Meditation on Holy Monday: Mothers and Sons

The Lord goes to His voluntary Passion. We must accompany Him. This is the duty of anyone who confesses that he has become who he is now by the power of Christ’s Passion.—St. Theophan the Recluse

semistrToday is Holy Monday—the first day of Holy Week for Orthodox Christians. As we join Christ in His Passion—his suffering and death—through the services of Holy Week, we also join His Mother in her suffering. Mary was told, even before her Son was born, that “a sword shall pierce your heart.” Whenever mothers suffer the pain their sons must endure in their lives on earth, the Mother of God understands, and gives comfort when we ask her. One of my favorite hymns of the Church is this one:

To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos: but as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

Saint Jason of the Seventy

Saint Jason of the Seventy

Every mother has known some level of suffering for her children’s pain. Today I remember the sufferings of my youngest son, Jason, whose Name Day we commemorate today. St. Jason was one of the seventy apostles who went forth to preach the Gospel of Christ in the first century.

Our oldest son, Jonathan, is at the VA Hospital today, where he will have surgery for appendicitis. He went to the emergency room around 2:30 this morning with severe abdominal pain. His father is already there and I’m headed up there to be with him soon.

ChristMaryCrossI know my sons’ sufferings can’t compare with Christ’s Passion, but I think Christ—and His Mother—honor their pain, and mine.
Blessed Holy Monday.

Faith on Friday: Mandorlas and Prayer Shawls

MandorlaIconStudioSignI’m posting this from the Apple Store in Ridgeland, Mississippi. My computer locked up when I was sitting on the patio at Broadstreet Bakery (in Jackson) this morning, enjoying a cappuccino and the sunshine. So I headed out to the Apple Store for help before returning to Memphis this afternoon. The Apple guy showed me something so simple I’m amazed I’ve been using my MacBookPro for so many years without knowing. *sigh*

Anyway, I had a lovely time last night, speaking at the annual Women’s Spring Dinner at St. James Episcopal Church here in Jackson. (And a few of the women invited their husbands.) The food was Mediterranean, the wine was excellent, and the fellowship was divine. My topic was, “The Mandorla: Healing the Split in Our Broken Lives.” I enjoyed sharing a bit about the mandorla—the almond-shaped image often seen in icons where transformation is taking place, like in the icons of Christ and the Transfiguration, or the Resurrection. I used a mandorla on my icon studio sign when I was painting icons and teaching iconography, because my studio represented one place of transformation for me, and hopefully for those who studied with me there.

MandorlaI talked about how we can deal with our “shadow sides”—those unowned parts of ourselves that sometimes sneak up on us, resulting in dysfunctional behavior and other trials in our lives. Instead of (1) running away from our shadows, or (2) obsessing over “fixing” ourselves, we can sometimes find peace and a measure of healing by staying in the mandorla—the middle place, between heaven and earth—and accepting all sides of ourselves. As psychologist Robert Johnson says:

It is the prime task of a truly modern mind to endure both the spiritual and the practical as the framework for her life…. When one has grown strong and wise enough, the warring elements which cause so much suffering and anxiety will become complementary elements and produce the great work of art which is your own life.

This mandorla—this ancient symbol of wholeness—is the intersection of opposites. It’s the place where we will be transformed if we bear the tension of remaining there.

ShawlPrayer2After my talk, Tippy Garner, president of the women’s group at St. James, presented me with a wonderful gift. A beautiful prayer shawl, handmade by Peggy Bowles, who participates in St. James’ Prayer Shawl Ministry. The shawl was presented to me in a beautiful ritual of healing.

SusanShawlWhen I wrap the shawl around my shoulders, I feel the love and comfort of these dear women at St. James. What a gift.  Maybe I will wear it when I say my morning or evening prayers. Or maybe I’ll wear it when I’m struggling with my shadow, to remind me that I am loved. Maybe it will help me find peace as I continue to seek healing for the split. As therapist Brian Jensen says:

The mandorla offers a means of reconciliation with our human struggle between the light and shadow sides of our being. When the most Herculean efforts and the finest disciplines can no longer keep the painful contradiction of life at bay, one can find relief in the Mandorla. It binds together that which was torn apart.

