>I fell in love with Três Taylor’s work about ten minutes before I met him. I was at the River Arts Fest in the South Main district of downtown Memphis on Sunday, with my friends Caitlyn Manning and Brandon Maas. Cruising up and down South Main, enjoying the music and wine and gorgeous weather, I was drawn to Três’s booth by the colorful panels on the outside of his tent. Tall, skinny, primitive images of men, women, and monks. Yes, monks. Some were painted on boards and others on roofing paper.
Once inside the booth I met Três and his lovely wife, Helene, and that sealed the deal for me. Helene was beautiful, gentle and energetic at the same time, and began to pull panels from here and there and arrange them on the ground to help me with my selection. And then Três appeared and smiled at me and I felt like I had stepped onto a stage where the musical “Godspell” was being produced and Três played the part of Jesus.
You can read his story on his website, but let me just say that he was a biochemist for twenty years before a spiritual experience moved him to become an artist. His works show all over the world, but I love that he and his wife give back to the community by organizing group mural projects in some of the poorest communities in the country, in rural Alabama. You can read about them here. I just had this soul connection with the Taylors immediately.
I’ve been looking for some sort of “representational family portrait” for a long time, and these panels are the closest thing I’ve found. I chose one to represent each member of our family, which was so much fun.
When I explained my quest to the Taylors, Helene asked, “what kind of children do you have?” and I said, “two Asian and one white,” which seemed to double everyone over with laughter. I didn’t get it, until Helene caught her breath and said, “I meant how many girls and how many boys! I’ve never had anyone give an answer like yours before… it just never occurred to me!”
I guess I don’t think of gender as a “kind” of child, or adult for that matter. But maybe race isn’t a “kind” of person, either.
So what kind of children do I have? Hmmm….
I have a beautiful, smart, generous, intuitive, artistic, athletic daughter who happens to be South Korean in race and female in gender. But even as I write these words, I’m thinking that being Korean and female are part of what “kind” of person she is. It’s just that those aren’t the aspects of Beth that come to mind when I first think of her. If someone says, “Beth,” I don’t think: “Asian” or “girl” …. I think beautiful, smart, generous, etc. Beth is in her final year of architecture grad school, having majored in biomedical engineering in undergrad….
One of my sons, Jason, is charming, witty, loyal, kind, protective, loving, spiritual, artistic, athletic… and he also happens to be Korean in race but is male in gender. Jason is married to a beautiful woman named See, and has a precious three-month-old daughter, Grace.
My oldest son, Jonathan, is handsome, intelligent, literary, athletic, strong, and affectionate, and he happens to be white and male. (And on his way to Afghanastan soon… he flies helicopters for the Army… please keep him in your prayers this next year!)
After the selection of my five art panels was complete, Caitlyn found another artist she was drawn to, so Brandon and I helped her select a painting for her new apartment. I didn’t really get a picture of it, just a shot of the artist showing her several options…
It was just a joy to be out in the sunshine watching the people on sidewalk cafes and looking down from their warehouse condo windows or riding the trolley or horse-drawn carriages. Musicians and artists and food vendors and neighbors and visitors…. a delightful festival!
The children’s activities were also wonderful.
When I got home with the panels it took a while for my husband and I to figure out how to hang them… our headboard is curved, so I bought two long panels and three short panels with that in mind. We even hung the one that represents him (in the monk’s robe, since he’s a priest) over his side of the bed, and the one that represents me (woman with the red dress on!) over my side. The “little monk” is Jason because it reminds me of when he visited Korea and came back with a ceremonial robe. He put it on and made a customary bow to his father and I. The tall guy in the hat is Jon because it reminds me of his “cavalry” hat the helicopter pilots wear with their dress uniforms, and the body language looks like the playboy he sometimes can be. And then there’s the dark-haired mysterious beauty, Beth.
Here are a few more photos from the River Arts Fest. Enjoy!
>We bought our current home in 2001, three years after my father’s untimely death at age 68. My mother was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and I knew it was time to move her out of her home. Remembering how I felt twenty years earlier, when my folks moved my grandmother into a nursing home—I protested loudly that they should move her in with them—I told Mom I wanted her to live with us. I didn’t ask, I just told her. And then we bought a house with a mother-in-law suite for her, on the ground level and everything. Only problem was, she refused to move in with us.
Turned out to be a good thing for her and us… she lived happily in an assisted living facility for three years, making new friends as she was gradually forgetting old acquaintances. And then she fell and broke her hip and we had to move her to a nursing home, one year ago. This is old news… if any of you haven’t been keeping up with my blog for very long, there are lots of posts about “Granny Effie,” that you might enjoy… I think they are kind of summarized here.
That was a long introduction to what I started out to write about in this post…. our house. I’ve never liked it. At all. It’s well-built, in a nice neighborhood, a nice size, but… something’s missing. When I was trying to describe this to a friend once, I said, “it has no soul.” The architectural design (or lack thereof) is part of the problem. But I think over the eight years that we’ve lived here, my attitude of dislike has rubbed off on the house.
