This time of year many people are looking for ways to help others. We sometimes refer to the Christmas season as the “season of good will.” A few years ago, I blogged about my favorite activity during the season here, and here—Christmas caroling to the residents at Kings Daughters and Sons Nursing Home. (I’m sad to be out of town for it this year, but I know it will be a blessing to everyone—carolers and listeners.) And of course millions of people have seen the picture of the New York police officer giving a pair of new boots to a homeless man this past Tuesday. (The man didn’t know a tourist was photographing him.)
My friend and neighbor, Ellen Morris Prewitt, works with homeless and previously homeless people in a writing group here in Memphis through an organization known as Door of Hope. Some of their work was recently published in The Advocate: A Voice of Experience. Like this essay, by Jockluss Thomas Payne.
Just Buy the Beggar a Beer
by Jockluss Thomas Payne
When people ask me for money in front of a grocery store, I usually recoil. If you bum enough quarters, you’ll soon have enough for a beer. I pontificate on misery. It’s a daily routine. Bum change and buy beers. Many street people have made this their daily occupation. Sometimes I will give some change to hustlers and sometimes I won’t. It’s according to how I feel in a particular day, I guess. When I was homeless I worked at temp services and always had some sort of income. I never stood in front of the grocery stores and bummed change. An upstanding tramp I was. I do feel some compassion at times and will part with a dollar or more. Or just buy the beggar a beer. I know what he’s after. I could have been the same way myself. But by the grace of god I survived. I don’t like enabling street people to get drunk. At the same time I feel that drunkenness is their only solace from a miserable life. The same as mine was.
And yet another member of the writing group, Veyshon Hall—who used to be homeless—disagrees with Payne. This is her essay:
by Veyshon Hall
I have given people money who were panhandling. That was before I realized what some of them do with the money. I hear people say that thy are responsible for blessing others with the money, not what they do with it. I feel differently. When I know they are going to buy drugs or alcohol, I am enabling them. I know because I used to be one of them. I also feel bad knowing that a drink or drug I helped pay for may be the one that kills them. There are places to get food, clothes, hygiene products and shelter for free. There is even a free doctor and medication. Anyone who spends all day panhandling has the sense and energy to do a job. Too often I hear people say they won’t do a job sweeping or mopping, but those same people think it’s o.k. to panhandle. Panhandling should be a job so they can pay taxes and help our economy. Let’s see how many career panhandlers we would have then.
I know there are “two sides” to every argument, and I really don’t like to argue. I prefer a non-judgmental exchange of ideas. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. But first, I’ll close with a quote from a favorite book, The Diary of a Russian Priest, by Father Alexander Elchaninov.
“Some do not give alms, saying: it will be spent on drink, and so forth. Even if it is spent on drink, the sin is less serious than the anger we provoke by our refusal, and the harshness and condemnation which we cultivate in ourselves.”
I’m off to Athens, Georgia, this weekend, for my eighth and final event (since July) for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality in 2012. I’m looking forward to seeing co-editor, Wendy Reed, again, and to meeting one of my fellow contributors, Barbara Taylor Brown, at the reading/signing at Avid Bookshop on Saturday. Have a great weekend, everyone!
And please share your thoughts about almsgiving. You can leave a comment here or start/join a thread on Facebook. Thanks!
Somehow I seem to keep finding treasures from the past—not the distant past, but still, books I “happen” upon that inspire and inform. A few weeks ago I blogged about discovering Michener’s 1991 book, The Novel. Today, it’s John Gardner’s 1983 work, On Becoming a Novelist. (Note: Gardner died in 1982, at the young age of 49. The book was published by his estate. If you’re not familiar with Gardner, here’s an interview with him in the Paris Review.) I can’t remember how I learned about this book, but I ordered a used library edition (you can get one for less than a dollar) since I was spending my big bucks on Christmas gifts at the time. And oh, my goodness, so much bang for that buck!
With a forward by Raymond Carver, who had been a student of Gardner’s in 1958, On Becoming a Novelist contains four sections: (1) The Writer’s Nature, (2) The Writer’s Training and Education, (3) Publication and Survival, and (4) Faith.
In his preface, Gardner says:
“I write for those who desire, not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of—serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive…. This book is for the beginning novelist who has already figured out that it is far more satisfying to write well than simply to write well enough to get published…. I try to deal with, and if possible get rid of, the beginning novelist’s worries.”
Just what I need to read at this juncture in my “career.” I’m still waiting to hear from the four literary agents who are reading Cherry Bomb, the novel I’m shopping out for publication right now. And it’s been three to six weeks since those queries were sent out. About a week ago I woke up with an idea for another novel in my head. I quickly jotted down notes—working title, protag and several supporting characters, general plot, setting—and decided I needed to get started as soon as possible. Discovering Gardner’s book was perfect timing for the inspiration I need. Today I’m going to share a bit of his wisdom from the first section: “The Writer’s Nature.”
Writing is a lonely business. And yet Gardner says the novelist must be fascinated by other people and have a gift for inhabiting their lives. Along with that, the novelist must have a certain kind of intelligence, “not the mathematician’s or the philosopher’s but the storyteller’s.” I loved (and identified with) Gardner’s description of what the storyteller’s intelligence looks like, including:
“….a marked tendency towards oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes)…. A strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion…. Psychological instability, recklessness, impulsiveness and improvidence…. Writers would clearly be madmen if they weren’t so psychologically complicated.”
