August 29 is the day that Orthodox Christians commemorate the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. A gruesome martyrdom, to be sure. As my friend, Erin Mashburn Moulton, said on Facebook this morning:
Today’s solemn Christian feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, a day that reminds us of the serious consequences of decisions and foolish promises made in the excitement of a drunken party….
(If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can read it here, from Matthew 13:1-14.)
The Baptist is held up as a model of asceticism, repentance, and other virtues in the Christian faith. But it’s his martyrdom we consider today.
And in so doing, I consider the martyrdom of the nameless men, women and children being slaughtered (and yes, some beheaded) by those who would crush humanity under their feet in order to gain power. It’s more than I can bear to watch the images (many of which, thankfully, are edited out by some news channels) of this evil coming across our television every night. (I refuse to watch during the day.) I shared one of those images in my post three weeks ago, “Crimes Against Humanity and Prayers to the Mother of God.”
About twenty years ago I was spending several mornings a week praying with an Orthodox nun. Often she would have me read the life of the saint of the day. The stories of torture and martyrdom, in particular, often upset me. One day I confessed to her that I didn’t think I would bear up in those situations. That I would deny Christ rather than be tortured or killed. Her response has always stuck with me. She said that people are given special grace from God at those times. Sometimes—not always—they didn’t even feel the pain that was being forced on them. Then she went on to talk about how in some ways it’s more difficult to live a “daily martyrdom” for Christ in contemporary times. To deny ourselves (fasting, moderation, detachment) and control our passions in a time when we are constantly told that “we deserve a break today” and we can “have it our way” and all that.
I’m a terrible ascetic. No, I’m actually not an ascetic at all. I rarely fast and then poorly. I don’t deny myself worldly comforts. And I struggle to control the passions. At least I struggle. Sometimes.
Martyrdom. It’s not for everyone. Today, all I can do is pray, “Holy Saint John the Baptist, pray to God for us!”
It’s about the new ways literary agents are flexing their muscles to help writers in the digital era. Some are working with authors who are self-publishing. A few agencies have even established digital imprints.
Poets & Writers (September/October 2014) also has an article out, “The Savvy Self-Publisher,” by Debra Englander. She writes about the path author Robb Cadigan took for his 2013 novel, Phoenixville Rising. Cadigan describes his frustration with the traditional publishing route:
I was frustrated; it had taken me close to two years to complete a book followed by months of rejections. I was way too impatient to endure the submission process, which I found demoralizing.
What did he do? He created his own imprint, Rodgers Forge Press, and used CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing and published a paperback and an ebook. He did lots of self-marketing and sold over two thousand books in six months. Cadigan was satisfied with the experience. (Read the whole article to get the viewpoint of an independent editor and a publicist who both work with self-published and traditional authors.)
When I read Cadigan’s story, I thought, his journey sounds exactly like mine. Two years to write/revise a novel. Months of submissions/rejections. (And a one-year hiatus due to my car wreck last summer.) But I’m not discouraged. Yet. Since the 75th agent I queried has shown enough interest to ask me to work with an editor on revisions, I’m hanging in with this journey. We’ll see how I feel if she ends up not selling my book.
Meanwhile, my friend Nina Gaby is publishing an anthology (to which I contributed an essay) next spring with She Writes Press, a “hybrid” publisher created to fill the gap between independent, small presses and self-publishing. And another friend, Neil White, has also started a hybrid, Triton Press. She Writes and Triton have different focuses, but they’re both offering new opportunities for writers in the ever-changing world of publishing. The chart at right shows how the She Writes process works.
This Saturday I’m hosting a publishing “salon” at our home here in Harbor Town. Neil will give a presentation about Triton Press, and another friend Ellen Morris Prewitt will also talk about her experience publishing an anthology with Triton, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. (Ellen works with the Door of Hope, where she established a writing group for homeless or formerly homeless folks a number of years ago. This anthology contains their stories.)
