Mental Health Monday: Can Blogging Save Your Mortal Soul?

blogging-success-2013-green-woodA friend recently asked me what I think about when I first wake up in the morning. My reply was instant:

Well, if it’s a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday morning, I think about what I’m going to write on my blog.

I’ve been posting three times a week for seven years next month, and I hadn’t realized until she asked me this just how much structure blogging gives to my life. As a writer who works at home, it’s totally up to me to order the weeks, the days, and as Michael Cunningham said, the hours.

Before starting my blog in 2007, I had other writing gigs—one intentionally non-profit and one that barely made money—that kept me “regular,” like editing and publishing the monthly newsletter for my church for fifteen years. And publishing a monthly trade magazine for architects and builders for several years.

Over my lifetime I’ve also worked at jobs where I had to show up every morning—doing everything from running an aerobic dance business to working as a secretary in various medical offices and hospitals. The best thing about those jobs, as I consider them in retrospect, was the discipline of showing up. And with the aerobics business, the added health benefits and social interaction with students and the instructors I hired and trained.

BloggingShowing up. Isn’t that half the battle? For writers working at home, showing up at the computer (or at the table with pen and paper) and keeping the butt in the chair and the mind engaged in the work is a huge discipline. There’s no one there watching to be sure you get the work done. There’s no clock to punch. There are no co-workers to chat with in the break room. There’s no boss giving you feedback. It can be a battle just to keep emotionally “up” enough to get the work done.

All of this is why I started this blog in the first place.

Don McLean asked if music can save our mortal souls. I’m thinking that blogging saves mine. Another friend tried to discourage me from blogging when I first started. This person thought the confessional nature of my (public) posts was unhealthy. Why don’t you just keep a journal? I did that for many years, and in some ways it was helpful. But it lacked an important element: feedback. Interaction with other human beings on the topics being discussed.

Facebook also gives me some of that social interaction I crave while working alone at home. Although this article in Slate posits that Facebook is manipulating our emotions. It quotes a piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science as saying:

Data from a large, real-world social network collected over a 20-year period suggests that longer-lasting moods (e.g., depression, happiness) can be transferred through networks.

smiley faceTalking specifically about an experiment done by Facebook, in which they limited the number of positive posts showing up in some people’s news feeds, and the number of negative posts showing up in others, the study states:

When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.

FB eyesSome folks are up in arms about the ethical implications of Facebook doing this experiment. I’m more interested in the results. And I’m wondering, how is this different than the way we respond to the same emotional influences in “real” interaction with people? Aren’t we all affected by the emotional states of our families and close friends?

I’m rambling now, so it must be time to close this post and move on to the lonely work of novel revisions. I’ll get to it… right after I see what my Facebook friends are up to….

InvisibleFriendsCartoon

Faith on Friday: Everywhere Hope and Depth (Icon Painting in a Postmodern World)

George-Korids-St.-John-The-BaptistA few days ago I read an interesting interview with a contemporary Greek iconographer, George Kordis, “The Art of Icon Painting in a Postmodern World.” Several things caught my eye, the least of which wasn’t the style of this modern iconographer and artist. Since we just celebrated the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on June 24, I’ll share Kordis’s icon of Saint John here, although this icon depicts his beheading, not his nativity.

If you click on the above article, you can see more of his icons, and also a couple of his secular paintings. I actually like his secular work better than his icons. I think it’s because I prefer a different style of iconography—I like icons that have darker lines and more primitive characteristics. Kordis’s icons are beautiful, but they are very transparent—almost ghost-like—and their strangeness distracts me from their purpose—to draw the viewer to reverence the saints depicted and to worship God through the images.

But I do like what he says about his use of the same Byzantine style of his icons for his secular pieces:

The use of the Byzantine painting mode is, I believe, the bridge that joins everything and gives the impression that even the fallen human reality is not excluded, that even there we find a flavor of the light of the Church. There is everywhere hope and depth.

