>This will be brief… I’ve been in Denver celebrating Thanksgiving with my children (all but Jon, who’s in Afghanastan) and new granddaughter and came home to long “to do” lists. But when I saw this article that hit the New York Times on Thanksgiving Day, I had to comment on it.
As you can tell, I’m passionate about this issue of child abuse, especially by clergy. Children who never have any sense of acceptance or security struggle to ever get past it as adults. (I’m reading Mary Karr’s amazing memoir, Lit, right now, and can’t wait to review it… soon!) At one point Karr asks her therapist how she can ever get past it, and he says, “You’ve got to nurture yourself…. realize you’re not lost. You’re an adult.”
Watching my adopted son, Jason, holding his birth daughter, and seeing how much he loves her and wants to protect her and give her the connectedness he’s always longed for, I often fought back tears while we were visiting him this Thanksgiving. Although Jason wasn’t abused, his pain comes from having been relinquished by his birth mother, and separated from her and his birth sister all these years. I can see his resolve in repairing that breach in his own new little family that he’s growing now. Hopefully Grace won’t ever know that pain and will grow up with the nurturing every child deserves from birth.
Looking for a wonderful Christmas gift for someone who loves to read or just cares deeply about people in general and children in particular? Get them Kim’s book, The Unbreakable Child. It’s full of forgiveness and redemption–just the message the world needs now.
So, how do we get past it? Yes, by forgiving the unforgiveable, but also by holding the abusers, and those who cover for them, accountable.
>Thanksgiving is an American tradition, not a religious holiday. And yet I find myself looking to God, and to my Church and its traditions this year. Maybe it’s because I miss my own family’s traditions… the ones we shared for years in Jackson, Mississippi, at my Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan’s house. There would always be a house full of cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and sometimes friends. The food was amazing (the BEST dressing ever. This is not up for discussion) but the family time is what I miss. You see, my family (maybe like yours?) was pretty dysfunctional in many ways, but somehow on Thanksgiving we managed to be, well, thankful.
So this Thanksgiving I have much to be thankful for, but I’ve been battling this funk (see previous posts about acedia, etc.) and also kinda wishing I had all “my people” here with me in Memphis. Where are they?
My mother, who has Alzheimer’s and won’t remember what day it is, is in a nursing home in Mississippi. Our oldest son, Jonathan, is in Jalalabad, Afghanastan, flying helicopters for the Army. He just sent me an instant message a few minutes ago and hopes to be able to call us tomorrow. This is his first time in Afghanastan (he’s only been there a couple of weeks) but he’s done two tours in Iraq.
My younger son, Jason, and his wife, See and their daughter, Grace, are in Denver, but “Pops” and I are flying out to see them first thing in the morning, and for that I’m very thankful!
And, our daughter, Beth, is already there… she flew out tonight and will be there when we arrive tomorrow. So, there will be 6 of us at Jason and See’s apartment for Thanksgiving, and for that I’m also thankful.(Just for fun, here’s a picture of Beth in kindgergarten, being an Indian at Thanksgiving. That’s Granny Effie and me with her…. you can tell it’s the 80s by the hair:-)
And yet, each time I’ve sat down to write a blog post about Thanksgiving, I haven’t come up with anything very creative, or insightful. So, I’ve decided to share a link to a blog that I follow regularly. It’s called “Glory to God for All Things.” The author is Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Father Stephen was guest speaker at our annual women’s retreat at St John Orthodox Church here in Memphis recently, and I’m still “processing” the talks that he gave.
I’m getting up at 5 a.m. for an early flight to Denver, so I’ll close by saying Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good night!
>Mary Karr is one of my favorite memoirists, right up there with Ann Lamott and Haven Kimmel, who is also a poet, and Kim Michelle Richardson (and yes, she’s a poet, too). Oh and also Augusten Burroughs. So I was excited to read Karr’s book of poetry, Sinners Welcome, this past week.
Like her memoirs, Cherry and The Liar’s Club, Sinners Welcome is gritty. It doesn’t pull any punches. I find great comfort in her honesty and humility, and my faith grows as I read about her journey to God. In “Waiting For God: Self-Portrait As Skeleton,” she writes about her mother’s death, and reflects on her mother’s insane life style:
“… Was it God
who dragged her from the kitchen floor
where she’d puked and the guy had pissed himself
to detox, to a rickety chair where she eventually sat upright
with eyes clear as seawater? Yes, I said
to myself one day, kneeling, I believe
that’s right. Then from the hard knot at my skull’s base
I felt warm oil as from a bath bead broken open
somehow flow upward to cover my skull, and my hair
came streaming down again,
and the soft clay crawled back to form my face.”
As wonderful as her poetry is, the big surprise and greatest blessing of her book, for me, turned out to be the afterword, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer.” Karr had been asked to write this essay for the journal, Poetry, but I missed it there, so I’m thrilled to find it in the back of this book of her own poetry. You can read the entire essay at Poetry online, here.
Karr writes about how poetry can minister to hurting, doubting souls, sometimes in ways that nothing else can. If you’re a conservative Christian and you’re reading this and thinking, “what about Scripture?” I would say to you, yes! Read the Psalms! But I would say to those creative spirits out there, that poetry can save. Or it can at least keep you from falling so deeply into the abyss that you can’t reach a hand up to God for help.
As Karr says of a particularly dark time in her life:
“In this state—what Dickinson called ‘sumptuous destitution’—prayer was a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry could still draw me out of myself, easing my loneliness as it had since earliest kidhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar…. The first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from seemingly glorious Others to my drear-minded self.”