We’ve got about 35 people coming (by invitation only… address erased from this image) to hear about this new publishing house which specializes in narrative nonfiction (i.e., memoir, autobiography), education, business, sports, and leadership books. I’m excited for many of my writing friends here in Memphis (and those coming from Alabama and Mississippi) to learn about this opportunity and to see if it’s a good fit for some of them. Stay tuned….
This is not a book review. That wouldn’t fit my “Mental Health Monday” theme, now would it? And yet I just spent a couple of hours finishing a wonderful novel (yes—reading in the middle of the day since it’s too hot to do anything else) and the author’s story is what’s on my mind today. Keep reading for my segue into mental health.
In January of 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting Jeanette Walls. I had just read her best-selling memoir, The Glass Castle, and was so happy to be able to attend her reading at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. (I blogged about the event here: “Push and Pray.”)
Walls’ books are all well written, but it’s her own story and how she has responded to adversity—especially to neglect and abandonment by her extremely dysfunctional parents—that keeps me reading and taking inspiration from her work. On the back cover of her latest novel, The Silver Star, (which I just finished reading a few minutes ago) are these words:
Jeannette Walls has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.
Although The Silver Star is a work of fiction, you can hear Walls’s own voice in the narrator, Bean, the younger of the two sisters at the heart of the novel. I just went back and read a few pages from The Glass Castle, and it’s amazing how similar their voices are. But even if Walls and her siblings didn’t experience the same injustices that Bean and Liz experience in the novel, you know she’s writing from having lived through similar things. More importantly, you sense that, like Bean and Liz, she has also learned to forgive and to love the broken people in her stories, and in her world. Her writing has no trace of anger, bitterness or resentment, which is pretty amazing to me.
That’s why my response to this novel fits here in the Mental Health Monday category. Anything that teaches us how to love each other and this flawed, messed up world is a terrific mental health tool. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jeanette.
Wondering about the picture of the little girl with the emu? You’ll have to read the book!
As a Christian, I have always believed in the transforming Grace of God. Just like I’ve always believed in so many other tenets of the faith. And yet, there’s belief and there’s belief. I’ve gone through many spiritual phases in my 63-year journey of faith, including:
(1951-1967) Presbyterian childhood, with Sunday School, vacation Bible school, and church camps and retreats, all of which I loved. I happily accepted the faith of my parents, but even the Westminster catechism—which I memorized and recited before the elders at our church when I was nine in order to become a communing member—couldn’t save me from an early battle with eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
(1967-1970) Campus Crusade for Christ influences in high school and freshman year at Ole Miss. I kept a journal during those years, which reflects an upbeat faith and hope for a joyful life, but also recurring frustrations with things in my life that overwhelmed me. The battles from childhood continued and were compounded by the trials of adulthood.
(1970-1987) “Home church” which met in several forms in our home when my husband and I were newlyweds and beyond. This is what I call my “Jesus freak” years. The group of Christians we gathered with for seventeen years eventually became part of the canonical Orthodox Church, but there were lots of unhealthy practices during our journey to the Church. Those childhood battles intensified during this time.
(1988-1993) Early years as part of the Orthodox Church. Excitement over the newness of our official church home was followed for me by several years of spiritual darkness, culminating in my first serious dark night of the soul.
(1993-2000-ish) My “nun phase.” These years were filled with head-coverings, long hours spent in prayer, confession, counseling, many pilgrimages to monasteries, and reading volumes of spiritual books by the early Church fathers, especially monastics. There were a couple of years in the ‘90s where I felt I experienced a transcending joy and peace I had never known. But it didn’t last. I went to some extremes and my zeal eventually waned.
(2001-present) Mid-life moderation. Surviving cancer during the first year of the twenty-first century, and watching my youngest child leave home for college brought me to my knees, as did the events of 9/11 and our oldest son’s first deployment to Iraq. But I’ve managed to find some balance, and to moderate some of those extremes in my life. And yet I still find myself overcome on many days with the same demons I’ve been fighting for six decades.