About two years ago we found another house in the same neighborhood with lots of soul and tried to buy it, but we couldn’t sell this one, so we had to let it go.We decided to watch the market for a while, and eventually do some upgrades to make it competitive with other houses for sale in its price rang and try again.
So here we are…. Replacing formica countertops with granite (it’s called “Verde Peacock”) and the old sink with a single under-counter stainless sink and brushed nickel faucet. The old electric oven was replaced with a new GE Profile Convection oven and gas stove top and ta-da! New kitchen.
The master bathroom only had a shower, so we had a jetted tub installed, new tile floor and shower wall, old brown vanity cabinets painted white, all fixtures replaced with brushed nickel, and again, ta-da! New bathroom. (Not finished yet, so pictures will come later. Here’s a “before.” Notice the brown cabinets, no cabinet above toilet, and the shower which you can see in the mirror.)
Oh, and we had the walls painted in the bath, bedroom, den, kitchen and below the chair rail in the dining room and front hall. The colors have cheered my heart as much as the new countertops and appliances… most of the walls were off white for eight years, and I LOVE COLOR!
In the den we chose “Dusty Miller” and in the kitchen a lighter but similar shade… sometimes looks grey, sometimes green, sometimes blue.
For the bedroom we chose “Palomino Gold” and for the master bathroom, “Island Sand.” It all flows together beautifully! Tomorrow they’re painting the front door a deep green… the exterior is red brick and the door has a glass panel, so the green will frame it. It’s in the same family as the green beneath the chair rail in the front hall, so the door “introduces the interior of the house” as you enter. That’s what Bob Graham, one of our builders told me, when he helped me choose the color.
Bob and his partner, Barry Cantrell, have been fabulous. They did the “demolition” work and most of the “heavy work” while we were in Florida last week. At the end of every day, Bob sent me an email with an update of the day’s work. He always included a line or two about Oreo, our 20-year-old cat, and how she greeted them at the door, followed them from room to room checking on the work in progress, and then finally settled for a nap in my yellow chair in the den or up front on the guest bed. I had been worried how she’d do with all the construction and us being gone, even with Caitlyn “house-sitting” … she dropped by every morning and evening to give her food, water, clean litter box, brush her, bring in mail and paper, etc. It takes a village.
So when we got home from Florida Monday night we were blown away by the dramatic difference the work was making. The next day when Bob came over with paint samples for us to choose for the bathroom, we did a walk through together and he smiled gently and said, “It’s getting some soul, don’t’ you think?”
I smiled back and nodded.
It’s not that I think we’ll want to stay here instead of looking for a different house with more office and living space and less bedrooms, on a different street, with an attached garage, etc… it’s just that I’m through putting the house down. It’s like the Skin Horse said when the Velveteen Rabbit asked him about being real:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
Maybe that’s also how houses get souls. I think I’m starting to love my house.
Yesterday and today I was out shopping for new towels, bath mats, kitchen stuff, and fabric samples for a custom-made bedspread. Came home with over a dozen samples! Oreo is helping us decide.
>“People don’t want to pay $25 for something they know.” David Magee, author of 12 published books (in just 8 years) and owner of Rock Point Bookstore in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was speaking at the Escape to Create Fall Writers Conference at Seaside, Florida October 14-16. His point was that it’s important to find the angle (about a story, person, or event) that no one else saw coming and then understand and frame the story in a simple and clear manner. David is “in love with the romance of a small book package,” adding that “you don’t have to be clever—it’s so clear.” That was on Thursday.
On Friday morning, David joined the five other speakers at the morning session and shared the news he had just heard: Wal-Mart is going to start selling $25 hardbacks for $9. Silence fell over the room of writers, readers, and booksellers gathered in the lovely home in Seaside for the two-day conference. This could be a death-knoll for so many in the writing and publishing business. The news cast a dark shadow over David’s otherwise outgoing countenance. I immediately thought about Richard and Lisa Howorth, owners of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and Corey and Cheryl Mesler, owners of Burke’s Books in Memphis.
Cheryl’s brother-in-law (the world of Southern literature is small) is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts and another of the presenters as the E2C Conference. Neil is also an excellent teacher, and his talk on the art and craft of memoir was worth the price of the conference fee on its own. (At the bargain price of $125, each presentation was worth the ticket.) I could write pages about his talk, but I’ll try to condense the best parts for you:
The difference in memoir and biography is that memoir is “a glimpse into a life,” whereas biography usually starts at birth and follows ‘til the end. Neil says to “start your memoir where your inspiration is.” What makes memoir work (it’s selling like hotcakes while literary fiction is struggling) is a many-faceted discipline. At the top of Neil’s list is “intimacy,”—“it’s as if you are whispering in the ear of the reader.” Following close on the heels of intimacy is conflict—“where the protagonist wants something desperately and there’s something in the way.” Neil’s third nugget is “the creation of scene”—and he expounds on the age-old “show, don’t tell” tenet by saying, “don’t tell the reader what to think.” He wrote 150 scenes for his book, and then “strung them together with exposition.”