Now, before you think, “Oh, no, Susan is giving up on prayer” let me just say that prayer is the singular most difficult task I have ever attempted in my life. Well, that and fasting. Well, and maybe also dispassion and moderation and sobriety, but all those are really outcomes of a life of prayer, and not ends in themselves. But back to Karr’s essay:
“But if you’re in a frame of mind gloomy enough to refuse prayer, despite its having worked bona fide miracles for you before, nothing satisfies like a dark poem. Maybe wrestling with gnarly language occupies the loud and simian chatter of a dismayed mind, but for me the relief comes to some extent form a hookup to another creature. The compassion innate in having someone—however remote—verbalize your despair or lend a form to it can salve the jibbering psyche.”
These words brought to mind my ongoing struggle with acedia. And while Norris might not have all the answers, the struggle she shares is almost enough in and of itself to cheer me in my own fight, you know?
Like Karr, I’m more often drawn to God, Church and prayer because of a great neediness or pain or suffering or anger or hurt. And like her, I’m in awe of people who are drawn to God simply to praise him. Prayer and worship are messy affairs, and our motives and brokenness are all in there together, or as Karr puts it:
“Maybe saints turn to God to exalt Him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup…. With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble. We suffer with prayer and poetry alike. Boy, do we suffer.”
There’s a simplicity in Karr’s writing that reminds me of Ann Lamott, especially in her memoir, Grace Eventually. They both surprised their friends by turning to God for help with their addictions. Lamott would pray, in the face of temptations to drink, use, or abuse alcohol, drugs or food, “Help me, Help me, Help me!” and then when the help came, she would pray, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!”
Karr “starting kneeling to pray morning and night—spitefully at first, in a bitter pout. The truth is, I still very much fancied the idea that glugging down Jack Daniel’s would stay my turmoil….. Ergo, I prayed—not with the misty-eyed glee I’d seen on Song of Berndette…. I prayed with belligerence, at least once with a middle finger aimed at the light fixture—my own small unloaded bazooka pointed at the Almighty. I said Keep me sober, in the morning. I said, Thanks, at night.”
Reading these words I was, of course, turning the pages quickly to see if it “worked.” And I read on:
“And though I’d been bouncing on and off the wagon for a few years, unable to give up booze for more than a period of weeks (with and without the help of other human beings), I didn’t pick up a drink. Which seemed—to one who’d studied positivism and philosophy of science in college—a psychological payoff to the dumb process of getting on my knees twice a day to talk to myself.”
So, her volume of poetry, Sinners Welcome, is shot through with poems about Christ but also with transparent broken humanity. As she says, about the volume:
“My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.”
I’m so thankful to have discovered Mary Karr, the woman, the poet, the writer, the mother, the struggler to whom I can relate. Like her, I want my work to be infused with light:
“Having devoted the first half of my life to the dark, I feel obliged to locate any pinpoint of light now. And writing this essay did fling open a window so some column of sun shone down on me again. When I hit my knees again during Lent, I felt God’s sturdy presence, and I knew right off it wasn’t God who’d checked out in the first place…. That’s why I pray and poetize: to be able to see my brothers and sister despite my own (often petty) agonies, to partake of the majesty that’s every sinner’s birthright.
So here I am in “Nativity Lent” and what book am I choosing for my spiritual reading? Karr’s new memoir, “Lit,” which I started on last night. Stay tuned for a review in a few weeks.
And if you ‘re looking for some poetry for yourself or to give as Christmas gifts, I highly recommend Sinners Welcome, as well as these great books of poetry:
Scott Cairns’ Compass of Affection
Beth Ann Fennelly’s Unmentionables
Anne Fisher-Wirth’s Five Terraces
>It’s only the fifth day of the Nativity Fast (for Orthodox Christians) and as I continue to struggle to embrace it as the spiritual blessing it’s meant to be, rather than as strange rules that ruin the festive spirit of the pre-Christmas season, I’m thankful to read these words by St. Ambrose of Milan:
“If you offer fasting with humility and with mercy, your bones, as Isaiah said, shall be fat, and you shall be like a well-watered garden (Isaiah 58:11). So then, your soul shall grow fat and its virtues also by the spiritual richness of fasting, and your fruit shall be multiplied by the fertility of your mind, so that there may be in you the inebriation of soberness, like that cup of which the Prophet says: ‘Your cup which inebriates, how excellent it is’ (Ps. 23)!”
The inebriation of soberness. I want that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have a fat soul and a fertile mind. And into the mix, I wouldn’t mind having a skinny body. Some of the saints write that heavy bodies weigh down our souls, making it more difficult for us to soar to heaven. I think that’s true in my case, because I just feel more lazy and down-trodden when I’m overweight. And in the past, during certain Lenten Fasts when I’ve been able, by God’s grace, to keep the fast a little more obediently, I do remember feeling “lighter” … not only in my body but in my heart. More alert to God, and to the people around me. I wonder if having “fat bones” means stronger bones, which will help my osteoarthritis? St. Ambrose was not only a bishop, but also had the gift of wonder working, and healed many. You can read more about him here.
The trick, I think, is not to approach the Fast as a “diet”… not to have weight loss or lack of physical pain as my goals, but rather to desire to have good fruits. And if, along with those good fruits, I am perchance also granted the inebriation of soberness, that would be, as the Psalmist says, most excellent.
>Yesterday was my bi-monthly visit with my mother at Lakeland Nursing Home in Jackson, Mississippi. If you’re new to my blog, Mom is 81 and has Alzheimer’s. For links to past blog posts about Mom, click here. But my most recent post about mom is here.