Last night I let my anger get the best of me and stewed about something for several hours before going to bed. I woke at 4 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I went to our prayer corner and asked God’s forgiveness for the anger. And then I read this quote in our Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar.
When we declare ourselves to be disciples of Christ, we claim that we want Him to cure our spiritual and moral disease. Yet in truth we want Him to relieve the symptoms, such as misery, discontent, despair, and so on. Jesus, by contrast, knows that He cannot relieve these symptoms unless e overcomes their deep, inner cause. And this is where the problems arise. While we would like to be rid of the symptoms, we stubbornly resist the efforts of Jesus to penetrate our souls. We do not want our deep-set feelings and attitudes to be changed. But only when we truly open our souls to the transforming grace of God will the symptoms of spiritual disease begin to disappear.—Saint John Chrysostom
What hit me about these words was the fact that I’ve been praying the same prayers for my whole life. “Please help me lose weight.” “Please help me be at peace with so-and-so.” “Please help me overcome depression and be happy.” And recently, “Please take away this pain in my neck and leg.” All prayers aimed at the symptoms rather than at my soul. So, this morning as I stood before my icons reading these words, I prayed:
Of course I still want to lose weight and have less pain and depression and more peace and joy. But I also want God to cure my spiritual and moral disease. I guess it always comes back to seeking Him first….
In 2012 Memphis author, Courtney Miller Santo, wrote her first novel as her master’s thesis for the University of Memphis’s MFA program. Then she entered The Roots of the Olive Tree in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition, where literary agent Alexandra Machinist saw it and offered to represent her. Machinist sold the book to HarperCollins. And so we have another example of a non-traditional route to traditional publishing. (Last Wednesday I wrote about a similar publishing experience, as another Memphis writer, Lisa Turner’s first novel’s success as a free eBook on Amazon led to an agent and a two-book deal, also with HarperCollins.)
Last night Santo gave a reading of her second novel, Three Story House (William Morrow) at The Booksellers at Laurelwood. Here’s a review in the Commercial Appeal if you’re interested. She read to a packed house with standing room only, and that’s saying something considering there’s seating for about sixty folks. I had a great time with Emma Connolly, who was in Richard Bausch’s fiction workshop with Courtney at the University of Memphis a while back. Emma and I are in a Memphis writers’ group together.
I’m intrigued by the novel, which is about three young women who move into an old house on the Mississippi River bluff in Memphis and renovate it. On the back cover:
This sharply observed account of the restoration of a house built out of spite but filled with memories of love is also a tale of friendship and a lesson in how relying on one another’s insights and strengths provides the women with a way to get what they need instead of what they want.
Can’t wait to find out about this house built out of spite and the lessons these women learn. I’m putting Three Story House in the queue right behind my current read (Jeanette Walls’s novel, The Silver Star,) and Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen. So many books! What are you reading here at the end of summer? Did you finish your “beach reads” or your “summer reading list”? I’d love to hear about it!
As I continue to read about aging (just finished Diane Keaton’s wonderful new memoir, Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, which I loved, especially her chapter, “Old is Gold.” And I’m continuing to read and absorb Sally Thomason’s amazing book, The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out) I find myself looking for creative ways to embrace this seventh decade of my life. And to keep my brain active, since my mother has Alzheimer’s and her mother also had it. As I mentioned recently, I’m trying to re-learn bridge, after a thirty-year hiatus. But I also want to bring art back into my life. I know that writing is art, but I’m talking about visual arts.
At a party we hosted recently, one of our guests (a fine arts major who now does counseling) commented on some of my icons on the wall in our dining room and a whimsical piece of illustrated poetry hanging in my office. He couldn’t believe that I haven’t painted in over ten years. With the exception of a few Sunday afternoons back in 2007 when my friend, Julie, invited me to join the “Mixed Bag Ladies.”
