Mental Health Monday: Bringing in the New Year with Saint Basil

On New Year’s Day, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Saint Basil the Great. (January 1 is his Feast Day.) Since he’s my husband’s patron saint, we’ve always tried to participate in this feast every year, both at our parish—Saint John in Memphis—and in our home. One way we do that is by baking “vasilopita”—or Saint Basil bread. (pronounced vah-see-LO-pee-tah)

This age old tradition commenced in the fourth century, when Saint Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his Diocese. He commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families in cutting the bread to nourish themselves, were pleasantly surprised to find the coins.

In some parishes the priest will bless the St. Basil bread (like in this video) during the Liturgy for the Feast. The families who bring the bread can take it home and enjoy it, or share it during the “coffee hour” after the Liturgy. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of the bread will have good luck for the new year. Here’s another video, this one of Greek children singing Saint Basil’s Carol, and more about the tradition of the vasilopita.

Father Basil will be leading Great Vespers for the Feast of Saint Basil tonight at St. John at 6 p.m., and we’ll have a “finger food potluck” after the liturgy. A couple of us will be making vasilopita and it will be fun to see who gets the piece with the coin inside. (sorry, no gold coin… usually a silver dollar or maybe even a quarter) And hopefully we’ll have enough voices to make a joyful noise caroling in the New Year.

Saint Basil’s Carol

 

At the Beginning of the brand new year,

Into the church to pray we all processed;

Holding high aloft the fragrant stalks of basil,

May our New Year’s Day be blessed.
We sing of Basil, the holy saint,

His liturgy we still perform to this date,

Theologian, write and monastic founder

Truly he is Basil the Great!

 

So come and sit with us and eat and drink.

Come share our love and joy and holiday cheer;

Let our hearts be glad, and let us toast St. Basil,

May he pray for us in the New Year!

 

Let our hearts be glad, and let us toast St. Basil,

May he pray for us in the New Year!

Faith on Friday: Fast-Free Friday and Help, Thanks, Wow

Pious Orthodox Christians all over the world are enjoying one of a very few “fast-free Fridays” today. The usual fast prescribed by the Orthodox Church includes fasting from meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. But the period between Christmas and January 4 is fast-free. Since my husband makes a much better effort than I do with fasting, it will be more satisfying for him to enjoy some meat, dairy, fish wine and oil today. I still struggle with the “rules,” although I understand—mentally at least—the purpose of an ascetic struggle.

For me, the discipline of fasting pales in comparison to the struggle of physical illness. I’ve been sick since Christmas Day, with only a few hours here and there where I wasn’t pretty “miserable,” either with sinus headache and congestion, coughing, sore throat, sneezing, nausea, vomiting, etc. Not sure if it’s a mild version of the flu, or just a winter cold which often affects my GI system as well. At any rate, the last thing on my mind this week has been the fact that it’s a fast-free week.

Fasting is designed to encourage prayer. But I’ve discovered that pain and suffering trump fasting in this department. Whether or not I’ve been even somewhat faithful to my Orthodox “rule of prayer,” (Morning Prayers, Evening Prayers, and a mindfulness of God throughout the day, sometimes including the Jesus Prayer) nothing brings me to my knees—physically and spiritually—more intensely than physical pain and illness. I used to think that was pretty selfish, to mainly seek God when I desperately needed Him. But I love what Anne Lamott says in her wonderful little book, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In the first section, “Help,” she says this about prayer:

“It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our back against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.”

Some of us have to be fairly desperate to pray. But hopefully God understands that about us, since He made us. And while Lamott wasn’t specially writing about physical illness in that comment, I think she would include that as one way we are “going under the waves.”  She then expands on her understanding of prayer:

“Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.”

I have a friend who hasn’t been to church in several years, and she feels terribly guilty about it. But now she feels she is unworthy of “showing up,” since she’s been away so long. She wants to “get it together” before showing back up. I’ve tried to tell her that it works the other way around, but I don’t think she’s ready to hear that. (And when I’m not ready to hear something, you might as well save your breath.) I’m thinking of giving her a copy of Lamott’s book. It’s been a breath of fresh air to me. Especially when I’m having one of those dark nights of the soul. Or just not hanging around the light very much. I’ll close today with one more quote from Lamott’s book, and with it, wishing you peace in the midst of whatever you’re going through right now. And as always, thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear from you.

“Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond shadow and illusion to something beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.”

(Thinking About) Writing on Wednesday: Call for Names

On the second day of Christmas, my son’s house is quiet. Grace and Anna are still asleep in their beds, all tired out from yesterday’s activities. (Photos will be on Facebook later… WordPress still isn’t letting me post pictures here for some reason.) Today’s our last day in Denver with our children and grandchildren, so I’m not blogging about writing. Except that I’m thinking about writing. Just as an artist spends lots of time contemplating a picture before painting it, part of the work of a writer is thinking about what to write and how to write it.

I’ve been invited to contribute a short story or essay to an anthology to be published in 2013. The contributors will be reading our stories at the “Shoe Burnin’” in Waterhole Branch (just outside Fairhope, Alabama) in February. It’s an annual event—usually happening in November—where writers and musicians gather to share stories and songs and celebrate life together. More about why it’s called a “shoe burnin’” later.

I’ve already got my story mapped out in my mind. It takes place in the South, of course. Maybe in Mississippi. In the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. The protags are star-struck lovers—a high school football star and his girlfriend—whose lives get turned on their heads by the Vietnam War. And, like Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

This is where YOU come in. Whether you were a teenager in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s or not, what were some of your favorite names during that time? I can’t really get started writing this story until I name my protags. Any suggestions? Please leave them here or in a comment thread on Facebook. Oh, and a third character might be a Waffle House waitress, so I’d also love name suggestions for her….

So, on this Second Day of Christmas, it’s fun to be thinking about these Two Turtle Doves and what I might name them. I hope the rest of the Twelve Days are full of joy for you!

Mental Health Monday: A Winter Dialogue

“Pops” and I are in Denver, staying at our son, Jason’s house, for Christmas. We’ve reflected a bit on Christmas past, with Jason and with our daughter, Beth. They both  live in Denver with their spouses and children. While we hope our (grown) children will only remember the joyous aspects of family holidays, I know that the stress often pushes every family’s dysfunctional trigger points. I chatted with our oldest son, Jon, about this a few days ago. He’s in Memphis (in our house) for the holidays, so we’re visiting with him before and after Christmas this year. These “winter dialogues” have served to remind me that I couldn’t figure out how to make Christmas “perfect,” so I gave up and settled for reality, with all its messiness but also the richness of our broken humanity reaching out and trying to love.

About ten years ago, I spent six months participating in a Twelve-Steps group. As Christmas approached that year, the intensity at those meetings grew. Members shared war stories from the past, as well as their plans for “surviving” the holidays. Most of the folks in the group had family members who were alcoholics or drug addicts, but I think some of their stories would apply to “sober” families as well. After all, people are people. We are all messy. But also wondrously made.

My favorite “survival tip” was shared by a woman who was an artist. She painted a sign and hung it by her front door before her relatives began arriving for the holidays. It said, “Check your baggage at the door or don’t come in.” If only it were that simple. If only we could all check our emotional baggage outside our homes and the homes of our loved ones. But we are broken creatures, and so we muddle through the best we can.

I subscribe to yourdailypoem.com, from which I receive a poem in my email box every day. Most days I take time to read this poem, as faithfully (and sometimes moreso) than saying my Morning Prayers. As the poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, says, in her wonderful essay, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” which is included in her book of poetry, Sinners Welcome:

“In this state–what Dickinson called ‘sumptuous destitution’–prayer was a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry could still draw me out of myself, easing my loneliness as it had since earliest childhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar…. the first source of awe for me, partly because of how it could ease my sense of isolation: it was a line thrown from a seemingly glorious Other to my drear-minded self.”

That line was thrown this morning to me from the poet, Joseph Robert Mills, and his poem, “A Winter Dialogue.” If you’re having winter dialogues with your extended family this Christmas, I hope his words will bless you, as they have blessed me today. As I write this, I’m sitting at my son’s breakfast table, watching the sun peak through the clouds. Jason has gone to the Honey Baked Ham store to beat the crowds. Everyone else is asleep, although I hear my granddaughters stirring upstairs. We are all eagerly awaiting Christmas Day, with whatever it brings. I imagine we will all have what Mills calls “a protective touch, and a willingness to be touched.” I hope his words will bless you as they blessed me.

