About a month ago I wrote about a festscrift (which was a brand new word for me) to Phyllis Tickle. In case you missed that post, a festscrift is a collection of essays honoring someone. The collection I’m writing about today—Timely … Timeless: 25 Years at Eighth Day Books—honors a bookstore rather than a person. And today’s post is a reflection on one of the essays included in the collection.
Eighth Day Books is one of our country’s great independent bookstores. It opened in 1988 in Wichita, Kansas. I visited 8th Day a couple of times in the past, and I can contest to its wonderful atmosphere, informed and welcoming staff, and terrific selection of books. In 2013 the bookstore celebrated its 25th anniversary by publishing a wonderful collection of essays by folks like the poet, Scott Cairns, award-winning children’s author Clare Vanderpool and 28 others. But it’s Carolyn Ballinger’s essay that captured my heart and best speaks to the spiritual side of Eighth Day Books.
Ballinger’s essay is titled, “A haven of peace in a world addicted to sensory overload.”
She compares the atmosphere at Eighth Day Books to the wardrobe entrance to Narnia, “where you can sense that you are standing in a holy place, on the threshold of something beyond earthly knowledge.”
Wow. I wonder how many bookstores have been called a holy place? She continues:
Eighth Day Books is an example of sanctification by the gathering of people who are dedicated to growth into God’s will—people who have turned themselves over to the working of the Holy Spirit in their daily lives, who are quietly, steadfastly allied with God in the process of holy creation.
It’s interesting that she writes these words about the customers. The visitors to this holy place. But she also includes the folks who work there:
Warren (the owner) and his staff will spend all the time in the world helping you find what you are looking for, even if you don’t know what that is. You can sit quietly and read, or study, or think, thus allowing yourself to enter into the intangible, which at Eighth Day seems nearby and easily accessible.
Okay, I think those statements are true about many wonderful independent bookstores throughout the country. I know they are true about Burke’s Books in Memphis, Lemuria in Jackson (Mississippi) and Square Books in Oxford (Mississippi). But here’s where Eighth Day presents a different, decidedly spiritual presence, at least in the mind and heart of Carolyn Ballinger:
Eighth Day is a haven of peace in a world addicted to sensory overload. The powers of evil are very much at work today, keeping us distracted and numb, giving us the illusion that we are multitasking when really we are only living in ‘fast forward,’ a state which prevents us from thinking or listening with care to other people…. The name Eighth Day means (among other things) a time and a place to rest. It is a time and a place to enter more fully into being, to immerse yourself into whatever things are true and honest, good and pure and beautiful.
Think on these things. (And thanks for the book, Hannah!)
Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.
Those are the closing sentences in Nashville author, Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life,” which was first published in Byliner in September of 2011. Now it appears—along with 20 other essays—as a chapter in her recently published book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Whether or not you’ve read any of Patchett’s six novels or three works of nonfiction, if you’re a writer, or even an avid reader of good writing, you’ll love this book. I’ll listen to someone with her track record. In addition to publishing award-winning writing, Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. I’m only part-way through reading the book, but I thought I’d pause and share a few jewels today. Three, actually.
First one: SET THE BAR HIGH
One more thing to think about when putting a novel together: make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three. I raise the bar with every book I write, making sure I’m doing something that is uncomfortably beyond what I can manage. It’s the only way I know to improve over time, and going back to Russell Banks’s advice, I’m the only person who can make myself do better work.
This was so encouraging to me, as I already feel stretched with my first novel, Cherry Bomb. Not so much in the concept, or even the research and original drafts. But in the revision stage, which I’m muddling through with great difficulty. On days when I feel I’m not up to the challenge, I’m going to try to remember Pathett’s advice.
Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off. But don’t give ‘putting if off’ a magic label. Writer’s block is out of our control, like a blocked kidney. We are not responsible. We are, however, entirely responsible for procrastination and, in the best of all possible worlds, should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what’ really going on…. What this means is that I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one—writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it, but if you’ve read this far, you must be pretty interested in writing yourself, and if you are, well, you know what I’m talking about.)
Third nugget: FORGIVENESS IS THE KEY TO MAKING ART
Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life….
I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore is the key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life, I will forgive myself.