As I drove down to visit her, I received a phone call from a dear friend in Memphis. Her mother had fallen and was in the hospital. Another friend’s mother had also fallen, a few days ago, and is now staying with her daughter and family as they decide if she can return to her home, assisted living, or other options. And yet a third friend emailed me with news of her father’s recent diagnosis with cancer. This business of getting old is complicated, I think, by two things in particular, and probably a whole slew of things in general. The specific things I’m thinking of now are:
1. People are living longer, due to medical advances, and
2. Families don’t stay together as much as they once did. And other cultures continue to have extended families living under one roof, while we Americans want “our space” and to live our lives unhindered by the burden of 24/7 care of aging parents. (I do have several friends who have their elderly parents living with them. They are better people than I could ever be.)
Anyway, when I visited with Mom on Monday, she did recognize me. “This is my little girl!” she told the ladies in the wheelchairs on either side of her in the hall.
“Oh, she looks just like you!” one of them said, and I thanked her. I think my mother is beautiful.
After our usual interaction about practical matters, which are completely lost
on her now (I washed and ironed two of your blouses, Mom, and I’m putting them in your closet now. Where is my closet? Be sure you don’t lose them, etc.) I wheeled Mom up to the front lobby where we could visit and share a piece of coffee cake from Starbucks.
I entered her world, as I always do, and complimented her, again, for her landscaping work on the patio (which of course she had nothing to do with) and showed her (again) photographs of her great-granddaughter, Grace, whom she can’t fathom, as she struggles to remember even her grandchildren at this point. She can no longer form complete sentences, but speaks in fragments, sometimes apologizing that she can’t remember a word, a person, a place…
But suddenly, she smiles at me and says, “I love your hair!”
“Really? I haven’t had it this short in years. I’m glad you like it.”
“It’s very flattering.”
This conversation is repeated 3-4 times, which didn’t bother me at all. I could have listened to her praise and compliments all day. They were rare for most of my life. And even though she was talking about something as mundane as a haircut, coming from someone who, when she was “in her right mind,” usually criticized me for being fat, having bad hair, etc., this was like oil being poured out on a wound. At age 58, I was finally receiving praise and approval from my mother.
If this sounds silly to you, you might as well just quit reading this blog post now. Just move along. There’s nothing to see here. But if this strikes a chord with you, please keep reading, because it gets better.
As I was about to leave, the sky was getting dark and it began to rain.
“Mom, it’s going to be thunder storming, and I need to drive back to Memphis, so I’d better leave soon.”
Mom’s smile faded, and she reached out, grabbed my hand, held it tightly, closed her eyes and prayed:
“Oh, Lord, we ask you to protect Susan as she drives. Take care of her and keep her safe….” She went on and on, for several sentences, speaking with complete clarity.
Tears ran down my face as I listened to my mother, who usually can’t speak a complete sentence, pray with such beauty and ease. I don’t remember my mother ever praying for me, with me, like that. Ever. All the years of verbal and emotional abuse that I suffered from her seemed to melt. Forgiveness gushed from my soul as I listened to her prayer.
When she finished, she opened her eyes, smiled, and kissed me on the lips.
I drove home to Memphis through the rain with no difficulties, and with an unusual peace. When I told my husband the story on the phone tonight, I said, “her prayer reminded me of my father, who was a teacher and prayed eloquently.”
“She was replaying the tape of your father’s prayers,” my husband offered. And I wept at his words, picturing my parents, doing their daily devotionals together every morning. Dad was eloquent. As an elder in their Presbyterian Church, he preached many sermons during interims when they didn’t have a pastor. And he led evangelism seminars and taught Sunday School classes. And of course I thought that some day when my mind is struggling to hold on, that my own dear husband’s prayers will be my salvation.
For all the dysfunction of my family of origin, today I am thankful for this unexpected gift of prayer from my mother’s lips. Alzheimer’s might be taking her mind, but God still has her heart, as broken and wounded as it is. I pray that He will protect her soul in the coming months and years that she might have left on this earth, and sustain the peace and forgiveness that I experienced today, by His grace.
>I’m heading into a busy weekend, so I’m going to “cheat” a bit on this post. I think you’ll forgive me, when you read the words of wisdom that I’m going to “borrow” in a few minutes. You see, I’m going to the annual women’s retreat at St. John Orthodox Church tonight and tomorrow. Our speaker is Father Stephen Freeman, pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Mission in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He has a great blog, “Glory to God For All Things.” I’ve been enjoying getting to know his daughter, Clare, who is a student at the Memphis College of Art.
Anyway, Father Stephen will be speaking tonight and tomorrow on “The Emptiness of God.” I know that sounds like a strange title, but maybe the titles of his four talks, based on Philippians 2:5-7, will shed a little more light: “The Feasts of Emptiness,” “The Fasts of Emptiness,” “The Prayer of Emptiness,” and “The Fullness of Emptiness.” If you’re in Memphis and you’re reading this and want to drop by, his first talk is tonight at 7:30 p.m., and the church is at 1663 Tutwiler, just 2 blocks north of North Parkway, on the corner of Dickinson and Tutwiler. His next talk is at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday. There are prayers and meals and coffee breaks involved…. Call 901-274-4119 for more information.
All that to lead into what I’m going to “borrow” for today’s blog post. As we approach the Nativity Fast (November 15-December 24) which is like a pre-Christmas Lent for Orthodox Christians, I’m always looking for ways to turn up my (very weak) ascetic struggle a notch or two. So, when I received this link from my friend, Father Paul Yerger, last night, I thought, “that’s what I want to share on my blog.” Father Paul is quoting Father Thomas Hopko, retired Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, in his weekly bulletin from Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi.
There are two segments here—one is a more developed exploration that Father Hopko calls, “How Can I Know God as God Really Is?” The second segment is simpler, but longer, and it’s called “55 Maxims.” If you choose to read either or both of these, please don’t think of them as “rules.” I think Father Hopko would agree with me in saying, as I learned when I was part of a 12 Steps Program, “take what works and leave the rest.” The original site where these were posted is here, and it includes a nice introduction about Father Hopko.