I’m not sure why I find these words comforting. It’s kind of like how I felt when I read Robert Goolrick’s memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, where he describes the lifelong wound of sexual abuse, and what it’s like just to live with it. Or when I read Augusten Burroughs’ book, This is How, and learned that you don’t have to heal to be whole. It’s that comfort that comes from knowing that I am not alone in my suffering. That others—especially writers—suffer in similar ways, and yet somehow go on to live productive lives. Or to write good books.
Gardner defines good fiction in the first section of the book:
“It is intellectually and emotionally significant…. And finally, an aesthetically successful story will contain a sense of life’s strangeness, however humdrum its makings.”
Later he talks about some elements of good fiction that I’ve been told by others are what defines good literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction: Character, strangeness, a psychological wound, compulsiveness, drivenness.
“Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him…. Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is likely like…. And theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the character’s main problem is.”
If this feels like Gardner has left his purpose in this first section—The Writer’s Nature—remember that the elements of fiction and the writer’s nature must be closely aligned for a good result.
“As for the quality of strangeness, it is hard to know what can be said. There is no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness…. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself…. Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked.”
This next one was particularly interesting to me:
“A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven…. Insofar as guilt or shame bend the soul inward they are likely, under the right conditions (neither too little discomfort nor too much), to serve the writer’s project.”
Gardner ends the first section with several pages describing other characteristics he feels are important for a novelist, including drivenness, which he says “only helps if it forces the writer not to suicide but to the making of splendid works of art,” and other traits such as verbal facility, accuracy and freshness of the writer’s eye, and what he calls “the novelist’s special intelligence.”
With the holidays upon us—and I’ll be traveling for two weeks during December—it will be difficult to focus on writing. But if I believe what Gardner says, I will find a way, even amidst the hustle and bustle of the season, for what he calls the writer’s “foolish pastime, the making of real art.”
I hope to post about the other three sections in Gardner’s book eventually… and I’d love to hear your thoughts on his ideas which I’ve shared here. And kudos to my friends who are participating in NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) … especially Doug, who is closing in on 50K words in these final days. Go, Doug, go!
I know today is Cyber Monday, and believe me, I’ve done half my Christmas shopping online, and will get a few more items online today. But I just found out that yesterday was Charity Sunday.
Don’t worry if you didn’t know this, either. Our almsgiving during the holidays shouldn’t be limited to one day, but it’s great to have a day to remind us that giving to those in need is more important than how perfectly we decorate our homes, get our custom-made Christmas cards out on time, host the perfect holiday party, and give the most creative gifts to friends and family. All of those things are wonderful, but only if we can do them without neglecting (1) those in need, (2) our families, and (3) our physical and mental health.
On Small Business Saturday, my friend Teresa Waters, delivered the 15 bags of praline pecans I ordered from her this year, which benefit the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network, an emergency shelter serving homeless shelters in the Memphis/Shelby County area. It’s nice when almsgiving can “double” as gift-giving, since I now have 15 gifts to give to others on my list.
But most of the time, charity doesn’t have a kickback. ““Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27) I think that can also include the homeless, the sick and suffering, the hungry, those in nursing homes.
Our church, St. John Orthodox, offers many opportunities for our parishioners to participate in almsgiving (year-round) including Thanksgiving baskets, for which we donated the food, assembled and delivered to needy recipients. We also collect new toys for the MIFA (Memphis Inter Faith Association) Christmas store. And blankets and other items for the homeless, which again, we assemble and deliver. One night during the holidays we will sing Christmas carols at a local nursing home. This is one of my favorite events. Although my mother is in a nursing home in a different state, somehow I feel like I’m singing to her when we do this. (I hope to be at the Christmas party at her nursing home in a couple of weeks.) I’m sure there are endless other opportunities (not just during the Christmas season) and I hope we will all keep our eyes open and make these a priority.
I never leave the house on Black Friday. But today I’m going to make an exception. My Goddaughter, Sophie, is dancing some scenes from “The Nutcracker” at the Peabody Hotel this afternoon. Shouldn’t be too many crazy shoppers hanging out there, right? And watching ballet is one of the activities I suggested during the holidays in my Mental Health Monday post, “Fighting the Holiday Blues with Music, Art, Food, Friends, and Writing.”
Okay, I understand that you need to do your Christmas shopping. And sales are good for your budget. But look at the bigger picture—support those small businesses and cottage industries, some of which are owned by your friends and neighbors. And to remind everyone about this alternative shopping experience, sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday… it’s Small Business Saturday. If you’ve got an American Express card, enroll it here to receive a $25 credit to your account when you spend $25. Sweet.
Here’s an article by Karen Mills, SBA Administrator, explaining more about Small Business Saturday.
Burke’s Books’ Holiday Gifts Ideas – Memphis’ oldest independent book store. Browsing their shelves and chatting with their wonderful staff is as far from the madding crowd of Black Friday as one can get.
Buy from friends who are selling their art or food items. Especially if they are giving part of the proceeds to a good cause—like Teresa Waters, who is selling pecans to help support the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network (MIHN). It’s an emergency shelter serving homeless families in Memphis/Shelby County. I just ordered 15 pounds of praline pecans from her to give as gifts this year.
Last year I purchased a dozen or more boxes of my friend, Fran Tylavsky’s, homemade chocolate bourbon balls. You can order ahead from her business, Frantic Chocolates, or find them for sale at several local sites, including Miss Cordelia’s Grocery (here in Harbor Town) or the Trolley Stop Market.
Our friends, Chris and Anna-Sarah Farha, have a great cottage industry product, Kentucky Chili. Visit their Facebook page for more information. I know it’s available a number of places in Memphis, including Miss Cordelia’s Grocery in Harbor Town.