This was a new concept for me. That I need to forgive myself for my inadequacies in my work as an artist, as a writer. But I think Patchett is on to something here. As she says, this fear keeps people from becoming writers. I’m so glad she didn’t give in to it, and I am now determined not to give in to it. I will forgive myself and write on!
And beyond the writing, I love what she says about how forgiveness is “very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
I’ve been in physical therapy since October. First it was for my leg/ankle, which were broken last July. Having spent three months with no weight-bearing on the right leg, I needed a lot of help getting back to walking.
In January I did a few weeks of P.T. for my neck, which was also broken last July. My pain level in my neck and shoulders is pretty manageable most days, although my range of motion is limited.
On January 29 I started a third round of P.T. This time it’s for my right hip/gluts. Evidently I aggravated this area during the months I was lying in bed with external fixation (metal rods) sticking out of my leg, and later with a cast. I hopped around on one leg for a few months, and when I began walking, I limped.
So here I am, almost eight months since my wreck and surgeries, and I’m in pain. Every day. Almost every step I take. Sometimes it wakes me up at night. This weekend my husband and I went for a couple of long walks here in our beautiful neighborhood on the Mississippi River. The weather was gorgeous, and it lifted our spirits greatly. But every step I took sent pain through my hip and buttocks. And later my ankle also started hurting.
I haven’t taken any pain meds since last July, and I don’t plan to. I want to learn to manage this with physical therapy, massage therapy, heat and ice, stretching and strengthening exercises, and rest. But it sure does wear on me, mentally and emotionally, at times. So I decided to do a little reading about chronic pain. Here are two links, in case any of you are also dealing with this:
How to Cope With Chronic Pain offers some good advice. Click on the link to read more about:
Accepting the pain.
Keeping a pain journal.
Talking about it.
Getting your grief out.
Being mindful of what helps and what hurts.
The experience of the pain can either be one of suffering (“this is unbearable”) or one of tolerance and existence (“my pain slows me down but I won’t let it stop me”). The difference is a state of mind, not a state of physical injury. Physical limits exist, but how people face them is a choice.
This was helpful to me, so I read further in the same article:
In addition, a person’s personality traits, social supports, life history, substance use, spiritual perspective and life stressors all impact the level of pain experienced—your reaction to difficult circumstances can be changed, with help.
A third article discusses the relationship between pain and depression:
When pain lasts longer than a few weeks, areas of the spinal cord change their physiology, and ‘learn’ to maintain the pain, even if you don’t want it. Similarly, long-standing depression changes your brain, reducing the amount of grey matter in important regions. Depression can be the result of pain, and pain can be the result of depression.
So, as I continue to do whatever I can do help minimize the pain, I’m also going to try to react to it differently. Distractions help, and I’ve got plenty of them to keep my mind of the pain as much as possible—helping my husband as he continues to recover from rotator cuff surgery (11 days ago), preparing for a visit from my daughter and granddaughter (in two weeks), and preparing for our MOVE, in 40 days! But even in my caregiving, grandmothering, and move organizing, I know I need to pace myself in order to manage the pain. I just remembered that my “One Word” for 2014 is mindfulness.
This coming Sunday is known in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of the Last Judgment, or “Judgment Sunday.” It’s one of the Sundays leading up to the beginning of Great Lent. You can see the names of each Sunday in the Lenten and Paschal cycle here. You can read a (rather long) article by Fr. Thomas Hopko on Judgment Sunday, or listen to his podcast, here. He emphasizes that in the end, God will welcome those into His Kingdom based on this:
I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in, you welcomed me. I was naked; you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison; you came to me.
I love this, because almsgiving is the one part of the Lenten “tripod” (the other two parts being prayer and fasting) that I can most easily embrace. It’s an activity in which I interact with other human beings, rather than with myself (fasting) or with God (prayer).
Just this past week I had two such interactions, and each one taught me something different. The first was with a man holding a sign at a busy intersection. The signed said “Hungry.” I quickly looked in my purse and found I had no cash. Then I remembered that I had a couple of “care packages” which our church had assembled, so I handed one out the window to the man.
“I’m so sorry I don’t have any cash right now,” I said. “But there are a few items in here that might help you.”
He smiled as he took the bag and said, “Oh, thank you ma’am.”
“I’m Susan.” I offered him my hand.
He took my hand and shook it gently. “I’m ___________.”