The rest of my weekend remains busy, as I welcome two dear friends from out of town (one from Arkansas and one from Mississippi) to stay with me, and then as I head back down to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother and some friends from my high school days. I’ll be back on Monday, which will probably be the next time I’ll post. Have a great weekend, everyone!
And now, your weekend reading:
HOW CAN I KNOW?
By Father Thomas Hopko
How can I know God as God really is?
How can I know Christ as the way, the truth, and the life of God, and humanity, the light of the world? How can I know the Orthodox Church as “the household of God,” and “the pillar, and bulwark of the truth” – God’s kingdom on earth? If you want to find answers for yourself to these questions, Orthodox Christian saints, and spiritual teachers would ask you to do the following things as faithfully, and honestly as you can, and to see for yourself what happens.
1. Be ready to do whatever it takes to know. Humbly, and courageously do what you are told without questioning it in any way. Be determined to follow what you come to know, whatever the cost.
2. Pray for enlightenment, even if your prayer is “to whom it may concern.” Pray something like this: “God, if you exist, reveal yourself to me.”
If you already believe in God somehow, then pray: “God, reveal yourself to me as you really are.”
As you pray, do not look for anything. Let whatever happens, happen.
3. While praying this way, read through the New Testament very slowly, at least three times. Take several months to do this. Do not be bothered about what you don’t understand, but try to put into practice what you do understand.
4. During this time, go to Orthodox Church services if you can. Just stand, or sit there, and listen. Do not judge the people who are there, in any way. Do not De bothered about what you don’t understand. If you are a confused, and troubled member of the Orthodox Church, do not serve at the altar, or read, or sing in the choir, during this period.
5. During this time, do not lie about anything, do not consciously harm anyone, try to be kind, and good to everyone you meet, without exception. If possible, do some good work for others, even if just for an hour or two a week, as secretly as possible. Also if possible, give away some money secretly to those in need.
6. During this time, if you are not married, do not engage in any sexual acts at all, of any kind, even with yourself alone. If you fail in this, forget it immediately, and start over.
7. During this time, do not get drunk. Do not eat too much. Do not eat unhealthy foods. And try to eat, and drink less than normal, a couple of days a week, e.g. on Wednesdays, and Fridays.
8. During this time, sit in total silence, at least 10 to 15 minutes a day, or even up to 30 minutes a day, if you can, watching the thoughts that come to your mind, and letting them go with a prayer: “God [if you are there] enlighten my mind. God [if you are there] help me with this. God [if you are there] help these people who come to mind.”
9. During this time, try to speak as little as possible, without irritating others. Do not try to make your opinions known, or accepted in conversations, unless asked. Listen to others. Be attentive to their presence, and their needs. Do not argue with anyone about anything.
10. During this time, find someone that you fully trust, and share with him/her your thoughts, feelings, dreams, hang-ups, compulsions, etc. in detail. Do not, however, go into detail about sexual things, or about other people. Discuss in detail your family of origin, and your childhood experiences — good, and bad. Focus on what memories distress, and sadden you, and what memories bring you joy.
11. During this time, do a “check list” for possible food, alcohol, drug, or sex addictions, and other addictions that you may think that you have, like, e.g. rage, gambling, or shopping. If you see that you are addicted in some way, enter a treatment programme (or a support group).
12. During this time, do your work, or your studies, to the best of your ability: carefully, responsibly, conscientiously, and devotedly. Live a day, even a part of the day, at a time. Focus fully on what you are doing at the given moment.
01. Be always with Christ, and trust God in everything
02. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
03. Have a keepable rule of prayer, done by discipline.
04. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
05. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
06. Make some prostrations when you pray.
07. Eat good foods in moderation, and fast on fasting days.
08. Practice silence: inner, and outer.
09. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
12. Go to confession, and holy communion regularly.
13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts, and feelings.
14. Reveal your thoughts, and feelings to someone regularly.
15. Read the scriptures regularly.
16. Read good books, a little at a time.
17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
19. Be polite with everyone, first of all with family members.
20. Maintain cleanliness, and order in your home.
21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
22. Exercise regularly.
23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
25. Be faithful in little things.
26. Do your work, then forget it.
27. Do the most difficult, and painful things first.
28. Face reality.
29. Be grateful.
30. Be cheerful.
31. Be simple, hidden, quiet, and small.
32. Never bring attention to yourself.
33. Listen when people talk to you.
34. Be awake, and attentive, fully present where you are.
35. Think, and talk about things no more than necessary.
36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur, or whine.
40. Don’t seek, or expect pity, or praise.
41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
44. Don’t defend, or justify yourself.
45. Be defined, and bound by God, not by people.
46. Accept criticism gracefully, and test it carefully.
47. Give advice only when asked, or when it is your duty.
48. Do nothing for people that they can, and should, do for themselves.
49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim, and caprice.
50. Be merciful with yourself, and with others.
51. Have no expectations, except to be fiercely tempted until your last breath.
52. Focus exclusively on God, and light, and never on darkness, temptation, and sin.
53. Patiently endure your faults, and sins peacefully, under God’s mercy.
54. When you fall, get up immediately, and start over.
55. Get help when you need it, without fear, or shame.
>This must be my week for all things poetic. After the amazing spiritual writing workshop on Saturday, led by the poet and prose writer, Scott Cairns, I found myself returning to Oxford again on Tuesday night, this time for “Harvest Writers Reading” at Roosters Blues House on the Square. In addition to the fact that they raised lots of money (and received canned goods) for a local food bank and the national organization, Share our Strength, which works to feed hungry children across the country, the evening was, well, magical. Danielle Sellers, volunteer organizer for the event, posted this on Facebook after the evening:
“Thank you to everyone who came the to event tonight. It was a great success. We made over 300 dollars for hunger relief and I have a truck full of cans which will be delivered to The Pantry in the morning. Good work Oxford! And thanks to all who made the drive down from Memphis!”
