Last night I watched the final night of the Republican National Convention. Just as I will also watch the Democratic National Convention next week. My dad was a delegate (from Mississippi) 52 years ago to the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago. (The video is kind of Mad Men-ish, with all the ladies in their pearls and the men smoking cigarettes, don’t you think?) I guess I’m a moderate, but I have good friends on both sides of the aisle. I hope to keep it that way.
I’m not even going to comment on the Convention here, except for the final event of the evening—the Benediction, given by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, says that the cardinal’s appearance is purely nonpartisan:
“It’s not an endorsement. It’s as a priest going to pray.”
I like that.
His prayer was my favorite part of the evening. It reminded me to put first things first. (And you gotta love this woman’s hat!)
Join him in prayer, if you are so inclined. Only takes 4 minutes.
I’ll leave you with a little “American graffiti.”
I’m working with a freelance editor to polish my novel before querying literary agents. She’s a terrific editor, and came highly recommended by several successful published authors. Every single page of the manuscript is filled with red marks and words. Many of her edits/suggestions are just “line editing,” and it’s not too difficult to work through that part—just labor-intensive, time-consuming and boring.
It’s the pages and pages of hand-written notes that are so difficult to handle. These notes (and our discussions when we’ve met in person, twice) suggest major changes in parts of the novel. It’s been three months since I began this process with her, and yesterday I think I hit the wall, like marathoners often do at about mile 23. For athletes, this “bonking” is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. My father ran many marathons, including Boston and New York several times, and I remember him talking about fellow runners who hit the wall during races.
So how is bonking different for a writer than for a marathon runner? Writing a book is definitely a marathon. Metaphorically, I’m at about mile 23 (of 26.21875 miles.) Close to 90% finished. The drafting and early revisions took two years. (I know some writers who took ten years for this process. I don’t think I have their patience!) During those two years, several chapters of my novel were critiqued at writing workshops (by other students and also the faculty) and critique groups and partners. I thought I had learned how to hold onto myself during the process—to reject suggestions when they didn’t seem right to me. And to be sure that I didn’t lose myself—and my style, my voice—by making changes suggested by others when I wasn’t sure that’s where I wanted to go with the writing.
But today I felt my self-confidence waning. Exhaustion setting in. I just wanted to quit. And eat grape popsicles. And so I decided to see what some writers I admire have to say about working with editors. The first piece I found was so good, I decided to just share this one story, about an author I admire greatly, Haven Kimmel. I did an interview with Haven, which you can read here. And a post about meeting Haven at her reading at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, here.
This story is about Haven’s experience working with an editor, Amy Scheibe, on her first novel, The Solace of Leaving Early (after successfully publishing two memoirs.) Haven is talking about working with the editor at her publishing house, after she has the book deal, which is a somewhat different experience than working with a freelance editor pre-sale. But I think there are also some parallels I can learn from her. In this article by Matthew Gallaway in The AWL (December 13, 2010), Haven talks about how she responded to Amy’s suggestions after reading her manuscript:
“Her editorial letter was thirteen single-spaced pages, and each point was cross-referenced on the manuscript with a colored Post-it note. I was to revise two first-person alternating POVs into close-third, meaning that the interior voices (so necessary to the sweetly damaged, or the unreliable narrator!) would be gone, and all of that would have to be conveyed through prose alone. And the ending had to be the opposite of the way I’d written it. And one character had to be amplified, but she didn’t say how, and she had gone through paragraph by paragraph and marked those that had gone on a beat two long and those that needed one, two, or three beats more, which—HELLO—you tell me what that means. The beats: they were to my cranium. My response was to lie down on the sofa in my study and stare at the ceiling for nearly a month, until my husband called my dear friend Lawrence Naumoff, a southern writer of unmatched depth and overall talent who was about as sucker-punched by New York publishing as anyone I can name. He said, ‘Put her on the phone.’ During the month of my suffering I had become wispy and vague and tubercular. I tried to say hello but was too precious. Lawrence said, in his superfine accent, ‘Well, what you have to decide is if you’re a real writer or not, and if you’re a real writer you’ll stand up and get something to eat, then sit down at your desk and start at the first word and retype the entire thing—no cutting and pasting—and you will do every last thing your editor tells you to do, and you will not argue or protect your darlings, and in fact you will never again protect a darling, or think being edited is a violence. Okay?’ I blinked, said, ‘Gotcha.’ And that’s what I did. And Amy was right on every point.”
Wow. Now I’m wondering if working with a freelance editor is just a warm-up for working with a publisher’s editor later. Either way, the message is clear: I have to decide if I’m a real writer or not.
Marathon runners learn to refuel along the way, because for them, once you bonk, it’s too late. Hopefully the marathon of novel-writing is more forgiving. I might take a day or two off to re-fuel, but then, I’m definitely getting back in the saddle.
