About a year and a half ago I met a wonderful Memphis author and well-known and much-loved religious leader, Phyllis Tickle. Not sure how I made it so many years without meeting her earlier, but in January of 2014 I attended a festchrist honoring Phyllis at the Booksellers at Laurelwood. My friend and fellow writing group member, Sybil MacBeth, was one of the contributors to the book, Phyllis Tickle: Evangelist of the Future, and was there to host the reading that night.
A few days ago Sybil sent an email to our writers group with a link to this article about her writing doula and dear friend:
She has Stage IV lung cancer that has already spread to her spine. A grim diagnosis, but Phyllis is anything but grim in her response:
“I am no more afraid of dying than I am of, I don’t know, drinking this coffee,” she continues, pointing to her mug. (It’s actually filled with Postum since she’s had to give up caffeine. She remains, thankful, though, that she can still drink a nightly whiskey. “Jack Daniels, of course!” she says, shocked at the suggestion that a Tennessee native would drink anything else.)
I won’t try to summarize or share more quotes because I’d rather encourage you to read the article to get a better picture of this incredible woman’s faith. And not just in the face of death, but also the impact she’s made with her writing and speaking. You’ll also have to read the article to find out what she hopes to write before she dies. Phyllis Tickle is 81.
The new (July/August 2015) issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine arrived just in time. Although it seems to be over a month early, it’s just in time to save me from myself. It’s “The Creativity Issue.” Lots of great articles, but there’s one little section that was meant especially for me. (I imagine lots of other writers feel the same way!) Jessica Strawser compiled a group of excerpts from various sources to help “inspire us, nurture ideas, enhance our brainpower and increased our productivity.” The compilation is called “Creativity Deconstructed.” I’m going to share a short excerpt from one of the nine sections. This one is called “Pushing Past Blocks.” But first, a little background.
I’ve never thought I had “writer’s block,” but maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. I always think of writer’s block as not having anything creative to write. Being stuck with a white page staring back at you. And maybe that’s one kind of block. I would think that applies more to writing a first draft of a book, which is—to me—the easiest part of writing.
But what I more often experience (and I was right in the middle of it when I took a break to browse WD yesterday) is a feeling of inadequacy. And sometimes panic. When I agree with an editor (or in this case an editor and a literary agent and her staff of readers) on what needs to be done to make the book better, but I’m a bit worried about my ability to pull it off. So I just stop working. I watch TV. I eat. I drink. I leave the house and go shopping. Anything to avoid the hard work in front of me. I went shopping Monday, so yesterday’s temptations were more about the food and TV. But when I read these words (from Theo Pauline Nestor’s book, Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice) in the WD compilation, I found strength to keep my butt in the chair and press on.
Start noticing the times when you stop working. Is it when you get stuck on something? When the writing starts to feel “too hard”? …. Is it when you’re on the verge of taking your story to a deeper level? Keep track of your sticking points. You might even want to take a few notes about these stopping patterns…. If you’re a writer who stops when the writing gets tough, keep a timer by your desk and set it for five minutes when you feel like stopping. Tell yourself you only need to write for the five extra minutes (but of course, here’s hoping you keep going past that)…. You might be surprised what you can write in five minutes: a few sentences, maybe a paragraph, and it might be just the paragraph you’ve been waiting for.
I put the magazine down and immediately got back to work on the novel revisions. I had already cut over 6,000 words (and one of the three main characters) from the book since my meeting with the literary agent last Monday. But I discovered that more flashbacks needed to be removed throughout the book and inserted into new chapters at the beginning to help the reader follow the plot. Of course each removal meant creating new segues between the sections before and after the flashbacks. And more opportunities to strengthen the story line and give more rich layers to the characters’ lives. After creating a new chapter outline, I laid all the legal pad pages out on the floor and looked at them to see the big picture. Moving the sections around on the computer (cutting and pasting, changing tenses and sometimes points of view) was quite a challenge. At one point I found myself thinking, “I wrote the damn book. Why can’t someone else do this part? This is so fucking hard!”