Details was next on his list, and he emphasized the importance of using concrete language instead of “universal” language.” So, instead of saying, of the leprosy patients living in the same facility in which he was incarcerated, that “they were shunned by the outside world,” he gave specific instances of how that happened in their lives. Next on his list was vulnerability—the importance of the writer examining his own prejudices, with help from a friend, therapist, or even group therapy. Creating a sense of urgency, even when writing about the past, is also crucial in memoir. So, instead of saying, “I remember feeling this way,” show how you felt by writing as though it’s happening right now. He spoke about not writing for revenge or out of anger at those who might have hurt you. “It’s not about others—it’s about you.” Which leads to credibility—how do you gain this with you readers? Confession. Which is tied to the search for meaning—why are you writing this?
Neil spoke as eloquently about the “Art and Craft” of Memoir next. This was, in some ways, the most valuable part of his talk for me, because he separated the “art” from the “craft” for us in specific ways that I hope to try to emulate when I get home and back to work. The “art” part should happen in a free, childlike manner, where the writer leaves the inner critic behind and let’s the imagination go.. ranting and raving, not worrying about how it looks. “It should be messy.” I think I struggle with this process because I don’t like things to be messy. I tend to edit as I go, and it stifles my work.
Once the “art” is done (one page, one chapter, or the entire book) let it sit for a while and then pick it back up and do the “craft” part—the critiquing, the shaping, the analysis. This is where you “gain clarity that throw you back in the artistic realm,” according to Neil. At this point you “find balance—if you were angry, find peace. If you hate a character, find a redeeming aspect….” You should still keep it to yourself for a while, telling yourself, “I may never show this to anyone.” The puzzle starts to fit together and the work of revision begins.
I’ve only touched on the gems Neil shared with us, and I’ll add his encouragement to “know you genre—read great memoir and personal essays,” which I devour regularly; and his words about practicing the art and craft of writing every day, even when you don’t feel like it. “If you don’t show up every day, you have no idea what you might have missed.”
Returning to David Magee, it was fun to learn that his father, Dr. Lyman Magee, was one of my husband’s professors at Ole Miss (biology) in the 1960s. But also that David was adopted, and his search for his birth father is the topic of a story that he actually got a book deal for but backed out because “the time wasn’t right.” Instead, he wrote a business book (How Toyota Became Number One) and it started his career. None of his 12 published books are his “soul story,” but he says “you can drive what’s in your soul with stories other than memoir—you can immerse yourself in any subject, golf, business, etc., and bring what drives your memoir-to-be to another topic by putting a piece of yourself into it.” Great advice for struggling memoirists who aren’t ready to put all the personal stuff out there yet.
Growing up in Oxford, David was always intrigued with the racial issues, and asked himself, “how does this division of people bubble to the surface?….” His latest work, The Education of Mr. Mayfield: An Unusual Story of Social Change at Ole Miss, is a 230-page jewel that has a lot going on, “candy in a wrapper,” as David says. Mayfield is a gay, black artist in Mississippi who is invited to work as a janitor in the art department by art professor, Stuart Percy, ends up studying under Percy in secret and eventually becomes a successful artist. David always wanted to write a civil rights book, but he wrote 11 other books first and he’s glad he waited because he found himself “at the right place” to right this story six years later. “The story of Mayfield and Percy isn’t really the story—it’s a device through which to tell the story.” My mind is still spinning with ideas of different ways to spin the stories I’m trying to write, personal, spiritual or regional.
I was equally blessed by the talks given by the playwright, Rich Orloff, the poet, Erin Belieu, and the musician and songwriter, Melanie Hammet, although their genres are different from my own. Good story telling is good story telling, and good writing crosses all genres. Erin’s words about poetry are so true of fiction and nonfiction: “A good poem should have mystery, and intelligent and emotional authority.” Maybe a difference is in the reader’s understanding: “You can read a poem and say, ‘that’s awesome” even if you don’t ‘get it.’” Even though Erin believes that anyone can write a great poem, I still feel that poetry it a gift. (One that I don’t have, by the way.)
Melanie Hammet is a songwriter, but she also served as a city council person. She’s written songs about urban planning, which she defines as “how we live on the land with each other,” that are priceless. I loved hearing Melanie sing outside Sundog Books as well as during the Conference sessions. She talked about synesthesia—combining acoustic guitar with urban planning, or with songs for children ages 7-12 who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
She contends that songwriting is not all that different than nonfiction writing, in which cross pollination, or unusual collaboration infuses the work. “You see blue and you know what it tastes like.” Her emphasis on commitment to the work mirrored the other writers’ encouragement, with the added challenge to “make a vow with your work: we torment our relationship with our writing…. We nag it, saying, ‘why don’t you put the toilet seat down, writing?’”