This past June I submitted an essay to the 2012 Yoknapatawpha Summer Writer’s Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi, called, “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day Search for Everything.” It wasn’t something new I wrote for the workshop. My novel was finished and several chapters had already been workshopped. So I just looked in my “unpublished” files for something to submit at the last minute, and there it was. A two-year-old essay that I hadn’t considered submitting for publication, but I thought, WTF? (Write the Faith, remember?)
Imagine my surprise when workshop faculty (and mentors who have been reading my work and encouraging me for over five years) said, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written.”
Really? An essay I wrote over a period of three days and spent maybe an hour editing? Why did it garner such praise? I was eager to hear the specifics, which included words about having achieved “freedom and authority.” Specifically “freedom to put yourself onto the page.” (They offered other words pertaining to specifics about the writing that aren’t relevant here, but for my writing friends I’ll say that I have submitted the essay to several literary journals, so keep your fingers crossed.) But this post is about mental health, so let’s get on with it.
What I had done (about this time two years ago) was write an essay in which I kept an hour-by-hour journal of my eating and drinking habits during the last three days that our daughter lived with us for the last time. She had finished grad school and was moving to Denver. I didn’t choose those three days to write the essay for that reason, but in retrospect, I’m sure the emotional impact of this family event played a big part in the behavior that I recorded.
I mentioned the essay in a blog post about a year ago, “Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Tomato Soup,” when I first mentioned what I was gleaning from the book, Appetites: Why Women Want, by Caroline Knapp. I picked Knapp’s book back up this afternoon, after a weekend of struggling with some of the same cycles I described in “Eat, Drink, Repeat.”
Caroline Knapp was an alcoholic and also suffered from anorexia for many years. Her earlier memoir, Drinking, A Love Story, is a graphic description of the way I feel when I am overcome with an incontrollable desire to drink—or eat—“the hunger, the need, the yearning for something outside the self that will provide relief and solace and well-being.” Knapp traces her hunger back to childhood:
“This was a constant feeling—I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t something hanging out there, some spiritual carrot on a stick promising comfort and relief….”
I wish Knapp had been at the writing workshop in June to address one man in the group whose main response to my essay was, “I can’t imagine anyone eating that much.” I find a dark kind of comfort in reading her describe an evening where she would go out to dinner with friends, and…
“…eat a relatively normal meal, then stop at a convenience store on my way home and buy candy. I’d buy Snickers bars and Cadbury cream-filled chocolate eggs and I’d unwrap them in a frenzy in the car and stuff them down, trying to assuage a feeling of deep hunger, a profound discomfort that I couldn’t quite identify and certainly couldn’t address in any other way. Sometimes, driven by exactly the same impulse, I’d stop at a liquor store, too and pick up a nip of brandy, or two or three.”
I really hope that most of my readers don’t get this. For those of you who do, my sincere condolences. But if you’re on this journey with me, you might want to read Knapp’s books. A blog post is much too short to capture what she shared in two volumes, so I’ll just touch on a couple of highlights:
The French analyst Jacques Lacan says, “Desire has indestructible permanence. Desire is inextinguishable.” Knapp goes on to say that Lacan suggests that there is “something fundamentally insatiable about being human, as though we came into the world with a kind of built-in tension between the experience of being hungry, which is a condition of striving and yearning, and the experience of being fed, which may offer temporary satisfaction but always gives way to new strivings, new yearnings.”
Paul Hamburg, a Boston psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, calls this tension “the nascent sea of frustration that comes from always wanting more.”
I think I’ve been tossing and turning on that nascent sea for all of my life. Maybe living in this storm is why I love literature that recognizes the universality of my experience. Like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, in which all three of the main characters—one historic and two fictional—face this tension. Virginia Woolf (who commits suicide) decides, “It’s better to die raving mad in London than evaporate in Richmond.” Clarissa Dalloway regrets choices she has made: “She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself.” And Laura Brown, suffering depression and weary of her role as a ’50s housewife where she is “part of a world in which one wants what one gets,” asks, “What if you decided to want no more?”
If this post was part of my “Faith on Fridays” series instead of “Mental Health Mondays,” maybe I would write about how God fits into all of this. And you know what? Since we homo sapiens are created with bodies and souls, I don’t feel compelled to keep my writing—which is a reflection of my life—separated into categories. So, just as I turned to secular wisdom (Knapp) and art (Cunningham, Woolf) for enlightenment, I also turned to prayer and to Scripture for consolation after eating 6 grape popsicles in a row and chasing them with a bottle of wine last night. (Food cravings aren’t logical, so don’t try to figure them out.)
And so I’m remembering what Jesus said to the woman at the well:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
At the end of the day, maybe that’s the answer. But I’m still waiting for that nascent sea of frustration to go away.