I picked back up the WD article and read another section—“Turning Pages Into Books”—an excerpt from Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity:
I think it’s important for us writers to understand it takes a different set of skills to finish a book than it does to produce pages. Finishing a book demands that we think about a score of issues that we needn’t concern ourselves about in the earliest stages of our work…. It requires our willingness, in effect, to rethink what we’ve written as we decide how to shape our work, and to jettison what doesn’t fit, and to write completely new material as required.
That’s exactly what I’m doing, so maybe I’m doing something right. Although knowing this is somewhat comforting, it doesn’t make the work any easier. It just helps me keep my butt in the chair for five more minutes. Or maybe five more hours, days, or weeks….
Yesterday when I walked into the nave at Saint John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis (my parish) I immediately noticed the small table on the solea (raised stage-like area in front of the nave) with the large bowl of boiled wheat (known as “kolliva”) with three long candles sticking out of it. I wondered who died. Soon I would find out that we were praying the memorial prayers for a friend’s mother, who died five years ago. In the Orthodox Church we do lots of prayers for the dead—at the time of their death and then several days, weeks, months and years later.
When I was considering what to write about for today’s post—especially since today is Memorial Day—I noticed that last year on this day my husband and I were in Jackson, Mississippi, praying and singing at the graves of my father, my brother, and my Goddaughter. My brother was in the Marines, and although he didn’t die while serving our country, I still honor him today.
Whether you’re celebrating the holiday with outdoor activities or movies or naps or just spending time with family or friends, it’s good to take a few minutes to remember the men and women who gave their lives in the service of our country. Here’s a short article from Time on the history of the holiday. Since my husband works at the VA Medical Center, he gets lots of opportunities to take care of those who are still living. Today I’m glad he gets a little bit of rest from his labors, although he’s usually also working when he’s at home. He’s not in the military, but he gives 100% to his work at the VA and has done so now for almost 38 years.
We’re “between trips” this weekend, so we’re just taking it easy on this holiday Monday. Thursday we’re off to California for Kate Mashburn’s wedding. We’ve known Kate’s parents for about 47 years (yes!) and can’t wait to celebrate with Kate, James and their families at a beautiful winery and vineyards this Saturday. Stay tuned, and Happy Memorial Day!
Today I’m sharing a few more reflections from Joan Chittister’s book, The Gift of Years. If you’ve missed my previous posts from the book, you can catch up here:
“The Second Blooming” (which has links to earlier posts)
I rarely write about religion. If you’ve been reading my blog for a long time, you might be thinking, “Whaaaaaat? You write about religion all the time.” But you’d be wrong. I frequently write about faith, spirituality, church, theology, liturgical arts, and prayer. But those things aren’t the same as religion. Maybe they are aspects of religion. Or maybe religion is an aspect of some of those things. Since I’m reflecting on Chittister’s book, I’ll start with her definition(s) of religion:
Religion is not a topic, not a course, not simply a body of beliefs. It is a process of becoming…. The fact is that religion is not one thing. It is a multi-layered phenomenon that, if successful, can bring people to the height of whatever spiritual mountain they climb.
I like the way she weaves religion and spirituality together in that last sentence. My own personal “brand” of spirituality draws from a religion—Orthodox Christianity—but also from other sources.
Chittister has some interesting things to say about what religion can mean in our lives at different ages: “Religion has various functions at various stages of life. It is a guidepost from early life through to the end.”
And then she goes on to describe those functions and stages:
In early life, in youth, the function of religion is the formation of conscience. Religion sets the standards that mark the path.
In middle age, religion becomes a social guide. It is a measure of our relationship with others. It creates the standards that measure the quality of the soul as well as the behaviors of a person.
Finally, as we grow older, when we begin that last stage of life, it is clear that behaviors and failures are not the stuff of religion much anymore. Now, the ecstasy of life and the surrender to the Mystery become the last of the revelations of religion.
Those three short descriptions are expanded in her chapter on religion in the book, of course. I’m just sharing the bare bones of it. And although I enjoyed the whole chapter, at this stage of my life I do better with bullets. Three bullets to highlight a chapter works well for me. I think what I love most about Chittister’s discussion on religion is what she says about this final stage. The stage where I find myself (hopefully) in a “process of becoming”:
The older generation everywhere, it seems, knows what younger people do not. They know that in the end it is not denominationalism, it is the spiritual life, it is faith, it is soul that wins out.