I think I will call it my Mandorla Shawl.

ResizeImageHandler.ashxP.S. I want to thank NancyKay Wessman for hosting me (again) in her home last night. I’m so proud of NancyKay, who is at the Supertalk Mississippi Health & Fitness Expo at the Trade Mart: 11 to 4 today and 9 to 2 Saturday in Jackson, Mississippi. She will be signing from the book she co-authored with Dr. Gerald Berenson, You Can Fix the Fat From Childhood. So far NancyKay has lost 70 pounds as she continues to adopt a more healthy lifestyle. If you can’t make it down to the Trade Mart today or tomorrow, you can BUY THE BOOK HERE!

 

Writing on Wednesday: Anger, Social Awareness, and Aesthetic Performance

dreaming+booksWhen I woke up on this cool, rainy morning, I moved slowly, not wanting to leave the comfort of bed or the intrigue of a dream. The dream involved miniature ponies being attacked by ferocious lions. In a coffee shop full of strangers except for one person with whom I have a complicated, but not intimate, relationship.

Coming downstairs to the coffee maker in a bit of a mental fog, I finally settled down in my office. Nothing like Emails and Facebook to pull you back from the dream world. And then I remembered that today is Wednesday, the day I blog about writing.

Since I’m almost finished with revisions on my piece for the Shoe Burnin’ Anthology, I’m anxious to get back to work on my novel, The Secret Book Club. I’ve been too busy with travels, family, and working on the upcoming 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference (which I’m co-directing and which begins one week from tomorrow!) to get back to the novel in over a month, and I miss it terribly. It will be another month before I’ll have some larger pieces of “protected time” for this work, but I want to find a way to make use of a half-day here and a few hours there, which is hard for me. Like today, when I expected to have about five hours of uninterrupted time to write, and yet family members and unannounced repairmen traipsed in and out of my morning for two of those hours already. And so I try to redeem the time that is left before a 3 p.m. appointment.

My friend, the Nashville writer and radio show host, River Jordan, shared these wonderful words on Facebook this morning, and I found myself reading them aloud, calling this my “writer’s prayer”(and printing it off to put beside my computer):

Creator of the deep, of the secret places, of the wide, blue skies – open in me a place today that may be willing to create. To write words worthy of my breathing, to paint images of human longing, to sing of heart’s satisfaction. Help me to capture the softer edges of our existence to share with my people now and forever. Let there be a hush, a holy hush, in the space of my beating heart that embraces all that is good, all that is well, all that will stand the test of time. Empower me to translate this amazing existence we call life. Amen.

978-0-307-59690-1high-resTranslating this existence we call life. A wonderful goal for a writer, yes? And a goal that I think Claire Messud embraces. (Messud is best known for her novel, The Emperor’s Children. She is married to literary critic, essayist and novelist, James Wood.)  I just read Michael Washburn’s wonderful article about Messud in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. (Read a review by Ron Charles of the Washington Post here.) But Messud’s award-winning prose doesn’t just capture, as Jordan prays, “the softer edges of our existence.” Her work champions the place of women in every nook and cranny of society, in every age. Speaking about her new novel, The Woman Upstairs, Messud says: “Ten years ago wasn’t so good for women, but now it’s unquestionably not good for women.”

As only one example of how things are not good for women, Messud points out a conversation she had with a woman who is a dorm mother at a boarding school, where the girls get up at 5:45 a.m. to do their hair before classes every morning. She said that when she was a student in the ’80s, that wasn’t the case. So the girls are getting an hour less sleep than the boys, because of superficial cultural expectations. And wives and mothers—even in homes where husbands and fathers are stepping up—still have those expectations to bear.

Messud loves a good rant. She teaches one course a year at Hunter College in New York City, and travels from her home in Cambridge once a week for the class. Juggling teaching, writing, and her home life as wife and mother, she says:

I’ve always wondered about this…. What does it take to command assistance, to have the world arrange itself for your work?

