All this while still raising four children, ages 12-18, one home-schooled! This is a “second career” for Sarah, (at least!) who managed the retirement fund for Shelby County employees before she “retired” to stay home with kids for almost two decades. So, kudos to Sarah!


And my dear friend, Lori O’Brien, got her MBA from the University of Memphis. Lori did this while working full time at St. Jude’s and raising two girls. Way to go, Lori! (I’ll be over for a wine and whine soon!)

On a sadder note, I’d like to honor Lloyd Mardis, who passed away on April 21, from cancer. Lloyd’s wife, Nancy, is a dear friend I actually met at Starbucks a few years ago. We discovered we were both artists, loved to read, and had adopted (grown) children from South Korea. We’ve been friends ever since. Nancy married Lloyd in 2004, but lost him to cancer just over a month ago. A former minister and a writer, Lloyd took up painting with Nancy’s encouragement. His work will be featured at The Caratis Village, 2509 Harvard, just through Sunday, May 31. He was featured in Go Memphis Magazine on May 15, “Lifelong Creator, Explorer.” He and Nancy traveled to Italy, Mexico and other places, and some of their travels are reflected in his art, which is done in watercolor, acrylics, and mixed media. (He even put spices into pen and ink drawings, and ground up bits of bricks he brought back from Tuscany to use in his work!) He is greatly missed by family and friends.

This blog post doesn’t really have a theme (did you notice?)so I’ll close with a few words about the last book I just finished reading, Skinny Bitch, by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. I read it the way I read most self-help books, using the advice I learned at a 12-steps meeting: “Take what works for you and leave the rest.” So, I’ll leave the extreme advice behind (NO meat, dairy, coffee, sugar, flour, white rice, EVER!) and just focus on the things that I can reasonably embrace for myself, which is mainly to do the things they say to never do, but in MODERATION. I really like their advice about eating mainly fruit for breakfast and raw veggies for lunch. But it’s their words about why we eat the way we do that I was most interested in. At one point in the book the authors talked about how food stimulates dopamine so we’ll remember to eat. And then they said this:

You see, we can be “physiologically” addicted to food. Any food can trigger the brain’s pleasure center…. But the types of food and the degree of pleasure they bring will differ from one person to the next. The trick is resetting our memory traces to feel pleasure from healthy food, and no pleasure from junk food. Easier said than done. Especially for people who are addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, or are overweight. Studies have shown that these people have fewer receptors for dopamine than other people. For them, the pleasure-giving chemical has fewer places to attach to brain cells, making it difficult for them to experience pleasurable feelings. So, because they aren’t getting that “pleasure rush,” they tend to smoke, drink, use drugs, gamble, or overeat.

I was sort of comforted by this, since I’ve often experienced times when, like the Stones, I just “can’t get no satisfaction.” I’ve literally eaten one thing after another, waiting for the dopamine to kick in, and it never did. Sometimes those episodes end in depression or bullimia. Just reading that there might be a “reason” this happens to me is actually encouraging. I’m not sure why, but it is. Makes me want to challenge it a bit and try to heal my dopamine receptors! Anyway, let me know if you’ve read the book and what you think. (I already heard from one of my readers when I mentioned the book in an earlier post, here.)

I’ll close with a reminder that it’s not to late to register for the 2009 Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi, June 5-7. Read my post about the 2008 workshop and you’ll want to be there! I just sent in my writing sample today.

And MARK YOUR CALENDARS for Neil White’s reading and signing of his book, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, next Thursday night, during Cooper Young Night Out at Burke’s Books in Memphis, 5:30-6:30 p.m. I’ve got an advance copy, and I’ll be posting a review and interview with Neil on June 2, so stay tuned! Watch a video of Neil here!

I’m off to Nashville Saturday and Sunday with hubby for a wedding. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

>Ascending and Commencing!

>Tomorrow is the Feast of the Ascension (of our Lord into Heaven after the Resurrection) in the Orthodox Church. You can read lots about the Feast and also see a detailed explanation of the icon of Ascension at this website.

We’ll celebrate the Feast on the Eve of Ascension, tonight, at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, with Divine Liturgy and a potluck dinner afterwards. It’s one of my favorite feasts because of the hopefulness it inspires… as Christ ascended, so shall we! As he sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, he sits there as a Man, reminding us that our humanity is being redeemed.

I also love that the Feast of Ascension usually falls around the time of Commencements. New beginnings. This May I’m proud to congratulate 6 graduates who are dear to my heart:

First, one of my Goddaughters, JULIE STANEK, graduated from the Memphis College of
Art with a Masters in Art Education. Julie has been teaching art for many years, and now she’s taking it to a whole ‘nother level. I’m sorry I had to miss her graduation a few weekends ago, but check out this joyful picture! I did enjoy going to a reception and viewing some of her work at the Memphis College of Art this spring. Way to go, Julie!