Freedom. A Personification of Freedom and Death by George Kordis

Freedom. A Personification of Freedom and Death by George Kordis

If you take time to read the entire interview, you might also want to read the comment left at the end by Charleston architect, Andrew Gould. I agreed with most of what he says, even noting the similarity of Kordis’s work to Gregory Kroug. If you’re interested in art or architecture, you might like to read his comments. I’m only going to share part of what he says about the tradition of iconography as it applies to Kordis:

Whether or not one entirely likes Kordis’ icons, I think everyone should agree that it is healthy for gifted iconographers to occasionally push the envelope and experiment at the edge of canonical norms. Of course, most such experiments will not be wholly successful, but occasionally something new arises that has real merit and influences others, and this is how the tradition evolves.

Indeed, this is how the tradition evolves. I remember when I was writing/painting icons and was concerned about what “style” I would adopt. Since I’m not Russian, Greek or Romanian—and I studied under instructors from all three traditions—I wondered how my own style might evolve. My spiritual mother at the time—Mother Gabriella, Abbess at Holy Dormition Monastery in Grand Junction, Michigan—encouraged me to simply pray and paint, follow the canonical guidelines for icons, and let the style evolve organically.

Since I “retired” from painting icons shortly after she and I had that discussion, I guess I’ll never know what style my future icons might have taken. But I’m interested to watch what happens as other iconographers, like George Kordis, continue on this journey.

Writing on Wednesday: The Writer’s Brain, or How Active is Your Caudate Nucleus?

open-mind-canstockphoto4053172I am always thankful for friends who send me links to articles they know I would like. In an effort to cut my publications budget, a couple of years ago I discontinued my subscription to the New York Times. Here’s an example of what I’ve been missing. It was actually in the science section, so I might have missed it anyway.

Carl Zimmer’s piece from June 20, “This is Your Brain on Writing,” revealed some fascinating research being done in Germany. Dr. Martin Lotze scanned the brains of professionally trained writers and also of novice writers. He even figured out a way to scan them while they were writing. (You’ll have to read the article to learn more about that—it’s way too scientific for me to explain.) The most interesting finding, in my unscientific opinion, was the difference in the two groups of writers:

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice. When the two groups started to write, another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet. The caudate nucleus is a familiar part of the brain for scientists like Dr. Lotze who study expertise. It plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like board games.

The skill that comes with practice. Why is this a big deal? Writing—like other creative endeavors—can be learned. And the skill improves with practice. I’m sure there are exceptions to this… the rare individual who serves as a conduit for his “muse” and just watches the words flow effortlessly onto the page. But most of the successful writers I know have at least one thing in common: they practice their skill. They write every day. And rewrite. Over and over.

creative person

 

I love how Dr. Lotze said that the experienced writers are narrating their stores “with an inner voice.” Call that a muse, if you must. Getting in touch with one’s inner voice takes hard work, whether your goal is a creative endeavor like writing (or painting or creating music) or (and this comparison is strictly mine) even prayer. Monks who experience states of ecstasy in prayer have more than likely been hard at work in their spiritual practices for a long time before this ever happened.

Most researchers have their nay-sayers. In this case one of those is Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, who called the study “a messy comparison”:

Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

caudate_nucleus1331095652271Point well taken, Dr. Pinker. My husband is a physician who does clinical trials on treatments for hypertension and diabetes. When he’s writing an article about the results of one of those trials (often for the New England Journal of Medicine or other scientific journals) his brain is definitely working differently than the way mine works while creating twists and turns in the plot of my novel about a graf artist who escapes from a religious cult. Both are creative endeavors, but I’m guessing our caudate nuclei and hippocampuses are marching to different beats. I’ll give Harvard the final word:

Dr. Pinker speculated that Marcel Proust might have activated the taste-perceiving regions of his brain when he recalled the flavor of a cookie. But another writer might rely more on sounds to evoke a time and place.

“Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,” he said.

