Faith on Friday: God For Us

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With the celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s only a month behind us, Christians are already looking ahead to the beginning of a more somber season—Great Lent. For Orthodox Christians, this begins on March 3—aka “Clean Monday.” But the weeks leading up to the beginning of Lent are also a time of preparation in the Orthodox Church. Here’s a calendar that shows all the liturgical events for 2014. (On a related note: Western Easter and Orthodox Pascha land on the same date this year—April 20.)

bright-sadThose of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I struggle with Lent, most especially with the aspect of fasting. But also with the services and prayers being so long. I do love the minor tones, the darkened, candle-lit nave, and certain prayers that help the soul enter into the “bright sadness” of the season, though.

god-for-us-rediscovering-the-meaning-of-lent-and-easter-7Since I read lots of secular books throughout the year, I thought I would try to read something spiritual

 

during Lent this year, as I’ve done in the past. But I want something with a positive spin. I’m hoping the book I just ordered—God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter—will fit the bill. One of the editors is Orthodox (Greg Pennoyer) and one of the contributors, my friend Scott Cairns, is also Orthodox.  The others are writing more from a Western point of view. I’m looking forward to the book. Watch for posts with quotes during the Lenten season.

A couple of other books on Great Lent that I’ve read in the past—both from the Orthodox tradition—are listed here, if you’re interested.

Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann (read exerpts here)

The Lenten Spring by Thomas Hopko

I’d love to hear about other good books for reading during Lent. I nead to shore up my spiritual muscles and seek the Kingdom of Heaven. Like Flannery O’Conner said, the violent bear it away. Oh, wait, I think she got that from Jesus (Matthew 11:12).

Writing on Wednesday: Fumbling, Tumbling and Finishing

Okay, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I just signed up for Tumblr. My page is here: http://susancushman.tumblr.com/.

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I don’t get the purpose of the site, so if any of my readers can enlighten me, please do! I only signed up because I wanted to see something that was on there, and suddenly, it was asking me all these questions and saying to click here to download pictures and bam! It’s done. But I wrote captions to go with each picture and now I don’t see the captions—where are they?

Meanwhile I seriously don’t need another site to manage, so I should probably just ignore it, right? Because what I should be doing with my time is FINISHING MY NOVEL! My friend, River Jordan, had a great post on Monday called “The Art of Finishing.” Reading it yesterday morning inspired me and I spent several hours on the novel. I’m writing a brand new chapter flat dab in the middle of the book, where the plot was sagging. I think I like it so far, but the changes affect everything that happens in the second half of the book, which means more revisions to do. Hard work, but if I don’t finish it, it won’t be a book. And it’s worthy of finishing, so thanks for the kick in the butt, River!

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Word_Formatting_TimeBack to fumbling… in addition to my confusion over how to use Tumblr yesterday, I ran into a technical problem with Word that I experienced a few months ago. The word count and page numbers used to appear at the bottom of each page automatically (not as a footer to be printed, but in the background), and they aren’t there now. I’ve looked at “View” and “Format” until I’m blue in the face and I can’t get it back to the way it was? Any help on this would be greatly appreciated, folks!

 

HIP FLEXOR STRETCH MET SIDELYING

 

Today I’m off to physical therapy (for my neck) and to my massage therapist (she’s also doing myofascial release work on my hip flexor) so I don’t have time for a long post. But I really would love to hear back if you’ve got answers for the Word question or the Tumblr question. Thanks!

Mental Health Monday: Dancing With Goats, Carole King & Sara Bareilles

MuttsCoffeeI woke up foggy-brained, feeling as though I was treading water in mud. Complex dreams faded, just out of reach, before I could remember them and write them down. As light rays filtered through the blinds in our bedroom, the realities of my life filtered in with them. We have to find a place to live in the immediate future. My husband is having surgery on February 13. Other pressing issues fought for purchase in my awakening mind. It is Monday morning, and I don’t have a clue what I’m going to write for my Mental Health Monday blog post. And then it hit me: I need coffee.

It’s not a caffeine addiction—I drink decaf—it’s the aroma, the taste, the feel of the hot beverage on a scratchy morning throat. And yes, decaf does have some caffeine. And I get my caffeine boost in my Coke habit (the soft drink). So where is this going? To the kitchen where I sat down at the table with my first cup of coffee and read the comics. My husband loves the comics, and he often shares one with me that he thinks will make me smile. Especially Arlo and Janis, who are, of course, mirror images of all of us.