Down in Madison, Mississippi, my friend Jonni Webb has a terrific pottery business. It’s not too late to order for Christmas. If you’re in the Jackson area, her work is sold at several local small businesses, including Beemon Drugs, Everyday Gourmet, Green Oak Nursery & Florist, Inside Out, and St. Andrew’s Bookstore. Her work is also sold in about 25 other cities throughout Mississippi and other states. Last year I gave a dozen or more of her “stick’em ups” as Christmas gifts. Check out her Itty Bitty Bud flower holders with magnets, and other great gifts.
In Oxford, Mississippi, my friend, Neil White, owns a small publishing company called Nautilus Publishing Company. They’ve got lots of great coffee table books for sale this Christmas. Got a big football fan on your gift list? Give him Mississippi’s 100 Greatest Football Players. For your Memphis friends, there’s this compilation of over 200 famous Memphians. And for fans of the late, great Barry Hannah, there’s A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah. And some of their books are available in a number of independent book stores, so just ask for them when you drop in during the holidays. If you’re in the Jackson area, stop by Lemuria Books Monday, November 26, for a reading and signing for A Short Ride.
So, if you’re enjoying being off work today, stay home and address Christmas cards, read a good book, listen to some good music, (can music save your very soul?) get your Christmas decorations down from the attic, or just relax and get ready to shop tomorrow—on Small Business Saturday. Have a great weekend!
Back in September, my friend, Neil White, gave me an advance reader copy of a wonderful little book his publishing company (Nautilus) was putting out. It’s called Beginnings & Ends: A selection of favorite first and last lines in stories by contemporary Oxford writers. Beginnings & Ends is edited by Ron Borne, whom I enjoyed meeting upstairs at the bar at City Grocery in September, the same night that Neil gave me the book. I hated to miss the launch party at Square Books last week. After the launch, my friend (and a wonderful freelance editor) Mary Ann Bowen, who lives in Oxford, sent me a copy of Beginnings & Ends, saying this about it:
“You would have loved the launch what with Oxford writers reading theirs and their dead friends’ words. Plus what we really got was a brief survey of modern writers’ voices—made me want to go back and revise every bit of prose I’ve ever written!”
Looking for a great Christmas gift for anyone who loves to read? Not to give too much away, here are a few of my favorites. (There are 30 authors featured in the book.)
Beginnings: (From five authors who have been my teachers at workshops over the years, and have become my friends.)
“The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Orr returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.”—Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
“The relationship I was in lapsed, which wouldn’t have been awful except this was with Harlotta who smelled like sandalwood and who introduced me to color and truth.”—Jere Hoar (author of Body Parts and The Hit), “The Last Feminine Woman in the World,” a short story.
“Daddy is going to camp. That’s what I told my children. A child psychologist suggested it. ‘Words like prison and jail conjure up dangerous images for children,’ she explained. But it wasn’t camp. It was prison.”—Neil White, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir.
“I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. I was curious: too curious. Finally, late one night, I returned to a website I’d bookmarked, one which promised ‘Discrete shipping on all orders.’ I placed the illicit item in my shopping cart. Confirm purchase? You betcha. And so I took one small step closer to full membership in my adopted home, my quest to be a Southerner. I would eat dirt.”—Beth Ann Fennelly, “Taking Terroir on Faith,” a personal essay (from the anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality) NOTE: Beth Ann read from this essay the same night I met Ron Borne, after our Circling Faith reading and signing in Oxford.
“My father first appeared in Citrus on Christmas Eve of 1965. He arrived on foot, wearing tailored wool trousers, a black mohair jacket, an Egyptian-cotton button-down, with French cuffs, a charcoal-gray-ankle-length cashmere coat and wing tips said to resemble the hue of some poor animal’s blood.”–Scott Morris, Waiting For April: A Novel.
Endings: (These are abbreviated… the endings in the anthology are a bit longer.)
“In a rush in that moment I knew, too, that all these ghosts, conjured up in the preternatural desolation of the Square, were all for me, just because I had come home. It was not too late.”—Willie Morris, “The Ghosts of Ole Miss,” a personal essay.
“From the damp earth, you could smell the last bits of the fire, dying and smoldering, and leaving the smell of fall on the wind.”—Ace Atkins, Wicked City: A Novel.
“I’m thinking that your first love is your best love, that you’ll never find any better. The way she did it was like she was saying, here I am, I’m all yours, all of me, forever. Nothing’s changed. She turns the light off, and we reach to find each other in the darkness like people who are blind.”—Larry Brown, “Facing the Music,” a short story.
The introductions to each author are also very insightful.
Just a wonderful, inspirational little anthology, that any aspiring writer or lover of books would be thrilled to receive for Christmas.
When I sat down at my computer this morning, I had some ideas for my Mental Health Monday post, but not a clear direction. So, I cruised Facebook for a few minutes before getting started. That’s when I read my friend Tim Stanek’s status:
“Peaceful day of music, art, food, and friends. Got some writing done. On to the next big adventure!”
Music, art, food and friends. Oh, and writing. What a great prescription for a healthy soul, mind, body and spirit. And one we should keep in mind with the holidays coming up.
I have several friends who just about come undone every year preparing for Christmas. And I’m sure they’re not alone. Psychiatrist Michelle Magid describes what she calls the “holiday blues,” and the 4 ways people tend to get depressed during the holidays:
- The first is those who are stressed and overwhelmed because they’re stretching themselves too thin. “These are the people that you know have a lot of shopping to do, cooking, travel, house guests, family reunions, office parties, holiday greeting cards, it’s just too much on your plate.
