It’s no wonder that the winner of the Harbor Town (our neighborhood on the Mississippi River) Best Overall Halloween House is Irish. My neighbor two doors down has spent weeks preparing her yard for this celebration. Just as many of her relatives in Ireland are celebrating a national holiday, including fireworks and no school for the kids. It all started as a Celtic celebration. And yes, I’m aware of the pagan roots and traditions. And yes, our kids will tell you that we didn’t let them go trick-or-treating until the year we moved to Memphis—1988—due to our radical, conservative Christian views on the evil elements of the festival. My husband still isn’t a big fan, but I enjoy participating in the lighter aspects of the holiday.
Earlier this afternoon my doorbell rang. When I answered the door, I was greeted by a reporter and cameraman from WREG Channel 3. The reporter asked if she could interview me for the 6 p.m. news. The topic? “How are you preparing for Halloween in Harbor Town?” She mentioned that other neighbors had told her that as many as 800 kids have pounded the sidewalks in Harbor Town seeking treats. This is only our third year here, and last year I was still in a wheel chair, but I watched this throng moving up and down our street, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were that many.
During the 25 or so years that we lived in midtown, vanloads of kids were driven to our neighborhood from less safe parts of town so that they could have a safe and bountiful trick-or-treat experience. I’m sure this happens in many neighborhoods in cities all over the country. Fortunately we have security guards and police positioned at various spots around the neighborhood tonight to discourage “tricks,” and an official policy of only
giving out candy from 5:30-7:30 p.m. (or whenever your candy runs out!) I personally don’t give candy to teenagers who aren’t wearing costumes, my own personal version of “no shirt, no service.” And the cute little kids usually come during the first hour, so I should have plenty of candy for them.
After 7:30? We’re going to a grown-up Halloween Party… at the same house that won the decorating contest, of course! Those Irish people know how to partyJ Happy Halloween! Have fun and be safe!
Below are more pictures around the neighborhood….
It’s been a pensive day. A day for taking long walks in the crisp, cool, fall air. A day for soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the beautiful autumn wreaths on my neighbors’ doors. (See photos at end of post.) And yes, even the spooky Halloween decorations that have popped up throughout Harbor Town. (Two doors down our neighbors have just won “Best Overall” in the Halloween competition. They’ve invited us to their “grown up” party after trick-or-treating is over on Friday night. Watch for more pictures on Friday.)
And it’s been a day for processing the synchronicity of last night’s “salon” at my house, featuring the wise and wonderful Sally Thomason. And the eclectic group of women who came together to explore a topic of great importance. We discussed Sally’s book, The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out. And we told our stories. Twenty women who are mostly in the second halves of our lives.
Those women and their stories were so much on my mind all day that I couldn’t decide what to write about for this post until tonight. I have so many treasures I’m exploring from the evening that it’s hard to write a brief blog post. So I’m going share only one quote from Sally, and then one quote (which Sally included in the same chapter of the book) from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. First, from Sally: (who turned 80 in March, but wrote these words when she was 65)
I have passed the midpoint of my life. In fact, I am well into the descent. But contrary to the popular connotation of equating descent with decline, I view this descent as a call to explore myself more fully, to descend into the depths of being, and to probe this experience of aging as a new and extraordinary phase of human living.
We talked a little bit last night about having a map for that descent. I found much help for my map in one section of Sally’s book in which she included seven steps for the journey into old age that have been identified by Jungians Bruce Baker and Jane Wheelwright. The seventh step, “the engagement of unused potentials,” encourages me to tap into my creativity for purposes beyond my own satisfaction. This is something I’m going to continue to explore, especially in the arena of writing—and hopefully one day publishing—a novel.
I’ll close with these words from Mary Oliver’s book, Winter Hours:
There is something you can tell people over and over, and with feeling and eloquence, and still never say it well enough for it to be more than news from abroad—people have no readiness for it no empathy. It is the news of personal aging—of climbing and knowing it, to some unrepeatable pitch and coming forth on the other side, which is pleasant still but which is, unarguably, different—which is the beginning of descent.
