>Family Matters

>Family. It’s where the best of times and the worst of times are played out in the lives of most human beings. Few, if any, of us live “Ozzie and Harriett” lives like the 50s television shows tried to represent. The title of the recent movie, “It’s Complicated,” says it well.

No matter what generation you’re part of, you can’t escape it. But if you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you’re part of the current “sandwich generation,” with aging parents and grown (or nearly grown) kids and even grandchildren. In previous times, multi-generational families lived together much more often than they do today. I was talking with my daughter yesterday. She’s working on a design for her master’s thesis in architecture that involves a retirement/assisted living facility that would be situated near a middle school and other cross-generational community centers, allowing for a more natural interaction between the age groups. So many older folks are isolated today, which probably increases their needs for anti-depression meds and government and medical intervention earlier than would have been needed in the past, when Granddaddy and Grandmother lived at home, or at least close to their children and grandchildren.

But even if we chose to put our elderly parents in nursing homes and not allow our potential boomerang kids from coming back home after college, Family still looms large in our minds, our hearts, our psyches. And so it should. Here’s how it came down for me today.

When I woke up and looked at the calendar, I realized it was the third anniversary of my brother’s death. Mike was only 58 when he died of lung cancer. Here he is at 20, home from deployment to the Philippines with the Marines, just in time for my wedding, in June of 1970.

And here we are with my mother in December of 2006, just 6 weeks before he died. Mom was still in assisted living then, before she broke her hip and had to go to the nursing home. It was the last Christmas the three of us would be together. He could barely make it from his car up to her apartment without his oxygen. Just looking at these pictures and thinking about Mike makes me sad.

And so I head upstairs to work out on the elliptical machine, and there’s my father. Well, this watercolor of him running in the Mississippi Marathon. It’s on the wall where I can look at him when I’m on the elliptical machine and I’m tired and want to quit and there he is, keeping on keeping on. Until cancer got him at age 68, in 1998. I also put his picture on that wall because it’s just above the desk where I do all my mother’s bookkeeping. Somehow it’s comforting, like he’s watching over me as I’m doing what he used to do for her.

So, today I began the process of applying for Medicaid for my mother, because her investment money will run out in April and her retirement income and Social Security combined will only cover about half of her monthly expenses at the nursing home. It’s a complicated process, and it will help if I go ahead and get her income taxes filed first and pay off her funeral home expenses and make sure everything is in order. Mom will be 82 next month. Other than the Alzheimer’s, she’s in pretty good health. Her mother lived to be 86 with Alzheimer’s. At $5000/month for nursing home care…. Well, you can see why I’m a little anxious that the Medicaid process will go smoothly.

Shortly after finishing Mom’s paperwork for the day, our son, Jonathan, called… from Afghanastan. It’s always a bit surreal to talk with him—with no time delay in the phone conversation like there was when he was in Iraq in 2003 and again in 2006—and to hear about what his life is like in Jalalabad (actually he’s in Bagram for a few weeks, but is based in Jalalabad) and to listen to him talk about his hopes and dreams for his future.

If it seems like I’m rambling it’s because Family is like that. One minute you’re doing something menial like laundry and the next you hear you’re going to be grandparents (again) and the next you’re filing for Medicaid for your mother. And somewhere in the midst of all this you try to make room for yourself, without feeling guilty, and to nurture your marriage. My husband and I are going to the Orpheum Theater tomorrow night to see the musical, “The Jersey Boys.” We’ve got front row tickets—our Christmas gift to ourselves. For a couple of hours we’ll sing and clap (and I’ll probably get up and dance!) and be transported back to a simpler time in our lives.

We’re also planning a trip to Italy in the fall to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. You know the song, “Don’t Blink”? It really does go by faster than you think. Even if you’re still helping get kids through college while taking care of your own parents and enjoying your first grandchildren. It’s a lot to take in. Enjoy it.

>They’re Gone

>I didn’t expect to feel this way when they left. I expected to feel elated that they were finally gone and I could move on with my life. Kind of like you think you’re going to feel when your children leave home for college, or grad school, or to start their own families. (But then it’s bittersweet.)

No, I’m not talking about our dear friends, Billy and Christine Scrantom, who moved to Colorado just this week. Or even about the steady trail of Goddaughters and close friends who have gotten married and moved away, or just moved away, leaving a huge hole in my life that they once filled. Stacy moved to Nashville. Hannah moved to Pennsylvania. Julie moved to Connecticut. Katherine moved to Gulfport. Sally got married and moved to Wisconsin. And my best friend, Daphne, lives in Little Rock, but we’ve never lived in the same town, so I guess we haven’t really “parted.” It’s lonely having your soul sisters so far away and unable to be physically together on a day-to-day basis.

So, you might be asking, “who left?” Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer—it was Jesus and Mary. They’re gone. Well, their icons are gone. I just took the icons of Christ the Lifegiver and The Mother of God, Directress to their new home at Saint John Orthodox Church on Wednesday. Finally. The ones that my friend and fellow iconographer, Kerry Sneed, and I have been working on for a couple of years. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know the story of how they got “stuck” in the birth canal a while back. And then how they got unstuck.

If you missed it, you can catch up by reading a couple of older blog posts:

“Letting Go,” from November, 2007.

from September, 2008.