- People grieving a loss during the holidays. The holidays are a time to spend with family and that gets people thinking about loved ones who’ve passed away or who aren’t present at family gatherings.
- Seasonal affective patients. These are people that tend to get more down during the winter time and they suffer from seasonal affective disorder.
- The final type of patient she sees is those who are clinically depressed.
Do you get the holiday blues? The Mayo Clinic has some good tips for coping during the season. For those so inclined, here’s a good piece from them on Spirituality and Stress Relief. But if you’re looking for a simpler solution, just keep Tim Stanek’s words in mind: music, art, food, friends and writing. (You can substitute something other than writing, if you don’t write. Like knitting, or painting, or even simple activities like addressing Christmas cards or wrapping gifts, so long as you don’t approach those last two activities as one more thing “to do.”)
Saturday night I went to a CD release party with my friend, David Twombly, and his wife Cindy Fong. David is a musician, and the party was a celebration of “Live,” a CD he recorded at Farmhouse Studios in Moscow, Tennessee, with three other musicians. The four of them played in the round and the guests brought food and drink for a potluck.
We arrived at the farm at dusk, just in time to see the post-sunset beauty of the house, the studio, the lake, and the trees. And later, as we huddled around an outdoor fire, we breathed in the early fall air and gazed at stars so much brighter than they appear back under our city lights. The music fed my soul. So did the food. And the friends—old and new—I shared the evening with.
Just before singing one of his songs that night, Rice Drewry talked about how the folks in Texas love house shows and participate in live music on a regular basis. It’s just part of their culture. His words reminded me how much we need this to be part of our lives. And not just live music, but live theater, art shows, poetry readings, author events at local bookstores. We have become a people who spend too much time alone in our houses, sitting like zombies in front of our computers and televisions.
So, this holiday season, I plan to be in touch with things that are ALIVE. I’m taking my nine-year-old Goddaughter to see “Annie” at Playhouse on the Square. I hope to make it to a couple more live music gigs, Like Bryan Hayes’ (owner of Farmhouse Studios) show at the P&H on December 15. I will seek out art shows. And I will continue to write. Oh, and a big thing that’s not on the list today is doing for others. But I think that one needs a post all for itself—maybe next Monday, we’ll see.
Today I’m headed down to Jackson (Mississippi) to visit my mother in the nursing home this afternoon. And then to join Kristen Iversen for her book signing at Lemuria Books. We’ll go to dinner afterwards with some of our friends who have a terrific book club down there. So, all in one day I’ll be doing something for others, and enjoying art (Kristen is a terrific speaker, too,) food, and friends. Hmmm, what about music? Oh, yes, I’ll listen to my new CDs from Farmhouse Studios on the drive.
What are your plans for the holidays? I hope you include music, art, food and friends.
A few months ago I read this post by an Orthodox blogger, Benedict Seraphim, on why the Orthodox faith may appear “tougher” than the traditions followed by those of other Christian churches, especially our Protestant friends. And while I can appreciate some of what Benedict Seraphim shares in his post, I’m not sure I can fully embrace his conclusion that the reason Orthodoxy may seem difficult is because of our pride. Of course it goes against the grain to admit we are weak and that something is hard for us. But I think I’m asking a different question. The question on my heart today (and for some time) is this: “Why does God want us to suffer in order to draw near to Him? Why does it have to be so damn hard?”
Of course I know the Scripture verses that explain this, and I’ve read volumes by the Church Fathers on the subject. I get it, on some level. But my heart is struggling with it. Especially as we enter one of the four great fasting seasons of the Orthodox calendar. November 15 was the beginning of the Nativity Fast, which lasts until December 25. (In America we are given a break for Thanksgiving Day, which some of us stretch to include the weekend… or else what would you do with all the leftovers that aren’t allowed during the Fast?)
If you’ve been reading my blog very long, you’ve already heard some of my previous rants on this subject, including:
“The Violent Bear it Away,” about the fast during Great Lent, before the celebration of Pascha (Easter).
“The Dog Days of Summer,” which is about the fast before the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, in August.
“F is for the Fast that God Has Chosen,” a post during the series on the Lenten alphabet I shared during Lent a few years ago.
Last weekend I was in Little Rock for another book reading/signing for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, this time with co-editors Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne. The event was held at WordsWorth Books, a wonderful indie bookstore in the Heights, a neighborhood of terrific boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Jennifer is a Little Rock native, and it was fun meeting her family and friends. I especially enjoyed candid conversations “on the side” with several people (men included) who are “circling faith” in their own way.
We were even invited to her sister’s book club on Sunday night, where we were treated to fabulous food and more good conversations with a lovely, diverse group of women.
But the thing I didn’t see coming last weekend was my experience on Sunday morning. I was visiting my friend, Daphne, who is also Orthodox. But we decided to go with her sister and brother-in-law to their church on Sunday, and afterwards to a wonderful lunch at the country club. They attend St. Andrews Church, which calls itself “A community of God’s Grace and Healing.” Saint Andrews has Anglican roots, but with a modern touch. Actually, the 8:45 worship service is billed as “more traditional” with hymns set to traditional tunes. But we attended the 11:00 a.m. service, which is “more contemporary… with hymns set to modern accompaniment and the newest songs of praise.” For most of my Orthodox life, I have not liked contemporary Christian music. I can’t explain why, exactly, except that it has always felt like a hybrid of sorts. My heart had been tuned to embrace the Byzantine music of the Orthodox Church (with no musical accompaniment) for worship, while my psyche still loves a variety of secular music, especially country music, folk music, and some rock and roll and alternative. But I have kept those genres—the spiritual and the secular—neatly separated for many years.