While I very much enjoyed the readings of my friends and mentors, Beth Ann Fennelly, her husband, Tom Franklin, and Jack Pendarvis, it was my introduction to Ann Fisher-Wirth that made the evening so magical for me. Ann is a Professor of English at the University of Mississippi, and Beth Ann Fennelly considers her a mentor. Their friendship is obvious in Ann’s volume of poetry, “Five Terraces,” which include a poem dedicated to Beth Ann: “Sphinx, Star-Gazer, Mountain: Leading yoga. For Beth Ann Fennelly.” (Ann also teaches yoga. It shows in her body, in her carriage, in her spirit.)
I forgot my camera (if you can believe that) and took a few snapshots with my cell phone, but the quality is so bad that I will spare you. This picture of Ann is from the internet, and it’ s much better than mine. Here’s an interview with her at The Best American Poetry. You can read some of her poetry here.
Ann was an army brat, and I love the poems she read about her military childhood. They seemed especially appropriate on the eve of Veteran’s Day. And after the readings were over, when I went downstairs to leave Rooster’s, I was stopped in my tracks by a group of Marines, standing at attention in the downstairs bar, singing The Marines’ Hymn with vigor and reverence. It brought tears to my eyes. Afterwords, I said to one of them, “My son just got to Afghanastan this week. He flies helicopters for the Army.”
“Tell him we’ll be joining him as soon as we can, ma’am. We’ll have his back.”
I gave him a hug, and then looked around at the circle of young men with crew cuts and shining faces. They were beautiful young men, all of them. And I wept as I left the restaurant and got into my car to drive home to Memphis.
The next day I picked up Ann’s volume, Five Terraces, and found a few of the poems she had read the night before. The one that I found myself returning to again today is called, “When You Come to Love.” I hope I’m not infringing on any copyright laws by sharing it here, and I hope it will inspire my readers to find this book, and others of Ann’s, and buy them and enjoy them for yourself. Or give them as Christmas gifts to people you love. I’ll close with
When You Come to Love
by Ann Fisher-Wirth
When you come to love,
bring all you have.
Bring the milk in the jug,
the checked cloth on the table—
the conch that sang the sea
when you were small,
and your moonstone rings,
your dream of wolves,
your woven bracelets.
For the key to love is in the fire’s nest,
and the riddle of love is the hawk’s dropped feather.
Bring every bowl and ewer,
every cup and chalice, jar,
for love will fill them all-
And, dazzled with the day,
fold the sunlight in your sheets,
fold the smell of salt and leaves,
of summer, sweat, and roses,
to shake them out when you need them most,
For love is strong as death.
>Annie Dillard says he’s one of the best poets alive. And on Saturday, I sat around a table with seventeen other participants at a spiritual writing workshop hosted by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi, learning from him. His name is Scott Cairns, and he teaches at the University of Missouri. His poetry and nonfiction have been included in Best American Spiritual Writing and other anthologies, and his poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Repubic, Image, Poetry and other journals. So, how did I find myself in this intimate group of spiritual writers on Saturday?
It began sometime last year, when I walked into Father John Troy Mashurn’s office at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. Father John is our pastor. His coffee table is often laden with beautiful books from monasteries all over the world, some with beautiful iconography. No matter what spiritual urgency leads me to his office, my eyes always scan the table when I first sit down. On that particular day, they fell on a small volume of poetry by Scott Cairns—Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. Picking it up, I asked Father John, “What’s this?”
“Oh, that’s a book of poetry. Cairns is Orthodox… he took a number of mystical writings and adapted them in verse. You’d probably enjoy it, although I prefer the original texts myself.”
Thumbing through, I find familiar ground, like one of my favorites, Saint Isaac the Syrian. “Can I borrow this?”
“Sure. He’s also written a book about his pilgrimage to Mount Athos. I actually like that one better.”
The conversation held no surprises. Father John holds tenaciously to the words of Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers of the Church, and doesn’t like people messing with them too much. We both share a deep love for Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, for example. Many years ago Father John shared Saint Nikolai’s Prayers by the Lake with me. They are probably the most beautiful spiritual poems I’ve ever read. So, it’s not that he doesn’t like poetry. I think it’s more that he prefers the original to an adaptation.
That conversation was on my mind as I listened to Cairns on Saturday at the workshop. Although he spoke about various aspects of poetry, his emphasis on a form which I wasn’t familiar with made the biggest impression on me. It’s called ekphrasis. It’s a Greek word, and it refers to poetry that’s written about a prior text or a work of art. Cairns said ekphrastic poetry should “give voice to an artifact… making meaning with narrative about something the piece of art might be saying.” Here’s another link with some examples. And yet another.
Later, when I was having lunch with my friend, Michelle Bright, (in the center in the picture) a graduate of the journalism program at Ole Miss, I found that this is a fairly well-known entity—Michelle had a teacher in junior high school who taught her students about ekphrastic poetry. I was impressed and a bit envious. Another of our writing group friends, Patti Brummett, also joined us for lunch. Patti is just a freshman at Ole Miss, but spent her junior and senior years of high school at the Mississippi School for the Arts in Brookhaven, where she focused on literary art. She blew us all away with her lyrical prose writing at the Yoknapatawpha Writing Workshop back in June. One night, at open mic, she gave a performance akin to da-da poetry, keeping the beat with quiet finger snapping. She could have been a beat poet in Greenwich Village in the 60s.