Fiction writer Scott Morris who has led two of the three Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshops I’ve attended at Ole Miss, gave a wonderful reading during his session, a short story called, “Watching Homer,” about a pair of special needs kids in high school. Scott’s writing is beautiful, literary, like poetry and music and fiction all rolled into one. It was a joy to listen to him read. Scott is a true artist, as unaffected by all the “issues” that drive so much that’s out there today. I love what he said during the panel that all six writers led, “The Art and Realities of the Writer,” when the discussion drifted into how hard the writer’s life is: “There’s a rumor going around that all these problems can be cured with medication,” which drew lots of laughs.
Rich quoted Hemingway as saying, “with each novel I write, I die a little,” and
then Erin said, “bring the pain.” Neil’s experience was different: “I absolutely loved writing the story…. You got to find some redemption in the story.” And Melanie summed it all up with her wit: “Let’s not take ourselves so seriously—just write a piece of shit and get on with your life.”
I’m leaving the beach tomorrow with all this inspiration and information spinning around in my head. With several writing projects on front and back burners, I’m going to try to look at them through the prism of the wisdom I gained from these incredible three days at the Seaside Writers Conference.
What a joy it was to have my writing group buddies, Doug McLain and Michael Risely and their wives, Charmaine and Jennie here with me and my husband in this amazing house on Seagrove Beach. We’ve had a great time at local hang-outs, like the Tarpon Club (Bud and Alley’s) where we enjoyed music and dancing with Neil, Scott, David, and new friends from Seaside.
We ate delicious fish at Lake Place and Café 30-A and the best wine and sushi anywhere at the Café Rendezvous.
And yes, I added to my collection of leather and pearls made by Wendy and Jean Noel Mignot. Loved that Wendy stopped at my table (they also own Café Rendezvous) to make some adjustments to the earrings I bought on my last visit, just before she hurried away to pick her up daughter from cheerleader practice. She returned with her son, who had been catching redfish. Yes, they live a charmed life, but they work hard at their crafts.
As I finish this post, hubby and I are watching the Giants (go Eli!) and Saints game with a view that’s to die for. It’s half time, so I’m going to take a book and head down to the water’s edge. Hope to get into Seaside to some wi-fi to post later today. If not… Monday night back in Memphis. So, here we are again at the Rendezvous Wine Bar (which has wi-fi)….
Can’t get many photos posted here… go to my Facebook Page to see more pics….
>Three hours into my nine-hour drive down to Seagrove Beach on Monday, I stopped at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi, to visit my mother. I took her a couple of her blouses which I had taken home from my last visit to wash and iron. They do her laundry at Lakeland, but they don’t iron, and sometimes I just want to see her looking the way she looked most of my life—well groomed. She resists their efforts to cut and set her hair in the beauty parlor, so it’s longer on each visit, and Monday it was pulled back in a pony tail, which actually reminded me of her younger days. They had applied a little blush and lipstick, and she looked pretty.
She was already in the dining room, waiting for lunch, when I arrived at 11 a.m. She was sitting at a table with three other women, but they weren’t talking with each other, and Mother seemed to be staring into the distance, the way old married couples do sometimes, when they fall into a comfortable silence. I broke the spell when I touched her shoulder and she burst into a grin.
“Well, hi, Susan!” (I breathed an inward sigh of relief. On each visit I wonder if she’ll know me.)
We kissed on the lips. She is one of only about five people that I kiss on the lips. Three are girlfriends. One is my husband. Like Julia Roberts said in “Pretty Woman,” it’s intimate.
I told her about the blouses, which I had put in the closet (really an armoire) in her room, and she said, “blouses?” I touched her sleeve and said, “blouses, Mom, you know, shirts. I washed and ironed a couple for you.”
“I haven’t been able to find the closet for a long while. Are you sure it’s there?”
“It’s in your room, Mom. The ladies who help you get dressed know where it is.”
“Oh…” her voice trailed off and she looked away from me, at the woman sitting to her left. “Have you been here long?”
“Forever!” the woman answered.
“But have you met my daughter?”
I made conversation with the other three women for a few minutes, and then returned my attention to mother. “I brought you some of those cookies you like so much.”
“Oh?” Her face brightened. “Where are they?”
“I put the in your room.”
“Give them to me now!”
“But, Mom, you’re about to eat lunch. You can have them for dessert after lunch. Will that be okay?”
“Have what for dessert?”
“The cookies, Mom.”
“Oh, are there cookies?” She looked around the table for cookies. I just smiled at the other ladies, and re-explained about the cookies to Mom.
But as I was continuing my drive to Seagrove, I thought about how I would feel some day, if I’m in her shoes. Her mother had Alzheimer’s, so I’m thinking it wouldn’t be unlikely. It’s one of those things that keep me up at night some times. Is there something I can do that will ease the transition, the pain of loss of a mind? Suddenly it hit me—the Jesus Prayer.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
Short version, “Lord have mercy.”
I taught it to my father when he was dying with lung cancer.