CLARK McGEE graduated from Murray State University in music. Clark can sing most anything, but his true love is opera. Last summer he worked as an intern at Opera Memphis. He’s looking for a “real job” now…. but we’re enjoying having him back home in Memphis and in the choir at St. John! Clark is also a great leader at our summer Vacation Church School programs.

MELANIE STANEK (Julie’s daughter) graduated from Lausanne Collegiate School this month, and will be staying in Memphis to attend the University of Memphis this fall. Melanie is an actress, and has acted in numerous local theater productions, which she will continue to do while attending the U of M. Here she is performing with her dad, Bill Stanek, at Mo’s a couple of years ago. (She’s belting out “Summertime”!)

JAY BROWNLOW will be at Harding Universitiy this fall. Jay just graduated from Westminster Academy. His mother, Sue, is one of my Goddaughters, so Jay is part of my “extended” family.

BRIAN BOONE graduated from Germantown High School, where he played baseball, and he’ll also be at the U of M, but not to play for the Tigers. Instead, he’ll concentrate on a business degree. We enjoyed celebrating Brian’s graduation at a barbeque at his aunt and uncle’s home on Memorial Day, where lot of proud friends and family were singing his praises!

And finally, my youngest Goddaughter, SOPHIE MANSOUR, graduated from Kindergarden at Grace St. Luke’s. Sophie is so excited to be in First Grade! We had fun celebrating Sophie’s birthday in February at the Little Gym. Check out the great photos if you missed them!

On a bittersweet note, two of my Goddaughters are moving away from Memphis this
summer. Katherine Thames and her husband, Hardy, and their children, Benji, Mary and Simon, are moving to Gulfport, where Hardy will teach at Gulfport High. The good news for them is that the kids will be close to one set of grandparents, and will be four blocks from the beach!

Here’s the family with my husband, Father Basil, presenting them with an icon during coffee hour at St. John last Sunday.

And me and Katherine afterwards.

I can barely type this through my tears. Katherine became my Goddaughter in 1997, and she and Hardy spent their first Pascha in our home. I served as sponsor for her wedding in 1998, and in 2003, when the Thameses returned from missionary work in Honduras, they lived with us for a couple of months. (Benji was about 3 and Mary was about 18 months.) We’ve travelled together to writers workshops here, and here. (Here we are with our friend, Daphne, at a Creative Nonfiction workshop in Oxford, Mississippi.)


And to visit friends in Arkansas. We’ve spent hours at coffee shops sharing our struggles and our joys. And I’ve had the blessing of serving as surrogate grandmother for Mary on Grandparents Day at her school, since her own grandparents lived out of town. Katherine’s friendship is a gift I will always treasure, and I wish her family a blessed life in Gulfport. My 2002 Toyota Camry just turned over 100,000 miles on my recent trip home from Seagrove Beach. I hope it’s got many more miles in it, as I’ll be making lots of trips to Gulfport!


Yes, this summer is a time for transitions, as TWO of my Goddaughters will be leaving Memphis! Julie Stanek is moving to New Jersey in August. Julie and I are also soulmates, especially with our love for art. Julie was the hostess for a group of artists who met monthly to paint, sketch, throw pots, and drink wine on Sunday afternoons for a year or so. We called ourselves the “Mixed Bag Ladies.” She and I travelled to Chicago a number of years ago to venerate several miracle-working icons there. And she attended several of my icon workshops at St. John the past few years. I will miss sharing these special times with her so much, but I wish her happiness in her new home! And yes, I’m thankful for Worldperks miles!

Back in April we had baby robins on our front porch, and now we’ve got another family in our carport. This time we’re able to watch them growing up (last time we left town and missed their “graduation”) and hope to catch sight of their first flights out of the nest. These pics were taken through the glass in our kitchen, so the quality isn’t great, but don’t you just love them?


I think the baby robins are teenagers now… here they are asking for “more, please!” on the one hand and yet wanting to get out of that crowded nest! They’ll be graduates soon. Like Julie, Clark, Melanie, Brian, Jay and Sophie.

May God grant them all many years!

>The Face of God: In Ireland? Memphis?

>On April 16 I did a post called, “Who Wears the Face of God?” which was a book review of Kim Michelle Richardson’s book, The Unbreakable Child. I was so struck by the importance of getting Kim’s story out there (she was one of many orphans abused by nuns and priests in a Catholic orphanage in Kentucky) that on May 1 I also posted an interview with Kim. Because I’m still dealing with the affects of abuse in my own life, this is an issue that’s close to my heart.