I’m sure lots of folks experience loneliness at some time in their lives, whether they live alone or with a spouse. Even with a houseful of children. On my morning walk today I thought about loneliness, even as I enjoyed the cool breeze on my face as the sun began to warm up the day. I sat in the harbor and listened to the birds and watched the sun glistening on the water. I knew I was going to write about loneliness today, but I didn’t know what to say.
My post back in June, “Eudaimonia,” addressed some aspects of loneliness. This morning I found an article (it’s not new but I found it helpful) in Psychology Today, “Six Tips for Battling Loneliness,” that mentions the difference between loneliness and solitude. I get that. There are times when I love to be alone—to think, pray, read, write, walk, or even to watch a TV show without interruption. But then there are times when I hunger for a human connection. Even something beyond what my husband can provide.
This weekend was one of those times. Our best friends had gone to New Orleans and on to Baton Rouge for the Ole Miss-LSU football game. We decided to invite someone over to watch the game Saturday night and share some BBQ pork roast. I put the roast in the crock pot before we began calling people, hoping our last-minute plans would work out. Three phone calls later we had struck out. All the people we thought of inviting were either at the game, at the beach, on their way home from an out-of-town wedding, or babysitting a granddaughter. A granddaughter who lives in town. (Ours are in Denver, remember?)
My husband rarely feels lonely. He’s happy to be here with just me, the ball game on TV, his lap top computer, and some good food. I tried to keep my spirits up, serving our BBQ (and freezing lots of leftovers) and making frozen margaritas. We cheered for the Rebels ‘til the bitter end. The next day I went to church and had another one of those mornings when I felt lonely even amongst a crowd of people. I know it’s something inside of me that needs more work. Here are some of the tips that Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, offered in her Psychology Today article. I hope none of my readers are lonely, but if you are, I hope this helps.
1. Remember that although the distinction can be difficult to draw, loneliness and solitude are different…. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.
2. Nurturing others — raising children, teaching, caring for animals — helps to alleviate loneliness.
3. Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having one of these elements may still leave you feeling lonely.
4. Work hard to get your sleep. Sleep deprivation, under any circumstances, brings down people’s moods, makes them more likely to get sick, and dampens their energy, so it’s important to tackle this issue. (Fortunately I’m sleeping well these days, so this isn’t part of the issue for me.)
5. Try to figure out what’s missing from your life…. making lots of plans with friends isn’t always the solution…. Sometimes you need the quiet presence of another person.
6. Take steps to connect with other people (to state the obvious). Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. The pain of loneliness can prod you to connect with other people. (Which is what happened on Saturday, but our plans didn’t work out.)
Okay, I hope this doesn’t sound whiny, because I’m moving on with plans to host another literary salon at our house tomorrow night (expecting over 20 women for this one) so I’m off to finish shopping for some of the food and beverages. I love creating special events. They’re not a cure for loneliness, but they’re a step in the right direction. Have a great week, everyone.
Yesterday I spent about an hour crafting a book review to post on Amazon. I was reviewing the book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poem, and Food, As Seen by a Mother and Daughter, by Joanna ES Campbell and the Rev. Joanna J. Seibert, M.D. Last weekend I went to Little Rock for the book launch, which was such a great experience. My best friend lives in Little Rock, and she and I discovered people we knew and people we’d like to know as folks streamed into Trapnall Hall steadily for two hours to meet the authors and purchase the book. (There was a second author at the launch whom we also enjoyed meeting: Kathryn B. Alexander, who was signing her book, Saving Beauty: A Theological Aesthetics of Nature.)
I’ve done numerous Amazon reviews over the years, but yesterday’s experience was new and unexpected. My review was rejected. Here’s what the email from Amazon said:
Thanks for submitting a customer review on Amazon. Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form. While we appreciate your time and comments, reviews must adhere to the following guidelines:
We encourage you to revise your review and submit it again.
I studied my review. I compared it to the only other review posted for the book so far. I couldn’t find anything “wrong” with the review, so I’ve decided to publish it here in its original form. Then I’ll shorten it a bit (especially the quotes, since that’s an issue they mentioned) and resubmit it. But for you, my readers, here’s the original review. If you go to the Amazon site for the book and read the first review published there, I’d love your thoughts on why it passed and this one did not. Note the “Verified Purchase” line? I did not purchase the book from Amazon. But I’ve reviewed other books on Amazon which I’ve purchased elsewhere, so I don’t think this was the problem. Anyway, it’s a lovely book and I hope my review encourages you to read it.