But the best place to read the entire story is over at the Santa Fe Writer Project’s online journal, sfwp.org, where my essay, “Blocked,” was a finalist in their 2007 literary awards. It’s a story about anger, which blocked me from being able to paint the icons for a long time. But it’s also about healing.

So, now when I go upstairs to my icon studio, they’re gone. I can finally clean up the studio and pack away my supplies because I’m “retiring” from iconography to write full time. That’s been the plan for a while. I’m definitely not going to teach any more workshops or do commissioned pieces, but I’ll keep enough supplies to paint a few more small icons for friends and family from time to time. But there’s a sweet sadness in the air up in that studio when I remember the students who painted their first icons there during Saturday classes, and the icons I brought to life over the past eight years there, in the Mandorla Icon Studio.

Why mandorla? Early Christians used the symbol to describe the coming together of heaven and earth—as illustrated by the almond-shaped area where two circles overlap. Because of the Incarnation—because God became Man—we can paint His image and the images of His saints, using material things, sanctified by His Incarnation. And the work involved in painting those images is done in that “middle place”—in the mandorla. It’s spiritual work, like prayer and fasting and almsgiving and worship and reading the scriptures.

Mandorlas are sometimes used in icons to represent mystery, glory, or the place where God interacts with man in a mystical way, or sacred moments that transcend time and space, like in the icons of the Tranfiguration and the Resurrection.

The sign in my studio has a mandorla in it, and shows the Mother of God and my patron saint, Mary of Egypt, together. (Mary of Egypt is unfinished, because she represents my life, which is a work in progress.) These two Marys represent opposites in many ways, and holding our opposites intact is spiritual work. (Many Orthodox Christians believe that Mary the Mother of God was without sin. Mary of Egypt fell into great sin but overcame it with years of repentance in the dessert.)

So, I’m hoping that having these two icons out of their birthing place and onto the icon stands in the front of the nave at St. John will not only bring blessings to my fellow parishioners who will venerate the icons and light candles before them, but that their absence in my studio will somehow pave the way for my writing to flourish. It’s time for me to move on. As I post this, I muse at the irony: the place where I’ll be writing is called “Word.” Maybe those guys at Microsoft are onto something. I pray that my writing will be Incarnational—that it will somehow reflect that mystical place where God touches man. Am I reaching too high? I hope not. Next to my computer I have the words to this song taped to the wall. It’s a Kris Delmhorst song, inspired by Hermann Broch’s “The Death of Virgil.” It’s called “The Drop and the Dream,” from her CD, “Strange Conversation.”

In twilight and blindness
All our work is done
We fumble and flail, we try and we fail
We only are what we almost become

It’s both our curse and our grace, here in this place
To reach for heights that we’ll never climb
And the distance between the drop and the dream
Is our one little piece of the divine

It’s a weak little flame, it’s all we got to our name
So why be ashamed to let it burn

Yes, parting is such sweet sorrow. But as I light candles in front of these icons before services this weekend, I’ll be happy and humbled to see them in their new home, and I will pray, before the icon of Christ the Lifegiver:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And before the icon of the Mother of God, Directress: “O Mother of God, keep me under your holy protection.”

>Social Media Jam: Community, Efficiency, Mindset, Energy and Congruency!

>As I was waiting for the library doors to open just before 9 a.m. in downtown Nashville Tuesday morning, a distinguished gentleman walked up beside me and asked if I was there for the “Social Media Jam.” Kip Gayden’s first novel is Miscarriage of Justice. When he introduced himself, a woman standing next to me turned around and said, “Judge Gayden?”

He nodded.

“You’re marrying us!”

And this was my first experience in downtown Nashville, which is a beautiful city, by the way.

As about sixteen of us gathered around the tables in one of the library’s conference rooms a few minutes later, organizer and author, River Jordan, welcomed us to the “Social Media Jam and Author’s Dutch Lunch,” an event I was excited about attending. In anticipation, I had friended a couple of the invited guests on Facebook the previous day, including Jolina Petershein, (whom I actually met first on Twitter) and Matthew Paul Turner, author of Churched: One Kid’s Journey Towards God Despite a Holy Mess.

Matthew is a big social media guru, with 19 thousand followers on Twitter, and also a huge following on his blog and Facebook. It’s funny that we ended up sitting next to each other during the jam, because of the interaction we had on Facebook Monday. Matthew had been posting lots of “funny pictures of Jesus” and when he posted a detail from an icon of Christ’s baptism, with a caption about his “abs,” I left a comment. Several others joined the thread, which got lively. So today I took Matthew a picture of an icon of Christ that I had painted—one that shows his “abs,”—and reminded him that I was an Orthodox Christian and iconographer, which is why I commented on his post. He responded by saying he’d love to interview me some time, and then he gave me an advance copy of his new book, Hear No Evil. Matthew believes that the social media is more than just a marketing tool. “It’s an extension of who you are… blogging is a lifestyle.” (And he’s got 17 published books. Have no idea where he finds the time to write! His 18th book, Hear No Evil: My Story of Music, Innocence and the Holy Ghost, is due out in February.)

The other panelists who all shared their wisdom with the group on Tuesday included:

JT Ellison has five published books, and a sixth, The Cold Room, coming out in February. She’s also published numerous short stories. When we met I looked at her and said “thrillerchick!” That’s her Twitter name. And she said, “ah, proof the social media works!”