We gathered at her apartment on Sunday afternoons. One woman worked on a collection of small acrylic canvases to hang as a group. On another Sunday she was throwing pots. One person did realistic oil painting. And one woman was experimenting with finger painting with makeup! I brought a poem I had written and illustrated it with gouache (opaque water colors). Couldn’t seem to get away from writing. But later I also started a painting of my daughter and me on her first morning after arriving from South Korea. That painting, which I started in September of 2007, is still unfinished….
“But I’ve been busy writing,” I defended my “retirement” from painting. “I’ve published 13 essays and completed four book-length manuscripts since I quit painting.” He wasn’t having it. “You’ve got to get back to this.” He made some other ego-boosting comments, but it wasn’t his praise that peeked my interest. It was the concept of making art for relaxation. For the health of psyche and soul. I told him I’d think about it.
I am 63 years old and I like to color. I don’t like to knit or crochet. Recently I bought this Modern Art Masterpieces coloring book and a nice set of colored pencils. I’ll never be a master of abstract expressionism but I can enjoy watching these designs come to life as I color them in. I usually do this while I’m alone in the house, sitting in my chair that looks out onto our lovely courtyard where hummingbirds sometimes visit.
This morning I discovered another book, in the Isabella Catalog, Coloring Mandalas. Mandala-making is a sacred art found in many cultures and traditions. Coloring a mandala focuses the attention and nourishes the psyche and senses. It can be relaxing, but also healing. I’m going to order one of these coloring books today.
I’m also considering learning origami. For my 60th birthday, one of the wonderful hand-made gifts my daughter, Beth, gave me was this string of 60 origami cranes. (Here’s a video showing how to make them.) Beth had been researching wedding traditions for her wedding, which was two months after my 60th birthday.
She discovered the Japanese tradition of making 1000 cranes for good luck for the bride and groom. We decided that was too much to take on since we were already making her save-the-dates, invitations, and table decorations ourselves. But I love my 60 cranes.
By the way, the other gift my daughter made for my 60th birthday is this amazing “shadow box” and its accompanying book which explains what each of the 60 handmade three-dimensional items represent. She made this and gave it to me two months before her wedding!
I just re-read the book explaining each square and now I’m all stopped up from crying. The first square is about our trips to the beach together… including a couple she and I made alone, just the two of us.
I kept my art desk, paints, brushes and canvases set up in my office in our last house. For two years. I never touched any of it. So when we moved into this new house, I relegated the art desk and supplies to an upstairs room which also houses lots of boxes of “storage” items. No windows. Not a very inviting space for creating art. It will be interesting to see whether or not I get back into those paints at some point. If I do, it will be for the joy of the doing, not in order to produce something. For now, my spirit is embracing coloring modern art and mandalas. And maybe learning origami. Just writing this makes me smile.
If you’re here for my usual “Faith on Friday” post, please come back next Friday. Or, because today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (in the Orthodox Christian Church) you can read a nice post about the importance of the Mother of God, “Leaving Mary Out,” by Father Stephen Freeman.) In this icon, Christ is receiving His mother’s soul into Heaven.)
Meanwhile, I’m more focused on the body than the soul today. Please don’t judge me.
It’s just that I didn’t know that at age 63 my body would be demanding so much of my attention. Even before my car wreck last summer (which left me with a broken neck, leg and ankle and lots of permanent hardware, stiffness, and pain) I was frustrated with my own lack of self-discipline in the area of exercise. We have an elliptical machine in my office with a big screen TV to distract me, and yet I don’t use it half as much as I should. And when I go for walks in our neighborhood, my ankle usually hurts afterwards.
Hard to believe that I ran an aerobic dance business back in the ‘80s. (Yep, that’s me in the black and blue leotard, with some of my instructors in 1986.) And yet even when I weighed 115-120 pounds (at 5 feet 5 inches) I still thought I was fat. My eating disorders and body image distortion were in full swing, even during the years that I looked healthy. What I wouldn’t give to have that “fat” body back today!
