Not what you were expecting? If you are here for my usual “Faith on Friday” post, please come back next week. Although I’ll be in Denver with my kids and grandkids, so I can’t promise I’ll be blogging regularly the first three weeks in August.
I woke up this morning planning to write about the Mother of God. I promise. One of the Feasts we celebrate in the Orthodox Church is the feast of her Dormition (going to Heaven) on August 15. And so for two weeks leading up to this feast, we fast. Well, some of us fast. As you know from reading my blog, I suck at fasting. And so this fast from August 1-15 is something I often complain about, get frustrated with, or ignore altogether. Sometimes I find help for the journey, as I did a few years ago.
Before starting on today’s blog post I decided to check my email. Bingo. My friend Corey Mesler (author extraordinaire and owner of Burke’s Books in Memphis) just had a fabulous essay published at Change Seven. It’s called “A Trip to the Fair.” And now for what might sound like exaggeration: It’s my favorite thing Corey has written. Ever. And he’s written and published dozens of books of poetry, essays, and fiction.
I know the title sounds like something a kid would write for his back-to-school essay, but I promise you, this is a great read.
So, read it. Here. Because it’s a wonderful story and excellent writing. You might need a box of Kleenex.
Have a great weekend!
From the time I was about five through several years into my twenties, I wrote letters to Mamaw—Emma Sue Watkins, my mother’s mother, for whom I was named. She lived in Meridian, Mississippi, and I was in Jackson. I told her everything. About my fights with my brother. About my first kiss. About falling in love and getting engaged to be married. About elementary school, junior high school, high school and college. And guess what she did? She not only wrote back to me, she also saved many of my letters in a shoe box. My mother found them in the 1980s when she was cleaning out Mamaw’s house and gave them to me. What a treasure.
So, now my oldest granddaughter, Grace, just turned 6 and wrote me her first letter last week. She lives in Denver. She addressed it to “Susu and Pops Cushman.” I love that. I immediately wrote her back and told her about my letters to Mamaw. I also told her that I would always write back to her each time she writes to me, and that I would save her letters in a shoe box. I hope she inspires Anna, her almost 5-year-old sister to start writing to me when she is able. And of course I’ll try to involve Gabby, who is now three, in the process eventually. Why?
Because I believe in the tradition of hand-written letters. Of course they’ll be texting me from their iPhones soon, and we do Face Time now and I love that. But there’s something about a handwritten letter that trumps everything. It’s a skill and tradition worth preserving.
Which brings up the subject of thank-you notes. From the time I could write, my mother had me sending hand-written thank you notes to relatives for gifts. I tried to instill this in my own children. Think about it. Which would you prefer to receive—an email thank you or a hand-written thank you note? I realize that writing an email—or even sending a text—requires some writing skill. But there’s something about choosing stationary and writing instruments, stamps (I order mine online to get a great variety of designs) and sitting down for a few minutes to write and address a personal note that engages the senses in a greater way. What if your handwriting sucks? Maybe that’s because of lack of practice.
I have one friend who doesn’t have a computer. She’s 92 and lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She actually edited a book manuscript for me a few years ago—very smart woman. But she did it all by hand on a printed out manuscript, and wrote her notes on a legal pad. Now we exchange letters from time to time. Real letters. I love them.
All this to say that hand-written letters are a tradition worth preserving. That’s all.
I don’t have time to write a thoughtful post today because I’ve already spent 8-9 hours digging through medical files and invoices, making phone calls to hospitals and doctor offices to get copies of missing invoices, making lots of photocopies, sending and receiving emails and faxes…. WHY? We’re being audited by the IRS. Yes, they want all our medical expenses for 2013. The year of my devastating car wreck.
Ugh. So I’m trying to find some humor and I’ll share a few cartoons.
Oh, and I am thankful for one thing: everyone I called at all the medical offices were super nice and took time to help me. They all expressed compassion as they helped me gather information.