Mental Health Monday: Eudaimonia

flowers PriscillaI received several encouraging responses to my (whiny) post last Wednesday. One was from a neighbor (she’s also a member of my church) who (1) invited me over for a glass of wine; (2) brought me a bouquet of flowers from her yard; and (3) shared an article with me called “5 Things Happy People Do” by neuroscientist Gabrielle LeBlanc (from 2008).

Several others left comments on my Facebook post, emailed, texted, and one writer friend (another neighbor) came over and visited with me for an hour and a half. Mental Health people take note: Asking for help on social media can be a good thing!

Today I want to share a couple of reflections from Dr. LeBlanc’s article, which evidently made the rounds (Oprah, etc.) six years ago, so this isn’t “new,” but it’s new to me. And if you ever struggle with loneliness, depression, or just too regular a dose of what my mother’s generation would call “the blues,” maybe there’s something here for you, too.

My favorite item on LeBlanc’s list is the first: “They Find Their Most Golden Self.” LeBlanc introduced me to a new word:

Eudaimonia—“cobbled from the Greek eu (“good”) and daimon (“spirit” or “deity”), it means striving towards excellence based on one’s unique talents and potential.”

eudaimoniaLeBlanc explains that taking on new challenges and the positive emotion that comes with working towards meaningful goals contribute to a higher level of happiness than simple passive, hedonic pleasure.

A side benefit—especially for women—is that this type of lifestyle often leads to physical well being, including weight management and healthy sleep patterns.

I’m sold. My temptation to quit working on revisions on my novel and “retire” to a life of luncheons and leisure was a fleeting carrot, and one that I’m not seriously interested in now. Here’s a quick run-down of the other 4 things happy people do:

They design their lives to bring joy.

They avoid “if only” fantasies.

They put best friends first.

They allow themselves to be happy.

HappyWant to learn more about the research backing up LeBlanc’s advice? Read this short article and start making small changes in your own life. Me? Today I’m going to (a) call my best friend, (b) exercise, (c) order canvas prints of our family pictures at the beach, (d) plan a party, and (e) work on manuscript revisions.  And try to find joy in each of these activities. I probably won’t get a tattoo, but if I did, I might want it to say εὐδαιμονία.

 
Need to get happy? Watch this video and find some joy today. Betcha can’t wait it without clapping along and smiling.

Faith on Friday: On Prayer, Fasting, and Poetry

blue-prayerFirst let me say that I try not to whine on this blog. But after a little whining in Wednesday’s post, I received an invitation to lunch, links to several encouraging articles on happiness and how to overcome self doubt as a writer or artist, and other helpful replies. Thank you.

(Watch for reflections on those articles in my Mental Health Monday post next week.)

idiot-psalms-new-poems-14This morning I spent a little time trying to be silent. Trying to pray. Then I read, again, some of the spiritual poetry of my friend, Scott Cairns, in his wonderful book, Idiot Psalms. All of this while chasing a morning headache with Tylenol and caffeine. And then I turned to poetry. I remembered Mary Karr’s words in her essay, “Facing Altars,” which appears in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality:

Any attempt at prayer in this state is a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry is still healing balm, partly because it’s always helped me feel less alone, even in earliest childhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar.

yhst-27718179058433_2272_112584738Scott’s poetry reminds me of a volume I received as a gift many years ago—Prayers By the Lake, by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich. My spiritual father at the time introduced me to this man’s poetry. He simply gave me a photocopy of one of the prayers one day, saying, “I think you will like this.”

Orthodox Christians are in the middle of the Apostles’ Fast, which culminates with the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I struggle greatly with fasting. It’s not that I struggle against my passions while trying diligently to fast, which would be a good struggle. But I struggle with the whole concept of fasting, and therefore I fail to embrace it as the vehicle of grace and healing the Church purports it to be.