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By the time I made my second cup, the fog had lifted and I was ready to face the day. But I’ll never know if it was the coffee or the comics that did it. I sit down at my computer (it’s COLD today and I’m wanting a third cup of coffee) but then I get up and get a cup of Cafe Caramel (we have a Keurig) but then I remember it has caffeine. Hmmm, I’ll have to cut down on Coke today if I drink this. I begin to do a bit of research on coffee and mental health. I can’t find anything new or exciting on the web… just a few old articles that deal mostly with caffeine and mental health.

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And then I find this delightful blog post about the origin of coffee. Did you know coffee was discovered by goats in Ethiopia? I love this picture of the goats and the shepherd dancing after eating coffee beans. And now my brain is clear and I’m ready to face the day… to deal with insurance and medical bills and the house search and exercises for my neck and hip … and maybe, just maybe, get some more work done on novel revisions. If I can restrain myself from dancing.

Dancing Goats by Jennifer Mac

Dancing Goats by Jennifer Mac

P.S. On a related note, did anyone else love the duet that Sara Bareilles and Carole King did on the Grammys last night? It was an amazing medley of their hit songs, “Brave” and “Beautiful.” I actually got up off the couch and started singing with them and dancing around the room. Yes. By the time the song was over my eyes were filled with tears. And I wasn’t even drinking coffee. Or alcohol, for that matter.

Need a lift? WATCH THIS VIDEO!

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You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart!

Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live. Maybe one day you can let the light in…. I just wanna see you be brave.

Happy Mental Health Monday, everyone!

Faith on Friday: Courage and Kindness in Kiev and Syria

Ortohdox priest Kiev

 

I’m sure by now everyone has seen this image of an Orthodox priest standing between the police and protesters in Kiev. There are many more images I could share, but this one struck me as a powerful picture of courage. Of faith. I’m sure this video only captures a small picture of what is happening there. I’ve never lived in a war zone. My faith has never been tested in this way, but I don’t think I would be so brave.

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And with the world watching Sochi and the security issues surrounding the upcoming Olympic Games, I think it’s important not to forget those suffering in Syria. Our Orthodox parish here in Memphis recently participated with other parishes within the Antiochian Orthodox Church here in America to send aid to help the orphans of war in Syria. One account says that over four million Syrian children have been displaced throughout the country, thousands of them arriving in refugee camps without family.

article-0-14A1D72F000005DC-393_472x344Our parish recently sent donations, but there are ways individuals can help. Check out  SyrianOrphans.org, an organization that works inside Syria to hand deliver food to orphans and to help provide shelter.

It’s hard to watch the news these days. But once we see these images, aren’t we responsible to help? Isn’t that part of what faith does? Whether or not we can be brave, surely we can show kindness.

Writing on Wednesday: A Festschrift to Phyllis Tickle

phyllis-tickle-evangelist-of-the-future-2I learned a new word last night. And no, I wasn’t playing Scrabble with Corey Mesler. I was attending a reading/signing at The Booksellers at Laurelwood here in Memphis. And the word was festschrift. It’s a collection of essays honoring someone—often an academic—while they’re still alive. (If it’s done after they die, it’s called a gedenkschrift.) So there’s another new word.  And in Latin, the words liber amicorum are often used for such a book. I like this because it means “book of friends.”

The festschrift usually is a reflection by these friends on the honoree’s contributions to his or her field. Last night, the honoree was Phyllis Tickle, whom I had not met. And one of the “friends” who contributed to the book—Phyllis Tickle: Evangelist of the Future—is my friend and fellow Memphis author, Sybil MacBeth.

Sybil and Phyllis

Sybil MacBeth and Phyllis Tickle reading at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, January 21, 2014.

Sybil is one of a dozen or so contributors to the festschrift. She hosted the reading last night, and she’s also part of our Memphis Writers Group which has been meeting socially (and some of the group meets for manuscript critique) for a couple of years now. She did a great job of reading excerpts and summarizing Tickle’s work. And she also read from her own chapter in the book, “Mothering an Author Through the Birth of a Book: Phyllis Tickle as Doula.” Sybil met Tickle in 2001, when Tickle was the keynote speaker at a Christian education conference called “Spirituality in the 21st Century.” As Sybil says:

During her plenary sessions Phyllis took the whole room on a journey of history, spirituality, science, physics, and sociology. Through narrative and storytelling chronicles we heard a memoir of our Church family—relatives of the past and those just being born—with all its dysfunctional familial clashes. I took copious notes in my black marble Mead composition book; she barely used a note. She was brilliant and articulate, funny and insightful.