“Nice to meet you. Please pray for me.”
“And for me.”
It was a short interaction, but one with a very real human connection.
A few days later a woman approached my car as I was leaving a parking lot. She began to cry and share her story. I listened for a few minutes—not because my almsgiving would be based on her story, but just to show her I cared about the things she was saying—and then I handed her a $20 bill. Thinking she would respond the way the gentleman to whom I had given the care package did, I was surprised when, instead of thanking me, she began to beg for more money. I wasn’t sure what my response “should” be, but I finally told her that $20 would be enough for two nights at the Union Mission (which was only a few blocks away) or for about 8 meals there. She began to argue about needing money for the bus to get to the mission, and I reminded her that the $20 was enough for that, also. Sad that she seemed angry rather than thankful, I rolled up my window and drove away, feeling that I could not do enough for her. I’m still a bit frustrated about that encounter, but we are both broken human beings, and so our relations are often messy.
There’s an excerpt from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book, Great Lent, here. His words struck me:
When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable answers: love–not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous ‘poor’ but concrete and personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life.
Like the man and the woman I encountered on the streets this past week. I’m afraid I didn’t love the woman enough. Maybe I’ll do better next time.
Judgment Sunday is also called “Meatfare Sunday” because it’s the last day to eat meat as we enter the Lenten fast. (The following Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday, is the last day to eat dairy products.) For 40 days. Yes.
As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, fasting is one part of our spiritual tradition that I struggle with. I know that it’s supposed to be a struggle—for those who embrace it—but my struggle has to do with why and whether or not to embrace it. If you want to catch up:
“Lent Light” from March, 2013
This week I’ve eaten lots of meat (much more than I normally do) and other rich foods. It’s not that I’m “storing up” the fat my body will need when/if I enter into the fast. It’s just that my husband had surgery a week ago, and people gave us food, and I also have cooked “comfort foods” for his recovery, like pot roast with rice and gravy, spaghetti with meat sauce. Today I’m actually looking forward to eating less. But I’m not sure it’s a spiritual feeling so much as a physical one. I feel fat and uncomfortable and I want to feel (and be) lighter. Maybe it’s all related. Maybe I will try to eat less meat this Lent. But more importantly, I’m going to try to lighten the burdens of the people around me.
I love Iris Dement’s song, “My Life.” (Watch her sing it here.)
I gave joy to my mother,
And I made my lover smile,
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting
And I can make it seem better for awhile.
As the Prophet Isaiah said:
Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your home the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
And your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall be before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
I’ve had several folks ask if I plan to direct any workshops or conferences in 2014. And if not, are there some I would recommend. I’m in the throes of finishing revisions on my novel, still recovering from my wreck and surgery, and now, nursing my husband after his surgery. We’re moving in April (same neighborhood but still a busy event). And in May we’ve got our week at the beach with our kids and grands, and then a few days in New York City for ASH (American Society of Hypertension) at which my husband will speak. By the time summer rolls around, I might be able to take a breath and consider what I’m doing for the rest of 2014!
In November, I listed workshops and conferences I have personally participated in. So, here are a few workshops and conferences you might consider if you’re looking for some writing-related learning opportunities in 2014:
Write & Publish Your Book: A 2-Day Workshop with Neil White, February 28 and March 1, in Jackson, Mississippi. (Click the link for more info. There might be a spot or two left in this one. This will be a TERRIFIC workshop!)
The YOK Shop (formerly known as the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers’ Workshop) will be held May 30-June 1 in Oxford, Mississippi. I attended this workshop 6 summers in a row, so I can attest to how wonderful it is! Directed by Neal Walsh, with manuscript critique workshop leader, Scott Morris, and some other terrific faculty, including Julie Cantrell, Ace Atkins and Sean Innis . Click here to see photos from the 2012 workshop. Click here to register. Only 20 people are accepted in order to give each participant’s work plenty of attention! (Read about the 2012 workshop, my last to attend.)
River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, May 30-June 1, in Ashland, Ohio. This will be great for folks focusing on creative nonfiction books, essays, memoir, etc. Click the link for more information.
2 Glen Workshops: Glen East, June 8-15, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. And Glen West, August 3-10, Saint John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico. My friend, Scott Cairns, is on the faculty at the West conference this summer. Both conferences have a strong spiritual element, with emphases on the arts, and both are sponsored by Image Journal.