As it often seems to do for men and their work. Like the repairman who showed up—WITHOUT CALLING, AGAIN—this morning. I’m sure it was a convenient time for HIM.

photo by Webb Chappell

Claire Messud at home (photo by Webb Chappell)

The Woman Upstairs explores these issues and more through the searing voice of Nora, the protag. Nora is an elementary school teacher caught between the mundane life of her chosen career and the seductive call of the world of art. Washburn says of The Woman Upstairs:

The book may be a rant, but like the best rants, the novel relies on a virtuosic synthesis of anger, social awareness, and aesthetic performance.

As I read those words, I think, isn’t my work a bit like that? Or don’t I at least aspire to include those elements? As Messud’s friend and fellow novelist, Peter Carey, says of her latest novel:

It takes the entire novel to fully grasp the immensity of the project, which you could say is ‘what it means to be a female human being,’ but is, more particularly, a study of love, art, ruthlessness, ambition, self-limitation, anger and desire.

I’ve got two hours left to pour those feelings into the next chapter of my novel. Loaded for bear, here I go. And yet, I’m pretty sure my husband will be arriving home from work for lunch any minute now….

Mental Health Monday: Happy Happy Monday

Apr 18, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Lauren Mooney of Boston painted her face to show pride in Boston while waiting outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during an Interfaith Vigil in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports / USA TODAY Sports

Apr 18, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Lauren Mooney of Boston painted her face to show pride in Boston while waiting outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during an Interfaith Vigil in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports / USA TODAY Sports

Last September I did a post called, “Permission to NOT be Happy?”

And the previous September, a (shorter) post called, “Kelly Corrigan on Happiness.”

Not sure what it is about September that puts me in a mind to consider happiness… maybe it’s that ever-looming anniversary of the attacks on New York City. And now we have April as the month of the bombings in Boston, so I imagine there will be expressions of grief, sorrow, and remembrance that will haunt many people every April.

Lesser struggles are haunting me. I didn’t experience the terror of the attacks in Boston. I don’t even know any of the victims personally. I can only add my small sadness to the pool of universal grief, say prayers for everyone involved, and continue to move through my own life. And for me, that means dealing with everything life throws at me with the tools at hand. As a Christian, perhaps the most important tool is prayer. But as a writer, I experience as much or more clarity through my work. This week, that work involves both realms—the artistic and the spiritual.

art-happy-sadness-Favim.com-407510In addition to continuing to work through difficult revisions (with my editors) on an essay I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology, I’m also preparing to give a talk at the annual meeting of the women of Saint James Episcopal Church in Jackson, Mississippi, on Thursday evening. While these activities might seem incongruous, they ‘re very much related. They are both about dealing with difficulties. They both contain elements of darkness and struggle. And they both aim at leaving my readers and my listeners with something inspirational. But not necessarily “happiness.”

This morning I revisited some beautiful words of wisdom from the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Why Rilke? In addition to his poetry, he wrote letters to his wife, letters to a young poet, letters about the artist Cezanne, and more. He raises the bar for all of us who aspire to embrace life fully, not only its joys, but also its sorrows. A few gems:

What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity…. Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it, that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside….

But here’s the rub. As I continue my own dangerous journey, and it becomes more private, personal, and singular, it also becomes more urgent that I write about it. Or, on occasion, that I speak about it. And maybe in making art, I will, as Rilke says, have some joy, some happiness, some dreams.

charlie-golden-ticket-590x330

 

If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, check out Chris Braden’s weekly posts on his blog, “Happy Happy Monday.” I love his post today, “The Golden Ticket.” Maybe it’s just about opening the right candy bar….

Faith on Friday: Keep Calm and Pray for Boston

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Writing on Wednesday: James Calvin Schaap on Creative Nonfiction

I continue to find treasures between the covers of a wonderful anthology, A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art.  This morning as I sat down to write this post, I found myself shut out of my GoDaddy.com domain, and spent the next hour dealing with issues related to the fact that they “migrated” my account to a new server, saying that it could take 24-48 hours for me to be able to use the site. Fortunately, it’s back up, but now I’m pushed for time, as I have to be somewhere soon. So this will be a bit truncated.

crossing-over-stories-of-asian-refugee-christiansSince the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference starts two weeks from tomorrow (yes!) I thought I’d do a related post today. James Calvin Schaap, author of several novels, but also a number of collections of creative nonfiction, including Crossing Over: The Stories of Refugee Asian Christians, teaches writing and literature at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, Iowa. His essay, “Deeper Subjects: On Writing Creative Nonfiction,” offers some helpful insights. (An aside: Schaap’s post about the bombings in Boston is worth a read.)