Susan Gregg Gilmore
’s debut novel is Looking For Salvation at the Dairy Queen.

Darnell Aroult teaches creative writing. Her latest novel is Sufficient Grace.

Greg Daniel
(right) is a literary agent living in Nashville. Greg spent over ten years in publishing before becoming an agent, so he brought wisdom from both sides of the table to the discussion.

Ken Edwards is a counselor/life coach. River invited Ken to share some advice on dealing with the stress that all this social media involvement brings to the writer’s life.

So, that was the “panel,” although we all sat around the tables together in an open forum kind of way, and then enjoyed lunch together at a nearby restaurant. (Sorry I cut a few folks off in the photo, but there wasn’t any more room to back up without crashing into the table behind me!) A few highlights of the wisdom we gained from these industry professionals:

How to Add Value as a member of the Social Community:

1. Retweet good stuff
2. Link to helpful content
3. Listen to other voices; if something they’re doing annoys you, don’t do it
4. Know what you’re best at and use that (Facebook, Twitter, blogging)
5. Small bites are better than big meals—it’s better to be on (FB, Twitter) for 10 minutes at a time, several times a day, than for an hour or more once a day. Why? You catch different readers throughout the day.
6. Don’t use others’ pages to promote yourself
7. Remember it’s about COMMUNITY—be a listener as much as a talker. Talk about and promote others, not just yourself.
8. Search for editors, agents, publishers, booksellers and writers and follow the and INTERACT WITH THEM; don’t just “use” them—don’t jump right in and say, “read my book!”

Tools for using the social media more efficiently:

Tweetadder.com – for $50 you can search for people who tweet certain words and follow them

makes it easy to post to Twitter and FB at the same time

will feed your blog posts to Twitter and Facebook

and Klout.com measure your followers

Commoncraft.com has mini-videos that guide you through complex subjects

How to engage the social media in a healthy way: (from Ken Edwards)

MINDSET. Why do you write? There’s something in you that needs to come out—you’re giving birth with your writing. The social media is an opportunity to make an impact, to get your message across. But if you’re an introvert (apparently lots of writers are) too much social media involvement can take you away from your center.

ENERGY—it’s not so much about how much time it takes, but how much energy. Does social media involvement feed your energy or drain it, leaving you empty when it comes to your “real writing” and your personal relationships? Pay attention to your soul—to what feeds you as a person. Most people have no “margin” in their lives. (Ken recommended the book, The Power of Full Engagement, by James Loehr and Tony Schwartz.)

CONGRUENCY—listen and be congruent with who you are in your social media interactions. Be true to yourself—tweet about things in your day that are creative, like putting a beautiful sunrise on a tweetpic attachment—things that are refreshing to others. Build rituals around your social media schedule, just as you do for your other activities each day (exercise, coffee, shower, prayers, etc.)

I was honored to be included in this small group, along with my writing group buddy from Hernando, Mississippi, Herman King, and about 10 other emerging writers, public radio producers, writing interns, book promoters, and songwriters. I’ll be following you on Twitter and I love being friends with you on Facebook☺ I’m thankful that we got to actually meet, face-to-face, and share a little bit of our “real” lives with each other.

>Why Hitting Rock Bottom is Better Than Quicksand

A couple of weeks ago, author Kerry Madden did a post over at “A Good Blog is Hard to Find” called, “Rock Bottom.” I was fascinated reading this after meeting Kerry at the 10th Anniversary Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend January 14-17. (Photo is Kerry participating on a panel during the weekend.)

Kerry has five published books, and just being around her smiling face and cheerful disposition all weekend, I would have never guessed that she had struggled with the events she chronicles in “Rock Bottom.” And no, it’s not a struggle with addictive substances, but with the publishing industry. Still, it got me to thinking about what “Rock Bottom” means.

It reminds me of a similar phrase, “hitting bottom.” As one who struggles with addictive behaviors, I’ve read quite a few of what I call “sobriety memoirs.” All of them have this in common—the addict usually finds his or her “bottom” before she can heal.

Best “sobriety” memoirs?

Lit by Mary Karr
, which I blogged about recently, “No More Delicious Numbness: Pride, Cookies and Good-Looking Men”

Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
, reviewed here, “Why Does Sobriety Have to Come with Feelings?”

All of Anne Lamott’s memoirs, especially Traveling Mercies and Grace Eventually. (I’ve done several blog posts about Lamott, if you’re interested:

“Once You Know Where True Is”

“I Want a Rush”

“Operating Instructions”

Okay, I’m procrastinating. It’s almost 5 p.m. and I’ve been trying to write this post all afternoon. But it’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling. I’m just gonna throw some thoughts up against the wall and see if anything sticks. I’m really hoping to hear YOUR thoughts, which always enriches my blog posts. Here goes.

When my children were little I took them to a woman (in Jackson, Mississippi)
for private swimming lessons. Her name was Lou Lee. She had a very aggressive method: Each hour, she took 6 students and their mothers in the pool, and within the hour she spent 10 minutes one-on-one with each child. (The mothers practiced with their children during the other 50 minutes of the hour.) She taught the mother to help, as she would push the child under water through the pool to the mother’s waiting arms, a few feet away. At age 3, all three of my children learned in two weeks to dive off the board and swim the length of the pool. Her method worked great for them.