I could tell that about Ms. Tickle from her brief comments last night, which left me wanting to hear more from her.

indexAs I reflect on the evening, I realize that I actually learned another new word—emergence. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with the word, emergence. It’s that I hadn’t heard it used in a religious context: emergence Christianity, the emergent frontier, the emerging church. Tickle wrote a book about the movement called The Great Emergence. This talk, given by Tickle in 2008, reminds me somewhat of my own spiritual journey in its early stages, about forty years ago, with the group that ended up in the Orthodox Church.

When we met and I asked her to sign my copy of the festschrift (I’m trying to memorize this word) I told her that I wasn’t familiar with the emerging church movement, but that I was a convert from the Presbyterian faith of my childhood to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Not missing a beat, she smiled and said “well, that was quite an emergence!” I’m intrigued by this charming stateswoman, and I look forward to reading some of her work.

Mental Health Monday: A Disastrous Garden of Souls

indexBest-selling author, Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, Beach Music, South of Broad, and more) says, in The Death of Santini, that he has been clinically depressed most of his adult life. He explains why as he reflects back on his family’s “hazardous equilibrium,” saying that it was “a family in extreme breakdown … a family where great love and loyalty could grow even in such a disastrous garden of souls.”

Pat Conroy and me, January, 2010

Pat Conroy and me, January, 2010

The Prince of Tides is probably my favorite book. Ever. It’s right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird,  Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and all of Mary Karr and Augusten Burroughs’ books. I’ve read all of Conroy’s books, and had the wonderful treat of meeting him in person a few years ago. He struck me as a man who had survived a shipwreck with incredible grace and humility. He describes that shipwreck through his fictional characters in his novels. The Great Santini focuses especially on his father, and The Death of Santini is his nonfiction account of “the rest of the story.” It’s not a book for people who want to read about happy families. As Conroy says:

I don’t believe in happy families. A family is too frail a vessel to contain the risks of all the warring impulses expressed when such a group meets on common ground…. The crimes of a father or the carelessness of a mother can defile the taste of oyster dressing and giblet gravy on the brightest Thanksgiving Day…. Since the melancholy of families has remained a constant theme of my books, I often encounter readers and friends who strive at great lengths to convince me that they emerged from homes of stalwart happiness and unbreakable harmony. Taking care, I always congratulate them on their great good fortune and tell them how lucky and how rare they are in this troublesome world. The happy family is one of the treasured romances of the American epic.

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The Conroy family 1965. Back row: Jim, Carol, Pat, Kathy, Mike. Front: Peg, Tim, Tom, Don.

 

If you’re one of the lucky few who emerged from a happy and healthy family, you might not enjoy The Death of Santini. But those of us who survived—and are still surviving—abuse and other forms of dysfunction in our families of origin can find much insight and yes, even healing, from Conroy’s words.

There is one crazy that belongs to each of us: the brother who kills the spirit of any room he enters; the sister who’s a drug addict in her teens and marries a series of psychopaths… the neurotic mother who’s so demanding that the sound of her voice over the phone can cause instant nausea in her daughters…. As far as I can tell, every family produces its solitary misfit, its psychotic mirror image of all the ghosts summoned out of the small or large hells of childhood, the spiller of the apple cart, the jack of spades, the black-hearted knight, the shit stirrer, the sibling with the uncontrollable tongue, the father brutal by habit, the uncle who tried to feel up his nieces, the aunt too neurotic ever to leave home. Talk to me all you want about happy families, but let me loose at a wedding or a funeral and I’ll bring you back the family crazy. They’re that easy to find.

forgivingWhat’s not so easy to find, though, is the incredible forgiveness and love that flows through Conroy’s broken family. I’m sure there are countless other readers who will come away from this book, as I did, thinking, “Wow. My family wasn’t as fucked up as I thought.” And more importantly, with a new hope for letting go of the anger and resentment that can ruin a person’s life. A hope of finally being able to forgive. As Conroy says near the end of the book:

Mom and Dad, though I won’t come this way again, I hope that your strong souls rest in peace. Though I will not write about your again, I would like you to take note that I still find both of you amazing, my portals into the light, and a myth and a narrative told in the rich mysteries of art.

The rich mysteries of art. And of  forgiveness. As he wrote in The Prince of Tides:

In families, there are no crimes that cannot be forgiven.