I’ve never been the kind of Christian who likes to argue with people about my faith. Or try to convert them to my religious choice or spiritual lifestyle. When I was in college, I rebelled against the mandates of Campus Crusade for Christ, which taught (or seemed to teach, in my memory) that you weren’t really a Christian unless you were out evangelizing—leading people to Christ. Giving your testimony. Most people I know who convert to Christianity (or any religion) do so because they see something they want in the lives of its followers. Maybe they see love, or joy, or kindness, or peace. I don’t always have these attributes in my life, but as I grow older, I hope that I continue the process of becoming. I’ll close with a favorite quote from the author, E. E. Cummings:
“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”
On Monday I mentioned both of these events. Here’s a bit more. After a great “Southern Tour” for Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, with editor Nina Gaby (and we were joined by contributor Jessica Handler for the Atlanta leg of the tour) in April, I was thrilled to be able to join more contributors for a reading at Bluestockings in New York City this past Friday night. The other contributors who came for the event live in New York City (Diane Spodarek and Melody Breyer-Grell), Vermont (Nina Gaby and Alexis Paige) and Maine (Penny Guisinger).
It was so much fun to see Nina and Alexis again (Alexis and I met at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop and were reunited at the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, where I met Nina) and to meet Diane, Melody and Penny. I always enjoy hearing authors read their work aloud.
And how fun to have my new friend (from NYC) Lori Hoepner come to the reading. I met Lori in New Orleans last November through our mutual friend, NancyKay Wessman. Nina, Melody and Alexis all had friends and relatives at the reading, and we also appreciate the bookstore’s regulars who attended and bought books.
The other bookend to a wonderful weekend was my meeting with a literary agent on Monday morning. This agent has been supportive of my novel-in-progress for several years, connecting me with editors who have guided me through two major revisions so far. While I was hoping to hear something like, “It’s almost done—just needs a little tweaking,” the news was more like “We LOVE the book, but it’s not ready yet.”
Although I was disappointed to hear those words, I was so encouraged by the rest of my conversation with this agent. It’s so different to talk in person rather than sharing email responses to the revision process. I felt we had a real soul connection and I believe this person will eventually get me a really good book deal. Even hearing difficult things like why I should cut three chapters (almost completely deleting one of three main characters) and expand other sections of the book was easier than one might think. I actually came to see her point of view and agreed that this needs to happen. (I’m going to save those chapters for another book… already have an idea for it.)
This agent spoke with wisdom but also kindness and humility. She said that what she does—finding what’s wrong with books—is so much easier than what the writer must do—fixing what’s wrong and making them great. In addition to the overview from editors, she had one of her readers send me an email after our meeting in which she shared a summary of most the recent suggestions from the agent and several of her readers, who discussed the most recent revision together after each of them read it. I’m happy to have such a great team behind me and I’m ready to get back to work on the novel. Today.
That’s all. I’m so thankful for the inspiration I gained from my time in the Big Apple—book readings, art museums, Ground Zero, even the people on the street. But it’s always good to be home. And back at work.
Can I pass on a (real) blog post today? I’m in New York City, taking in the sites and accompanying my husband at social events surrounding the American Society of Hypertension Meeting (he’s a speaker) and shopping and eating and …. well, it’s New York, so there’s so much to do and see. Great times with Julie and Benjamin Stell (who took the train from Yardley, PA to have dinner with us) and Barry and Birita Matterson, old friends from Miami, also here for the ASH meeting.
Oh, and Friday night I had a reading/signing at Bluestocking Books in the Village for Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, with (editor) Nina Gaby and (contributors) Alexis Paige, Melody Breye-Grell, Penny Guisinger, and Diane Spodarek. So great to meet more fellow dumpees and to enjoy pigging out afterwards on the best pastrami ever at Katz!
I had a meeting with the literary agent who is interested in my novel this morning. We had coffee near Central Park. She brought her poodle. It was surreal. Want to know more? Please come back on Wednesday!