Something else that Lou did was teach “water safety awareness.” Even if a child couldn’t swim yet, he could learn what to do if he was to fall into a pool. She taught the children to let their bodies fall to the bottom of the pool so that they could then push off with their feet and catapult themselves up to the side, reach up with their hands, and hold on to the side of the pool. This might seem like something you would automatically do, but not if you’re four years old and scared, right?

So, I was thinking of this the other day when I read Kerry’s post about hitting rock bottom. See, I had hit a “bottom” or sorts recently, when I drank too much. It’s pretty scary and humbling (and yes, a big reality check) to realize that you don’t remember things from the night before. The last time that happened to me was over 30 years ago at a swim-up bar in a pool in Mexico, but I was very young and naïve at the time. I’m getting close to 60 now, have two grandchildren, am responsible for an 81-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s, and just went for my annual physical exam. So now I’m wondering if my recent “bottom” was just the rock I needed to get my footing so that I can push back up to the top—to the real world.

I just read an article online in Psychology Today called “The Various Ways High-Functioning Alcoholics Hit Bottom.” I’ve never embraced everything that AA and Twelve Steps programs say about alcoholism and other addictions, but there’s certainly a lot of truth in their literature and programs. As an Orthodox Christian, my desire is to enjoy all things in moderation, but that moderation is often an elusive goal.

Food is as difficult a struggle for me as alcohol is, and of course it’s something one must learn moderation in because you can’t be abstinent with food—you’ll starve. I think that’s part of why the Fathers of the Church in their wisdom introduced the practice of fasting, so that we could gain (or re-gain) mastery over our passions. It’s not the total absence of food that’s prescribed, but food in moderation, and cutting out the heavy stuff (like meat and dairy) and the “seductive stuff” (like wine and oil) for a portion of each week, and each season of the Church year.

So, I’m thankful that I hit a “bottom” of sorts recently—and for the wakeup call it was for me to restore balance—or maybe find it for the first time, in my drinking and eating habits. And all habits, really. Spending money unwisely. Talking too much or inappropriately. Unhealthy sexual behavior or thoughts. All “things” that God intended for good that we warp with our out-of-control passions.

Great Lent, that annual School of Repentance, begins again on February 15. I remember in the past hearing people say they were looking forward to it and I thought, are you nuts? Who’s looking forward to self-denial and lots (and lots) of (very) long church services? But this year, I’m looking forward to the spiritual food the Church offers those who struggle to overcome the passions—the Scripture readings, the special prayers, and the special services. I’m glad I started my 1500-calorie “budget” a month before Lent begins, because I think it’s important not to confuse fasting (for spiritual reasons, as outlined by the Church) with dieting, in order to lose weight. So, when the Fast begins, I’ll continue my calorie budget, adjusting it only to include more fruits and vegetables to make up for the meat and dairy, something I should probably be doing year-round anyway! And it’s also been a reality check to see how few calories are left in my budget for nutrition if I use up half of them with wine!

Certainly those people who never fall into the pool (or the mud) in the first place are better off in many ways, but for those of us who do fall, the solid floor on the bottom of the pool can be a lifesaver, if one knows how to push up and reach for the top. Consider the alternative—quicksand—which allows no solid footing. I think that’s what denial is like—trying to get out of quicksand. Thank God for solid ground, even if it’s sometimes at the bottom.

>Got Books?

>I need more bookshelves. Mine are all full and now I have stacks of books beginning to crop up everywhere. My next house will have floor-to-ceiling book shelves in at least one room! But for now, I need to become a speed-reader so I can enjoy all my new treasures.

It was such a joy to meet so many wonderful new authors at the 10th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, last weekend. You can read my guest blog about the weekend over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Here are a few of the treasures (all autographed, of course) I came home with.

Of course I had already reviewed River Jordan’s latest book, Saints in Limbo, last May. In addition to having three published books and another on the way, River has a great radio show that you can listen to online, here. River and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson are taking their books and radio shows on the road this spring with their “A Wing and a Prayer” tour. They’ll be interviewing independent book store owners about the future of publishing. It was such a treat to ride with River to Jefferson for the weekend, and I’m looking forward to seeing her again next Tuesday in Nashville for “Author’s Lunch.”

I felt like I already “knew” Shellie Rushing Tomlinson before I actually met her, since I read her blog and listen to her radio show each week. But I didn’t have her book until the weekend. I love the title: Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On. (If you grew up in the South I’m sure you heard your mother say this more than once!)

Having already read many of Elizabeth Berg’s books before the weekend, I found one I hadn’t read and snatched it up: Home Safe, which was published last April. It’s about “the nature of creativity, the mother/daughter relationship, and the surprising places where one can find love and meaning.” Can’t wait!

One of my favorite new author friends is Nicole Seitz. Her books are an eclectic mix of spirituality and regional culture woven together with literary prose that sings. I came home with Saving Cicadas, which I’m reading now and loving. A friend had recently loaned me The Spirit of Sweetgrass, but it wasn’t near the top of my “to read” stack until I met Nicole. After talking with Nicole about her books I decided that the one I most wanted to read is Trouble the Water, so I ordered it from Amazon and it arrived yesterday. I feel like I’ve just scored a literary hat trick! Nicole is also an artist and did the beautiful covers for these books. At the Girlfriend Weekend, I bid on a package of her note cards in the silent auction and was so happy to bring them home.