So when a friend called on Wednesday to ask if I’d seen the articles about the Irish Commission’s report after ten years of investigation into the abuse of more than 30,000 children in Ireland over a seventy-year span, I immediately looked up several sites, starting with The Guardian and then the Bloomberg Report. Finally the news made it to Memphis with a short piece in Thursday’s Commercial Appeal.

Ritualized beatings and rapes that have been covered up by the clergy for decades. The report was set up by former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who, according to the Bloomberg article, “in 1999 apologized to abuse victims on behalf of the state for a ‘collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.’” The report gathered oral evidence from more than 1,000 people, and concluded that “when confronted with evidence of sex abuse, religious authorities responded by transferring offenders to another location, where in many instances they were free to abuse again.”

THIS HAS GOT TO STOP!

My reactions have ranged from tears to anger to hope that maybe someone is finally going to be held accountable, which might at least slow down these atrocious abuses within the Catholic Church, if not elsewhere. But then I read with sadness, in the Guardian article, the new Archbishop of Westminster’s response to the report:

“I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they’d rather not look at. That takes courage, and also we shouldn’t forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did.”

Courage? I’m fuming as I type those words of this man who is supposed to wear the face of God. But instead of telling you my thoughts, I’ll share the response of Patrick Walsh, a member of the Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (Isoca), an organization set up to help victims:

“Rubbish is too kind a word for what the archbishop has said.”

John Kelly, the Isoca co-ordinator in Dublin, said: “Now that the Ryan [Laffoy] commission is finished, we call upon… Pope Benedict XVI to convene a special consistory court to fully investigate the activities of the Catholic religious orders in Ireland.”

Let’s pray that Benedict responds with true compassion, as one who is definitely supposed to wear the face of God.

This afternoon, while I was on the phone with the friend who first told me about the Irish Commission report, another call came in. This time from a friend who has been volunteering at a Memphis city school this past year and has befriended a young girl there who confided in her a couple of weeks ago that her stepfather had been “fondling” her. The girl’s biological father had abused the girl and some of her siblings, and now her stepfather was abusing her. The friend/volunteer talked with school authorities, who called the Department of Children’s Services, but when they went to the home to investigate, the girl was afraid to tell the truth. After the social worker left, the girl’s mother and stepfather hit her, warning her never to tell. They have also told her she can never see the woman/volunteer again. This woman goes to their church, so they are not allowing the girl to attend church either. She’s a prisoner in her own home.

I spent part of the afternoon today on the phone trying to figure out how to help. The volunteer who reported the abuse is afraid to identify herself more, because the abuser knows her. I followed up by calling DCS myself to file a separate report, and to encourage them to go to the home and look for bruises on the girl, from her parents’ beatings.

Then I called Kim Richardson (author of The Unbreakable Child) and asked if there was more I could do, and she encouraged me to call the police department directly, asking for someone in the special unit for crimes against children. No one at the precinct I called seemed to know of any such thing, and they gave me the phone number of the Child Advocacy Center, so I called them. The police officer who works there had left for the day, but they put me through to her voice mail, and I left a message. In the meanwhile my husband reminded me that one of the security guards at our church is a policeman, so I called him. He’s getting in touch with an officer who deals with crimes against children and I’ll be able to talk with him tomorrow.

We all need to do everything we can do protect these children. Their parents are supposed to wear the face of God. Their teachers are supposed to wear the face of God. Their guardians at every level, especially priests, are supposed to wear the face of God. Home, school, church—these are supposed to be the safest places on earth. But when they’re not, we all need to step up and help.

Where to start? According to the home page of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services:

“If you believe a child has been abused or neglected call 877-237-0004 to report it.”

You know, for these children, you might be the one who wears the face of God.

>Saints in Limbo: Protecting the Story, the Place, the People

>There’s a reason Nashville author, River Jordan, speaks on “The Passion of the Story” as she travels around the country, and also during her weekly radio show, River Jordan on the Radio, on WRFN, Nashville. It’s because she’s passionate about the stories she weaves herself—in her novels (The Gin Girl, The Messenger of Magnolia Street, and now Saints in Limbo) and her original plays—and the stories shared by her literary and musical guests on her radio show, ‘Backstory.” [Note: River is taking a break from the show while touring for her book, but hopes to get it back up and running at some point.] I was honored that River chose to read my essay, “Are These My People?” on her show back in October. Hearing the essay read aloud by River spurred me on to submit an expanded version of the essay to the 2009 Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College this September, and I just learned that it was accepted! More about that in another post!) The point is River loves sharing stories because she loves people.