During the workshop, Cairns read examples of poetry—his and others—written about passages of Scripture. He was drawn to Judaism early in his spiritual journey, “because of the Rabbinic attitude towards language.” There’s a genre called Midrash, which Cairns describes as “humble and earnest,” which “presses the different Biblical passages for new revelation.” He said that Christ’s parabolic explications of Scriptural truth are very much like this. But, I’m thinking, Christ can do what he wants with Scriptures because, well, He’s the Son of God, right? But for mere mortals to mess with God’s word in this way…. I’m not sure how I feel about it. But I listened with an open mind as he continued.
“Language not only operates retrospectively, but also operates prospectively.” He talked about how we “write to discover—we collaborate with God for the future.” Using the modern day image of computer links that we click on to open another page, he said: “Opening the Scriptures, opening the Word, is like pre-historic hypertext, where each word has that kind of agency, to open another page.”
The concept of “opening” intrigues me. Cairns spoke of its use in Scriptures, like in the Gospel of Luke (24) when Jesus encounters two disciplines on the road to Emmaus and later one of the disciples says, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
He “opened the Scriptures to them.” In the Orthodox Church, only a priest can preach the homily (sermon) in the Divine Liturgy. I once asked why, and was told that since the homily is supposed to be about the Gospel reading for the day, only a priest can preach on the Gospel. It’s a sacramental aspect of the Liturgy, I think, and this reading and preaching on the Gospel is called the “washing of the water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:25).
Remembering that Cairns is, like me, a convert to Orthodoxy, I couldn’t help but wonder how our Church would view some of his thinking. Sitting around a table with mostly (exclusively?) Episcopal writers, I thought about how the two Churches view art in different ways. I felt a sort of freedom in their company that I sometimes don’t feel in my own church. It’s not that I want to make a change—I love my church—it’s just that I felt such camaraderie there. I was sitting next to Taylor Moore, the rector of St. Peter’s. Taylor was dressed in blue jeans and a tweed-ish blazer, looking for all the world like an author at a book signing. (Orthodox priests, on the other hand, always wear either their black cassock or a black suit with a collar.) Next to Taylor was his wife, Nancy, whom I met at a Creative Nonfiction Conference in 2008, when we were both in Dinty Moore’s critique session together. Nancy and I had an immediate bond… and I don’t think it was just because we are married to ministers. We’re both artists, writing memoir. Her husband, Taylor, was given a Lily Foundation Grant to travel and read poetry. And some of the money from the grant enabled him to invited Cairns to lead a workshop at his parish. I love the way the Episcopal Church honors art.
As Cairns spoke, I thought about one of my favorite books, The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen, in which Nouwen has a chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, sending him on a long spiritual adventure. His reflections were in prose, rather than poetry, but I think his interactions with the art were ekphrastic.
In another of Nouwen’s books, Beyond the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons, he chooses four famous Russian icons: the Holy Trinity, the Virgin of Vladimir, the Savior of Zvenigorod, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and spends time with each of them in an interactive way.
And so I posed the question that’s been on my mind for some time, to Scott, at the workshop: “As an iconographer, I’ve thought about trying to write prose reflections, or maybe even poetry, about my own personal encounter with icons. As Orthodox Christians, how should that be approached, or should it be?”
This is where Scott explained more about our interaction with art, and the importance of synergy—where we work together with the Church and Christ to bring about redemption. I was thrilled to learn that Cairns has written, and published, a poem about icons. “Two Icons,” which is in his volume Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (which has icons on the cover.) “Two Icons” is his reflection on the icons of the Nativity of Christ and the Dormition of the Mother of God. I read the poem later, after purchasing the book at Square Books and getting Scott to sign it for me. “Two Icons” was truly a gift to me. It’s difficult to capture Cairns’ art with just an excerpt from this poem, but here’s a taste: (please get the book and read the entire poem… and all his poems!)
“…even here the radiant
compass of affection
is announced, that even here our several
histories converge and slip,
just briefly out of time. Which is much of what
an icon works as well,
and this one offers up a broad array
of separate narratives
whose temporal relations quite miss the point….”
I’m not sure how I will proceed in my own efforts at ekphrasis, but I will proceed.
I actually made a stab at this a few years ago, but I didn’t know it was ekphrasis. I had fallen in love with a painting at an art auction on a cruise boat. It was by an Armenian painter, Martiros Manoukian, who also did icons. The painting was an angel, with half of its face and body done very much in the style of a Byzantine icon, and the other half in abstract. The “iconic angel” is holding a paintbrush, and appears to be painting the abstract side of himself. The name of the painting was, “Yesterday, Tomorrow.” I asked the broker, who knew the artist, what Manoukian’s interpretation of the work might be. She said she thought Manoukian was trying to capture the spirit of art in Russia, and how it’s changing. While I found that interesting, it was not at all the same thing I felt as I gazed at the painting. Please indulge me here, as I share my “ekphrastic poem” about this painting. It’s not good writing (I have no training in poetry) but it will illustrate, I think, this idea of interacting with art in the way that Scott was teaching us on Saturday. I’m including a picture of the painting that I got off the internet later.
The Angel’s Shadow
©Susan Cushman, 2005
Bodiless creatures without human form
Have never had shadows
Have always been bright
In the light
Of the Son.
Like Byzantine icons of angels and saints
Of Christ and His Mother
And others whose fight
For the right
Has been won.
Jungian wisdom has taught us to own
Our shadows, our dark sides
To help us delight
In our plight
‘Til we’re done.
Until we have faces, until we can see
We still need the contrast
To balance the light
It just might
Help us run.
Restoring the image that broke when we fell
Artists and poets must
Work through the night
And the blight
Of each one.