So when we walked into the sanctuary and I heard the guitar, piano and drums on the stage to the left of the altar area, I wasn’t sure how it would feel. We entered the pew next to Daphne’s sister and her husband, and I watched the joyful expressions on everyone’s faces as they sang these beautiful praises to God. The church itself has huge windows that look out into a wooded area. The leaves were brilliant. A storm was coming in—the one that would herald the end of those colors. I found myself in tears from the first song, and throughout the entire service. The pastors were also joyful men, and their words as they led us in praise blessed me on many levels. It was as if something that had been locked away inside me for many years was being set free. I couldn’t figure it out at the time, but I think it has to do with the disconnect between my Western roots and the Eastern religion that I have been immersed in for 25 years, officially, and over 40 years from the time I left my Protestant evangelical roots in search of this historic faith.
I’m sure my Orthodox friends who are reading this—especially the clergy—are thinking, “it’s all about the emotions.” And yes, my emotions were definitely involved. I think that’s one reason we don’t use musical instruments in the Orthodox Church. The music is supposed to be “other worldly”—like the icons and the church architecture—it’s all supposed to take us somewhere else, into the spiritual realm. And the historic Byzantine hymns, the prayers and the Scripture reading are supposed to be done in such a way that they aren’t left open to individual interpretation. And yes, I kind of got that, when the saxophone player came in with a beautiful riff during a song of praise to God, and it was kind of sexual. Yes. When I closed my eyes to listen, I could imagine being in a smoke-filled bar with a martini and a handsome man. And then I would open my eyes and remember that we were worshiping God. But maybe I had that struggle simply because I’ve tried to keep those parts of me separate for so many years—the emotional, earthly, feeling part of me, and the spiritual, other-worldly part.
Constantine Cavarnos, in his book, Byzantine Sacred Music, says, “The aim of Byzantine sacred music is spiritual. This music is, in the first place, a means of worship and veneration; and in the second place, a means of self-perfection, of eliciting and cultivating man’s higher thoughts and feelings of opposing and eliminating his lower, undesirable ones.” So maybe the saxophone wasn’t helping me eliminate my lower, undesirable feelings. But I can’t help wondering if I heard it played in such a worshipful atmosphere on a regular basis, I wouldn’t always associate it with a “lower” realm. Just wondering.
And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with my original topic for this post—fasting—well, it might seem like a stretch. Except that my experience on Sunday morning brought to mind these words from Isaiah:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your home the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
And your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall be before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
Still don’t see the connection? It just makes me wonder if my “healing shall spring forth speedily” if I don’t “hide yourself from your own flesh?” God knows my flesh. It loves to hear a good saxophone. And to be with people who are joyful. And it doesn’t mind sharing with the hungry and the poor. But it sure does struggle with the rules about not eating certain foods on certain days, and only having centuries-old music from foreign countries in our worship services. Forgive me.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the living room with my husband when I reached over to a bookcase and pulled out a random book. First of all, the bookcases in our living room are filled with: photo albums, high school, college and (husband’s) medical school yearbooks, and then mostly books we don’t read but look good on shelves, you know? The books I actually read are in my office. So, this book had a nice cover and heft. One of those books where the author is so well known that his name appears in letters as large as the book title: The Novel. James A. Michener.
Inside was the handwritten name “Leigh Ann Wilson.” And on the next page, in pencil, was written the price of the book when I purchased it: $1. I must have picked it up at a used bookstore one day and forgotten all about it. Exploring deeper, I discover that this was Michener’s 31st book, published by Random House in 1991. (Here’s a NYT review, if you’re interested.) So I turned to the first page and started reading. I think my husband was watching a football game, but I didn’t notice for the next couple of hours as I kept reading.
Of course Michener is a master at capturing worlds. South Pacific and Hawaii were my favorites back in the day. I love how he always has maps in the front that show the locale of the book in great detail. But he explored a different world in The Novel—the world of, well, the novelist. The Novel is really four novellas. Each is narrated by a different character, the first a Writer who writes a novel, the second an Editor who edits it, the third a Critic who reviews it, and the fourth, a Reader who reads it. And although the publishing world has changed a great deal in the twenty-one years that have passed since this book came out, I was fascinated by the way he unveiled the inner workings of the industry.
One of the first things I noticed was his beautiful literary descriptions. He spent a page and a half describing how one of his characters made German rice pudding, and I swear I could smell it and taste it by the time it was done. Here’s a segue to my novel. My freelance editor (and a few other early readers) made suggestions that I delete (or greatly shorten) most of the sections that described things in detail, like how to make egg tempera for icon painting, or how to make your own aerosol paint for graffiti. After reading Michener’s descriptive passages, I’m glad I left some of those in my novel. I figure if people aren’t interested, they’ll skim over those paragraphs, you know? But if they want all senses firing as they read, maybe they’ll slow down and savor the words. Not that mine can touch Michener’s. Listen to this:
“The art of making a true German rice pudding lies in starting with the right proportions of uncooked rice and rich milk; at the beginning it looks very watery, but as it bakes and the excess liquid vanishes in steam, the milk, eggs and sugar combine magically into one of the choices custards of all cuisines. But what makes the German pudding so wondrous to the taste is the intermixing of caramelized crust and the raising into the custard. A union like that does not happen accidentally.”
Are you drooling yet? And that was only one of six paragraphs he wrote about the pudding.