Her new novel, Saints in Limbo, just came out this month, and I devoured it in two days on the beach in Seagrove. At times I wanted to slow down, to savor her finely crafted literary prose, and from time to time I would do just that—stopping to re-read lyrical passages and phrases that sing. Here’s a sampling:

“My barn looks like old poetry.”

“The two of them sat in the cocoon of night. The dark was singing. The woods were chanting a strange melody. And the sound of the rocking chair on the wood porch floor, the sound of the chain on the porch swing, the sound of the crickets chirping, the smell of his cigarette and the gardenias and the pines all mixed together made for stories. For truths and lies all woven together. For the past and present to collide with each other with a soft force that produced something secret and yet brought it into the light at the same time. Something unusual.”

“Velma’s skin began to crawl like it wanted to slide right off her body and run out the window.”

But as much as these lyrical passages invited me to pause, her plot kept me turning
the pages, anxious to follow its intriguing twists and turns. I rarely write fiction, and like my friends and mentors over at Creative Nonfiction, I sometimes boast about a particularly captivating nonfiction essay or memoir by chanting the CNF mantra: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Well, guess what? River Jordan can. Make stuff up, that is. And the story she invents and the way she weaves the lives of ordinary people—from Texas to Florida—is anything but ordinary. Her use of mystery and the human psyche remind me a little of another favorite author, Haven Kimmel. (Read my review of Haven’s book, Iodine, and my interview with Haven here.) But River’s sense of place constantly reminds the reader that her roots are Southern.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the story line here—hope you’ll buy a copy and discover her genius for yourself. Instead, I have a treat for my readers. River has agreed to a brief Pen & Palette interview!

P&P: Hi, River. Thanks so much for agreeing to answer a few questions about your new book, Saints in Limbo. First I want to ask how you got started with playwriting, and what influenced your decision to jump genres and write novels?

RJ: First, thanks for having me and featuring Saints In Limbo. It is truly my humble pleasure to be here with you and thank you so much for promoting and celebrating story the way that you do with your own life and words.
.
I went back to college and decided to study playwriting to improve my dialogue. I fell in LOVE with theater, met my mentor Dr. Yolanda Reed of the Loblolly theater and I guess if I hadn’t moved away I’d still be there at her feet writing and soaking in her genius. She would hate me saying that because she is so modest but it’s true. My dialogue improved considerably and when I moved away from my ‘theatre troop group’ of these brilliant, talented and gifted writers, directors, actors – I was forced to go back to where I had started. Alone in a room with the blank page. The entire group that I was with during that season of my life have gone on to write, act, and direct.

P&P: In Saints in Limbo you explore the themes of “fear, doubt and regret.” Did you start with those tenets and craft a story around them, or did they surface and find shape in the writing process?

RJ: I wish I could start with a tenet of any kind. I’m such an organic writer. I sit down at the page and follow the characters where they lead me. Those really surfaced just like that – on their own and surprising me all the way. And I’d love to talk about those in the story but I don’t want to give it away. If a book club out there would like to discuss those points after reading that would be a lot of fun.

P&P: As a creative nonfiction writer, I’m always amazed at the characters and story lines fiction writers come up with. In my brief review of Saints in Limbo, I compared you with Haven Kimmel because her characters and stories also reveal the depths of the human soul, showing us truths that are common to all while dazzling us with “strange” happenings. So, how do you “make this stuff up”?

RJ: Heck if I know. I used to actually cry about it because I wanted to write a southern story like other southern authors, you know, wishing I could just write a beautiful book like maybe – My Brother Michael by Janis Owens but I am what I am. I’ve tried to keep ‘strange happenings’ out of my novels but they keep busting down the door or slipping in through a crack somewhere and won’t let me be. Hey, you really put that so well I have to go back and copy that question and reuse it. Also, I love Haven Kimmel and am honored to be cast in her company.

P&P: My mother has Alzheimer’s, so I was especially interested in the way you wove a glimpse of this awful disease into your story—not as a key element, but almost as a reminder that it often slips in unawares, touching so many of our lives. I felt that human connection strongly when Sarah said to herself, “They just might find a cure… they might outrace the eraser in my mind.” Did you write these scenes from a personal brush with Alzheimer’s in a loved one?

RJ: Yes, my aunt had it and my cousin and I are extremely close so I was walking through that eraser with her. I hate the disease more than any I know really. It erases our stories. How dare something do that to us. Sorry – I’m very passionate about that. I hope they find a cure and I think they have made progress but I’m curious as to what is causing this outbreak. I think it’s downright evil in many senses of the word. All my novels in some way have to do with protecting the story, the place, the people.

Protecting the story, the place, the people. That’s what River Jordan does best. Thanks, River!