But for today, I want to share some of Schaap’s wisdom about creative nonfiction writing. He quotes Lee Gutkind (who will be speaking at the 2013 Oxford CNF Conference in two weeks) in his essay, reminding us that the genre is all about “capturing a real subject—but doing it in a literary way.” Schaap’s essay is full of great information, but I’ll just target three things: (1) What CNF shares with news journalism; (2) What it shares with fiction; and (3) a few thoughts on subtext. (I don’t have time to share his insights on the essay and the joy of epiphany—read the essay yourself for these!)

(1) Schaap starts with Truman Capote’s iconic creative nonfiction book, In Cold Blood. Although Capote relies on the truth about the murders that took place in Kansas in 1959, he immerses himself in the lives of the characters, and uses “techniques of fiction, such as multiples voices” to offer his readers a book that feels more like fiction than journalism.

(2) Moving on to a book about the war in Iraq, The Long Road Home by Martha Radaatz, Schaap says that Radaatz “wants her readers to feel the horror, the grief, the reality of war” so she “takes the time to create scenes—the look of a desert dawn that morning in Iraq, the vacant stare of a young spouse watching the phone after hearing the news of a battle hundreds of miles away.” But this is the main point I want to share from Schaap about this blend of journalism and fiction:

What creative nonfiction like The Long Road Home shares with news journalism is the importance of investigation—of exploration before we can make any attempt at conveying the truth of what happened. What it shares with fiction, however, is a target—the human heart.

James Schaap

James Schaap

(3) And now for a few thoughts on subtext. Creative nonfiction, according to Schaap, “always has a subtext. It always offers more than meets the eye, a reality behind the story. Metaphor is important in creative nonfiction because the story itself—while compelling—almost always suggests something greater, some theme or issue or idea.”

I immediately thought about the essay I’m currently revising for one anthology, and one I’m considering for another. Do they suggest something greater? Schaap uses Tracy Kidder’s story about the medical doctor, Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is about a man deeply driven by the desire to alleviate the suffering of the poorest of the world’s poor. Although Kidder uses lots of details to take us into the hospitals, prisons and slums, the book is about something more:

In showing so clearly how Farmer lives, it’s impossible not to measure themselves by Farmer’s life, not because Farmer is a saint but because the portrait is so richly human that all of us feel our own hearts beating in the narrative.

Do your readers feel their hearts beating in the narrative of your creative nonfiction pieces? Schaap gives us lots to think about as we continue to hone this craft. And if you’re trying your hand at this, I hope you’ll join us in Oxford for a fabulous weekend, May 2-5. Thanks for reading.

Mental Health Monday: There is a Bridge

Gladys WilsonMy plan for today’s post has changed. If you read Friday’s post, you know that’s I’ve recently re-discovered Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul. I was preparing to blog about his “fundamentally different way of regarding daily life and the quest for happiness” today. And I will probably write about that another day. But today I’m going to share a link to a video that moved me to tears yesterday. Whether or not you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, if you take a few minutes to watch this video, I think it may change the way you see and communicate with people who are in any kind of diminished state.

Meet Gladys Wilson and Naomi Feil.  Naomi grew up in a nursing home (yes!) where her father was the administrator and her mother was director of social services. It’s been her life’s work to communicate with people in various stages of Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases.

photo-gladysPay attention to the way Naomi touches Gladys on her cheek, “like a mother does with her child… because the skin remembers.”

And the way she uses music to find a bridge to Gladys’ past.

Instead of being put off by Gladys’ repetitive movements, Naomi matches the intensity of her voice with Gladys’ movements, connecting with her in a kind of soul dance. It’s beautiful.

 

Visiting with Mom on April 2. She was so much more alert than two weeks earlier. Look at that smile!

Visiting with Mom on April 2. She was so much more alert than two weeks earlier. Look at that smile!