 

A Winter Dialogue

By Joseph Robert Mills

 

We decide to take a break from the eating, drinking,

and arguing — our traditional holiday pastimes —

to walk around the ice-encased neighborhood.

In the hallway, we sort through the piles of coats,

hats, and gloves, pulling out what we think we need,

and when I get to the door my father calls me back

to drape a scarf around my neck. In my forties,

I don’t like scarves anymore than when I was six,

but, now, having kids, I recognize what his fingers

are trying to say as they adjust the wool, and, I hope,

he recognizes what I’m trying to say by not moving.

It’s not much, but since neither of us needs anything

the other can buy, we try to exchange what we can,

a protective touch and a willingness to be touched.

Family on Friday: Cousin Reunion, Granny Effie and the Flu

On Wednesday I drove down to Jackson (Mississippi) where I was meeting my oldest son, Jonathan. He had driven up from Savannah on his way to spend the holidays in Memphis. We had a lovely lunch with my nieces, Aubrey Leigh and Chelsea, at Bon Ami. I don’t think Jon had seen his cousins in about four years. (These are my brother’s daughters.) Aubrey Leigh has a son and another child on the way. She’s an attorney. Chelsea has an MBA. They both live and work in Jackson. It was great visiting with them. I couldn’t help but think about how much Chelsea looks like my mother when she was young. They are all three beautiful women. And my brother, Mike, was a handsome guy.

After lunch Jon and I headed over to Lakeland Nursing Home. He hadn’t seen Granny Effie in four years, either. In 2008, all of my children went with us to visit her. She still pretty much knew who everyone was, although it was her first time to meet Jason’s wife, See, who was pregnant with Grace.

The annual Christmas Party was happening, and I took Mom a new sweater, slippers, and a Christmas necklace and bracelet. I warned Jon that Mom wouldn’t know him, but that she was usually cheerful and happy to see anyone.

But when Jon and I arrived, Mom was asleep, sitting up in her wheelchair, in her room. In her nightgown. Her lunch tray was in front of her, and her fingers were stuck in her mashed potatoes. She’s almost always dressed and somewhere out in the hall when I arrive. It was about 1:30 p.m.

I called the nurse to come into the room with me, and we couldn’t wake Mom up. The nurse had tried to feed her a few minutes earlier. Now she wouldn’t open her eyes. She would respond verbally, briefly, and then fall back asleep. I cleaned the potatoes off her fingers and rolled her away from the lunch tray. I put her new slippers on her feet, and put her Christmas jewelry on her. She still wouldn’t open her eyes.

So, I stroked her hair and kissed her and held her hand. Jon gave her a kiss and told her Merry Christmas. She never saw him, which makes my heart sad. It’s not that she would have remembered that he was there, but I wish they had at least made eye contact.

The nurse said Mom was on meds for flu-like symptoms, as well as pain meds for back pain. She had a fall a couple of weeks ago, and is scheduled for an MRI next week. (The x-rays after her fall didn’t show anything broken, but this is to follow up.) She’s also on Haldol for agitation, which happens often with Alzheimer’s.

UPDATE: On Thursday, a nurse called to say that Mom had “flu-like symptoms” and it would be best if no one visited her for the next 14 days due to the possibility of spreading the flu. I told her we had already visited on Wednesday (kissed her, etc.) so it was too late…. *sigh*

It was sad to see her like this, but at least she’s not in pain. Mom always made Christmas a special time at our house, and I wish I could have made our visit special this week. All I can do is pray that the plaques and tangles in her brain aren’t making her sad, and that her back isn’t seriously injured from her fall.

Merry Christmas, Mom. I love you.

[NOTE: I'm having technical difficulties and WordPress won't let me add photos to this post, so I'll post them on Facebook.... If it gets fixed, I'll add them here later.]

Best of 2012 (AKA Year End List)

A couple of years ago I was inspired by my friend, Corey Mesler’s, annual “Year End List.” Here’s my 2011 List.  And now *drum roll* … my “Best of 2012” List:

Gabrielle Sophia Davis

Best family event: The birth of our third granddaughter, Gabrielle Sophia Davis, on April 23 in Denver, Colorado. I spent 5 weeks in a wonderful condo in downtown Denver, halfway between my son’s house and my daughter’s apartment. Being with Beth during Gabby’s birth was the highlight of my year.

