Mental Health Monday: The Smells and Bells of Christmas

BIll Susan CTP lighting largeI woke up this morning and walked out of our bedroom and smelled hot mulled wine. After last night’s lighting of the tree in Christmas Tree Park in front of our house, we hosted an “after party” for our neighbors. Since we were going to be outside for an hour for the tree lighting festivities, I decided to make a hot beverage for the party. The December issue of Southern Living had recipes for “25 Festive Party Punches,” including one for “Spiced Wine,” which I made yesterday afternoon. Well, I tweaked it a bit, removing the cloves and bay leaves and adding the Brandy. And of course we took a “go cup” with us out to the tree lighting! And the scent lingers…. Here’s my tweaked recipe.

spiced wineHot Spiced Mulled Wine

2 (750-ml.) bottles medium-bodied red wine (such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais… I used Pinot Noir)

1 cup sugar

8 sinnamon sticks

1 large orange cut into Wednesday

½ cup Brandy

(I put all the ingredients except for the Brandy into a large pot on the stove and brought them to a boil. Then I transferred them to a party-size coffee pot to keep warm during the party.)

The wonderful aroma this morning reminded me of how important our senses are to participating in the festivities of the year. On a spiritual, note here’s a terrific article about the part incense plays in the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church: “Incense—Heavenly Fragrance and Transfigured Light,” in the Orthodox Arts Journal.

cookie swap ladiesOn Friday my kitchen smelled like cookies, as I baked 4 dozen for the neighborhood cookie swap on Saturday morning. Once again, my senses took me back to memories of my childhood, and the visual beauty of the cookies at my neighbor’s house added to the memory.


So that’s the smells. What about the bells? Yesterday afternoon as I was preparing for our party, I heard bells outside. I looked out the window just in time to see a horse-drawn carriage with two children and two adults wearing Santa hats riding through our neighborhood. I wish I could have been outside with my camera in time to capture the magic of the moment. Jingle all the way!

ballet-magnificatOne of the ironies of the season is duplicity. Like tomorrow night, when I have four events to chose from: Harbor Town Social Club party, my husband’s work party, Christmas caroling at King’s Daughter’s & Sons Nursing Home with folks from my church, or my writing group’s gathering. Since my husband will be out of town, I’m going to my writing group’s gathering (sans spouses). And taking eggnog! I’ll miss the caroling the most, as I know how important music is to the people who can’t get out to enjoy the smells and bells of the season. I was talking with a social worker at the nursing home where my mom lives the other day, and she told me that she took “Miss Effie” to the dining room for a special presentation by Ballet Magnificat last week. For someone who synapses aren’t firing correctly, music and dance, smells and bells, are even more important. And for those who care for them… I’ll be taking cookies to the nurses and aides who take care of my mother when I visit her at Lakeland Nursing Home on Friday. And a jingle bell bracelet for my mom.

Fa la la la la la la la la!

Faith on Friday: The Theology of Simple People—Contemplation, Prayer and Singing

PeteXmas_1.480x480-75I’m sure everyone has seen the news about the billboard put up by the American Athiests depicting a young girl in a Santa hat writing a letter to Santa saying, “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales.” Memphis is one of five cities (Nashville is included, and Fort Smith, Arkansas—both a stone’s throw from where I live) where the billboards will appear, so I’m sure one of them will be in my face eventually. Am I sad? Goodness, no! (as Pete the Cat says) I’ll just keep walking along and singing my song…. (Pete is my granddaughter Gabby’s favorite new book character… and mine, too!)

Father Roman Braga

Father Roman Braga


Today my song comes from an Orthodox Archimandrite Roman Braga, who serves the nuns at Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. His article in the Winter 2014 monastic journal, The Burning Bush. Here’s a short excerpt:

We must understand that the Nativity is a historical fact; it is not a mere hypothesis open to speculations. Simple Christians did a much better job—they clothed this Feast in poetic folklore only to keep this mystery fresh and not dried up by theological reasoning. The theology of simple people is contemplation, prayer and singing, and in this way they are much closer to the Truth.

Later in the article Father Roman tells us who Christmas is for:


Christmas is for simple and wise mothers who are silent and humble….

Christmas is for fathers who with calloused hands daily make a commitment… to protect their families….

Christmas is for countrymen, for shepherds and workers….

Christmas is for the poor….

Christmas is for the rich….

Christmas is for the ill and lonely, for the abandoned and destitute….

Christmas is for wise Christian philosophers an object of adoration and not a speculation….

Christmas is the gift of God for everyone, children and grownups, sinners and saints, angels and stars, shepherds and magi, and even for inanimate things, because God revealed Himself in the flesh and all nature was imbued by Him.

Whether or not atheists chose to skip Christmas is their business.  Me? I’m just gonna’ keep walking along and singing my song….

Writing on Wednesday: Dinty Moore on Writing the Spiritual Essay

WD Jan 2015The January 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine has a wonderful article by my friend Dinty Moore in their Workbook column:

“Spiritual & Christian Writing: Writing the Spiritual Essay.”