Another favorite new author I met was Jenny Gardiner. I bought her book, Sleeping With Ward Cleaver. If it’s half as funny and alive as Jenny is in person, I know I’ll love it and laugh all the way through it.

Jamie Ford
gave a terrific keynote talk at the weekend, which made me want to read his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is a New York Times Best Seller.

Lauretta Hannon’s memoir, The Cracker Queen,is a favorite on NPR.

Patti Callahan Henry is the author of six published books including her latest, Driftwood Summer.

Ad Hudler was a joy to be with, and held his own at Girlfriend Weekend with his real life tales of being “Mr. Mom.” His wife is a newspaper publisher and they’ve recently moved to Nashville. He has turned his experiences at home with the kids into several books, including Man of the House.

Tracey Lea Carnes and I hit it off right away with our shared love of bohemian clothes. Her first novel is Excess Baggage. If it’s anything like her personality, it will light up your life!

I loved visiting with Kerry Madden, and hearing about her new YA biography, Harper Lee (Up Close). Kerry was also gracious with her time, sharing her story and encouraging me with ideas for future books of my own. Thanks, Kerry!

And last summer I read Ron Hall‘s terrific memoir, Same Kind of Different As Me, but I was blown away by Ron’s luncheon speech on Friday. He has raised over $41 million for the homeless and is building shelters and doing incredible work all over the country. He’s got a second book out now, What Difference Do It Make?

Of course organizer Kathy Louise Patrick‘s book, The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara-Wearing Book-Reading Guide to Life, started the whole movement.

And Kathy’s co-master-of-ceremonies, Robert Leleux‘s book, Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, hit the bookstores two years ago.

This doesn’t cover all the authors I met last weekend, but it’s a starting point, if you or your book club are looking for more books for the new year. I’m hitting the road to visit my mother in Jackson and then join my writing group buddies in the Yoknapatawpha Writing Group in Oxford tomorrow. (We’ve been getting together for almost two and a half years now.) Have a great weekend, everyone… and have fun shopping at your local independent bookstores!

>A Good Blog is Hard to Find

>Sorry for the six-day absence. I was out of town four days and in “recovery mode” since I got home! Today I’m a guest blogger over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, where I’ve been invited to be a regular blogger, so watch for my posts there every few weeks!

To read today’s post,”Raise Your Hand if You Suck at Math,” click here. It’s about the “10th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend Author Extravaganza Beauty and the Book” in Jefferson, Texas. I drove down with Nashville author and radio show host, River Jordan, last Thursday, and it was an amazing experience.

Kathy Louise Patrick
, who organizes the event each year, is not only a published author, but also owns the nation’s only combination beauty parlor and book store, Beauty and the Book.

In addition to a very impressive lineup of speakers and panelists, including Pat Conroy, Elizabeth Berg, Ron Hall and Jamie Ford, the weekend featured musical entertainment, skits, awards, and two theme parties.

Friday night was the “Happy 50th Birthday, Barbie,” party. I went as Mod Barbie. Here I am with Jenny Gardiner, author of Sleeping With Ward Cleaver, who went as June Cleaver Barbie.

Saturday night we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz, with the theme, “Over the Rainbow.” I went as Elphaba, the Green Witch from the musical, “Wicked.” Here I am, “making up” with Glinda, Elphaba’s arch enemy in the play. Glinda in real life is inspirational romance novelist Deeanne Gist. I think our roles are fitting. (My shirt says, “The Flying Monkeys Scarred Me For Life.”)

The highlight of the weekend for me was meeting my favorite author, Pat Conroy, who served tables at dinner Thursday night, stood in line to buy other authors’ signed books, and mingled with all the book club readers all weekend. His keynote talk at the luncheon on Saturday was terrific, not that I expected less. Pat was also there to support his daughter, Melissa Conroy, who was signing her first children’s book, Poppy’s Pants. Melissa will be at Davis Kidd in Memphis on January 28 from 6-7 p.m. reading and signing Poppy’s Pants. Bring your kids!

Another special treat for me was meeting Elizabeth Berg and hearing her speak. Not only do I love all her novels, but her book on writing,Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True, has been invaluable to me. I quote from Berg’s book on my home page, “In Love With Writing.”

So please drop on over at A Good Blog Is Hard to Find, and leave a comment! I’ll be back here in a few days.

>Sweet Nothings

>Everyone—and everything—needs love to grow. Or to heal. Or to gain insight into
the meaning of, well, of whatever it is you’re into. In 1995 Nicholas Evans wrote a book called The Horse Whisperer, which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford in 1998. It was based on the “real horse whisperer,” Monty Roberts, who said that whispering in a horse’s ear was more about “gentling an animal than soi-disant whispering.” Roberts believed that silent communication can “effectively cross over the boundary between human (the ultimate fight animal) and horse (the flight animal).”

In 2004, an Emmy-Award-nominated reality TV series called “Dog Whisperer” premiered on the National Geographic Channel. And while I’m not into horses or dogs, the concept of “whispering” intrigues me. Think about its affect on children—how it quiets their explosiveness at times. And also its romantic, heart-warming affect, when your lover whispers “sweet nothings” into you ear.