As our accountant says, the audit just adds insult to injury. But we’re getting it done.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in Jackson, Mississippi, I noticed a phenomenon at our (Presbyterian) church that I’ve come to realize is probably fairly common, especially in the South. There were several women—one in particular—who seemed to have an opinion about everything that went on in the church. And they shared these opinions freely with the pastor on a regular basis.
“Nice sermon today, Reverend… but—”
“Can I speak with you about something, in private?”
“I’ve got some notes for you to go over before your next meeting of the Session.”
I was curious about those opinions, and soon I was developing them for myself at a fairly young age. When I was only eighteen, I worked as church secretary one summer. The church had just had another big fuss and had gotten rid of another pastor, so we had substitutes all summer. Part of my job was to help recruit those men to come and preach for us while we were without a minister. And I was also privy to all the goings-on within the pastoral search committee. A lot of inside information passed across my desk at this tender young age.
On top of the secretarial position, I organized activities for the youth groups, as we were also without a youth minister or Director of Christian Education. I butted heads with one of the “church ladies” over some of the activities I planned. My agenda evidently ran counter to some of her ideas.
My father—a lifelong elder in the Presbyterian Church—used to say that he loved his church because its government was similar to that of our country. It was a democratic republic in which the laity, diaconate and session (pastor + elders) all had a voice in how the church operated. I watched as wars broke out over everything from theology and social and political issues to personal dislikes of certain pastors. The notes passed to the pastor by the church ladies were much like the work of lobbyists in congress. And when those church ladies had lots of money (which was often the case) the opinions carried even more weight.
Fast forward forty-five years and I find myself in a completely different environment. Well, except I’m still in the South. But the Orthodox Church to which I belong operates differently than the Presbyterian church of my younger days. It’s not a democracy, for one thing. We do have a parish council—which works to advise the pastor in a conciliar manner. And we do sometimes vote, as a congregation. But the pastor’s voice is much stronger in the Orthodox Church than in the Presbyterian Church. Or at least it seems that way to me. In our theology, the priest represents Christ to us. Obedience is a virtue to be sought with eagerness.
So, when I have opinions that differ from my pastor’s—which frequently happens—I’m faced with a spiritual dilemma. Do I (a) remain quiet and try to accept his point of view; (b) humbly express my opinion in an appropriate manner without expecting it to make a difference; or (c) push the issue in the manner of the Southern church ladies of my youth. Or maybe there are other options. Sometimes I remain quiet and yet I’m stewing inside, which isn’t really good for my soul.
Recently our pastor said something during his homily (sermon) that I’ve given a lot of thought to. In fact, when he said it, a friend sitting next to me and I exchanged looks with raised eyebrows and discussed it briefly later. He asked the question, “Why do you come to church?” And then he said that we don’t come to church to receive something. We come to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God. He went on to say that we do, hopefully, receive something—spiritual blessings, inspiration, etc., but that shouldn’t be our reason for coming.
This wasn’t a new concept for me. The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” We work to offer ourselves to God in the music, in our prayers, in the offering of the bread and wine, and in all the work that goes on throughout the week to keep the church functioning—maintaining the building, cooking and serving refreshments and meals for feasts, helping with outreach programs for the poor or homeless, preparing to teach church school classes or lead the youth group, etc. This work is part of our offering to God.
But what if we don’t like something that’s happening in our church? What if we prefer a different kind of music or shorter (or longer) prayers or brighter or more subtle lighting? There are opportunities to express our opinions on some of these things, but in other realms I often feel that my opinions aren’t welcome. That I’ve stepped over some line in offering them. And when they are rejected, I’m left with those options I mentioned several paragraphs earlier.