There are three new names on my prayer list—(left to right in photo) Maria, Yekaterina and Nadezhda—three members of the Russian punk band, “Pussy Riot.” I don’t know these young women personally, but after reading their “closing statements” before being sentenced to two years in a Russian jail, I decided the best thing I could do for them was to pray. And not necessarily for their salvation. I’m not judging these women for their acts—it’s too damn hard to sort it all out—but I fear for their safety in a Russian prison, and I pray for their freedom. And for their actions to bring about positive changes in their nation and throughout the world.
Another name I need to add to that prayer list—and I confess it’s difficult for me to do so—is that of Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior clergyman of the Orthodox Church in Russia. In a recent article in Time Magazine, “The Priest Who Beat Pussy Riot: The Orthodox Point Man with the Kremlin,” Simon Shuster says this about Chaplin:
“In 2010, while campaigning for a nationwide ‘dress code,’ he proclaimed that women who wear revealing outfits are guilty of inciting rape. He later lobbied for legislation to ban Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita and suggested that all Russian intellectuals should be condemned for the ‘sin of Russophobia.’”
And in the same article in Time:
“Chaplin, who heads the Orthodox Church’s department for relations with society, was one of the leading cheerleaders for the prosecution from the start. In April, about a month after the Pussy Riot members were arrested, he said the group represented a campaign of ‘literally satanic rage’ that the Russian opposition movement had unleashed against the church. He called on all believers to fight this ‘heresy,’ including through the use of force, ‘so that there be no more temptation to equate Christianity with pacifism.’”
Two weeks ago today I posted the first news I had seen about Pussy Riot: “Pussy Riot in Moscow.” When I linked to the post on Facebook, a heated conversation ensued, which is now up to 38 comments.
As I read those comments today, words that come to mind are, “We didn’t start the fire.” (“We” meaning Pussy Riot and those who are in sympathy with their protest.)
I dislike how responses to Pussy Riot’s actions seem to line up on “sides”—like so much else in our culture that divides us. And so the comment I appreciated the most on that Facebook post came from a young friend, Mary Elizabeth Phillips:
“Susan, thank you for this. Honestly, most of the Orthodox folks’ reactions to this event that I have seen have only served to remind me of why I’m not Orthodox anymore. I am relieved and thankful that there are Orthodox people like you who can foster fruitful conversation about this protest without immediately declaring it to be evil and blasphemous. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
And this one, from another young friend (and excellent musician/artist) Tim Stanek:
“What these ladies are doing here is unprecedented. …”to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture” is a fantastic plan to catalyze massive social change. The media is absolutely key to any massive social change. It’s been said that he who controls the presses controls the people, but Pussy Riot is playing the game and winning from the outside. Way to go!!!”
And also these words from my friend and fellow parishioner at St. John Orthodox Church, (who is also a musician) David Twombly:
“Susan, thank you for this post and also for the recommendation of the Orthodoxy and Culture synchroblog. I found Deacon Steven Hayes’s insights in the latter to be especially helpful for me, especially given his own experience of being charged with ‘profaning’ the Church in his youth.”
Isn’t it interesting how artists, writers and musicians seem to have a somewhat similar take on these events? And how society—and especially totalitarian governments—try to keep us quiet? I’m reminded of the late Madeleine L’Engle’s words:
“The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it. Artists are dangerous people because they are called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul. So to protect itself, society has had to pretend that either art is unimportant or that it is simple…. When Hugh and I went on a trip to Russia I almost didn’t get a visa because our travel agent put down my occupation as writer. Writers think. Writers ask questions. Writers are dangerous.”
Two Orthodox women who are published authors have weighed in on Pussy Riot’s actions in their blogs.
In “History, Blasphemy and Russia” Frederica Mathewes-Green says:
“These women could use their talents to gather and tell the stories of those who lived through the bad times, and the stories of those who did not make it through. That would be something we could all agree on—a project that could bring healing and understanding, and strengthen memory against future abuse.”
“This is the greatest irony of all, the fact that the girls’ protest against non-critical thinkers and the suppression of thought is being used by left and right to suppress critical thought.”
Well said, Ms. L’Engle, Lily Parascheva, Mary Elizabeth, Tim, David… and Billy Joel. I’d love to hear from my readers on this subject. I know it’s dangerous, but please speak up.
I’ve read a number of books by and about Flannery O’Connor, including The Complete Stories, Mystery and Manners, The Obedient Imagination, Flannery, A Life, and others.
And I collect peacocks.
Like this wonderful iron sculpture that welcomes visitors just inside our front door.
Like O’Connor, I love the symbolism of the peacock—it represents the resurrection and immortality. O’Connor’s self-portrait even includes a peacock. (See picture near the end of the post.)