>Beach Reads: Thin is the New Happy

>Okay, Beth and I got to Seagrove Beach Thursday night, and Beth is almost finished reading 2 books and I’ve read 1 ½…. The weather is gorgeous. Even the storm clouds and thunder behind our beach condo, which never quite made it to the beach. We’re in the middle unit of the 9 units in the building behind Beth in the picture. I’ve already had enough sun and we’ve got two more days here… lots of time under the beach umbrella covered in sunblock!

My morning walks have been lovely… mostly accompanied by a lone heron here…

I really haven’t taken many pictures yet, so I’ll get on with the Beach Read report.


Thin Is the New Happy
by Valerie Frankel yesterday. I’ve never read any of Frankel’s novels, but I was drawn to her memoir because of the subject matter, of course.

It’s both heartening and discouraging to read about another woman who has spent so many years obsessed with body image, weight, dieting. It’s not that misery loves company, but rather that I think we can learn from each other.

Frankel’s stories about her mother’s efforts, beginning with Valerie was just a child, at trying to force her to be skinny, do remind me of my own mother’s similar obsession. And yes, I’m encouraged by the way that Frankel is overcoming it, although I don’t think my journey will be the same. One thing I did sit up and listen to was her revelation that she used dieting and weight obsession as a distraction from other serious life issues. I guess I’ve always believed that those other issues fed the body image obsession, rather than seeing them as separate entities. It’s definitely food for thought.

It was fun to read that Frankel was friends with Stacy London, co-host of the tv show, “What Not To Wear,” which I had just recently discovered. Stacy actually goes to Valeries’ home and goes through her closet (like on the show) and helps her learn to find her “personal style” and that it’s not about what size you are. I love this part:

Size doesn’t matter. You can look at feel great at any size…. Grace, personality, and intelligence are the things you love about yourself on the inside—and you can love them about yourself on the outside, too…. Fashion makes women feel insecure. Personal style is derived from you, not from a magazine or a designer. When you dress according to your personal style… you’ll respect yourself like you can’t even begin to imagine.

Turns out Stacy was a philosophy major at Vassar. Her show, and her goal, is not to promote self discovery and self confidence. Good stuff.

I won’t try to tell Frankel’s story—if you or someone you love struggles with body image issues you should read it—but I’ll close by sharing some of what Frankel writes near the end of the book as a “teaser”:

Excess weight was the physical accumulation of past hurts, insults, disappointments, and resentments that, once released from the mind and soul, were freed from the body…. In their place was a glut of self-awareness. I was convinced that any woman—and I do mean any—could melt town to her genetically predetermined true weight by (1) stopping dieting today, (2) silencing her negative inner voice, (3) forgiving everyone who’d contributed to her forming a bad body image, and (4) working out four times a week.

Sounds like a plan. I’ll let you know how/if I’m able to apply it to myself in the coming days, months, years….

In the meanwhile, I’ve got two more books I picked up as “research” for Dressing the Part (the memoir-in-progress) but which might also offer some insights into personal issues: Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, and Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown by Adena Halpern.

But first, I’m already into a completely different kind of beach read—River Jordan’s new novel, Saints in Limbo, and I’m loving it. True literary prose. A joy to read. Watch for a review soon!

That’s all for now. Might not post again for a few days…. Beth and I are leaving Seagrove Tuesday and spending a night in Jackson (MS) to visit my mom and for Beth to see some friends there, so we’ll be back in Memphis on Wednesday. I’ll leave you with a pic of a cloudy sunset. I kept hoping the clouds would move and finally Beth said, “But Mom, this is beautiful.”

>Another Homerun by a Southern Writer

>

During the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop last June, one of the guest speakers, author Jere Hoar, talking about “The Heart and Soul of the Story,” encouraged us to “try and hit the ball over the fence. You won’t, very often, but you might, sometimes.” Those literary homeruns are what make us love books. I just read another winner by yet another Southern writer, Susan Rebecca White. It’s her debut novel, Bound South.

Susan is from Atlanta, went to Brown, and then got her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. In the back of the book she says that the two years she spent on the MFA were invaluable, but warns that “the danger with MFA programs, I think, is that you can start writing for your little bitty circle of readers and forget that there is a larger audience out there….” I think she took the best the MFA had to offer and ran with it. Her story is bigger than any writing group’s circle of influence. It has tremendous Southern—if not universal—appeal. And she’s already working on her second novel.

One thing I love about Bound South is the way Susan wrote from first-person point of view for her three main characters, Louise, Caroline and Missy. Louise is the proper Atlanta housewife; Caroline is her rebellious daughter; and Missy is their housekeeper’s daughter. We are thorough enmeshed into each of these women’s heads—very much like another Southern writer, Kathryn Stockett, did with the characters in her novel, The Help—and yet the story flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter.