Getting older helps. When I was young I was passionate about everything that happened in the church. I was very involved in many activities and felt strongly about how they should be organized. At age sixty-four I’m much more laid back about most of those things now. Hopefully I’m not as head-strong as I was in my youth, and I have been gradually letting go of my need to try to control or impact very much that happens in my church. There are not as many things that bother me, but when they do, I’m going to remember our pastor’s words from last Sunday. I’m going to ask myself, “Why am I here?” And I’m going to try to remember that I’m there to offer myself to God. We’ll see how it goes.
I’m excited about the launch of Katrina Mississippi: Voices From Ground Zero, (Triton/Nautilus Press, 2015) by my friend NancyKay Wessman. Can you believe it’s been almost 10 years since Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf coast in August of 2005? And while others (including Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, with whom Wessman will be speaking at Milsaps College’s lecture series on September 15, “Katrina 10 Years Later”) have books out about Katrina, Wessman’s brings a new perspective to the event.
The book includes individual stories from first responders and critically important volunteers in Mississippi as well as the accounts of state and federal governments.
NancyKay Wessman is a public health communications and public relations expert who writes, edits, reads and tells stories. As a nationally known and respected PR director, she helped create and lead organizations that attracted other public health communicators.
Check out the schedule for events on Wessman’s website, here.
And if you’re near the Gulf Coast this Friday night, come to the Gulfport Galleria of Fine Art at 1300 24th Avenue from 5-7:30 p.m. to meet the author, get a signed copy of the book, and enjoy some informed conversations and free wine. Oh, and I’ll be there, along with Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts and Director of Triton/Nautilus Press, and other friends from Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, all eager to raise our glasses to NancyKay and get our hands on a signed copy of the book!
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.—Homer, The Odyssey
Did anyone else read the cover story in yesterday’s Parade magazine, “In Bed With Arianna,” ? The founder of the Huffington Post talks about how and why she makes sleep a priority for herself and her employees. I was impressed. And mostly it gave me “permission” to continue my recent pattern of sleeping 8 or more hours a night without feeling lazy.
I did a little research and found this article from the New York Times (January 11, 2014), which said:
At the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, Sigrid Veasey has been focusing on precisely how restless nights disturb the brain’s normal metabolism. What happens to our cognitive function when the trash piles up? At the extreme end, the result could be the acceleration of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Of course I’m concerned about Alzheimer’s, but I’m also concerned about my present day-to-day mental and physical health, and how sleep affects both of those. Like each of you, I have my own personal “sleep history,” which includes:
Childhood—sleep disorders, including nightmares and sleep-walking. When I was at camp (age 10/11) I walked out of my cabin late one night and a counselor saw me walking down near the lake. She woke me and helped me back to the cabin, where my counselor moved her bed to block the door for the rest of the term. For a few years my parents gave me “something to help me sleep,” and I have no idea what that was.
Young adulthood—anxiety and fear of the dark set in. Many sleepless nights were due to anxiety—I worried about everything. And when that wasn’t plaguing me, I would be afraid. Even in bed with my husband, I would think I heard someone in our apartment and I would break into a sweat and make him get up and turn on all the lights and check all the closets in all the rooms.
Thirties—an unusual thing happened on the way to my fourties: I began exercising regularly. I actually ran an aerobic dance business for a few years and taught classes five to six days a week. And guess what? I began sleeping better.
Middle age—during an unusual time in my life (age 45-early 50s) I kept a strict schedule of prayer. Several days a week I got up at 4:30 and went to a skete (small monastery) and prayed services with a nun for two-three hours. I averaged five hours of sleep during this time, and I mostly felt good. I attributed it to my spiritual life. I had read lots of literature about how monks and nuns didn’t need much sleep because of their spiritual strength. Maybe this is true, but as this phase of my life morphed into the next one, I found myself once again wanting/needing more sleep.