All this came to mind when a friend with an MBA who works for one of the most successful non-profit fundraising organizations in the country began leaving these brilliant posts on her Facebook page a couple of months ago. As I read them, I thought, “she’s whispering in his ear!” And sometimes, it seemed to be working. Here’s a sample:

Dear Dow, what a wonderful day we had yesterday. You were really on your game. Have you been working out? You went up 139 points, not that I’m counting or keeping score. I just want you to know – – you’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you. How do you feel about 10,000? Love, Lori

Dear Dow, guess what. It’s Thursday, or “Little Friday” as we called it in college. My favorite day of the week, and I think you’ll like it, too. I know you were feeling kinda flat yesterday, frankly so was I. But now it’s time to get your grow on. Carpe diem, Dow. Love, Lori

My dear Dow, Look at you! 9,864.94. That are some amazing digits my friend. Amazing. Rest up, you’ve had a big week. In fact, I just looked at your graph of the last 5 days and you are smokin’ hot. Purrrrrr! Just wondering, do you get Columbus Day off? Love, Lori

Lori, the Dow Whisperer! I love it.

So, when the February issue of Writer’s Digest arrived in my mailbox, I was thrilled to find it filled with articles and ideas promoting creativity and productivity. I especially loved Shelia Bender’s article, “Marry Your Life to Your Writing.” In addition to lots of practical ideas for finding time to write, working within the space you have to write, and turning “menial” writing tasks into creative ones, Bender offered 3 tips to “Nurture Your Relationship With Your Writing”:

1. “OFFER CHOCOLATES.” Like Elizabeth Berg says, you have to be “in love with writing.”


And then:


And just as Lori teased the Dow with her sweet words of love and encouragement, quoting the romantic words of other writers can nurture your own work. My favorite one that Bender included was this:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”—Anton Chekhov

So if you’re thinking this is a little over the top, let me ask you: have you ever talked to your plants to get them to grow? How bout talking to your car or your computer when it’s not behaving exactly right? Okay, I imagine that your words to your computer might not have been sweet nothings, and maybe he would respond better if you whispered instead of shouting.

So today as I approach my writing—a new essay or a new chapter in my memoir—I’m going to whisper words of love to it first. If you think I’m going to write them down here for all the world to see, think again. These are private words to my lover. Here goes.

>Which Barbie Am I?

>I’m really excited about my road trip this Thursday. I’ll be driving over to Jefferson, Texas, with Nashville author, River Jordan, for the 10th ANNIVERSARY GIRLFRIEND WEEKEND and AUTHOR EXTRAVAGANZA.

The event is organized by Kathy Patrick, (right) owner of Beauty and the Book, the only hair salon/book store in the country!

Kathy is also the author of The Pulpwood Queen’s Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life.

Some of my favorite authors will be speaking, serving on panels, and acting in skits during the weekend, including (in addition to River): Pat Conroy, Cassandra King Conroy, Elizabeth Berg, Connie May Fowler, and Ron Hall (Same Kind of Different as Me.) I can hardly breathe just thinking about being in the company of such great writers!

In addition to all the great workshops, keynote speakers, and panels, there’s lot of crazy fun planned…like Friday night’s “Happy 50th Birthday, Barbie!” party. I need a costume! Should I make up an original Barbie to fit my own personality, or go with one of these?

Campus Spirit Barbie (1964)

Flower Child Barbie

Rodeo Cowgirl Barbie (advantage to this one–I’ve actually got most of the clothes I’d need)

Aging Baby Boomer Barbie (I really don’t see this happening….)

And you know this one is just really not a good idea, but I’ll post a picture just so you can see how deep this whole Barbie world is: Let’s hear it for “Burka Barbie”!

There’s also an “Over the Rainbow” party Saturday night (Wizard of Oz theme) but I don’t think I HAVE to have a costume for that one… although I do love me some red shoes.

Okay, I just found what I need. I just ordered this tee shirt. I can wear it with a black skirt, green leggings, and a black witch’s hat and my green bracelet that says “Wicked” on it. Anyone have a black witch’s hat?

If you’ve got suggestions for an “original” Barbie costume for me, please leave a comment, or send me an email or Facebook message. I’ve got all of 3 days to get this together!

>Twenty Pounds in Ten Weeks?

>Yesterday I went for my annual physical exam. My blood pressure was good (122/80) and although I haven’t gotten back the lab results, my lipids (total cholesterol, etc.) are usually good, by a stroke of genetic luck (I seem to line up with my mother’s side rather than my father’s, where high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease have flourished.) As a cancer survivor (March, 2001) I’m hoping to get those little notes in the mail that say “normal” for the other tests that were done. And my doctor encouraged me to go for screenings that a new health care program might not give such an easy nod to in the future, so I went ahead and had a bone density test and will schedule my second screening colonoscopy soon. All of these things are important, but there’s always one other issue that looms largest in my mind at this time every year—and really, most days of my life—and that is my weight.

Although, according to the scales in my physician’s office, I’ve only gained 2 pounds this past year, the numbers were tell-tale: I have hit my all-time high, again. And the arthritis pain in my feet, knees and lower back remind me constantly that I’m carrying around at least 20 extra pounds that those bones and joints would prefer not to have to transport. [As an interesting side note, the scales in the physician’s office (fully clothed) weighed me as 12 pounds heavier than the scales in the radiology office, where I was barefoot and only wore a thin cotton gown. Could my sweater, boots and pants possibly weigh 12 pounds?]