Thanks for reading!
Volume 1 is a compilation of 40 sermons in which the Rev. Seibert responds to her call as a deacon to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world as a narrative preacher. She is a storyteller sharing stories showing the relevance of the gospel to the world where she lives and works.
Volume 2 contains over 30 sermons preached at funerals, weddings, ordinations, after disasters, on saint’s days and for children. Although I’m not Episcopal—and my own Orthodox calendar of saints and special days differs from hers—I can appreciate the quality and the candor in these sermons. Like the one she preached on All Saints Day in 2007, commemorating both the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, as well as the assassination of Martin Luther King during her senior year of medical school in Memphis. Rev. Seibert remembers:
Memphis became a police state. Clergy in Memphis decided to respond by marching to the office of the mayor, Henry Loeb. The ministers gathered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. At the last moment, the Dean, William Dimmick, who later became the Bishop of Michigan, went into the cathedral and took the cross from the high altar. Holding it high above him… he led the march down Poplar Avenue to City Hall…
He taught us where Christ was that day. Christ was out walking the streets of Memphis. Today my prayer is that at the end of this service we will remember Dean Dimmick’s example and symbolically carry your processional cross outside this building and into the streets of this city and this state.
Need some inspiration? Both volumes can be purchased from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
I’ve got lots of news to share on this Wednesday of writing, so I’ll try to be succinct.
First of all, last night’s salon with Ellen Prewitt, Cynthia Crawford and WSJ—contributors to the wonderful anthology edited by Ellen, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness—was nothing short of inspirational. There were tears. But there was also laughter. And hugs. And understanding passing between women from many walks of life who came together to support and celebrate the brave and difficult journeys of these formerly homeless individuals. I was honored to have them in my home, and meeting them in person changed forever the way I view homelessness.
One of the contributors, Cynthia Crawford, handed me a copy of the bridge—the newspaper written and published by Rhodes College students and distributed by homeless and formerly homeless vendors around Memphis. The story on the front page, by staff writer, Vienna Schmitter-Schrier, “Judged at first sight,” spoke to the issue of rising housing prices in Memphis. But it was her opening paragraph that said what was in my heart last night. Here’s an excerpt:
As people, we have a tendency to judge others without taking the time or effort to learn their life circumstances. This can be dangerous. For example, as a child, upon seeing a homeless individual, my instinct was to label them as “lazy” or “incompetent,” both extremely offensive words. My young mind jumped to these conclusions because I did not comprehend the wide variety of stories behind homelessness, many of which I now understand are beyond a person’s control.
And that was written by a nineteen-year-old college student. Oh that I had her understanding at that age!
Second in today’s news is from my friend, the gifted writer and storyteller, River Jordan. River is offering up 40 days of “Real and Raw” stories on her blog, starting TODAY. These are unedited, first drafts of true stories which will entertain readers and inspire writers. (She’s editing them and sending them to her agent, so hopefully we’ll see them as a collection in print one day.)
Speaking of agents, I’m off to New York City this weekend where I’ll be having coffee on Monday morning with the agent who has shown interest in my novel. Having just sent her the second round of revisions (working with the editor she recommended), I’m hoping that she’ll be ready to sign me as a client. Stay tuned!
P. S. Just read this short and excellent post by the writer Lee Martin, which is also about storytelling—“Telling Our Family Stories.” Definitely worth a read!
On our way home from Seagrove Beach on Saturday, my husband and I stopped in Jackson, Mississippi to visit my mother at Lakeland Nursing Home. It was the day before Mother’s Day. I usually visit her about once a month now, making the 400-mile round trip in one day, with an hour-long visit while I’m there. That may not sound like much, but at this advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, my caregiving is different than it was when she was living alone in her home, and later when she was in assisted living. Due to her advanced Alzheimer’s, she no longer knows who anyone is and needs 100% care 24/7.
PBS ran a special on Mother’s Day—“Caring For Mom And Dad.” If you missed it, you can watch it online here. The documentary shows several different family situations where an adult child is spending a minimum of 20+ hours a week caring for aging parents. For many it is a 24/7 job.