Best news: Our oldest son, Jonathan, is out of the Army! After two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, we’re thankful he is safe and excited about pursing life as a civilian. He arrives in Memphis tomorrow!

Best publishing news: My essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” was included in the anthology, Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press, April, 2012) which went into a second printing a month after its debut!

Best publishing news, Runner-Up: Four literary agents are reading my novel manuscript right now!

Best novels I read: Into the Free by Julie Cantrell and The Novel by James Michener

Best memoirs I read: Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen, The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving by Robert Leleux, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Best famous person memoir I read: Then Again by Diane Keaton

Best book I read on writing: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

Best book of poetry I read: Tutaj/Here by Wislawa Szymborska

Best drinking memoir I read: Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (which includes an essay by my friend, Jane Friedman)

Best self-help book I read: This is How: Help for the Self by Augusten Burroughs

Best memoir I read on my Kindle: Such a Life by Lee Martin

Best novel I read on my Kindle: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Best blogging news: My blog, Pen & Palette, was included in the Top 25 Reading and Writing Resources for English Buffs by mastersinenglish.org.

Best blog post by me: “Blurring the Lines Between Literary and Commercial, Fiction and Nonfiction, Entertainment and Art” (which won me a place in the Top 25 Reading and Writing Resources for English Buffs.)

Best Read (and most controversial) blog post by me: “The Holy Foolishness of Punk and the Suppression of Critical Thought”

Best Rediscovered (thank you, Facebook!) friend and writer extraordinaire: Shari Smith

Best writing events I attended: Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop (Oxford, Mississippi), Creative Nonfiction in the Delta (at the Shackup Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I gave a reading and short talk on getting published), and the Southern Festival of Books (Nashville) where I was on a panel for Circling Faith, with co-editors Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, and fellow contributor, Marshall Chapman

Best night out: Blue Bird Café in Nashville with Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed (watching Marshall Chapman and other writers in the round)

Marshall Chapman and me at the Bluebird Cafe

Best writing retreat: 5 weeks in a condo in downtown Denver (visiting children) where I finished my novel, Cherry Bomb, and sent it to a freelance editor

Best newly discovered indie bookstore: Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia (hosted my 8th and final reading/signing event for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, in 2012)

Best Regional Publishing Company: Nautilus Publishing, Taylor, Mississippi, owner, Neil White (best source for books about Mississippi writers, athletes, trivia, gardens, and more!)

Best new movie I saw: “Lincoln”

Best new TV show I discovered: “Scandal”

Best series I can’t quit watching over and over: “Law & Order SVU “(Special Victims Unit) same as last two years

Best current TV show: “Parenthood” (same as last two years)

Best reality/contestant TV show: “The Voice”

Best new music video: “Tonight” by Sugarland

Best Christmas music video: “Holly, Jolly Christmas” by Lady Antebellum

Best live musical performance: Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” at the 2012 Grammys

Best new CD: “Kin” by Rodney Crowell and memoirist, Mary Karr

Best new Single: “Long Time Girl Gone By” by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr, sung by Emmylou Harris

Best newly discovered singer/songwriter: Chuck Cannon

Mental Health Monday: From the Mothers of Adam Lanza

Sophie and me in the lobby of Playhouse on the Square, just before watching the musical, “Annie.”

Like the rest of our nation—and especially all mothers—I spent the weekend sharing (in a very small, limited way) the grief of the families who lost loved ones in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday. Friday night when I took my nine-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, to our local community theater for a wonderful production of the musical, “Annie,” I asked her if she had heard about the shootings. She hadn’t heard yet, which was surprising. So I shared a G-rated version of the news with her. And I held her hand as we walked to and from my car.