Alabama Writers Conclave Conference, July 11-13, Fairhope, Alabama. Rick Bragg will be writer-in-residence for this conference.
Sewanee Writers’ Conference, July 22-August 3, Sewanee, Tennessee. (Click the link to read about the faculty, schedule, how to register, etc.)
I did a post about a month ago, “Remember What Scarlett Said,” where I shared some of my anxiety about our housing situation. Well, last week the anxiety shot up the charts as the house we’ve been leasing for two years just sold and we were given our 60-day notice.
We have to move by April 15 and have no place to go!
Of course we received this news the day after my husband’s surgery, when he was in quite a bit of pain, which compounded our worries.
We had three houses “in the queue”—two for sale and one for lease. We really wanted House #1 because it has a downstairs master bedroom. Every step I take going up those stairs sends pain through some part of my body. We made an offer on the house, hoping she wouldn’t counter too high for our budget. Meanwhile, we lost House #2 to someone else, and the owner of House #3 (the rental) has others interested, but she was “holding” it for us… for a little while. Houses #2 and 3 didn’t have downstairs bedrooms, but at this point we were anxious about having a place to move in 60 days.
So, yesterday afternoon—as we were trying to distract ourselves from our worries (and my husband’s post-op pain) by watching an exciting golf tournament on TV, the text came on my iPhone: the owner of House#1 had accepted our latest offer! We are closing on April 5… 10 days before we have to move out of our current house!
Imagine our joy and thankfulness as we received this news. It’s a lovely home right here in Harbor Town, close to the one we’re currently living in. Close to neighbors we’ve gotten to know and grown to love since we moved into the neighborhood two years ago.
So here we are again—on the other side of worry—asking ourselves what good it did to be so anxious. I guess it’s only human, but I know worrying never helps. It only sucks your energy and increases your emotional and physical pain. Maybe one day we’ll learn not to worry. And today, we’ll just be thankful.
There are lots of stories about Saint Valentine, but I like the one about the third century Christian martyr, Valentius.
And here’s another story of the “Orthodox Saint Valentine” that might interest you.
And for my writing buddies… if you’re interested in writing love stories, or just including some good romance in whatever kind of stories you write, you might enjoy Jessica Morrell’s post from last year, “Write From Your Soft Parts.”
That’s all I’ve got for today. Hope you’re enjoying some lovely roses or delicious chocolates… or maybe a delicious meal or a great book. Our day was blessed by these gifts from our granddaughters (see below).
May your day be blessed, through the prayers of Saint Valentine.
I’ve got a doctor appointment AND physical therapy this morning, so I’m going to “cheat” a little bit on this blog post. Actually, I’m just going to share two posts by my friend, the wonderful writer and teacher, Lee Martin:
Here’s an excerpt from #8:
What if?… Often it’s best to take countless trips around my first idea. I’ve learned not to trust it. I’ve learned that something better exists beyond that first thought…. I’m open to whatever will work. But first I have to keep asking that question. What if?
This was helpful to me as I continue to work on novel revisions, especially as I respond to suggestions from an editor. As she suggests plots twist and turns that I hadn’t considered, she is helping me ask, “What if?”
Here’s an excerpt from #10:
Writing a memoir will change you…. [It will give you] a perspective that will offer you the chance for discovery and insight…. That’s the power of memoir. It sweeps you into the past and through to the future.
I’ve found this to be true in the two book-length memoirs I’ve written (but don’t plan to publish) and in many of the personal essays I’ve written (and published). They have changed me. Sometimes that change has come as healing. Other times it’s more of a broadened perspective on the events that have impacted my life. Either way, the change has been good.
Thanks, Lee, for these good thoughts!
To get regular “thoughts” from Lee (on writing, publishing and other stuff) subscribe to his blog, “The Least You Need to Know.”
A couple of weeks ago, when my (wonderful) massage therapist was working her magic on my wounded body, she said something that has stayed on my mind. She has been using myofascial release techniques to loosen the tight fascia that are binding my skeletal muscle and connective tissues, causing a good deal of pain. This tightness has restricted my motion in such a way that my body is pulled out of alignment, causing pain in my right hip. As I flipped over on my stomach for the second half of the massage session, I mentioned that I was having trouble breathing, due to sinus congestion. She made the comment that so many problems are caused by congestion—not only skeletal-muscle congestion and sinus congestion, but also heart failure (due to low cardiac output, resulting in the body becoming congested with fluid) and bowel obstruction (often caused by constipation).