Present—in my sixties I’m sleeping better than ever, with several caveats: caffeine, too much computer activity just before bed, physical pain. I’ve learned that caffeine after 3 p.m. can keep me up until 2 or 3. But so can spurts of creative activity (writing or planning an event) especially at the computer. The good news is that if I can’t sleep I can always get up and work, and take a nap the next day, since I work from home. The physical pain (since the car wreck two years ago) comes and goes and doesn’t keep me awake too often, thankfully. But most nights I fall asleep quickly and allow myself a good eight hours of sleep.
Many people in the fields of science, literature, and religion have compared sleep to death.
Edgar Allen Poe wasn’t a fan of sleep:
Sleep, those little slices of death—how I loathe them.
And years later Frank Underwood—Kevin Spacey’s evil character in “House of Cards”—says:
But now Arianna Huffington is giving us all permission, not only to get a good night’s sleep, but even to take naps during our busy work days.
I think I might try it.
This morning after my Morning Prayers I picked up one of my favorite “devotional” books to read for a few minutes. It’s Scott Cairns’ book, Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected. Another favorite author of mine, Mary Karr, says that poems are prayers for her. King David certainly felt this way as evidenced by the way he poured out his heart in Psalms. So this morning I reached for these poems again.
Two of Scott’s poems spoke strongly to me. In “Icons,” he reminds us of how this incarnational art form can help us pray:
As windows go, these ancient
gilded figures both receive
our rapt attention and announce
a subtle reciprocity.
We look to them to apprehend
a glimpse of life enduring
out of time; and likewise find
our own experience attended
by a tranquil gaze that turns
indulgent, kind. The stuff of them
—the paint, the wood, the lucent
golden nimbi—also speaks
in favor of how good
all stuff remains despite our long
held habits of abuse, disinterest,
glib dichotomies dividing
meager views of body and its
anima. On his knees, the pilgrim
leans into another mode of being,
leans into the stillness
at the urgent source of life.
On his knees the pilgrim meets
the painted gaze, and finds his own
sight answering a question
now just coming into view.
Rapt attention. Glimpse of life enduring. A subtle reciprocity. Another mode of being. The icons do, indeed, lead the pilgrim on his journey to commune with God.
And then I read another of his poems—this time a longer one—“Memento.” I won’t quote the entire poem here, just a few lines that caught my attention as I drank my first cup of coffee:
The icons of the several saints I love the most
create a vivid gallery—if one in that word’s
rare sense, wherein the blessed reposed within its arc
are the crew in best position to comprehend
I’ve done the same with my icon corner, which happens to contain mostly icons I’ve written myself, except for two—the one of Saint John the Evangelist and Theologian and the one of Saint Innocent. Each were special gifts and I treasure them both. The icons of Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel (top left and right) were the first two icons I wrote. The icons of Christ and the Mother of God were each done at different workshops where I was exploring various styles. And the “marriage icon” of Saints Basil the Great and Mary of Egypt is one I wrote as a gift to my husband on one of our anniversaries. Had we been Orthodox at our wedding, we might have received this icon that contains each of our patron saints. And so I stand and say my Morning Prayers and (sometimes) my Evening Prayers with this vivid gallery of witnesses surrounding me. And yet my attention often wanders as I begin to think of everything I want/need to do that day. As Cairns says in “Memento”:
…These surround the shallow altar
where I say my prayers and, if I’m lucky,
where I pray.
I’m sure I was just one among thousands—if not millions—of folks who were excited to get their copies of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman. When I picked mine up at Burke’s Books (one of a very few independent bookstores here in Memphis) yesterday afternoon, I chatted briefly with one of the store’s owners, Cheryl Mesler.
“Have you read it yet, Cheryl?”
She looked up from her paperwork behind the front counter. “No. I’ve been reading all the negative reviews—about Atticus being a racist and all that.”
One of those reviews was written by Randall Kennedy in the Sunday New York Times. After a scathing criticism of Lee’s revelation that Atticus wasn’t as pure as decades of readers have come to believe, but was in fact, a racist, Kennedy says:
Would it have been better for this earlier novel to have remained unpublished? Though it does not represent Harper Lee’s best work, it does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character.