Martiros’ angel did not feel complete
So he painted his shadow
And then he felt right
For his flight
Holding our opposites, loving both sides
Manoukian teaches us
To make it right
Not to fight
But be one.
At one point in the workshop, Scott made a reference to Rilke, whose poetry I love. In my research for this blog post, I ran across an article, ironically by a woman named Jenifer Cushman, called, “Beyond Ekphrasis: Logos and Eikon in Rilke’s Poetry.” Rainer Maria Rilke was greatly influenced by the Orthodox Church in Russia, and especially icons.
A brief excerpt from (Jenifer) Cushman’s article:
“The claim that Rilke’s poems can be read like Orthodox icons assumes a deeper kinship between the written and visual arts than simple ekphrasis…. The potential for art to impact life directly links theories of ekphrasis to Orthodox icon theology, for the function of the icon is to make the scriptural word palpable, to occasion a change in perception, and ultimately the behavior of the believer. It was this aspect of Orthodoxy in particular that appealed to the young Rilke, charged with enthusiasm for spirituality he attributed to the so-called ‘Slavic soul.’”
Cairns didn’t really talk much about music, but I was thinking about it as he spoke. Especially about one of my favorite CDs, Kris Delmhorst’s, “Strange Conversation.” This album seems to me an ekphrasis-in-reverse, in that she takes the works of well-known poets like Herman Broch, e.e. Cummings and George Eliot, and interprets them as song. When Cairns spoke about ekphrastic poetry as “listening in on the prior conversation and then joining it,” I immediately thought about Delmorst’s song, “The Invisible Choir,” adapted from George Eliot’s poem, “The Choir Invisible. First, I’ll give you an ecerpt from the Eliot poem:
“This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose magic is the gladness of the world.”
-George Eliot (1867)
And now, here are the lyrics to Delmhorst’s adaptation:
lyrics adapted from: George Eliot, “The Choir Invisible”
Oh may I join that invisible choir
I want to join that invisible choir
Made of those sweet immortal voices
That lift our hearts up higher
I want to live after I die
I want to live after I die
I want to make a bit of beauty
And leave a little light behind
Or be the balm to someone’s sadness, the song for someone’s gladness,
A cup of strength to someone in their fight
Or maybe sweeten an existence, inspire a persistence,
Or breathe the breath that makes the spark of love burn bright
Oh may I reach the heaven most high
I want to reach that heaven most high
And be a little star a shining
In someone’s darkest night.
I have these lyrics printed off and taped to the wall by my computer. I read them almost every day, kind of like a prayer. They are a reminder to myself that my life, and more specifically my writing, can be, as Delmhorst says, “the balm to someone’s sadness, the song for someone’s gladness, a cup of strength to someone in their fight.”
Scott Cairns and the dear group of writers at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi, were that for me on Saturday. They were indeed “the song for someone’s gladness,” and they did, indeed, “sweeten an existence” and “inspire a persistence.”
And let me not forget to thank my dear friend, Neil White, for inviting me to this intimate gathering. The workshop wasn’t really open to the public, but Neil said he invited me “because you’re Orthodox and you’re a good writer.” I’m humbled by Neil’s words, and grateful for his friendship. It was great being with him and his wife, Debbie on Saturday. We enjoyed a stroll around the square after the workshop, and I am re-charged for the work at hand, whether it be the next chapter of my memoir-in-progress, another essay, or…. Maybe an ephrastic poem about one of my favorite icons. Hmmmm
And now for a postscript to this (already long) post: at The Maker’s Market in front of the Lyric Theater, I met Dawn Delatte (yes, that’s her real name!) and purchased the lovely “cityscape” votive holders from her. Here we are at the Market. We became Facebook “friends” and I learned that Dawn and her husband have been visiting Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. What a small world. I felt a bond with Dawn, instantly. I’m sure her art was part of it, but a big part, I believe, was her spirit. Maybe those are the same thing. Anyway, It was a gorgeous day in Oxford, and I’m thankful for the writing workshop and friends, both old and new.
>I’ve been struggling with what to write today. There are lots of reasons for my hesitancy—traveling, house renovations, depression—and honestly, I think I’m just bored with my own words. And so I think, if I don’t like my writing, why would anyone else want to read it?
But there’s more to it than that. At the bottom of my emptiness is a beast roaring to be fed, and I think his name is Ego. Ego is always starving for something—attention, food, drink, praise. And Ego has found a new drug. It’s name is Facebook.
All this came strongly to mind during a conversation I had with two friends his past Saturday. We were talking about the social media. Here’s how it went:
Friend 1: I think you should write shorter status updates on Facebook and save your energy for your blog posts.
Me: That’s probably true… in fact, I should probably write shorter blog posts and save my energy for my essays and memoir-in-progress. But writing is such a lonely task, and I crave the instant gratification I get from Facebook.
Friend 2: But does it isolate you even more from friends? How many people that you correspond with on Facebook are people you talk with on the phone or see in person regularly?
Me: Very few. In fact, my phone rarely rings, unless it’s a salesman or repairman, or an out of town friend or relative. And almost all of my personal interactions with people are initiated by me. So, basically I’m lonely and feel unloved and so I reach out on FB because it gives a sense of intimacy.
Friend 2: But is it real?
Me: Sometimes. Like when people I would never see in person (because they have lots of little kids and live far away, for example) and I have chats on FB… that’s kinda nice.
Friend 1: I like it for that reason, too. I’m not saying not to do FB, but not to write such long posts or so many. I’d rather read your longer pieces on your blog.
Friend 2: But do you think people spend all this time on FB instead of having personal encounters?