Tar Balls, Chockecherries and Greek Salad, October 23, 2014
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food, As Seen by a Mother and Daughter (Paperback)
“Food is our common denominator. Sharing meals has the power to distract us from our worries and set our eyes on what is important, if only for a brief moment.” These words in the introduction to this thoughtful book are offered by the daughter in the mother-daughter team who authored “Taste and See.” If we stop reading there, the book doesn’t sound any different than the myriads of other books about food that are trending right now. But Ms. Campbell doesn’t stop there. She continues, “These are moments of grace where we are able to truly taste and see that God is good and sharing meals is often a medium for these simple and profound moments. These interactions are seeds that begin to slowly germinate, helping us to see how we are all connected and how we are held in the palm of God’s hand.”
“Taste and See” isn’t just about food. Or just about God. It’s about a sense of place–whether the authors are reflecting on favorite vacation spots like Gulf Shores, Alabama (before, during and after hurricanes and oil spills), inspirational trips to Greece, cultural excursions in China, or relationships between parent and child or husband and wife. “Cooking As a Spiritual Practice” surprised me with its absence of eucharistic metaphors. And I loved discovering that Joanna (the mother) didn’t like to cook, but did a great job making communion bread, which I also did for our parish for many years. (And I also don’t like to cook.) And how the daughter of this non-cook turned out to be a “Radical Foodie Southern Health Nut,” (another chapter in the book.) This same daughter’s poem, “Arkansas,” reminds me of my own love-hate relationship with the state of my own childhood, Mississippi.
All that to say this is a book many people can relate to. It’s unexpected. Refreshing. I agree with Jennifer Horne’s blurb that the book hearkens me back to Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor’s mother-daughter book, “Traveling With Pomegranates.” Maybe an alternate title for this one would be, “Traveling With Tar Balls, Chockecherries and Greek Salad.” Kudos to both authors.
I finally heard back from the agent who’s been reading the novel I worked with an editor to revise this past year. Before I share her email and update you on the next step, here’s a recap of Cherry Bomb’s conception and progress: (dates are approximate)
2010-2011: Drafted novel and submitted early chapters to various workshops and writing groups.
2011: First three chapters made the short list for “Novel in Progress” at the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.
2011-2012: Worked with freelance editor and three early readers on major revisions.
2012-2013: Spent six months querying literary agents. The 75th agent I queried loved the book and asked me to work with an editor on further revisions.
May 2013: Began work with current editor.
July 2013: Car wreck. Everything stopped for almost a year.
July 2014: Sent revisions back to literary agent.
October 2014: Heard back from agent’s assistant after several folks in her office read this round of revisions:
(Agent’s Name) has asked me to send you her best regards and to thank you for sending the revised Cherry Bomb, which our readers, and (Agent’s Name), have had time to review. Congratulations on this last edit! We know how hard you have worked on your book and it has certainly improved a lot.
As before, we think your storyline is commercial and unique. Our readers and (Agent’s Name) thoroughly enjoyed your smooth and vivid writing style, and the characters are real and believable, especially Elaine and Mare. The pacing is great and we feel that your book has commercial potential.
However, we think that your story could be fleshed out more as it seems to be rather rushed especially towards to the end and given that the story is shorter than most books, there is room to develop the characters and events.
The Elaine and Mare’s POV’s seem reasonably well connected, but Neema’s story doesn’t now somehow fit into the narrative since the last edit. We think that without Neema’s point of view, Elaine and Mare’s stories would become more compelling. Or further linking Neema with the other two narratives would also work better. This sometimes happens as story’s develop and Elaine and Mare’s characters are really well rounded now.
We would love your book to be ready to send out, but we are sure you are aware that polishing a book up to publishable standard is a long process that often requires several steps, as today publishers require books to be 99% ready and the market is tough.
We know that you have been diligently working with the editor to refine Cherry Bomb, and we do urge you to continue to work on your book. It is a really fascinating story and well researched.
As always we would be very happy to read your book again after further editing.