And then, on a table by my reading chair in my study, I keep a copy of The Habit of Being—Letters of Flannery O’Connor. It was a gift from a dear friend on my birthday in 2007. At that point, I had just finished drafting my first novel (the one in the drawer). My friend wrote this quote from the book under her birthday greeting to me in the front of the book:
“I find that most people don’t know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
Five years (and ten published essays) later I find myself picking up the book and reading a few pages at a time for inspiration. I always seem to find something pertinent to my current project. This week’s gleanings include O’Connor’s response to concerns about how her writing would be received by readers. About whether some of her writing would be offensive—to young readers, or sensitive readers, or religious readers. Questions I am currently asking myself about my own novel, as I finish up revisions. At one point O’Connor asked a priest about it. I love his reply:
“You don’t have to write for fifteen-year-old girls.”
And her response:
“Of course, the mind of a fifteen-year-old girl lurks in many a head that is seventy-five and people are every day being scandalized not only by what is scandalous of its nature but by what is not. If a novelist wrote a book about Abraham passing his wife off as his sister—which he did—and allowing her to be taken over by those who wanted her for their lustful purposes—which he did to save his skin—how many Catholics would not be scandalized at the behavior of Abraham? The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.”
A “whole view of things.” That gave me pause. And it reminded me of why I am not writing solely to a Christian audience, or even a religious one. But I do think my book will appeal to people with a conscience that is attune to both art and spirituality. But also one that doesn’t recoil from graphic sex and violence. Even so, in writing scenes that would be considered R-rated (and which I wouldn’t want my nine-year-old Goddaughter to read) I must also consider taste. Again, I return to O’Connor’s words:
“About bad taste. I don’t know, because taste is a relative matter. There are some who find almost everything in bad taste, from spitting in the street to Christ’s association with Mary Magdalen. Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn’t state, he shows, renders. It’s the nature of fiction and it can’t be helped. If you’re writing about the vulgar, you have to prove they’re vulgar by showing them at it. The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality. One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point, but no more.”
I consider the passages in my novel that have received both positive and negative comments at writing workshops over the past two years. There is rarely a consensus on these issues, probably because, as O’Connor said, taste is a relative matter. For every person who says, “This is too graphic. Leave more to the reader’s imagination,” there is another who says, “Terrific images. I’m there.” But since all the faculty, mentors, meta readers and my freelance editor have given thumbs up to most of the choices I’m making about rendering the vulgar along with the beautiful, I’m not censoring the sinful actions in the novel very severely.
As O’Connor continues:
“Art is… something that one experiences alone and for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way, through the senses, the mystery of existence. Party of the mystery of existence is sin.”
As I wrap up my novel revisions, I take encouragement from more of O’Connor’s wisdom:
“When you write a novel, if you have been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business.”
Of course, before it gets into God’s hands, it has to go through an agent and a publisher, and the publisher’s editor. Here’s to finding folks who share my taste in writing about the mystery of existence.
After a weekend filled with enjoyable activities—hosting a birthday dinner for two of our Godsons and their wives Friday evening, attending a brunch for a friend visiting from out-of-town and 6 other women on Saturday, seeing more out-of-town friends at church on Sunday—I stopped “going and doing” yesterday afternoon just long enough to feel my old friend, acedia, knocking at the door of my psyche. Not full-on depression, but something more subtle. Last night I remembered this video from Poets & Writers where Maira Kalman talks about “Thinking vs. Feeling.” At one point she says:
“It’s important not to be bored for too long. More than a minute.”
I woke up thinking about her words. About why it’s important not to be bored for too long. My Google search turned up a number of diverse things, as you can imagine. These thoughts from Dr. George Thomas gave me pause:
“Boredom, for instance, is low-level anger, triggered because you do not want to be where you are (music concert, college class, visiting in-laws, etc.), and typically occurs when you are doing something in a group/social situation where you feel you “have” to be. As you get older, you do fewer of these unwanted things, (a) because society puts less pressure on you, and (b) you feel more entitled to spoil yourself and be kind to yourself without feeling guilty or “selfish”.
Bingo. It’s not a new revelation that I’ve been a people-pleaser all of my life. But only in recent years have I begun to allow myself to ignore some of those pressures that society (and even church, close friends and family) can put on us. Not to mention the internal pressures I’ve allowed to control too much of my behavior, beginning in childhood. (Childhood sexual abuse and an alcoholic, oppressive mother played a big part in this.)
Dr. Thomas expands on his premise that boredom is low-level anger, and why women tend to suppress that anger:
“The anger at being “forced” socially to do what one doesn’t want to do builds up slowly, but is more present than we allow ourselves to recognize. Every time you say to yourself I “should” do something, it is really the outside world, society, or your family (usually your parents) saying it. Men can partially discharge the anger through physical outlets, physical aggression or getting drunk, but women are more likely to suppress the anger, since anger is not a socially acceptable emotion for most women, and was probably discouraged from early childhood on, until the suppression of anger became automatic and internalized. The female child also starts to feel de-legitimized and ego-dystonic by being told that she should not feel a certain emotion. Suppressed anger almost always leads to depression. This is probably why almost all surveys show that single women are happier than married women, since married women are burdened by more social “shoulds”.