So today I’m finally at a place where I’m ready to do something about this weight. Again. But this time, I’m willing to ask for help, and to return to an ancient practice: counting calories, and writing down everything I eat, and drink.

Asking for help from my Facebook friends, I was encouraged to hear from two relatives right off the bat, my niece in Jackson, Mississippi and my first cousin in San Antonio, Texas! (I’m feeling the love.) One said to eat only 1500 calories a day and do cardio exercise for 30 minutes at least 4 times a week. The other mentioned 4 400-calorie meals a day. And a dear friend told me about online calorie-counting sites where you can even journal your program. Thanks so much, guys!

So now I’ve got information and a goal. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the goal yet, have I? Ten weeks from tomorrow I’ll be at the beach for spring break with a friend and her family. That got me to thinking: 2 pounds a week for 10 weeks = 20 pounds. I would love to lose 20 pounds!

But instead of an online journal, I’m using a tiny notebook that fits in my purse so I can record food and drink when I’m away from the house. I’m hoping that its presence will discourage too many stops at bars and fast food restaurants. Honesty is going to be key, of course.

I have a hunch that a lot of my calories come from two sources: wine and chips. So I looked them up, and most white wines have 20-23 calories per ounce. Then I measured the amount I usually pour into two different sized glasses—a tall white wine glass, and a very small, pink “depression glass” that a friend gave me. Look at the difference in how 4 ounces (92 calories) of Pinot Grigio look in these two glasses. I think I’m going to try to only use the small glass for a while. Psychologically it feels like I’m getting more☺

So, today I begin. Here’s what I’ve had so far. Before dinner.

3 cups decaf coffee
(w 2 Splendas and 1 t. raw sugar and 1 t. fat free Half n Half each) = 55 calories
1 cup regular coffee
(w 3 t. sugar and 1 t. milk – at a friend’s house) = 55 calories
8 oz. Pinot Grigio = 204 calories
7 South of the Border tortilla chips = 140 calories
½ peanut butter & jelly sandwich (45 cal. Bread, 95 cal. Pb, 50 cal. Jelly) = 190 calories

Total by 4:30 p.m. = 604 calories

Notice that I have not had ANY fruits or vegetables today☹

So, for dinner (and any snacks and drinks before or after) tonight, I can have about 900 calories. Looks like I’m going to need to focus on vegetables and steer clear of rice, potatoes, and fats. I might figure 4 oz. of wine into the evening. This measuring and counting calories is always a big reality check. (I was happy to find this quick online calorie counter, but I think I’m going to also need to buy a small one for my purse.)

I’ve done 30 minutes on the elliptical 5 out of the past 7 days, so that’s a good start. I’m wondering if it would help to try to do 45 minutes rather than 30. (In December I worked out 16 of 31 days, but I don’t want to even think about how many calories I consumed during the holidays!)

I’d love to hear from my readers—encouragement, advice, success stories, failure stories, keep-going stories, whatever! Kinda’ hard to be starting out on this at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon with the weekend (and company) coming, but I’ve found that there’s always some reason to put off anything that’s hard, and things that really matters. And often those things go hand in hand.

>No More Delicious Numbness: Pride, Cookies and Good-Looking Men

>Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides) and his wife, Cassandra King Conroy (The Sunday Wife) made me want to write fiction. And I did. I drafted a novel back in 2006-7 called “The Sweet Carolines.” But I hadn’t studied the craft and it showed. So did the fact that I was trying to hide truth in fiction, and I wasn’t up the task, as the Conroys were.

But when I read Mary Karr’s memoirs, “The Liar’s Club” (about
her childhood) and “Cherry,” (her teenage years) I strapped my courage on and began to learn to “tell it true.” 8 published essays and two unfinished memoirs later, I’m still struggling with the long form of creative nonfiction, the memoir. So when one comes along that blows me out of the water, I find myself wanting to take every finely crafted word of it into my being, hoping that just by reading and studying its genius I will be transformed into a better writer.

“Lit”, Karr’s “sequel” to her earlier memoirs, was chosen as one of the top 5 nonfiction books of 2009 by the New York Times. And yet she begins the prologue (an open letter to her son) with these words:

“Any way I tell this story is a lie….” It’s Karr’s nod to the frailty of human recall, especially when one’s life was filled, as hers was, with so much abuse.

After I finished reading “Lit” yesterday, I looked in the back, where I had listed 27 quotes that had significance for me, and I thought, “oh, dear, This is going to be a long blog post.” So, grab a cup of coffee first and hold on for the ride.

Unlike her previous memoirs, “Lit” is written by Mary Karr, the adult. It’s still got the same gritty, small-town-Texas-girl honesty, but tempered with what I think she would call grace. It’s the story of her efforts to escape the pain of her past while raising a son as a single (divorced) mother. It’s the story of her abuse of alcohol, but it’s also the story of her recovery. And the best part, for me, is that in the process she found God and the church. (Read more about her spiritual journey in her book, “Sinners Welcome.”)

And like my favorite other memoirists—Kim Michele Richardson, Haven Kimmel, Anne Lamott, Augusten Burroughs, and Neil White—Karr writes with honesty and without anger.

Perhaps the most significant concept I gained from the book, as one who struggles with addictive behaviors, is Karr’s portrayal of one of the most devastating affects of substance abuse in a person’s life—the way drinking, in her case, numbs one to real life:

“Which insures that life gets lived in miniature. In lieu of the large feelings—sorrow, fury, joy—I had their junior counterparts—anxiety, irritation, excitement.”