The average age of these caregivers is 49. I began helping Mom in 1998, when my father died. Mom was 70 and I was 47. Now Mom is 87 and I’m 64.
61% of the caregivers in the PBS film are employed, often “sandwich moms” raising a family, working full time, and caring for one or more aging parents.
Since 1950 we’ve added more than a decade to the life-span of most Americans. 76 million baby boomers are all going to get old at the same time. 70% of adults 65 and older will need some form of long-term care. How will our children care for us? What is the government doing to help prepare for this? These are a few of the questions addressed in the PBS special.
Although my mother has been in a nursing home since late 2008, for ten years before that I was more involved in her day-to-day living: taking care of her finances, eventually cleaning out her house and selling her house and car and moving her to assisted living. Being with her through several hospitalizations. All of this while living 200 miles away and making monthly or sometimes weekly trips to help her. I have so much to be thankful for—especially that she agreed to make me her Durable Power of Attorney and put me on her bank accounts before her dementia had progressed to the point where she wouldn’t have been able to do so. I’m also extremely thankful that Medicaid stepped in when her own finances ran out a few years ago. Although I’ve spent endless hours on paperwork to keep the support coming, it does, in fact, make up the difference between Mom’s Social Security and the nursing home fees. Medicare and Blue-Cross/Blue-Shield pays for her medications and hospitalizations.
One daughter in the film said she couldn’t imagine not taking care of her mother at home. She couldn’t imagine putting her in a home. She would feel like a bad daughter.
It’s hard to hear those words and not feeling guilty at times. But the truth is:
1. I cannot physically care for my mother 24/7, since she is in a wheelchair, wears diapers, and has a feeding tube. She cannot do anything for herself.
2. Medicaid won’t pay for the in-home care she needs, but it does pay for nursing home care.
I have two friends who cared for one of their aging parents at home for many years. Several other friends are in the throes of caregiving decisions right now—some are helping their parents in independent living, others in assisted or nursing homes.
Each caregiver’s situation is different, and we all need to do the best we can and try not to be too hard on ourselves. It’s difficult enough caring for dependent parents without the added guilt trip. The main thing it to communicate our love for them at whatever level of caregiving.
Mother was speaking non-stop nonsense when we stopped to see her on Saturday. She talked about the “trouble” and how “they’re trying to fix it.” She talked about “the colors over there” (pointing towards her window) and how they “just go here and there all the time.” She had no idea who we were, or what Mother’s Day is. But I rubbed her hands, sang to her, kissed her several times and kept telling her I loved her. She smiled a lot and returned the kisses. When we got ready to leave (which is always difficult) she just waved and smiled.
But out in the hall a woman kept asking us to please call her daughter to come get her out of there. The urgency and confusion on her face was gut-wrenching. I don’t know her daughter, but I choose to believe that she, too, is doing the best she can.
Next Tuesday night I’m hosting another salon. Every couple of months I feature someone to lead the discussion. Sometimes, that person is an author. Or an entrepreneur. Or in this case, Ellen Morris Prewitt is both an author and an editor of a terrific anthology—Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness.
Ellen is bringing two contributors to this anthology with her to the salon. Cynthia Crawford’s contribution to the collection has brought me to tears several times as I continue to read these inspiring entries.
So today I want to share just one of Cynthia’s excerpts with you.
I wake up. I praise God for this beautiful day! I shower and prepare for the day. I praise God for the energy to complete the day’s tasks! I board the MATA bus to start the day’s journey. I praise God that he is guiding me! I check my e-mail, update my resume, and complete some job applications. Praise God for all he has done, is doing and will do. I go to the local mission and get fed beans and weenies, cole slaw, corn, and cheesy garlic bread. Praise God for providing not only what we need but sometimes also what we want! I leave and ease on over to Door of Hope. I praise God for people that care and truly help others in need! I praise God for people that care and truly help others in need! We here at the writing group write, read, and inspire. Praise God for my family here at Door of Hope and the writing Group!
The writing group to which she refers has been led by Ellen Prewitt for over 7 years.
I praise God for the opportunity to learn from Cynthia, Ellen, and WJS, another contributor who will be joining us at the salon.