The section on The Editor was fascinating. It started with woman as a fourteen-year-old girl in the library, where she first discovered what would become her addiction, and later her vocation. Her response after reading her first novel:
“But what was most important was that the novel created an overwhelming sense of reality: Antonia was a living girl whose friends called her Tony, a name she despised, and her summer relatives were as real as my own family. It was such a sensational experience to become to familiar with other people’s lives that when I took the book back and I asked the librarian: ‘Did all this really happen?’ and she explained: ‘It happened, but only in the mind of the writer. And, of course, in your mind, too. That’s what a novel is. The exchange of dreams.”
The exchange of dreams. But getting those dreams from the mind of the writer to the eyes of readers is a strenuous journey. The sections on the Novelist revealed much of that journey, and gave me strength to continue my own:
“An artist is a creative man who cannot and indeed should not lead a normal life. He should find sustenance from trusted friends like himself. His task is to provide society with a fresh and sometimes necessarily acid portrait of itself.”
In the section on The Critic, I learned many valuable lessons as well:
“Get the characters lined up first, and make them real. Then have them move through the intricacies of plot and idea. Allow people to uncover the great truths upon which fiction rests, and from what you’re telling me, Karl, you’re not doing that. You’re putting your ideas, your message, first…. A novel has to be born in life, with characters whose passions and pains the author feels as keenly as if they were his or her own. I had filled my novel with illuminating ideas acted out by ill-defined characters who moved in obscurity…. It didn’t sing.”
I was a bit intrigued that The Novel didn’t include “The Agent” as one of its sections. It seems that the Editor played more of the Agent’s role in this book, and I wonder if that was true twenty years ago. I found this interesting chart someone made to show the production flow of a book, and the agent is central here.
Circling back around to my novel (with apologies) I have now received two rejections, but four agents are still reading it. A dozen or more others have not replied to my initial queries. The rejections, by the way, have been lovely. But the most pleasant surprise so far has been the emails I have received from two of the agents who are still reading my manuscript. They were both affected greatly by the storm in New York City, and wrote to apologize for taking so long to get back to me! I was humbled by their incredible manners. They both only received the manuscript a week or so before the storm hit, causing flooding in their homes and power outages in their offices. And yet they took the time to apologize for their delay? Very humbling. I hope to land in the hands of one such compassionate professional. Please stay tuned.
Today I’m headed to Little Rock for an exciting weekend. Not only because I’ll be hanging out with my best friend, Daphne. But also because I’ll be hanging out with (Little Rock native) Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, co-editors of Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. These women have become so much more than editors to me over the past few months. They have become my friends. And my fellow seekers on our shared path with other Southern women who are circling faith. We’re headed to Little Rock for another reading and signing, this time at WordsWorth Books. It’s in the Heights, my favorite neighborhood, filled with boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and bars.
This will be my 8th time to give a reading from Circling Faith since it was published this past spring. Each of these events is an opportunity to have a conversation with other Southern women (and men) who, like us, grew up in the “Christ-haunted South.” It’s a special landscape. Those conversations have been as much (or more) fun and enlightening for the contributors and editors of Circling Faith as they have (hopefully) been for our listeners and readers. Whether it’s a small group of parishioners who showed up at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Memphis for a reading during their Sunday School hour, or a crowd of fifty or more who weathered a pretty severe storm to join us on the last day of the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville last month, they’ve been terrific listeners and conversationalists. Book clubs have shown up in Jackson, Mississippi and Nashville, and we’re also invited to meet with another book club in Little Rock this weekend. Writing workshop leaders in Boulder, Colorado and Clarksdale, Mississippi invited me to read my essay from Circling Faith at their events. So, it’s not just about the faith part. It’s also about the writing. The art.
As Jennifer and Wendy wrote in the book’s introduction:
“Southerners do possess an uncanny ability to believe in the supernatural, to have faith in the face of defeat. Some say it’s what happens when Celtic and Cherokee mix. That the Scots-Irish have never privileged logic. Others say that the Scots-Irish never knew privilege, period. Historian Wayne Flynt says that in a region of an almost inhumane, hardscrabble poverty, it was the only thing they had.”
The women who contributed essays to Circling Faith come from a variety of Southern upbringings and religious experiences. Some of us have left the faith of our childhoods. Others are seeking a new church home. And there are some who are still “circling” their experience of God and spirituality outside the church.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”
I’d like to share a few quotes from the anthology. All eighteen essays have blessed me greatly, in one way or another. Some have made me laugh. Others have brought tears to my eyes. And others have made me say, “yes” with a fist pump to the brave artistry with which a story has been crafted. Here’s a sampling of a few essays:
“Poetry had worked the same way. I’ve written elsewhere of its Eucharistic qualities . . . . In memorizing the poems I loved, I ‘ate’ them in a way. I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: someone else’s suffering and passion enters your body to transform you, partly by joining you to others in a saving circle.”—Mary Karr’s essay, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer” (Author of Lit, The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Sinners Welcome, from which her essay in Circling Faith was excerpted.)
“Having rejected the land of my fathers and the religion of my fathers… am I essentially cut off at the root? Can I make an intellectual decision to grow faith, or to crave dirt?… It seems strange to go church-shopping, but how else can I define and satisfy my needs? It seems strange to go dirt-shopping, but how else can I taste it, and therefore know if I like it?”—Beth Ann Fennelly’s essay, “Taking Terroir on Faith” (award-winning author of Open House, Tender Hooks, Unmentionables, and Great With Child. She and her husband, Tom Franklin, have just co-written a novel.)
“And yes, I hardly ever go to church. But on the rare occasion I do, I don’t feel any differently there than I do at home or in the grocery store. It’s like the whole world has become my church. And every breath I take is a prayer.”—from Marshall Chapman’s essay, “Going to Church” (Nashville singer/songwriter and author of They Came to Nashville and Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller.)