As I drove home from my massage session, I thought about her words. About congestion and how it affects our lives. The first thing that came to mind was the recent traffic congestion in Atlanta due to the ice on the highway, and of course the congestion on the George Washington Bridge. Those incidents paint a visual metaphor of the consequences of congestion… what happens when things stop moving.
This past weekend I drove down to Jackson for a routine visit with my mother. She will be 86 on February 20. I took her a little bracelet with lavender stones (her favorite color is purple) so she could look at it and play with the stones. If you read my blog regularly, you know that Mom has Alzheimer’s. Although she smiled when I sat down to visit with her on Saturday, the look of recognition in her eyes was gone. She really doesn’t know who I am any more. (If you’d like to catch up on some of my posts about Mom, “Disappearing Stories” has links to several of them.)
“What’s that for?” She asked, when I put the bracelet on her arm.
“It’s a bracelet Mom. A little happy for Valentine’s Day and your birthday.”
A flurry of other questions followed, including: “What’s Valentine’s?” “How long do I need to leave it on there?” and “What are we doing next?”
Watching the ongoing damage that Alzheimer’s is doing to Mom’s brain reminded me of the conversation with my massage therapist. Mom’s brain is congested—plaques and tangles are spreading through the cortex. (Plaques are deposits of a protein fragment caused beta-amyloid that build up in the spaces between nerve cells. Tangles are twisted fibers of another protein called tau.) The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation talks about 4 Pillars of Prevention (of Alzheimer’s). In this short article, they describe Pillar 3: Exercise and Brain Aerobics. Brain Aerobics. Here’s their definition:
Whenever you challenge your brain with novel tasks (anything new or different), you’re exercising your brain and improving brain function. In order for an activity to be considered brain aerobics, three conditions must be met. The activity needs to:
Engage your attention.
Involve one or more of your senses.
Break a routine activity in an unexpected, nontrivial way.
They give examples that we’ve all heard of before—reading, writing, board games, and crossword puzzles. I already spend several hours a day on reading, writing, and Scrabble (I have 5 Facebook games going, and my husband I keep a “pass and play” Scrabble game going on his iPad.) So there’s really nothing “new” in this information. Except maybe the part about breaking routine activity in an unexpected, nontrivial way. The article doesn’t give examples of that, but I’m going to work on it. Any suggestions?
My take-away message today is simple: keep moving!
One day last week I got a phone call from a woman who had taken an icon workshop from me several years ago. She had since attended workshops with four other instructors, and was hoping to return for another class with me. I was humbled by her request, but had to tell her I was no longer teaching iconography. She asked if I could recommend a teacher. She already knew the first two or three names I mentioned, but there was one more name I couldn’t remember at the time. I told her I’d look it up and get back with her.
I was surprised and saddened to learn that the iconographer I was seeking—Ksenia Pokrovsky—had fallen asleep in the Lord on July 7, 2013.(I got chills when I first read that date. It was the day of my life-threatening car wreck last summer. ) You can watch Pokrovsky teaching iconography in this video.
But when I read “Place Keepers”—a beautiful tribute to Pokrovsky by one of her students, her assistant instructor, Marek Czarneki—I was saddened even more that I had never studied under her. When asked by students where they can find “canons” about iconography, Czarneki tells them:
The best place, if you are lucky enough, is to have a living canon in front of you, in the life and example of your teacher. It’s not in any book, or any one icon, but synthesized in the reality of a human being. Ksenia was my canon.
Pokrovsky encouraged her students to jump over her, to stand on her shoulders to achieve greater heights. And if they couldn’t go higher, they should at least be “place savers.” She said everyone should leave the pathway better for the next person who travels that way.
Read the whole article for more inspirational thoughts… I’ve only scratched the surface here. And I think Pokrovsky’s approach to iconography could apply to many of our pursuits in life—especially in the realms of art and spirituality.
So, as I’m writing this post seven months to the day after her death, I’m thankful for her life. For the living canon she was. May her memory be eternal.