Although my mother’s Alzheimer’s isn’t as advanced as Gladys’, I hope that I can build a bridge to her as she slips farther away, using some of Naomi’s beautiful wisdom. Just open your heart and click on the following link to watch the video.

“There is a Bridge.”

Faith and Family on Friday: The Myth of Family and Childhood

I woke up this morning—slowly, not wanting to leave that mystical world between sleeping and waking, wanting to hold onto the dream I was having—with family on my mind. Maybe because of the plethora of Mother’s Day cards I saw at the drug store the other day.  I can spend hours looking for a card with the right sentiment, and never find it. (I wonder if my children feel that way?)

Our 35-year-old son, Jonathan, retired from the Army in January and moved back to Memphis from Savannah. He’s been staying with us until he gets a job and/or rents out his house in Savannah. Jon hasn’t lived at home since he was 18—almost half of his life ago. (He will be 36 in August.) It’s been challenging for he and I to share this space (not so much for his dad who isn’t easily ruffled) but I treasure this time we have together. And I hope that Jon does.

care-of-the-soul-a-guide-for-cultivating-depth-andI couldn’t remember the dream, but something was stirring beneath the surface as I came downstairs into my office, coffee in hand, looking at the stacks of books by my reading chair. On Fridays I try to blog about “faith” and/or “family.” A few months ago I did a(nother) post about my mother, “Love in the Intergenerational Ruins.” But it wasn’t just about her. It was also about families.  The book that seemed to be calling out to me this morning was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. I found hand-written notes in the margins of the first chapter—“Honoring Symptoms as a Voice of the Soul.” And lots of yummy stuff in the Introduction about the difference in “care” and “cure” of the soul. I’ll save that part for another time.

Chapter 2 in Moore’s book is the inspiration for my post today—“The Myth of Family and Childhood.” I’ll share a few excerpts and comments.

Today professionals are preoccupied with the “dysfunctional family.” But to some extent all families are dysfunctional. No family is perfect, and most have serious problems. A family is a microcosm, reflecting the nature of the world, which runs on both virtue and evil…. The sentimental image of family that we present publicly is a defense against the pain of proclaiming the family for what it is—a sometimes comforting, sometimes devastating house of life and memory.

This brings to mind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” especially the line that says, “every Christmas card showed a perfect family.”

theresa-rockwell1

 

Have you ever been jealous of the families portrayed on the Christmas cards you receive every year? What is it that makes us think no other families have problems? But more importantly—and I think this is part of Moore’s point—what makes us think that we need to “fix” our families? And, in turn, to fix ourselves? What is family? Moore says it is

the nest in which soul is born, nurtured, and released into life…. It is remarkable how often the family is experienced on two levels: the façade of happiness and normality, and the behind-the-scenes reality of craziness and abuse.

Maybe this is why so many of us are enthralled with television shows that center on the craziness and abuse. My favorites? “Saving Grace,” which was a bit too gritty, evidently, and didn’t last. “Law & Order SVU.” “Nashville.” “The Good Wife.” But I also like “Parenthood,” which does an excellent job of portraying the wonderful tragicomedy of family life. Moore says that care of the soul of the family begins with “allowing stories to be told without slipping into interpretations, analysis and conclusions.” He wants us to embrace those stories—with all their shadows—as an integral part of understanding who we are as persons.

I was an overly controlling parent for most of our children’s lives. But as they’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve noticed that whenever we’re all together, they often fall into telling stories from their childhood and adolescence with a type of freedom they weren’t allowed to express growing up. They love to tell us the things they did that we didn’t know about, and their spirits seem light as they exchange knowing looks with each other during the telling. My husband and I join them in their laughter—withholding judgment—and it’s very healing, I think, for all of us.

Care of the Soul by Anthea Slade

Care of the Soul by Anthea Slade

For the remainder of the chapter Moore uses mythology to discuss the importance of the place of father, mother, and child in the life of the family, and symbolically in each individual’s life. Lots of archetypical images and other good stuff that I won’t go into here. (Read the book if you want to go deeper with this.) But the take home for me from his words today is that we are not prisoners of our family history. And neither are our children, which is a liberating thought for those of us who are acutely aware of how badly we screwed up as parents. And so, where can we go from here?