Couple my upbringing—where I learned to tip-toe around my mother and suppress all bad feelings and actions in our home—with years in a cult-like group which distanced normal human behavior from what was “acceptable” to the radical religious norms we were embracing and you’ve got a sure-fire prescription for an unhealthy emotional life. And even in the Orthodox Church, which I entered with great joy in 1987, I tended to follow the extremists for many years—trying to fit into an ascetic model more appropriate for monastics than for a women living “in the world.” And especially for an artist/writer who steps to a different beat.
The American playwright and novelist, William Inge, (who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Picnic”) said:
“Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true.”
This has also been my experience. When I am enthralled in the work of creating something—a novel, an essay, even something as simple as designing a party invitation, or organizing an event—I am definitely not bored. But as soon as the work is done or the event is over, the black cloud descends. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) describes this in his book Pensees:
“All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces.”
Victor Hugo compares boredom with mourning and suffering:
“Nothing is so stifling as symmetry. Symmetry is boredom, the quintessence of mourning. Despair yawns. There is something more terrible than a hell of suffering — a hell of boredom.”
But F. Scott Fitzgerald sees boredom as something inevitable:
If this is true, maybe the best thing to do is quit struggling against the boredom and accept it as a normal part of the process. But last night when I shared my feelings with my husband, he said, “Let’s go for a walk.” And so we walked a few blocks to the (Mississippi) river and watched the cloudy sunset in progress. And another couple of blocks to our neighborhood riverside bar and grill, where we sat on the patio and enjoyed martinis and an unusually cool breeze for August in Memphis. Our conversation was quiet compared with the bubbly chit-chat at the table of 8 ladies at brunch the day before. I tried to let the calm enter my spirit, but my eyes kept looking around for something exciting to engage with. And then there they were. Two beautiful kites, ridden by men and powered by little fans behind their seats. They soared over the Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge and up and down the river bank several times before disappearing from our view beyond the trees.
“Boredom is not an end-product, is comparatively rather an early stage in life and art. You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.”
“Oh, I want to do that!” My spirits lifted each time the kite-riders flew by.
My husband smiled. He’s resisted my pleas over the years to do everything from riding mopeds on the winding roads in Bermuda to riding kites pulled by boats over the Gulf of Mexico. “What would happen to our children if we die or if we are disabled?” (He is probably the reason I’m still alive at age 61.)
As we walked home from the restaurant, winding through our beautiful neighborhood where people were riding bicycles, walking, and sitting on their porches talking, I realized that the depression was lifting. Maybe it was the martinis. Sure the walking helped. But I’m thinking the adrenaline rush from watching those guys flying over the Mississippi river in those kites is what really did the trick.
Not a very professional solution, and certainly not a spiritual one. But nonetheless, here I am on a Monday morning ready to face my week of writing, editing, organizing, exercising, and socializing (meeting two friends for lunch today and having coffee with another tomorrow) with a much lighter spirit. As I finished up this post, I looked to the right of my computer screen at these words that I have taped underneath an art print on the wall. And I realize that for today, as Fitzgerald said, I can move through the boredom towards the finished product, which is not only an essay or a book, but also my life.
Guest Post by Daphne Davenport
[NOTE: When I read that the topic for this round of posts on the Orthodox Synchroblog was going to be “Orthodoxy and Culture,” I immediately thought of my best friend, Daphne Davenport. From the first time we met (about seventeen years ago) Daphne began opening my eyes to the importance of being connected with one's people. Although I was a few years ahead of her in my conversion to the Orthodox faith, she was a lifetime ahead of me in her understanding of cultures—indigenous and borrowed—and the importance of knowing who your people are and embracing your roots. Join that to her experience as a counselor, teacher, mother of four, mission-builder, spiritual pilgrim and nature lover, and you have a woman who brings a strong voice of wisdom to the table on many subjects. But especially this one. I asked Daphne to be a guest blogger for today. You are in for a treat. If you want to see more about Orthodox Alaska after reading her guest post, check out this article and video,"The Arctic Cross Project: A Journey Into Orthodox Alaska."]
Every once in a while I encounter a person who, through writing or teaching, brings a definite shift to the way I approach the world. This happened some years ago while I was studying Orthodoxy. A friend sent me some recorded talks on evangelism and culture by the priest Michael Oleksa entitled “Orthodox Alaska.” He has a book of the same title which is so dense in meaning and richness of insight that it is similar to a doctoral treatise, and may well have started as his.