I watched my friend Urania say it at numerous visits to the cancer clinic, and again during her final days at home before her death two years ago. If it can bring peace during physical illness and impending death, can it also bring peace as Alzheimer’s wages war with the brain?
Known as the “prayer of the heart,” ascetics have practiced it for centuries, the most skilled amongst them attaining a level of spirituality in which the prayer goes on “on its own” in the heart, almost automatically. Even if the lips aren’t saying it aloud.
About fifteen years ago, when I was in a particularly intense period of my life, spiritually, I “practiced” the Jesus Prayer fairly regularly during the day for a number of months, and I found it did bring peace. But then I got lazy and left it behind for a while, picking it back up for a few weeks in 2001 when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to have numerous tests and surgery. I’m a real wimp about pain, and it really helped.
And this afternoon, at times when it was pouring down rain on the highway, so much that I could barely see the cars and trucks in front of me, I found the words returning to my lips… and hopefully, to my heart.
So now I’m thinking if there was ever a case for making the Jesus Prayer a part of my heart forever, it’s the thought of Alzheimer’s eventually grabbing hold of my brain and gradually shutting it down, trying to steal my soul in the process.
Not the blog post you were expecting from me at the beach, huh? But I’m penning this at 11 pm on my first night here, alone in a beach house, waiting for four friends and my husband to join me, two on Tuesday, two more on Wednesday, and hubby on Thursday. Tomorrow I’ll get out for a walk on the beach, and hopefully spend some time relaxing under an umbrella. We don’t have wi-fi at the beach house, but I’ll find my way to a coffee shop Tuesday afternoon and post this and check on Facebook and emails. I’ve got a Blackberry, but I don’t like to use it for “large format” activities☺
There are four televisions in this beach house, but I have all “noises off” now… and even with the French doors to the deck closed, I can hear the waves. The rhythm of the ebb and flow of the tide is a perfect accompaniment:
Lord Jesus Christ… Son of God… have mercy on me… a sinner.
Postscript: Instead of the coffee shop, I’m posting from Rendezvou Wine Bar in Seaside, Florida, one of my favorite places in the world. The beach photos from Day 1 are on my Facebook page… but maybe more will appear him in a few days. Just didn’t seem to fit with this post. Except for maybe this one, as I post… after a lunch of spinach salad and Savignon Blanc….
>About once or twice a month I have a restless, almost sleepless night. It seems I can sustain some minimal degree of emotional health for a few weeks at a time and then it catches up with me. Wednesday night was my most recent bout of toss and turn. And, as usual, I can tie it to at least one practice that probably leads to this exhausting cycle: I was on the computer and/or watching television late at night. Even reading some books right before bed can trigger it. When I was a child my parents gave me tranquilizers for a period of time, and the doctor told my mother not to let me watch television, read, or “do anything mentally stimulating” for an hour before bed. So… what’s a person to do for that final hour of the evening? I think even if I was into knitting or some other such craft and tried to sit and do that for an hour, my mind would still be racing with Soul Chatter.
I have thought about the fact that on Wednesday night, just a few hours before bedtime, I listened to a talk given by Joshua Armitage at St. John Orthodox Church on “The Unseen World,” with special emphasis on guardian angels. Joshua reminded us of the importance of praying to our guardian angel just before sleep, because of the increased activity level of the demons during the night. And so, yes, I remembered to include the prayer to my guardian angel in my evening prayers that night. But something was already stirring.
It was still stirring the next morning at our monthly women’s meeting, where Father John Troy shared some letters of St. Nicolai Velimirovich. (Side note: Watch this brief video on Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog, for a few lines of St. Nicolai’s poetry. I love this line, from his Poems By the Lake: “Only someone who sleeps in Your heart knows rest.” Fr. Stephen will be speaking at our next women’s retreat at St. John, November 13 and 14. More on that later.)
One of the letters was about suicide. We talked a little about how suicide is a rejection of the life God gives us. But I was wondering about the “little suicides” we commit every day—like eating too much, which can cause death from obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and a plethora of other things. And drinking too much, which kills the liver and other parts of the body. And smoking, which has taken the lives of five close family members through lung cancer.
At lunch with two of the women from the morning study group, I continued to explore these thoughts, and to try to figure out what I was anxious about, what might have contributed to my sleepless night. As I talked with these two dear friends, I gave voice to the soul chatter from the night before: aging, pain, fear of failure, lack of fulfillment in my creative endeavors, scattered family members (children and grandchild in three states, son going to Afghanastan next month, mother in nursing home with Alzheimer’s.) Trying to balance my life as a wife, mother, friend, “Church lady,” daughter… and (it seems to always come last) writer, continues to be a challenge. And it seems the harder I try to write, the louder the negative voices scream in my head: “You’re wasting your time. Why don’t you do something more valuable, like volunteer work?” I have backed off from so much of the “volunteer work” I’ve done most of my adult life, in order to try to write, but then I feel guilty about the “good things” I’m not doing for others. My wise friends suggested a balance… write and do volunteer work. If I can organize my time wisely maybe that would work. I think what’s at the core of all of this, though, is my struggle to embrace the art as something valuable, something worth offering to others.