It’s not available online, but if you’re a writer, you should subscribe to this magazine, anyway. The article is excerpted from Dinty’s book, Crafting the Personal Essay, which I highly recommend.

sketch-280x374The author of numerous books, including The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, Dinty also serves as director of Ohio University’s BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing program. He is editor of Brevity, an online journal for brief (750 words or less) creative nonfiction essays. All that to say that when he writes a craft essay, we should listen up. Several of my published essays fit into the “spiritual” category—and I’m sure I’ll be writing more—so I’m ready to sit at Dinty’s feet and learn from the master.

Dinty makes it clear that spiritual essays aren’t limited to writing about the Christian faith—or even about any religious tradition. The best ones are often those that delve into uncertainty, as did St. Augustine’s Confessions, which Dinty says, “may indeed be the world’s first memoir, and all of these centuries later the book remains powerful and startling.”


Because Augustine was honest. He didn’t claim that his Christian beliefs were uncomplicated or that he fully understood every difficult aspect of his faith. He went straight to the doubt and contradictions.

I’m thinking of a recent blog post by my friend Karissa Knox Sorrell which fits this definition“The Advent of Unbelief.”

So, if a spiritual essay doesn’t have to be Christian, or even geared to a specific religions, what makes it spiritual? Dinty says:

What unites the spiritual essay is the quest to explore life’s basic mysteries: Is there a God (or Higher Power, or unexplained force that knits the universe together)? How do we know? What should we do with our doubt or certainty about what this God or power expects of us? If we are to live our beliefs, what is the proper way to act?

Dinty says that those of us who are conflicted about our beliefs are the best people to write a spiritual essay. He emphasizes the importance of not using the essay to attack the beliefs of others, but to explore our own internal conflict by putting it on the page. He gives us three quick tips to consider before we begin:

Start Small

Be Specific

Read Widely

Read the article for a full explanation of each tip! The article ends with a writing exercise to help you get started. As Dinty says, “The goal is to discover your spiritual questions, not mine.”

Mental Health Monday: Holiday Culture Clash? Joyful Anticipation?

As you can see, this post is a day late (again) since some of my kids and grands were still here through the day on Monday. So, this is the next in my series on holiday traditions—family, spiritual, secular, or whatever. Here goes.



It’s confusing living in America in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Well, only if your faith traditions run counter to the secular celebration that begins the day after Thanksgiving. In both the Anglican and the Orthodox Christian traditions, the weeks leading up to Christmas are meant to be times of preparation for the celebration that runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany (the 12 Days of Christmas).

For Episcopal and Anglican Christians, this preparatory season is known as Advent. That’s one of the seasons that my friend Sybil MacBeth writes about in her new book. (Read all about that here.)

For Orthodox Christians the season of preparation begins on November 15. We call this season the Nativity Fast. And yes, there is fasting from meat, fish, dairy, wine and oil for most of those days leading up to the Feast of the Nativity. It’s not really complicated, so why is it confusing?

Because Orthodoxy isn’t native to this country. Our faith didn’t show up here until around 1794, and that was in Alaska. And even though Orthodoxy has grown over the decades, our traditions are still only observed by a very small minority. So, while we are FASTING, most of our friends and neighbors are already FEASTING with pre-Christmas parties (I’m actually hosting two of these before Christmas), cookie-swaps (I’m going to one this Saturday), and decorating houses with trees and lights.  It’s hard to participate in our community’s calendar of celebration and keep the Orthodox fast and attitude of preparation.

sacred-secularFor many years I struggled with this. I felt sad missing out on the joyful times I saw my friends and neighbors enjoying. I tried to fast and prepare to welcome the birth of Christ in my heart anew, but there was always a bit of a cloud because of the culture clash.

This season I’ve pretty much abandoned the fast and I’m being more moderate about the somber time of preparation. I’m even hosting two Christmas parties BEFORE December 25. One is for a group of Memphis Grizzlies fans who like to gather and watch the “away” games together. The other is an “after party” for my neighbors who live with us around “Christmas Tree Park,” which will be lit with lights this coming Sunday night. I’m trying to join in the festive spirit of the community without completely abandoning my spiritual preparation for Nativity.

NativityI haven’t been to church in about two weeks, so last night—after dropping the last of my kids and grands at the airport around 5—I went to St. John Orthodox Church to participate in the Paraclesis to the Mother of God, which we pray during the Nativity Fast. As I walked into the church and smelled the incense and heard the chanting, something in my soul clicked. It was good to be there and to join with my Orthodox brethren in singing, “Rejoice, O Bethlehem!… Christ is born… raising the image that fell at the beginning!” I was reminded that anticipation can also be joyful. Afterwards we joined some of the congregation at our pastor’s home for soup and salad and a time of fellowship. There was some discussion about the “fasting foods” we ate—the soup and desserts were meat and dairy free—but no one seemed saddened by the “rules.” I returned home refreshed and ready to continue the journey to Nativity—accepting the two cultures in which I live and no longer feeling such an emotional tug of war. It’s all good.

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