Faith on Friday: Scotch Oatmeal Cookies and Erotic Thought—The Interior Life of Flannery O’Connor

image-5519Back in November I mentioned that Flannery O’Connor’s personal prayer journal had been discovered and was to be published. This week I received a copy of this journal as a gift, and oh, my, what a gift it is! She kept the journal between 1946 and 1947 while she was at the University of Iowa. I love so many things about this. On a personal note, I kept a prayer journal during the year I spent at Ole Miss (1969-70) which I’ve read several times since then, but I’m not sure which box it’s in now. This makes me want to dig it out!

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The book has her prayers transcribed and typed in the front half, but then it shows her handwritten pages as they actually appeared in the journal. (Here’s an entertaining “review” of the book in The Rumpus.)

 

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Artwork by Ande Cook. See more at andecookstudio.com

Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one. Let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.” Help me to get what is more than natural into my work—help me to love & bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service. I would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.

61UXe9HcVCLAs I read her journal entries, I’m filled with hope. She reminds me not to give up on myself. Or on God. The journal ends with these two sentences:

Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.

And then, following two blank pages, she has drawn these musical notes.

notes

 

I would love to know what music was going through her soul when she wrote those notes.

Writing on Wednesday: One-Armed Priests and Armless Iconographers

Remember when “Wordless Wednesday” posts were in vogue? If you’d rather not take the time to read my post today, just look at this picture. But if you want to know more about it, please read on.

 armless iconographer

 

On Monday I wrote about my “handicap” status being upgraded, and my husband’s rotater cuff injury and upcoming surgery. He came home from having lunch with our pastor and assistant pastor the other day (Bill/Father Basil is the associate pastor at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis) and told me about an anecdote the assistant pastor had shared. But first a bit of background.

Father Basil tossing bay leaves on Holy Saturday

Father Basil tossing bay leaves and rose petals on Holy Saturday

As a priest in the Orthodox Church, one of his duties is to cense the altar, icons, and the congregation (several times) during the Liturgy. He uses his right arm to swing the censer as he walks through the nave. Another duty is to serve communion, which involves lifting the chalice up above his head with both hands during the pre-communion prayers, and of course to hold the chalice with one hand while serving the sacrament with the other. All of these actions require the ability to lift both arms. He can’t lift his right arm more than a few inches, so he has taken a leave from being the celebrant in Divine Liturgy for a while.

Back to the anecdote. Evidently somewhere in the canons of the Church there’s one that says a bishop cannot ordain a one-armed priest. And now we know why. Of course I Googled this and only found this piece, which is about a Catholic priest, rather than an Orthodox one. It says that a priest must have both hands to be ordained, but in this case—like my husband’s—the priest had lost the use of one arm due to surgery. He had been serving mass with one arm, with assistance in distributing communion. Father John Zuhlfdorf, the author of the blog post, replied to the question in this way:

Validity of Mass, or any other sacrament, does not depend on the number of limbs the priest can use. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there is still a requirement that a man have both hands or his thumb and index fingers to be ordained. That was the case in the past, however. So, Mass is still both valid and licit in this case.

Interesting, but not applicable to my husband’s situation. Besides, he’s in quite a bit of pain, so it’s a good thing he’s not the only priest in our parish.

On a (somewhat) similar note, yesterday I found this amazing photograph of an iconographer with no arms, writing (the “correct” term for painting icons) an icon. I’m trying to get more information about who she is, but haven’t been successful yet. Having written icons for a number of years myself, I am amazed that she is able to do this by painting using a brush in her mouth. Yes, I know that there have been other artists who do this, but it still amazes me.

revise_you_know_you_want_to_but_dont_end_tshirt-p235024334726587113t5tr_400By now those of you who pay attention to my blog themes might be wondering what all this has to do with writing—the theme for my Wednesday posts. It’s a very loose connection. Yesterday I spent some time working on revisions on my novel—something I’ve struggled to find the physical and mental energy to do for the past six months, since my accident, surgeries and rehab, which continues next week with physical therapy for my neck. I know that I was truly not able to do any writing for the first couple of months after the accident, but as I began to write blog posts again and to spend a good bit of time on Facebook, I became aware that my physical and mental capacities were definitely improving. Sure, I get tired easily. And yes, I have pain. Every day. But I don’t believe the task ahead of me could possibly be more difficult than writing icons with a paintbrush in my mouth.

CB revisions

Working on the “sagging middle” of my novel yesterday….