The complexity of Atticus Finch. And of all of humanity. Most of us are not all good or completely evil. We are multi-faceted human beings. Kennedy ends his review with these words:
… the novel Lee first envisioned, the story of Jean Louise’s adult conflicts between love and fairness, decency and loyalty. Fully realized, that novel might have become a modern masterpiece.
We should have expected this, right? A Pulitzer-prize winning author bravely publishes an earlier work—almost like a famous artist letting the public see her early sketches for a masterpiece—and the critics jump on her before her book is even out of the gate.
One of those critics isn’t even going to read the book. Robin Black, author of the novel, Life Drawings (which I read and enjoyed) has an article in yesterday’s Time Magazine, “Why I Refuse to Read Go Set a Watchman.” It’s all about her complicated relationship with her own father, a white Southern lawyer who worked for civil rights and was often compared with Atticus Finch in his lifetime. That’s fine. We are all allowed our personal reasons for reading or not reading certain books. But I was surprised by her article in Time. She did admit something that I was planning on addressing myself:
I reacted first to the controversy around Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, from a writer’s perspective: we, of all people, shouldn’t care that a fictional character appears as a heroic crusader against injustice in one book, and as a racist in another. We should know better than anyone about drafts, and about how characters change.
Exactly. And that’s one of many reasons that I AM READING Go Set a Watchman. I want to see how Lee’s writing changed, from this draft of her first novel to the one she was encouraged by publishers and editors to write.
I still have a copy of the first novel I wrote back in 2006, The Sweet Carolines. And the two memoirs I penned after that first work of fiction—Dressing the Part and Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns. The idea for the protagonist in my current work-in-progress was actually pulled from a chapter in TSC. But she’s quite different from the girl in that earlier book. There are also many themes in this novel that are present in those early memoirs. These are the tools writers work with—characters, places, themes, stories. Every draft, every attempt at making something beautiful with these tools, is admirable.
So, I AM READING Go Set a Watchman and although I’m only a few chapters in, I’m already enjoying it very much. I love the setting and how she describes the fictional Maycomb County and its inhabitants. Without a train stop and only a highway or two available for its citizens, Lee tells us a lot about those people in these two sentences:
But few people took advantage of the roads, and why should they? If you did not want much, there was plenty.
This same small town complacency was mirrored in the summer activities of Scout, Jem and Dill within the confines of Maycomb. And it was also reflected in the ignorance of so many of the adults who were thus cut off from the rest of the world.
On a different note, I’m enjoying Scout’s grown-up self in Watchman. Listen to Jeane Louise describe why she was avoiding marrying Henry Clinton (Hank), the young man Atticus hired to work with him after Jem died:
After a few years, when the children were waist-high, the man would come along whom she should have married in the first place. There would be searchings of hearts, fevers and frets, long looks at each other on the post office steps, and misery for everybody. The hollering and the high-mindedness over, all that would be left would be another shabby little affair a la the Birmingham country club set and a self-constructed private Gehenna with the latest Westinghouse appliances. Hank didn’t deserve that.
The writing is good. And if the characters act differently in this earlier novel, well that’s their right. After all, even fictional people sometimes take on a life of their own.
I’m just discovering this phenomenon as I pen two new chapters and drop them into the middle of my novel. I have been hearing for years from other writers who say things like, “The words just flowed effortlessly from my fingers to the keyboard,” or “The characters surprised me and took on a life of their own.” I have recently been experiencing these exciting events for the first time and it is truly a gift. After five years of hard work on this novel—including major revisions guided by four different editors, a literary agent, and numerous writers at workshops and in critique groups—I’m tired of the book. It hasn’t been fun most of the time. Until the past four days. Of course I’m anxious to see what my early readers and editors and the agent think of these new chapters, but for now, I’m just going to enjoy the exciting lives my characters are living on the page.