I also love the way that Susan writes about serious and controversial topics, like suicide, teen pregnancy, and sexual harassment, and yet she weaves the heaviness with lots of humor, the way it often happens in real life.

With blurbs by Lee Smith, Anne Rivers Siddons and Luanne Rice, I knew it would be a good read. And now you’ve got the endorsement of Pen & Palette. With summer coming, it’s a great beach read. I’m almost sorry I read it on the airplane to San Francisco, since it would have been fun to take with me to Seagrove Beach tomorrow. Hmmmmm… now what will I read at the beach?

First I’ll finish up Thin is the New Happy, and then maybe I’ll dive into The Emperor’s Children or One Mississippi. Oh, I just remembered! River Jordan’s new book is just out! I think I’ll run by Burke’s today and pick up a copy. It’s called Saints in Limbo. Watch for a review here in the next couple of weeks. My next blog post will be from Seagrove…. unless I get lazy and don’t check back in until next week. We’ll see. Gotta’ run pack for the beach!

>Half Moon Bay and the Cliff House

>A wonderful week in San Francisco was capped off by a weekend exploring the Pacific
Coast. First, on Saturday, my husband’s cousin, Fred, picked us up around noon and drove us along the shore to his home near Half Moon Bay, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. (And yeah, that’s my newest hat… which I got at Bloomingdale’s while we were in SF.)

Fred and Karen’s house overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Surfers (in wet suits—the ocean is still cold in May) danced on the waves as we passed by.

Here’s Bill with Fred and Karen in their front yard.

For lunch we drove down the road to Sam’s Chowder House, which sits right on the ocean. The chowder was great, and the views were beautiful.

I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves. We sat inside, but the multi-layered patio offered everything from tables to beach chairs overlooking the ocean.

The sand isn’t white like on the Gulf coast, but the picnicking families and love-struck couples walking along the ocean’s edge didn’t seem to care.

After lunch we drove down to the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay, just to enjoy the view and take a tour.

What a haven for golfers!

At the end of the day Fred and Karen drove us back to our hotel, where we watched a movie in our room and crashed early.

On Sunday we had reservations at The Cliff House, a restaurant (several, actually) on a cliff on the far western edge of San Francisco. It started out as a “bath house” in 1863, and went through many renovations. Destroyed by fire in 1907, rebuilt again and again, until today it’s a must-see for visitors to the Bay area. It has magnificent views of Mt. Rainier, and the Puget sound.

Actually, we ate there on Mother’s Day, and were happy to see quite a few locals chatting with the staff and one another.

We got the exact table I had seen in their ad in the hotel room, right by the window in Sutro’s, the newest restaurant in the facility. (I scanned the ad, circling the table I hoped we would get.)


The views were the highlight of the meal…

Watching one brave bikini-clad swimmer…

And several folks climbing the rocks out in the ocean…

The “pool” in this picture is the site of a huge pool in the original structure…

During the taxi ride back to the hotel, we passed the Orthodox Church were the relics of Saint John Maximovitch are. (We made a pilgrimage to his shrine a few years ago.)

A beautiful afternoon, topped off with drinks in “The View” atop the Marriott, watching the sunset. (We tried to get reservations at the Cliff House for sunset, but they were booked between 4:30 and 8:30, so we ate a late lunch at 3:45.)

It’s good to be home for a couple of days before driving back to Seagrove (yes!) on Thursday, this time with my daughter, Beth. Meanwhile I’ve got more books to review and an essay to write for a workshop the first weekend in June, so stay tuned for those reviews!

>Exotic Landscapes and Inscrutable Cultures

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In Thurday’s post I quoted from a couple of essays in the book I found at City Lights, Tell Me True, especially about the complementary roles that memory and history play in the memoir. Yesterday morning I saw this partnership in action first hand in a different kind of memoir, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I was especially interested in the Chagall exhibit (he’s one of my favorites) and as I looked at his work, I realized how he achieved, through his paintings, what memoirist Cheri Register was writing about in her essay:

We all come from exotic landscapes. We all live in dramatic times. We are all raised in inscrutable cultures. For uninitiated readers to get it, we have to push beyond description to interpretation. Here is what my place in the world looks and feels like, here is what happens here, and here is how it shapes my vision and my encounter with life.

Boy did Chagall do that in his art, not only his individual drawings and paintings, but also in his set designs for the Jewish Russian theater. This is called Introduction to The Jewish Theater,1920, tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas.

The museum itself makes a bold statement, situated steps out the back door of the San Francisco Marriott (where we’re staying) and almost touching the conservative brick church across the walkway. I tried to take a picture to capture the contrasts.