And yet today I find myself cracking the door open—if only a little bit—to this ancient spiritual practice. These words from St. Nikolai helped me today:

‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.’ (St. Mark 9:29)

This is the saving prescription of the greatest Physician of human souls. This is the remedy tried and proved. Another remedy for lunacy, there is not. What kind of sickness is that? That is the presence and dominance of an evil spirit in a man, a dangerous evil spirit who labors to eventually destroy the body and soul of man. The boy whom our Lord freed from an evil spirit; this evil spirit that had hurled him at times in the fire, at times in the water just in order to destroy him.

As long as a man only philosophizes about God he is weak and completely helpless against the evil spirit. The evil spirit ridicules the feeble sophistry of the world. But, as soon as a man begins to fast and to pray to God, the evil spirit becomes filled with indescribable fear. In no way can the evil spirit tolerate the aroma of prayer and fasting. The sweet-smelling aroma chokes him and weakens him to utter exhaustion. In a man who only philosophizes about faith, there is spacious room in him for the demons. But in a man who sincerely begins to pray to God and to fast with patience and hope, for the demon it becomes narrow and constricted and he must flee from such a man. Against certain bodily ills there exists only one remedy. Against the greatest ill of the soul, demonism, there exists two remedies, which must be utilized at one and the same time.

Do you embrace prayer and fasting? I welcome your comments here, or in a Facebook thread. Thanks for reading.

Writing on Wednesday: I’m Tired

Self-doubt-quote-by-Sylvia-Plath

 

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Winder’s new biography, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. The book focuses on the summer Plath spent in New York as an intern for Mademoiselle Magazine. She was only twenty, and yet her month in this prestigious position drove her to her first suicide attempt (and also to her book, The Bell Jar).

Pain Parties WorkMaybe this isn’t a good reading choice for me right now. I’m in the throes of some sort of writing funk (again). I’m tired. I wake up tired every morning. And I have pain every day.

A friend reminded me that I just finished 6 weeks of non-stop traveling, and that can wear a person out. I get that, but those trips were mostly really enjoyable—a week at the beach with kids and grandkids, 5 days in New York City, a weekend in Charleston, a wedding in Jackson, a writing workshop in Oxford—except that they were squeezed into a few weeks of non-stop travel. And two more trips in that group included a funeral in Nashville and a meeting with lawyers about some of my mother’s business in Jackson.

So I guess that emotional work can also tire you out.

tiredofwritingBut mostly I’m tired of the novel I’m revising. Yesterday as I was working on what I hope will be final revisions before sending it back to the agent who showed interest over a year ago (before my car wreck) that dark devil of despair crawled on my back and wouldn’t let go. I stopped working and tried to just be still and focus on what was happening. It wasn’t just that I’m tired. It was more insidious than that. The old demon of self-doubt was back. Here are some of the things he said to me:

You are 63 years old and you’ve been through a hell of a year. Why don’t you just quit writing and relax?

Have lunch with friends. (Do I have even friends who want to have lunch with me?)

Go to the beach.

Visit your children and grandchildren more often.
Finish decorating your new house and throw parties.

Act your age.

I always enjoy the agent’s column, “Funny You Should Ask,” in Writer’s Digest Magazine. In the July/August issue, one writer asks Barbara Poelle (vice president at Irene Goodman Literary Agency):

Do you have any tips for avoiding distractions while writing?

Part of Poelle’s answer was just what I needed to hear today:

I’m going to slap you around a little bit and say this: if you want it badly enough, you have to find the time.

She goes on to point out authors who get up in the middle of the night to write while their children are sleeping. Another author who has three children and two jobs and writes a new young adult novel every six to eight weeks.

Personally, I have a friend who does this. She has a full time job and two kids and she gets up to write at 3:30 in the morning. She has published two best-selling novels and is working on a third. Did I mention that she’s about twenty years younger than me?