My heart skipped a beat when I read those words, over and over several times, early in the book. And 100 pages later, when she writes of her feelings at her son’s birth (she was sober for her pregnancy and delivery) she says:

“Joy, it is, which I’ve never known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing, because its focus exists outside the self—delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving.”

And this was before she found God. 100 pages later, after being incarcerated in the “Mental Marriott,” she returns to this truth:

“In my life, I sometimes knew pleasure or excitement, but rarely joy. Now a wide sky-span of quiet holds us. My head’s actually gone quiet…. as if some level in my chest has ceased its endless teetering and found its balance point.”

Although my life was no where near as crazy as Karr’s, I relate to the sexual abuse, and to having a mother who wasn’t capable of having a healthy, loving relationship with her children. And like Karr, I recognize that our mothers’ behavior wasn’t born in a vacuum:

“Drinking to handle the angst of Mother’s drinking—caused by her own angst—means our twin dipsomanias face off like a pair of mirrors, one generation offloading misery to the other through dwindling generations, back through history to when humans first fermented grapes….

“How do you get past it, I ask my shrink, when you never got that sense of acceptance and security as a kid?

“You’ve got to nurture yourself through those instants, he says, recognize the source of the misery as out of kilter with the stimulus. Realize you’re not lost. You’re an adult.”

But her inner child struggles even into sobriety. When she calls her mother to visit her while she’s in treatment, and her mother has other plans, Karr’s response is candid:

“After she hangs up, I cry because part of me still wants to drag her behind my car. But the other part still wants to crawl into her lap.”

Ah, there’s the rub. I feel it every time I visit my mother in the nursing home. But it’s fading, as I’m beginning to allow God to heal those wounds. (If you missed my post after visiting Mom in mid-November, it’s here.)

A few quips will illustrate Karr’s struggle with drinking. First, after a day
on which she lost her temper with her toddler son and lies to her husband about her drinking, she re-runs the day in her mind while taking a shower at dawn:

“I stand in a cloud of shower steam, the former night’s conviction to quit solid, though it’s daunting to face unmedicated whatever’s beyond the plastic curtain I’m scared to draw aside. By afternoon I can’t abide Mr. Rogers asking me to be my neighbor without a cocktail.”

She bares her soul and spins her story with literary finesse:

“… I’d rather drink than love.”

60 days into sobriety, she gives in to a martini, and by the end of the evening she’s drunk again:

“That inverted triangle of glass-with frost at its lip and a speared olive at its nexus—is the perfect accessory to the place…. And I don’t even consider canceling the order, since just placing it shifted some geological plates around my innards. It lends an almost sexual thrill to waiting for it. Delicious, crossing the threshold into abandon.”

But after a while, the alcohol doesn’t work:

“A drink once brought ease, a bronze warmth spreading through all my muddy regions. Now it only brings a brief respite from the bone ache of craving it, no more delicious numbness.”

A physician explains it to her:

“You’ve passed some line where it works, she says. I used to try to figure it out. Maybe it’s how the pancreas handles sugar, or some enzyme we give off when we drink that sets up a craving. But whatever line it is, you’ve crossed it. Somebody who’s crossed the line and craves liquor like you do and wants to keep drinking is like a pickle who wants to be a cucumber again. You can’t. It’s over.”

Karr writes about her first night in recovery with in-your-face clarity:

“The ferocious internal motion I’ve been praying would end finally—almost in a single nanosecond—stops. It’s a pivot point around which my entire future will ultimately swivel. That first night, kneeling before the toilet, I let go, as they say. Or call it the moment my innately serotonin-challenged brain reached level X.”

“Lit” is filled with real-life action, dialogue, and reflections on what the ride was like. Even near the end, when she writes about finding an agent and writing “The Liar’s Club,” (about her childhood) she’s terrified:

“To write the stuff down is no cakewalk, since memories from that time can ravage me. But after I get home, I start getting up mornings at four or five, praying to set down words before Dev comes down…. I unplug the phone and apply my ass to a desk chair. Some days, I actually hear my daddy telling me stories, almost like he’s risen up to ride through the pages with Mother and our whole wacky herd.”

As a new convert to the Catholic faith, Karr brings her spirituality to her work, as O’Connor did, without a smidgeon of self-righteousness. In fact, she is perhaps most honest about her spiritual journey:

“After ten months praying in a cave in Manresa, St. Ignatius received a vision that permitted him to see God in all things—the stated goal of his Spiritual exercises…. This doesn’t innately appeal to me. Despite my conversion, I don’t much care to see God in all things…. It’s not virtue that leads me to the Exercises but pain. Only a flame-thrower on my ass ever drives me to knock-knock-knock on heaven’s door. Pain, in my case, is the sole stimulus for righteous action.”

She befriends a nun, in whose presence she feels “like some slutty Catholic schoolgirl.” But after realizing that the Sister doesn’t judge her, she begins to relax into the relationship. Finally the Sister says:

“Let’s eat a cookie and pray for each other’s disordered attachments. Mine involves pride and cookies.

“Mine, I say, involves pride and good-looking men.

“Together we bow our heads.”

© Copyright SusanCushman.com
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