So, I think the bottom line is how badly I want to do this. You’re probably sick and tired of hearing me talk about this because I’ve been struggling to get back into the novel for a couple of months now. Hopefully I can take inspiration from this iconographer and the many other “disabled artists” who overcome their pain and handicaps in order to do their art. No more excuses. That novel is not going to write/revise itself.

Mental Health Monday: Remember What Scarlett Said

handicap tagThis coming Sunday marks the end of my six months of “disability.” Or at least the end of my being able to park in handicap parking spaces. My tag runs out on January 19. And truthfully, I don’t really need it any more. I can walk across a parking lot if I don’t get a spot near the door. It’s time to give up those spaces to someone who needs them more. (But I’ll admit I’m a little spoiled. Like Saturday night in the pouring down rain when we went to the movie at Ridgeway Four and got a handicap spot right near the door.)

1524655_10202399889872418_861223171_nIt makes sense. Last Tuesday I had my six-month check up at the neurosurgeon’s office. He said I no longer have to wear the neck brace (yea!) and I’ll start physical therapy for my neck soon. I’ve been finished with physical therapy for my leg for several weeks now. I still have pain. Every day. But walking is good for me, so I’m happy to give up the handicap tag.

Stress and uncertainty, on the other hand, don’t seem to be helping. Here’s where the stress is coming from:

We’ve been leasing a home here in Harbor Town (neighborhood on the Mississippi River in Memphis) for two years. Our lease is up this coming Thursday, so we’ve been looking for another house for a few months now—one with a downstairs master bedroom—and we want to stay in Harbor Town. We had found a wonderful house with everything we need (and love) just down the street, but the owners told us today that the house they were trying to buy out of town just fell through, so they aren’t ready to sell or lease their Harbor Town house to us.

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It was about a month ago when we looked at it and told them we were definitely interested, so this came as a blow. Our landlord is being very patient, but he wants to sell this house, and we don’t want to buy it, for numerous reasons, but mostly because it doesn’t have a downstairs master bedroom. (Two months sleeping in a rented hospital bed in my downstairs office brought about our commitment to that.)

So… we don’t know where we’re going to be living in a few months.

rotator-cuff-surgery-bangkokAnd… my husband is having rotater cuff surgery on February 13. Yes, one month from today. (He fell on the ice on our front steps a few weeks ago.) Neither of us can lift things, so we’ll be hiring packers for our move. Once we have a house to move into. And he will be facing up to a year or more of rehab after the surgery.

As a Christian, I was taught that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. So I guess we can handle this. But I admit to being anxious. It’s just hard to turn the brain off with so much uncertainty on the horizon. I know I wrote about some of this last Monday, but that was before I knew we didn’t have a place to move, so my anxiety level is definitely up. And yes, I’m trying to remember my “word” (mindfulness) for 2014!

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And when that doesn’t work, I’ll try to remember what Scarlett said.

Faith on Friday: Keeping the Sacramental Whisper Alive

1239994_648261318541425_116423773_nGregory Wolfe has an excellent two-part article in the online journal, Image, (of which he is editor) this week called “The Contemporary Novel of Belief.” You can read it on the Image blog, “Good Letters,” here:

Part 1

Part 2

The article interests me on several fronts. Initially my interest was piqued because Wolfe is writing about Paul Elie, the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a braided biography of four American Catholic authors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. As a Christian, and as an author, these writers interest me greatly. (Here goes the old argument: notice that I said “as a Christian and as an author,” not “as a Christian author.” I’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

Elie says

… what we lack today is fiction set in the present moment that is centrally about the struggle with belief.

Wolfe says

… the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth.

The point is Wolfe and Elie have been bantering back and forth since Elie’s essay in the New York Times (December 2012) “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Wolfe wrote a reply in the Wall Street Journal (January 2013), “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World.”

flower girls_thumb[2]In “Whispers of Faith,” Wolfe says:

Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted. Perhaps a new Flannery O’Connor will rise, but meanwhile we might try listening more closely to the still, small voice that is all around us.

And later he says:

Indeed, there is something deeply sacramental in the notion that faith inheres in the ordinary, the quotidian stuff of work and family. It might even be argued that the natural language of faith within the arts is precisely the sacramental whisper.

The novel I’m currently revising is shot through with characters struggling with belief. And they are mostly artists. My prose isn’t of the same caliber as Mary Karr or Annie Dillard—only two of many contemporary authors who write about this struggle with belief—but I’m doing my best to keep the sacramental whisper alive in modern fiction.

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[In addition to Image, Wolfe founded the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program. He’s the author of numerous books, including Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age.]

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