“Sacraments schooled me in the wedding of spirit and flesh. I learned how to do the official ones in church—not just communion, but also baptism, reconciliation, the laying on of hands—and then, when I had the hang of seeing the holy in the most ordinary things, I moved on to celebrating the sacraments of picnic lunches, ordinary baths, forgiving embraces, and rubbing sick friends’ feet.”—from Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay, “What the Body Knows” (Episcopal priest and author of An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, and Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, and eleven other books.)
“And so the whole point is basically to be in yourself, to not resist whatever needs to be worked on in yourself, to let that rise, to let it come and to look at it as closely as you can, and then let it go. And I sometimes say that meditation is like flossing your mind . . . you get rid of a lot of stuff that you actually don’t need to continue carrying around with you.”—from Alice Walker’s interview, “Alice Walker Calls God Mama” (Alice has written numerous books, including the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Color Purple.)
“I’ve searched all over for something that is right here at home but realizing it requires practice. It seemed easier to flee to India or sit alone in the serene Alps and fast. These were small tests. But in contact with people every day, my anger flares, my heart opens and closes. I am challenged to see God in my new husband, in his children, in the cashier at Borders, in the nurse who takes my blood and in myself. “—from Debra Moffit’s essay, “Pilgrimage” (Award-winning author of Awake in the World: 108 Practices to Live a Divinely Inspired Life and Garden of Bliss: Cultivating the Inner Landscape for Self-Discovery.)
We are so thrilled that people are embracing this anthology, which went into a second printing shortly after it came out. If you don’t have it yet, please buy it from your favorite independent bookstore. (Great Christmas gift!) We are thankful to the following shops who have welcomed us for readings or provided our books at events: Burke’s Books (Memphis), Lemuria (Jackson, MS), Square Books (Oxford, MS), Parnassus Books (Nashville), WordsWorth (Little Rock, AR), Alabama Booksmith (Birmingham), Page & Palette (Fairhope, AL) and coming up on December 1, Avid Books (Athen, GA).
Lee Martin posted a fun writing exercise over at his blog on Monday. He calls it “Already Been Chewed: A Writing Exercise Using Facts.” I decided to give it a try for today’s post. As usual, I broke some of his “rules” but followed the general idea. Lots of fun and a good way to get your creative juices (and memory!) flowing. Lee got the idea from an essay by Dinty Moore, in which he followed an ancient form of poetry, the abecedarian, in which the first line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter until the final letter is reached. (Check out Robert Pinsky’s famous abecedarian poem, “ABC,” above, right. Isn’t it amazing?) Here are Lee’s instructions (in italics) and my answers, followed by the beginning of my own (rough draft) abecedarian.
1. Who was one of your favorite childhood characters from TV, film, cartoons, comics, computer games, etc.? Angela Cartwright.
2. Choose a famous person that you so associate with something about the personality of your favorite childhood character. Barbara Hershey.
3. Think of someone from your life, either present or past, who is contrary to the personality of your favorite childhood character. Well, I already did that with Barbara Hershey. But someone from my own life? (whose name starts with the letter C?) Carol. (Last name not disclosed, to protect the guilty.)
4. Come up with an animal that you associate with the personality of your favorite childhood character. Dove. Angela was so graceful and pure in all the characters she played, which is why I think of a dove to represent her.
5. Come up with an animal that you believe is contrary to the personality of your favorite childhood character. I chose the eel because they are so dark and slimy and shadowy. Nothing that I’d associate with Angela Cartwright or her characters.
6. Recall at least one personal experience that’s suggested by your consideration of the previous items on your list. When I was in junior high school in Jackson, Mississippi, a new friend (she had come from a different elementary school) tried out for a part in a nearby high school’s production of “The Sound of Music,” and got it! I was soooo jealous. I remember sitting in the auditorium watching her on stage and thinking, “I could be on that stage.” And I was. Three years later I had a role in “Our Town,” on that very stage. No singing was involved.
7. Write your title: Son/Daughter of (Your Favorite Childhood Character): A Meditation on (leave this blank for now)
8. Begin with your favorite childhood character. Use a subject heading such as Atom Ant, or if you prefer, Ant, Atom. Write a few lines giving us some facts about that character. Feel free to do some research if you’d like.
9. Move on to each of the other items on your list, giving each a subject heading. Please note that the heading doesn’t have to be the name of the person or the animal you’re considering. Dinty has a section in his essay, for example, called Inheritance. Find more facts, whether from inside or outside your life. Go in whatever order your instinct tells you to go, knowing re-arrangement is always possible later.
10. Now that you’ve gathered your facts, go back to your title and fill in the subtitle A Meditation on. . .
I didn’t do the entire alphabet, as Dinty did in his terrific essay. But here’s mine, as far as I got:
Daughter of Angela Cartwright: A Meditation on Shadows
By Susan Cushman
Played Brigitta in “The Sound of Music” (47 years ago) and also Penny Robinson in the TV series, “Lost in Space.” But I fell in love with her originally in 1956 (I was 5 years old and she was only 4) when she played Linda in the Danny Thomas TV series, “Make Room for Daddy.” I thought Angela was an ANGEL, and I wanted to be her. I love this picture of her singing with her screen daddy. My daddy and I also sang together. And danced together. But not on the stage. I always wished we had.