We hope you have a lovely day, Susan, and again we are sorry your book isn’t ready yet but it has improved tremendously.
The reality is this: 52k words is too short for a mass market novel, and it seems like your readers are telling you exactly where the extra 30k or so words have to come from: Neema. If she doesn’t feel integrated now (and I’ll certainly be able to speak to that more elegantly after I read), AND if the prose around her is still as strong as it was last year, the solution is to tease out that storyline to more fullness. I know that the thought of adding so much content seems daunting, but please do not worry! After this round of reading, we will have a very clear picture of how to develop Neema’s story, and I’ll keep an eye out as I read for other areas of content that might be able to use some extra breathing room.
Looking so forward to getting started!
So now I’m waiting to receive the editor’s overview and hopefully some clear direction on fleshing out the Neema character more fully and integrating her into the story—connecting her to Mare and Elaine more solidly.
I’m sharing all of this for my readers who are also writers, just so you’ll see how long and involved the process of writing and revising a novel for publication can sometimes be. And for my readers who are not writers, but who keep asking how the novel is coming along. I hope to receive the editor’s new overview soon so I can get back to work. This waiting part is difficult—I don’t feel “free” enough to keep working on the other novel I started in May, so I’m using this lull to catch up on other projects: Decorating our front porch for Halloween, designing our 2014 Christmas cards, critiquing manuscripts for my Memphis writing group, and hosting another literary salon on October 28. Stay tuned for updates as I begin Round Three on the novel revisions. And always, thanks for reading!
Before I moved my mother into Lakeland Nursing home early in 2008, she lived at Ridgeland Point Assisted Living for a couple of years. I wrote numerous blog posts about those days, and also about her time in the nursing home. One of those posts was published as an essay in the Southern Women’s Review in 2010: “The Glasses.” (You have to scroll down to page 36 to read the essay.) Or you can read it on an old blog post from 2008, here.
I was thinking about that story this morning and decided to write a follow up. It started last Thursday when I visited mom in the nursing home. I’ve been mostly pleased with her care there these past 6-7 years, but last week several things concerned me.
When I arrived at Lakeland the halls were fairly empty. Mom is often “parked” in her wheelchair—along with many other residents—right by the nurses’ station on her wing. From her perch she can watch the comings and goings, and often smiles at everyone. The nurses and aides will smile back and say “Hi, Miss Effie.” She seems content in her ever-shrinking world. But last Thursday most of the residents were in the dining hall, listening to a woman who was playing the guitar and singing. She had a good voice, and I know my mother would love the live music, I was happy to see the music being provided. But I scanned the room and was disappointed to find that Mom wasn’t in there.
I stopped by the nurses’ station and asked where she was.
“She’s in her room,” answered a nurse I hadn’t seen before.
I stepped into Mom’s room and found her sitting by the window in her wheelchair. She smiled when she saw me, but immediately said, “I’m hot.” The sun was shining directly on her face. She had a heavy sweater around her shoulders and neck, and the wheels were locked on her chair, so she couldn’t scoot away from the sun. Trapped. While everyone else was in the dining hall listening to music.
After removing her sweater and unlocking her wheels and moving her into the shade, we visited for a few minutes. I had brought her some new clothes, so she watched as I took them from the Stein Mart bag and cut the tags off. First a colorful blouse and three camisoles. Next some soft socks and a new nightgown. Finally some new slippers. She touched all the fabrics and exclaimed with delight over the textures and colors. After I put them in her closet, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her glasses.
“Where are your glasses, Mom?”
She rubbed her eyes (allergies) and looked around the room. “I don’t know.”
I searched her room and couldn’t find them. “I’ll be right back.”
I headed down the hall and found the nurse—the one I hadn’t met before—and asked her about the glasses. “I’ll call one of the aides.” She didn’t bother to look in the room herself, or to apologize.
“I’ve searched her drawers and all around her bed. She has two pair, so surely you can find one of them. Her vision is completely blurry without them.”
She started to walk away when I stopped her. “Wait. I have a question. Why isn’t Mom in the dining room listening to the music with the other residents?” An aide had walked up and joined us at this point.
“We take her to activities all the time.” Her tone was defensive.