Later that day, I found myself returning to the wisdom of one of my heroes—Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle died two years ago, September 6, 2007. (I posted about her death here.) One of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, often sits atop the leaning tower of books on my bedside table. Yesterday I returned to the wisdom between its covers.
L’Engle was a gifted writer but also a woman of faith. Like Flannery O’Connor, she had no desire to be cast as a “Christian writer,” but rather as an artist, a writer, who is also a Christian. Her spirituality, her faith, infused all her work. She often turned to the wisdom of the ancient Church Fathers and the mystics and the monastics for help. And from her faith comes these words that are helping me today:
“The creative process has a lot to do with faith and nothing to do with virtue, which may explain why so many artists are far from virtuous—are, indeed, great sinners. And yet, at the moment of creation, they must have complete faith, faith in their vision, faith in their work.”
So, I don’t have to be good, or virtuous, to have faith in my work. This helps. But then she raises the bar when she writes about life… and death:
“Art is an affirmation of life, a rebuttal of death. And here we blunder into paradox again, for during the creation of any form of art, art which affirms the value and the holiness of life, the artist must die. To serve a work of art, great or small, is to die, to die to self…. That is our calling, the calling of all of us, but perhaps it is simplest for the artist (at work, at prayer) to understand, for nothing is created without this terrible entering into death. It takes great faith, faith in the work if not conscious faith in God for dying is fearful. But without this death, nothing is born…. Dare we all die? Willingly or unwillingly, we must, and the great artists go further into this unknown county. Great art. Great artists. What about the rest of us little people, struggling with our typewriters and tubes of paint? The great ones are still the best mirrors for us all because the degree of the gift isn’t what it’s all about…. The important thing is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered newness…. We all feed the lake.”
I believe that a desire for wholeness is at the bottom of my aching, of my longing. And I believe my own dividedness, brokenness, is at the bottom of my pain. And I believe, at some level, that the way to heal that brokenness and find wholeness is in the sacraments of the Church. But I also cling to L’Engle’s assertion that our work, as artists, can be part of that healing:
“To be in a healthy state of mind means to be whole (not divided into left and right), and if to be whole means to be holy, then wholeness is what the Christian artists seeks. It is what the Christian seeks. It is what any artist seeks.”
>That’s the question Augusten Burroughs asked in his 2003 memoir, Dry. It’s a gritty description of his life before and after sobriety. And the recovery part(s). His descriptions of each stage are graphic:
Juggling a successful career in advertising with a love for friends that keeps on giving, Augusten is finally forced to face down his demons or lose his job. In rehab, his roommate tells him on the first day, “It’ll take a few days, but you’ll see. You’ll get it.” And Augusten is thinking, “This is probably exactly what the Reverend Jim Jones said to his followers as he stirred the Kool-Aid.”
I agree with critics who say Dry is better, deeper, than Running With Scissors. Others call his work “darkly comic” and “funny-sad,” and those are apt descriptions. He’s also scathingly honest, a trait I appreciate in memoirists.
“Sober. So that’s what I’m here to become. And suddenly, this word fills me with a brand of sadness I haven’t felt since childhood. The kind of sadness you feel at the end of summer. When the fireflies are gone, the ponds have dried up and the plants are wilted, weary from being so green…. It’s the feeling of something dying.”
I think creative types fear sobriety the most. Or anything that might dull their creative edge. As I continue reading Kathleen Norris’ book, Acedia and Me, I discover that she and her husband, both poets, shared that fear:
“If writers are often stymied by depression or addiction, many are also wary of psychoanalysis, psychotropics, and twelve-step programs as potentially detrimental to their art. Therapists find that some writers use treatment as an excuse to procrastinate, while others fear that the sessions will drain them of material they should be using in their work.”
(By the way, if you haven’t been reading my blog, I have an earier post in which I began my reflections on Acedia and Me, here.)
Granted Norris and Burroughs have different stories to tell, but there are common threads running through both writers’ works, although they search for answers in very different places.
Burroughs search invariably leads him from relationship to relationship. His best friend is dying of AIDS. His latest love interest is from his rehab group, which isn’t allowed. In his struggle to find peace in the early days of sobriety, Burroughs admits:
“I’m worried that all of the inner mess that was channeled into alcoholism is now channeled into other disturbing rivers. That I’ve drained the lake to flood the city.”
That’s how I’ve felt my whole life, as I’ve watched the various vices take turns with my soul, flinging me from the depths of despair to the giddy heights of temporal pleasure and back, sometimes in less than twenty four hours. But like Connie May Fowler and several other writers said at the Southern Women Writers Conference, writing can be our salvation. It can literally save lives. Norris says, “Storytelling itself can be a redemptive act for the writer.”