My fear is that I missed my window. Back in my thirties and forties—when my kids were still at home—I had so much energy I couldn’t sleep at night. I’d work on creative projects into the wee hours of the morning and get up raring to take on another one the next morning. One year I even got up three mornings a week to teach aerobics at the YMCA at 6:00 a.m. That young woman is feeling old and tired today.

newgoalSkimming through some “inspirational quotes”  (you know I’m feeling low if I’m doing that) I found this one from C. S. Lewis. I guess it’s just a matter of deciding what I really want, and how badly I want it. For years I’ve wanted to write and publish books. I still want this, but I’m filled with self-doubt today. And writing is such a lonely pursuit. It’s not like I work at an office where I can talk to co-workers for support. I invited a writer friend over for a glass of wine this afternoon, so I’m hoping that will help.  I’d appreciate any wisdom or encouragement from my readers.

 

That’s all.

Mental Health Monday: The Anatomy of a Binge

My essay, “Eat, Drink, Repeat,” which was published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul, last November, chronicles a three-day binge. But it was a food-and-drink binge, which is what most people think about when they hear the word, “binge,” right?

sketch2

 

But last night there was a piece on the news about binge-watching TV shows on Netflix, and how much less pleasurable that is than watching the episodes over a period of time. After the news I Googled the topic and found this post by Melissa Dahl in New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog, “Why You Shouldn’t Binge-Watch ‘Orange is the New Black.’” Dahl points to studies that show the added value of waiting—anticipating—the pleasure of the next show. (Check out her article to read more about her research, which included sources like The Journal of Consumer Research, and a book by psychologist Sonja Lyubormisky called The How of Happiness.)

BreakingBad

 

This was never an issue before I recently purchased a Samsung tablet, because I’m not going to watch old episodes of a TV series in our living room (where my husband watches sports) and I don’t know how to move the Apple TV gadget to my office TV. And I don’t like to sit at my desk chair and watch Netflix on my computer screen. But oh how easy and fun to watch on my new tablet while the NBA finals are on in the living room. My first TV series to watch on Netflix is “Breaking Bad.” And not just because it won “Best Dramatic Series” at the 2013 Emmys. I decided to watch it because Julie Cantrell, author of two best-selling books, told me the writing is incredible. I agree. And also the acting. But watching the show is addictive! It’s sooooo hard to only watch one episode, when the next one is waiting at my fingertips. And since I’m starting with Season 1, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

If you haven’t seen the show—or if you watched it and loved it—you might be interested in this in-depth article by Notre Dame Doctoral candidate, Leonard DeLorenzo. A brief teaser from the article:

The complexity of “Breaking Bad” comes from the depth of its exploration of the human psyche, the moral fabric of communities, and the relationships that bind people together, for better or worse.  This multi-layered, unified drama opens up in three major, interlocking themes, which will guide our analysis: pride, responsibility, and the social nature of humanity.

51jZQYoFhfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But back to the binge-watching issues. I’m limiting myself to no more than 2-3 episodes in any single day/evening. The show is so intense that I need time to recover after watching a couple of episodes. It feels good to let the plot simmer a bit before jumping into the next episode—kind of like putting down a good book at the end of an exciting chapter, which leaves me wanting more and having that to look forward to the next day. Maybe that’s some of what Lyubormisky says about anticipation, that it

generates positive emotions and helps us savor future positive experiences.

Delayed gratification. That’s my plan for today. I’m only going to watch two more episodes, and only after I do several hours work on novel revisions. I’ll let you know on Wednesday if I was able to stick with my plan!

Do you binge-watch TV episodes? Do you enjoy watching that way? What’s the longest binge-watching you’ve ever done (how many hours at one sitting)? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Family on Friday: The Long and Winding Road

Unlike today, it wasn’t Friday the 13th. In 1970, June 13 fell on a Saturday.

 the-beatles-the-long-and-winding-road-apple

 

Paul-and-Linda

 

“The Long and Winding Road” became the Beatles’ last number one hit, and it remained number one for two weeks. Their “Let It Be” album also hit the top of the charts that day, and held the post for four weeks.

Why do I mention this today?  My husband is a HUGE Beatles fan. We went to hear Sir Paul in Memphis last year.