This morning I walked to our nearby coffee shop and on the way I ran into a neighbor. She was returning home from her workout at the inbalance fitness center, which is also about two blocks from our house, near the coffee shop. (And it’s open 24/7.) She’s about my age, but trim and fit. She told me that she has a personal trainer who designs and then adjusts her workout program for her. With my background in the fitness business, I could do this for myself at home (although I only have bands and no machines for upper body work) but I can’t seem to make myself.
I ran into another neighbor, who is at least ten years older than me, the other day. She was walking her dog and usually stops to chat when I’m reading on my front porch. But that day she said she didn’t have time to chat… she needed to get to her yoga class. She’s also very slim and fit. I wish I could do yoga, but I can’t do most of the positions required due to my injuries and also arthritic knees.
Exercising in the water would be great, but I’m embarrassed (and yes, too proud) to be seen in a swim suit in public. (Somehow I lose that inhibition at the beach.) Hoping to win the lottery (or get a good book deal) so we can afford to put in an “endless pool” outside our sun room.
Maybe it’s time for some outside help. I’m tired of my body kicking my soul’s ass.
We sat outside on the patio at Celtic Crossing, an Irish pub in the artsy Cooper Young neighborhood of Memphis, last night—a group of six writers discussing our craft and the ever-changing world of publishing. Another “cold snap” brought us cool breezes and low humidity, unusual and wonderful for Memphis in August. One in our group—Sybil MacBeth—is preparing for the publication of her fifth book at the end of October. The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas and Epiphany Extremist, is available for pre-order from Paraclete Press. The cool weather made its anticipation crisper and we shared her excitement as we hailed the end of summer and the approach of autumn.
Beers, burgers, whiskey and sides (pretty good pimento cheese for an Irish pub!) added to the festive feeling of the evening. After catching up on each person’s current writing projects, the conversation turned to publishing.
“Did y’all see the article in Sunday’s Commercial Appeal about Lisa Turner’s new novel?” Dan asked. Turner grew up and lives in Memphis. Her novel, The Gone Dead Train, according to Peggy Burch’s review in the CA, is “saturated with Memphis lore and atmosphere.”
I had read the article with interest. Not so much about the novel itself, but about Turner’s publishing journey.
“Yes. Another example of a circuitous route to big house publication,” I said.
Dan and I went on to explain to the others what we had read about Turner’s path to HarperCollins. Back in 2010 she published her debut novel, A Little Death in Dixie, with a local small press, Bell Bridge Books. They offered it first as a free ebook and it went to the top of its Kindle category on Amazon, even beating out Mockingjay as No. 1 for several weeks. The book’s success raised the interest of a literary agent who got Turner a two-book deal with HarperCollins.
Another woman in our writing group is working with an academic press on her first book. And one more, Ellen Prewitt, has an anthology she edited—Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness—just out from the new hybrid, Triton Press. Ellen is also querying agents with a novel.
Me? I’m still waiting to hear back from the agent who is reading the last round of revisions of my novel, hoping she will take me on and find a home for Cherry Bomb in one of the big houses.
I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s in Jackson, Mississippi, where I learned to play bridge in two arenas—around the swimming pool at the Colonial Country Club in the summers, and by watching my parents’ duplicate bridge club when they met at our house. I was allowed to watch if I didn’t talk, so I would silently walk around each table, pausing to watch each player bid and play their hands. This wasn’t the social setting of the women’s bridge club in The Help.
My best friend, Jan, and I also learned bridge from her grandmother, Helen Van Hook, who was a Grand Master and played at tournaments all over the South. Helen’s husband, Benjamin Van Hook, taught math at Vanderbilt, was athletic director at Millsaps College and later taught math and was the golf coach at Southern Mississippi, but that’s another story. I guess my point is that these folks had brains that were firing on all cylinders. I always felt a bit intimidated in their presence when I was a kid. And I still feel that way as an adult when I’m around really smart people.
So when a neighbor recently asked me if I would be interested in joining her bridge club, I was interested, but also a bit frightened. It has been over 30 years since my husband and I played—with his parents and mine—and then only occasionally. When we were young adults, we played Spades or Hearts with our friends—much easier games to play while socializing.