To my benefit, his oral teaching is full of stories and thoughts that are not in the book. I have spent hours, not something I would normally have the drive to do, not only reading his book but also transcribing those tapes, because the meaning within them is so valuable to me.
It’s not that I am an evangelist. In fact, when someone asks me why I am an Orthodox Christian, I try very hard to keep my answers short and to direct them to someone else with their questions, as I tend to go off into some story about the Theotokos (the Mother of God) and what it took for her to worship in the Temple with the people who had crucified her Son. Or, I tell them, “Did you know that St. John the Beloved died repeating over and over to his disciples, ‘Little children love each other!’ or that St. Seraphim of Sarov spent over two years praying on a rock (barefoot through Russian winters!) to overcome some temptation, which we suspect was his struggle with not judging the harsh and unwise spiritual father of a women’s monastery nearby. And, and, I tell my listener whose face is by now a stony blank, he had a friend that was a bear!!”
No, this is not an evangelistic spiritual gift that I carry around with me.
Then why do I value so much the teachings of Father Oleksa, a priest who specializes in culture and evangelism? Because I am a counselor by trade and he has revealed to me the wise Orthodox approach to introducing Christ within a culture and in doing so, has given me a pattern to follow as I work with individuals. My goal is to help them be free from what entangles them and to enter the fullness of the abundant life Christ promises, the same goal as the evangelist.
Father Oleksa writes of how a group of Russian monks from the Valaam Monastery, hearing from Siberian traders about the goodness of heart they had seen within the native tribes of Alaska, took up the task to enter Alaska with news of Christ in a manner that respected the people and their traditions.
Father Oleksa is married to a native Alaskan and is familiar with the unique spiritual wisdom of the many Alaskan tribes. A wisdom enhanced and completed through the introduction of the gospel. He speaks of how the traditions of those cultures teach the children how to become women and men of noble character, how to be resilient in the challenges of life, how to be a blessing to their environments as husband, wife, daughter, son, provider or elder. He tells of how the evangelistic efforts of well-intentioned protestant missionaries, along with the exploitation of opportunists who forced the trading of food for furs and brought the natives into dependency on outsiders rather than on themselves, eroded the integrity of the traditions through which wisdom had been passed down for many generations. He speaks of the power of storytelling in those cultures, which the western mind might overlook because the stories were not written down. And of how many of the stories have been lost because of the enforced squelching of the native language in order to bring in western education, so that the elders could no longer communicate with the young. The suicide rate is high among young people of these tribes, perhaps because they have not developed a sense of identity, of belonging and of purpose that we receive through our families and culture. The native wisdom is overlooked by outsiders, its dignity undervalued.
Father Oleksa writes of how God’s Word, that is Jesus through whom we were all made, is all over the world. All cultures have some wisdom. But God chose one nation to groom and discipline and instruct and to especially love and forgive, Israel, through whom He then was born as the Christ. We would do well to look to this Israelite Jesus to learn of God’s path for us out of all our troubles. He who did not eradicate the Jewish culture but completed it and offered it in a new perfected form to all of us outside the Jewish nation. The wisdom of Christ is everywhere in the world. It is there, but has not been cleaned up.
It is tricky, to go into a culture and embrace the good, while holding onto the specific path to life that Christ gives us through the church. Every culture has spiritual blind spots and maybe even demonic strongholds. Father Oleksa writes of the theological issues of “syncretism” which is to be avoided, verses “inculturation” which is the goal. He provides the Orthodox definition of syncretism as “the introduction into Christian doctrine or worship elements that are incompatible with the fullness of the Apostolic tradition” in his essay, “Evangelism and Culture” available to view on his website He states,
When the learned Chinese Protestant theologian attempted to include within her presentation at Canberra general assembly of the World Council of the Churches an act of reverence to the Chinese goddess of mercy, the Orthodox were correct in rejecting such an inclusion as syncretistic. There is no place for “goddesses of mercy” in the Christian doctrine or piety. (Orthodox missionaries, however, encountering a culture with a personification of a merciful feminine principle might attempt to present this pre-Christian intuition as typology prefiguring the Theotokos.)
If syncretism must at all costs be avoided as distorting or corrupting the gospel message, inculturation, on the other hand, is inevitable and necessary. However, inculturation is only possible when the evangelist knows the Orthodox tradition and can therefore discern what is and what is not compatible with it. Inculturation is the planting of the gospel, the seed, the presence of Christ, in the unique soil of a new culture, and allowing it, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to mature at its own pace, to produce ultimately a new, indigenous church.
When for example, the Valaam Mission analyzed the spirituality of the Kodiak native peoples in 1795, they expressed a willingness to tolerate certain aberrations (such as polygamy) for a short time, to discuss others (the belief in the inua/yua) and to overlook still others (for example, fasting norms).