And the lives of Harper Lee’s very human characters in Go Set a Watchman.
I hope that readers and writers all over the world will join me in this pleasure and lighten up on all the negativity.
A really unusual thing happened to me today: I forgot to write a blog post. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Ever. Oh, sure, there have been times when I’ve just been tired of blogging or came up empty. But not today. Today I just didn’t remember it was Mental Health Monday. Why? I was totally in the zone with writing on my novel. So that’s a good thing, right? Then about 8 p.m. tonight I was watching “So You Think You Can Dance” on TV and suddenly I remembered. It’s Monday!
I was flipping through emails and Facebook posts while watching TV and happened across this post from the poet and writer David Whyte. It’s from his book, CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. (Many Rivers Press 2015.) I can’t find a link to the post and I know I can’t just copy and post the whole thing, so here’s a taste:
takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.
He had me at profound pain. And then he takes us higher (or lower?):
Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty and of self compassion, it is the invitation we accept when we want to remove ourselves from hurt. Despair, is a last protection. To disappear through despair, is to seek a temporary but necessary illusion, a place where we hope nothing can ever find us in the same way again.
I’ve never thought of despair in a positive way before reading these words. I’ve always thought of it as the lowest point one can fall. And maybe it is, but the way Whyte spins it, it can be a blessing, even if it is “a necessary illusion,” or as he continues, “a necessary and seasonal state of repair.”
Repair? Healing? I couldn’t stop reading:
We give up hope when certain particular wishes are no longer able to come true and despair is the time in which we both endure and heal, even when we have not yet found the new form of hope.
It reminds me of some things I was feeling when I wrote “the new normal” last Monday. But he takes it so much deeper:
Despair is strangely, the last bastion of hope; the wish being, that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.
If you want to read the rest of Whyte’s article here, find him on Facebook and look for his post from July 12.
Come back on Wednesday to find out why I was so immersed in my novel that I forgot to blog today!
Thanks, always, for reading.
As I was working on revisions to my novel, Cherry Bomb, yesterday, I came across this scene from the protagonist’s visit to a monastery. It’s been several years since my last visit to Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. For about a decade I visited once or twice a year and also participated in numerous icon workshops at the monastery. I drew heavily on those experiences when writing the related chapters in my novel. Although it’s a work of fiction, art really does imitate life. The monastery has built a new chapel since my visits there in the 1990s and early 2000s. My descriptions reflect memories of the old chapel.
I set the monastery in North Carolina, rather than in Michigan. If there are any Orthodox monasteries in North Carolina, any resemblance is purely coincidental, although there is a universality within the diversity of the monasteries I’ve visited both in the U.S. and in other countries.
I thought I’d share one short excerpt from the novel today. It’s written through the eyes of Mare, the young graffiti artist who ends up studying art at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design) in Savannah, Georgia. She’s at the monastery to take an icon workshop. I hope the scene takes you to this beautiful spiritual haven in your imagination. It’s truly a holy place.
The scene could have been playing out in ancient Romania or Greece or Russia. But this was 1984 and she was in an Orthodox monastery in the mountains of North Carolina. How surreal! Her eyes searched the faces of the sisters as they rose from their prostrations to sing the evening hymns. The sun made its final appearance of the day, shooting polygons of light through the amber panes of the narrow, deep-set windows in the chapel, and illumining the gold leaf halos of the icons and the faces of the nuns. Even their ears and the lower parts of their chins were covered by the black habits, so that only inverted triangles of flesh were visible, like white theatrical masks. No traces of makeup smoothed the blemishes of the young or the wrinkles of the old. And yet there was a subtle, clear-eyed beauty that emanated from each one. No colorful gloss plumped their lips, which appeared small, turned in on themselves, like the mouths painted on the icons that filled the walls of the chapel, quivering on the verge of Mona Lisa smiles, as though they had just tasted something delicious or they were trying to keep a secret.