Recovery of soul begins when we can take to heart our own family fate and find in it the raw material, the alchemical prima material, for our own soul work…. To appreciate its shadow as well as its virtue…. If we were to observe the soul in the family by honoring its stories and by not running away from its shadow, then we might not feel so inescapably determined by family influences…. We assume we are ineluctably who we are because of the family in which we grew up. What if we thought of the family less as the determining influence by which we are formed and more the raw material from which we can make a life.

And what if we begin to think this way, even when we’re 62 years old? *smiles and leans back in chair*

Writing on Wednesday: Tea Kettles and Clothespins

 

Simone de Beauvoir at work

Simone de Beauvoir at work

Every stage of the writer’s work—well, maybe I should only speak of my own here—can be crazy-making. Having read dozens of books on writing by writers, and dozens more anecdotes about writers and how they work, the only commonality I find is that most do not live “normal” lives like other good people. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe other people don’t work hard, or don’t keep long hours. I’m married to a scientist, so I’ve lived with his work ethic for almost 43 years. But it’s the writer’s MO that fascinates me.

lbrbAt present I’m juggling several projects: (1) Working with an editor on revisions of my essay for an upcoming anthology; (2) Doing research for a new novel; (3) Working on the first draft of a new novel; (4) Querying agents for my first novel; and (5) Organizing a writing conference which starts on May 2. The first and third projects are the hardest for me. They require a lot of “letting go” so that my right brain can be free to make a big mess during the intuitive, creative process required for writing and revising. Some writers would disagree with me on the creative aspect of the revisions process, seeing it as more of the “craft” than the “art” of writing. But it still requires that same freedom and willingness to be messy. The second, fourth and fifth projects on the list are easier, and in some ways more “fun” for me, because my left brain tends to be a bit stronger than my right. This is probably unusual for a writer, but my analytical, logical side just loves to organize things. Writing a synopsis or an outline for a book is much easier and more fun for me than actually laying down the prose.

And so I enjoy mixing it up a bit. A well-meaning writer friend has strongly encouraged me to back away from social media, conferences, and speaking engagements and just focus on writing. I’ve tried to explain that I’m just not wired that way. I need the rush that organizing and socializing offer. The satisfaction of discussing my writing with other writers and readers. And I feel almost compelled to organize workshops and conferences—to give something back to the writing community that has been the very air that I breathe for many years.

DebBookSo this morning, as I pondered what to share, I found myself returning to a book given to me by a friend twenty-two years ago. On my 40th birthday. I was writing and editing several professional newsletters at the time, and publishing a few freelance articles in magazines, but with three children at home, I hadn’t begun to write “seriously.” I love what she wrote on the inside cover of the book. She didn’t say, “May you publish best-selling novels and become rich and famous.” She said, “May you be blessed with a lot of fun and fulfillment through your love of writing.”

My love of writing.

Do I really love writing? Sometimes, although the process is excruciatingly hard. As other writers have said, I love to have written. Anyway, here’s a wonderful excerpt from that book, given to me in 1991. The book is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. It was first published in 1989. Enjoy her story:

It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world…. Inside the small room, the writer is deeply preoccupied with things hitherto undreamed of. He finds himself inventing wholly new techniques in the service of his art.

Once, for instance, I had an office in the halls of a university English department, which was of course deserted nights and weekends. There I began writing a terrifically abstract book of literary aesthetic theory. The kindly secretaries gave me a key to the faculty lounge so I could boil water for coffee at odd hours. The faculty lounge was around the corner and out of my earshot; it had a sink, a single stove burner, and a teakettle. The first night I used this arrangement I forgot all about the water I was boiling and scorched the kettle….. The secretaries said they would give me another change.

It was a whistling kettle, but the secretaries did not want it to whistle, so they jammed the circular, perforated lid of an old percolator in its mouth. This aluminum lid became a hot item in the teeth of all that steam, so someone had devised a method of removing it with a springy wooden clothespin….

clothes+pinAfter I burned the kettle, I had to discover a method to remind myself that I had water boiling on the stove in the faculty lounge, so I struck the clothespin on my finger. It was, as it happened, a strong clothespin, and I had to move it every twenty seconds. This action, and the pain, kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled…. So this is how I wrote those nights, wrote a book about high holy art: moving a clothespin up and down my increasingly reddened little finger. Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.