“Mom can’t really do most of the ‘activities,’ due to her Alzheimer’s, but she loves music. I’m really sad that she’s not in there.”
“You can take her down there now.”
“It’s almost over, but I want to be sure she’s included in the future, and I’m concerned as to why she was left out today.”
“Well, your mother can’t eat (she has a feeding tube) and they often serve snacks and it would just be mean for her to sit there and watch everyone else eat.”
“Mom doesn’t even know what food is, and it doesn’t bother her to watch people eat. She still goes to meals just to be around people.” The aid nodded. “I’d like to speak with a social worker about this, please.”
“I’ll page one for you.”
“Okay, I’ll be in Mom’s room.”
I went back into Mom’s room and continued to search for her glasses. No one came to help me, and no social worker showed up. Finally I needed to leave to drive back to Memphis. When I got home I called and asked for the social worker. The director of social services wasn’t there but they put me through to a social worker. I told her my concerns, and she said she would be sure Mom was taken to any music events in the future. Then I asked about her glasses.
“I’ve got some here in my drawer that have been turned in,” she said.
“Great. Why don’t you take a picture of them and text it to me. I would recognize them.”
She texted me pictures of two pair. They weren’t Mom’s glasses. I decided to send her a picture of Mom wearing her glasses, to help her recognize them.
“I’ll check the other glasses in my drawer and see if they match.”
She never called me back.
That was last Friday. I was out of town Saturday and Sunday but I called this morning to see if they had found her glasses. I got her voice mail. So I asked for the nurses’ station. A nurse answered and I told her my concerns. She put me on hold to go and see if Mom had her glasses on this morning. No. And she couldn’t find them in her room. She apologized and said she would search the rooms of others who wear glasses. Maybe an aid put them in the wrong room after taking the residents to the shower or something. I told her about my concerns about the music and Mom being “trapped” in her room and all that. She was sweet and apologetic. I’m hoping this was an isolated incident.
It’s so hard when someone is completely helpless and dependent upon the kindness of others for their care. An 86-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s and bad eye sight and no “voice” to speak up for herself. I’m trying to be her advocate, and hopefully I found help with this sweet nurse this morning. She’s going to call me this afternoon and let me know about the glasses. And she’s going to talk with others about being sure Mom is taken to musical events in the future. I’m much more at peace after talking with her. Just praying they find her glasses….
A happy update: at 11:15 the nurse called me back to say they found her glasses! She has them on and is “happily wheeling herself up and down the hall again.” I am so thankful.
My friend and fellow Memphis writer, Sybil MacBeth, has a new book out just in time for families to use in their preparation for Christmas. It’s called The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas & Epiphany Extremist.
If Sybil’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of her best-selling books, Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God, Praying in Black and White, Praying in Color: Kids’ Edition, and Praying in Color–Portable Edition. Sybil also does workshops all over the world.
The Western traditions surrounding Christmas differ at bit from the Eastern Orthodox practices that my church has embraced for many years, but the approach is similar. And the book not only suggests activities your family can do together, it also shares the author’s personal spiritual struggles, addressing issues many readers probably also face.
Come to the Booksellers at Laurelwood for the launch of The Season of the Nativity on November 13. But you might want to get the book sooner so you can begin to enjoy the activities leading up to Christmas!
This morning I woke up wondering what I’d blog about today. I spent some time skimming parts of Margaret Anne Doody’s massive academic work, The True Story of the Novel (Rutgers University Press, 1996) and considered writing about “literary tropes of fiction” or about “characters as artists” in the novel. Both topics interested me but the material was so heavy I couldn’t pull just the excerpts I wanted to show how her research and wisdom might affect my writing.
With my morning coffee I got started on my friend Jennifer Horne’s new collection of short stories, Tell the World You’re A Wildflower (University of Alabama Press, 2014). There’s something magical, something very special here, so I decided to wait and give it a full review later. But hey—don’t wait on me! Buy the book NOW and get started on a special literary treat! (Enjoy this interview with Jennifer in Deep South Magazine.)