And of course we WERE Paul and Linda at this party back in the ’80s.

395px-WorldCup1970lposter

The World Cup was being played in Mexico.

 

Ike and Tina TurnerIke and Tina Turner were playing in Hawaii.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Bill Cushman and Susan Johnson were married at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Bill was 21. I was 19.

WeddingParty

 

cutting cake croppedMy bridesmaids were ages 15-19. It felt somewhat like we were playing dress-up. I wore a hat (a nod to the garden wedding I wanted) and my bridesmaids wore dotted Swiss bell-bottom pants suits and carried little white baskets of daisies—my favorite flower at the time.

 

flowers2So, we’re celebrating our 44th anniversary today.

My sweet husband always brings me flowers.

And tonight we’ll enjoy our favorite meal at Ruth’s Chris. And talk about anniversaries past:

 

 

 

 

SusanBillKeatoncartoon1975—Fifth—Grand Hotel, Point Clear, Alabama

1980—Tenth—Amelia Island, Florida

1995—Twenty-fifth—Estes Park, Colorado

2005—Thirty-fifth—San Francisco (where this cartoon was done)

2010—Fortieth—Italy

 

It’s definitely been a long and winding road, but one I’m so glad we’re still on together. Next year? I’m thinking Paris for our 45th.

I couldn't resist this card....

I couldn’t resist this card….

 

card2

 And for Bill: Grow old along with me. God bless our love. (words by John Lennon. Sung by Mary Chapin Carpenter. perfect.)

Writing on Wednesday: Raw Messiness, Lyric Cadence, and Summer Reading List

carriagePlease forgive me for playing hooky from my blog on Mental Health Monday. We were in Charleston and it was my “free day” to either stay in the hotel room writing a blog post … or [drum roll] go sight-seeing and shopping. Considering my own mental health, I ended up taking a carriage tour of the historic Battery area, which was wonderful, and then did a little shopping up and down King Street. (I managed to escape with only one new dress, which barely fit into the small suitcase I packed for our weekend.) Oh, and I had lunch right on the water—Fleet Landing—and enjoyed the view and the fresh catch flounder. But now I’m home and back at work writing. And reading. Today’s post is a “mini review” of two books.

sean-ennis

 

 

First up is Sean Ennis’s short story collection, Chase Us, which was launched at the Powerhouse in Oxford, Mississippi, during the recent YOK writing workshop I attended. Sean, who teaches at Ole Miss and also for the Gotham Writers Workshop,  was one of the manuscript critique workshop leaders at YOK, but he lead the other group (I was in Scott Morris’s group) so I didn’t really get to spend much time with him. But I loved his reading of “This is Pennypack,” a crazy story of two teenage boys who found two Indians locked in a cage outside a park in Philadelphia the summer before their ninth grade year.  So many things were wonderfully outrageous about this story, but my favorite part was the names the boys gave to the Indians:

‘What’re your names?’ Clip said finally. I wasn’t going to say anything.

One man said, ‘No keys.’

The other said, ‘Gotta smoke?’

‘Whoa! They’re Indians,’ Clip said. ‘That’s, like, their teepee!’

The wind changed, and we got a whiff of their stink—armpits and waste. No Keys started picking through the empty potato chip bags, looking for crumbs. He ignored us. But Gotta Smoke said his name again, louder this time.’

And the story gets crazier as it continues. All the stories show vivid images of boys swinging on the pendulum between childhood and manhood, holding onto their tenderness where they can. But Ennis tells them with a voice that’s both humorous and edgy.

A Publishers Weekly review back in March says this of Ennis’s writing:

… the author presents the raw messiness of fear and confusion through a lyric cadence.

Well said. And kudos to Sean for this wonderful debut book! To learn more about Sean, read this interview at WIP.