The club has been playing on Friday afternoons, which won’t work for me, so I told her I’d play if they changed the day. While waiting to hear back from her, I’m frantically trying to brush up on the game. Online tutorials are helpful, (like this one from the math department at Cornell) but they also remind me how much I’ve forgotten! These women, like me, are in their sixties. But I fear they are much smarter than I am. Why would I put myself into such stress over something that’s supposed to be fun?
My friend assured me they’re not overly serious and will help me remember how to play. So I’m thinking it would be a good Alzheimer’s-fighting exercise, right? Studies, like the 90+ Study, done at a retirement community in California, show that certain mental activities help, but that the social component is also important, which is why playing bridge might be the perfect combination.
Since my work as a writer keeps me isolated (and often lonely) this would provide a regular (weekly) social and mental exercise. Stay tuned to find out whether or not they want me badly enough to change the club’s meeting day. Meanwhile, I’m trying to remember what a jump bid in notrump means….
My prayer is against the deeds of the wicked. (Psalm 141:5)
I couldn’t sleep last night. I turned out my light around 10:30. At 12:30 I was tired of tossing and turning, so I got up and went into the living room and read for two hours. At 2:30 I went back to bed. The last time I looked at the clock it was close to 4:00 a.m. My alarm went off at 7:30, and I awoke to that yucky nausea that comes from sleep deprivation. This morning I am considering the possible cause(s).
Caffeine. I’ve been drinking too much Coke, especially in the afternoon and evening. But usually my legs (restless leg syndrome) warn me when I’ve gone over my limit. It wasn’t my legs that were restless last night. It was my mind.
What was the last thing my mind focused on before bed last night? The images on the news—and from links on Facebook—of the genocide in Iraq. Watch this video from CNN about a Christian businessman from California who is calling on the U.S. to stop the “Christian Holocaust” in Iraq. ISIS is beheading children and putting their heads on sticks and displaying them in a park. They are raping the mothers and murdering the fathers.
ISIS issued this warning to Iraqi Christians:
Leave by Saturday or face three choices: Convert to Islam, pay a protection tax, or death by the sword.
300,000 Christians are fleeing Iraq, running for their lives to the hill country, where they have no food or water.
In this video an Iraqi woman says,
This is a crime against Iraq. Christians and Muslims, we’ve lived together as brothers for a long time. We just want peace and love.
Thousands of Aramean Christians have suffered beheadings, crucifixions and more. This article yesterday in the Orthodox Christian Network says:
The Nineveh plains are now emptied from its native Christians, who belong to the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Chaldean and Assyrian (Nestorian) churches in the region. This is the second region that has been emptied from its Aramean population for the first time in its millennia-old history. Thus, an ancient civilization, cultural heritage and population have been destroyed and erased from Iraq’s future.
Western governments and mainstream media have remained utterly silent and ignored the cries for help by the Arameans.
Yesterday I joined thousands of other Memphians in exercising my right to vote in our local elections, a freedom I often take for granted. What a contrast—watching the election results come in on the news, and then watching the horrible crimes against humanity happening in Iraq.
How can anyone sleep? What can we do?
On a personal level, the main thing I plan to do is to pray. In my personal prayers at home. And I’ll join with my brothers and sisters in the Paraklesis (Intercessory) Prayers to the Mother of God tonight at Saint John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. Here are some of the words we will pray together tonight, for ourselves, and especially for those suffering in Iraq. (You can watch the nuns at an Orthodox monastery chanting these prayers in this video.)
The turmoils of this life encircle me like unto bees about a honeycomb, O Virgin, and they have seized and now hold my heart captive, and I am pierced with the stings of afflictions, Maid; yet be, O all-holy one, my defender and helper and rescuer.
Preserve and save, O Theotokos, your servants from every danger; after God do all of us for refuge flee to you; you are a firm rampart and our protection.
With good will, look on me, O all-hymned Theotokos; behold my body’s grievous infirmity, and heal the cause of my soul’s sorrow.