Can People Change? (*Revisited)

“People who leave a space for God… can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.”—Dr. Jamie Moran, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World

6a0133ed657604970b0147e3c4fe57970b*Almost three years ago, I did a post here called, “Can People Change?” I didn’t have categories at the time, but if I was writing that post today, it could fit either in “Mental Health Monday” or “Faith on Friday.” I believe that much healing happens at the intersection of psychology and faith, which is where I find myself more and more often. Like today.

I’ve been processing something a friend said to me about a week ago. The process has been difficult, but good. It was something I needed to hear, and it resonated so strongly I haven’t been able to quit thinking about it. I’m trying to let it become part of my psyche. It had to do with a personality trait. When I listen to others, I circle the conversation back to me, relating whatever they’re sharing to something about my own life. It’s really a preoccupation with self. A selfishness (like Dr. Moran addressed in the above quote.) I already knew this about myself, but when my friend mentioned it, I saw it in a different light. In the light of God’s love and grace—which offers hope for change.

Yesterday at St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis, Fr. John Troy Mashburn preached a homily about the cross. About taking up our cross to follow Christ. It was the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross in the Orthodox Church calendar. One thing he said was that part of taking up our cross is breaking bad habits—whether those habits involve unhealthy eating or other patterns we would like to change in ourselves. He said it’s part of our ascetic struggle to work against those habits.

imagesI’ve had discussions with several people over the years about the difference in a bad habit and an addiction. Because of my lifelong struggle with eating disorders, I tend to put food in the “addiction” category. And during times when I drink too much, alcohol gets thrown in there with food. Someone I love is trying to quit a pack-a-day smoking habit right now, and he and I have discussed the possibility that he may always want a cigarette when he drinks, even years after he quits. So for him, surely smoking is more than a “habit.” But I think we sell ourselves short when we call habits addictions for the purpose of excusing ourselves from fighting against them.

As I continued to process my friend’s words (which were spoken with much love and no judgment) about my habit of not listening unselfishly, I wondered if this is something I can change. I began to worry that I have strong narcissistic tendencies. This is a scary thought. My life—and the lives of countless others—has been greatly damaged by narcissistic people. Have I damaged others with my selfishness? I read this article, “The Legacy of Distorted Love,” by Karyl McBride, Ph. D., to learn more about narcissistic traits and examine myself more closely.

And from there, I found Diane England’s web site called, “About Narcissism, Addictions and Abuse.” In one of her posts, “The Authentic vs. the False Self of the Narcissist,” she talks about how people with narcissistic personality disorder (to a greater or lesser degree on the spectrum) create false selves or masks:

Those living as false selves are driven by ghosts from the past. They are often striving to live up to the expectations of others, or else they do things and live in a way that will make them feel better about themselves.

art by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com)

art by Jef Murray www.jefmurray.com

I’ve struggled with masks all my life. But I’ve never understood, until now, that I probably use those masks to cover the insecurity I feel as a person because of the sexual abuse I suffered. My friend who lovingly held up a mirror to me was helping me to begin to remove one of my masks.

I had the opportunity to have coffee with one friend since that conversation, and lunch with another. During both of these visits, I was consciously aware of my tendency (bad habit? narcissistic trait?) and so I made an effort to listen more carefully, without thinking about how what the person was saying related to me, and my own issues. Of course there were times when our conversations blended smoothly because of our shared interests (like writing) or common personal struggles. But at other times, I found myself holding back something I wanted to say about myself, and spending more time listening. And guess what? I found myself feeling more empathy for the person who was speaking, and less concern for myself. Wow. (As Anne Lamott would say.)

5-simon-of-cyreania-helps-jesus-carry-the-cross

from DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun: http://degrazia.org/

I’m sure I’ll have more dark nights of the soul ahead of me, but for today, I will take encouragement from this final paragraph in Dr. McBride’s article:

One interesting factor is this: If you are taking this test… and asking accountability questions…you are not likely a narcissist! Breathe deeply again! Go to Yoga, pass Go, Collect a bunch of hugs!

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