Barbara came along just as I was beginning to outgrow Angela Cartwright. Her appearance in “Last Summer” in 1969 coincided with my graduation from high school, an emotional time in my life. I’m breaking the rules already, because unlike Angela, Barbara was feisty, irreverent., kind of dark. Watch these scenes from “Last Summer.” “Sweet Old Bird,” and “You’ve Traumatized Him.” Fast forward to 1988, when she co-starred with Bette Midler in “Beaches,” the same year I moved away from my hometown for the first time, leaving my best friend. (We watched “Beaches” together and argued about who got to be Barbara and who was Bette. We also cried a lot.) And then in 2010 Barbara traumatized her daughter, played by Natalie Portman, in the psychological thriller, “Black Swan.” I’m drawn to her darkness. I like shadows.
Carol was my best friend in 6th grade. Unlike angelic ANGELA, Carol got me into trouble. More than once. One time involved boys. Another time involved shaving our legs for the first time. At her house. Without our mothers’ permission. But Carol was my partner in crime. She and I were the only girls in our sixth grade who had boyfriends. So, Peggy, who was the most popular girl in our grade, started the “Anti-Susan-and-Carol-Club.” For several weeks, none of the other girls would sit with us at lunch. But we didn’t mind too much ‘cause we had the boys.
In the Old Testament, after the flood, a dove returns to Noah with a freshly plucked olive leaf. The New Teastament compares the Spirit of God to a dove, saying that it “hovered over the face of the waters like a dove.” And it was a dove that descended on Jesus during his baptism. In the earliest Christian art, the dove represented the peace of the soul. The Doves are also an English indie rock band. Gotta love Google.
Most eels are predators. And they are nocturnal. Night creatures who bury in to the sand and mud. Eel blood is toxic to humans. But both cooking and the digestive process destroy the toxic protein. The toxin derived from eel blood serum was used by Charles Richet in his Nobel Prize-winning research which discovered anaphylaxis (by injecting it into dogs and observing the effect). Good things often come from the shadows.
Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, is the fictional hamlet which serves as the setting for Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize-Winning play, “Our Town.” Wilder’s principal message in Our Town was that people should appreciate the details and interactions of everyday life while they live them. My favorite scene, which I shared with my brother, Mike, who played my on-stage older brother, George Gibbs in the play, happened atop a ladder, which served as the minimalist stage prop to show us looking out my bedroom window, at the stars one night. Rebecca ponders the position of Grover’s Corners within the vastness of the universe, which she believes is contained within “the Mind of God.” Night has fallen on Grover’s Corners, and the first act comes to an end. In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin “on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave.”
“South Pacific” was my first favorite musical (before “The Sound of Music”). I memorized every song on the soundtrack. My favorite was “Happy Talk,” which was sung by Bloody Mary to the American lieutenant Joe Cable, about having a happy life, after he begins romancing her daughter Liat. Liat performs the song with hand gestures as Mary sings, because she can’t speak English. This type of communication was known as pidgin. As a ten-year-old, I did all those hand gestures while I sang the song, having no idea of the racial implications, either in the song, or in the relationship between the movie’s stars. “Happy Talk” is occasionally cut from productions of South Pacific on the grounds that the song is racist, citing the fake pidgin in which it is written. Ten years later (in the early 1970s) my brother (while in the Marines) would father a child in the Philippines and wouldn’t bring his Filipino lover and their child to the States, fearing that they wouldn’t be accepted in American society. The child died. Fifteen years later we adopted our first Asian child. We now have two adopted Korean children, and three beautiful bi-racial grandchildren. I wonder what they will think of South Pacific when they are old enough to watch it.
Remember how Peter lost his shadow and Wendy sewed it back on for him? Peter needed his shadow so he could continue to lead those Lost Boys on their adventures. Our youngest son, Jason, was one of those Lost Boys in the Playhouse on the Square (Memphis) production of Peter Pan in 1992. He was in fourth grade. I loved watching him do cartwheels across the stage and sing and dance with the other Lost Boys. It was midtown Memphis and so the cast was multi-cultural. Otherwise, I’m not sure a cute little Asian boy would have gotten the part. A couple of years earlier, he got a part as one of the children in the Broadway touring production of “The King and I” at the Orpheum Theater. He was the only kid who didn’t need makeup to look Oriental in that one. And yes, I lived vicariously as a stage mom during all of those shows. Stacy Keech was the King and Mary Beth Peil played Anna. There was a Korean woman who was a dancer and befriended Jason. We had drinks with her one night after the show. But I guess that has nothing to do with Peter Pan’s shadow.
I’m stopping with the letter “P” since this is just a writing exercise (first draft) and not something I plan to publish. But I must admit I’m intrigued with the abecedarian essay now. I might give it a more serious effort in the future.
Before I close today, I’d just like to share some fun news. My blog, Pen and Palette, was just named as one of the “Top 25 Reading and Writing Resources for English Buffs” by mastersinenglish.org. When you click on the link, scroll down to Number 8 in the list (it’s in categories, and my blog is in the “writing” category). I’m honored that Pen and Palette has been chosen as one of 13 blogs about writing. (Although my blog is also about mental health and faith.) Elizabeth, who works for the Masters in English organization, said this about why my blog was chosen:
“I know what gave your site my vote specifically was reading this post you wrote: http://susancushman.com/writing-on-wednesdays-blurring-the-lines-between-literary-and-commercial-fiction-and-nonfiction-entertainment-and-art/ How you discussed the blurred lines between genres and your goal of writing “kick-ass, artistic fiction” was incredibly insightful. I felt that any English student or aspiring writer should definitely know about a site with posts like that one….hence your spot on our list.”
Oh, and thanks, Lee, for the great writing exercise! Has anyone else ever written (or read) an abecedarian essay? I’d love to read more of these!