Me: Hmmm. Possibly. But I think the greater question is still one of real vs. false intimacy. Of course you can have false intimacy in person as well, but I’m wondering if an imperfect personal relationship isn’t better than the isolation that internet addiction can bring. I mean, after I spend hours on email and FB (and sometimes Twitter) I don’t come away feeling better. The “feel good” only lasts briefly, kind of like a sugar or carbohydrate high.
Now, if Friend 1 and Friend 2 are reading this, they might be thinking that’s not exactly what they said, but I think I’ve captured the gist of the conversation. And their words have been in my mind all week. But I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make a clean break with the sugar and carbs. I might have to come down gradually… setting limits on how many times a day I get on FB, or how long I spend each time. And get back to writing a serious blog three times a week. And I want to write two more essays for publications with due dates at the end of November and December. And then there’s the book, the most difficult task at hand. Well, next to personal relationships of course, including my relationship with God.
As I was starting this post, for some reason the old song, Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” came to mind. I love the way Billie Holiday sings it. I wonder if the way I feel about the social media isn’t a bit like her words:
“If that ain’t love, it’ll have to do, until the real thing comes along.”
>“Persephone ate the pomegranate seeds that Hades offered her in the underworld; this guaranteed she and her mother would be separated a third of every year; and that was how winter came into the world.”
If you’re not into mythology, these words of Sue Monk Kidd’s in her latest book, Traveling With Pomegranates, might be a turn off for you, but I’m finding diverse treasures in this wonderful volume which she penned with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor.
I’ve been a fan of Kidd (the mother) for several years now, finding inspiration, even if I didn’t agree with everything she wrote, in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. And her novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair are both favorites of mine. And then I read an essay she wrote for All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, in 2006 and I continued to feel a strong connection with her.
So when I heard that she and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, had written a book together, I was intrigued. They traveled to Greece and later to Paris together, but the book is more than a travelogue… it’s a candid journal of their spiritual lives and their relationship as mother and daughter.
Sue writes about her struggles with moving into middle age, concerns about her future, her writing, her changing place in the world as an “older woman,” in mythological and spiritual terms:
“As I contemplate the fertility I hope for in my fifties and beyond—the regeneration of my creativity, the refinement of my spirituality, a new relationship with my body, the rediscovery of my daughter, indeed an inner culmination I cannot fully articulate to myself—I realize it cannot be plotted, orchestrated, controlled, and forced to bloom.”
How many middle-aged women (like me!) have felt this same way. Feel this same way right now? But who would think to tie it into a piece of fruit?
“The pomegranate in the myth symbolizes both death and life…. Maybe it is a feminine thing, I don’t know—but whenever I’ve managed to find new consciousness and renewals of my work, my relationships, and myself, it has been by going down into what seemed like a holy dark.”
A holy dark. The prophet Moses met God in a cloud of darkness. He doesn’t always appear to us in shining light. And He often appears to Sue in symbols…in peacocks and pomegranates and old women and green journals.
While reading the book, I began to be drawn to pomegranates, and bought some at the grocery store, along with a little pamphlet that shows how to “open” them. My friend Caitlyn cut them open and carefully removed the seeds from the membrane, and rinsed them for me. I sprinkled a little sugar on them and devoured them over the next couple of days. Tart and sweet at the same time. And, they have three times the antioxidant ability of green tea or red wine! (Here’s a little more about the history of pomegranates if you’re really curious.)
I even bought a pair of earrings when I was in Oxford this past Tuesday because they reminded me of pomegrantes, and of the necklace that Ann bought in Greece, which she writes about in the book. (The earrings are hanging on the side of the cup of pomegranate seeds in the picture on my kitchen counter.)
And maybe I’m taking this too far, but on Friday when I chose my Christmas cards for this year, I noticed that they come from a publisher named Pomegranate!
I’m intrigued by Sue’s relationship with the Mother of God, and how it has changed and grown throughout her writing. In her travels she visits the house in Ephesus where Mary, the Mother of God, is said to have lived after Christ’s crucifixion and ascension. She writes about the “human Mary” and the “divine Mary” and how she has been coming to “understand her not only within a biblical and human context, but also as … a spiritual presence able to hold large archetypal mysteries.” Gazing at paintings of the various stages of Mary’s life on in the Louvre, she makes parallels between those stages and the stages of all women’s lives, and of her life as a writer. I love the meaning she draws from everything… it’s like she experiences life through an amplifier or a magnifying glass, hearing and seeing it louder and larger than most of us do, and bringing that vision to her work as a writer for all of us to enjoy.
And her spiritual journey encourages me to be open to the different ways in which God works in our lives. Watching others approach an altar, make the sign of the cross and pray in the “Mary house” in Ephesus, Sue writes:
“It has been a long while since I’ve made a concrete petition, but as I linger, waiting for my own moment with Mary, it is faith I wish for. I wish to shape my needs into specific, well-considered words and offer them to my own particular image of the Loving Mystery, believing like a wise child.” She’s struggling with a desire to learn to be still, to just “be,” and yet an almost manic need to always be writing, always be “doing.” But there in “Mary’s house” her opposites come together and she prays for courage to find a new creative voice: “the words contemplative writer form in a slow, measured way….they give me the barest glimpse of a wholeness shining behind my divisiveness, the possibility of union.”
There it is again… that wholeness that I also desire, that Madeleine L’Engle wrote about so eloquently.
Joy. Depression. Darkness. Light. Mystery. Intimacy. Boundaries. Dreams. Poetry. Creativity. Spirituality. It’s all in there.
Oh, and Sue also talks about certain things that inspired her novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and I was fascinated by that… by the way the bees and the Black Madonna and the story of the little girl and the three strong Black women in the house and all that came together. She sees symbols in every day life and brilliantly turns them into stories. Great reading for writers. Great reading for anyone. Enjoy.