And then I got someone to take this on of me in front of the museum. One of those “I was there” moments.

And here’s one from inside one of the diamond-shaped windows of the museum, peering out at a glimpse of our hotel.

After spending some time at the museum, I took the bus over to the Union Street “shops” and found a few items you can’t find in Memphis, including a gift for my granddaughter, who will be born in July! I stopped at another sidewalk cafe for wine and crab Louie, and enjoyed the sunshine while reading for a while. The cafe was crouching down between this cute Victorian home-turned-shop and a nondescript row of store-front businesses. The photos can’t really capture this area, where I enjoyed a beautiful afternoon.

Oh, I almost forgot about yesterday at Fisherman’s Wharf… it was kind of touristy, with the seals sunning by Pier 39, but the boats and the water are always lovely. And of course I found a California wine bar with outdoor seating overlooking the bay. (Didn’t get a photo there.)

This is the final morning of the meeting of the American Society of Hypertention, and my husband is giving a talk while I sit in Starbucks blogging. We had a lovely faculty dinner last night in the garden court of the Palace Hotel, where I especially enjoyed visiting with our Greek friends from Washington DC and Chicago. In the middle of several hundred physicians and their wives, to shout across the crowd, “Christos Anesti!” (Christ is Risen!)and to hear the instant reply, “Alethos Anesti1!” (Indeed, He is Risen) and to share kisses on both cheeks, was so heartening. (It’s the greeting Orthodox Christians give during the Paschal season, which we are still in.) It reminded me of Register’s words about our exotic landscapes and the inscrutable cultures in which we are raised.

This afternoon one of my husband’s first cousins, Fred Wright, is picking us up to take us to lunch and then for a drive to his home on the Pacific coast. We enjoyed Fred’s recent visit to Memphis, and I love the way the Cushman clan values kinship and works to stay in touch. Fred’s mother and my husband’s father were brothers and sisters, and although the cousins are spread out all over the country, from California to Georgia and points in between, they truly value their ties. Hopefully I’ll have some pictures of the Pacific coast in my next post…along with the visit we have planned to the Cliff House for a late lunch tomorrow afternoon. For now I’m off on one final shopping excursion… Nordstroms and Sax are just around the corner from our hotel, and as much as I love the little shops in other neighborhoods, these are just too close to resist! Here I go….

>Tell Me True: Literature’s Changeling

>Day 1 in San Francisco (Wednesday, May 6)… I awoke to fog (imagine that) and then I read my friend Doug’s latest short story, “Fog,” (which he wrote for Barry Hannah’s fiction class at Ole Miss) and that really got me in the mood…. so I headed out on foot for City Lights Bookstore, a 30-minute walk from our hotel, since it’s goes straight through Chinatown and I couldn’t resist a couple of bargains on the way. See, I bought this awesome silk/wool blend scarf-wrap thing in the Minneapolis airport yesterday, but then I left it on the plane when we landed in San Francisco (long story about trying to retrieve it, but I won’t bore you) so I needed another one, for my short-sleeved dresses for these chilly SF nights.


Before I hit City Lights, I read one of the craft articles on the latest Brevity Magazine online, “Balancing Music and Meaning” about short nonfiction. Here’s my favorite thing that Kim Barnes said in the interview:

My goal is to create essays that work at more than one level. Some short essays work for me at the level of the intellect – they’re cool and clever – but I want to read essays that work not only at the level of the intellect, but at the levels of the heart and soul as well.

At City Lights I bought this amazing book, Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May.

Later I found this wonderful little French café on the edge of Chinatown as I was walking back to the hotel and I sat outside having delicious French wine—Savignon Blanc, Domaine du Tremblay, Quincy, doire Valley France, 2007, and I started reading the first essay in the book. But in the introduction, the editors blew me away. On the one hand, Patricia Hampl, a published memoirist herself, says:

The memoir has been, on the one hand, a startling success story in American publishing in the past quarter century. But, it has also been literature’s changeling, the bad apple, ever suspect, slightly illegitimate brassy parvenue talking too much about itself.

She calls the memoir “literature’s changeling” at one point, but later she says that “memoir has become the signature literary genre of the age.” Her co-editor, Elaine Tyler May, has authored several books on twentieth-century American history. So, it’s to the intersection of history and memoir that these two writers have brought us—and the fourteen contributing memoirists in the book—in order to teach us about the essential work of interpretation and imagination—which is done in that uncomfortable grey area where memoir intersects with history.