But then Norris talks less encouragingly about poets, asserting that she has learned from her reading of Aldous Huxley’s “Accidie” that “poets had not been well for some time.” I know the same can be said for many artists and musicians, but her words about the poets—the prophets of our world—are disturbing:
“Two poets idolized by many young woman of my generation, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, had, shortly before their suicides, churned out four to six poems a day. In the posthumously published Winter Trees, Plat described her brain as ‘a gray wall… clawed and bloody,’ and asked, ‘Is there no way out of the mind?”
Her words reminded me of how Burroughs felt near the end of his book, one year into his sobriety: “Sometimes I feel like I have hives in my brain that I can’t scratch.”
See, that’s how I feel almost every day… until I have a drink. Sometimes a creative project can scratch the itch, or a trip to the beach, or a beautiful liturgy at Church, or news that I’m having another essay published… it’s the butt-in-chair-stare-at-computer-screen-and-write stuff that’s hard. And of course the laundry and errands and household stuff. And even prayer–especially prayer. And the rejections, the failures, the watcher shouting in our ear, “You can’t write. Just quit and do volunteer work.” (Nothing wrong with volunteer work, by the way. It’s possibly a higher calling.)
Anyway, Norris returns to the poets’ demise:
“What Plath and Sexton demonstrate is not that writers must nobly endure self-destructive compulsions, but that no artist can maintain such a high level of creative intensity. When one has bee writing in the heights of what Sexton termed ‘a fugitive frenzy,’ one needs a way to come down safely. Taking a walk may work, but other means can be more tempting: tranquilizers, marijuana, and above all, booze…..Going up, coming down, and paying a steep price.”
As Norris’ poet-husband, David, struggled with health problems, mental and physical, he used alcohol to fuel his endeavors, and “panicked at the thought of having to give up drinking—he felt he would then lose his creativity.” And both David and Kathleen opted not to use psychotropic drugs to ward off depression. “We believed that our ups and downs were part of the creative process, and we didn’t want to risk being flattened emotionally, which could stunt our work.”
I have bi-polar friends who must face that same fear daily—the risk of being flattened emotionally—until their meds can be balanced, along with their emotions. My father-in-law had this struggle, finding more misery in the middle, where everything was gray, than in the ups or the downs, where he felt more alive.
A big difference in Burroughs and Norris is that Norris tried to reconcile her writing with faith, whereas Buroughs pretty much left God out of the picture. He did recognize the “plain, almost monastic process of waking up, taking a shower, going to an AA meeting and then doing this again and again, day after day until an amount of time had passed it became not a struggle, but a routine.” It’s a little sad to me that at the end of the day he didn’t have something bright to hold onto, and I wonder how’s he doing now, six years later. I’m not sure that AA meetings alone would sustain me. In fact, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t.
Norris, on the other hand, greets a crisis as “a gifting” and follows a wise physician’s advice: physical exercise and spiritual direction. A Benedictine monk once encouraged her to read the Letters of Flannery O’Connor, so she’s seems to be finding her way with spirituality and art. And she doesn’t claim that there’s only one way—quite the contrary:
“Depression has many causes: genetic disposition and chemical imbalance in the brain, as well as unwelcome change, notably loss in all its forms. Can we agree that there are many treatments as well? My husband thought himself incapable of prayer; at the crisis points of his life, Freudian psychiatry brought healing. One might say he had faith in it. For me, a measure of healing has come less from psychology than from religion, specifically the ancient practices of prayer and psalmody.”
When I read her words, I instantly went to my Psalter and began reading and remembered the joy found in those pages.
What Burroughs and Norris have in common is their understanding of the necessity of somehow embracing the monotony of daily life, whether it be living without alcohol or without something else exciting to diffuse the boredom. Norris didn’t battle alcohol (at least not by page 112, which is as far as I’ve gotten) but the demon of noonday is an equal match.
When her husband was in a crisis a friend called and asked if she had something to take, herself, and she said, “I have the Psalms,” and the friend said, “And they’re enough?” “Yes,” I replied… I felt that I needed my wits about me, and needed to feel whatever I was to feel.”
Reminds me of one of my favorite Iris Dement songs, “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight.”
At one point when Norris’ husband agreed to a low dose of Prozac (he felt it “took the edge off his despair”) Norris shared a passage with him from Louise Bogan’s memoirs, which she writes from the window of a psychiatric ward…. She found a rare peace when she left the hospital, and wrote:
“I don’t know where it comes from. Jung states that such serenity is always a miracle . . . . . I am so glad that the therapists of my maturity and the saints of my childhood agree on one thing.” I like that.
I know this is long-I’m almost finished for today. But I think it’s important to say that in the next chapter I read, Norris is moving in the direction of hope, on several levels, and I can’t wait to keep reading. She learns that “there is an existential monastic view that the opposite of acedia is an energetic devotion,” and that she (like me) is “especially susceptible to acedia… because I harbor within myself the virtue of zeal.” I understand her battles with what she calls “the devil I know,” and how she at some times “prefers slavery to freedom.” She quotes the stoic, Seneca, who observed that people “love their vices with a sort of despair, and hate them at the same time.”