Finally I scrolled through my Facebook writing groups, and landed on an interesting post in the group, “Binder Full of Memoirists.” Sherry Amatenstein (LCSW, NYU professor, author) led a workshop called, “Feeding the Writer’s Ego” at the Out of the Binders Symposium on Women Writers Today last weekend in New York City. I was interested because—like many writers—I work alone. I get lonely. I get depressed. I have feelings of self-doubt. This must be a common enough problem to warrant a workshop session addressing the issue, right? Writing groups and other opportunities for interaction with fellow writers helps. But there’s still “the hours”….
So, I found this tip from the above workshop interesting:
Write down at least 20 of your positive traits – keep adding to the CREATIVITY BRAG PAGE. Read it daily, especially when you need a booster shot of self-esteem or when your writing gets rejected.
Sounds kind of self-involved, but I might try it and see if it helps pull me up out of those inevitable funks that come crashing down on my creativity from time to time. Like today.
I missed our monthly writer’s group last night. It meets the same night as our neighborhood’s social club gatherings, so I alternate attending these events. My husband and I have met some great folks at the social club parties. It’s a way to reach out beyond our usual circles of acquaintances (his mostly medical and church friends; mine mostly writers and church friends). So last night, we both had stimulating conversations with architects (3 of them!), nurses (2), a lawyer, a college professor, a freelance writer, and a guy who sells Hunter ceiling fans. The host had a terrific art collection, including a 1970s piece by Mary Sims, whose work I love. As we walked the two blocks home from the party, we shared some of our conversations and agreed that we were glad we went.
But I still missed my writing buddies. So tomorrow I’m looking forward to having lunch with Ellen Ann Fentress—a writer friend who lives in Jackson, Mississippi. I’ll be visiting my mom at the nursing home, so I scheduled a lunch date with Ellen Ann. We used to trade manuscripts-in-progress for critiquing, but we both let that slide at some point. I’m looking forward to talking shop again.
This is getting rambly so I’ll close. But first, an update for those who read my post on Monday. I got the results from my Upper GI, and thankfully I don’t have any “strictures, ulcers or masses.” Just the reflux and a small hiatal hernia, both of which we already knew about. My physician is recommending motilium—a drug the FDA hasn’t approved for use in the U.S. yet. But he can prescribe it for me through a Canadian web site. It takes two weeks to receive it and another two weeks for it to begin working, so I’ll have to be patient. Meanwhile, I’m greatly relieved that I don’t have cancer or some other serious diagnosis! Thanks so much for reading and for all the good wishes and prayers! See you again on Friday.
This morning I had an upper GI series done at St. Francis Hospital. I’ve been having pretty severe GERD (reflux), nausea, abdominal pain, and some vomiting on an off for several months, so it was time to check it out. When I met with my GI doc a couple of weeks ago, we discussed the options and decided not to do an endoscopy at this time. I was glad, since it’s more evasive and involves anesthesia. But the Upper GI isn’t very pleasant. I’ve been finished with the test for four hours now and I’m having severe cramping pain in my abdomen… hopefully it’s just the barium making its way through the plumbing.
TMI? Sorry if this grosses you out… but it’s the necessary backstory for my mental health post today. You see, I’ve been anxious about my gut for a while now. Worried that I’ve got (a) cancer, (b) an ulcer, (c) something else. (I already know I have a hiatal hernia, from a test done back in 2007.) Last night and this morning I prayed, asking God to help the doctors diagnosis the situation accurately. But also that the findings wouldn’t be too scary and that I would be at peace about the results, and the cure or treatment. That’s the mental health part.
I read this list of “24 Characteristics of Mentally Healthy People” this morning before heading to the hospital. Here’s Number 1:
They are not overwhelmed by their own emotions – fears, anger, love, jealousy, guilt or worries.
I’ve always been anxious. As a child I was given some sort of pills to sleep at night. And now as a (senior) adult, I still struggle to be at peace during difficult situations. I had frequent nightmares and walked in my sleep through my early teen years.