I sat and read the first essay in the book, “The Lion and the Lamb or The Facts and the Truth: Memoir as Bridge,” by Fenton Johnson (author of Geography of the Heart) and his words reminded me of the Q&A with Kim Barnes from earlier:

The cultivation of memory—most frequently through music and orally recited poetry—was an essential component of these preliterate cultures…. and later, A successful memoir is not a product of the self-obsession of a selfish, me-first generation; it is evidence of literate people’s recognition that the written word has replaced the story told by the winter fire as our means of establishing and preserving cultural memory.

Yes, memoirists, at their best, are story-tellers, but they tell their stories “true” rather than imagining the characters and plot. Cheri Register, another contributor to the memoir anthology, says:

“In the 1990s, as memoirs like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes began to compete with novels in popularity, a few literary critics grew alarmed. James Wolcott warned in Vanity Fair that literature might devolve into ‘a big earnest blob of me-first sensibility.’”

So, how do those of us writing memoir prevent that from happening? Register offers at least one precaution:

“The most fully realized memoirs situate personal memory in precise public places, the specific geographical, historical and cultural settings where life-shaping events occur.”

Ah, there’s the rub… if you write your stories true, and place them in recognizable places, everything will be on the table. There are many personal and ethical privacy issues to sort out before taking this step. But once those are resolved, the real work begins—the work of writing personal truth with passion and literary style while holding onto that all important sense of place. I’ll get back to it soon…. but not today.

Today (Day 2 in San Francisco) I’m writing this blog post from the Starbucks inside the Marriott where we are staying, and then going to the Museum of Modern Art, and maybe down to Fisherman’s Wharf while the sun is shining! Oh, I almost forgot to share these two photos of these wonderful stautes of “readers” that I found along Chinatown. I would love to have them in my back yard!

But first I’ll leave you with a photo from last evening’s special event here at the Amerian Society of Hypertension’s annual meeting (at which my husband is giving four talks.) The reception and dinner last night was in honor of Dr. Marvin Moser, one of ASH’s (American Society of Hypertension) heroes, and long-time friend of my husband. Marvin was founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Clinical Hypertension for the past eight years, and is now retiring. Here’s an interview with Marvin, along with Billie Jean King, that I found on You-Tube. Not something you might find in the official ASH literature, but a fun way to see Marvin in action. (It’s my job to inject some color into my reportage of these scientific doings, you know!)
That’s Marvin, second from left, surrounded by a group of admiring ASH members just before the reception last night. (My husband, Dr.William C.Cushman, is on the right.)

So today while these scientists are doing their work, I’ll be enjoying more of this beautiful city. Check back tomorrow… or maybe Saturday… for more photos and musings. I’m going to the Contemporary Jewish Museum tomorrow to see a Marc Chagall exhiit. We’re getting together with a couple of my husband’s first cousins (he has six!) who live in the Bay area on Saturday afternoon and evening, so that should be fun. Until then, read a good memoir! (Oh, remember the books “on my shelf” from my last post? I ended up reading Bound South on the plane here and it’s really a good read.)

>Flowers, Books & San Francisco

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Is anyone else tired of the rain? I shouldn’t complain, because here in Memphis, all those April showers have certainly brought lots of beautiful May flowers. In my yard, the Azaleas have come and gone, as have the blossoms on the tulip tree, and my peony bush was magnificent this year!

Thanks to Michael and Tim Elliott of Elliott Lawns, LLC, our yard is already shaping up for spring. We haven’t been able to grow grass under our three tall crape myrtles out front, so Michael designed these lovely beds and surrounded them with shade-loving sod. His crew also added some ornamental grasses in the beds near the street (not pictured) and replaced a few dead shrubs with new ones.

And the clematis keeps coming back every year, although we pulled it up with some annoying prickly roses a few years ago! Yeah, we’re ready for May here in midtown Memphis.

Meanwhile, the rainy weather kept me inside for a few days, with a great opportunity to read. My bookshelf of “to reads” is finally getting manageable, but I’m having a hard time deciding what’s next. Here are a few that have made it to the top of the stack. If anyone has read any of these and would like to comment pro or con, please do! I’m heading for San Francisco for a week tomorrow, and I’ve decided to take one memoir and one novel with me. Hmmmmmmm I’ll let you know next week which ones I read! (And you know me, I’ll probably find a really cool independent bookstore down one of those streets in San Francisco and add to my bookshelf, like City Lights or Green Apple Books. I’ll let you know if I find them, and what treasures I discover! Oh, and our hotel is only a couple of blocks form the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And… okay, now I’m getting excited. Off to bed so I’ll have the energy to get up and leave for the airport by 8 a.m.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

Thin is the New Happy by Valerie Frankel

Bound South by Susan Rebecca White

One Mississippi by Mark Childress

Goldengrove by Francine Prose

The Girl With No Shadow by Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat)

Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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