So, how I am finding hope in her words? I’ll close with a long quote, but it’s worth it, so hang in there:
“Both ancient and modern writers speak of the profound serenity that can come after a period of torment and trial…. Depression at its worst is the most horrifying loneliness, and from it I learned the value of intimacy. The pain is real, but remedy may yet be found. For Evagrius, the struggle with acedia is worthy because it leads not only to peace but also to joy. If, as the scholar Christoph Joest has written, acedia for Evagrius was the culmination of all the temptations, then its absence is the fulfillment of all the virtues which find their ultimate expression in love. That is why the struggle is worth our while.”
Postscript: I just found out that Jill McCorkle is reading and signing her new book of short stories, Going Away Shoes, at Burke’s Books here in Memphis at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, October 19. I’ll be driving home from Seagrove that day, so it’s doubtful I can make it, but if you’re in the area, GO. And buy her book. She’s a great writer and reader. I met Jill at the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga in April. (near the end of the post) Just wanted to give everyone in the area a heads up!
>One week after the Southern Women Writers Conference, I’m home and inspired. But not ready to draft the next chapter of my memoir right now. Instead, I’m trying to listen to my muse and follow its lead, and right now it’s saying, “It’s time to write another personal essay!”
Maybe it’s the instant gratification that essays provide, as opposed to slugging away at a longer format, like a book. But I think I’m also finding the genre a good fit for my creative efforts. If you haven’t read any of my published essays, look at the left-hand column of this blog and you’ll see a list of them. You can click on most of them to read them online, even the ones published in print, except for one, “The Other Woman,” published in Mom Writers Literary Magazine, print only. I think my favorite one is “Blocked,” which was a finalist in the 2007 Santa Fe Literary Awards. Oh, yes, as I look at these I can tell… I feel a personal essay coming on! But which muse to follow? Here are the options I’m considering:
The College English Association invites papers and creative works-in-progress on the theme of voices in Creative Nonfiction Writing for the Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas, March 25-27, 2010. They seem to be wanting a personal essay, literary or “new” journalism, or oral histories and ethnographic essays, as well as essays that experiment with form through double and polyphonous voices. If I follow this muse, I need to submit a proposal that falls under one of these categories… by November 1.
Or… I could enter the Creative Nonfiction contest, “End of Life Stories,” and submit an essay that explores death, dying, and end of life care, for a collection to be published by Southern Methodist University Press. I’ve already done the research and penned a lengthy piece, “Watching,” which came together from blog posts during the last days of my dear friend, Urania’s, life, as she was dying from cancer. The piece flashes back to my father’s death in 1998, in which I helped nurse him through his final days. This piece may be calling me the loudest, as I have been with four close relatives and a close friend during their death. Hmmmm, and this one isn’t due until December 31. (Note: I met CNF Director, Lee Gutkind, in October, 2007, at a CNF workshop in Oxford, and again at a CNF Conference in March, 2008, also in Oxford. These are good people.)
And then there’s the new journal, Southern Women’s Review, which is seeking more creative nonfiction pieces right now. I met their managing editor, Helen Silverstein, at the Southern Women Writers Conference last week, where I picked up a copy of their premiere issue. Lots of poetry and a few stories, essays and photographs. I especially liked Danita Berg’s essay, “Letting Go by Beginning Again.” You can read it online by clicking on the cover image of the premiere issue and then scrolling down to page 44. I’ll have to get really busy to make their October 31 deadline for their January 2010 issue….
On a lighter note, I could submit another essay to skirt! Magazine (they’ve published three of my essays in the past) for their December issue, which they are calling “The Inspiration Issue.” They expand the theme: braindchild, epiphanies, Eureka moments, innovation, intuition, imagination, what inspires you, talent, originality, Muses, thinking outside the box, unexpected results, when lightning strikes, fostering creativity, method or magic, problem-solving. Due November 1 with quick gratification–to be published in December. That one’s tempting…. especially after success getting these three essays published by skirt!:
“myPod” in October, 2007.
“Burying Saint Joseph” in January, 2008.
“Super-Sized Enlightenment,” in November, 2008.
skirt! won five GAMMA awards at the 2009 Magazine Association of the Southeast’s GAMMA Awards in Atlanta, GA on April 30, 2009. Just saying, in case anyone thinks that just because it’s free and is called, “skirt!” that it isn’t a serious rag. Think again.
So, looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me, especially for October and November. Better get to work soon, since I’ll be gone October 12-19 to Seagrove Beach, Florida (my favorite destination) for the first Seaside Writer’s Conference and a few extra days at the beach! And for those waiting for my next installment of the continuing review of Acedia and Me, it might be a while. It’s not that I’m not still struggling with acedia, because I definitely am, but now that I’ve outlined these writing projects that I want to tackle, the demon seems to be running away again…. seems like work is a good antidote. And fresh air! What a gorgeous day… must get out for another walk today. And then back to the computer….