 

Icon of Saint Sophie and her daughters, Faith, Hope and Love

 

Sunday morning after church, she told me that her father had shared more details about what happened. And that on Saturday night she had nightmares. She thought she saw the shooter standing by her bed. I held her in my arms, trying not to cry. And as we stood in front of the large icon of her patron saint, Sophia (and her martyred daughters, Faith, Hope and Love) as we do after Liturgy most Sundays, we prayed that Saint Sophia would comfort the mothers who lost their children. And that she would help Sophie sleep peacefully and not be afraid.  As she returns to her fourth grade classroom today (for two more days before the Christmas holidays) I pray that she will not be afraid. And I wonder how many parents will just keep their children home a few days earlier than the holidays begin here on Wednesday.

But this tragedy isn’t just about the children and women who were killed in Newtown on Friday. It’s about the epidemic of mental illness in our country, and what we can do to help people like Adam Lanza and their families. Of all the reflections I’ve read on the events in Newtown (and similar tragedies across our nation in recent years) there is one that touched my heart more than all others. It was written by Liza Long, a mother who struggles every day with the unpredictable behavior of her own 13-year-old son. Her words, written from a loving and broken heart, are words I think we all should listen to. Thousands have already read them as they’ve been shared over and over on Facebook. And Long was on the Today Show this morning. But in case you missed them, please take a few minutes to read them now:

“I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother: It’s Time to Talk About Mental Illness.”

I know parents who are now dealing with—or have in the past—children with mental illness issues that surface with episodes of violence. It’s a helpless feeling. It’s too late to help Adam Lanza and his mother, but I hope that our nation with all of its rich resources will focus on finding ways to help other children and their parents who are struggling with mental illness today. And that all people of faith will pray for God’s wisdom and mercy on these families.

Faith on Friday: Restoring the Image

 

 

It’s only eleven days until Christmas. I hope you’re finding joy in the season, but if you’re weary from the curve balls life has been throwing you (or even from the festive activities and preparations for the holidays) I hope you’ll be refreshed by these gifts today.

(By the way, notice that this detail of an icon of the Nativity isn’t finished… it seemed appropriate to a post about restoring the image.)

I’ll start with three Advent poems by my friend, the Orthodox writer and poet, Scott Cairns.

When Cairns writes, “We almost see our long estrangement overcome,” I think of the Orthodox hymn of the Forefeast of Nativity that goes,

“Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!”

detail, icon of Nativity

God became man to restore us to the way He meant for us to be all along. He created us to be like Him. But we blew it, very quickly, it seems. It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around these theological tenets, so instead, I try expose myself to things I can more readily respond to—like poetry. Art. Music. Writing.

About this time last year, I took inspiration from Cairns’ ekphrastic poem, “Nativity.” I love the way he describes the Mother of God’s response to seeing her newborn child, Jesus, at His birth (as he reflects on the icon of the Nativity—see detail).

She cups His perfect head
and kisses Him, that even here the radiant

compass of affection
is announced, that even here our several
histories converge and slip,

just briefly, out of time.

And now for some music. I’ve shared this Serbian Christmas song every year for several years now, but it always bring me joy: “Angels Are Singing”… and here’s the studio version.

From a different source, I love to listen to Sting’s, “Gabriel’s Message.” (That’s a a flugelhorn, with its warm, dark, bluesy sound. Don’t you love it?)

And from last year’s CMA Country Christmas, Rascal Flatts singing, “Mary Did You Know?”

What’s inspiring you this Nativity season?

Writing on Wednesday: On Becoming a Novelist, Part III: FAITH (or novel-writing as yoga)

This is my third and final post about John Gardner’s book, On Becoming a Novelist.

If you missed the first two, you can read them here:

Writing on Wednesday: On Becoming a Novelist covered section (1) The Writer’s Nature.

I wrote about section (2) The Writer’s Training and Education and (3) Publication and Survival in my post , Winnie-the-Pooh on Wednesday. (You have to scroll down past the pictures of my granddaughters to get to the writing part.)

Today I’ll be commenting on section (4) Faith.

It really didn’t seem to me that this section was mostly about faith, although Gardner makes references to what he calls “the writing state—the state of inspiration” when the “fictive dream” springs up. And later in this section—after he spends most of the chapter talking about several ways to approach the writing of a novel—he returns to faith, saying it’s what the writer needs when he’s stuck:

“Have faith. First, recognize that the art of writing is immensely more difficult than the beginning writer may at first believe but in the end can be mastered by anyone willing to do the work…. Second, trust what works for other human activities will work for the activity of writing. Learning to ride a bicycle, one must learn to steer, learn to keep one’s balance, learn to push the pedals, learn to stop without falling—all separate processes requiring separate focuses of concentration. Eventually they become one process.”