Father Oleksa uses the parable of the sower to illustrate that the same seed, which is Christ, is always planted, but will produce a different fruit according to the soil in which it is planted. So that a Japanese Christian will produce fruit stemming from the Christ seed planted in the unique soil of his culture that will look the same and yet bring a particular flavor to the understanding of God from which Christians of other cultures can benefit. We have an infinite God, and different cultures can bring out elements of His Person that they might not see so clearly within their own.
I attend an Orthodox church with people from many different nations. We respect our differences and yet are bonded as a church family because of what we hold in common—Christ and His absolute sacrifice to save all of our necks. I love to be around the Arab and Greek, the Russian, Georgian and Romanian parents. I am continually struck by how well they raise their children, respect each other in marriage and value their elders. This was taught to them through traditions long inculturated with Christianity. I benefit by being around their passed down native wisdom and I hope they benefit from mine. We do not have to be the same in order to be part of one Body.
What is our particular soil? What is yours, what is mine? I believe that understanding where we come from, embracing the good in it and through following the traditions of the Church, allowing healing and correction to come to us where we are not “perfect”, we can grow. I also believe that much of the current growth of psychology is actually a replacement for what is best provided by a culture healed by Christ.
Inspired and instructed by the missiology of the church, I seek to live within and embrace the soil in which God has placed me, to keep it plowed by having a willingness to see my own blind spots so that His seed can find root. To be this American woman, raised in Arkansas, party girl in college, mother of four, living in Little Rock, canoeing on our beautiful rivers and treasuring my family’s elders who have seen a lot and know a lot. This is my soil. This is my culture. Thanks be to God for coming to me in this very place.
NOTE: Last month’s topic was “How We Use Our Words.” Check out my post, “Christian is Not an Adjective,” and eleven others HERE. Thanks for reading, and of course I love to get comments, here or on FACEBOOK.
Here are links to other posts on the topic, and more will be added as other synchrobloggers post their contributions:
It’s a balancing act—working on a (fiction) novel and an (creative nonfiction) essay simultaneously. After reading Richard Gilbert’s blog post from Tuesday in “Narrative,” “Balancing Honesty and Artifice,” I’m wondering if it’s not a good idea to try to keep these two projects at a greater distance from each other. Maybe I even need separate computers—one for fiction and one for nonfiction—like Orthodox Jews who keep Kosher by using separate plates, utensils, and even sinks, refrigerators and dishwashers for preparing meat and dairy foods.
Gilbert talks about “monkeying around with the mess” he made by considering changes in structure in his memoir, specifically by “adding a fourth act to my memoir. I saw how it would break up the long second act, give readers a fresh resting place.”
His words reminded me of one of the things my freelance editor has suggested for the novel I’m currently revising. She said the plot falls flat in the middle. I need to pump up the action there. Possibly introduce another bad guy. In fact, change one of the “good” characters into a “bad” character to give the novel a much-needed lift midway through.
But when someone at the 2012 Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop this past June suggested that I make a similar change in my (nonfiction) essay, I was confused. He seemed to be suggesting that I add a scene–but it was a scene that actually didn’t happen. In his defense, I think he temporarily forgot it wasn’t fiction. As the creative nonfiction folks like to remind us, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I was left to find another way to “fix” what was lacking in the essay without being dishonest. (By the way, Lee Gutkind has a new book out on the subject: You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.)
Now that I’ve finished editing that essay and have sent it off to several literary journal contests, maybe I can shut down the creative nonfiction part of my brain for awhile and finish revising the novel. I don’t think I need separate computers to keep the genres straight. But I have thought about making a sign to hang by my computer–like one of those OPEN and CLOSED signs you see on the front doors of businesses–just to help me keep Kosher with my current project.
I usually don’t visit my mother in the nursing home on Saturdays. But this past weekend my niece, Aubrey Leigh, who lives in Jackson, wanted to bring her 9-month-old son, Thomas, to visit her grandmother. His great-grandmother. So I scheduled my regular visit for a Saturday. And this time I brought her favorite cookies from McAllister’s deli, instead of her favorite candy, M&M’s.
Maybe Granny Effie often sleeps in on Saturdays, I don’t know. But here we were, eager to introduce Mom to her new great-grandson, and she was in bed at 12:30 p.m. Usually she is up, dressed, and has just finished lunch in the dining room by 12:30. The aids tell me she was “kind of tired” this morning and didn’t want to get up. I’m actually glad they don’t push her when she doesn’t want go get up—it encourages me to continue to believe they treat her with respect. But in the nearly four years that Mom has been at the nursing home, this has only happened one other time on a day when I visited, so I was a little flustered, since she had “company” that day.
I was anxious that Thomas would get tired or fussy waiting in the lobby while I helped one of the aids get Mom dressed, into her wheelchair and out into the lobby. Fortunately, he’s an easy-going tot, and was still in a good humor when I finally pushed Mom up to the visiting area, nearly 30 minutes later.