Hemingway_s_Girl_--_jpegI just finished my first “summer read” last week. Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl appealed to me because (a) I love Hemingway and (b) she shows the reader a historic person and place through a fictional character. This is what I’m trying to achieve with my novel, Cherry Bomb. (I love historical fiction yarns that spin around art and literature. Like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, T. C. Boyle’s The Women, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, The Girl with the Pearl Earring and other books by Tracy Chevalier, Deborah Davis’s Strapless, and most recently, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Goldfinch.)

Erika Robuck (photo by Catsh Photography)

Erika Robuck (photo by Catsh Photography)

As Robuck explains in this video, the story takes place in Depression-era Key West, Florida, in 1935. The protagonist, Mariella, is a young Cuban-American who is hired by the Hemingway family as a domestic. But she catches Hemingway’s heart. Robuck reveals many of Hemingway’s characteristics through scenes with Mariella—including one where he explains why he always quit writing just when the story is getting exciting, so that he will have a good place to begin writing the next day. Robuck hopes that readers of her book will gain a greater appreciation for “the man behind the legend,” and will be inspired to go back and read his work.  She succeeded in her goal for this reader. I’m adding A Moveable Feast to my summer reading list. And maybe I’ll revisit The Old Man and the Sea.

 

SylviaPlath_400x290What else is on my summer reading list so far? My current reads (yes I often read more than one book at a time) are: Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (reading on my Kindle) and Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder (paperback, Harper Perennial). Next up? Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty (memoir) by Diane Keaton—I loved her first memoir, Then Again. And then Jeannette Walls’ first novel, The Silver Star (paperback, Scribner). (I loved Walls’ memoirs, The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, and I’m interested to see how well she does fiction. I loved meeting her back in 2011.) So, it looks like I’ve got three memoirs and two novels on my summer reading list so far. What are YOU reading this summer? I’d love to hear from you!

Faith on Friday: The Beautiful Transformation

Dorrance Dance performance

Dorrance Dance performance

This weekend my husband and I will be visiting “the Holy City” (as the locals call it). No, we’re not going to Jerusalem. We’re headed to Charleston, South Carolina. I’m looking forward to the “secular” pleasures we have planned—a sunset dinner cruise around the historic harbor, watching the Dorrance Dance performance (part of the 2014 Spoleto Festival), and shopping at the galleries and boutiques along King Street—but also our visit on Pentecost Sunday to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The last time I visited this church was about ten years ago, when I was still writing icons myself. I took my daughter (who was at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville) to Folly Beach for a few days and we drove into Charleston to see the icons at this church. What’s so special about them?

KontoglouSome—certainly not all—of the icons at Holy Trinity were done by a famous contemporary iconographer, artist, theologian and literary writer, Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965). You might be wondering why I call him both an iconographer and an artist. There’s a clear distinction between not only the artist and the iconographer, but also the art and the icon. One of the best explanations of this that I’ve read was written by Kontoglou, in this article, “What Orthodox Iconography Is,” the year before his death. Lovers of Western religious art may take offense at some of his comments—he certainly felt strongly about this subject—but hopefully readers can see beyond any divisive elements and embrace the spiritual beauty of his words:

Transfiguration icon detail by Kontoglou

Transfiguration icon detail by Kontoglou

The beauty of liturgical art is not a carnal beauty, but a spiritual beauty. That is why whoever judges this art by worldly standards says that the figures in Byzantine painting are ugly and repellent, while for one of the faithful they possess the beauty of the spirit, which is called ‘the beautiful transformation.’

My life has definitely been transformed by icons. I studied iconography, did commissioned icons, gave lectures and wrote about iconography, (see “Icons Will Save the World” in First Things) and taught icon workshops for about ten years, before “retiring” in order to write essays and books. (Not everyone is as gifted as Kontoglou, who wrote icons and books.) Our home has icons in almost every room, reminding me of the beauty of the spiritual realm, and also of Christ’s incarnation, which brought the spiritual and the physical, human realms together forever. I’m looking forward to this pilgrimage to Holy Trinity in Charleston, where I will once again reverence these holy images that lead my soul to worship God more fully.

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