I thought this part was especially interesting, since he spent several pages describing the separate processes of laying down the first draft and then the tedious work of revision, similar to the process that Neil White describes in his lecture on “The Art and Craft” of writing.  But I do think Gardner shows ways to blend the processes even while initially drafting the novel.

But back to the faith part. Gardner asks, “Where does the writer get faith?” And then he gives 3 answers:

(1) Community support

(2) The writer’s love of his art

(3) Reading the work of favorite authors

I just got a copy of another of Gardner’s books on writing, The Art of Fiction, and I’m sure he’ll go into more detail there about the “how tos” that he touched on in this section of On Becoming a Novelist, so I won’t spend more time on that for now. Instead, since he titled this section, “Faith,” I’ll leave you with words of inspiration from the final page of the book. First, here’s his version of “If”:

“If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held on to your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.”

Talk about holding the writer’s feet to the fire. I think I’m going to print off that paragraph and tape it to my computer! And his final words of inspiration:

“Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

Mental Health Monday: Enjoying the Process

Flannery O’Connor: Self-portrait with peacock

What do William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flanner O’Connor, Aldous Huxley, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Butler Yeats, e. e. Cummings, Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Minot, Derek Walcott, William Jay Smith, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jorge Luis Borges have in common? They are all writers who also paint.

I’m sure they are many more artists, musicians, writers and other creative who work (or play) in more than more medium. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “It’s all the same urge, the same expression, the same message. Some day, it might come out graphically, another day, it’ll come out in words.”

 About five years ago Donald Friedman (lawyer-turned-writer) had the idea to put together a collection of art by writers, and then to publish a book about it, called The Writer’s Brush. Here’s a nice news short about it on CBS from 2007. The book even contains essays by William H. Gass and John Updike.

Kurt Vonnegut says, “As any writer knows, the real pleasure in writing comes when the moment, when you can get rid of the manuscript, just get it out of your life, whereas painting is a continuing pleasure in the process of doing it.” Watch a video of Vonnegut talking about his contributions to the collection here. (That’s his ink drawing, “Goodbye Blue Monday.”)

It was fun to learn that the novelist Susan Minot carries a purse-sized water color kit just about everywhere she goes. I did this for a few year. I found myself documenting places and events for the purpose of publishing those little pieces here in my blog, or sending them as gifts to others. I was trying to see what the camera might miss. And sometimes—especially when we were in Italy—I enjoyed the process. But mostly I was after the product.

That pleasure in the process was what I was after on Saturday when I took my daughter, Beth, and my daughter-in-law, See, to a wonderful little studio in the Cherry Creek area of Denver for an afternoon of “Canvas and Cocktails.” What could be better for your soul that spending a couple of hours drinking sangria and painting a picture of a peacock feather? (A different object is featured at each painting session.)

So, when I sat down with my sangria, palette and blank white canvas on Saturday afternoon, I watched the instructor make playful strokes to begin the painting, and I joined in with that same spirit of playfulness. I didn’t worry about what each stage of the painting looked like. I just relaxed and had fun.

the process begins

The years I spent writing/painting icons taught me to be very deliberate with each brush mark. Iconography is a disciplined, structured, liturgical art form. And while I derived great pleasure from the dozens of icons I painted, most of the time that pleasure came at the end of the process, rather than during it. 

I laughed with my daughter and daughter-in-law as we joked about what our paintings looked like at various stages (“Wilson” on the Tom Hanks movie, “Castaway” or a big ball of fire. The painting next to Beth’s looked like an alien in its early stages.)

But in the end, we were not only happy with our peacock feathers (which we took home to see if our husbands could guess who did which one and laughed a bit more) but I think our souls grew a little bit. My daughter, Beth, is an architect by training, and See has a graphic arts degree and has decorated her home with many original paintings. So, we had all done some art previously. But I think they would agree that the process was so much more important than the product.

I’m headed back to Memphis today, where I’ll finish up some Christmas preparations and continue to work on research and an outline for my new novel. But maybe I’ll also finally do something with those blank canvases in my closet whenever I need a mental health break.

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