“Look, Mom—it’s your granddaughter, Aubrey Leigh, here to visit you. And her husband, Tommy. And this is Thomas—your great grandson.”
Mom smiles through the tangles and plaques that are gradually killing her brain cells. Who are these people?
The brain has 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) that operate like tiny factories. Alzheimer’s disease prevents parts of a cell’s factory from running well. As damage spreads, cells lose their ability to do their jobs and, eventually die, causing irreversible changes in the brain.
With this loss of brain cells comes the loss of stories—the fabric of a person’s life—as well as the inability to perform everyday life chores.
Plaques are deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid that build up in the spaces between nerve cells.
Tangles are twisted fibers of another protein called tau that build up inside the cells.
“Whose baby is that?” Mom asks, once I get her wheelchair positioned close to the couches where Tommy, Aubrey Leigh and I are sitting. Thomas is still in his stroller, his big blue eyes glued to Granny Effie.
“He’s ours.” Aubrey Leigh indicates herself and Tommy.
“Is he your first child?”
“Do you have any other children yet?”
“Not yet.” Tommy chimes in—like the sweet and patient man he is.
Aubrey Leigh and I exchange looks. I decide to try again for a memory jog.
“Mom, Aubrey Leigh is Mike’s daughter. Remember Mike, your son? Thomas is Mike’s grandson—your great-grandson.”
Too much information for Granny Effie’s tangled cortex.
Aubrey Leigh moves Thomas’s stroller closer to Granny Effie, which seems to encourage a little more interaction. When he tosses a toy onto the floor, she lights up.
“There went one of them!”
And then his engaging smile and infectious laugh lights up her countenance, if only for a little while.
When Aubrey Leigh gets Thomas out of the stroller, I take the opportunity for some cuddles and hugs—he’s a terrific hugger. And then some time on a mat on the floor with a few toys, including the Rebel bear I picked up for him, complete with its own tiny football. Mom seems to enjoy watching him play while I feed her bites of the cookies from McAllister’s.
I’m glad that Tommy is there—not only for the visit but to serve as official photographer for this first gathering of four generations of my family. I’m wishing my children and grandchildren could see Mom again, but it’s difficult with them living in Denver and Savannah. The last time my daughter, Beth, rode down from Memphis to Jackson with me to visit Mom was two years ago, and Mom had already lost whichever cells stored her memories of her other granddaughter, Beth.
In Lee Martin’s wonderful new book, Such a Life, (read my interview with Lee here) he talks about his mother and his mother-in-law’s decline. At one point he says, of his mother, she “babbles, unable to say what rises up inside her, whether it be love or rage.”
As my niece and her family prepare to leave, I hold Thomas close to Mom, encouraging her to hug or kiss him, or just to reach out and touch him.
“Want to hug Thomas goodbye, Mom?”
“No.” Her voice is completely flat.
I move him a little closer and try again. He is all smiles and ready to give and receive love.
I think of Lee Martin’s words on Saturday, as Mother struggles for words. I wonder what feelings might be trying to rise up inside her. Aubrey Leigh and I know that for most of my life—and especially my brother’s life (her father, who died in 2007)—our mother’s words were not kind. In recent years I’ve come to believe that the verbal abuse she dealt out to Mike and me, and her alcoholism and obsession with weight—hers and mine—were results of emotional, and possibly sexual abuse by her father. My grandfather, who molested me when I was only five years old.
This information has helped me forgive my mother and work towards accepting the childhood I had, such as it was.
Aubrey Leigh’s visit, and her eagerness to introduce her son to his great-grandmother—in spite of the past—brought more healing for me. Hopefully, for all of us. Maybe the plaques and tangles can’t keep the love from getting through to Mom’s heart.
[If you’re new to my blog, please read “Disappearing Stories,” at the end of which you will find links to more posts about visits with my mother. Also, my review of Robert Leleux’s wonderful book about dealing with his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, The Living End: A Memoir of Forgiving and Forgetting.]
Steve Hayes, an Orthodox Christian living in South Africa, did a blog post yesterday about the “Pussy Riot” protest in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in February.
Hayes points out:
“There are differences between Russian culture and Western culture, and differences within Russian and Western culture. There seems to be a huge gap in understanding these differences. But these differing views also have something in common: they share in the failure to understand cultural differences, and they share in the readiness to condemn those whose culture they do not understand.
But what about Orthodoxy?
Is there an Orthodox culture, and does it have anything to say about this?”
Read his article to find out more. And at the end of his post, Steve invites other Orthodox Christians to join the “synchroblog” that a number of members of the Orthoblogger Facebook Group are participating in, usually once a month. Our next synchroblog will be Friday, August 17. Check the links at the end of Steve’s post for more information. I’ll be participating, so watch for my post next Friday. The theme this month is “Orthodoxy and Culture.”