And here’s an interesting post, “18 Things Mentally Strong People Do” (originally from a Forbes article.) Check out Number 17:
They tolerate discomfort
I’ve had 15 months to learn to tolerate discomfort, after breaking my neck, right leg and ankle in a car wreck, and enduring months in a hospital bed, neck brace, cast, wheel chair, walker, and finally physical therapy. Somehow I felt more peaceful during the early months after the wreck than I feel today. Maybe it’s because my injuries were specific. I was dealing with known entities. Waiting on the results from my Upper GI test (and putting up with the pain and reflux) seems more difficult. But of course it’s not intolerable. It’s just uncomfortable. That’s what a mentally strong and healthy person would say, right?
I’m working on it.
My friend (and Goddaughter) Sue and I worked together on an art project this week. Sue is an excellent artist, with a degree in fine arts and then ongoing training in the realist school. She does portraits and landscapes in oil. On the other hand, I have no formal art training, but I did study, practice and teach iconography for several years. So when we volunteered to paint the background on icon boards for the new church school curriculum at St. John Orthodox Church, we envisioned a fairly easy project. What we didn’t see coming (or at least I didn’t) was the lessons we would learn as we worked almost non-stop for almost seven hours on Wednesday. And as I continued for another three hours on Thursday. And this was after we had gessoed and sanded the six icon boards before getting together to paint.
Our parish is implementing a new curriculum based on the international Montessori-inspired program, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. A group of Orthodox women have adapted the program for our church school needs and are beginning to introduce it in numerous parishes, including ours here in Memphis. I didn’t know much about the program when I volunteered to help shop for materials this past summer, and later to help with painting the icon boards. Sue and I were given patterns to use on the boards (which will form two triptychs after someone else puts them together with fasteners) and acrylic paints.
The subject is the icon of the Annunciation—the scene where Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is going to bear Jesus. Another parishioner is making figurines of Mary, the Mother of God, and the Archangel Gabriel, which the children will use with the backgrounds. (Click here for a description of the scene depicted in the icon.)
So, as we transferred the patterns and began to paint, Sue and I both experienced some frustration. Neither of us have used acrylics extensively—I’ve used mainly egg tempera and watercolor and Sue works primarily with oils. As the project stretched into the afternoon and evening, we both got tired and began to be critical of our own work. We tried to remember that these are not actual icons to be used in a church, but materials to be used by children in a church school program. But we still wanted them to be done well.
What I wish I had read before we began the work was this list of characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or “32 Points of Reflection,” many of which address the attitude of the people preparing to teach the classes, and of those who are preparing materials. I was especially struck by Number 18:
The material must be attractive but “sober” and must strictly adhere to the theme being presented. In making the material, the catechist refrains from adding superficial embellishments which would distract the child from the essentials of the theme being presented. In other words, the material must be simple, essential and “poor” in order to allow the richness of the themes content to shine through.
Simple. Essential. And poor. I immediately thought about one of the verses of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s about humility—not only the humility the teachers should have, but also those of us preparing the materials to be used.
I thought about how Sue and I considered adding some highlights to some of the elements of the images we were painting because we thought they looked too “plain.” We didn’t end up embellishing them very much, and now I’m really glad, as I can see how the design was intentional. At one point I was ahead of Sue (we were each painting the same designs) and took a break to cook supper. As I got tired, I began to hurry the process, whereas Sue took her time and was more careful with the work. Later I read the 25th Point of Reflection and realized the value of Sue’s approach:
The reasons why the catechist is requested to make the materials with his/her own hands are:
to absorb the content more deeply;
to combat hurry, consumerism and even excessive “efficiency”;
to pace oneself more to the rhythm of the child and thus also – or so we believe – to the working of the Holy Spirit;
to try to reach the integration of hand, mind and heart.
Again, Sue and I aren’t catechists (teachers) but even our limited participation in the program will be enhanced if we follow these reflections. And what great reminders of how we should approach all of life—combating hurry, consumerism and excessive “efficiency.” I’m not training to be a “catechist” (teacher) in this new program, but I’m excited that it’s being implemented in our parish. I wish it had been around when my children were young. (One of the teachers was a student in the 6th and 7th grade class I taught over fifteen years ago!) I’m also encouraged by the philosophy and approach that reaches beyond the classroom into the lives of others in the parish. Like me. I am changed by my participation in this one simple project, and I hope to have the opportunity to be involved more in the future. Maybe I will at least struggle against my tendency towards “excessive efficiency.”